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Memory, History, Loss, & Gains

If, like me, you believe that uncovering untold histories – whether personal, familial, or national – is important, and a vital part of the poet’s work, then join me for a day of reading and discussing poets who do just that.

A few months ago, I was in a workshop with Bernardine Evaristo and the Ledbury Critics, and we were asked to consider our personal poetics, thinking specifically about the cultural context that has shaped us into the writers we are today. It seemed that Bernardine was asking us to get to the nub of the all-important question: Why do you write? Victoria Adukwei Bulley, a Ledbury Critic and one of the participants in the workshop, seemed to take the words from my mouth when she said, ‘I have always felt a kind of duty to be my family’s historian’.

For much of my life – and increasingly over recent years – I have felt compelled to explore the past, not historically per se but creatively, through poetry, and have actively sought out literary works that engage with history in ways that not only inform us about historical events, but which also illuminate human nature more broadly, and help us to reflect upon the times we are living in today. For several years now, I have been collecting poetry that deals with history, ancestry, and inheritance – creating a “canon” of sorts. This includes Seamus Heaney’s North, Jenny Lewis’s Taking Mesopotamia, Moniza Alvi’s At the Time of Partition, Hannah Lowe’s Chick and Chan, Kayo Chingonyi’s Kumukanda, Ocean Vuong’s Night Sky with Exit Wounds, and Raymond Antrobus’s The Perseverance. There are, of course, countless other examples, including recently published books by Layli Long Soldier, Jay Bernard, and Mary Jean Chan.

Undoubtedly, my interest in writing about the past stems from my family history, which is filled with stories of migration, war, and cross-cultural and interracial love, marriage, and conflict. My paternal grandfather (a Sikh who was born and brought up in India) travelled to Bristol in the 1940s to study, and met my grandmother (a Christian who was born and brought up in Bristol). They fell in love and were married in a registry office in Bristol in 1952 before moving back to India, where they lived for the rest of their lives. My maternal grandfather fled the tyranny of Francisco Franco’s dictatorship in his native Catalonia to settle in the French colony of Algeria in the 1940s, where he met my grandmother (who was herself a second-generation migrant from Naples). My mother had to flee Algeria with her family when she was twelve, because it was no longer safe for them to live in a country which was embroiled in a long and bloody war for independence.

It seems a shame that these histories, which are both personal stories and histories of nations, would be lost, if someone did not collect them, (re-)imagine them, and write them down. It also seems important that we explore historical stories of migration, and cross-cultural and mixed-race relationships in order to help us reflect upon the current climate surrounding migration and present-day attitudes towards migrants and people of different national, racial, and cultural backgrounds.

It is my belief that everyone has an interesting family history, if they take the time to discover it, and every single person lives in a country, a city – possibly even a borough, or a street – that has a fascinating story waiting to be uncovered and told (or retold afresh).

Alongside learning from poets such as Moniza Alvi, Ocean Vuong, and Raymond Antrobus, we will also discuss the potential challenges and rewards of this kind of writing, and try our hands at creating poems of ancestry and inheritance ourselves in a safe group setting.

You will come away from the session with a renewed sense of why you write, a clearer idea of the various modes and forms you can use to explore the past through poetry, and two or three brand new poem-creations, as well as exercises to take away and keep you writing, writing, writing!

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Riccardo Cuppini