I began thinking about writing this blog on the day of the mass murder of Muslims in New Zealand. Just how do you begin to respond as a poet to something like this?
And in the UK, and around the world, there have been similar atrocities. We’re in this mess of seemingly endless Brexit, with a government that seems unwilling and unable to face any of the issues that really matter – whether that’s poverty, the environment, social care, housing, you name it. Things can feel hopeless. But I happen to think writing poetry can help.
A lot of us write when the world’s in a state – I know I do. I write because I want to try to make some sense of things. I write to express my outrage or upset, to say how I feel when I’m not being listened to. I write because I have to. Many of you might feel the same?
But how do we turn what we write – our anger and our frustrations – from being a rant into poetry, into something that rises above polemic, angst, fear and outrage?
I began questioning this some years ago when I worked for an international human rights group. I worked for 13 years as commissioning editor and gender officer for Minority Rights Group International. I loved the work but it was also gruelling being immersed in so many atrocities, rape, racism and war – and trying to do what I could to counter the denial of the most basic human rights. I read poetry and I wrote poetry. I read and I wrote a lot. But it wasn’t very good at writing. I was too focused on the issues. I couldn’t step back to find a way to write about anything I cared about. Whatever I wrote read like being bashed over the head. And however much I might agree with what someone else is saying in a poem, I’d suggest that very few of us like being bludgeoned into a way of thinking or seeing.
I needed a new approach.
And then I read a poem by the US poet Carolyn Forché called ‘The Colonel’. It was this image that I couldn’t escape:
spilled many human ears on the table. They were like
dried peach halves.’
This was my way into writing political poetry. It led me to writing a poem called ‘Pinochet’s Garden’. Now, I’m not saying that ‘Pinochet’s Garden’ is the best political poem ever, but it enabled me to express something that was important to me, having met – and worked with – many refugees from Chile.
Since then, I’ve written about women’s rights and I’ve written quite personally in response to an attempted rape. I’ve also written about war and class and identity. But whatever you want to write about, it’s finding the right approach that seems essential. As well, of course, as having curiosity and openness.
In ‘The Big Issues’ workshop for the Poetry School, I’ll be looking at poets who use a wide range of approaches to write politically – and also, quite often – personally. I’ve chosen poets from the UK, the US and the Middle East. We’ll consider how they connect with what they feel strongly about. We’ll consider issues such as the role of shock, of compassion, of humour and the personal, in all of this.
In short, we’ll read and discuss some bloody good political poetry and by the end of the day, I very much hope that everyone on the workshop will have written some bloody good political poems.
I look forward to working with you.
Join Katrina’s one-day workshop on ‘The Big Issues’ at the Poetry School here.