The last month has been a period of juggling the demands of full-time work with the role of Birmingham Poet Laureate. During this time I have had meetings with a wide range of people in the city who are active in reading, writing, and performing poetry.
I took part in a well-attended event at Hall Green Library for Remembrance Day. The evening, organised by Chris and Pauline Morgan of Cannon Hill Writers’ Group (incorporating Hall Green Poetry Group), invited local poets and friends to the stage to read either a poem of their own which remembered World War 1, or a published poem from that period. The event was very moving, taking place as it did one hundred years after the outbreak of the war. Congratulations to all those involved for making a wet Thursday evening into a special event.
I was invited to read a new poem to launch a Postgraduate Research Student Conference at the School of Education, University of Birmingham. The remit of this commission was to write a poem which was relevant to educational research – no small challenge! Rather than go to the rhyming dictionary to find a rhyme for ‘postgraduate research student conference’ I reminded myself that education is not equally available to all people in all places in the world. Indeed, in some times and places people have to stand up and argue for the right to be educated. One such, of course, was Birmingham’s adopted daughter, and Nobel Peace Prize winner, Malala Yousafzai. I read a new poem which pays tribute to Malala. The poem will be posted to this blog in due course.
One of the highlights of the past month was an event which bridged my ‘academic’ and ‘Birmingham Poet Laureate’ roles. In my role as an academic I won a small grant to organise a free poetry event which focused on translation. On Sunday 16th November 2014 Simon Armitage came to the Library of Birmingham to hold a Master Class on translating poetry, and to give a public reading of his poems. Simon Armitage is one of the leading poets of his generation, and he has translated The Odyssey, Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, and The Death of King Arthur.
Simon began the master class by pointing out that he does not speak any languages other than English. In fact what the public participants soon learned was that they would be offered the opportunity to translate part of a fourteenth century poem into twenty-first century English. Simon asked the members of the group to have a go at reading aloud a section of the original text of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, to feel not just the rhythm, metre, and unfamiliar vocabulary of the ancient poetry, but particularly what he called its “noise”. Focusing on alliteration, the poet set the group the task of predicting, or imagining, or creating, or perhaps translating, words hidden behind redactions similar to those in letters home from the trenches. This was not mere guesswork: it was a creative activity which required the fledgling translators to produce words which fitted that alliterative “noise”. A final activity demanded that the group translate a section of the great old poem into contemporary English – but engaging, original English that should grab the attention of the reader. As with any translation, precision was not the crucial requirement. It was more important to capture something of the mood and tone of the dramatic Arthurian tale. Everyone had a go, and before we knew it the master class was drawing to an end. A measure of the success of a workshop is whether it leaves people wanting more. This one certainly did. But as Simon Armitage pointed out, there are a further 2,524 lines of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight awaiting our translational attentions.
In the evening Simon Armitage gave a wonderful reading of his poems, including an extract from the Gawain poem, at the Studio Theatre in the Library of Birmingham. The library had donated the theatre space as a contribution to the festival, and the collaboration between the University of Birmingham’s Translation and Translanguaging research project and the Library of Birmingham enabled 200 people to enjoy a reading from one of our leading authors which was at once funny, moving, serious, and memorable. Thanks to the School of Advanced Study, University of London, the Arts & Humanities Research Council, and the British Academy, both the master class and the reading were provided free to the public as part of the Being Human Festival. If an aim of the festival is to inspire and enrich our everyday lives, the events at the Library of Birmingham on 16th November certainly achieved this. Following the evening poetry reading a Twitter post read:
I am adding a couple of poems here, and will add more with each monthly blog. In the new year look out for Burns Night, Holocaust Memorial Day, and International Mother Language Day. I will also be running poetry workshops and drop-in sessions, so watch this space for further information.
In the meantime I wish you a Christmas stocking packed with poems, and a creative new year!