January was a busy and rewarding month as Birmingham Poet Laureate. I enjoyed an appearance on BBC Radio WM’s Sunny and Shay programme, where I read several poems and answered the presenters’ questions. But two contrasting events stood out as highlights this month: Burns Night, on the evening of Saturday 24th January, and Holocaust Memorial Day, on the afternoon of Sunday 25th January.
Although it is an ancient tradition elsewhere, Burns Night has only recently become an institution at the Library of Birmingham. The annual event celebrates the life and work of Scotland’s national poet, Robert Burns. The evening was started off by a saxophonist rather than a bagpiper playing traditional Scottish music – a contemporary if controversial touch.
The sold-out audience was ushered up to the third floor, where everyone was treated to haggis, neaps & tatties. This was undoubtedly the best food I have ever eaten out of a cardboard box: delicious, plentiful, and welcome ballast ahead of the whisky tasting to come.
As the crowd moved down to the second floor book rotunda for the main events of the evening, I did my best to read aloud Robert Burns’ ode, ‘To A Haggis’. I’m not certain that my Scots accent was authentic, but I think I said the right words in the right order. This was followed by a very funny poem from fellow-poet Aysar Ghassan, who read a skit on the Scottish Widows television commercial.
We were then in the capable hands of Amy Seton of Birmingham Whisky Club. Amy led the 90-strong group through a tasting of six whiskies, asking them to distinguish tastes, noses, and long finishes. Everyone seemed to enjoy the experience, whether they were novice drinkers of what Burns called the “guid auld Scotch Drink”, or seasoned afficionados.
Half way through the programme there was a break, during which I read a couple of poems. I am including here a poem which gently sends up whisky tasting as a form of distinction, while also, I hope, celebrating fine whisky.
The following day, mercifully with faculties intact, I arrived at Birmingham Town Hall at 1 pm for the annual Holocaust Memorial Day event, led by the Lord Mayor of Birmingham, Councillor Shafique Shah. The afternoon was moving as well as inspiring. After a candle-lighting ceremony on stage, we watched a film which reminded us of the horrors of Auschwitz-Birkenau, on the 70th anniversary of the liberation of the largest Nazi death camp.
The Choir with No Name performed heroically, as did the Vivat Choir, and Birmingham Young Poet Laureate Serena Arthur read an original poem which was as intense as it was beautiful. This year also marks the 20th anniversary of the genocide in Bosnia. A young survivor of that conflict gave a quietly passionate talk.
Perhaps the most affecting speech was that of Mindu Hornick, probably the last Auschwitz survivor in our region, who gave a solemn and vividly descriptive account of her young life at Auschwitz and beyond. Her talk was almost unbearable, but was a perfect fit for the theme of the day, ‘Keep the Memory Alive’.
I read a poem by Paul Celan, which I had (re-)translated from the German for the occasion. Paul Celan was born in 1920 in Czernovitz, Romania, to a German-speaking Jewish family. During the war Celan worked in a forced labor camp. His parents were deported to a Nazi concentration camp, where his father died of typhus, and his mother was shot. He wrote Todesfugue in 1948. I performed my new translation of the poem. I also read a new poem which picks up on a motif from Celan’s poem, that of the existence of prisoners as musicians in the death camps. Such musicians were of course forced to accompany the most horrific of actions on the part of the camp guards.
Look out for readings and workshops coming up at community libraries around the city.