Poetry Parnassus to gather poets
Madagascan poets come forth … Poetry Parnassus is still looking for poets from around the world to attend the event. Photograph: Gregoire Pourtier/AFP/Getty Images
Apr 17, 2012
From Ireland's Nobel laureate Seamus Heaney to Kim Jong-il's exiled former court poet Jang Jin Seong, hundreds of poets from around the world are set to gather on the banks of the Thames this summer in an attempt to recreate the poetic spirit of the ancient Olympic Games.
Thousands of nominations were received from the public for the best poet in their country, with a panel including the poet Simon Armitage and other experts whittling this down to find one poet from each of the 204 competing Olympic nations. One hundred and forty poets, from Kazakhstan's 24-year-old Akerke Mussabekova to 83-year-old Anise Koltz from Luxembourg, have already confirmed attendance at the festival, with the quest now to pin down writers from the remaining 64 Olympic countries.
In what is being called the biggest gathering of poets in world history, the writers will appear at Poetry Parnassus, a week-long series of poetic events at the end of June led by the Southbank Centre's artist-in-residence Armitage and artistic director Jude Kelly and inspired by epinicians, poetry commissioned as part of the ancient Olympic Games in Greece. It will see poets, rappers, storytellers and praise singers reading their work in more than 50 languages, from Haitian creole to Maori, with the event to open as 100,000 poems are dropped from a helicopter on to the waiting crowd. Many of the poets will be travelling to the UK for the first time.
"I'm delighted and amazed that it's happening," said Armitage. "This is an idea on the back of an envelope which I brought to the Southbank Centre. I thought they'd throw up their hands and roll their eyes but they said, 'Let's do it.'"
The poet said he thought of the festival as "a big sort of fair, where people are bringing their wares and putting them on display". "It's our own Olympic event, which is non-competitive and celebrating the ancient democratic art form of poetry," he added.
"It sounds like it'll be a week-long party," said the award-winning English poet Jo Shapcott, who will be representing Great Britain. "But I was rather reassured to hear that they weren't expecting me to wave the flag – quite a lot of my work questions the idea of what it means to be English, the nature of Englishness, and those poems are quite spiky and uncomfortable. I imagine that with over 200 poets from all over the world here, people will have similar questions, and part of our discussions will probably be on those ideas of cultural identities."
Heaney was picked for Ireland, while his fellow Nobel prize winner Wole Soyinka is representing Nigeria. Former poet laureate Kay Ryan will be speaking for the US, Bill Manhire for New Zealand and John Kinsella for Australia. Lesser-known names at the festival range from North Korea's Jang, a former court poet to Kim who fled the country after becoming disillusioned with the regime, to Albania's Luljeta Lleshanaku, who grew up under house arrest as her parents opposed the former communist regime in the country. Nicaragua's poet Gioconda Belli was forced into exile in Mexico after time as a Sandinista revolutionary, while Didier Awadi, representing Senegal, is a rapper and political activist.
"Poetry's a broad church and the further you go globally the broader it is. Some countries' entire poetic tradition is in spoken word form and we wanted to represent that variety," said Armitage. "There will be everything from the learned literary academic poets to one writer who describes himself as a spoken word and tattoo artist, which would be a dangerous combination after a few drinks. And there are voices of protest and dissent – at the outset we knew we wanted a poet from North Korea but we imagined we would end up with a puppet poet sent by the government, whereas in fact we have got a dissenting voice who used to be a court poet and made his escape."
Organisers are still looking for artists from 23 countries, and would welcome suggestions from the public here for poets from Bhutan, Brunei Darussalam, Burkina Faso, Central African Republic, Dominica, Gabon, Guinea-Bissau, Lesotho, Liberia, Liechtenstein, Madagascar, Mali, Monaco, Namibia, Nauru, Niger, Palau, Papua New Guinea, American Samoa, Seychelles, St Vincent and the Grenadines, Timor-Leste and Vanuatu.
Each poet will also be contributing a poem to an anthology, The World Record, out on 26 June from Bloodaxe Books. Poetry Parnassus is part of the finale of the Cultural Olympiad, and will take place at the Southbank Centre in London from 26 June to 1 July.
Source: The Guardian