It’s not often, but sometimes I wonder what my life would be like if I did not have poetry in it.
I’ve returned to Aotearoa/New Zealand to spend Christmas with my mother, visit friends and family, celebrate a friend’s wedding, spend the New Year planning my upcoming writing and editing projects. One of the first visits I made was to my mother’s neighbour whom I’ve never met before, but we have heard many stories about each other. Azita is from Tehran, and we sympathised with her about the current state of Iranian foreign and domestic policy. In order to distract ourselves from too much despair, she made me Turkish coffee and we switched to the subject of poetry. Sweetness entered into the room. Azita lent me books by Farrokhzad, Hafiz, Rumi in the original Farsi, translated into English, German, French; told me about how in Iran, poetry is revered: lines of Hafiz’ poetry handed out by street vendors to passers-by, a gift without charge or expectation. We talked about poetry from Russia, South Korea, Germany, the U.S., New Zealand.
My best friend had a wonderful wedding and one of the ways she wanted to bring the congregation together and celebrate the day was with poetry. I read a poem by Kahlil Gibran to the hundreds of well-wishers gathered as one of my gifts to her and her new husband.
During my stay, I was kept up to date with friends in the UK via social media platforms – they posted photos of seasonal change with lines from poems by Louise Glück and H.D., as well as quotes in design text form from the poetry of Warsan Shire and Nayyirah Waheed.
Early into the new year, one of New Zealand’s national papers featured an interview with Hera Lindsay Bird about her international poetry success and her plans for 2020. A photo of her was the cover of the magazine, and her interview was the main article. Later that week, Tayi Tibble was interviewed in a thirty-minute feature on a national radio programme.
It seems I cannot escape poetry, even if the thought fleetingly crosses my mind.
For me, a life without poetry is, as Vizzini, from “The Princess Bride”, says with increasing confusion: inconceivable. Even if I were to stop writing (and, by extrapolation, remove myself from the lure-trap of publishing), I would still read poetry. I think so much of its power comes from that; a desire to find an inexorable ‘something-ness’ in it. What is that something? Well, for me, therein lies poetry’s power and authenticity – it’s up to you to decide: joy, sadness, memory, healing, incitement, respite, redress, dissection of the news, a window into the past, a cure, a tonic, an alka-seltzer, love, sex and rock n roll, another life, lift-off.
On the plane back to the UK, I read an interview with Jericho Brown in the Chicago Review of Books. He says, “Poetry can only change individuals.” I’m drawn back to the conversation with Azita, where she explained inequalities affecting Iranians from within, and from outside Iran; how we felt so helpless. What could we do to bring about change but educate ourselves, share knowledge, challenge our leaders? The conversation with her made such an impression on me; to discuss poetry in such an open and honest way with someone I barely knew, without pre-conception or intent, both of us just lovers of the form. So perhaps poetry can bring perspective to such a situation, help clarify feelings and/or illuminate something in a broader sense so that the way forward will be incrementally better for the individual (and, by extension, we remain hopeful for society).
The oldest surviving epic poem, the Epic of Gilgamesh, at nearly 4000 years old is still well-read today (and often at the forefront of my mind). Poetry is derived from the Greek word poiesis, translated as “making”; the word for poetry in Arabic comes from the word for feeling. Our ancestors shared poetry as a chant, a song, a ballad, a way to explain the unexplained: love, the weather, political upheaval, environmental cataclysm. Don’t we still do the same?
Even if it’s a small percentage of my day, I read a poem, write a poem, discuss a poem with friends or read an article about a poem/poetry – so even in this holiday from my day-to-day life, these examples show that poetry finds its way (back) to me. Twitter makes that easier. (But also, harder, *lol*). As long as we have access to the internet (and I acknowledge this can be an enormous struggle for many), at this time in history we are at a place where we can engage with poetry (spoken, written, designed, moving image etc) in a way that’s relatively free from complication and much, much faster. The volume of poetry being produced is astounding, inspiring and heartening. But poetry’s true potential comes from giving it time, care and attention. Something I need to remind myself in the maelstrom of words, particularly when it comes to social media. But these are every day moments we share with each other – either remotely in quiet contemplation or in interactive discussion – and poetry brings colour to our lives, binds us together, crosses cultures, helps us grow, improve, strive to do better.
SK Grout grew up in Aotearoa/New Zealand, has lived in Germany and now splits her time as best she can between London and Auckland. She is the author of the micro chapbook “to be female is to be interrogated” (2018, the poetry annals). She holds a post-graduate degree in creative writing from City, University of London, is a Poetry Editor at honey and lime literary magazineand a Feedback Editor for Tinderbox Poetry. Her work also appears in Crannóg, Landfall, trampset, Banshee Lit, Parentheses Journal, Barren Magazine and elsewhere. More information here: https://skgroutpoetry.wixsite.com/poetry