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WORD VIEW: Poetry and the Olympics

Esther Phillips

WORD VIEW: Poetry and the Olympics

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Hundreds gathered in Jubilee Gardens near Southbank Centre in London on Tuesday. Around 9 p.m. a small plane circling overhead caused the buzz in the crowd to increase significantly.
All eyes were gazing upward, not in apprehension, but with considerable excitement. For raining down from the sky in bookmark form were 100 000 poems. These were written by over 300 contemporary poets from the 204 countries participating in the 2012 Olympics.
At least 170 poets from almost every corner of the globe were gathered in London to celebrate the Olympics via poetry at the Parnassus Festival. Each country was represented by a poet who had been nominated by someone from his or her country.
The Parnassus Poetry Festival committee, which had sent out the call, made the final decision based on its assessment of the nominee’s work. I felt honoured to represent Barbados.
The excitement kept growing as the crowd, including children, ran every which way in their efforts to catch these poems as mementos or keepsakes.
I found this Rain Of Poems to be a moving experience, particularly since the exercise was symbolically intended to counteract the horror of the wartime bombings of London.
The falling of poems from the sky was meant to be a demonstration of creative energy at its best. The power and beauty of the imagination that the poems represented would bring to the city of London something restorative or even redemptive. Interestingly, Germany was reportedly the first country to put the Rain Of Poems idea into action during one of its literary festivals.
For the interested, Mount Parnassus in Greek mythology is the home of the Muses. With this in mind, I couldn’t help but ponder on the idea that there must have been quite a meeting of all the different Muses that came together at this one place across the many political, geographical, social, racial and cultural divides represented by the different countries.
I am a great supporter of literary festivals being held across the world and am of the view that there should be as many exchanges as possible among writers of different countries. We in the so-called free world develop a better appreciation for those poets who write at their own peril. Some are tortured or exiled for expressing their ideas about the political and social conditions of their country. Others struggle for the freedom to write in marginalized languages.
It is also encouraging to know that there is a growing interest in Caribbean poetry outside the region. A workshop on music in Caribbean poetry was organized for teachers in collaboration with Cambridge University and I was privileged to be one of the poets reading and discussing my work. The three other Caribbean poets who participated were Bahamian Christian Campbell, Jamaican Kei Miller and Trinidadian Anthony Joseph.
Part of what we discussed was the need to be careful about the designation “Caribbean” poetry. We felt that it was misguided for readers to entertain certain preconceived notions and expectations as to what the content and style of Caribbean writing should be. While we are undeniably Caribbean and proudly so, we are writers and therefore part of the human experience which has no real boundaries.
Our own Bim Literary Festival as well as Jamaica’s Calabash were held in May this year. The Nature Island Literary Festival will be held in August and the Antigua and Barbuda festival will take place in November. There are at least three others that have already been organized in the region. These literary festivals are to be encouraged and supported.
I know we’re talking about economies of scale. For example, the budget for the Parnassus Poetry Festival must have run into a few million pounds. But we in the Caribbean must create the environment and the opportunities for our writers to flourish. The creative products of our minds and imaginations must be placed on record.
Exchange and interchange are also extremely important. As writers, we must not restrict ourselves to our small spheres (especially in an island as tiny as ours), believing that we have the complete handle on current thinking and ideas.
Nothing generates writing as powerfully as being in the company of other writers. Since Parnassus, I have been hard at work much inspired by my Muse, of course.
PS: Readers, please accept my apology for not having explained that I was on an overseas break.
• Esther Phillips is head of the Division of Liberal Arts of the Barbados Community College. She is also a poet and editor of BIM: Arts For The 21st Century.