refugees

Guest Post: Charlotte Ansell with poem, Drowning

Today we have Charlotte Ansell with a poem from her third collection ‘Deluge‘ published by the wonderful press ‘Flipped Eye‘ (which has published the first work of many now well-known poets such as Warsan Shire, Malika Booker, Inua Ellams). I really relate to this post as I haven’t been able to write much at all during this time. A fellow member of Malika’s Poetry Kitchen, you can buy ‘Deluge’ here. So over to Charlotte:

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IMG-20200322-WA0006“It seems to me, that this global pandemic leaves me unable to write a thing except maybe clichés; tired phrases. I can’t write about it but writing about anything else seems unthinkable. I’m aware that for some poets I know, the opposite is true and poems are pouring out of them. One way or another we are all affected and not just in regards writing; some people find themselves unable to do anything productive whilst others throw themselves into activity – we find our own ways of dealing with the anxiety. There is a definition of trauma that makes a correlation between the perceived level of threat and the perceived level of helplessness we feel in response to it; essentially when an event overwhelms our ability to cope. The reverberations of this collective trauma will be around long after the lockdown ends.

For me, unable to go on a planned family holiday this Easter, I have spent the last two weeks immersed in renovating and decorating the boat we live on which was badly in need of attention inside. I find painting soothing and therapeutic – the physical activity lends itself to mindlessness and a break from the over exertion of my brain when I am at work.

This decorating stint has put me in mind of a time a few years ago when I was painting a shipping container we used as a shed on our old mooring on a canal in Yorkshire. That was a time when the world was in the midst of another global disaster albeit one that affected only a small group of people directly but left its mark on our collective psyche. Back then it seemed every newspaper and every TV news bulletin brought images of bodies washed up on beaches; those of refugees making impossible journeys by boat and why? Because as Warsan Shire put it so deftly in her poem ‘Home’:

You have to understand,
no one puts their children in a boat
unless the water is safer than the land.

fe_deluge_frontI remember the helplessness I felt then too and how painting led me to writing this poem, ‘Drowning’. I wanted to send something cheerful and uplifting for this guest post but of the few more cheerful poems I’ve written nothing seemed right. I read a Facebook post a friend shared recently by someone who said the last time they were in lockdown was during the Bosnian War, which was a whole different story to the lockdown most of us are enduring now. We have food, all the usual amenities, even Netflix and there is something in these comforts whilst the privation, is in not being able to see loved ones, not being able to meet up and hug and come together. This lockdown is trying mentally, and terribly so for some; especially those living alone or those for whom home contains the risk of domestic abuse. I don’t want to underestimate the impact of that but for most of us there is not the loss of the very basic necessities or the desperate impetus to flee from the unimaginable horrors that make home no longer a safe place. So here is my poem about our most fundamental need for a home- and here’s hoping  that the next time I embark on a DIY project the world will not be in the grip of another catastrophe.”

Charlotte Ansell‘s third poetry collection ‘Deluge‘ was published by Flipped Eye in November 2019 and was a PBS winter recommendation. She performs her poems regularly and her work has appeared in Poetry Review, Mslexia, Butcher’s Dog, Prole, Algebra of Owls and various anthologies; most recently ‘These are the hands’ – an anthology of poems by NHS workers. She has won various  competitions (Red Shed, BBC Write Science competition in 2015,  Watermarks in 2016, commended in Yorkmix  in 2016 and shortlisted in the Poetry in film category of the Outspoken prize for poetry in 2017). Charlotte is the recipient of a Royal Society of Literature Award 2020 with fellow poet Janett Plummer for a forthcoming project enabling adopted young people to explore their experience via creative writing workshops. She is a member of Malika’s Poetry Kitchen collective.

Drowning

When the news breaks and the tide cannot be turned
I find comfort in the Muslim call to prayer on TV,
its mathematical calm laps over me
like today as I paint, ripples of chatter
from the Eastern European family fishing
on the opposite bank of the canal.
I relax into the peace of incomprehensible words
the laughter of children – still the same –
the cheers when they catch a fish.
I wouldn’t eat anything from this water
maybe they wouldn’t either,
I push my assumptions down, drown them in paint.
We co-exist in this subdued day
Cloud muffling out any extremes
the odd phrase in English reaches me
and when they leave, a man calls out:
Beautiful painting- you come paint my house?
See you next time!

Not everything can be covered, made new.
When my friend’s appeal for asylum was refused
I went around; the nakedness of the packing boxes,
the panic in her daughters’ eyes
and her without her hijab.
Somehow, I couldn’t hug her
seeing her so exposed.
Three years later they let her stay.

Isn’t that all anyone wants,
a safe place to call home?
I go back to painting,
the grey green expanse grows,
soothing my eyes. If only
it didn’t remind me of the cold sea,
the slip slop of the brush like the slap of waves
lifting a dress to expose a nappy
breaking over pliable limbs,
on her head a swirl of dark curls
frames her little face,
as if in repose.

 

‘Persona Non Grata’ anthology edited by Isabelle Kenyon, with poem ‘The Refugees’ by Jennie E. Owen

HandsThe other week, I was helping out Culture Matters at the Poetry Book Fair, hosting a reading with the wonderful Fran Lock and Nadia Drews, both of whom have upcoming collections with the press. Mike Quille and I shared the space with Andy Croft of Smokestack Books, and Isabelle Kenyon of the relatively new press, ‘Fly on the Wall Poetry’. Isabelle has been a tour-de-force on the poetry scene recently, first of all editing the mental health anthology, ‘Please Hear What I am Not Saying’, in support of the charity MIND. It was awarded ‘Runner Up for Best Anthology’ at the prestigious Saboteur Awards this May and to date, it has raised £500. (more…)

Voices from the Charcoal by Matt Duggan

trump-juniorLike Father, like son. Well, when your father is Donald Trump, those footsteps should not be ones that you follow. But when nurture combines with nature, Junior treads where he has been fomented. DT Junior, has likened Syrian refugees to a bowl of skittles; if among the bowl there were a few bad ones (and he means really bad, as in blow you, and themselves up bad), would you grab a handful? It is not worth engaging in the argument against this besides saying, ‘Fuck off, will ya!” At the same time, it is the annual UN jamboree in New York, and the UK’s new Prime Minister, Theresa May is there talking about, yes you’ve guessed it, “Refugees”, or is it “Migrants”? She is urging global measures to tackle ‘uncontrolled migration’.

lifejacketsThose who came from another land, whether back in the day, or last week, are the currency of conversation and policy debate and inaction, at the present time. They are used in debates about Brexit, the war in Syria, lone terror attacks in the US, co-ordinated ones in Paris and Brussels. They are said to be the reason for Angela Merkel’s weak results in last week’s election in Germany, pushing her to admit ‘mistakes’ over her refugee policy. The obvious contradiction in all of this, is that in an increasingly interdependent world, there is shock that people who are in situations of war and poverty, look for a better life for themselves. Drawbridges are being pulled up, fences erected, tunnels closed. Fear of the ‘other’ is rife.

20150808_152657Matt Duggan’s poem “Voices from the Charcoal”, captures these fluid, turbulent and fateful times; “fishing boats once floating saviours for the persecuted/now we build walls from those we’ve liberated; /Cutting off our own ears /awakening a poisonous serpent for oil.” The powerful extract economically from other countries, through war for oil, then leave a mess that goes beyond the borders they originally set post-WW1. Matt reflects this marrying of history, “Those dusting jackboots are stomping/on the gravestones of our ancestors,/though we’d fill a whole lake with blood oil /we’d starve our own children leaving them to die on its banks.(more…)

Transient Lives by Emer Davis

16536352701_702e66abf2_mWell the European Union is to lose a member. Maybe it will lose other members. Maybe it will be the end of the Union. What it won’t make a difference to (at least in positive terms), are the crises from Libya to Afghanistan that see thousands of refugees attempting to come to European shores. I am not going to get into the reasons for this fracture in European politics, which is as worrying at it has been since WW2. But one reason is not immigration. I don’t mean people didn’t vote with immigration as an issue, what I mean is that, whether there is an EU or not, it won’t make the slightest difference to these war torn people. And that is the shame of the referendum, which in my opinion should not have been undertaken. It was an ego trip of Cameron to have a legacy; well he’s got one now, but like Blair, it’s not the one he wanted.

Yes, the EU has failed the refugees, not least by paying off Turkey to keep them from making the journey. But that is not why people in the UK have voted to leave; setting aside the few on the Left, many of the others voted to Leave because they feel the EU has failed to keep these people out; that Britain can’t control its borders. If there is a problem, it is not with the numbers, it is more one of distribution; relatively large concentrations of refugees in a short space of time in small areas, without the necessary public services to help their integration. There should be a targeted investment in the community as a whole (both new and not-so-knew members); done in a way that doesn’t make people feel there is an unfair competition for services, whether for housing, jobs or school places. This is what we have done in the United Kingdom for many years. Not now. Not with an ideological austerity-driven government, who with tragic irony has managed to hand power to a small group of right wing demagogues.

20160107_080517The other sad irony of the decision to Leave is that the United Kingdom couldn’t be further away (in European terms) from the influx of large numbers of refugees. Added to this tragedy has been the fact that this has been left to the most crisis ridden country in Europe, Greece, to deal with it. Emer Davis shows us first-hand the situation facing Greece during this time in her poignant poem, Transient Lives. (Emer was selected as an asylum expert to assist the European Asylum Support Office (EASO) with the EU Relocation Programme on Lesvos Island). “Lesbos/Home to ouzo/And olive oil,/Cobbled lanes and wooden balconies,/The rambling stillness/Of the petrified forest,/Burnt skin trembling/Among dead trees,/We tremble in the evening sun/Re-telling the stories we heard,/And watch an old fisherman Bashing an octopus against a wall.” (more…)

At the Border, 1979 by Choman Hardi

In 1990 I took a one way flight to Istanbul with three friends. We were going to return to England by train. This was just after the fall of communism and was my first experience of crossing borders in Eastern Europe, and is something I reflect on regularly but of course with recent events, the memories surface once again. As British citizens, the only time we had trouble at a border was arriving in Istanbul with no return ticket. The immigration officials were perplexed; they had little experience of people coming to Turkey without a return, and we confused them further when saying we were leaving to travel through Bulgaria, Romania, Hungary, and Czechoslovakia (as it was still then).

hussein ceausescuThe most notable event of our trip by far was Romania. We reached the border at midnight. When the train stopped, two men entered our carriage and sat down. They turned out to be Iraqi Kurds. Two Romanian guards came in soon after to check our passports. They had only a cursory interest in us as their appetite was for grilling the two men. The four of them looked at each other in silence for a moment, then one guard looked at their passports. He looked up and simply said, “Saddam Hussein,” then laughed at them. The Kurds took it on the chin, and one of them jabbed back, “Ceausescu,” and laughed himself. We were beyond nervous. The four men went silent again, until the guard handed back their passports, said “Saddam Hussein,” once more then left. There is no surprise that the two tyrants met a number of times, and apparently Ceausescu’s Romania supplied uniforms to the Iraqi army in a deal brokered by the Americans.

Choman Hardi’s classic poem, At the Border, 1979 reflects her personal experience as a five year old girl, crossing a border with her family into their ‘homeland’ of Kurdistan; ‘It is your last check-in point in this country!’/We grabbed a drink -/soon everything would taste different.’ But she shows us how borders are a construct, lines drawn by colonists and dictators. So there is irony in this ‘everything would taste different’. “The autumn soil continued on the other side/with the same colour, the same texture./It rained on both sides of the chain.” The persecution of Kurds continued in Iraq and eventually Choman’s family had to move once again fourteen years later, this time to the UK. I really like the fact that for all of the history of conflict and migration she experienced, Choman says that she first started writing poetry when she fell in love; “her early poems are much more ‘flowery’ because she ‘belonged to the Kurdish tradition and engaged with [her] poems in an intensely emotional way.’ Learning to write poems in English, she says, has given her a measure of detachment “which is essential when writing about painful, personal and sensitive subjects.”

The Kurdish people, spread across a number of countries, continue to be shunned by powers in the region; they are one of the most poignant examples of how borders separate people, of how lines on paper divide lives on the ground. We see it also with the Palestinians in Jordan, Lebanon, and imprisoned in their own ‘designated’ areas within Israeli borders. All of this lies at the heart of what we see today with the refugee crisis; a crisis made explicit to us by the European situation but is far worse in countries such as Lebanon, Jordan and Turkey.

Hardi_Choman (1)Born in Kurdistan in 1974 and raised in Iraq and Iran, Choman Hardi came to the UK in 1993 and studied at Queen’s College Oxford, University College London and the University of Kent in Canterbury. A poet, writer and academic researcher, she has published three collections of poetry in Kurdish and her first English collection, Life for Us, was published by Bloodaxe Books in 2004. Her eagerly awaited new collection by Bloodaxe, Considering the Women, is published on October 22nd, and Choman will be appearing at the Aldeburgh Poetry Festival in November, where there will be a series of readings on Poetry and Freedom. (more…)