‘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…)