Tuesday, 7 February 2012

‘Literature and Peace’

Forgive the parlous lack of posting of late, but while I gather my thoughts for somethig worth saying, here's an interview I did for the wonderful Eclectica:

‘Literature and Peace’

“I do believe poetry can be part of a peace process, that all literature can. I believe it passionately.” Paul Blezard

“An author and broadcaster, Paul Blezard was the founder of the Chelsea Poets Society and his work has been published in the UK and abroad. Currently writing a new novel and chairing events at literary festivals around the world, he was the former Literary Editor of The Lady magazine, for ten years was the popular voice of Oneword Radio and writes for various publications. He is also the author of the blog LibraDoodle.

Elizabeth Glixman Welcome. You have quite a resume when it comes to involvement in the world of literature as a novelist, poet, publisher and broadcaster (Oneword Radio).

Have I missed any of your “hats?”

Paul Blezard You’re very kind, but no, I think you’ve caught all my book related work. It’s been more of a winding goat track of a career than something clearly linear. There is also the Firebird Poetry Prize, of which I’m honoured to be the Literary Director http://www.firebirdpoetry.com/. It’s a new venture that seems to be catching on, and will in time, we hope, become the world’s richest prize for a single poem. Free to enter, open to all, from anywhere in the world, for poems in English. We hope to open Arabic, Cantonese and Spanish versions in the future.

EG When did your interest in literature begin?

PB Like many people I was taught to read and write by my mother, herself a keen reader, and I think that if you’re caught that early on it’s for life. Mind you there were fewer distractions when I was a child (I was born in the 1960s). We didn’t even have a television until I was in my mid teens and so books were not only the preferred leisure activity, but were a window on the world, on history, on modes of life other than that which I was living.

Let me also say that I really was much older than I should have been before I realized fully that these wonderful stories, whether by Dickens or Jack London, the Brontes or Twain, were actually written by real people, that books and their stories didn’t just materialise out of the ether and that one could actually be an author. It was something of a revelation to me. Life altering. That’s when I began to take more notice of the style of an author, the structure and flair of a piece, to really start to appreciate that there was more to a good story than the page turning aspect.

EG I never heard anyone express the idea of a book materializing without an author. Very unique perception.

You’ve participated in numerous literature forums, the most recent The Dubai Forum in London, where the question was asked, “can literature contribute to the creation of a more peaceful world?”

I don’t think most people consider literature as tool or avenue in helping to create peace in the world. From what I have observed on the news (the Occupy Movements in Europe and the US and the Arab Spring) protestors are focused on economic equality and freedom. I have not seen one sign that says we need more poetry or fiction (wish I had). These desires seem to imply diplomatic or political solutions. Do you believe poetry can help the peace process?

PB Well first let me say that yes, I do believe poetry can be part of a peace process, that all literature can. I believe it passionately.

For me the argument runs like this: that all good literature is a window into the lives we can never live. I will no more be a prisoner in a mid 20th C Soviet gulag than I will be a child soldier in a war torn Sierra Leone. But through reading Solzhenitsyn or Ishmael Beah, I can gain insights into what those lives were, how they felt, and in doing so understand the dynamics and emotions of those who lived them. Through such empathy, what might be frightening becomes understandable. As we tend to fear that which we don’t understand, absence of fear through knowledge creates the space in which dialogue and peace can grow. It’s reductionist I know, but those are the bones of the argument for me.

In a way I feel even more strongly that literature of any hue, prose or poetry, can not only help a peace process but be an integral, important part of that process. The dialogue between writer and reader being an aspect of what Churchill succinctly said in his “Jaw, jaw not war, war” speech at the White House in 1954.

Of course, if we talk to each other we tend to be less inclined to want to harm or kill each other. It always sounded horribly cheesy to me but there used to be a phrase that ran something along the lines “a stranger is just a friend you haven’t met yet.” In some of my non-literary life I’ve found myself amongst strangers, in Rwanda, Bosnia, in less awful times, and I’ve been struck by how quickly it has been possible for strangers to become friends merely through the telling of a story, the reciting of a poem, the shared experience of an exchange of culture. You wouldn’t believe how even the most dire of situations can be lightened by a rendition of a simple nursery rhyme!

And while I understand your point about the Occupy Movements not demanding more poetry as you put it, you have also to understand the role of writers in such movements. It not just a simple equation of more poetry equals less conflict, I’ll give you an example.

I recently chaired an event at the SouthBank Centre here in London, one of the largest arts and culture centres in the world. The panel comprised three fine Egyptian authors Khaled al Khamissi, Ahmed Mourad and Ahmed Khaled Towfik, all highly regarded best-selling writers of prose and poetry. As we talked and explored their roles, Ahmed Khaled Towfik said something that stunned the audience. Because of his asthma and the State’s use of tear gas he was unable to be a part of the Tahrir Square demonstration that led to the downfall of Hosni Mubarak, and instead watched it from his Cairo home. But because of his prodigious writing over the years, because he had captured the imagination of a generation through his stories, the same generation that was demonstrating, they called him for his advice when things started to turn nasty, when the state tried to quell them. In fact, he said that he believed he had received calls and messages from a majority of the demonstrators and that the responsibility he felt for them was enormous. That is the power and the duty of the written word, in whatever form: to inspire, to inform and when necessary to incite into action against inequality. It is also why W.H. Auden was so wrong when in his work ‘In memory of W.B. Yeats’ he wrote, “poetry makes nothing happen.”

EG I’ve been hearing John Lennon’s words ‘Give peace a chance’ in my mind lately? Do you think people really want peace? In the scheme of things isn’t survival more important than peace? Is the idea of a stable peace contrary to what life is about?

PB Well, where to start? I assume you don’t really mean that question as you’ve framed it?

EG It seems like an odd question. Sad to say I think since reading about the corruption in governments worldwide and the many revealed scandals in major corporations there is a bit of cynicism behind the question.

PB Of course people want peace. In some of the war zones I’ve been in, peace has been the main aim.

Of course the conflict starts over more base human instincts: greed usually, whether for land, water, mineral rights, political power, whatever. But you don’t have to see too much of the awfulness of conflict to realize that peaceful resolution to disputes is far, far better than the armed conflict or physical oppression that leads to cycles of retribution.

If we had a democratic global vote among all 7 billion inhabitants of the planet for peace or war, surely the majority support for peace would be enormous. I certainly hope so. It is the inequality of lives that leads to conflict rather than an absence of will for peace. And as for survival, it could and has been argued that peace is survival, that in any conflict someone pays a price, someone doesn’t survive.

Of course, it’s not as simple as I’m painting it, I know, but I do feel that there exists in all of us the fundamental recognition of another’s right to live and to live in peace. The absence of that recognition I have seen with my own eyes, what some might call ‘evil’, but which I saw as an absence of any humanity. It is terrifyingly devoid of anything that can be debated with, communicated with, at that time, in that moment. But after it has passed, when even the person who was driven by the rawest of animal impulses, who has enacted the most appalling atrocities, has returned to a semblance of normality, it doesn’t take long before they start to voice their own will just to live quietly, and their understanding of others right to do so too. It is dialogue that prevents that fall into the abyss, or so I believe.

And let’s remember that while Lennon’s sentiment is of course to be lauded, he is also the man who wrote, “Imagine no possessions” on a white baby grand piano... in his lovely mansion.

EG Ha! Good point.

Please tell us about The Dubai Forum, its origins and what was the goal of the forum and about the history of Arabic poetry.

PB The Abdulaziz Saud Al-Babtain forum was new to me until I received an invitation to appear at this year’s forum in Dubai. The focus of the three day event was “Poetry towards Peaceful co-existence,” a concept that chimed so readily with my own philosophy that it was an easy invitation to accept.

I understand that for 20 years the Foundation, set up by an influential Kuwaiti industrialist, has been evangelizing the Arabic tradition of verse as a literary form, awarding prizes for creativity and using the forum and its annually alternating conference as a meeting place for heads of states, industrialists, thinkers, politicians and poets, a sort of Arabic “Davos World Economic Forum” event but for poets. The fact that the foundation is able to attract such a diverse range of nationalities, disciplines, opinion formers and interests through the medium of poetry is as much testament to their endeavors as it is to poetry’s enduring power.

The history of Arabic literature is largely one of poetry from the 6thC to the present day. The history is far too rich and there are just too many poets of note for any exploration here to be of value but a new reader should certainly be aware of the court poetry of ibn Uqbar, the Sufi poetry of Mansur al-Hallaj, the satire of al-Jahiz and of course Rumi and ibn Sina, better known in the west as Avicenna.

What is interesting is that poetry is still far and away more popular in Arabic speaking nations than in the west, not only as a literary endeavor but also as a medium of expression for news, comment, political analysis and dissent. Its various forms and modes are used to great effect, poets often being able to say in public things that would see journalists, writers and other commentators sanctioned.

One of the great pleasures, about the Al-Babtain forum was that this was the first time that non-Arabic poets had been invited to participate, to perform. And not just poets but critics, analysts, academics and publishers, all were there forging links, creating friendships, discussing the works and engaging in cross-cultural ways that were so very true to the aims of the conference and a delight to be a part of.

EG Are there any other forums or projects you have worked on or are working on you’d liked to mention that you feel are relevant to the topic of literature and peace?

PB Well of course the whole ethos of the Firebird Poetry Prize, www.firebirdpoetry.com which was founded by UK poet Michael Warburton, is that of international communication through verse, that the expression of deep personal truths and emotions when distilled in poetic form, speak of the much wider human condition and show that we are all driven by the same emotions and desires, irrespective of our nationality, beliefs or mode of life.

It is poetry as a strand of the connecting web of human endeavor if you will. The more we connect, the more we feel connected and the less willing we are to destroy.

EG Who are several contemporary poets whose work in your opinion successfully encourages peace? I know you quoted from Maya Angelou’s poem “Human Family” on The Dubai Forum video) “We are more alike, my friends, than we are unalike.”

The Maya piece came from writing a poem, especially for the forum, about the time I met Maya Angelou at the Basil Street Hotel in London when I was presenting my daily author interview show “Between the Lines” on Oneword Radio. It was, to say the least, a memorable and extraordinary 35 minutes in the presence of such a humane, deeply evolved and connected artist. She gave me her bookmark on which is printed the quote of hers: “I note the obvious differences between each sort and type, but we are more alike, my friends, than we are unalike.” I treasure it as I treasure the memory.

But aside from Maya Angelou, there are so many poets who do exactly as you say, ‘encourage peace.’ From friends like Ben Okri, Ruth Padel and Gwyneth Lewis to new discoveries such as the amazing young Kuwaiti poet Dalal Albaroud and the extraordinary Sudanese poet Rawda Alhaj.

Then there are the superb poets such as Jang Lian, Kirpal Singh, Luljeta Lleshanaku, Jeet Thayil and America’s own Brian Turner who all write so eloquently of peace and with whom it was such a pleasure to meet through the forum.

EG Who are several fiction writers whose stories encourage people to create a peaceful world?

PB Are you kidding, you want me to name them all?

EG A few would be fine.

PB I’ll give you one. Michael Morpurgo, who is considered a writer of children’s fiction but who is to my mind the world’s leading exponent of peace based literature for readers of all ages. A prodigiously gifted and prolific storyteller, his works ‘Private Peaceful’ ‘Warhorse’ and ‘Alone on a Wide Wide Sea’ do more than anyone I can think of to explain the value of peaceful kindness and human empathy to the sum of human endeavor. I would recommend them and him to readers of all ages, abilities and nations.

EG Do you have any favourite “ peace” writer whose name and excerpts of work you can share with us?

PB I don’t think in terms of favourites I’m afraid but while considering your question it was this quote from Ben Okri that sprang to mind:

“The most authentic thing about us is our capacity to create, to overcome, to endure, to transform, to love and to be greater than our suffering.”

EG What is in the future for the literature/ peace movement?

Time will surely tell. But as long as there are more people who will a peaceful co-existence, more people that care about the security, safety and needs of others than there are those who look out only for their own desires, then a form of peace will exist.

We must remember that we are the product of millions of years of evolution, and try to act like it. There will always be disharmony until we evolve yet more, but through the highest forms of human sentiment, empathy and communication we may be able to ameliorate the worst of human activity.

I can’t think of a poem that was written to incite violence, to advance war. It has always struck me that everything we consider to be and therefore name ‘war poetry’ is in fact anti-war poetry, and while poetry may not be the answer in and of itself, it may be – and I believe is – part of the process of communication that prevents there being less peace. Whether that constitutes a movement is for your readers to decide.

Links to related sites

The Dubai Forum

The Abdulaziz Saud Al-Babtain Foundation for Poetic creativity brought together Arab and foreign academics and poets from five continents to take part in a three day symposium in Dubai, entitled “Poetry Towards Peaceful Co-Existence,” to discuss the impact of Arabic and world poetry on human communication throughout the ages. There was a subsequent forum held in London, at the Mosaic Rooms, with a panel comprising award winning translator, Sarah Ardizzone, The Independent writer and columnist Christina Patterson, Sharmila Beezmohun, the deputy editor Wasafiri magazine, Rhona Wells, assistant editor, The Middle East magazine, Paul Blezard journalist and Literary director of The Firebird Poetry Prizes, and journalist and broadcaster Rosie Goldsmith who chaired the event.

The London panellists discussed issues, reflecting the themes raised at the Dubai symposium, of translation and interpretation, poetry and performance, as well as debating the role poetry can play in today’s world, and its impact on different cultures globally. Paul Blezard took part in both the Dubai and London sessions, and summed up both events saying: “To find myself discussing nursery rhymes as early poetic influences with poets from Albania to Saudi Arabia, and to talk about Dante with Kuwaiti, Sudanese and Egyptian poets makes me think that, while poetry may not cure the world’s ills, it certainly opens up communication, discourse and friendships that will endure across the boundaries of distance, politics and language.”

Also, here is the link to a You Tube video which contains images from both forums – www.youtube.com/watch?v=5XsWlsmF8ZQ.

Abdulaziz Saud Al-Babtain Foundation


Michael Morpurgo


Ahmed Khaled Towfik


Ben Okri


Poetry International Jeet Thayil