Wednesday, 19 May 2010

Reading with the Purple Poets

As writers we are always looking for new inspirations and materials for research.
Earlier this year I was invited by Kim Morrissey, Canadian Poet and Playwright, to participate in a 'Found' poetry project to commemorate four hundred years of the Quaker Peace Testimonies.
Found poetry uses the actual words and phrases in original historical documents to capture the essence of the text. The aim is to encourage the reader  to go back and read the text again. This is a very inspiring and fresh way to approach poetry and I thoroughly recommend it. Also history is a great passion of mine and so any excuse to go and read original texts is very welcome.

We met in the library of Friends' House, the well known Quaker centre in Euston to study material for our poems. This is a wonderful place to read and study, silent as libraries used to be in my childhood, with just the ticking of a grandfather clock in the background.
Kim asked me to produce a poem from a pamphlet, 'The Boy, The Bayonet and The Bible,' written in 1912 protesting about the rise of militarism in our schools. "I want a long poem," she said her eyes twinkling at me.
 We were preparing for a reading later that month at Friends' House. I therefore managed to write a two page poem called, 'We do not close our eyes'.

However I was also preparing for a trip to the Crimea at that time and asked if there was any relevant material. The librarian, David Irving, found a book called, Sleigh Ride to Russia, which was an account of a Quaker delegation to the Czar of Russia in January 1854 to try to avert the Crimean War. I was intending to write a series of poems, A Crimean Diary, around my visit and now I had some wonderful material to start me off.
I therefore wrote a poem, 'Letters home from Russia', using material found in the letters home quoted in the book.

I  invited Leslie Wilson, SAS member, Quaker and author of several novels, including Saving Rafael, about Quakers who hid Jews in Nazi Berlin, to come and read a poem with us. Leslie read out a beautiful poem called, 'The Bridge', with a refrain When ,when, Peace, will you Peace.
All the poems read out on the day can be found at this link.

Leslie and I read alongside the Purple Poets, a group of poets facilitated by Kim Morrisey. All the poets had worked hard on  a series of pamphlets found in the library on the voices of women from the First World War and their pleadings for peace The voices were not just British women, but women from all round Europe, including German, Hungarian and Swiss women. 

This is taken from the words of a German woman 
Where is you voice
sowing seeds of Peace?
are you only great
in suffering and patience.
Come together!
Protest with all your might
The murdering of nations.

 Geoffrey Bould  read his own anti-war poems written  after his experiences of fighting in the Second World War. I found these particualrly moving and reminscent of the work of the First World War poets, of whom there were so many more, perhaps because of the long hours they were crammed in the misery of the trenches.

Kim of course has the most experience of all of us at this work and has written a very moving series of poems based on the Letters from the Boer War, by Emily Hobhouse. Emily inspected the concentration camps during the Boer War when the British were denying the existence of such camps. After Emily's reports on the conditions in the camps, the British had to admit their existence. Here is an extract :
Cape Town 31 Dec 1900

My hand shakes with heat
I find it difficult to write
There is so much to say

Mr Scmulz speaks of 4000
women and children
in some sort of camp prison.

Not many people would read the history of the concentration camps in the Boer War but poems like these can open our eyes and can also be the foundation for further writings on these subjects.

(the Quaker mission, 1854, to try and avert the Crimean War)

The Emperor receives us with great kindness
we take the hopeful view
and in cheerful spirits
venture to approach

We the undersigned
in deep conviction, religious duty
uniformly uphold a testimony against war
O Mighty Prince

I am certainly inspired to engage with historical primary sources in this way again to develop poems which could lead people back to the texts and hope to do further work with the wonderful Purple Poets and Kim Morrissey. Why don't you have a go?

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Savita Kalhan said...

I love the beauty of poetry and stand back in admiration of poets. For me the writing of poetry has always been an elusive art, and I have feared to tread that path.
But you are right - poetry can open eyes, and you have inspired me to have a go, trepidatiously...

Rosalind Adam said...

Friend's House sounds like an excellent place to work. The poem First Impressions is very moving and, as you say, it gets the message out there to many people who would never read prose about the Boer War. Sometimes fewer words can be so much more powerful than a tome.

Sue Purkiss said...

This sounds fascinating, Miriam. I'm no poet, but I like the idea of trying this.


Miriam Halahmy said...

I'm glad so many of you feel it would be good to try this. If Kim runs another workshop I'll post it on Balaclava and maybe some of you could come along. I didn't really know about this idea before working with her. Apparently found poetry is very big in Canada.

Leslie Wilson said...

It was a lovely occasion, and I thoroughly enjoyed it. However, the refrain of my poem, I feel I must point out, was pirated from Gerard Manley Hopkins!
I was hugely impressed by how well and powerfully the poems made out of other people's writings came across. Miriam's was brill! And the Boer War one, in particular, also great. Thanks, Miri, for inviting me.

Leslie Wilson said...
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