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Exiled at Poetry Parnassus

Steven McGregor Blog on Event Prayers for Exiled Poets at Poetry Parnassus

While the Ancient Greeks ceased hostilities for the Olympic Games, this summer will be business as usual in many parts of the world. Exiled poets from Bangladesh, Sierra Leone, China, and Uganda presented their work yesterday afternoon at the Southbank center, participating in the ongoing Poetry Parnassus. Readings took place in the cavernous, skylit, Front Room at QEH.

Yet the solemnity of spoken word kept being interrupted by river watchers on the terrace coming in to order more drinks at the bar or the walkie-talkie of the janitor as she made her way around the audience, sweeping up rubbish. Mir Mahfuz Ali, who was shot in the throat by a cop in Bangladesh, began the event in his gravelly rough sotto voce. As he read a poem about a gang rape, a high-heeled girl clip-clopped across the floor, apparently for more white wine.

Juxtaposition of the surreal with the commonplace was something of a theme. Nick Makoha, a poet born in Uganda, measured his experience with a buoyant irony: ‘You know the best thing I did was move my body from one side of the world to another. Now this required a visa, which required a bribe, a bribe placed in the palm of a man with a gun.’

London has become a hub of activity for exiled artists. One poet referenced Ai Weiwei’s installation at the Tate Modern last year. But can such a ‘global capital’ become home? In one of the more emotionally terrifying pieces, Makoha described a character who fled a war zone, running for a distant horizon, not stopping until he reached a country where no one knew his name. Anonymity can be a kind of exile too.

Follow Steven McGregor on Twitter: @SHMcGregor