Saturday 23 June 2012

Poetry Parnassus

I got lost on the middle slopes of Mount Parnassus once, wandering along paths between age-old oaks, up and down small hills and cliffs and valleys, through patches of snow among spring flowers.  There was no-one else.  Sometimes the view would only be of the immediate surroundings, the geography of a small part of this massive mountain; other times I could see miles of mountains and the Corinthian Gulf. 

Parnassus (Parnassos), a lofty mountain, whose summit, a few miles north of Delphi, rises to about 8,000 ft.  On it were the Corycian Cave [sacred to Pan and the Nymphs] and the Castalian Spring [an eponymous nymph plunged into it to escape Apollo] and the mountain was associated with the worship of Apollo and the Muses.  It was often referred to as having two summits, one sacred to Apollo, the other to Dionysus.   

That’s from the Oxford Companion to Classical Literature, a useful volume, if old-fashioned and sometimes far too brief.  It was first published in 1937, and my 1974 copy is a reprint from that.  There’s a new edition available now.  

Photo by Phokeus
It took me a while to wake up to Poetry Parnassus. I was led by the Southbank Centre’s brochure into thinking there were a couple of staged events a day, plus some fun free ones.  And then people started talking about it, and finally I realised that a massive and largely eclectic international poetry festival’s about to take place in London, 30 minutes down the railway line from here. 

Understanding it is difficult, as you have to click on each of the hundred+ events on the SBC website (clunky at the best of times) to find out what time they are at.  Getting lost on Mount Parnassus was more interesting. 

Getting lost at the festival will be interesting too, but here are some of the events I least want to miss.  They reflect my tastes and interests; there are dozens of other possibilities. 

None of these are in the paper brochure.  They are nearly all free, apart from the few marked ££, so you can’t book, just turn up.  Venues etc are on the website.  All events are Tuesday 26 June – Sunday 1 July.
  • Tales of Fire and Ice: poems from hottest/coldest countries (including Iceland, Finland, Ethiopia, Sudan).  1pm Tuesday. 
  • Free the Word! Day of PEN events – discussions on free speech, exile, minority languages, poetry and nationhood etc – see here.  Most of Wednesday.  (The Wednesday evening reading “celebrating poetry of resistance” has been cancelled… which sounds like a joke from the sort of country where such poetry exists.)
  • Bahamian/Trinidadian poet Christian Campbell.  6.45pm Wednesday.  ££
  • Wolf Magazine, with Valzhyna Mort and others.  7pm Wednesday.
  • Poetry from the Balkans; with a discussion about political and cultural change there.  5pm Thursday. 
  • The Mask of Anarchy, young voices of protest. 7pm Thursday.  
  • Translation Laboratory; pick up a literal translation (I hope they have the original too, just looking at it, even if it’s in an unknown script, will help) and turn it into a poem.   1pm Thursday and Friday.  
  • Poetry Karaoke.  Translations of Heaney, Shapcott, Larkin et al into other languages including Chinese and Turkish.  2pm Friday.
  • US poet Kay Ryan, 12pm Saturday.  ££
  • Canadian poet Karen Solie, 2pm Saturday.  ££
  • Caribbean poetry.  3.30pm Saturday. 
  • Call & Response: island poetry.  5pm Saturday.    
  • Experimental and avant-garde poetry.  Brits and others. 7pm Saturday.
  • Environmentalism and eco-poetry.  Discussion with John Kinsella and others.  2pm Sunday.
  • Diversity in poetry.  Discussion with Patience Agbabi, Christian Campbell, Daljit Nagra etc.  3pm Sunday.
  • Word from Africa.  Finale.  African poetry and music.  6pm Sunday. 
There are readings taking place most of the time in the Clore Ballroom, which is the back ground floor of the Festival Hall.  There is more background information on the poets here.   And I believe there may now be a paper brochure listing all the events.  [PS: there now is.]

Why have I written about this?  Partly because I’ve been trying to make sense of the events myself, and I know lots of other people have too.  Also because it would be such a shame if the poets taking part – from so many places, from so far away – didn’t get an audience worthy of their journey, and of their poems.    


  1. It sounds GREAT! I wish I could come.

  2. I hope you have a wonderful time, Fiona. I got very lost on the website too, but I'm hoping to make it along to some of the great events on Saturday. Perhaps the Southbank Centre will be less like Dante's Inferno than the website.

  3. Hope to see you on Saturday, Nancy. No way will I get to anything like all the ones I've listed! But I want to plan work etc around some of them.

  4. I'm very interested in this as well, especially because of the Cambodian poet, Kosal Khiev, who is on the docket and who I am due to meet with because of my Cambodian connection. But did you hear he was detained for over 24 hours at immigration where they questioned his visa? I think he is now out, but can you imagine how he felt? I'm wondering what the organisers are saying/doing about it. I don't mean to hijack this excellent post, but I thought you might be interested. I'll be around for some of the events you mentioned, especially The Mask of Anarchy. Maybe we'll run into each other.

  5. I suppose it's too much to hope that something like this wouldn't happen. What a disgrace. I hope he is OK. Have just found more about it here.