Tuesday 4 August 2015

Guest Post: Poetry In Conflict by Selina Rodrigues

As promised in the previous post, here is Selina Rodrigues on the talks she heard at Poetry International in the South Bank Centre, Saturday 25 July: Pashtun poetry and landays, and Syrian and Iraqi poets on modern war poetry.  Her account of the talk on landays started me on a fascinating search to learn more.    

“It was about lips and hair and meeting your beloved,” said poet Saleem Khan, describing Pashtun poetry, before Pakistan undertook a military intervention against the Taliban in North Waziristan.  Of course this is a simplification, but with the displacement of over 700,000 people, poets are now recounting their experiences of conflict, death, and the challenges of witnessing and transcribing such events. “Our children are exposed to sun and even the sun is not easy here”, mused Saleem Khan, on the difficulties of living in camps without schools, frequent running water or electricity.  

“You handed me the gun and took away the pen”, quoted Dilawar Khan, also of North Waziristan, and later, “you kept me hungry, so I turned into a man-eater”, these lines showing the agony and complexity of human responses to violence.  Poetry and self-expression are still shared through Mushaira, traditional gatherings of poets and people.  Many have started to write poetry as a response to the conflict.  With limited access to technology, poetry is a spark and signal for subjects ranging from resistance to individual grief, to the solace of religion. 

These two Pakistani poets were also joined by fellow poet Zahid Ullah Khan and journalist Aamir Iqbal in the talk, Free of the Taliban. 

Poetry is acclaimed as a remover of obstacles, a bridge between discordant ideas. These events showed its mutability and flame-like attraction.  Text messaging and social media enable the sharing of landays between rural and urban women in Afghanistan.  Existing for 3,500 years, of 2 lines and 22 syllables, landays cut to the essential, enabling confession, rebellions and companionship between women.

How much simpler can love be.
Let’s get engaged. Text Me.

Sahera Sharif, founder of the Mirman Baheer literary society in Kabul, said women may be writing under pseudonyms, using fantasy or even male personas to convey “the feelings of women… which are different”.  American journalist Eliza Griswold collected and published these landays but as Sahera Sharif gently reminded us, the meanings can be intricate and sometimes the deeper layers remain visible only to Afghani people.

When sisters sit together, they always praise their brothers.
When brothers sit together they sell their sisters to others.

Griswold’s i-Phone was placed under a pile of pillows during one gathering in Afghanistan and she suggested that this was due to the potency of the subject matter, created by women. Yes, women and girls experience violence and brutality and poetry and self-expression can be seen as shameful, but perhaps it’s more complex than that. Even in our selfie-saturated environs, the brain clicks from thought, to photograph, to publication. What we say is charged differently when taken by a foreigner to another continent.  Landays are oral forms and there’s an adjustment in transferring to page/screen, as we can see when wonderful UK-based performance poets snake between the landscapes of stage and page.

Sahera Sharif and journalist Eliza Griswold participated in the talk, Why Afghan Women Risk Their Lives to Write Poetry.  There’s a long piece on landays by Eliza Griswold at the Poetry Foundation, here.  Her collection of landays, I Am the Beggar of the World, is published by Macmillan US.

One of Golan Haji’s poems, ‘Shooting Sportsmen’ (published in The Wolf, here) considers how the borders of conflict expand so that no-one, no thing is left unaffected. 

They murdered the madman of the quarter, the milk vendor and the
                                                                          parsley seller
They killed the window and the sister who looked from it
Neither the neighbours’ cow survived
Nor the streetlamp. 

Both Adnan al-Sayegh, a poet from Iraq, and Syrian Kurdish poet Golan Haji spoke of the need for translation, visits, contact between cultures.  Golan Haji reflected on the complexities of language and power and his concern that non-Western literature is viewed as “from the ruptured country, [we are] pictured as victims in the mundane version of the world”.  But he celebrated his “love [of] poets of the world as if they are of my own country”.

These poets participated in the talk Modern War Poetry.

No fault of the organisers, through all the events we ran out of time, only enough to hear one or two poems and sensing the poets had more they wanted to share.  How strange it was to leave the dark Purcell Room, go out to July wind and sun, back to the internet and hope to see and hear more, again.

Selina Rodrigues lives in London and works for a charity. She is of mixed-race Indian parentage and writes poetry focusing on identity, urban living and the pull-push of desire and behaviour.  Her poetry has been published most recently in The Rialto and Magma and as a competition winner for the Poetry School and South Bank Poetry Magazine.  She has read at the Poetry CafĂ©, for Poetry Shuffle and by invitation at various London bookshops.


  1. Dear Selina/Fiona

    In some countries poetry is a matter of life and death whereas in ours it's a standing joke. It seems that poetry is still highly valued in 'ruptured countries'. Perhaps that's why poetry became so popular in Northern Ireland. However in mainland Britain we are probably still a tad too comfortable to take poetry entirely seriously.

    Best wishes from Simon R. Gladdish

  2. Dear Selina/Fiona

    British poets are always banging on about censorship, but over the years I have noticed that (with a few honourable exceptions like yourselves) if you leave a comment on their blogs that they disagree with, they are often extraordinarily quick to wipe it. You can soon spot the control freaks a mile off!

    Best wishes from Simon

  3. Dear Selina/Fiona

    Re the status of contemporary poetry in Great Britain, Simon Armitage writes in 'Walking Away': 'Up until fairly recently the building was home to publishing house Peterloo Poets, and according to Tony there are over forty thousand unsold poetry books in the basement. They sell about thirty copies a month but are now having to think laterally about what to do with this unfortunate inheritance, which even Oxfam refuses to take.' I rest my case.

    Best wishes from Simon