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a writer's life Marketing Poetry Travel

Preparations for Chad

Map_of_the_Sahel

Planning now well advanced for the trip to Chad in two weeks. For me this has already meant several jabs, and the final one, yellow fever, will be done privately next week. I’ve also had to buy some lightweight, UV and mosquito-resistant clothes and urgently renew my passport.

Africa, then. I have never been there before. We will land in N’Djamena, Chad’s capital, stay overnight, before setting off the next morning. Chad is in the centre of the continent, and we are going to travel to the centre of Chad. Across the middle of Chad, and south of the Sahara, runs the central semi-arid belt called the Sahel. This belt extends three thousand miles from the Atlantic to the Red Sea and is a region that is experiencing increasing desertification. I’ve never really looked at maps of Africa with such interest before, and I find myself horribly fascinated by the size and spread of the desert.

I was pleased to learn security is to be tight, and we will be led by an in-country expert. Mobile phone coverage is good there, as Chad has skipped landlines and gone onto mobile. I like the idea of being able to phone home.

Meanwhile I’ve been refining the DRTV script which we are going to shoot. There is a strange dislocation about sitting in a home office in mild-mannered Brighton writing a treatment for filming in the heart of Chad. We may be taking a drone, which suggests we can shoot some aerial shots too. But above all the reason for the script is clear, which is to raise money for those most in need, so it’s not quite as impossible as it might seem.

Other than some work I am doing with colleagues in France on a preventing the spread of rabies throughout the Balkans by encouraging vaccination, this Chad project is edging out all other writing. The poet in me, however, is excited. I went to bed the other night wandering how bright the stars might be in what is for me a remote part of Africa and felt nervousness converting to excitement. It’s a fine line.

I’ve been thinking of Léopold Sédar Senghor, who was for a time the Senegalese President, among his other accomplishments. His gorgeous poem Night of Sine made a massive impact on me when I first read it in my early twenties. And I shall certainly be stowing his Selected Poems with me for the trip. Here is Night of Sine, beautifully rendered into English by Craig Williamson in the long out of print Rex Collings 1976 edition.

Night of Sine

Woman, lay on my forehead your hands of balsam, your hands
softer than fur.
High above, the balancing palms hardly rustle in the high
Nightwind. Not even a cradlesong.
Let it rock us, the rhythmic silence.
Listen to its song: listen to the beating of our dark blood, listen
To the beating of the dark pulse of Africa in the haze of
forgotten villages.

See how the tired moon slips to its bed of slack water,
See how the laughter drowses, how the tellers themselves
Nod their heads like babies on the backs of their mothers.
See how the feet of the dancers grow heavy and heavy
the tongues of alternate choirs.

This is the night of stars and the night that dreams
Leaning on this hill of clouds, draped in her long milk gown.
The thatch of the huts gleams gently. What does it say so
secretly to the stars?
Inside, the hearth grows dim in close, bitter and sweet smells.

Woman, light the lamp of clear oil, let the Ancestors gather
and speak like parents when the children have gone to bed.
Listen to the voice of the Ancients of Elissa. Like us, exiled,
They feared to die, to lose their seminal flood in the sand.
Let me listen, in the smoking hut, to the murmur of favorable
souls come down;

My head on your breast like a couscous ball smoking from fire,
Let me breathe the smell of our Dead, let me gather and tell
their life-voice, let me learn
To live before going down, deeper than the diver, into tall
fathoms of sleep.

Categories
Poetry Reading

Poetry: reasons to be cheerful

An imaginary helicopter is a valuable possession. When I finally stop ignoring the helicopter in the room, I clamber in and rise vertically to peer down at life. (Google Earth has diminished the freshness of this metaphor for ever, of course, but you get what I mean). I did it this morning, and this is what I saw.

I find I’m grateful that I live in a country of poets. Right now there are people in their thousands sat at desks around these islands writing poems. Why? Because they want to be one of those poetry millionaires? *Guffaws* For celebrity? I don’t suppose even Carol Ann Duffy is molested by fans as she pops out for a jar of gherkins. No. Mostly people write poetry because they love it, and because quite a few people love reading it too. Just because it doesn’t seem to have the potential to generate much cash, poetry is the starveling of the arts. But that doesn’t mean that poetry should have an inferiority complex. Poetry has been, and continues to be, one of our greatest national treasures.

I’m grateful for all those people who in the face of indifference and pitiful funding, will willingly give up their time to run magazines and websites. These tiny cultural ecosystems are often incredibly fertile. In a few pages they provide a forum for more exciting, dangerous and beautiful ways of seeing the world than you’d get from a year of watching mainstream TV. So I’m grateful to all those people who do that because they love it, and people love what they do. Collectively they create an environment for poetry in this country.

Finally I’m grateful for the people I’ve met through poetry. This week I went to a Pighog and Red Hen reading at the Redroaster Cafe in Brighton excellently organised by Michaela Ridgeway. I found myself blown away by the work there, including from poets in the open mic spots. It’s even better when one of your mates is a featured performer and pulls off a blinder. Robin Houghton’s delivery was full of the compelling authority such strong work merits. While young Romanian animator and poet Andreea Stan fascinatingly wove stories in poems and film.

A sketch of Robin
Robin Houghton… Somewhere near you a poet is being amazing.

 For poetry makes nothing happen: it survives 

In the valley of its saying where executives 

would never want to tamper;

These oft-quoted lines from Auden’s poem In Memory of W.B. Yeats have been accused of a kind of defeatism (but then he was writing an elegy). Not only does this diminish the importance of W. B. Yeats in history, it overlooks the generations of persecuted poets in, say the former USSR, precisely because it was feared they could make something happen. While poets of the Négritude movement in 1930s Paris went on to change their societies. Léopold Sédar Senghor, became the first president of Senegal while Aimé Césaire was mayor of Fort de France in Martinique. (The poetry of both is extraordinarily good by the way and still little known in the UK.)

I believe poetry has made many things happen in my own life.  And more importantly I believe it can retain and grow its cultural significance. The beauty of poetry is that it can never be suppressed. It can sprout up like weeds from a bombsite. It’s one of the reasons I’m grateful to be alive.

Poets of the world unite. Grab a notebook and a pencil. Now change the world.