On the 28th of September 2017, National Poetry Day, Community Arts Partnership hosted a poetry reading which brought together two annual celebrations of the power of poetic expression.
The first was National Poetry Day UK. The theme for this year, freedom, made it appropriate to combine the event with a second one, the international festival, A 100 Thousand Poets for Change. This takes place every year at the end of September in hundreds of countries, with poetic explorations of issues such as war, global warming, poverty, racism and gender inequalities.
The subtitle of our National Poetry Day event in Belfast was “Poetry that renews,” from poet Jane Hirshfield’s declaration that “When shouting exhausts itself, poetry is language that stays on, listens, renews.”
The event was opened by CAP’s Chief Executive Officer, Conor Shields, with a welcome and a reading.
The background of the event was explained by Shelley Tracey, followed by a screening of four iconic poems about freedom.
Most of the readers and audience members were familiar with the much-loved Still I Rise by Maya Angelou, with its bold opening lines:
“You may write me down in history/ With your bitter, twisted lies,/You may tread me in the very dirt/ But still, like dust, I’ll rise.”
In the next film, US Poet Laureate Rita Dove reads her poem Lady Freedom Among Us:
“we have ‘no choice but to grant her space/ crown her with sky/ for she is one of the many/ and she is each of us’”.
The next reading was by Lemn Sissay of Let There be Peace at the University of Huddersfield, where the poem is displayed at the side of the building.
In the final film, Irish poet Mary Dorcey reads her poem The Breath of History
(the poem starts at 3.39)
In this poem, the poet explains how she is “not an ordinary woman” because of the extent of her personal freedoms, reminding about those who lack them.
The global issues addressed by these poems were reflected in some of the poems read by local writers at the event; others explored personal dimensions of freedom.
Readers included Glen Wilson, with his poem Fixing the Power Lines, David Davies, with Shamrock and Running for You, Joanna Toner with Freedom, Paula Ryder with What If …?, Monica Rafferty with Just Because and Stevie Downes with The End of History.
Lucia Fitzpatrick and Phyllis Doherty shared three pieces on the theme of women’s power and rights on behalf of the Shankill Women’s Centre Creative Writing Group.
The participants also heard Thomas Elliot’s poem Tree, about the relationship between illness and freedom, and a soundfile of a poignant poem about freedom by an inmate in HMP Magilligan, member of an in-house creative writing group.
A poem which received an enthusiastic response was “Where Am I From?”, by local teenager Anesu Khanya Mtowa.. This poem will be published soon for Black History Month. It addresses skilfully and eloquently issues such as identity, racism and belonging.
Here are some of the answers to the question “Where Am I from?”:
I am from the textbooks,
that have been pushed behind the bookshelf.
I am from the pages that were ripped out,
I am from the truth that will never be told.
I am from the voices that have been silenced
I am from the voices that refused to be silent.
Rosa Parks, Nina Simone, Martin Luther King jr. Dr Nelson Mandela.”
These lines affirm poet Meena Alexander’s declaration that “We have poetry so we do not die of history”. The event ended with thanks the readers, to everyone who came to listen, and to CAP for their generosity in hosting the session and providing technical support.