Popping up for refugees on World Poetry Day

As World Poetry Day rolled around this week I was taken aback to read on the website of its founder, the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation, UNESCO for short, that one of its aims is to ensure that "the art of poetry will no longer be considered an outdated form of art". What? Someone thinks poetry is like hair jewellery? Who are these people talking to?

"Encourage a return to the oral tradition of poetry recitals" on the other hand, is an aim I am happy to get behind.  Although "poetry recital" does sound -- if not quite outdated, perhaps overly quaint, evoking the poetry pursuits of school-days (of which, please note, my memories are all good) - I am a huge believer in poetry being shared not just through books but by being spoken, performed, read aloud, and slammed.

The descendants of Homer who make up the Poets Circle in Athens also believe in the power of spoken poetry. They invited poets around the world to join together this World Poetry Day (also the International Day for the Elimination of Racial Discrimination) in performing readings calling attention to the cataclysm of our time, the refugee crisis.

It is so natural, so unsurprising, that this idea saw the light in Greece. Or better, under the light of Greece - that incandescent, supernal light, as Henry Miller described it in the best book ever written about Greece by a non-Greek, The Colossus of Maroussi. "One would have to be a toad, a snail or a slug not to be affected by this radiance which emanates from the human heart as well as from the heavens," he writes. "Wherever you go in Greece the people open up like flowers".

Travelling in Greece and experiencing the same extraordinary hospitality fifty years after Henry Miller - years in which the Greeks had suffered through occupation by the Axis powers during World War Two, a bloody civil war, and a repressive military dictatorship -- we used to say that it must have been because of the strength of their age-old tradition of having gods who were always popping down to earth in human form, so that any stranger knocking at your door could have been a god in disguise.

 And the tradition continues:

Local people on the island of Lesbos help bring migrants to safety
Photograph: Kostis Ntantamis/AP via The Guardian

This is a photograph of local people on the Greek island of Lesbos helping bring migrants to safety after their arrival by boat. "Refugee Crisis: how Greeks opened their hearts to strangers" is the title of the article in The Guardian which this photograph accompanied. "Despite six years of economic hardship, ordinary people have shown astonishing generosity in helping the 42,000 migrants stranded in their country".

In Auckland poets Ruby Porter, Gregory Kan, Ole Maiava, Mohamed Hassan and Siobhan Harvey responded to the invitation of the Athens poets by sharing their poems in a pop-up reading on the steps of the Central City Library, hosted by Auckland Libraries in association with PEN International and the World Poetry Movement.

Gregory Kan
Ruby Porter

Ole Maiava
Mohamed Hassan
How do you measure the weight of a human life, asked Ruby Porter, in a poem which caught at me with its mix of combativeness and eloquence:

How to weigh a life

The weighing of a human life:     like smoke       hard to measure.

Andrew Little says       seven-fifty
Joyce       two to three hundred
the government     under pressure     agree to six.
                        (A number     not necessarily divisible     by families.)

What then? Do a Winston Peters &     send back the men?

And you? You move freely   intake sharply        flame racing   to your 
falls away.

We watched smoke last time you were up       Harvey Keitel &
                                                                                              Forrest Whittaker.
That first scene     where they discuss     the bet
            Sir Walter Raleigh made with     Queen Elizabeth     the First
                                              you can’t do that     that’s like weighing     air.

The weighing     of a human life: like          gallons of water. How many is there     
                                                                                                         between us?

The ocean is made up of          two hundred and sixty four million.
       Oceans away    (you are) 
                                            land locked but still you   fly   over   sea to get here

taking off     & landing        at will.
If I could swim to you       I would.

       Oceans away
it’s easy    to turn from them.
The TV flickers blue and grey but       that’s all       that happens.
It’s easy to turn it off when it’s on TV
       (I can’t turn it off with you.)

Weighing a human life: like     the sea that holds them down
& out
           side    turn on it
 I want to spoon you
                  spoon fed our news in two minute sound bites
                                    one for the refugee crisis
                                                       three for the flag.

The difference    William Hurt’s character said
                                        was the weight    of the smoke.

You said you signed every petition you found online &
you wanted to go to the protest but you were working     that day.

The weighing      of a human life: like      tapping out the parts of bodies onto scales
            sad solo in A minor 
this much will overbalance our          rockstar economy
this much will overflow our          state housing – isn’t it    already?

(I don’t know which city you call home anymore & it bothers me.)
I guess we have many.
                  You are a kind of home      to me.

Sometimes      after you leave
I sleep on your side
                         of the bed – it still smells of you
                                                   for a night or two.
Musk incense coconut perfume      smoke.

The counting of human lives:       like drops of water
window     at night
when you are here       you say
                  it always rains when we’re together.

As if you can just     tally it up     lives     like numbers on a       spreadsheet.
What’s your value? Reduce it down & export to excel.

On screen          William Hurt’s character said
        I’ll admit    it’s strange          
                                      it’s almost like weighing    someone’s  soul.

The weighing of a human life:      like   each head has a cost & we can just      assess it.
                                      How many refugees could      twenty six million save?

You smoke it till it’s all gone      then you weigh the ash.
Like weighing a human life
falls away.

Right now      you are not beside me
but rain is still running
& out

The credits were running & you said
I knew there’d be a Tom Waits song
            sad voice in     F major.
       You stub out your smoke.
We turn off the TV.

Ruby Porter

Blog author: Karen Craig, Reading Engagement Specialist