What makes a poet? We asked four of the poets reading at the Emirates Airline Festival of Literature’s Desert Stanzas evening about the value of poetry, their motivations and their inspirations …
Frank Dullaghan An Irish writer living and working in Dubai, Dullaghan has written four poetry collections. He also runs workshops in poetry and short story writing. As well as Desert Stanzas he’s reading with the UAE poetry groups Poeticians and PUNCH and the next day is running a workshop:
Thu 7 Mar 8-9.30pm
Fri 8 Mar 1.30pm-3pm
LionHeart (aka Rhael Cape) is a BBC Radio London Presenter and TEDx Speaker as well as an award-winning poet and spoken word performer. He’s doing Desert Stanzas and three other LitFest sessions:
Tue 5 Mar 12-1.30pm
Thu 7 Mar 8-9.30pm
Fri 8 Mar 4-5pm
Selina Tusitala Marsh is the current New Zealand Poet Laureate. The author of three poetry collections, she represented Tuvalu in the Poetry Olympics in London 2012 and was named the official Commonwealth poet in 2016. Alongside Desert Stanzas Selina Tusitala Marsh has three sessions:
Fri 1 Mar 6pm-7pm
Sat 2 Mar 12-1pm
Tue 5 Mar 10am-11.30am
Zeina Hashem Beck is a Dubai-based Lebanese poet. Her first collection, To Live in Autumn, won the 2013 Backwaters Prize. As well as Desert Stanzas, Zeina is reading with the Tunisian poet Anis Chouchene and later that evening participating in the spoken word performance fest:
Thu 7 Mar 6.30-7.30pm
Thu 7 Mar 8-9.30pm
magpie: What’s so special about poetry – what can it do that other forms of art can’t?
Frank Dullaghan: Poetry has that ability to touch places within us in ways other art forms don’t. It’s interesting that in times of crisis or on special occasions, it’s poetry people turn to, to express how they feel. Its condensed language, its imagery, and often its music and rhythms can calm and refresh us.
Poetry cannot change the world, but it can change us, it can carry our emotional burdens, communicate our longings and our sorrows and it can give comfort.
I remember first reading Yeats’s powerful poem ‘Easter 1916’ about the Easter uprising in Ireland. He saw it as a waste of young lives – a blood sacrifice. The uprising was a failure. Yet that sacrifice changed everything and led to independence for Ireland.
In working through his feelings in the poem, Yeats coined a phrase that would live on in association with the memory of the event: “a terrible beauty was born”. In those few words he was able to capture the almost unsayable, the way the mood of the people was changed by that sacrifice. I was struck by the power that could come from the juxtaposition of words like ‘terrible’ and ‘beauty’; the way the unsayable could find utterance.
Zeina Hashem Beck: I believe all art defamiliarizes the familiar and invites us to look at the world around us differently and more carefully. The tool that poetry uses is language: in this sense, one important thing poetry does is give us fresh, meaningful language in a world that’s inundated with tired language. The language of poetry changes us, invites us to slow down, to question, to be filled with wonder.
Selina Tusitala Marsh: Poetry helps me to, as inscribed on the Temple of Apollo at Delphi, ‘Know Thyself’. I think all art forms hold this potential, but for me, it was poetry. Writing, rhyming, and chanting my way in the world through metaphor, image, and symbolism; through cadence, through chant, through songed performance, has been vital in helping me become much more confident in not just what I do, but how I do it.
But it all begins with listening to that still small voice in the cave of yourself. Yes, the Biblical reference is deliberate because it is a holy space, this listening to your own unique voice, this sharing of it. Enabling others to find and share their own voice through poetry is, for me, sacred work. It is the mandate of the Tusitala, the Storyteller.
That’s the Tuvaluan-Samoan name I inherited from my maternal grandfather. It’s a storytelling legacy I’ve grown into and has shaped my life in what I do as a Pasifika Poet-Scholar, and who I am.
LionHeart: For me, the magic of poetry is to both reveal and shelter the subliminal truths that we’re coming to terms with, or at least finding the language to come to peace with. It differs from other art forms because it doesn’t have the pop culture attached to it, which in some ways frees the mind and spirit when expressing messages.
What I’ve noticed personally about poetry is that it is a pursuit of some kind, one that sets a pace and lays the path for others to start their own pursuit into themselves. All art is a liberation and rebellion of some kind; but poetry seems to resonate with the world in quite a magical way, and I’m aware that could come across as romantic, but that’s due to the love I’ve experienced and witness through it.
magpie: What are your own influences – who or what started you writing poetry? And where are you going next with your work?
Frank Dullaghan: Well, obviously, the Irish poets and the British canon – this is what was taught at school when I was growing up. So, poets like Yeats, MacNeice, Kavanagh, Wordsworth, and Dylan Thomas. More recently, as I progressed in my own craft – Ted Hughes, Seamus Heaney, Carol Ann Duffy. And poets from the US – Billy Collins, Robert Hass, Anne Carson, and so many others.
I found myself moved by what I read and wanted to understand how this happened. I started reading for craft as well as enjoyment. I bought lots of contemporary poetry collections to understand what was current, to see what I could learn.
I have met so many aspiring poets who refuse to read widely or at all. They argue that they don’t want their muse to be influenced/corrupted, that they want their poetry to fall clean on to the page. Every time I hear this, I know the poetry is going to be horrible. Writing poetry isn’t easy. You need to work at it. And the best way is to read. Read deeply and read intelligently. And then write and rewrite and rewrite.
In terms of other influences, certainly place and life circumstances influence the topics that I choose. So, living in Dubai has certainly influenced my work. Also, association with other good writers is great. It helps keep you real. It helps to see how others approach the same topics. In this regard, I’m blessed to have a good friendship with Zeina Hashem Beck, who is an outstanding poet and one of only a few poets writing at a high level in the region.
Zeina Hashem Beck: I’d say my first influences are my mother’s stories and the sounds of the street I grew up on. And definitely reading other poets! One should read read read poems, much more than write them.
I’m not sure where my next collection will go, but I’ve been recently thinking about the body, disease, and love. Past obsessions like language and place still remain with me. I’ve also been experimenting with the Duet, a bilingual English-Arabic form I’ve created.
LionHeart: I love James Baldwin’s writing, as well as poets like Caleb Femi, Theresa Lola, Jacob Sam-La Rose, Ocean Vuong – there are too many to name. In regards to places, I’ve started looking into how architecture can influence poetry and mental health, so now places like Falling Water, the Barbican in London and other places grant me the inspiration to create in a way I couldn’t before.
Overall, I need to find resonance on a deep and impactful level, emotionally specifically, for some reason that quality of resonance sticks with me for years.
The need for self-liberation started my journey of writing poetry. A show that I performed at in my earlier years completely opened my eyes to possibility. And this is what I want my ’emotional Inhabitancy’ project to achieve – to grant and open possibilities within cross-disciplinary art forms, to challenge how we perceive and receive art, and to ameliorate those with mental health through my exploration and research. To create magic that sticks with people, as poetry resonates and sticks with me. Parenting my future subconsciously.
Whether that is a collection, play, installation or all of the above, only time will tell.
Selina Tusitala Marsh: I’m influenced by beauty and the unlikely places it can be found. I like eclectic sources of inspiration, from old newspaper headlines to art works.
What I’m currently reading (actually, listening to as audiobooks so I can multitask!) to help me finish two books projects is Natalie Goldberg’s Writing Down The Bones (I especially love her writing as meditative practice – 10 minutes every day) and Steven Pressfield’s Do The Work, which goes into battle with that enemy of all creative birthings: resistance.
For pleasure I’m reading Tracey K Smith’s Ordinary Light (she’s the American Poet Laureate – we are the same age and have the same poetry ethos of community-based literary activism!) and Michelle Obama’s Becoming.
Because I’m writing memoir, these are interesting – written by strong black women. These books show me what I don’t want to write – that is, a tightly scripted chronology. It’s fab for them, but not me. I’m writing a poetic, evocative memoir – short, spacious, poetic. I tell my creative writing students all the time: to write, you have to read.
magpie: And finally – what are you looking forward to at LitFest 2019?
Frank Dullaghan: I’m really looking forward to Desert Stanzas. I have always attended this event; for me, it’s a highlight of the festival. This year, I shall be reading at it. So, that’s certainly a big thrill. Other than that, the whole buzz of the event, the green room, those small unexpected encounters that lift you and enrich your day.
Zeina Hashem Beck: I still have to go through the program more thoroughly, but I always end up in poetry and language related sessions. And I take my children to some kids’ events too, especially the ones in Arabic.
Selina Tusitala Marsh: Meeting others, sharing words, falling into the rhythms of how others express themselves and story the world. Of being in a new place, having opportunities to thrive in my discomfort zone. Of being still in a different kind of beauty. Of having time to write and think and create.
LionHeart: Everything, I have never been before, but have heard and read so many great things. I’m looking forward to experiencing the culture and nuanced minds and fellow artists. There’s nothing sweeter than communicating with those you can learn so much from, and I’m excited about that entirely.
Poetry in the Dunes
Desert Stanzas has always been a highlight of LitFests past – an atmospheric evening celebrating world poetry below a starlit sky in a desert camp on the edge of Dubai. Eight poets will read:
There will also be music and Emirati food.
Desert Stanzas is on 5 March from 7pm to 9.30pm. It’s sure to sell out at AED 250, so book soon to avoid disappointment …