Translation, Interrogation, Spoken Word and Collaboration: Highlights from the Seren Poetry Festival

Poet Amiina Mohamoud

Despite being unwell I was determined to enjoy at least a few of this year’s Seren Poetry Festival events. Highlights included a fascinating insight into the complexities of translating poetry from Welsh to English, exceptional spoken word from up-and-coming poets Amiina Mohamoud and Umulkhayr Mohamed, an unusual two-way collaboration between visual artists and writers, and a frank and open discussion about the ‘BAME’ label and the need for change within the publishing industry…  

Interrogating the ‘BAME’ label through Spoken Word

How BAME are you? was the title of one of this year’s events, seen by many as a rather tokenistic gesture, collating all those writers who might fit under the ‘BAME’ label into one event. But the event itself became both a celebration of exceptional spoken word, and an honest discussion about prejudice, with festival organisers keen to listen and open to making changes in the future.

Rabab Ghazoul chaired the event, and she began by acknowledging the tension in the room, describing the ‘BAME’ acronym as a controversial and limiting descriptor, which often categorises people in a way that can be extremely unhelpful. The poetry spoke for itself, with powerful performances from Hanan Issa, Amiina Mohamoud, Umulkhayr Mohamed and Adeola Dewis, and musical interludes from Eädyth Crawford.

Hanan Issa

Hanan Issa

Hanan Issa performed a spoken word piece which described the pain and confusion of experiencing racism whilst growing up. It’s impossible to do justice to a spoken word piece by quoting from it, as the lines lose something essential without their context, but one line which stood out for me was ‘You say you don’t see colour. Everything you look at is white.’

Hanan co-founded the regular open mic night ‘Where I’m coming from’ which provides a platform predominantly, but not exclusively, for BAME writers and performers in Wales, and some of the other performers have featured at this event.

Amiina Mohamoud’s performance focused on her teenage years, addressing the poem to herself, with lines such as ‘the hunger to grow… Mama let me go so I can bring it home to you… we got this Amiina, just wait’ and Umulkhayr Mohamed’s piece was a beautiful combination of spoken word and narrative styles, inspired by the work of Somali poet Hadrawi.

Jafar Iqbal, who is a theatre critic and playwright, chose to read a statement which was deeply honest, questioning the concept of an exclusive BAME event in a festival where no other events included non-white writers. He described the pigeon-holing effect of the BAME label, how he can’t ever be viewed as just ‘a writer’ because the BAME aspect of his identity is seen as more important. He encouraged us to acknowledge and discuss the extent of institutional racism and prejudice within the publishing industry, and highlighted the importance of those in positions of authority being willing to listen and admit their mistakes:

“How BAME are you? I’m feeling very BAME right now, but it doesn’t feel very good…”

He also asked the question, ‘Why not hold an event with six white writers and ask them to discuss how white they feel?’ And he ended with this evocative rhyme:

Roses are red
Violets are blue
How BAME am I?
How white are you?

Discussion about poetry and the 'BAME' labelThe event finished with a discussion, and it was encouraging to see that festival organisers were listening to everything that was said, and open to changing things in the future. It was also fascinating to hear more from the performers about their work on other subjects.

Robert MinhinnickTranslation

It was a treat to hear Menna Elfyn and Robert Minhinnick discussing the slippery act of translation. Minhinnick described his translations of Elfyn’s poetry as far from definitive, and more to do with musicality.

Taken from Bondo (a collection which explores the complexity of language and meditates on the aftermath of the Aberfan disaster) her poem ‘Och’ explores the various nuances of this onomatopoeic Welsh word. It is not easy to translate into English (a bit like ‘oh’, indicating a disaster, but also belonging) and Minhinnick described how much pleasure this translation gave him, as he was able to create similar sounds in English, for example with these final lines:

Yn gerdd un gair
sy’n tagu’n y gwddf,
Och bychanfyd cyfan –
Aberfan.

It’s a song of one word
that catches the throat,
the epoch of Och
an unvanishing
Aberfan.

Artwork by Barbara Verhoeven

Artwork by Barbara Verhoeven

Imagistic: Blurring the Lines

Imagistic is an ongoing project initiated by writer Carole Burns and visual artist Paul Edwards, and this was their 7th event – a series of collaborations presented through readings, projections and an exhibition. Elizabeth Parker wrote poems in response to the work of textile artist Barbara Verhoeven, with satisfying lines such as ‘light scrimmaging against the ridges of her stitches’ and ‘gives our eyes the absences we need, knowing we cannot deal with too much light’.

Artwork created by Tig Sutton using handwritten text

Artwork created by Tig Sutton using handwritten text

Poet Philip Gross allowed the artist Tig Sutton to take a page from his notebook, and use some of the smaller words and letters as graphics, turning them into visual art pieces, which Gross then responded to in poetry. He began by acknowledging that most people come to art of this kind with the question ‘What does it mean?’ and explained that he and Tig had effectively ‘spent two months creatively un-answering that question’. ‘Don’t worry about the meaning,’ he said, ‘just look at the thing!’

The festival featured many other exceptional writers and performers, and I would have loved to attend more events myself. I met and chatted to some really interesting people, and look forward to further developments next year. You can see more photos on my Facebook page.

Declaration: I received free entry to these three events.

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