World Poetry Day: Performance Poetry in Khartoum
I’m a poet who writes for performance. If you’ve never been part of a poetry performance, it feels like theatre or storytelling. It has movement, sound and visuals. It often involves music. It can be quite multi-media, but at its core, performance poetry is one of the simplest art forms. All you need is someone to speak and someone to listen. It’s our shared and ancient oral tradition. Our cross-cultural connection to poetry is, for me, an important part of what makes us human.
In January this year, I went out to visit the British Council in Khartoum, Sudan, where the deep waters of the swift-flowing Blue Nile meet the wide, slow, clay-filled waters of the White Nile, and many African cultures meet together under Islam. I was there to put on a performance poetry event with a group called Makaan Arts and Culture.
Makaan Arts is a group that believes in effecting positive social change through art. I am developing a project called ‘Storyverse’, a new kind of do-it-yourself interactive poetry event that supports people to make and share stories that matter.
Together with 30 local poets and writers, many of them students, we came up with the title ‘Identity, Nation, Women’.
Our aim was to use our own lives and voices in order to ask the audience to think about and share their stories and lives with us. We ended with an improvised poem which the audience took part in, everyone contributing a line.
The show was funny, moving, political and personal. It featured live interactive illustrations, African drumming and performance art with visual projections.
This once-in-a-lifetime event allowed the audience to be part of that show in a way that can’t be repeated. But I will never forget it.
I feel very lucky to work with the British Council, to travel to different places and exchange work with different people.
I feel very lucky to perform in Britain, mixing with cultures from all over the world. In terms of being transported to different places and experiencing different cultures, poetry is the most powerful and simple way I’ve found to connect.
Each time I share my world or someone else’s, by reading or listening to a poem, the world gets bigger.
Here are two poems I wrote in Khartoum, with thanks to Tilal Salih and friends at the British Council, Khartoum and Mustafa Khogali and friends at Makaan Arts and Culture.
I Speak the Language
I speak the language of let it be to Inshallah.
I speak the language of fresh lime to shorba.
I speak the language of crescents to the moon.
I speak the language of crossroads to Khartoum.
I speak the language of the riverbank to sweet tea.
I speak the language of freedom to walking at midnight around an unknown city.
I speak the language of poems in flight to calligraphy.
I speak the language of drawing boards to democracy.
I speak the language of dust to the wind.
I speak the language of skinny cats to the street bins.
I speak the language of Shakespeare to cab drivers.
I speak the language of rappers’ prayers to their mothers.
I speak the language of Arabia to Africa Street.
I speak the language of spoken word to talking-drum beats.
I speak the language of diversity to survival.
I speak the languages of Uganda, Tanzania, Rwanda, Congo, Burundi, Kenya, Ethiopia, Eritrea, Egypt and Sudan to the Nile.
During the devising process for the show, I gave the group the prompt ‘Democracy’ and asked them to respond with one line.
We went round the circle and heard – ‘Democracy – a lie’, ‘a scam’, ‘a piece of rotten meat they sell and force us to swallow’ … so on and on, until the last participant, tall and thin, said mournfully, ‘No one knows how beautiful you are.’
He was talking about democracy, but it seemed as though he was referring to all of us, about ourselves and each other. So I gave this poem, about my extraordinary and enlightening time in Khartoum, that title.
No-one Knows How Beautiful You Are
Before I flew, I googled
‘Sudan’ ‘dress code’ ‘customs’,
Read how women get flogged
For daring to wear trousers.
In a floor-length orange kaftan,
Courtesy of the ’70s and my mum,
I climb shotgun into a dust-covered,
Immaculately interiored sedan.
The taxi driver is an old man,
He asks if I work for the UN.
‘I’m a poet’ I tell him.
In England, in my experience,
People often react to this with scorn.
One guest at a wedding thought I’d said pirate.
Her hostility was so in line with the usual response,
It took a full five minute argument
Before we discovered she’d heard me wrong.
Even then, her face barely stood down.
But the taxi driver exclaims ‘Poet!’
Like I’d said ‘Pediatrician’ or ‘Pastry chef’.
He asks what kind of poetry, says he himself
Writes verse, is inspired by nature,
Shakespeare and the Koran.
He asks where I come from.
I don’t have a simple answer to that question,
But say I live in London.
He expresses polite appreciation for
Various colonial legacies, the postal service,
The drains, the education system,
Which he grew up in.
He asks me if Khartoum is as I expected?
I say, I’ve learnt a couple of things –
I tell him the students I work with hate the word
Democracy, describe hypocrisy, the shiny scab,
Sealing in corruption, a barrier to healing.
The taxi driver sighs and smiles.
‘This Government does not like dissent,
They do not understand,
To be strong, they need strong opponents’.
He negotiates an anarchic roundabout,
The indicator tocks, a dialectic metronome.
‘And the other thing you learnt?’ he asks.
‘Don’t believe everything you read on the internet’.
I walk into the workshop, kaftan flowing.
Inside, participants wait, heads bent to smart phones.
All the girls wrapped tight in skinny jeans.
- Celebrating Poetry on World Poetry Day (mangosalute.com)
- In The City (madrastourist.wordpress.com)
- Thoughts on Poetry (stacirk31.wordpress.com)