Poetry Reading on themes of violence and injustice

On the 4th of May I was asked to read “recent Sri Lankan poetry in English that touches on violence and injustice” to a group of young men and women representing several African identities; who were in Sri Lanka for a short visit. I initially felt like reading from the poetry of “Api Venas Vemu” Poetry Circle — a group collaborating in Sinhala — whose “Akuru Oba Dhesa Balaa Sitee”  (‘Check Out the Letters that Stare at You’) was released recently. But, then, again, with the time given to me and translation of meaning being a burden to bear in a live engagement, I limited my reading to Vivimarie VanderPoorten and Marlon Ariyasinghe.

Regarding Vivimarie, my focus was on both nothing prepares you as well as Stitch Your Eyelids Shut. In the latter, there is a poem which she relates to as a very intimate expression: “For Naz”. This is a poem which recalls with consternation the pain of growing up and surviving through uncertain times — a biographical reflection, we are made to understand, of a close friend of the poet. It is set against the tense 1983 setting of mob riots and its consequent years of civil strife.

Vivi

“Meeting a VIP” is another poem where the ethnic sub-classification of a “Sri Lankan” is drawn on. This is almost parodic of how we assign ethnic values to ourselves — and even more so of how these identities are viewed and apolitically exoticized by those outside. Vivimarie playfully tosses this around with

“if my mother was Sinhalese
and in that case
whether I was 50% burgher
or whether I had a quarter Belgian
blood in my veins”.

She concedes that she

“couldn’t do the
math in my head
because I was jet lagged
and sleep derived”.

In a 1/2 an hour of fellowship it was revealed that many of the audience present identified themselves with this poem for, being of an intensely multicultural continent that has come into face with numerous colonial forces for over 200 years, the “Meeting a VIP” scenario was something habitual for most of them. “Death at Noon”, they said, was of relevance to them, since political silencing of journalists was an experience shared by both Asian and African continents. A floor member, Sue M’Batweyo, shared an experience where a regional correspondent of a Left Wing newspaper known to her was beaten to death in full view merely (as she called it) “as a lesson for all that defied order”.

In an earlier entry I had been critical of Vivimarie’s detachment from being politically informed. The floor, however, felt that I had little basis to my views. Yet, I still maintain it that her engagement with the “political” in Stitch Your Eyelids Shut is ephemeral. It is done self-consciously merely to counter the “lack of political concern” criticism that was aimed at her after nothing prepares you but not with the agency and the will to represent. However, the floor felt that some of the poems referring to violence and murder are brave and heroic.

Marlon in a less poetic moment

Marlon’s reading I shared were received well for their humour, wit and questioning power. My initial thought was to start my reading with “Gama saha Avurudu”, but refrained from doing so, as the poem has nuanced cultural underpinnings that would have been lost on the audience in question. “I’m a Racist” was well received for its scathing denunciation of petty racist division. The hypocrisy of the numerical majority at assigning “definition” and “meaning” was commented on in the discussion that followed the reading. Marlon writes:

“This land reeks of blood…
Blood that’s been sucked
And blood that’s been spilt
Spilt in vain for no fucking gain!”

Sue related this situation to her native Kenya and drew parallels of how inter-group (tribal or ethnic) politics are endorsed along these manipulable lines, extending divides and gulfs that have guaranteed the survival of the VIPs of every ethnic tier.

To offset the concern with violence and tumult, I also read from Marlon’s “Nadusa” — a personal poem, by all means; but which, when given the background, was easily grasped. However, his “My Sole Ambition” managed to bring out sneers and laughter from the crowd. The poem deals with what Marlon identifies as a “complexity” in the ESL programmes at universities. He writes that his greatest ambition in life is to get an ‘A’ pass for an ESL paper; whereas, even Honours students in English simply manage a ‘B’ or a ‘C’ for this non-credit, humdrum paper.

My reading to the delegate of African students was both delightful and thought-provoking. Specially, their responses drew many parallels between the poetry and their own continental politics. A participant (whose name I unfortunately forget right now) noted the “intensity” of the poetry at large — and the insistence they, as poets, showed in noting down the injustices: be it of the political system or the education department.

It would have been more worth the while had the organizers of this short seminar invited several Lankan poets in person; than to get their poetry read by proxy. I was merely fulfilling the request of a friend by reading — who, in turn had been approached through a friend — and the poetry read was purely my choice. Yet, a forum of this nature with better organization can be more meaningful to both the participants and the organization.

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