MPT FEATURE

Poetry Parnassus

Series 3 No. 17 - Parnassus

My findings have not just been poets, but the most inventive array of publications, festivals and projects: including silent poetry slams, poetry karaoke and even a poetry laundrette, where you have to unbutton shirts to read the poems written on the inside of them.

‘“Energy is eternal delight,” said Blake, and surely delight involves variety. There is no one coat that fits all poets, thank heaven.’ (George Szirtes)

When I was a child, I used to spend hours playing a computer game called Toejam and Earl. In the game, you’d explore strange countries. When you first began, it was a mass of blue squares, then as you walked the squares would disappear one by one to reveal a new land. With Poetry Parnassus, it has taken over a year, rather than hours and the 204 countries have been revealed to me by the generosity of strangers. 

The research has been my greatest lesson in Geography: I can now give you directions to San Marino, American Samoa and The Federated States of Micronesia with ease, or provide a guided tour of the spoken word scene in the Pacific islands. It has been a process of discoveries: uncovering poetic traditions, politics and regions through their keenest observers. My nights have been spent reading Romanian prose poetry, morning commutes filled with the rhythms of Arabic verse and lunch breaks sat in the Saison Poetry Library exploring Island poems from places that are blue dots on atlases. 

My findings have not just been poets, but the most inventive array of publications, festivals and projects: including silent poetry slams, poetry karaoke and even a poetry laundrette, where you have to unbutton shirts to read the poems written on the inside of them. One of the most inspiring collectives I found was Casagrande: a group of poets who met through the Chilean equivalent of the Eric Gregory Awards. One of the things they created was an invisible magazine, where each page was broadcast on national radio. They were in their kitchen one day, listening to page 14 (which was birdsong) when they noticed the birds outside were responding to the calls, then they found the same thing was happening in the next neighbourhood, and the next and they realised they’d made all the birds of Chile sing. They published another issue of the magazine with letters from school children to the stars, which they sent into space with a Chilean astronaut. The first letter they received said: Please can you leave the stars on in the day? Casagrande will be at Poetry Parnassus Festival as they are the creators of Rain of Poems, a breathtaking sight in which 100,000 poems (all in translation) are dropped from a helicopter. When they did it in Berlin in 2010, 8,000 people gathered and leaped up to catch the poems as they fell, or shook them from the trees, the different poems became currency with people exchanging them, until not a single one was left. This same event is planned for the opening ceremony of Poetry Parnassus with poems by 304 poets in languages ranging from Gun to Kyrgyz. 

From the beginning, I wanted the world to help decide which poets should be part of the festival, so set it up so that anyone anywhere could suggest up to three poets online (their gold, silver and bronze choice, in order of preference). We had over 6,000 suggestions of poets, griots, spoken word artists, praise singers, rappers and storytellers and we have tried to reflect this in the choices we’ve made, so that we can celebrate the full range of ways people work with words. 

In Greek mythology, Parnassus was a mountain sacred to Apollo. It became known as the home of the Muses. Today, poets don’t tend to gather on mountains, but each international festival is its own Parnassus, its own bringing together of writers and thinkers, its own offering to people to come and learn. 

Poetry Parnassus is part of the Southbank Centre’s Festival of the World, which takes its inspiration from Pierre de Coubertin, a man who in 1890 visited my sleepy hometown of Much Wenlock, where a doctor called William Penny Brookes was so tired of everyone being drunk that in 1850 he had set up the Olympian Games; for the ‘moral, physical and intellectual improvement’ of the local population. After Poetry Parnassus, some of the poets will be following in Pierre de Coubertin’s footsteps and heading to Much Wenlock as part of a national tour. The world will be coming to London this Summer, I hope you can meet them. If you have your diary to hand, please jot in these dates: 26th June – 1st July. I’d love to welcome you to the Southbank Centre so you can make your own discoveries.

Anna Selby
Programmer for Poetry Parnassus
Literature and Spoken Word Co-ordinator, The Southbank Centre


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