Wednesday, 24 April 2013

Private vs Politically Involved poetry

Last night I went to a talk/poetry reading at BRLSI in Bath by Homero Aridjis. I must admit that  until an hour before the talk (when I looked him up on the bus) I had no idea who he is. I chose to go because an email sent around the university said that he's done journalism and poetry and also teaching in numerous universities.

His talk blew me away. It left me so excited and refreshed about what writing could do and what it should do.

Here is what he has done:

  • Published 42 books in Mexican and English, and won numerous awards. For me, the one that stood out most was his scholarship at the Rockefeller Foundation-supported Mexico City Writing Center (Centro Mexicano de Escritores) when he was only 19. 
  • Created the group of 100  which has fought and won numerous environmental causes in Mexico.
  • Worked as Mexico's ambassador in Netherlands and Switzerland.
  • He was the president of PEN International for several years.
  • He has worked as Mexico's ambassador to UNESCO.

The main thing about all these achievements is that he has tried to make as much difference as possible in any post he's had or through his writing. Whether fighting for freedom of speech, saving tortoises or bringing together 100 artists and intellectuals to protect the environment of Mexico and Latin America. After the talk, he was asked whether he saw himself as an 'environmentalist poet' as other poets in the past have been weary of having a title which signals a certain political standpoint, and prefer to be private and shut out the world when creating their poetry. Aridjis replied that for him, these are inseparable things. "I am a poet with sensual feelings and destroying the environment made me angry." He said that for him it wasn't a decision to be either a poet or an activist - they went hand in hand. He said he can't conceive that an intellectual could choose to be private rather than bold and trying to make a difference. In Mexico, he said, there is so much injustice going on, people being killed and kidnapped and environment endangered, that it is impossible to shut this out and become a 'private poet.'

This further prompted a discussion into why there is a notion that better writing is one which is created in private. Creative Writing courses are often criticised - how can you teach writing? But no one ever asks how you can teach music or art, which are creative disciplines as well. Why is writing different?

According to Richard Kerridge, another environmental writer who is also one of my lecturer's at Bath Spa University, it may be because of the tradition of Romanticism which developed the myth that writing was a solitary decision and the idea that if it were to become a social act, its value would somehow cheapen. So, the surprise people have hearing that writing should be taught at all, probably has roots in that tradition. However, he underlined that this tradition and way of writing is just as valuable. What I understood is that writing as a social art should be just as acceptable socially as writing as solitary art.

Another question was brought up - the infringement of British poets to express strong political passions. In music, there have been many shining examples who have led political change, like John Lennon and Bob Dylan , but in poetry having these strong views is almost considered 'bad taste'. Poets aren't afraid to speak of their inner emotional struggles, embarrassing memories, past lovers but are they afraid to speak of the bigger picture concerns like environment and political activism? Aridjis concluded that there is "nothing more important than defending life" for anyone. For him, a tree, an animal or a human all have a life and all should be defended. Being 'private' and shutting out the world for him would feel the same as someone close to you being killed and not moving a finger.Writers need to take a risk to at least talk to somebody to make a difference, and if you're afraid to talk you're not really an environmentalist.

What have I learnt from this?

Something I have been thinking about for a while now - if I want to become a writer and publish my work into the public domain, I will have a responsibility to make sure it is high quality to make people think. I've written pages and pages of poetry since I was 12 years old (of course, most of it is pretty dreadful...) My poetry is full of emotional journeys I've had but if for some strange reason it was ever turned into a collection and published, I will be very pleased but it won't be the work I'm most proud of. I'd like my writing to challenge views and discuss issues, to make people think. Like Aridjis said, all his life's activist work feels like a drop of water on hot stones which evaporates in the sun. There are so many things that cry for help in the world. Writers have a gift to persuade audiences and make them feel for fictional characters and their emotions - what a gift that is.

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