How a Poem Comes To Be or Who Are We
At the end of the last year I was a guest on Portland Maine Community Radio, being interviewed by my friend who runs a weekly program there. I was invited to talk about my poetry collection that has just been published, titled Personal Things and the Rest. At some point she asked me about the creative process of writing poetry, how a poem comes to be? More accurately, the question was how come I could write poetry in English, English not being my mother tongue.
I found it a challenging question, despite a body of work to speak for me, as challenging as answering that other question, where do I come from, actually. You might ask how did I happen to be in Portland Maine and the answer is going to be as convoluted as my journey there.
The old lesson on life tells us, we are what we make of ourselves.
I am British. Naturalized British. Amongst other reasons, this is because I come from some place else, a country that no longer exists due to an armed conflict. And so, I have been accepted here and I want to be British. Besides all, I work hard on understanding what it means to be British.
Certainly, I have learned being British is not about being English or Welsh or Scottish or originating from the West Indies. But an English or Scottish person can be British too, is British by definition. Except when England and Scotland play a rugby match against each other. And a person originating from the West Indies is British, except when England plays cricket against the Windies. But then it’s understandable; there is a small place in our hearts, in all of us, for our local team, our tribe.
During my short spell of living on the East Coast of America, some years back, no one there took ‘I am British’ for a final answer, at least not from me – in the way that Americans are Americans – when they asked me ‘Where do you come from, actually?’. For them someone could be English or Scottish or Welsh or from somewhere else. But some of us are just British. Just about British.
Still, what is there that might gel us British people together? Something for which all of us could say – yes, I too, feel the same about such and such, just as you do. There is of course our day-to-day business we go on about, school runs for those with children, and the underground system for Londoners, where we all get close to each other. But beyond that, what do we all find in common or something to be proud of?
And then, at night, we British all go to our quarters where we might or might not know our neighbours, where things might be different from the brand names in bright neon on High Streets. Where we might be wary of each other.
I know what happens when you bring together a group of artists and writers and let them work on a project called “Who Are We?” in Tate Modern. Here I was a contributing poet in a gallery where artists were putting on their installations throughout the month of May last year.
In no time we created a universe of mutual understanding and endless possibilities, like when you bring a bunch of kids together around face painting who are full of joy and curiosity and respect for otherness. Those installations and individual or collaborative sub-projects were addressing many sensitive issues in our society and politics, from ‘Migration, New Ecosystems and Urban Transformations’ to ‘Hostile Environment’. And poetry, plenty of poetry amongst all of that.
Surely, artists and writers should not be viewed just as an entity, a cast allowed to create, provoke, rattle and hum only in an enclosed gallery space, theatre or lecture amphitheatre; their work being merited by yet another cast of official critics, promoters and award distributors. Artists and writers invoke many valuable and important sentiments, echoing, mirroring, amplifying the very same sentiments within yet another much larger entity – all of us who visit those galleries and who keep turning over those written pages. The work of artists and writers should be taken into consideration in the Chambers of Power with as much gravity as the work of experts or advisers. Although how much an artist or a writer is allowed to ‘bite the hand that feeds it’, should be explored in a different essay.
And when that “Who Are We?” is applied to our society, it quickly becomes apparent that the state of our society is of our own making. For me there was one defining moment since I became British, one possibility to create something of a collective mythology in our time, but we blew that chance away – the protest against the war on Iraq. If we had made it then, in my opinion, we would be a British nation for all to be proud of.
As grown-ups we need to go beyond face painting to create an all-inclusive, dynamic community that enables the potential and the strength of all of us to be properly developed.
We are now at another historic moment – Brexit. The outcome of that, one way or another, will not make us more united. For sure, in Europe we could call ourselves British, and not many would ask to define it further, if someone is actually English or Welsh… Will Brexit make us more British in the eyes of others? Unlikely, as we will be even more polarized.
I struggle to understand “Who Are We?” around project Brexit where words like ‘Democracy’ and ‘ The People Have Spoken’ fly in one’s face… Which people? And who are the people in those Chambers of Power shouting at each other?
The break up of any union, particularly a political union, can happen for various reasons. Albeit, some unions should never be formed, those are usually forced unions, or the results of hastily made decisions after unresolved historical events. But more often than not, the break up happens when the stronger, wealthier entity decides to get out of the union blaming the weaker, poorer parties for not pulling hard enough. Or when the strong form a different union that would make them even stronger.
And what happens to the weak that are left behind? They usually get weaker with feelings of being hard-done-by and the resentment that is often exploited by darker forces that also seek unions. Unions are part of our nature; they are supposed to make us all stronger. And the benefits of any union come in a different way for each party.
I was born in a country that was called Yugoslavia. She was once a union of what are now seven, newly-formed countries. These new countries became independent from the union either through war or by peaceful partitioning; a process that lasted over a decade. I have written about it in a different essay, called, “On Love and Tribes in a New World Order”. www.exiledwriters.co.uk/blog
But I didn’t write about the dead Yugoslavian people from that war, the wasted generation, the lost opportunity to fix problems peacefully nor the destruction of infrastructure, resources and nature. Those are the possible byproducts of the break-up of a union. One of those newly formed countries, Bosnia and Herzegovina, has all the elements of what was once Yugoslavia, only on a much smaller scale: multinational and multi-religious, with a rich history, heritage and culture. Even the hyphenated name of this country suggests union. However, it is now an impoverished country, still ravaged by nationalisms, still full of the scars of war even twenty-five years later, and there are powerful forces insisting on further divisions.
I would always argue that a newcomer has the right to engage in a debate, as he/she makes this ‘new we’ possible. The moment in which a native insists on ‘this is how we do things’ the possibility for that ‘other new we’ stops. And a newcomer can only find his/her equality within that ‘new we’.
As such, the process of transformation of an individual and the society is continuous, where a newcomer is allowed to learn about the ways of a society that has taken him/her into its fold, and at the same time he/she is free and willing to say ‘we’. Changes occur within an individual as well as within the society.
Any form of segregation, ghettoization and deliberate isolation, sometimes on the pretense of respecting those very same differences, leads to mistrust of otherness and society that functions as a multilayered, tiered organization.
Changes within British society over the years, due to that ‘otherness’ are so visible and real that there is no possibility for any other reality. The whole truth of multicultural expressions is that all of them become our culture, are our culture and should be treated as equal. As a newcomer I have a keen eye and understanding for those changes.
The same could be said about the usage of English language as a newcomer makes it his/her own.
If that war in Yugoslavia hadn’t happened, I probably would have never become British. And I would never have written poetry in English. But I live here now, in Britain, in London, and English is the language that we all use to communicate with each other and, I too am a part of this ‘new we’.
The process of writing poetry is the same in any language. A poet needs to find an emotion, a pool of emotions from where writing and words follow. And the reader or a listener can connect with those emotions through words of that same language that might be used somehow differently.
And when a group of artists and writers get together for a “Who Are We?” project, finding that ‘other we’ is about listening to each other and observing each other at work in a way that an observer can find a new way of understanding our differences and putting that understanding into the context of the society of which we are all part.
This English language is an anchor to which we attach a vessel made of our understanding of our differences, a vessel that might not look like something totally familiar, but it floats well and looks like a dignified place to be.
Writers from some place else, in our diverse society, might use the English language in a way that highlights that otherness with which we all can be comfortable. Art in diverse society is produced with the understanding that diversity is what makes us equal.
Language and art are two forms of human expressions that define any culture. And in the olden days there were strong boundaries between different cultures, which no longer can be said about modern Britain.
And so, during my short spell of living in Boston Massachusetts, I organized and hosted monthly poetry events where local poets came to read their work. I made some friends there, and when my poetry collection was published last November, shortly afterwards they invited me to have a small promotion of my work amongst them. I was a guest at two readings amongst some fine poets and writers. All in all, I was an unorthodox Brit in New England.
Ah yes, and what about that interview on Portland Maine Community Radio? Portland is only two hours bus journey from Boston. Some of my friends live there and their Community Radio is a rather awesome concept. Community Radio is another subject dear to my heart, to write about in a different essay. Anyhow, we had a good brunch after the interview and then I started my long journey back to Britain.
And that is How A Poem Comes To Be. That is how a collection of my poetry came to be published after 21 years in the making and that is how “Who Are We?” becomes “We Are (British)”. And that is how I, an unorthodox Brit, understand that this Britain is for all of us.
Copyright Edin Suljic 2019.