Naush Sabah • Olivia Hodgson • Suna Afshan
Soundtrack: ‘Four Sea Interludes’ from Peter Grimes, Benjamin Britten
‘Currite ducentes subtegmina, currite, fusi.’ Poem 64, Catullus
We lay our spread of white paper on a table at the Parkside building and pause in the cathedralesque silence of its atrium. Like the expectant mothers of Faustine Ladeiro-Levent’s opening poem, we have met by the canalside and waited for the flood. Now, on a balmy summer evening, it’s time to draw out the natural order of the poems which comprise this inaugural issue of Poetry Birmingham and we ‘stand knee-deep, trying to snatch sound or significance,’ like Michelle Penn’s water-reader. Having moved from the punctuation mark, the single word, the line—where it extends, draws itself taut, breaks—to the stanza and its flocking into shape, we’ve come finally to the whole, and to the words of our first editorial.
In the 1980 January–February issue of PN Review, the late Donald Davie wrote:
One has seen it so often before: the professed and often enough sincere wish to purify poetry—to purify it of politics, of logic, of intentionality behind the poetic utterance, and consequently of any responsibility on the poet for what he utters. Always the overt intention is to exalt poetry; and always the effect is to emasculate it. A poetry that demands these freedoms will in our society be granted them. Thus purified, thus purged, poetry does neither harm nor good; it can safely be ignored, compassionately tolerated, contemptuously complimented. Poetry’s enemies, and poetry’s false friends, ask nothing better. Poetry conceived of in this way will count for nothing in our corporate life; and it deserves to count for nothing.
Strains of this observation have cropped up in conversation between us for years now—this wider discourse on poetry’s purpose, a moth encircling candlelight, throwing itself against an artificial sun, becoming finer than even ash. To question one’s ontology is human. It’s an undeniable marker of cognisance, of intelligence; the poetry we have always been drawn to as individuals and now as editors seems to ask that question of itself: ‘Why,’ it says, albeit a little melodramatically, ‘must I exist?’ This journal exists because it must. It exists because we have spent too long in repurposed smoking rooms, wondering why there’s a poetry-journal-shaped hole in Birmingham’s cultural footprint.
The three of us delight in our city: in its green spaces and waterways, its inner-city bustle and suburban quietude, its high streets and intermingled university campuses, the timbre of jazz that spills out of coffeehouse doorways, in the art dotted around us, in its wealth of poetry nights. It is a city rich in literary heritage and culture; engaged in contemporary poetry through thriving open mics, literature festivals, and small presses. Our cover image is a tapestry held in the collection at Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery—a twenty-minute walk from where we congregate to read and breathe our poetry—like C. S. Lewis’ wardrobe, it’s a portal into the literary tradition we stake a claim in and endeavour to augment with the publication of Poetry Birmingham.
The misguided wish to purify poetry may in effect neuter it. However, that wish being articulated allows Davie to make the argument for poetry that ‘traffics in realities’ including the political, and for us to continue that discourse today. To stay with the PN Review, in this year’s March–April issue Michael Schmidt cites one editor’s suggestion of substituting the word ‘silence’ for ‘deafness’ in a poem and refers to it as an ‘unravelling of texture’ and an erasure which the reader will remain unaware of in the published text. This is perhaps an instance of politics neutering the poem. One wonders why a poet would agree to a change if indeed it is a matter of erasure and unravelling and not simply an exercise in seeking the right word. In any case, Schmidt’s comment means that readers are now aware. Poets no more wish their palimpsests published than editors do and editing has to stop before the integrity of the poem is lost between drafts. That may mean a poem needs to find an alternate home; an editor needs to find another poem for her pages. It may mean that editors publish something they would still further change if they could, or poets concede where they feel they shouldn’t have. For some of us, the business remains unfinished. But it ought to be possible to open the door to readers and allow them to eavesdrop or interject in these discussions.
A journal with three editors is a creative collaboration but more importantly an ongoing dialogue and negotiation with one another, our poets and our readers. This requires more than an editorial. It requires meetings over coffee and long discussions after poetry nights. It requires panels and Q&As. It requires emails back and forth or even tweets. It requires essays and reviews—which we intend to introduce in subsequent issues, and welcome pitches and submissions for. We invite our readers to respond, and leave space at the back of the journal for you to do so, be it through poetry or comment.
This summer, the weather turned from polite conversation filler to cause of deep-seated dread, and those anxieties weave through the tapestry of this issue. Its warp is violence and art, and its weft is nature and change. There is the ever-present nostalgia of childhood, and fractures which cut through those memories like ‘lead shot’, to borrow from Alix Scott-Martin’s striking image. Defiant daughters transmogrify into wolves or watchful guards. It brings to our minds not only the transnatural and uncanny, but also the defiance of girls like Greta Thunberg and her attempt to shake the politics of the present by the shoulders. Her actions, indeed, the whole Extinction Rebellion movement, seem of almost Biblical import: ‘And a little child shall lead them.’ Or perhaps, like blind believers, like the millennial optimists we are, we abandon all logic for hope.
We might surmise that the kids are alright. ‘Men,’ however, ‘may need our help,’ says Mark Russell, and his prose poem asks directly: ‘If war is a distinguishing characteristic of human nature, how might we explain the existence of music?’ This is a juxtaposition that Phil Miller’s ‘Britten at Belsen’ explores at length as it confronts the consequences of fascism. In Serena Trowbridge’s poem, music allows ‘fine tracing tendrils [to] creep across the aisles’, to ‘stretch up and stroke the heavens.’ It’s tantalising to see art as a means of ascension or bridging divides, but impossible to indulge in the thought for too long when Ian Dudley’s ‘Ironmaster’ reminds us of the human cost of art and architecture and John Porter’s ‘The Council’ makes much besides bureaucracy seem ridiculous in the face of the impending climate catastrophe.
And poetry, so obsessed with its own genesis—an editorial, so obsessed with its own genesis—is always aware of its mortality. The chalice before us, the hundred pages in your hands, will serve to bind this publication within the fabric of this city and this tradition, no matter how frail and inconsequential the new thread may seem to us now. We are joining a long line of individuals who, in their role as poetry editors, have functioned to uphold a responsibility to lyric and her living tradition; a duty to curate journal issues which illustrate the vitality of poetry today and the robustness of its criticism. We are willing to take risks in order to foster ambitious prosody and provide space for the considered critical attention one must bring to the art of poetry. We hope you find both pleasure and provocation within the pages of Poetry Birmingham.