In all our sanctuaries we sit at risk

“No language is chauvinistic of itself; it is our misuse of language that makes it so.”


Now that the new “One World…” poem-poster collection is up at last and as I begin to collect myself again and think about how to make sure that people know it is there, I want to record a good email conversation I had recently with Lakshmi Holmström, translator of the two Tamil poems selected for the new collection. The conversation is reproduced here with Lakshmi’s permission.

Sent: 31 March 2010 11:17
From:  Lakshmi Holmström

Dear Rogan Wolf,

I am glad the new collection is nearly ready for uploading……I too, of course … would want to support and encourage any initiative which would make Tamil more visible, and the best of Tamil writing more accessible to people who are unaware of this rich literature. But the thrill is in seeing Tamil as part of a spectrum of languages, each making its own wonderful contribution.

Sent : 31 March 2010 11:50
From : Rogan Wolf

…I also think – that there is something almost political about this project, in a healing sense, in that it affirms people in their self-belief and cultural identities, as part of the wider community.


Sent: 31 March 2010 14:46
From: Lakshmi Holmström

Yes … I do agree that there’s a political aspect to your project, which I find truly admirable in that it encourages and celebrates different identities equally, within a world citizenship.

But I’m also aware that language chauvinism leads to the most bitter nationalism and violence.

There seems to be a fine line here (between a pride which shares a universality and a pride that turns into narrow chauvinism) which I think one ought to be vigilant about.

But I do wish you the best…

Sent: 16 April 2010 10:06
From: Rogan Wolf

I’ve been meaning to reply for a while. I want to thank you for…what you wrote to me in your message of March 31st and yes I know it’s a fine line, but it’s also a vital and precious one, to be worked at and worked on.

I actually “run” a small charity called “Hyphen-21.” The title is based on the image of human connection itself as a fine line, in fact a hyphen. The source of the image is a book by Martin Buber called I and Thou. The more successfully we nurture the skills of connection between I and Thou, along this fragile line between I and Other, the more chance our communities and our world have of surviving.

There is a beautful Arabic poem I chose for the first “One World” collection (see “Prison”) The poet Mourid Barghouti wanted to be identified as a Palestinian. I showed it to a friend of mine who is himself a Palestinian. He came to UK as an asylum seeker and now works for the NHS at quite a senior level. My friend read the poem and said it made him come out in goose-pimples – because it spoke to him and for him so vividly as a Palestinian – that he felt he had just discovered the power of speech. There are things at present the Palestinians cannot say, my friend said ; the experience of being Palestinian is not being given real credence or validation at this time, by the outside world. But the poem says it, and far from being prison offered him release. He said that, if he were an NHS patient and saw that poem on a waiting room wall, he would feel respected and recognised by this hosting country, even though it might treat him clumsily and suspiciously in other respects. He was even prepared to suggest that his health might benefit from this poem.

I lap up that sort of thing, of course. For similar reasons, though to a lesser extent, I do warm a bit to enthusiasm that verges on the nationalistic, which may come from someone whose culture is being reduced and weakened by another in some way, and the psychological and identity issues there must be among a people in that position. In doing that I am not warming to chauvinism, as such, I don’t think, but I might be a bit of a sucker for people who identify themselves as underdogs, and turn to chauvinism as a substitute for true identity. And that’s a real danger.

The translator of the Barghouti poem mentioned above has something to offer to this discussion. Her name is Radwa Ashour and she is actually the poet’s wife, and an Egyptian academic (they live in Cairo). It was she who suggested the Arabic text should be on the right of the poster. Her suggestion was less because the eyes of the Arabic reader travel right to left, than because, this way, the texts are open and broken to one another, whereas the other way they stand stiff back to stiff back.

That first bilingual collection of 45 poems is already on the site and can be downloaded. It contains several Arabic poems but no Hebrew. Quite deliberately seeking to balance that, this present new collection will be carrying two Hebrew poems.  But which poets to choose ? Rahel Bluwstein is seen as virtually the national poet for all Israelis ; Amichai was a soldier in his time but was to the left in politics and would not be seen as a Israeli “chauvinist”.

Similarly, for the new collection I’ve tried hard to identify and select poems in African languages. Should Afrikaans be included ? Yes, so long as it is one of a large enough group of poems by black Africans. Written by someone identified with an earlier oppressive regime ? No. The poet is Ingrid Jonker who was at odds with the Apartheid regime and committted suicide by drowning.

And again, I have been given permission to adopt and publish Michael Rosen’s commissioned poem celebrating the 60th birthday of the NHS last year. He was asked to write it during the time he was Children’s Poet Laureate. The poem will be in our new collection, alongside translations of it into Punjabi, Turkish, Greek, Somali and – soon afterwards – Arabic and Hebrew. And maybe Tamil and Sinhala ? The idea is obvious – the NHS waiting room is common ground ; people sit there from many cultures and nations, several of them warring or otherwise in conflict ‘back home.’ So let’s choose, for this poem of the waiting room, where people sit together to see the doctor, languages of peoples who elsewhere might be seeking to harm each other’s health.

Obviously there is a danger of getting a bit omnipotent in all this, delusions of influence, etc. Finally, though, I might record the following slightly paradoxical thought : if it were possible to avoid the charge of seeming to sympathise with oppressive behaviour, by singling out the poetry of nations or regimes guilty of aggressive actions against others, I think it is at least arguable that we should do precisely that – to show them and their neighbours the other side of themselves in their lives, to validate their higher nature and more human identity. It can’t really work in reality, but seems to follow a bit as a line of thought…
Sent: 01 June 2010 16:12
From: Lakshmi Holmström

Dear Rogan

I wanted to answer your previous email,  ‘Thoughts on Chauvinism’, but have been very busy with deadlines, besides being away for a  part of  April/May.

Of course I agree: languages, literatures and above all poetry are among the most powerful ways in which we identify ourselves. Poetry can express for us – as nothing else –  the particularities of a landscape, specifics of memories, sensations to do with a particular way of being.

But poetry also seems to tap into what is universally felt too. When I do ‘readings’ of my translations of novels [in my language] , there is a lot of ethnographic and cultural detail which I need to gloss for ‘western’ audiences. This isn’t needed at all, in the case of poetry. The particular seems to get subsumed in the universal.

That first aspect of poetry, I think,  is one reason why a Palestinian or a Tamil (when in exile) reacts so intensely when she/he  sees a poem in her/his language, on the wall of a hospital waiting room in England, or the London Underground….

But most of us who are transnationals, or who are part of a diaspora, carry multi-identities, too. And poetry, signalling to the universal, the humane, should help us all to heal, to reconcile and build bridges within ourselves and between ourselves.

You are absolutely right in seeking out poems  in Hebrew or Sinhala which do just that. No language is chauvinistic of itself; it is our misuse of language that makes it so.

Best wishes