In all our sanctuaries we sit at risk

The “Poems for…” project – a new collection has been uploaded , crossing new frontiers


A new collection of mainly bilingual poems has been uploaded on the Poems for… website. It consists of sixty poems, most of them bilingual.

Eventually this sixty will join and become one with the collection of forty five poems  launched a few years ago, called “Poems for… One World.”

The new collection has taken three years. Thank you, Stephen Watts, yet again, for guidance, counsel and support.

Thirty different languages are represented. They include six poems written in African languages spoken south of the Sahara – Ewe, Igbo, Somali, Tigrinya, Afrikaans, /Xam  (though /Xam is no longer in live currency).  Six is not enough and we’ll come again at this one.

But this time there is also some variation on the collection’s main theme – the simple  exchange on a single page between two languages – between “foreign” and “incomprehensible”, and familar and clear. The crossing over from one to the other.

For instance, the new collection includes a poem called “These are the Hands” by Michael Rosen, until recently the UK Children’s Poet Laureate. People at the UK National Health Service commissioned him to write it in celebration of the 60th birthday of the NHS a couple of years ago.

I asked whether we could add the poem to our collection and send it round our mailing list. Of course we could, he said.

Then I asked, would he agree to me getting it translated into various languages as well, particularly languages of people often in conflict or in question ?  Of course he would.

So in the new collection there are four versions of the poem, besides his own – in Punjabi, in Turkish, in Greek, in Somali. And soon I hope to add other languages too – such as Arabic and Hebrew.

The point is obvious. People sit quietly together in NHS waiting rooms, sharing their common human precariousness and mortality, who back in their own places of origin might be seeking each other’s lives.

A few days ago,  I showed the different versions of his poem to Michael, who was excited. I told him I have to fund-raise now, to keep the project going and he asked if I would like a quote from him, in support. Of course I would, I said.

He sent it over minutes later and here it is : “I think that this is a stimulating, exciting and important project. We all need to be able to talk to each other and we need to be able to talk to each other about things that matter. I wrote the NHS poem firstly because I was asked to but more importantly because I care deeply about the NHS. My parents fought for it, it brought my children into the world, it saw my mother and father out of it with care and dignity – and much more besides. The people who work for the NHS come from all over the world and the NHS cares for people whose origins are all over the world. It is a truly international, inter-communal, inter-cultural institution. How right then that what we say within the NHS can, when appropriate, talk multi-lingually. I am excited and delighted that my poem might appear in several languages. It shows that we can talk to each other just as we try to care for each other. I think the project needs all the help it can find.”

But there are other variations, hinging on the meaning of the word “frontier.” Frontiers are not just geographical, nor lingual, nor cultural.

There is a frontier in me between life and death. I am afraid to cross that frontier.

There is a frontier in all of us – I suggest – between mental well-being and mental ill-being. We are almost as afraid to cross that frontier as the one that divides life and death, and our fear affects our behaviour the closer to the frontier we find ourselves.

So in this new collection there are pairs of poems in English which seek to speak clearly across this other kind of frontier, in the cause of better connection. A pair of poems by someone who this year died of an aggressive terminal cancer, and kept recording it all in verse, almost to the last minute, and humorous to the last. A pair of poems by someone also recently dead, who was seriously physically disabled himself and was campaigning to the last and with high effectiveness for disability rights. A pair of poems about someone with Downs Syndrome. A pair of poems by children. A pair of poems by people familiar with the inside of  psychiatric units…

Each one of these pairs could become a whole collection in its own right, if we can get the funding…

Fund-raising needs alone require me to seek publicity for these 60 poems. But I  think they  simply deserve to be known and read, deserve on their merits maximum possible exposure.  And even without publicity, I know that they will be downloaded in large numbers, in the UK and all over the world. They will go mostly to schools, but also to public libraries, healthcare waiting rooms, embassies, prisons – and not just in the UK.

I know this, because we can keep track of the downloads from the site.  And we have the e-mail addresses of everyone who registers there. There are well over 1,000 names on our mailing list. At the very least we shall be telling everyone on that list that the new poems are available.

I think this project is powerful and it is necessary. For poetry can speak to people beneath the skin, it can penetrate armour, it can speak straight to you where your average advertising copy merely works on or round you, diminishing you. I wasn’t 100% impressed by the recent advertising campaign in the UK, seeking to liberalise social attitudes to mental ill-health, for instance. Huge sums of money were made available for it. What a wonderful opportunity. But the main result seems to have been just more advertising copy, often simplistic and even misleading,  to join the daily cacophony of advert-speak. I’m not convinced it does that much.