ROSS BRADSHAW of Five Leaves Publications reports on a poetic response to the refugee crisis
TOWARDS the end of summer, a group of East Midlands writers started discussing the refugee crisis. The outcome is the book Over Land, Over Sea: Poems for Those Seeking Refuge, with 80 writers contributing material for the collection.
All donated their work free, as did the editors, typesetter and designer, with production costs raised by crowd-funding.
Five Leaves’s involvement started when staff member Pippa Hennessy offered to design the book in her own time, suggesting that maybe we could offer to take on the whole publishing side.
The book, with an introduction by scientist Martyn Poliakoff, has just come out. It includes over 100 poems and the proceeds will be split between Nottingham Refugee Forum, Leicester City of Sanctuary and Medecins Sans Frontieres.
Demand has been high. Over Land, Over Sea was reprinted within two weeks of publication, with organised readings — including “pop up” initiatives — taking place around the East Midlands. The project will raise several thousand pounds for refugee charities and, equally importantly, give political and moral support to those seeking refuge.
Some of the contributors are well-known or are at the start of their career. Some are refugees or from other migrant families, others have campaigned or raised funds for refugees in the past.
But what is remarkable is that the idea — first mooted by Zimbabwean activist Ambrose Musiyiwa — gathered support immediately. From the initial idea to the final copy took only weeks. Work poured in from around the world, some new material, some from poets’ backlists. Press pictures of drowned migrants in the Mediterranean gave an urgency to the project.
Siobhan Logan, one of the editors, says: “Like other people, I felt distraught about the scale of the unfolding refugee crisis and especially the media representation of migrants crossing Europe as a ‘swarm’ or ‘flood.’
“The impetus for the anthology came out of an established community of writers sharing their thoughts on social media. As writers we’re very alert to the power of naming and labels and wanted to shift that discourse to a more humane one.
“We didn’t control TV channels or national newspapers. But we had our own words and shared them. When Ambrose posted up the suggestion of an anthology, there followed a flurry of suggestions and volunteers.
“I was blown away by the poetry submissions that came in — well over 200 thoughtful, complex, diverse poems — deeply felt but also beautifully crafted. It was a considerable challenge to whittle this down to about 100 poems that spoke to each other thematically. We wanted an array of voices, including those of refugees themselves.
“The book has been raising funds but it has also taken that conversation that started on Facebook out into the wider community. It turns out we could do something after all. And coming together made that solidarity not only practical but also made it sing.”
Musiyiwa had worked with what became the editorial and publishing team on a number of projects in Leicester but was still astonished at the immediate and powerful reaction to his idea.
Like Logan, what concerned him was the way labels had been attached to people crossing the Mediterranean as well as those in camps in the north of France.
“The anthology challenges the ‘othering’ and dehumanisation that has been prevalent,” he says. “It presents this challenge without preaching. It strips the labels to their bones and reminds everyone that the people who are seeking refuge are people and not numbers, insects or environmental phenomena.
“And it enriches because it does what people do, it reaches out and reaffirms the humanity of people who are in a difficult situation.”
Other exiled writers involved in the project include Malka al-Haddad, an Iraqi living in Leicester, and the refugee writing group at the Arimathea Trust in Nottingham. Established refugee writers, including Ziba Karbassi and Jasmine Heydari, have material in the book and there are a number of Jewish, Black and Asian writers from an earlier generation of migrants.
But the material has been chosen solely on quality, relevance and the way the poems in the collection relate to each other. The editors wanted the book to mirror the crises that caused refugees to flee, report on their journey, reflect on the welcome and often the small kindnesses they have received which strengthen peoples’ ability to overcome their traumatic recent past.
In introducing the Leicester launch of the book Emma Lee, who took on much of the role of chairing a complex Facebook and email debate on how to take the whole idea forward, remarked on how more home-grown writers were conscious of their relatively privileged position.
This is echoed in Poliakoff’s introduction. “We are willing to welcome new families into our country so that they too can contribute to our communities as soon as they have overcome their dreadful experiences. Until then, we need to help them,” he writes.
Lee is one of several contributors who have not only staged “proper” launches but ensured that many relevant poetry, literature and film events have some guerilla readings while others have taken copies to Quaker meetings, Green Party branches, conferences on refugees, and in the case of one poet, to his choir practice.
Another editor, Kathleen Bell, is convinced that poetry has a role to play because of Musiyiwa’s poem The Man Who Ran Through the Tunnel, very necessary given the language used in the media.
“While poets may not be able to solve big problems they do have a role to play in terms of language and narrative, enabling readers to see situations differently,” she says.
“I was aware of WH Auden’s Refugee Blues as a precedent. It seemed that a poetry anthology could do two things simultaneously — tell more varied, nuanced and complex stories and raise money for charities helping refugees.”
There was agreement that the focus would not be just on poems about the current situation but would create parallels with past experiences of refugees and exiles. The crowd- funder launch coincided with the pictures of the death of the child Aylan Kurdi washed ashore on a Mediterranean beach and a big change in the public mood.
A large number of poems relating to the photos in the press were received, she says. “But we decided that we didn’t want too big a focus on one instance but to tell a wide range of stories and offer a variety of approaches.
Influential as Aylan’s story was, we knew there were many other stories which had not received so much attention. This meant turning down some strong poems, some of which have since appeared elsewhere and rightly so.”
And so this will continue. Further events are planned, including in London and possibly in Scotland. The group’s Facebook site, Poets in Solidarity with Refugees, lists other poetry initiatives in support of refugees, while in London the long-established Exiled Writers plugs away at this issue month after month. Poetry can make things happen.
Over Land, Over Sea: Poems for Those Seeking Refuge is available at £9.99 from Five Leaves Bookshop in Nottingham, firstname.lastname@example.org, telephone (0115) 837-3097 and at Housmans bookshop in London, housmans.com