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Second Wellington International Poetry Festival

Second Wellington International Poetry Festival,

7-11 October, 2004

Introduction: Themes And Principals

The principal theme for the Second Wellington International Poetry Festival, 2004, is one of human rights. How are human rights exercised? Where does their source of “legitimacy” lie? - in the courts, in the houses of government? In what sense can we say that poets are “legislators” (to use Shelley’s term)? How can they possibly be? Such disempowered commentators who dwell in the margins of society? Who are they, anyway and what have they got to contribute?

The celebration of poetry is a community process; a community of commitment and interest – and not just a community that is committed to so-called “literary values” – it goes further than this. It is a commitment of human identification. This festival is a celebration of poets and poetry - of what they have to offer – of colourful, interesting poets, each with something to say, in his own way, in his own language; poets from the greatest possible range of countries; of varying cultural and ethnic backgrounds. It is a celebration of the riches of human diversity.

In what sense can it also be a festival about human rights? Many ideas may come to mind. There is the right to freedom of speech, for instance. What of a poet’s “freedom of a speech?” How do we define this – and give it meaningful parameters? To attempt this process is important for a number of reasons and raises a number of issues. What are the human rights of poets? How are their rights to be protected and why is it important? In many parts of the world poets are an endangered species. In some countries they are kidnapped; in some imprisoned, tortured or even killed. In other countries, the voices of poets are silenced by more subtle means such as institutionalized abuse, nepotism or corruption.

In a society where money, success and power are the new triumvirate, the new trinity, marginalized art-forms such as poetry would seem to have little to say. How do poets and poetry find a place in such a world, where so often only blank walls of ignorance and hostility stare back? It is one thing for the poet to have compassion for this society, for his fellow citizens but what has he to say, what has he to do when so often his humble contribution to society is ridiculed, scorned or spurned? So often the poet is marginalized – he becomes the rebel, the outcast, the outsider. Yes, he is looking for recognition. Why should he not be? Surely this is a fundamental human right? - to be recognized as a valuable, worthy human being by one’s peers? Perhaps, however, this is not a human right? Alternatively, it may be perceived that poets may be those who voluntarily place themselves beyond the range of such of such considerations? Respect and tolerance can not be had on demand; cannot be legislated. The life of a human being is a fragile thing – the life of a writer more so. The delicate threads a poet weaves in his work are webs to catch the light; to reflect for the benefit of others; ultimately for sharing, for friendship on the most intimate of levels –the friendship of a book. It is on this level, that despair and frustration may set in for a poet – not the lack of outlets, the lack of income or acclaim – although these factors may well play into the scenario – but it is the lack of love – the lack of being valued.

There may be those who argue that poets deserve no human rights! They pose a threat, of sorts perhaps? It is best that they remain “unacknowledged.” To acknowledge them would give them some sort of legitimacy! Prometheus should remain chained up and kept in the dark. The doors of perception, of heaven and earth should be kept shut-up. Consciousness-raising is best left to saints and seers. The arts of the imagination are best left in the hands of block-busting film-makers.

A poet is an alchemist, a poet is a shaman – he must re-invent himself tirelessly. Ostensibly, the raw materials of his alchemy are words – but there is more to it than this – for he deals in what lies behind the words; in mind and what lies beyond mind. He is a not merely a juggler of mere words, he is a conjurer of real magic, a locator, a namer, a metaphysician. How can poets deliver to society? In particular, how can they deliver joy, colour, excitement, passion? Alright, but how can poets reach us, touch us, move us? How can poetry be intelligent, challenging and exuberant yet accessible also? How can poets and poetry be more relevant to society? In turn, how can society be more responsive to poets and poetry? It’s a two way street; it is a dialogue of mutual understanding and appreciation that is hoped for. This festival, in itself represents a growing willingness to explore new avenues in this developing dialogue.

But we value poetry, don’t we? Don’t we teach it in our schools and universities? Does it require more attention than that? Can it find a life outside the cloistered halls of learning? How does a society honour its poetry and poets? How celebrate? To celebrate poetry, is to celebrate life in all its many modes of expression. We may not understand the words of a poet reciting in a different tongue but we can apprehend the music, the spirit of the work; the impulse, the intent.

What is it like to be a young poet living near Chernobyl? He speaks of his plight and the plight of his people. Such a poet was invited to this festival. He did not have the means to come nor did the festival have the means to cover his travel expenses. Yet his story should be heard. Similarly a Mapuche Indian poet from southern Chile was invited. Similarly, there are not the means to get him here. After centuries of brutalisation and dispossession (the common story of indigenous communities throughout the world) he and his people have the right to be heard.

Why not this? Why not allow poets and poetry to bring joy, light and laughter into our lives! So that it may bring down barriers – and help us share, in friendship and in peace. Why not? What have we got to lose? Maybe only our fears and prejudices? Why do we think we can’t let go of them?

One of my favourite definitions of a poet has been made by the Colombian poet, Raul Henao: “a sweaty little man who runs after people, blowing fire in their ears…” Maybe people don’t like fire being blown in their ears? But maybe we can have fun with the fire: this fire in our ears, hearts and minds? Welcome to the party! Welcome to the poetry! And a big thank you to all the poets, from all their respective countries, who have come to share their worlds.

Last year the principal festival theme was peace and reconciliation. This continues to be an underlying impulse. Specifically, we can say human rights cannot be developed without a climate of peace; of peaceful dialogue and process. Let the peace be in the poetry; as Wilfred Owen intimated in the nearly 100 years ago: “The pity is in the poetry. Let the compassion, reverence and understanding be in the poetry also.”

Above all this festival is a celebration of life; of poetry, friendship, peace and freedom. As the poem, “In that Country” by C.K. Stead suggests, poets will go to extraordinary lengths to exercise and protect the practice of this freedom. This is the power of art, of poetry, to celebrate, uplift and return those eternal joys to the lives of men. A poet is a bread-maker – and his free bread is the bread on that tram which Stead speaks: the bread “to die for”; the bread to live for. Listen to the voice of the poet and the gift he brings, through the loving practice of his transformational craft. Listen for the power of poetry – the power to bring together, to heal and forgive. Listen for the poetry and its championing of the human spirit.

Ron Riddell,

Festival Director.

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