Cultural Olympiad: Poetry in motion

Poetry Parnassus, a jewel in the crown of the London 2012 Cultural Olympiad, is being hailed as the largest gathering of poets in history. It is part of a remarkable popular renaissance, as Vision finds out

Talent shows in the Arab world where contestants perform not songs but poems and compete for multi-million-dollar prizes in front of huge audiences; large-scale competitions between modern-day troubadours all over the world, from Sydney to Chicago, via Nepal and India; cyber-verses swarming around the web in the form of tweets, blogs and Facebook moods… Poetry is everywhere. Its verses have emerged from minority venues to form part of mass culture, of people’s day-to-day lives. So much so that you can eat stanzas made of chocolate or end up with a poem sewn on your lapel.

The London 2012 Cultural Olympiad’s Poetry Parnassus, a week of readings, workshops and more than 100 events, most of them free, will be a crowning moment in poetry’s recent worldwide resurgence. Never before has a poetry festival of this magnitude been held in the United Kingdom and it is being billed as the first time in history that so may poets from around the globe have come together in one place.

Olympic poets

The festival will open with the launch of five new books of poetry and culminate in the publication of an anthology, The World Record: International Voices from Poetry Parnassus, in which all the ‘Olympic’ poets will publish verses in their mother tongue and in English. Events include a World Poetry Summit – designed as a meeting point for publishers and writers – and a celebration of the work of British poet Ted Hughes. Others are more ingenious, such as trying out how poetry tastes when the words are written in chocolate, or visiting the Poetry Ambulance for diagnosis of poetry phobias. At the Letter Party, clubbers will wear shirts with a letter written on them, then join fellow revellers to create words.

The filmmaker and former journalist Nujoom Al Ghanem has been chosen to represent the UAE in London. “I’m proud to be part of this event and really excited to present my country and culture,” she said. Poets from the Arabian Peninsula will form a significant contingent at the Parnassus, with writers from Kuwait, Bahrain, Oman, Saudi Arabia and Qatar already picked. Those selected from the region so far include Dr Ashjan Hendi, a literary critic and academic in Arabic studies from Jeddah, and Qatar’s Dhabiya Khamis, a former UAE ambassador to India.

Battle of the poets

Poetry lovers are using innovative ideas to draw in enthusiasts, with poetry slams commanding one of the largest followings. “When I started, if you went to a poetry reading, there’d be five or 10 people. Now there are thousands. We reach a large audience of everyday people,” says Marc Kelly Smith, founding father of the poetry slam movement, which he started 25 years ago in Chicago. Its recipe for success is poetry performance and battles between poets, aimed at encouraging and involving audiences all over the world. In Germany, roses thrown by the spectators are a measure of the contestants’ lyrical prowess and their passionate acting on stage. In Sydney, a jury picks a winner from among the writers and rappers who act, sing or dance while reciting poetry.

In the UAE, poetry in the local bedouin dialect has made it into the big TV studios, with huge audience figures. Million’s Poet is the talent show on Abu Dhabi TV that has 18,000 hopefuls applying each season and has got millions of people talking around the Arab world. Only 48 Nabati poets are chosen to compete with their lyrical creations for Dh15m (US$4m).

Another popular show, Prince of Poets, features poems composed in classical Arabic. “Arab people like poetry,” says Sultan Al Amimi, Director of the Poetry Academy at the Abu Dhabi Authority for Culture and Heritage and a member of the show’s jury. “It is an important part of our culture. Everyone follows it.”

Million’s Poet has had an enormous social impact. “I wanted to reach the people. I had something to say and I had to do it. Million’s Poet was the place to be,” explains Hissa Hilal, one of the finalists in 2010, whose appearance on the show was immersed in controversy after she highlighted through verse the dangers of religious extremism. “I don’t regret it. I’ve broken the silence and now people are speaking out loud,” she insists.

“Now I am famous, my lyrics reach more people than ever,” says Mohammed bin Hammad Al Kaabi, the UAE poet who won second prize in 2008. “I do readings not just in my country but in Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Morocco… It was very challenging to write touching poems while being judged by experts and the audience. Now many people love my verses.”

Nabati poems

The Ruler of Dubai, His Highness Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum, is a passionate poetry lover and author of 40 Poems from the Desert. One of the finest Nabati poets, he writes verses with riddles and then publishes them on the web. Those who work out the solution have to send it as a Nabati poem to receive a substantial reward. His last riddle received more than 12,000 replies.

Elsewhere, imaginative ways of popularising the form keep emerging. “My mission is to disperse poetry and make it accessible to everyone,” says Agustina Woodgate, the Argentinian artist known for ‘poetry bombing’ clothes shops in Miami and Berlin. “By sewing poems on to clothes, I displace them from paper and bring them into our daily lives. The unexpected has a huge impact on people’s minds.” If you bump into her in your local clothes shop, let her carry on… just for poetry’s sake.