Angela Graham reflects on the theme of sanctuary, explaining how this concept became central to the writing of her second poetry collection – a project undertaken in collaboration with partners from both Wales and Northern Ireland.
I’m from Northern Ireland. I’ve lived in Wales for almost forty years. Any country is constrained by the particular set of relationships within which history and geography and the operations of power have placed it, but I’ve always appreciated how Wales is able to strike out on paths prompted by its canny exercise of imagination. One of the most inspiring ideas I’ve met in Wales is the ambition to make the country the world’s first Nation of Sanctuary.
The pandemic has made sanctuary a very prominent concept. Who doesn’t want to be safe and protected in the face of danger? And we have also seen ways in which we are, or are not, sanctuaries for each other.
In times of peril, or stress, we crave sanctuary but it can limit us, too. Once we’re in there, are we free to leave? And if other needy people want to join us in our safe space, do we extend to them the welcome we wanted for ourselves?
We’re all aware of the plight of those around the world who are displaced because of circumstances outside their control. There was no coercion in my move to Wales; I came because I married a Welshman. Even so, I found it hard enough to adapt to the local culture. I needed a lot of guidance, interpretation, encounters and dialogue in order to understand where I found myself and what I might have to offer this new home. There are many types of welcome that incomers need – among them is a welcome for the artistic practice and heritage they bring with them.
If I were a poet, coming to live in a new place, I’d value a welcome from the local poets and an exchange of craft and tradition. At present, my debut collection of poetry is under consideration with a publisher. I felt that for my second collection I could strive to offer the type of welcome I’d value myself. Since, for me, the concept of sanctuary has a strong sense of hosting and openness, I decided to design my poetry collection around those qualities. An authored collection is conventionally the work of a single poet, but I hoped to invite some other poets into my collection and in a way that would embody those qualities to some degree.
I now live both in Northern Ireland and in Wales. With a SIAP (Support for the Individual Artist) Award from the Arts Council of Northern Ireland, I’ve been able to recruit two poets from Wales and two from Northern Ireland to contribute a poem each. Because of the prominence of migration issues in contemporary notions of sanctuary I sought a poet in each place, looking for at least one contributor who had experienced, first-hand, being a refugee. I was also looking for a poets with expertise on migrancy and places of sanctuary.
Collaboration was essential to me in this work. I wanted to find poets who were happy to work with me, so that we could create something together. I’m glad to say that this approach has been particularly successful in this enterprise.
The Northern Irish poet, Glen Wilson, was my mentor in 2020 for my first collection, partly in emulation of the generosity to other artists shown by Welsh poet and publisher, Matthew M. C. Smith. Glen is taking that role again in this project. In my search for a poet in Wales, Matthew put me in touch with Swansea Asylum Seekers Support. Since 2003, this group has published impressive work by asylum-seekers and former refugees via its Hafan imprint. Dr. Tom Cheesman of Swansea University and a trustee of S.A.S.S., suggested a poet. ‘Moon’ works under this pseudonym to protect his loved ones in his native Iran.
Moon encouraged me to consider what it might be like when people never allow you to move on from having been a refugee so that you can transition into being a citizen of the country in which you’ve made your home. I hadn’t thought before how hurtful and restrictive that is. Through our conversations, some part of Moon’s experience entered me and emerged in my own poems. At one stage, he mentioned, briefly, that Persian New Year was being celebrated and I sensed his sadness at not being in Iran to celebrate it. I wrote a poem called ‘Persian New Year’:
The table spread with symbols of spring –
I imagine that: سبزه سمنو سیب sabze, samanu, sib;
the hubbub of happy visits, the thresholds crowded,
your name in many mouths…
I can only imagine.
Let me give you gorse,
the ungraspable, the unlikely
solder-drops splattered on my hedges
by the sun torching its way out of winter.
Can you imagine?
I was in Northern Ireland when I wrote this, surrounded by the intensely yellow gorse which is characteristic of spring in Ulster. (I even have a wee blog about it: Gorse, Whin, Furze in which I bring together poetry and music in English, Irish and Ulster-Scots.) Gorse is a symbol of spring in my culture as the foods mentioned in the poem are symbols of it in Moon’s. The poem is an exchange of good things.
Moon’s poem for the collection, ‘YOU’, is (impressively, since it is not his first language) in rhyming couplets. It’s an account of a search for sanctuary and the finding of it in an unexpected place.
The other poet from Wales is Phil Cope. He’s from Cardiff but living now in the former coal-mining area of the Garw Valley. Phil is a writer and photographer with an impressive roster of books on holy wells and sacred places across Britain and Ireland. His latest book The Golden Valley: A Visual Biography of the Garw is just out. We met years ago on the housing estate near the ancient shrine of Penrhys in the Rhondda. Phil, who is also a highly experienced community arts worker, had the tricky task of accommodating a wide range of notions as to what and where is sacred and inviolable in that place.
Phil’s poem, ‘Another Lake Another Land’ is an extensive, multi-layered consideration of sanctuary in terms of safety and risk; filmic in its series of scenes whose motifs are inter-connected. Beginning in the Garw Valley, its five sections take us to the Bosphorus, to Iran, to India and back, but to the Valley transformed into a site of the transcendent. There is a powerful assumption scene at the poem’s conclusion, which opens it out and up into something close to the eternal.
In Northern Ireland, I invited the Italian poet, novelist and cultural activist, Viviana Fiorentino to join the project. I’d been very struck by something she’d told me about her workshops for migrants and Northern Irish people. Locals who had been forced out of their homes during the Troubles understood something of the uprooting the incomers had been through. That shared understanding sounded like an important bridge. Viviana’s poem has an ecological slant and makes effective use of unconventional layout. I wrote responses to each draft and got to know them in relation to each other, trying to follow her poetic choices and understand as deeply as I could both what she was expressing and intending to express.
“I’m enjoying the project and theme itself so much. I feel so lucky to work on it as, by its nature, the Sanctuary is a very current concept… Reflecting with other artists on this concept is giving me the possibility to expand my point of view or change it, feeling connected, being part of the same community where we imagine a Sanctuary, a place, a body, a state of mind where we feel safe or we give others the possibility to be safe.”
Since I’d found a male poet in Wales with experience of having been a refugee, I have looked for a female counterpart in Northern Ireland. In Wales, the integration of asylum-seekers and refugees into literary output has been going on for longer than in Northern Ireland, as the Hafan publications demonstrate. The obstacles to such poets can be considerable. The experience of displacement can have been, or be, so fraught that there may be little time or emotional energy left over. There can also be an understandable reticence to go on the record in any way in case that jeopardises legal procedures; and looking back on the past may require reserves of emotional energy that are hard-won.
Csilla Toldy is a Hungarian, now living in Northern Ireland, who escaped Communist Hungary in 1981, looking for freedom in the West. She is a European who has experienced being a refugee within Europe. As a filmmaker and writer, she has explored themes of arrival and departure, severance and belonging I am very pleased that she is going to bring her long engagement with Sanctuary to this proposed book.
“I am delighted to be asked to contribute to this project for it will give me the chance to revisit and re-evaluate my experience of ’sanctuary’ − looking back from a long perspective − and find new meanings.”
We have built a tiny community. Moon has written a poem in celebration of the camaraderie with his fellow contributors. How precious it is, he says, to have “a travel mate who feels my feelings and makes the way easier for me even for a moment.”
Phil writes that the collaborative element, “was a unique (for me) and often challenging experience… but one which resulted in a better piece of work.”
Working with these poets has been an exchange of good things, not least the conjunction of Northern Ireland and Wales.
The benefits of collaboration, for me, have included an intimate kind of introduction to places and cultures unfamiliar to me; an intense exercise of critical encounter and an exciting artistic seeding within me of experiences originating with the other poets.
Angela expects to complete her poetry collection by the end of 2021. Further information about the five contributing poets involved in the collaboration can be found here.
Angela Graham is a contributor to Wales Arts Review.
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