Poetry

The City as “Home” to Expats

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The catalyst for this session was the Preamble from Feeling as a Foreign Language: The Good Strangeness of Poetry by Alice Fulton, which I about how poets try to build a language that is both foreign and available to readers. Each poet, she says, creates an “expatriate space […], where things are freshly felt because they are freshly said”.

The poet creates a good strangeness. She uses this word, unheimlich, that translates literally as “unhomelike” but is understood to mean “uncanny”. She says that it also suggests the undomesticated and eccentric (from the Greek, meaning “outside the centre”). To be eccentric is to be at some remove from the cozy hearth of the familiar and well-received.

This made me think about my own writing. I always try to be very clear and avoid to be obscure, but poetry means also to not be too blatant. Everything must not always be explained, and sometimes being a little obscure is absolutely fine.

The first poems we had to read were Early Morning Swim and What I Think about When I’m Swimming by Hannah Lowe. Ron asked us what we noticed about this poems. I thought that it was interesting that the author never uses the full stop apart from after the third line, the middle of the poem and the very end. The line of description never ends with a full-stop. The interesting thing about the use of the full-stop after Sambuca, in the middle of the poem, is that it goes on with a contrast, opening the next line with the important word “now”. The speaker walks through places she knows really well and which makes her remember her past.

It was interesting to consider the formal choices, the words the author used at the end of line. There is a specific reason why every line ends in that place, and it is important to take this into consideration. The scarce use of full-points may suggest a sense of wandering.

I love the structure of What I Think About When I’m Swimming and how the author plays with the layout. Both poems play around the action of swimming. The sense of the water surrounding the body of the speaker influences the rhythm of the lines. I was also very fascinated by the poem Brixton Market by Malika Booker. Like her mother, the speaker tests every bit of vegetable, fish, meat, to make sure it’s read to be cooked and healthy. I found this scene very poetic. I had the chance to listen to it read aloud, and I really appreciated the sounds of the words the author used.

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The one that really amazed me was Conversation about Home (at the deportation centre), by Warsan Shire. It is a great poem about immigration. It is written in prose, so when I read it for the first time I was wondering if it was supposed to be a poem at all, but hearing it read by the author helped me realising that it had very strong and powerful sounds. The emotions really hit me. The line No one is home unless home is the mouth of a shark deeply struck me, just like I do not know where I’m going where I have come from is disappearing I am unwelcome and my beauty is not beauty here. The writer’s reading is a real performance, and her facial expressions are amazing. They represented the feeling of shame of not belonging that the poem expressed.

Another interesting poem was Investigation of Past Shoes, by Vahni Capilded. It is divided into four “chunks” and it is written in prose. Every chunk is about a time in her life and the shoes that represented that time. It was interesting to analyse the typography of this poem, how the paragraph were justified. The secret of this poem, Ron told us, is distillation: the portrait of a person, their whole life is represented by the shoes they used. One of my classmates was really confused by how poets can write about something as mundane as shoes. Again, this taught me a lot about the fact that everything can trigger poetry. This made me consider the choices I make about my own writing, the things I choose to include in my writing and about myself. Concerning this, Ron told us to read The Things Men Carry by Tim O’Brian, about the history of objects that men carried.

We also had the chance to read and to watch the performance of the poem Directions by Inua Ellams. The performance was heart-breaking. The description of the city, with its complexities, its sounds, its colours, and the analysis of small details that everyone who has lived in big cities can easily see in their mind, create a unique atmosphere. Again, the exploration of details, even the most mundane ones, gives a great strenght to the poem. The same happens for Persistence of Vision with Gwendolyne Brooks by Solmaz Sharif, where the speaker, from a car, sees the lonely spaces, their features and pecularities. The atmosphere was completely different from the poem by Inua Ellams, but they had a very important thing in common: a deep sense of place.

All these poems are about the city as home to expats. While the one by Warsan Shire is specifically about immigration, the other all say a lot about how places and cities can be distant from our culture and life and how can embrace them at the same time. The poet needs to build up a world and a language that goes out of our comfort zone, that brings us outside our normal sense of imagination and creativity. Facing the challenges of the big city will always take us out of our comfort zone, just like writing poetry.

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