Poetry International Poetry International


\"I hear them say, go home\"
12 oktober 2017
There is a rich and moving trove of poems on the Poetry International Web about migration, forced and chosen, a human experience that is shared by many and has always been with us. Millions of Africans were ripped from their homes and enslaved in the New World. Middle Easterners and North Africans flee war now, walking toward Europe, crowded into rubber dinghies for the last perilous, sometimes fatal lap. Five years ago, according to the International Federation of the Red Cross and Red Crescent, more than 72 million people had the status of “forced migrants, displaced by violence, conflict, disasters and development - more than one in every hundred of the world’s citizens”.
Some migrants become poets in their first or second or third languages, and poetry as often emerges from difficult situations as from the need to express love and passion. So it is not surprising that so much of the contemporary work in the PIW archive speaks directly about the conflicts migrant poets experience or witness, as Warsan Shire - a Somali born in Kenya and raised in London - in CONVERSATIONS ABOUT HOME AT THE DEPORTATION CENTER:
I hear them say, go home, I hear them say, fucking immigrants, fucking refugees. Are they really this arrogant? Do they not know that stability is like a lover with a sweet mouth upon your body one second and the next you are a tremor lying on the floor covered in rubble and old currency waiting for its return. All I can say is, I was once like you, the apathy, the pity, the ungrateful placement and now my home is the mouth of a shark, now my home is the barrel of a gun. I’ll see you on the other side.

Popati Hiranandani was born in Hyderabad, in what is now Pakistan, in the Sindhi community composed of both Moslems and Hindus. She was uprooted to India during the 1947 Partition. “I have been buried alive [...] in history’s graveyard” she writes in {poem id="18457" title=“A HOMELESS SINDHI WOMAN”}. In an INTERVIEW published on PIW in 2010, the writer spoke of her peaceful, multilingual beginnings in a multiethnic region, her life as a displaced person in Mumbai and the loss of the Sindhi language. 

White Europeans too migrate. According to historian Walter Nugent, 55 million people left their homes from 1846 to 1924, migrating within or out of Europe.  From 1820 to 1924, America absorbed 33 million immigrants. All American poets, if they are not indigenous peoples, have a relationship to the immigrant experience. A less recent arrival may mistreat a potential one, as in Chinese poet Yi Sha’s ironic {poem id="10118" title="REFUSED A VISA IN THE US EMBASSY”}:

                 This bearded official
Who looks more like a Muslim
More of a terrorist
Than me
Without a moment’s hesitation
Resolutely rejects my application
Could this be one orangutan begrudging another

And yet. Ramsay Nasr, child of a Dutch mother and Palestinian father, in his (former) role as poet laureate of the Netherlands, wrote about Dutch New World explorers as “the true world champions of immigration”. In {poem id="15988" title=“THE HUDSON SONNETS”} it's sometimes hard to figure out who constitutes "us" and who is Other:

perhaps no other body but ours, which never
managed to win one god, one people for itself
which rose from drifting, loose minorities
could lay the seed for such a babelopolis

who taught you how to use the melting pot?
who said, be equal, be diverse and free
your trade, who told you, dreams can spread like shares?

For the individual, the situation is probably always bittersweet. “What you call immigration I call suicide”, writes Ukrainian-born, Russian-American Ilya Kaminsky in his {poem id="23377" title=“ELEGY TO JOSEPH BRODSKY”} that includes the enigmatic line: “We come back to where we have committed a crime,/ we don’t come back to where we loved, you said”.

There are also profound effects on on poets who freely choose to wander from place to place, like {poem id="7834" title=“HIROMI ITO”} who left her native Tokyo for Poland and then for Kumamoto in Southern Japan, and now lives in California, writing in Japanese and visiting Kumamoto frequently. Choice notwithstanding, "Our passports are bad", Ito says bluntly:

It takes one day and one night to reach immigration, the route is lined with many, many immigrants who have collapsed along the way and shriveled up, no matter how wealthy the country, they never make the path to immigration any shorter, their wealth won’t help us, there is just sadness, curt answers and pain, immigration is nowhere in particular, and to make matters worse, there is no guarantee we’ll make it through, my little brother doesn’t notice but I do, our passports are bad, I had noticed that at immigration in every country, the men make mean faces and stare at their computers, that’s ‘cause our passports are bad, my little brother tried looking into the computer and got scolded, not just once, not just twice but more than that, the men point us to another window and mother leads us to one place after another, rushing us here and there

And there is Sargon Boulos, born in the Assyrian enclave al-Habbaniyah in Iraq in 1943, who moved to Lebanon in 1966 and then to the US, his base until his death in 2007, and chose to imagine a Chinese exile, {poem id="10607" title=“TU FU”}, for whom, like the poet in his early years,“Wherever he was, a burdensome war was on”.

Current events sometimes force poets into identity politics as ALI ALIZADEH, an Iranian-Australian, told PI editor Michael Brennan in a 2011 interview:

I guess, especially after "9/11" I came to see my work as participating in some sort of a discourse of Otherness […] To be fair, it wasn’t just me taking my so-called identity too seriously; others encouraged me to address the themes of Otherness – immigration, religious intolerance, xenophobia etc. – as well.

But I’m not sure how I feel about all of that anymore. For one thing, I’ve come to see "identity politics" as a rather misleading and counterproductive concept. I guess, without wanting to be disputatious, I have developed misgivings about multiculturalism, and have come to see it as a capitalist ruse to distract the people from the real sources of injustice and inequality in the world. Cultural diversity is a very poor substitute for justice and political and economic equality. What’s more, the supposedly positive fetishisation of the Other (e.g. me being encouraged to write poems about my "Persian heritage" for Australian readers, "celebrating minority ethnic identity" and all that) is really only marginally different from out-and-out racism.

In light of recent neo-Nazi and white supremacist rallies in the USA, it is clear that the us-them dichotomy is alive and well, as in Alizadeh’s {poem id="14577" title=“YOUR TERRORIST"}

You call me a barbarian.
I call you master.

You don’t speak my language.
My words

noise in your ears; my poems
meaningless melodies.

Your poems
masterpieces of literature.

Migrant poets become formative influences on the body of literature that develops in the adopted country, sometimes even despite the fact that they had not been connected to the second language before. For example, the Israeli {poet id="18703" title="DAN PAGIS”} who was born into a German-speaking family in a part of Romania that is now the Ukraine, in what was once a multi-cultural part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. About him, critic Robert Alter has noted: Pagis “would probably have never known Hebrew, never have had any serious connections with Israel or the Jewish cultural heritage, had he not been expelled from Europe by [Nazism’s] ghastly spasm of historical violence and cast, for lack of any other haven, into the Middle East."

Israeli poetry ignored its Mizrahi cultural heritages for a long while, and has only recently turned its ear to the subject, as Jewish poets consider the heritage of ancestors who migrated from Arab and/or Moslem countries. What they inherit includes the lack of a solution to the Israeli conflict with Palestinians, whose Arab culture Mizrahi Jews may share. Despite some private attempts at co-existence, there remains “the bitter word of the war that I didn't start and I can't end” as in Batseheva Dori-Carlier’s {poem id="28438" title=“NEVE SHALOM”}.

It is clear from this PIW archive tour that irony/self-irony is the key mode of the poetry of migration, as in Chris Magadza’s ANATOMY OF AFRICAN PATHOS:

The African
Suffers poverty
From humans

The African
Suffers pain
From Humans.

The African
Sorrows, bereaves
From humans

The African
Suffers torture
From humans
Because the African pain
Is painless pain.

The African
Starves differently
From humans
Because it is African
To starve.

The African female
Endures rape
Quite differently
From women

The African child
Is a child soldier
A slave child
Or  a mere street child.

The African migrant
Is an illegal migrant:
No citizen
But a refugee
In his home.

The African dies
From humans.

The African’s
Birth mark
Is a black scar

The African
Is African:
Not human.

That is why
African leaders,
A little more African
Than Africans,
Insist on
African solutions
To the African
No one may claim to be unaffected by the phenomenon. Read on:

Curated by Lisa Katz
Poetry Foundation poems on immigration
Iranian poetry on Asymptote
Syrian poetry in The Guardian
Refugees write
A conversation about Somali poetry on Asymptote
When Shall I See my Home Again in The Irish Times
© Lisa Katz
Gemeente Rotterdam
Nederlands Letterenfonds
Stichting Van Beuningen Peterich-fonds
Prins Bernhard cultuurfonds
Lira fonds
J.E. Jurriaanse
Gefinancierd door de Europese Unie
Elise Mathilde Fonds
Stichting Verzameling van Wijngaarden-Boot
LantarenVenster – Verhalenhuis Belvédère