by Richard Byrt

Last December, I attended a pre-launch of the anthology, Poetry and Settled Status for All, edited by Ambrose Musiyiwa, and published by CivicLeicester in January, 2022.  The event was held on Zoom as part of the 8th annual Leicester Human Rights Arts and Film Festival. A recording of the event is available, through CivicLeicester on YouTube.

The poems and short prose pieces in the Poetry and Settled Status for All anthology, including those read at the pre-launch, concern the experiences of refugees, people seeking asylum and other immigrants. 

Many of the contributions are rooted in a long tradition of protest poetry from the late eighteenth century onwards, including poems about enforced migration and slavery. More recently, there has been an increased amount of literature concerned with the experiences and/or protest of refugees and migrants. This includes Malka al-Haddad’s (2018) Birds Without Sky: Poems from Exile and the newly established literary journal, the other side of hope: journeys in refugee and immigrant literature, founded by Alexandros Plasatis.  

The poems and stories in these works are exclusively by authors with experience as immigrants and refugees.  In contrast, Poetry and Settled Status for All also includes contributions by people who have worked in refugee camps or organisations supporting migrants and refugees, and people with no direct experience of unsettled status, as well as refugees and immigrants from several countries, including Afghanistan, Nigeria and European nations. The anthology follows an earlier work, Over Land, Over Sea, which also includes contributions both by refugees and immigrants and other writers.  Journey in Translation, coordinated by Ambrose Musiyiwa, is an international initiative in which volunteers translate Over Land, Over Sea into other languages.         

The pre-launch of Poetry and Settled Status for All included poems which vividly describe refugees’ and immigrants’ experiences, and subsequent thought-provoking discussions, in part considering the effects of political decisions on the lives of people with unsettled status.  It was good to hear two poems in other languages, Aryan Ashory’s My God and Zsófia Hacsek’s Rite of Passage, read both in Dari and Hungarian, respectively, and in English as translated by their own multilingual authors.  Monica Manolachi read her poem, News from Timișoara.  Its slow metre creates an evocative, haunting description of this city.  Monica said that her poem was inspired by a Romanian organisation concerned with human trafficking. Munya Radzi outlined the work of Regularise, an organisation he founded, which aims to “improve the quality of life of undocumented migrants in the UK” and drew the audience’s attention to Government policy which negatively impacts the lives of these individuals.   

Birgit Friedrich said that one of her poems, Sterntaler, “tells the story for my mother”, who was forced, during World War 2, to leave Danzig during an invasion when soldiers raped women. The vivid images in this poem effectively convey saddening and painful experiences:  

“…You carry the image frozen in your mind heavy as the steps you take…”
(Birgit Friedrich.  Sterntaler)

For me, this long, slow line effectively conveys the long-lasting trauma from the event remembered by Birgit’s mother.   

Three contributors read poems which helped me reflect on the experiences of children and their parents who are forced to flee their homelands:  

“…Until when must mothers lose themselves 
wandering in forests and on boats? 
Where is the milk for this newborn to drink?…”
(Aryan Ashory,  My God

“…we’re running   no time to stop
to pick up that precious doll I dropped …
we’re running to be free…”   
(Barrington Gordon,  running in the dark)  

In the moving lines in David Owen’s poem, a father:

“…banishes memory and smiles down
At his son…
They are all each has left that remains.”
(David Owen, Pieta

It was very saddening to hear some participants’ experiences of racism in the UK, including, for two people, negative attitudes following Brexit.  I liked the description of the difficulty in completing an application to remain in Zsofia Hacsek’s ‘Rite of Passage’.  Zsofia said this poem was influenced by the “experience of very difficult processes of getting papers for settled status after Brexit”.  Cynthia Rodriguez Juárez provided an unusual take on unsettled status.  She imagined what it would have been like if people in the past had needed excessive documentation to move across borders:

“Ashen remains of Chichimecan rage transported, 
needing documents, like Ozymandias needed 
an Egyptian passport…”
(Cynthia Rodriguez Juárez,  Ancestors Should be Exempt from Needing Passports)

Hubert Moore’s poem about a man’s “failed application for asylum, his detention and destitute life” evokes the poor-quality accommodation that so many marginalised people live in: 

“…the eerie
desert in North London where
they found a room for you
which no one else would occupy.”
(Hubert Moore,  In the desert)

In contrast, Chad Norman emphasises the amount of room available to welcome people who seek refuge:

“…Please understand our world is not small,
meaning there is room, so much room
for one family, all the families who need 
to escape what they call danger…”
(Chad Norman,  The Lighting of a Candle)

Several contributors commented on negative language and attitudes of Home Office officials and other people, and this resonated with my experiences of work with people who face marginalisation and discrimination in wider society.  David Owen referred to “bureaucratic language of the Home Office [doing] violence to experience.”  In one of her poems, Michelle Witthaus mentions conflicting Home Office messages:

“…Liverpool sent me to Croydon
but Croydon would not let me in…
Different department, they said…”
(Michelle Witthaus,  Home Affairs)

Gregory Woods read his poem concerning a Ugandan man who “has to prove to the Home Office that he’s gay”, with officials’ stereotypical ideas of gay identity, which ignore his culture – and something which particularly resonated with me, too, as a gay man who is not very keen on Broadway musicals:

“…the apparatchiks of
Identity require him to
Be more identifiable:
A fluent wrist, a swish, a lisp, 
A love of Broadway musicals…”
(Gregory Woods,  The Evidence of Things Not Seen) 

In discussion, Barrington Gordon commented that we need to avoid labelling individuals who are refugees as “other”, and “address our shared humanity”.  He referred to the apparent “weaponisation” of language.  David Owen said that the latter can be used by the State to categorise people.  Munya Radzi referred to “a false binary between migrant and refugee, deserving and undeserving…We need to challenge the hierarchy where one group is seen as more deserving.”  

Seeing refugees and migrants as “other”, as “aliens” was considered:

“…I once read in a Chinese fortune cookie,
‘aliens live…on the edge of the Arctic Circle’.”
(Catherine Okoronkwo,  aliens live)

“Shall we blame Martians
for everything that is wrong…
Shall we round up all Martians
put them in detention centres
put them on the next spaceship to Mars?
Shall we gas them?
Shall we nuke them?”
(Ambrose Musiyiwa,  Martians, Effing Martians)

There were no poems by Martians at the pre-launch event, but Nils Kobis’ computer algorithm read an interesting poem produced by an Artificial Intelligence programme.  Nils mentioned research findings that people cannot tell the difference between poems written by computers and by people.  

Ambrose Musiyiwa concluded by stating:

“There is no reason why governments should keep people in precarious immigration status.  The State should enable settled status.  I hope this [anthology] will facilitate other conversations [around this topic].”  Overall, the Poetry and Settled Status for All pre-launch included varied poems, reflecting authors’ diverse experiences, often described in striking, original, and often moving images.  Stimulating discussions enabled a thought-provoking consideration of the experiences of people without settled status.  Congratulations to the organisers, authors and speakers for a very impressive pre-launch event.   

All images via CivicLeicester

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