The idea for “Over Land, Over Sea: poems for those seeking refuge” (Five Leaves, 2015) started in August 2015 with a Facebook group bringing together the publisher, co-editors and supporters before a call for submissions was issued on 2 September 2015. It rose from the need to give voice to the alarm that was shared among poets at the suffering and hardship people who are seeking refuge were and still are experiencing. Some contributors expressed relief at being given an opportunity to provide a counter-narrative to the one offered by the media and by being able to write and talk about how they felt about what was happening and a chance to show solidarity with people seeking refuge.
The anthology enabled poets to become active: it made connections and empowered poets to write, speak and raise funds to help others. Some had been vicariously traumatised and dealt with that trauma by writing about what they were seeing and what they felt about what they had witnessed and were still witnessing. Many of those responding did so by writing poems because poetry is turned to at times of extreme emotion. People in “The Jungle” had witnessed war, suffered bereavement, injuries and trauma. They were living from one moment to the next, still hoping and dreaming of reaching a place of safety or to be reunited with family. Poetry’s brevity, structure and texture gives it a perfect framework in which to explore feelings and experiences the writer is struggling to articulate, which would sprawl, expand, loosen and deviate without bringing clarity in prose. Poetry pushes writers to strip ideas down, to focus on what they are saying and how they are saying it. It is as much about the space around the poem’s words as it is about the words. Poetic devices such as metaphors or analogies offer a way of exploring and expressing a subject without being explicit. Both traditional forms and free verse offer a way of bringing some order to disorganised, disorientated thinking.
On 1 December 2015 “Over Land, Over Sea: poems for those seeking refuge” was published to raise funds for Medecins Sans Frontieres, Leicester City of Sanctuary and Nottingham Refugee Forum and has raised over £3000. In total 204 poems were received from Europe, Iraq, Australia and America. Due to practicalities and time pressures the anthology only included poems in English, a language common to all three co-editors. Despite the anthology being monolingual, the support was still tremendous.
There were similar initiatives such as Eyewear’s “refugees welcome”, which included 24 poems from 24 poets, was published later in December 2015, Marie Lightman’s “Writers for Calais Refugees” blog, which sought to raise awareness of refugees’ plight was set up on 30 August 2015 and throughout 2016 there were various Poem-A-Thons, where poets were sponsored to read poems to raise funds.
To begin with “Over Land, Over Sea: poems for those seeking refuge” was a print publication. Subsequently readings were held in Leicester; Nottingham; at the StAnza Poetry Festival at St Andrews in Scotland and at the Poetry Cafe in London and some of those readings were at the invitation of Leicester’s Human Rights Arts and Film Festival, the Leicester Migration Network at Leicester University and London-based Exiled Writers Ink. The readings, and Facebook group, offered contributors the chance to meet each other and build a sense of community. By making connections with poetry readers and other poets, we were building awareness that poets weren’t powerless, they could do something. They can write. They can give readings. They have a voice. They can talk about why they are writing and giving the readings. They can lend their voice to a cause. And they can raise funds for people who are seeking refuge.
Since publication, there has been a Journeys Poems Pop-up Library where postcards featuring poems from the anthology were handed out to travellers at Leicester Railway Station. Travelling is an ideal time to read or think about other journeys and reading is about sharing stories and making journeys in the imagination. The postcards, featuring eight of the poems from “Over Land, Over Sea: poems for those seeking refuge”, were given out to encourage people to think about current and historical journeys undertaken by people seeking refuge and to inspire and encourage conversation. Two contributors to “Over Land, Over Sea: poems for those seeking refuge” read poems at the Day of Sanctuary at the Houses of Parliament in London on 29 November 2016.
With “Over Land, Over Sea: poems for those seeking refuge,” it was acknowledged that a disadvantage of the original anthology was that it was monolingual. Journeys in Translation, which builds on the success of the Journeys Poems Pop-up Library, therefore encourages poets and translators to translate the poems into other languages and organise readings of the original English poems alongside translations with discussions around the difficulties in translating poems either from English or into English. Journeys in Translation is not restricted to fluent bi- or multi-lingual poets and translators, but includes people who are learning a language or have some language skills they are not confident in so that they can develop those skills and gain confidence. For example one participant has translated some of the poems into her mother tongue, Arabic, and now feels more confident using English. One Journeys in Translation session, run in conjunction with a refugee charity, encouraged those who were learning English to pick phrases from the poems they recognised and translate them into another language. The project has also provoked discussions around cultural translations. For example one poem uses space as a metaphor for the alienation and othering of refugees. This caused difficulties for one poet attempting to translate the poem into Shona because there was no direct translation for some of the astronomical terms.
“Over Land, Over Sea: poems for those seeking refuge” is available from Five Leaves: https://fiveleavesbookshop.co.uk/over-land-over-sea/
The Journeys in Translation blog is at http://journeysintranslation.wordpress.com