Example poetry

Poetry and sedentary status for all

The cover of the anthology Famke Veenstra-Ashmore

Content note: discussion of the refugee crisis, immigration, prejudice, death

As Claudia Webbe MP remarks in her introduction to this anthology, poetry and stories “effectively help us reach an understanding that we could never have imagined before”. Poetry and sedentary status for allan anthology published earlier this year, weaves together the perspectives of refugees, migrants and victims of the hostile environment, which relate to the history (and current discourse around) immigration in the UK.

Although not an immigrant myself, having dual nationality, I experienced firsthand the reduction of many people’s lives here to a bureaucratic process, with my mother having to go through the process. The day we received our letter from the Home Office, stating that our application for settlement status had been granted, was a day of relief, more than jubilation. He was clouded with the knowledge that it was basically a privilege. Thousands more across the UK would not receive this right to stay. Thousands of others, like my mother, have lived, worked and contributed to this country longer than I have. Thousands more, who would be denied the right to continue to work and live here, unjustly deported, and undermined.

“Poetry reappropriates these themes and presents them through the prism of lived experience”

Searching for this anthology, I found many of these frustrations and difficulties transformed into accessible, yet wonderfully creative fragments, with 114 poems by 97 writers highlighting the infinite diversity of perspectives. Many of these poems are united on key words that inform how we discuss immigration issues – ‘Unsettled’ (M. Chambers), ‘In Transit’ (AC Clarke), ‘Visas’ (Monique Guz ) are a handful of examples that take up these themes and present them through the prism of lived experience. Laura Grevel’s ‘A Foreign House’ is structured by the repeated phrase ‘to be settled’, interrogating the depth of this phrase – it’s not something / a piece of paper will never give’, and is particularly impactful in capturing the uncertainty experienced by immigrants in “this new place”.

Many are inspired by recent events, deftly exploring the growing challenge of simply existing as an immigrant or refugee in the wake of events such as Brexit. Jim Aitken’s ‘The Citizens of Nowhere’ uses a Theresa May quote as an epigram, tapping into the xenophobic atmosphere that colored the 2016 referendum to explore our distorted understanding of nativity in the UK. Considering aspects such as ancestry and descent, his poem ends with an analogy to a blackbird, which “is native wherever it flies”. Likewise, “We Are All Migrants” by Alice Hervé considers the often uncovered and expansive history of migration that has touched all of our personal histories at some point. Describing the globe as a “web of scarification,” his plea for us to “leave the door open” and continue a legacy of global movement that prompted our lives in the first place.

“Each poem is concerned with deconstructing our place in the world, so desperate to be defined by borders”

His other poem, “The Child on the Beach”, conjures up poignant and powerful images of children killed on the perilous route that many refugees are forced to take. Marking the gaps in their innocence and experience, comparing the ‘treasure’ often associated with beaches, and the ‘debris’ and destruction wrought by the refugee crisis, makes for a hugely moving piece that reminds us that this is the reality for many children. Barbara Saunders’ “To Aleppo Gone” is equally haunting, conjuring up an image of a “little gray boy” “last seen in media.” The poetic aspect of these perspectives makes it possible to take a more human look at these questions. Gia Mawusi’s ‘Detritus’ laments how ‘newspapers are screaming’ and ‘pointing fingers at us’, thereby deflecting the reality of the refugee experience – they are, as the poet describes it, ‘stripped of humanity ” in the media. Poetry has the power to straighten them out.

In effect, Poetry and sedentary status for all strongly defends humanity from these perspectives, which so often, and disturbingly, are undermined. The power of these words is understated, yet ripples through the pages of the anthology, with unparalleled resonance made possible by the authenticity of these perspectives. With many of these poems there is a longing for a place and a grief for its loss: Monica Manolachi’s “Timişoara News” calls out to Romania and evokes its landscape so intensely. Meanwhile, many contributions to the UK from immigrants and people from different nationalities are highlighted, particularly in relation to the coronavirus pandemic; Caroline Rooney considers this in ‘The Key Workers’. Janine Booth’s ‘A New Country’ examines the relationship between citizenship and the NHS, concluding with the important question: ‘They treat my disease, not my skin colour/Why should I need a passport to enter?’ »

The anthology dedication is a fitting place to come back to. Dedicated to activist Penny Walker (1950-2021) in addition to “all those who have left where they were born to find a home elsewhere”, Poetry and sedentary status for all captures the experience of so many voices, refusing to homogenize them, but giving rise to a shared experience. Each poem strives to deconstruct our place in the world, so desperate to be defined by borders. The collection challenges this idea, with a simplicity and authenticity that allows us, as Claudia Webbe asserts, to empathize and grow as a collection of people.

A review copy of the anthology was kindly sent to Varsity by the anthology editor, Ambrose Musiyiwa, of CivicLeicester

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