‘Every beautiful poem is an act of resistance’ – MSt Tutor Jenny Lewis at the Al Kalima International Forum of Poetry, Morocco, March 2015.

‘Every beautiful poem is an act of resistance’[1]: reflections on a voyage poétique.
By Jenny Lewis, 31 March 2015

Carcanet poet abroadFor every physical journey there is an accompanying internal, psychological and spiritual one and my trip to the Third Rencontre Internationale de la Poésie in Morocco this month was no exception. The fact that the festival theme this year was ‘poetry and resistance’ was the reason I had been invited. Since the publication of my book Taking Mesopotamia (Oxford Poets/ Carcanet, 2014) I have been categorized as a contemporary war poet, tackling themes of resistance and dissent. The fact that I have a growing body of poetry translated into Arabic (with the help of the Iraqi poet Adnan al-Sayegh) has also given me a passport to Arabic-speaking festivals and is a key factor in opening doors to a wider international readership. Over the eight days of the festival I and the other 22 poets from 15 countries gave 12 readings and took part in round table discussions on where the poetry of dissent is taking us in the continuing aftermath of the 2003-2011 Iraq War. My book started as a search for my lost father who fought with the South Wales Borderers in Mesopotamia-Iraq in the First World War and died when I was a few months old at the end of the Second World War. Because of this it is deeply personal to me and the fact that poems from the book shared the same forum as the work of great activists such as André Breton, Yannis Ritsos and Mahmoud Darwish – not to mention the other poets I was travelling with – gave me a sense of a validation. A core theme of the debates and round table discussions was the importance of moderation in the revolutionary discourse, reflecting Mahmoud Darwish’s assertion that ‘every beautiful poem is an act of resistance’ and Adonis’[2] belief that focusing on the artistic aspects of poetry is a more effective way of educating people than propaganda, and a better way to serve the nation than more aggressive forms of resistance.

At the discussion on ‘poetry and dissent’ at the Regional Commission for Human Rights in Guelmim (a town near the desert) we heard a Hassanist woman poet read an anonymous traditional love poem. In this strict Berber sect which is loyal to the king and old customs, it is still forbidden for women to write about men in terms of love or sexual relationship. Afterwards I spoke about how vital it is that the voices of women and children are heard in the multicultural space created by war. Stressing the importance of using empathy rather than extremist rhetoric to try to affect change, I read my poem ‘August 2006, Hamid’


Basra, ancient city of parks smelling of flowers
and spices, renowned place of coffee-houses,
mosques and the intricate facades of buildings
of old Ashur: everywhere water mirrors sky –
kingfishers and bee-eaters dart in the shadows
of date palms. Sinbad’s city is now populated
by children[4], all the young men dead in the wars.
Hamid, beautiful child, rises at dawn to collect
scrap metal, building a new life from Pepsi cans:
he says – peace is the greatest treasure we could ask for.

Later at the Guelmim Cultural Centre I read ‘Mother’, a poem inspired by the discovery that on January 11 1917, when my father’s leg was shattered by a bullet at Kut al-Amara and led to his being invalided out of the war, his friend, Captain Evans, was killed. This poem is in the imagined voice of Captain Evans’ mother.


Childbirth was like being excavated:
my belly rose on whalebone wings,
pain soared about me like a bloodied angel:

then you were born

I saw you with my own eyes
I held you day and night:
you lay in my arms, a glowing pupa.

At Kut-al-Amara you were back-lit,
the moon pointed you out against the ridge –
when Turkish gunners stopped your spade

you fell slowly, shedding iridescence

each night in dreams I fail to catch you –
your bones the fragile quills of rescued fledglings
you placed by the stove for warmth

 Both poems are from Taking Mesopotamia (Oxford Poets/ Carcanet 2014) www.carcanetpress/takingmesopotamia

[1] Mahmoud Dawish, Palestinian poet, 1941-2008
[2] Ali Ahmad Said Esber, also known by the pen name Adonis or Adunis, is a Syrian poet, essayist and translator. He has written more than twenty books and volumes of poetry in the Arabic language as well as translated several works from French.
[3] From an account in the Observer, 2009).