I would like to begin this evening by giving thanks to Friendship for enabling this historic workshop by providing not just space but also extending hospitality to us, co-editors of ‘I am a Rohingya’ and being an invaluable outlet from where the remarkable poets could find their voices and feel secure and comfortable enough to do so.
I remember my first visit to the camps in 2017. At the edge of the pier, at the border with Myanmar – the visceral charred remnants of a village extinguished facade was seared into my being. Genocide actively seeks to not only destroy a people but also the cultural and communal threads that bind. My question became – as a poet- what could be done? What or where is the space for poetry in all of this?
Friend, fellow poet, and co-editor James Byrne and myself set out to create the first anthology of Rohingya poetry and folk songs, in the hope that it would restore the cultural dignity of the affected. To find poetry as a means of pacifist resistance and activism that could also help transform lives and display how the art form could indeed change the world, one piece at a time.
We worked with poets living in the camps and when we arrived at the workshop we found ourselves eagerly anticipated among the next generation of Rohingya poets ready to mark history by taking it upon themselves to rebuttal the negative stereotypes placed upon them. Some had written poetry for many years, whilst others embarked with us in verse for the first time- finding strength beyond measure that compelled their stories to be heard for the wider world. A new poetics had emerged- Rohingya poetics that would be acknowledged from spaces like the Daily telegraph to world literature today through this anthology.
The workshops themselves were kept simple- to cater and respond to the variety of levels at hand. Over the two days, we worked on simile and metaphors then extended that to aural ekphrasis, alongside discussions on poets ranging from t.s Eliot to mina loy and h.d. Unfazed, the poets absorbed and responded at a rate we did not envision. At the end of day one, James spoke of ’13 ways of looking at a blackbird’ by Wallace Stevens. One of the poets curiously raising his arms asked if he could instead write ’10 ways of looking at a passport with the implication and intentionality of course envisioning what one may look or actually feel like to perhaps own one day. This spark – this level – of brilliant artistic response is what happens when opportunities are possible and people are encouraged to appeal to their own inner self worth and dignity.
Behind – you will see some pictures are taken by Azad- an aspiring photographer who taught himself through watching YouTube clips and using a worn-out cell phone camera to capture the Daily occurrences in the refugee camps. A Rohingya poet who found a voice through several artistic outlets having narrowly escaped the genocide.
‘I am a Rohingya’ also captures poetry in its original form. Through the trajectory of oral poetics we are able to glimpse aspects of the communal binds that the Rohingya population has been able to keep as stewards of their own tradition for hundreds of years, each singer adding intricate layers that mirrors their own reality, compounding as addendums- the collective communal uncertainty of their present times. The redistribution of these folk songs was also an imperative part of this anthology – with James, Friendship schoolteacher and transcriber Bilkis Akther and myself working to present translation as authentically as possible, working with the respective singers. Some of these songs are available online on YouTube for all to engage with and perhaps translate as well.
Carolyn Forche – whose work in El Salvador was lauded by Margaret Atwood as ‘astonishing and so important’ articulates that “the Rohingya poets gathered here for the first time holds a mirror to the light for the rest of humanity, flashing their poems of misery and warning from the genocidal zone and refugee camps of Cox Bazaar”. Their songs are more accurate than news reports for the word of the plight of the most oppressed. Let the world not be quiet, let the world listen to these poems.
When James Byrne and I entered the camps we envisioned a poetry pamphlet. We left with the Rohingya poets working Voraciously to redefining the poetry of witnesses in the 21st century. This reverie of helping through Poetry was transformative and re-routed to reality with the solidarity of friendship and their ongoing works in the camps. For that, the poetry world would hold a deep and collective debt of gratitude.