It’s here! And it’s a beaut: bursting with sharp, fresh and tender poems, and well and truly launched at a sell-out event on Thursday Nov 16th at P21 Gallery in London, a contemporary arts centre dedicated to the promotion of Arab culture. Thank you to the gallery for hosting us, to the University of Chichester for promoting the event with a press release to national media and a banner article on their website, to Andy Croft of Smokestack Books for training it down from Yorkshire for the gig, and most especially to poets Mustafa Abu Sneineh and Farid Bitar – who journeyed from New York City especially for the event – and translators Katharine Halls and Waleed Al-Bazoon for their depth-charged readings from A Blade of Grass: New Palestinian Poetry. Thank you also to everyone who came and made the launch such an uplifting occasion. While I was thrilled to realise that, in fact, I personally knew only about a fifth of the audience, it was tremendous to welcome friends in the crowd, some of whom had supported the book through the crowdfunding campaign, which raised £240 each for the legal campaigns of poets Ashraf Fayadh (jailed in Saudi Arabia) and Dareen Tatour (jailed in Israel). I thank also Rob, Keith and Lily in Brighton, who gifted me a stunning bouquet of roses, sunflowers and wild grasses to get the celebrations off in style, and it was a great pleasure to meet a young lad, William, from Farid’s hostel, who came along out of curiosity and shook my hand firmly after the readings, thanking me for the enlightening evening. My belief is that poetry provides a way in to the Palestinian narrative for people who know little about it, or get ‘turned off’ by the news – and William’s response was a heartening confirmation of the power of the lyrical word. Altogether it was an magical night, brimming with faith in humanity and art: I’m still relishing memories of dandling Mustafa and Rebecca’s little Eskander on my knee, and admiring Farid’s pop-up exhibition of spacious, wind-blown paintings, drawings and calligraphy, which he brought over the ocean in his suitcase. Also unforgettable was hearing Andy Croft read British poetry the riot act, and listening to the panellists field ‘heretical questions’ about classical meter in a pan-Arab context!
On a more sombre note, I’m glad too that I could honour an absent translator, the late Sarah Maguire, an award-winning poet and the founder of the Poetry Translation Centre, who very sadly died on November 2nd, the day before the book was published. I read Sarah’s translation of ‘The Lost Button’ by Fatena Al Ghorra, plus the last lines of her own poem ‘The Grass Church at Dilston Grove’, which seem to herald the anthology, as well as foreshadow our loss:
Everything the grass has asked of me
on this earth, I have done
except give myself
under its sky of moving roots.
(From The Pomegranates of Kandahar)
Sarah has fulfilled that ultimate task now, but in giving herself so passionately, in life, to the cause of poetry in translation she has left a vital legacy, cracking open the bastion of British poetry to plant the seeds of human empathy and understanding across geopolitical and linguistic borders. Always a great friend of Palestine, she died on a date of enormous significance to Palestinians, the centenary of the Balfour Declaration, in which the UK government so wrongfully promised to support the creation of Israel in lands inhabited by other people. As I go forward, as the editor of A Blade of Grass, to help challenge the ever-escalating results of that disastrous document, and make this a century of justice for Palestine, I humbly feel I am picking up her grass-stained baton.
This is just the beginning of the festivities for A Blade of Grass. I’ve already had interest in 2018 events from New York, Cairo, and Jerusalem, and will be organising readings also in Brighton and Chichester. My dream is for all of the living contributors to the anthology to be able to read at an event, so hopefully the book’s other translators Josh Calvo, Raphael Cohen, Tariq Al Haydar, Andrew Leber, Wejdan Shamala and Ahmed Taha and poets Fatena Al Ghorra, Maya Abu Al-Hayyat, Fady Joudah, Deema K. Shehabi, Naomi Shihab Nye, Marwan Makhoul, Sara Saleh and, when they are freed, Ashraf Fayadh and Dareen Tatour, will all have their turn on stage. For now, should you wish to buy the book, you can order it online direct from Smokestack Books, or at bookshops in the UK or North America – and, hurrah, the Educational Bookshop in East Jerusalem! xxx