Medellin Statement: Poetry for the Planet

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By Peter Rorvik *
Speech to the World Meeting of Directors of International Poetry Festivals

I come from Durban in South Africa, it took nearly 24 hours to reach Medellin. But though the distance between our continents is far, once Africa and America were joined. Then approximately 120 million years ago the land split and drifted apart. So, on behalf of my organization the Centre for Creative Arts, based at the University of KwaZulu-Natal in Durban, and on behalf of our Poetry Africa festival, and on behalf of poets who come from Africa, I say that this is a good time to strengthen the connection again between our continents. To fellow poetry festivals I say also that this meeting facilitated by Fernando and his team, is an outstanding opportunity to strengthen exchange and cooperation between poetry festivals worldwide.

Migration has become a very contentious issue facing the world today. It is said that over 150 million people live outside of the countries of their birth. Laws are being tightened to restrict movement of peoples, to inhibit access to certain countries. In many cases this is based on fear, fear of the loss of jobs – often it is simply fear of the unknown. It is also the threat of loss of cultural identity and a clash between beliefs, customs and lifestyles.
But migration also impacts positively on our societies. The exchange between people brings not just trade in goods, but mingling of cultures – we see the influences in the music we make, the cuisine we eat, the attire we wear, and other lifestyle practices. Intercultural exchange releases immense creativity and inspires new ways of thinking and doing things. Cultural diversity brings a richness to our lives that should be celebrated, not feared.

The late Palestinian Mahmoud Darwish says in a poem called Another Road in the Road“I am from here, I am from there, yet am neither here nor there.”  If we seek unity and harmony on earth then we need to go above and beyond local identity. A fundamental first step is greater acceptance of other cultures and the transcendence of differences. The arts play an important role in this process. Exposure to other cultures through the arts breaks down barriers, opens up appreciation of others, and paves the way for cooperation between people and between cultures. The Medellin Poetry Festival is a powerful example of this, bringing people of different countries and cultures together, in a great public event such as this.

The challenge is how to affirm our own heritage and culture while remaining open and receptive to other cultures, to new experiences that can enrich our understanding of humanity.  For example, how do we defend local culture against the flood of foreign influences that has insinuated itself into many parts of the world through cinema, tv, mass media and a range of cultural products that overwhelms the sense of self-esteem and value in own local cultures? Cultural products are already one of the leading exports of the USA and have massive impact on value systems around the world.

In October 2005, the UNESCO General Conference approved the Convention on the Protection and Promotion of the Diversity of Cultural Expressions. This Convention reinforces the notions that cultural diversity is a “common heritage of humanity” and that its defence must be considered “an ethical imperative, inseparable from respect for human dignity”.  148 countries voted in favour of the convention, with 2 voting against (USA and Israel). Since 2005 116 countries have signed up to the convention, with ongoing ratification by countries taking place – ratification is necessary for the convention to become legislated. (Columbia is not on the list yet). Having legal instruments such as the convention helps, but enforcing them will not be easy, particularly because of the current conservatism of major governments around the world. This is where artists, poets and poetry festivals come in, articulating the challenges, keeping citizens aware, and holding governments accountable.
There is also a clause in the convention which places obligation on developed country signatories to create opportunities for minority countries and cultures – this is possibly a clause festivals can exploit to support the presentation of poetry programmes from different countries.

Poetry is all around us these days. Poetry is quoted by presidents and politicans, poetry is used in advertising, it is in the language of many sub-cultures and youth. There is a proliferation of poetry groups, poetry clubs, poetry ciphers, poetry competitions and awards, poetry festivals and events. There is more poetry is being published, more publications being sold, more poetry cd’s and dvds, more poetry on television, radio and in newspapers, and plenty of poetry on the internet.

Governments and development agencies are starting to acknowledge poetry and other cultural disciplines as vectors of development and tools for education. The United Nations 2008 report on Creative Economy shows that the creative industries are among the most dynamic emerging sectors in world trade. Accordingly, governments must be encouraged to take culture industries more seriously and help facilitate a greater place for poetry in the creative economies both in our own countries and in the global arena.

However, while pointing to these welcome opportunities, an instrumentalist focus on trade and development should not overshadow the intrinsic benefits of poetry, its contribution to human enrichment, personal fulfillment and empowerment, and as a voice for innovative as well as marginalised constituencies. Poetry is like migration of the mind – it celebrates adventure, new meetings and understandings. Poetry crosses borders, it pollinates the fertile hearts and minds, it brings inspiration, stirs imagination, and nourishes the soul. Poetry, above all, demonstrates the most creative use of language. It creatively uses words to go beyond words, providing innovative layers of meaning by which we understand the world and envision new possibilities. Creativity is one of the roots of genius and a key ingredient in social progress and the development of human potential. We need to recognise creativity as a natural resource in all human beings. We need to establish an enabling environment for the flourishing of creative expression. It is part of the process of democratization – that’s what real freedom is about. This is why we must be vigilant about laws and repression that stifle the sprit and kill creativity.   Freedom of expression is a fundamental condition for poets.

Artists, writers and poets narrate the stories of our society, they are bearers of collective memory, repositories of history and indigenous knowledge. But they are much more than that, they are key forces in communicating new perspectives, they challenge our thinking and play a significant role in emancipating the spirit and precipitating change. Poetry is both a voice of freedom and a tool for freedom. It is no wonder that poets around the world have been involved in the struggles against oppression. We must not underestimate the role of poetry as a critical tool for change during political struggles, as a conscientising force and an agent of mobilization.

The tsuanami of populist expression bursting across North Africa is opening up hope and possibility for people who previously felt their voices had no power. As a whole, Africa is one of the poorest and most underdeveloped of continents. Poverty and material misery is a distinctive feature across all of Africa. Ironically Africa is rich in many of the world’s most precious minerals, but the wealth from such things goes mostly to foreign corporates, often corrupt governments and a small few. Africa’s real wealth lies in the culture of its peoples. Four Africans have won the Nobel Prize for Literature, yet on this continent of challenges and contradictions very few Africans have read the works of these great writers, because of widespread illiteracy. Africa is famous for libraries in ancient Alexandria and Timbuktu but today in many parts of Africa when you go to libraries you find books by Europeans and Americans, and very, very few by Africans. There is much to be done to conscientise people to the inherent value of our heritage and culture, of which poetry is a great part. Africa is noted for its traditions of orality, for the griots who handed down knowledge in the form of poetry from generation to generation, and from village to village. These traditions need to be preserved, but they need to be complemented by engagement with contemporary realities and opportunities that together will keep intellectual and cultural capital alive and circulating. This is why poetry festivals are important.

The needs and challenges faced by the arts and culture sector in Africa will have close resonance with situations in many parts of South and Central America, and elsewhere in the world.This includes the need for coherent policies that recognise the value of culture alongside political and economic imperatives; the need for wide government, private sector and media support for the arts; training and audience development initiatives; upgrading of legal frameworks for protection of artists; and the establishment of circuits and markets that provide access and opportunity.
Funds and infrastructure may be in short supply but cultural practitioners have been active in establishing positive initiatives to support and sustain the arts. The Arts Moves Africa fund was formed to contribute to greater mobility for artists in Africa, and the Arterial Network of artists and organisations now has official chapters in 21 African countries and over 2,000 members. Poets in Africa do not have as many opportunities and public platforms as there are in North America or Europe and festivals therefore play a valued role, fulfilling functions such as:

  1. provision of creative platforms, performance spaces, media exposure, and economic opportunities for poets and poetry products
  2. facilitation of intercultural exchange opportunities, network development and collaborative work between poets
  3. platforms for innovative voices, experimental voices, marginalised voices and developing poets alongside established ones (festivals are significant career stepping-stones)
  4. festivals provide exposure to different cultures through the arts, facilitate appreciation and acceptance of immigrant populations and other cultures
  5. provision of capacity building workshops, training programmes and development activities for aspirant artists and disadvantaged communities 
  6. festivals offer stability and continuity – they become anticipated anchor events that artists and audiences rely on
  7. creation of concert and festival circuits across the region save costs, develop cooperation between festivals, and offer opportunities for artists to have multiple engagements
  8. festivals entertain and educate, and can be important drivers of Event Tourism and Cultural Tourism for the region
  9. festivals are well placed to implement audience development strategies, establish wide-ranging partnerships, work with schools, tertiary institutions, local community arts organisations and libraries
  10. festivals can provide significant injections into local economies through job creation, skills development, and empowerment initiatives

Poets and poetry are part of the wide world of arts and culture, a changing landscape, and increasingly a part of the entertainment industry. Poetry festivals operate across a number of dimensions – entertainment, education and advocacy. More than ever before poets have become public figures. Their words matter. They are spokespeople. There is no shortage of issues to address – xenophobia and racism; class and cultural divisions; economic exploitation; gender discrimination; environmental degradation; national and personal identity; the search for political or personal truth; the struggle for freedom, justice, and accountability; the place for humour in our troubled world-view; human and planetary rights of all kinds. The arts need to remain at the forefront of a free society, and a unique strength of artists is their willingness to speak truth to power, to be a voice of dissent as well as discovery. Amongst our poets are soldiers in the struggle against injustice and unfairness, who invigorate our thinking with proactive and reactive perspectives on critical issues. Festivals should empower such voices.

Much has been said here about the poet as activist. But as much as poetry is a celebration of the power of words it is also about the beauty of words. What good is a sharp mind if it has not love? In the face of love, when normal words run dry, lovers turn to poetry. Look back across history and see the great poetry that has been written about love and about contemplation of nature. More than ever the world needs love. This planet needs global warming of the heart just as it needs stimulation of the mind. When poetry enters our hearts with sweetness this is a step towards peace and reconstruction of the human spirit, towards healing and towards completeness. If we are concerned about humanity it follows that we are also concerned about the planet. Throughout the ages the contemplation of nature has moved poets into reverence and poetry. In times past it was largely a celebration of life on earth; now poetry is a voice of agency and urgency about the dangers of man’s mismanagement of earth’s resources. Clearly, caretaking the planet is everybody’s responsibility and the voice of poets is perfect for the purpose. In a somewhat perverse illustration of this, there is a documentary film called Into Eternity, about the current construction of a storage place for nuclear waste deep in the rock strata underneath Finland for tens of thousands of years, possibly a 100,000 years. The storing nuclear waste is of course deeply problematic, but what is interesting about this project is the question that if, in the very far distant future, the deeply buried site was uncovered at a time when perhaps languages as we know them may have changed so dramatically, or been wiped out, how best could messages be conveyed about the contents of what has been sealed up? The high-level decision was made that only poetry was good enough to speak on matters of such importance.

In conclusion, let us recognise that although we live between many polarizing forces there is good reason for visionary optimism and energetic action. Another world is indeed possible, and it is that balance between conscientising activism on one hand and sweetness and celebration on the other that will bring it ever closer.

Finally, here is a praise-poem for the poets who will help make it happen:

Words fall about our ears in Medellin
They beat upon our skin like rhythmic rain
We drink, we feed
on melting fragile moments
We fill our heads and hearts
with liquid light and soul vision

Who but the poets
can make us imagine,
can take the world apart
and put it back together again.
When fire and thunder
deliver new readings of reason
Who but the poets
Give us something to believe in.
Who but the poets
can make the mind free,
Who bears witness
To our stories hopes and dreams.
Who but the poets; Who but the poets

Its the poets!!!

* Director, Centro para las Artes Creativas (UKZN) y Poetry Africa

Julio 1º de 2011

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