By Audrey Wong, Marie Greindl, and Louisa Wagstaff
Audrey Wong on “The Poetry Book Society”
The Poetry Book Society was founded by T. S. Eliot in 1953 to ‘share the joy of poetry’. Two weekends ago, the Society hosted a poetry Showcase for an audience of Durham townsfolk and students with precisely that aim, featuring readings from Kit Fan, Jen Campbell and Mary Jean Chan.
Fan, reading from his T. S. Eliot Prize-shortlisted collection The Ink Cloud Reader, was first at the podium. In light of the pandemic, his poetry is fraught with anxiety about death; ‘Yew’ references the tree’s needles’ use in creating a ‘powerful chemotherapy drug’, describing how it ‘walks soundlessly into you / as your hair thins out, muscles soften to tofu’. The sonic effect of Fan’s end-rhymes evokes the drone of a sombre death march, emphasising the body’s powerless vulnerability under cancer. In an interview, he shared that his collection unpacks various layers of turbulence, from his partner’s illness to political changes back home in Hong Kong; the poems similarly move on from personal to societal and universal confrontations of mortality. As he mimics the clinically detached tone of crisis reporting in ‘From the Yemen Data Project’, we—as an audience and a race—feel truly ashamed for our desensitisation to war’s large-scale devaluation of human life.
Similarly exploring how the human body is passively subjected to trauma, Campbell’s collection Please Do Not Touch This Exhibit chronicles the poet’s struggles with disability and fertility. Nine months after Chernobyl, the winner of the Spelt Poetry Competition 2022 was born with Ectrodactyly Ectodermal Dysplasia Clefting Syndrome. In ‘Anatomy of the Sea’, she critiques how humanity’s obsession with approximating ‘god[‘s]’ creative power paradoxically leads to its own destruction, as seen from her disability engendered in the womb—man’s true creation of a new life is ironically mutated and ‘horrified’. Later, in ‘Trying to Gain Entry into the Republic of Motherhood’, she returns to this medically troubled mother-child relationship: requiring her to ‘stab [herself] twice daily’, IVF filters the creation of life through a lens of sacrifice and bodily horror.
Meanwhile, Chan’s poetry concerns itself with its role amidst such collective crises. Despite having only just won the Costa Book Award, they shared that ‘during 2020, there were about 10 months’ where they felt ‘entirely bereft of language’. The series ‘Ars Poetica’ in their new collection, Bright Fear, was born from a desire to record ‘the transformative role of poetry’, such as in its ability to help a queer outcast reinhabit their body. Cast as a ‘constructed’ space, with boundaries and meanings defined by the poet themselves, the poem provides an empowering counterpoint to a reality that treats the queer body as ‘something to be […] kept / in its place’. She expands upon this in ‘Postscript’, showing how a ‘mother and child’ finally ‘listening to one another’ can fundamentally rewrite the narrative of the queer child, opening up a ‘vision of paradise where the trees / are free to bear their multitudinous light’.
In their poetry, Fan, Campbell and Chan’s battered bodies bear witness to the crises of our time. Yet, by expounding and even rewriting these narratives on the page, they also share with the roomful of listeners—and the reader—‘the hard / work of mending or mourning / what remains dear to each of us’.
A full interview with Kit Fan by Audrey Wong, will be available on the Palatinate Website as a separate article.
Marie Greindl on Zaffar Kunial
In his Durham-infused poetic creation commissioned for the Durham Book Festival, Zaffar Kunial’s father imparted the tale of Kabir, a revered Muslim saint. Kabir’s message, an ode to unity within the mind, seemed to reverberate through the pages of Kunial’s work; within his poetry anthology “England’s Green”, one finds an intricate division—a thematic cleavage into two distinctive sections: “In” and “Out.” Much like the very essence of Kabir’s teachings, Kunial’s choice to dichotomise his work prompts contemplation on the multifaceted facets of the human experience.
Kunial’s creative process carries a numerical harmony, where numbers serve as poetic allies. His father’s favourite number, 11, emerges as a central motif to his commissioned writing, anchoring the poem’s structure with meticulous intent. This poem unfolds across 99 lines, harmoniously arranged into nine stanzas, each graced with precisely 11 lines. Perhaps we may go as far as suggesting that the number 11 dances with a secret history, echoing the year 1104 when the world bore witness to the discovery of The St Cuthbert Gospel.
Within the intricate world of linguistics and the artful manipulation of words, Zaffar Kunial’s literary tapestry takes on an alluring moiré pattern, most vividly expressed within the poem “foxglove”: “In the midst of foxgloves,/ The xgl is hard to say, out of the England.”
Here, Kunial’s linguistic prowess unfurls as he navigates the labyrinthine in’s and out’s of the term “foxglove.” The poem becomes a playground for paronomasia, a recurrent theme in Zaffar’s poetic repertoire. It transcends mere text on paper, inviting the reader to partake in a game of language, letters, and sounds, resonating differently when recited aloud. It engages not only the eyes but also the corridors of the mind.
This overt liking for letters and sounds could furthermore be discussed in his poem “Ings”, where he seeks to immortalise an unexpected muse—two speeding tickets received en route to Windemere. This thematic thread weaves a pattern of alliteration, as the poem artfully dances with the repeated use of “-ing” endings.
Notably, every paragraph in this composition culminates with a gerund, which lends a rhythmic and introspective quality to the work. Within the broader canvas of his “IN” section, consisting of 18 poems, the “-ing” sound reveals itself, with 9 poems embracing the gerund or a word with this melodic appendage. Zaffar’s penchant for “-ings” transcends mere wordplay; it becomes a vessel through which stories continue to echo long after the last word has been read.
Kunial’s creative well draws deeply from the waters of music and lyrics, a wellspring of poetic inspiration. As a vivid example, his poem “England” finds its roots in the verses of Nick Drake’s “One of These Things First”. His poem ponders the haunting question of what life could have been had it taken a different path. In a reflection that extends to the national level, Zaffar suggests that countries, too, carry these echoes of the past and the unexplored potential that lingers, like a ghostly presence, in their historical narratives.
In his concluding remarks, Kunial expressed his desire to harmoniously bridge the old with the new. His sentiment calls to mind the words of literary luminaries like Borges and Wilde, whose philosophies mirror Zaffar’s reverence for the old. Just as Wilde saw himself as a culmination of various influences, and Borges questioned the boundaries of his own existence, Zaffar Kunial’s multilayered voice serves as a living testament to the voices of the past, a poetic time machine that echoes the wisdom and experiences of those who came before. In this journey, we find ourselves immersed in other people’s worlds, bound by the strength of shared words and the heritage of every utterance.
Louisa Wagstaff on Jeanette Winterson
We should leave plenty of room for doubt and have the graciousness to say ‘I don’t know how to explain this,’ or, simply, “I don’t know.’’
Exploring her latest book, Night Side of the River, a collection of ghost stories, Jeanette Winterson spoke of the limits of the mind, body and physical world, our obsession with omniscience but how death thwarts this, and how the ghost story was the perfect conduit to explore our evolving relationship with these ideas.
With this collection, Winterson investigates both timeless and timely concerns: how to deal with the fact that the people you love will die, the extent our human knowledge, the relationship between religion, science and technology, and the use of artificial intelligence in both the real world and the metaverse. Indeed, this focus on both the timeless and the timely is fundamental to Winterson’s literary project as she tells us that we are ‘not isolated in time’ but rather ‘connected to a huge stretch of thought’ which we ‘have to keep preserving through the life our of minds and our imagination.’
A central preoccupation of this collection, and something into which she delved deeply in this talk, is the proliferation of artificial intelligence. For Winterson, AI has disrupted the idea of death and the afterlife, and has allowed us to be haunted in different ways. Interestingly, she spoke of how the emergence of AI has exposed that the assumed division between science and religion has been narrowed: the final frontier of death is commonly seen as a hard barrier, but both religion and spiritualism, and science and technology ask, what if it isn’t? With the idea of the afterlife and purgatory in Christianity, there is the persistent belief that the existence of the living body is not the final destination. Science is also now interrogating and playing with this idea: with the possibilities of the metaverse, we are no longer confined to the physical body but are permitted an existence in a two-dimensional world in which we can continue living even after we have died in the physical world. In both the religious world and this technological world, biological and non-biological entities coexist.
Winterson navigates this interesting intersection between science and religion, writing traditional ghosts stories and experimenting with the form to write the ghost story in a new style and using new technologies. In her dramatic reading of the title story, the eerily vivid world- and character-building was palpable. A collection borne of intrinsic curiosity, in her own words, there was ‘something glorious about thinking, ‘I don’t have to be in the body anymore.’’
In concluding her talk by meditating on the essential role of narrative, creativity and literature, Winterson spoke profoundly of the power of the literature: it gives us back the language we need to find the words to say what we need and empowers us to speak of the world as it could be, not just as it is.
I will leave you with this maxim as a summation of this event and its charismatic, enthralling and highly eloquent speaker: ‘Purgatory was like living in a genteel house next to a council estate.’
Image: Samantha Fulton