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Poetry / Spoken Word

The Great Flight
20th April 2016

Sasha Dugdale, editor of Modern Poetry in Translation introduces their latest issue.

Last year we decided to publish a refugee issue of Modern Poetry in Translation. It was the only practical response we had to the situation in Europe and the media coverage of the situation: to publish poetry by refugees and poems about the state of flight and migration. The issue came together very fast. Our contributors felt much as we did, and the material was all there, ready for the taking.


We were offered poems from many languages and periods, from Old English to contemporary Algeria, and it was a job to decide, amongst all these riches, which poems would make the cut. In the end I chose a broad selection of work to represent those who were currently in migration or seeking refuge: Eritreans, Ethiopians, Iranians and Syrians, such as the memorable Golan Haji, whose work, a poised, lyrical meditation on the video artist Bill Viola, has undertones of disjointedness and isolation.

We also published work by those who had experienced exile in the past: Carmen Bugan, whose family had left Communist Romania, sent a poem about retracing her father’s failed attempt at escape from Romania in the border zone with Turkey. Don Mee Choi wrote about leaving Korea: ‘In light we lived like birds’ she writes of her life in exile. Nasrin Parvaz, Iranian human rights activist and former prisoner, sent us an impassioned piece about the racism inherent in the UK government’s suppression of free English classes for refugees.

Ted Hughes and Daniel Weissbort founded Modern Poetry in Translation fifty years ago to bring poetry from what they called the ‘Centre of Cataclysm’. Back then, at the height of the cold war, this poetry was being written by poets from the Eastern Bloc, countries like Poland and Russia.

But now the centres of cataclysm are many and various. Poetry comes to us from Assyrians living in refugee camps, and from former refugees living on council estates across the country. No one label does justice to the breadth of experience and suffering, but all these poems are proper reminders of our common humanity, the very thin wall of good fortune and security that briefly separates our lives from theirs.

In my editorial to the issue I wrote: ‘What general point can be drawn from this focus, except that politics and war have the power to make us all homeless, wandering, and dependent on the kindness of strangers? We’d better hope that when it happens we meet with more compassion than many refugees have had from us.’

Join us for the Brighton Festival launch of this issue with Eritrean poet Ribka Sibhatu (pictured) and Ethiopian poets Alemu Tebeje and Hama Tuma on Friday 20 May at 5pm in the Brighton Dome Founder’s Room.