Caroline Bergvall



I had only a few hours to pack and travel out of the collective sacrificing being set up in the UK in the name of elitist liberty and its self-serving dubious ideas of science and applied herd immunity. 

Everything that has been eroded, taken away over the past decades from the vast social structures of civic care, through greed and social indifference, notably within health and public education, mammoth remnants of our democracies, all this has so quickly now started to strain and collapse under the weight of the epidemic’s incoming devastation and untold scarcity. 

Where they can, many of my London friends have similarly sought to leave the city, if not the country. Some have gone to the neighbouring cities or regions or countries where they originally stem from. It is to Norway that I made my way to temporary safety. Of course, no-one knew how long we would be lockdowned nor what was to unfold. 

It is paradoxical that so many of us who were able to leave have made such a rushed tribal turning to our places of origin, or of connection, or of refuge, sometimes deep into the countryside, even though we are sworn cosmopolitans, transnational citizens of the art, literary and activist world. Some were stranded elsewhere when the bell started ringing and still made their dash back to the epicentres of London or New York or Hong Kong. 

So are there other factors in play than perceived physical safety and friendly territoriality to this extrarodinary, chaotic, globalised exodus towards safe places? 

Is it something to do with collective memories of survival journeys, ancient or recent exiles, and managing to get to the places, or to kindred spirits in places, that then offered their hospitality?  Is it to do with personal or collective roots, protective landscapes and the laying down of one’s bones? 

Who knows what the map will actually look like, and what we will each have gone through, and what those of us who can will grieve in the immediate aftermath of our re-emergence to daylight and the safer air. Who knows what these rushed returns or temporary hide-outs might bring up by way of geo-cultural rekindlings and transformed connections.

The overall map we will be left with is today impossible to foretell but the digital communities and quick systems of exchanges we are all resorting to in largely conversant ways are already taking the relay of our agitated, active, on the ground exchanges and live events. These are environments that poets are very well equipped to adapt to and utilise. Even more so, picking up on histories of independent and small press publishing as well as multimodal performances, one can imagine a willful and tactical redrawing of lines of allegiance and interest away from large national cultures, their corporate boundaries towards committed investments in translocal and flexible entities, manageable and teleconnected communities. Like creating interdisciplinary environments of say, art, architecture, and earth-sciences, to work for change. Of course any of this will only be envisageable in keener ways at a point of reconstruction. But all these aspects are inherently at work within the social and semiotic fabric of poetry itself.

I did wonder whether, as a poet living and working in London and the UK for so many years, I had a responsibility to stay among my peers at the heart of the city. Then it struck me that only the fewest of my peers are actually in the city. They are all of the city but not necessarily in London. And it dawned on me that the idea of the ‘city’ in the coming months or years will be understood less in the sense of urban centres where patronage and cultural politics are sealed, and more in a sense of civic attitude, civic bonding as writers across the transnational bonds of its communities.

In the span of just one catastrophic week and its dreadful wake-up call here in Europe, and now also in the US, the question asked to this forum of the historical outsidedness of poetry has tipped over into a different yet related one, which I can only sketch out here but that I feel it is important to mention. 

It seems that what has kept poetry culturally excentered is that which today makes it inherently valuable. The lack of conventional cultural impact most of us experience as poets has turned many of us into highly organised cultural producers who are socially nimble and comfortable with all sorts of under-the-radar structures. We are often also highly inventive both with our own practice/s and when setting up arts-led networks and exchanges.

This also applies to the inner, semiotic workings of the exploratory, risk-taking and radicalised artform that is contemporary poetry. The avant-gardist art revolutions of the early twentieth century and social movements of the seventies have definitely continued to make their mark, even if subterraneanly across the many technological, cultural changes and writerly approaches of the early twenty-first. Poets now often engage their work beyond commercial print industries and into many performative, interactive and crafts-led environments. The ahistorical and exclusionary idea of who can be a ‘poet’ has also gone largely defunked, debunked, debacled and this has also enabled poetry’s continued viability and validity as a specific type of voicing.

Indeed, the inventive and powerful memory-work of poets who activate the sharp specifics of their many languages and identities has often stood for a radical and activist outsidedness. Language is a plastic tool and must be toyed and meddled with. Sense and sense-making must be put under pressure. Only then does it do its work of renewing language and its dreamed imaginations. Translingual poetics have provided so many ways of bringing out the ghosts of history and deepening the awareness of languages’ and peoples’ eradications across frontiers. This has also been the case for rights-led and intersectional poetics. And it is for all these reasons that contemporary poetry has often been kept to the excentered bounds of cultural activity; respected locally and internationally but only rarely brought in to bear on the national scene. The exclusionary politics of national language and its accompanying views on translation as a secondary literature as well as its broad streamlining of lyrical poetry into heritage culture have played further into this. 

However, the directions and approaches to language politics increasingly pursued in so many different ways by transnational, bilingual or innovative poets both in the UK and elsewhere often have to do with reclaiming cultural disappearances and linguistic invisibilities. The personalised experience by poets to the threat to their languages and complex identities has shaped what one could call an activist citizenry among language-led artists and poets. Further afield, the rapid acceleration of the disappearance of linguistic diversity across the globe has been determined by the continued rampant spread of corporate and national appropriation of natural resources. And many small languages continue to be cut down at the same speed as the deforestation of their regions. This now provides a strong and potentially strategic connection for the more central outsider role poetry can come to play. 

To summarise, I would say that the circumstances of the current global confinement and the devastations the epidemic will reap everywhere, but especially in more exposed and deprived communities both in and out of urban zones, does paradoxically highlight the need for poetry, in its most contemporary sense. 

Poetry’s valuing of transnational, translocal imaginaries, its pooling of dialectical communality, its connections to archaic and deep ‘earth songs’, arrhythmic spoken structures, counterpuntal dialogics, its adapatability to technological voicings and distribution, all these are aspects also at the core of the type of cultural survival, which will be at the heart of our minds and activities not only during this powerful global confinement but importantly also after it at the time of reconstruction and re-emergence. 

Now that everything is excentered, imploded, contracted into a holding pattern of deep collective emotion and fear, now that other sounds can be heard across the lessening noise, it is to be hoped that the envoicings of poets will come to the fore, charged as they are with the all important lived and enduring power and richness of languages. And that poetry as an artform steeped in and committed to language specifics and creative semiotics will find its ancient yet always actual purposes revalued. As instrumental to the dream life, soul life and well-being of people. Not towards one common space, but rather to the many communal and now translocal zones of structured listenings, and re-memberings. 

At this point of emergency, it is the outsidedness of poetry as a cultural form that creates its inner strength of purpose as an artform. And poets are, for all intents and purposes, the global earth’s genuine transnational, transactional messengers. The guardians of its future-singing airs.