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Dead Women’s Poetry Society

by on 8 November 2019

Memento Non Mori

Dead Women’s Poetry Society

by Helen Bowell

National Poetry Library at the Southbank Centre until 6th November

Review by Heather Moulson

It is with some trepidation than one approaches a promised resurrection, albeit literary rather than literally. Therefore this looked like an exciting prospect, that of literary séances with forgotten deceased female poets.

Our host, Helen Bowell, an Education Co-ordinator at the Poetry Society, gave a very lively introduction to the event, and conveyed that its aim was to raise women poets from the dead, and keep their legacies alive. This project, the Dead Women’s Poetry Society, was founded in 2015 with this very aim.

Helen then read We Shall Not Escape Hell by Marina Tsvetaeva, a Russian poet who passed away in 1941. And so our frame of mind was set.

DeadPoet1AASéance number one was hosted by Ruth Sutoye, a creative producer whose work spanned across photography, poetry and film. She resurrected June Jordan (1936 – 2002), a Jamaican-American bisexual poet, essayist, teacher and activist, whose poetry was of a biographical nature, and who invited other voices. This collection included: Apologies To the Dead of People of Lebanon; then Poem About My Rights (confronting issues of patriarchy and of supremacy); and It’s Hard To Keep A Clean Shirt Clean. Ruth played us recordings of June herself reading these works, which really breathed life into the words. We caught her passion and meanings, for June’s poems were flawless. To conclude this talk, Ruth read her own work, Blood Sings, a very strong presentation, and a new respect gained for this previously forgotten writer.

DeadPoet2AAThe next speaker, Zahrah Sheikh, a British Pakistani poet from Ilford, resurrected and introduced us to Fahmida Riaz (1946 –2018), an Urdu writer, poet, human-rights activist and feminist. After a vibrant first resurrection, this section sadly dimmed. What could have been an exciting journey into Fahamida’s life, became badly read and ill-rehearsed. A pity, because this poet broke barriers and taboos, and was a formidable figure. Even when exiled to India, Fahmida was tireless and wrote very strong work, which continued to challenge convention. Poems read were: The Language of Stones, The Body Exposed , The Body Abject, Four Walls and a Black Veil , and concluded with Condolence Resolution. I came to my own conclusions that sometimes information is not enough, and justice wasn’t really done to this very brave poet.

Helen, in a closing speech, imparted the exciting information that Dead Women’s Poetry Society planned to tour England. This is very good news indeed for such an exciting project.

Do give the National Poetry Library a try at the Southbank Centre. Its catalogue of poetry is inexhaustible and it occupies a wonderful and accessible space. I certainly look forward to returning.

But now I was departing. Leaving a séance, even a literary one, is an odd sensation, and as I passed the looming edifice of the Royal Festival Hall I felt the spirit of Jordan and Riaz … were they forgotten?

Heather Moulson
November 2019

Photography by Madani Younis

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