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Desert Stanzas

Saturday , 19 March 2016

One of the Emirates Lit Fest’s ‘Special Events’, ‘Desert Stanzas’ featured an evening in the desert with a fine group of poets…


John Agard, Grace Nichols and Simon Armitage (front row, left to right) sitting with audience members during ‘Desert Stanzas’


It was supposed to be a rather magical evening—poetry under the stars in the desert—but, with traffic causing major delays and a resultantly hurried event, the occasion was not able to live up to the enchantment hoped by many of those in attendance.


Nonetheless, there were some wonderful moments during ‘Desert Stanzas’, which was one of a handful of ‘Special Events’ organised for the Emirates Airline Festival of Literature, this year. The best moments lay in the readings delivered by the poets.


Getting there


On Thursday, March 10, ahead of the 6 PM reporting time, a group of poetry enthusiasts and journalists gathered outside the Intercontinental Hotel, which was one of the main venues of the Emirates Literature Festival. We were waiting to board one of a few buses bound for the Al Sahara Camp, in the Dubai Desert Conservation Reserve, for the eagerly anticipated fourth edition of the ‘Desert Stanzas’.


The event, co-sponsored by the Dubai Culture & Arts Authority, featured a diverse group of poets—the incumbent Oxford Professor of Poetry, Simon Armitage; well-known Guyanese poet Grace Nichols; her ever-entertaining Afro-Guyanese partner, playwright and fellow poet, John Agard; the youngest poet to ever win the ‘World Poetry Slam Champion’ title, Harry Baker; and the acclaimed Emirati Nabati poet and filmmaker Nujoom Al Ghanem.


As we headed out for the desert venue, the atmosphere on the bus was decidedly upbeat. But, somewhere on the Dubai-Al Ain Road, traffic slowed to a crawl, due to an accident. We were informed that the only people who had reached the reserve were… The poets themselves!


A couple of hours after having left the InterCon, the buses pulled up at the conservation, where we disembarked and then waited for individual Arabian Adventure jeeps to come and take us, in groups of six, to the camp site, which was a further 15-20 minutes away.


Despite the delays, people seemed to be in a good mood and ready for an evening of poetry.


The event


Emirati culture was highlighted during the evening


As soon as we descended from the jeeps, it was apparent how much of an effort had been put into organising the event. Emirati culture was highlighted, with camels, live local music (thanks to a talented oud player), Ayala dancers, calligraphy artists, a photography area and traditional desserts, carpets and lanterns.


Noor Khalid delivered a confident recital of a poem by HH Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum


Attendees took a very quick round of the buffet tables for dinner and the programme kicked off. First up, was Noor Khalid, a young girl who opened the evening with a confident recital of a poem by His Highness Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum, UAE’s Vice-President & Prime Minister and Ruler of Dubai.


Simon Armitage


Next up, was Yorkshire-born Simon Armitage (CBE), who kept the audience engaged in between his poems, with his dry sense of humour. He started off by telling us, “You know, I’ve never performed in front of a horse before.”


Armitage, who is widely regarded as one of Britain’s finest modern-day poets, has received numerous awards for his poetry and is simply prolific. He writes for the stage, radio, TV and film, as well. His poetry is marked by a clear love of language, and is frequently dark and witty, with subjects that are sometimes surprising (I don’t know of any other poet who could have penned ‘Ten Pence Story’ and made it as riveting, poignant and amusing).


Simon Armitage was the first poet to take to the podium


It was his ‘In Memory of Water’ collection that was showcased during the event. The incumbent Oxford Professor of Poetry told us that he had chosen to read poems from this collection, because he wanted to “pour water into the desert”.


The collection was part of the ‘Stanza Stones’ project, during which, letter-carver Pip Hall, with the help of landscape designer Tom Lonsdale, painstakingly inscribed these water poems onto stones at different sites along the South Pennine watershed, between Marsden and Ilkley, over a-year-and-a-half period, beginning in 2010. Armitage said that he was inspired to take part in the project, because there are carvings in the area that date back thousands of years. He said he liked the idea of an ongoing dialogue or conversation “with nobody”, “but the sky and the Gods”.


Simon Armitage


Armitage began with ‘Snow’, moved onto ‘Rain’, then to ‘Puddle’ (which he described as “the runt of the water family”) and ended with ‘Beck’.


We were treated to lines like, “Be glad of these freshwater tears, / each pearled droplet some salty old sea-bullet / air-lifted out of the waves, then laundered and sieved, recast as a soft bead and returned” and “no matter how much it strafes or sheets, it is no mean feat to catch one raindrop clean in the mouth, / to take one drop on the tongue, tasting cloud-pollen, grain of the heavens, raw sky” from ‘Rain’ and “It is all one chase. / Trace it back: the source / may be nothing more / than a teardrop / squeezed from a curlew’s eye, / then follow it down / to the full-throated roar / at its mouth: / a dipper strolls the river / dressed for dinner / in a white bib” from ‘Beck’. Sadly, Armitage’s set seemed much shorter than that of the other poets.


Grace Nichols


Grace Nichols took to the podium next. Her first collection won the Commonwealth Poetry Prize, back in 1983. Since then, she has written more poetry as well as short stories for children and a novel for adults.


Nichols, whose poetry is characterised by Caribbean rhythms and culture and Guyanese and Amerindian folklore, began by telling us how a visit to New Delhi and Mumbai had left her utterly mesmerised by the traffic there and amazed at how pedestrians managed to expertly manoeuvre themselves between the countless trucks and other vehicles.


Grace Nichols said that she was “mesmerised” by the traffic in India during a recent visit


Her poem, ‘Advice on Crossing a Street in Delhi’ was met with intermittent laughter. It includes the lines: “If stranded in the middle of the road, become a sacred cow with gilded horns, adopting the inner stillness of the lotus posture.” One can see how some people might take offence to the usage of “sacred cow” in this context; although, I’m sure Nichols’ intent was not to offend.


She then read her ‘Wherever I hang’, a defiant, tongue-in-cheek response to a question that many immigrants are posed, that ends on the rather pragmatic and hilarious note: “Yes, divided to de ocean / Divided to de bone / Wherever I hang me knickers—that’s my home.”


The last poem she read is one of her most well-known ones, ‘Hurricane Hits England’, which has been on the GCSE syllabus for a long time now.


Harry Baker


Casually clad and sans any notes, books or papers, the recently-graduated Harry Baker took to the mic next and, from start to finish, had the audience rolling with laughter. The young Baker’s poetry is largely Maths- and Science-based. He has a speedy delivery, which builds up to almost dizzying tempos; an obvious youth appeal; and great creativity.


The performance poet launched into his ‘59’, a funny, sweet and touching love poem about lonely prime numbers. In a nutshell: 59 is in love with 60, or at least he thinks he is, until he meets 61. The poem drew us in with lines like: “59 wanted to tell her, that he knew her favourite flower / He thought of her every second, every minute, every hour”.


Harry Baker had the audience laughing throughout his readings


Baker was animated, throughout, punctuating his delivery with hand gestures. He was also in complete control of the pace—sometimes, pulling it back for (often comedic) effect, as when delivering the lines, “60 thought 59 was… odd” and “61 was like 60… but a little bit more.”


There were lines that were inspired, funny and poignant, all at the same time, such as, “61 was clever, see? Not prone to jealousy / She looked him in the eyes and told him quite tenderly / ‘You’re 59, I’m 61; together we combine to become twice what 60 could ever be.’”


In an interesting interactive turn, Baker then delivered a largely German-language poem, titled ‘Falafelloeffel’ (‘loeffel’ is the German word for ‘spoon’), about a guy named Phil who loves falafels. It induced much laughter and awfully poor attempts at speaking German by audience members.


John Agard


John Agard, who was selected for the Queen’s Gold Medal for Poetry in 2012, was next. In his typical theatrical delivery, the Afro-Guyanese poet, playwright and children’s writer, began with a tribute to the late Simon Powell (that I believe was a recital of an elegy written by the incumbent British poet laureate Carol Ann Duffy).


John Agard paid tribute to the late Simon Powell


Incidentally, Powell had served as the Introductions Speaker at a session during the inaugural Emirates Literature Festival, back in 2009, which had featured Agard, Nichols and Armitage along with Duffy, Gillian Clarke and Powell’s wife Imtiaz Dharkar.


Following this, Agard launched into his famous ‘Half-Caste’, which has been on the GCSE syllabus since 2002. With a dramatic, rhythmic—almost hypnotic—delivery, Agard drove home the defiant tone of the poem, with the help of his resonant voice, right from the opening, “Excuse me / standing on one leg / I’m half-caste” to “explain yuself / wha yu mean / when yu say half-caste / yu mean when light an shadow / mix in de sky / is a half-caste weather? / well in dat case / England weather / nearly always half-caste / in fact some o dem cloud / half-caste till dem overcast / so spiteful dem don’t want de sun pass / ah rass?”. Throughout this reading, he made sure to convey the humour and intelligence of the poem.


John Agard


Agard ended with the tongue-in-cheek ‘Put The Kettle On’, which alleges, “Put the kettle on / It is the British answer / to Armageddon”. He brought the poem to life with an animated delivery, making sure to sound out sibilant sounds with “May the kettle ever hisssss / May the kettle ever sssteam” and including audience participation, at the end.


Nujoom Al Ghanem


The last poet of the evening was Nujoom Al Ghanem, who read her poems in the original Arabic, and was accompanied by the children’s writer Julia Johnson, who followed with the English translations of each poem.


It is hard for translations of poems to hold up to the originals. One always feels like something has been lost in the process. Especially when we think about the richness and differences in languages. As a non-Arabic speaker, I felt like I got glimpses into Al Ghanem’s artistry, but not a grasp on each detail that builds the bigger picture.


The poems she read included ‘Voice’, ‘The World’s Heart’, ‘Her Prayers’ and ‘Yesterday’. There were striking and contemplative lines like: “Then a cry in the wilderness / can reignite the blooming of the word” and “You are approaching the joy of forgetfulness.”


Nujoom Al Ghanem (right) read her poems in the original Arabic; translations of each of her poems were read out by Julia Johnson (left)



‘The World’s Heart’ is a particularly moving look at the effect that oil has had on countries and communities within the region and the fear of wars it has brought. It included the lines: “We only recognised that sea, laden with our mothers’ fear, after it raised its head high and ate the feet of our homelands” and “The grandmothers prayed that the oil would vanish and the world prayed to God that He wouldn’t answer their prayers”.


Al Ghanem’s delivery was powerful, insistent and mesmerising. Her themes of prayer, reflection, emptiness and the passage of time created a languid and almost elegiac effect.
The poets’ readings were what made the evening special. But, considering that the event ended up taking from before 6 PM to almost midnight, the readings seemed rather short, at around an hour-and-a-half. Also, having each poet read for a similar length of time would have been nice.


It’s a lovely idea, having poets pour out their words into the cool desert night. Hearing an eclectic mix of poetic voices against the backdrop of mountain-esque sand dunes, surrounded by lanterns and accompanied by various facets of Emirati culture, was wonderful. A closer desert venue might be the way to go, though, for the next edition of ‘Desert Stanzas’.


More coverage


For more, read our article on an overview of the Emirates Literature Festival at: