Bangladesh is a country that shed blood for its language and where poetry is deeply rooted in its sense of nationhood. So it was with some awe that I flew into Dhaka airport to join six other international poets as guests of the Dhaka International Poetry Summit.
Where to begin? Over five action-packed days, we performed at 8 different poetry events, met some wonderful Bangladeshi poets, as well as poets from all corners of Asia including Nepal, Shri Lanka, Turkey and India. We were treated like royalty wherever we went.
Being a poet in Bangladesh is something on a par with being a rock star. I’ve lost count of the number of selfie’s I appear in! It was heartening the way young people were interested in what we had to say. We performed at the English Club at Notre Dame University, took part in an informal seminar at Jahangir Nagar University where students shared their work with us, and a formal performance and seminar at The Independent University of Dhaka in front of the Vice Chancellor.
Every morning, Summit organiser and fellow poet, Aminur Rahman, brought us copies of The Dhaka Tribune, The Independent and other Bengali newspapers, which invariably contained news and feature articles on our progress. The Summit made it onto the news bulletins of 7 television stations, and we were individually interviewed by two other stations. Yes, this was media heaven!
My fellow invitees were a great bunch of performers. Between them they have serious form at international poetry events . Annabel Villar and Julio Pavanetti are Uruguyan poets, run a poetry festival in Benidorm, and read their work in the beautiful language of Castille. Dr Ali Al-Shalah runs the Babylon Poetry Festival in Iraq and performed his poems in Arabic and German.
Kama Sywor Kamanda is from the Congo, and gave hugely powerful renditions of his work in French, his mother tongue. It was fascinating to hear Dr Tianxin Cai perform his work in Mandarin, as well as in English. He’s a prolific and much translated poet, and also a professor of Mathematics at Hangzou University. Last but not least, we enjoyed the verbal magic of Malim Ghozali PK in Malay who is a novelist, and essayist as well as poet.
We spent hours in the rollercoaster that is Dhaka traffic, travelling between venues – our driver expertly avoided rickshaws, tuctucs, buses of venerable age, kamakazi pedestrians, and street traders plying their wares from car to car.
In between gigs, we had time to visit some of the highlights of the city, including a 300 year old Hindu temple, the Lalbagh Fort with its exotic gardens, and the National Memorial where we laid a wreath to the memory of the 3 million people who died in the war for independence from Pakistan.
We got to perform at the the equivalent of London’s Poetry Café (Kobita Bangla) where it was good to meet and hear some women Bangladeshi poets – still rather a scarcity in the main programme.
More delights were in store for us at the Bangladesh Academy of Fine and Performing Arts where each of us had had one poem chosen by the artist Maksadul Absan, out of which he created his own visual interpretations. The exhibition of 15 poetry paintings was stunning, and will be on show for the coming month.
There is also a beautiful anthology – Poetry & Painting – which contains reproductions of each painting with its poem alongside.
Where there are poets, naturally there must be books! A total of four publications bearing our work were launched during the summit. The Dhaka Anthology of World Poetry 2019, edited by Aminur Rahman and Bilkis Mansoor, is a 175 page hardback containing poems by 66 contemporary world poets from 34 countries and five continents. It was launched from a podium of wonderful white, fragrant flowers and the chief guest was the Minister for Information, Mr H E Hasan Mahmud MP. He formally awarded us with the Kathak Literary Award for services to world literature – endowing us with a medal and a beautifully crafted statuette.
Later in the week, we performed at the launch of Bangladesh’s premier poetry magazine, Kabikantha, which has been on the scene since 1956. It was such an honour to have a poem (in translation) alongside important Bengali poets.
The fourth and final publication, which contains four poems each in Bengali translation, gave me plenty of fun, trying to work out which of the poems was which – essential to know, as we read our poems in mother tongue and then Aminur Rahman read his translations of them. Eventually, line-breaks gave the game away!
Perhaps the highlight of the whole five days was performing at the National Poetry Festival during the month-long Ekushey Book Fair. It was held in an open air auditorium (at a pleasant 27 degrees Centigrade with the monsoon still a month off, perfect weather) under a beautifully decorated awning. We took off our shoes and sat on the platform awaiting our turn, as one by one, poets were invited to the rostrum to perform. Plenty of time to bond with poets, exchange cards and learn a little about their countries. We even managed to snatch a photo of female poets from three continents – Asia (Nepal, Malaysia), South America (Uruguay) and Europe (UK).
Hospitality was so generous, that one day we enjoyed breakfast, mid morning tiffin, lunch, afternoon tea and two dinners. Well, it would have seemed ungrateful to decline!
It was inspiring and instructive to listen and read (in translation) the work of our Bangladeshi colleagues who performed alongside us. These included Aminur Rahman, Asad Chowdhury, Habibullah Sirajee, Hayat Saif, Jahidul Huq, Maksudul Ahsan, Mohammad Nurul Huda and Mustafa Pasha.
Poetry in Bangladesh is not afraid to express big emotions or call for action on the part of the listener. It feels more tied in with the life of social and political change than perhaps is poetry in the UK. At Kabita Bangla an entire collection was launched the night we were there of poetry concerned with the Rohynga refugees.
The International Poets Summit was truly an extraordinary experience – proof that when people come together to share their aspirations, their experiences of life and their poetry, we do truly become one world.
My grateful thanks to Aminur Rahman and Bilkis Mansoor for inviting me to the Summit, for the wonderful care they took over every little detail, and to my fellow poets, both international and Bangladeshi, for their energy, their talent and their enthusiasm. Friendships that I hope will last and grow. The poetry world is truly one large family.