Any Change? Poetry in a Hostile Environment by Ian Duhig

In advance of National Poetry Day 2018 this Thursday, Ian Duhig tells us how the new anthology ‘Any Change? Poetry in a Hostile Environment ’ came about and why it is especially important now in these times of increasing hostility towards migrants and migrant communities.

In this house an immigrant lives and his name is meaning. ― Adonis, ‘Music’, trans. Mattawa.

In a very positive review of the Any Change? anthology in the Yorkshire Times, Steve Whitaker wrote “The urgency of Any Change? is of a piece with the current Zeitgeist. The shameful treatment of some of the original Windrush immigrants, whose descendants are now second and third generation British, has returned the spectre of intolerance to the agenda.” When the anthology was finished, until Strix agreed to handle these, I was going to use my home address as other people involved feared publicising theirs might incur reprisals, proving the anthology’s and Whitaker’s point. Even this year’s Forward Prizes take place against a background of accusations by one critic that a shortlisted poet shows anti-immigrant, even fascist sympathies in his work. Whatever the truth of that, fantasies of some retrotopian Britain are being trafficked in the wake of Brexit, but Africans were here shivering in their Roman armour long before a king from other side of their wall dreamt up the modern concept of Britain, a myth for his newly-united realm fifteen hundred years later. As Wallace Stevens wrote in ‘Adagia’, “we do not live in places, we live in descriptions of places.”

In our increasingly-hostile environment for migrant communities it can be important for them to make connections with similar groups for mutual support and defence; cultural projects like this anthology can help with that process, weaving Ersilian threads through this city, to borrow an image from Calvino. ‘Any Change?’ began from a series of workshops for marginalised groups organised through the David Oluwale Memorial Association and funded by the Forward Arts Foundation; some of these continued under their own impetus or with voluntary input, such as my own with Leeds Irish Health and Homes, now preparing a collection of in-house poetry. In Ersilian fashion again, new connections were made through Pavilion’s ‘Interwoven Histories’, a two-year project with the stated aim of addressing the histories of migrant workers to Leeds with a view to challenging current rhetoric around immigration through the arts. A further Forward grant for National Poetry Day 2018  to reflect its overall theme of ‘change’ paid for this anthology’s printing costs, though I should stress that only the printer was paid for ‘Any Change?’ with all profits going to participating charities.

‘Any Change?’ includes Sikh, Caribbean, Bengali, Bangladeshi, Sudanese, Romani, Somali, Irish, Hebridean, Jewish, American, African and Yorkshire writers (although Sai Murray’s ‘Majority Monitoring’ here literally has the last word on the reduction of complex issues of identity to box-ticking exercises); a few are internationally-known, such as Vahni Capildeo, Khadijah Ibrahiim and Niall Campbell: they settle here happily alongside poets who may have experienced homelessness, mental or physical ill-health and are in print for the first time. Some have fled violence from Janjaweed militias or paramilitaries in Northern Ireland. The anthology’s red, white and blue cover alludes to Khadijah Ibrahiim’s opening poem, ‘Union Jack’ ― recent harassment of the Windrush generation was particularly felt in Leeds with a magnificent annual Carnival older than London’s. Leeds Young Authors and Leeds Dynamix testify to strong local writing traditions while Leeds Irish Health and Homes developed a very active poetry group now preparing its own anthology. This should not be surprising but what might be is the extent to which unreached sections of Leeds new communities were keen to join in not only cultural reflections of their experience, but the play inherent in all art and it is a pleasure that can be shared in these pages.

The photo is from a workshop at Touchstone and shows its Sikh new writers with Punjabi and Urdu translators considering a draft of their group poem, the finished version being reproduced beneath. The subject of food was chosen to pursue the idea that good food and good poetry both slow consumption in favour of savouring nuance. We chewed over various nuances of pheeka in three languages, paradoxically a word for ‘bland’, the opposite of what anyone wants to eat, read or write; however, it’s a perfect symbol of how working at a poem frees nutrients from language, as that close encounters with other languages can enrich our understanding of our own.

Finally, I had great help from too many people to name in making ‘Any Change?’ but its pheeka cover, described as a cross between Gallimard Collection Blanche and WWll composting handbook, is my fault alone: l lacked time and art. Consider it the plain wrapping of a rare delicacy. Bon appétit.

Copies of ‘Any Change? Poetry in a Hostile Environment ’  (£5) can be bought via the Strix Leeds website.

Book Launch: Thursday 4 October 2018, 7pm, the launch of Any Change? Poetry in a Hostile Environment marking National Poetry Day. Poets reading include Ian Duhig, Halima France-Mir, Ahmed Kaysher and Sadhu. It’s at Chapel Allerton Library and will be an uplifting and enjoyable evening. It is free entry but please reserve your place here.


The Meaning of Food

 The meaning of food is the sharing of it, like poetry:

your favourite meal cooked for decades by someone

who loves you but will never taste it because of its meat.


The meaning of food is a feast for all the senses,

not just smell and taste but the sounds, like crispness,

sight of colours subtle and bold, textures of its skin and flesh,


the temperature of the cultured yogurt white as a page

waiting on the pen of the learned, magic finger to know when

then a spell to mature in a flask like a poem in the mind of the poet.


The meaning of food is in that it clarifies like poetry

and butter in a pan so you can see better the little things

that make all the difference on the plate, the page and in the world,


The meaning of food is in the kindness of the woman

who can tell shop-bought garam masala in a hostess’ cooking

but remains silent as the white space around the words of a poem.


The meaning of food can be comfort in a strange land

with no shops to buy ingredients for your own when it can be

ice cream, fish fried in dripping and chips eaten out of newspapers.


The meaning of food is also the bounty of God and nature:

a world with twenty thousand edible plants, galaxies of spices,

seas of oils, enough beans for different dhals every day of the week.


The meaning of food is people with patience and genius

to harness these flavours so even their clay cooking vessels

retain memories of earlier food to enhance the next meal’s richness.


The meaning of food is its beauty: the cream bouquet

of a cauliflower, the aubergine purple as a Roman emperor,

rainbows of chilies, moons of onion rings, suns of sliced potatoes.


The meaning of food is what it means to know goodness:

garlic for your heart, hing for wind and ginger for everything

then the blessings food receives and gives to you in the gurdwara.


The meaning of food is that it can be so simple,

the chick peas translated by time and water, not from cans,

the chapatti plate in the hand crowned with a bit of this, a bit of that.


The meaning of food is that it can be so rich

your doctor asks you suspiciously how you cook it

when tablets aren’t working according to blood pressure gauges.


The meaning of food is not to be numbered as money,

so even back home it smacks of nitrates, chemical fertiliser,

the land forced to give more and more, all in the name of profit.


The meaning of food is enough time, in its own time

the mango that won’t ripen any more after opening the can

but the one that will to your touch and smell on the old village tree.


The meaning of food defies time: childhood is never lost

but  always just a half-forgotten taste away, a smell in the street

or escaping a kitchen like a snatch of an old song or a new poem.


By the Touchstone Sikh Authors: Hardeep Kaur Khalsi, Sewa Singh Khalsi, Satwant Virdi, Darshan Virdi, Mr. Sohanpal, Surinder Riat, Mrs Suryavansi, Pakash Hare, Surjit Dhanjal, Surinder Jit Kaur, Mrs S. Nath, Mrs A. Kalsy, Mrs R. Matharu and Zubaida Khan with Ian Duhig.


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