I got the idea for this #PortableParadisePrompt after I tweeted a photo of a hand-written copy I’d made of his iconic poem, which I’d written out to gift to my family (to carry with them in their pockets or purses). Mr. Robinson saw my tweet and replied,
You should write a poem based on it. Use the framework and add in your own biographical details. Try it!!!
There was magic in the air that day. The prom(pt) took off like fireworks! We decided, as a group, the direction our Paradise Project must take: a chapbook. It took me a few months to design and format the book, so today’s publication is a milestone. I’m proud of how it turned out (see below).
I challenge you to write your own Paradise poem! Download the e-book below to get an idea how much freedom you can find writing yours as you read each person’s take on the prom(pt). When you do write it, please post: #PortableParadisePrompt and #ParadiseProject on social media. We’d love to read it!
-E-book design & format: Gwendolyn Soper. Author photograph, used with permission of Roger Robinson.
–NOTA BENE: All roads lead back to the poet Billy Collins and his Poetry Broadcast. I learned about the book, A Portable Paradise, from Ian Aitken, a minister in Aberdeen, Scotland (and viewer of said broadcast). Thank you, Ian! He is also the founder of The Lockdown Poets, a group of poets to which I’ve belonged for over two years. I also met Elizabeth Boquet via Billy Collins’ broadcast.
**I got the idea to call it a prom(pt) from the Southampton Writers Workshop I attended the year before when I took a class from Billy Collins. The workshop concluded with a Prom(pt) for all faculty and students. I suspect Christian McLean had something to do with it. We dressed up for the event and had a blast.
We used to lay on the hot cement shivering after we swam. A quick lick of the concrete confirmed it hadn’t changed since the last time we stuck out our tongues — it tasted like scorched Utah sand under the branches of the apricot tree.
Don’t eat the apricots before you swim, you’ll get cramps! Mom calls us in for hot dogs and potato chips, and we peel off running to eat, grabbing towels because we only use them for capes.
One black night the lightening illuminates the pool again and again like a glowing blue kidney bean. The thunder rattles the plate glass windows— and my little brother and I—we watch from the tv room on our stomachs. We learn some things are as good as cartoons.
It’s a sign of intelligence to try new food and the salty Balkan air made me bolder with every wave that brought us here with the thrum of the old boat—I felt reckless as a Puritan walking out on the sermon about The Fall and the imminent dangers resulting from desire.
The eyes are the best part, the waiter said after he set our plates down on the table beaten by hot island sun. This is how you suck them out. So, we picked up the fish and slurped— my tongue, that wet salty shore where a fisherman once cast his net into the sea for one last time before dropping it to fish for men.
When he left his boat, Saint Peter saw a fish— a remarkable flat fish with a coin in its mouth to pay temple taxes. When he picked it up to retrieve the money, he left a thumbprint on its side. These fish from the family of Zeus still carry the oval mark.
Still thinking of salt & water, apostles & knotted nets, still feeling an inner fire, I look up and see the way you are looking at me. Soon, I am swimming with desire.
How may we cope with these strong emotions effectively, and at the same time possibly make a difference? One of my acquaintances has three refugees from Ukraine living with her in Austria—a mother and two teenagers. The father has returned to Ukraine to fight. Many of us donate to legitimate charities like World Central Kitchen and UNICEF that supply necessities to Ukraine. What else can we do to help provide for their immediate needs, and demonstrate solidarity?
Pádraig Ó Tuama, a well-recognized Irish poet, theologian, and group mediator, educated people recently online about conflict resolution in conjunction with the Columbia Climate School. He teaches that ‘speech acts’—and other acts of artistic expression like poetry, art, dance, or music—can be acts of “co-creation” that often have “fruitful and sustaining” outcomes. The following examples may reflect what he was talking about:
Putin’s actions makes the hate speech reflected in a recent poem by Ukrainian poet, Oleksandr Irvanets, understandable, “I shout out to the whole world. I won’t forgive anyone!” It makes the book, Deaf Republic, by hard-of-hearing Ukrainian-American Ilya Kaminsky, an important act that questions our potential for collective silence in the face of atrocities.
Suddenly, I’m seeing speech acts everywhere like those of Garrison Keillor, and Simon Armitage, poet laureate of the UK. They validate how I’ve been feeling, make me more aware, and increase my feelings of solidarity with those under fire in Ukraine. Our own speech acts may also be effective through writing our own poems, moving our bodies to music, creating art, even if only in our homes to reduce anxiety.
Ó Tuama recently shared a poem by Joy Harjo titled, “Conflict Resolution for Holy Beings.” I want to look at the individual words in her title. Conflict: what does it mean? It means to clash. Or to be in a serious disagreement or argument—typically a protracted one. It is at the root of war. Resolution means to find a solution to a problem, dispute, or contentious matter.
Holy Beings means different things to different people. Right now I see every Ukrainian, living and killed in this attack, as a holy being. British-Trinidadian poet, Roger Robinson, wrote a poem titled, “The Missing.” It’s a speech act as well. It’s about human souls ascending during the deadly Grenfell Tower apartment building fire in West London (2017). Holy beings.
My poem, “War Requiem: Outdoor Rehearsal at Tanglewood,” is a reflection of a speech act by the musician Benjamin Britten. His was in the form of music he composed. He titled it War Requiem. Over twenty years ago I had the privilege of performing his War Requiem many times from memory with the Tanglewood Festival Chorus, and Boston Symphony Orchestra, Seiji Ozawa conducting. Britten composed it so that the baritone and tenor sing text written by World War I poet, Wilfred Owen, who was killed in action only one week before Armistice, 1918. Britten’s goal was resolution in the aftermath of war.
In order to emphasize the universal desire for peace, Britten made the symbolic gesture of assigning solos to artistic delegates of former, or current, German, English, and Eastern European decent who had borne the brunt of the horrific conflict during World War II. The soloists in our performances were Thomas Quasthoff (German-born bass-baritone), Ian Bostridge (British-born tenor), and Christine Goerke (soprano).
In the title page of his War Requiem, Britten quoted these words by the WWI war poet, Wilfred Owen:
My subject is War, and the pity of War. The poetry is in the pity … All a poet can do today is warn.
A little information about the origin of this requiem:
After WWII, many cities in Great Britain and elsewhere were rebuilding churches, homes, and places of business—many of which had been razed to the ground. Ukraine will be facing this same challenge of rebuilding.
One of those cities that rebuilt itself was Coventry. The city decided to preserve the ruins of their bombed Medieval cathedral. And, next to the remains they would build the new Coventry Cathedral.
After their new cathedral was built, The Coventry Cathedral Festival Committee was looking for ways to celebrate its consecration. The spirit of the enterprise was one of reconciliation after conflict. It was then that Britten was asked to participate. He agreed to compose a musical piece. In his own words, he offered War Requiem as ‘an act of reparation.’
Pádraig Ó Tuama has a lot of experience with acts of reparation and reconciliation. He was a former leader of the Corrymeela Community, Ireland’s oldest peace and reconciliation community, a country with a long history of conflict.
During one of his recent poetry labs I asked Mr. Ó Tuama, “Can we do more than just warn of war?”
He said, “First, the machinists of war need to make much better decisions.”
“Harjo is trying to take [her speech act] further in her poem. She’s using the imperative in many of her words, that you must speak in the language of justice. She’s not only bearing witness, she’s also trying to enact change. In a certain sense she’s trying to, by the language, create a way of moving forward.”
As all of us observe what is happening in Ukraine and other war-torn parts of the world—I hope we may each consider how we might co-create speech acts with others—whether it be creating (or sharing) poetry, art, dance, or music, in person or via social media—to uplift, speak for justice, and move forward in solidarity with our fellow humans who are in this moment suffering unimaginable violence, loss, and displacement.
To be read while listening to War Requiem,
by Benjamin Britten, especially the Dies irae
We only hold ten thousand notes. Our bodies tense
at trumpets sounding with more brass, and then
in unison all the men’s voices
march march march on rubble
bombs blast—because the timpani is pounding.
A Berkshire storm suddenly drops like mortar shells:
black clouds roll as if demented. The rage we feel
at war deflects the rasping, raucous wind.
Behind Maestro the canvas curtain curls,
an acoustical device the size of a ship’s white sail.
Bottom corners whip—like chips of flint, then
strike! strike! strike! the electric air.
We women sing quantus tremor est futurus
(how a tremor is). But do we really know?
The baritone prepares to sing “Bugles sang”
(But I Was Looking at the Permanent Stars).
On the title page of our score, Britten quoted
My subject is War, and the pity of War.
The Poetry is in the pity …
All a poet can do today is warn.
So, in our person, our strong stance, our firm
presence here—we sing from our mighty occupation
of secondary power: a chorus. We sing
to all who abuse their primary power from a high seat
of political influence or a home:
ENOUGH! ENOUGH! ENOUGH!
Seiji Ozawa, conductor
Thomas QuasthoffChristine GoerkeIan BostridgeProgram notes
Source: "War Requiem: Outdoor Rehearsal at Tanglewood," by Gwendolyn Soper (referenced in her essay, "To Tyrants: Enough!"), written in solidarity with those in Ukraine, or in places to which they've fled during the Russian tyrant's horrific attack.
There’s no need to explain poetry to a child. They already know how to sit with petunias. Constellation petunias, for instance: every petal a purple night sky full of stars—whorls in the morning revealing themselves on porches after breakfast. I don’t have to ask a child to pluck them—they’ll do it anyway— holding margins and profiles against the rising sun to examine patterns, light and shadow, lines and the funnel that draws them closer to seeing fine hairs, to noticing how sticky the petals are, leaving residue that doesn’t come off easily— which years from now they’ll remember when they pick more petunias.