As part of the Reel Iraq festival in 2013, four British poets travelled to the Kurdish mountain village of Shaqlawa to meet with four Iraqi poets to share and translate with each other. The aim of the project, organised by the non-profit Reel Festivals, was to shed some light on the true nature of Iraq, a country that has endured some pretty brutal Western news coverage in recent decades. Iraq used to be a hotbed of creativity and art, and indeed the roots of this are still thriving despite the war and poverty that has ravaged the country. The project was also meant to form real connections between poets, showing that poetry crosses barriers (language and otherwise) in ways that other art forms cannot. The poems written and translated in this project were presented at the Erbil Literature Festival in Iraq and toured around the UK before finally being compiled into this book, This Room is Waiting.
Poetry in translation isn’t always the most straightforward form as—uniquely—it requires more than one talented poet to make it resonate. The poets on both sides of language barrier in this book are quite obviously talented, and readers of either language will get a unique experience. For some, side-by-side translations can be disconcerting (especially when one language uses a non-roman alphabet), but as a former student of Ancient Greek, I enjoy the beauty of the script alongside the poem that I’m reading. The more you read these poems, the more you appreciate the look and feel that the Arabic versions present, even if you don’t have a clue about what is actually written there. Reading these gives one the feeling of a sort of enlightened confusion: of appreciating the translation while also having a strong desire to understand the original.
Mixing up cultures, experiences and styles can be a recipe for literary disaster—often editors throw together anthologies for the sake of doing so without really thinking about the effect one may have on another. What This Room is Waiting gets completely right is selecting poems that carefully assess the two cultures that the poets represent. The poets’ culture and experience shines through the poems, but there’s also a sense of connection based on the shared experience of writing and translating together.
Even though the poets are from different places and backgrounds, one of the best connections between their shared poetic experiences is how they relate to nature. Jen Hadfield’s ‘Lichen’ is full of rich poetic sound and imagery like this:
like lichen listens
assiduous millions of black
and golden ears?
In the same vein, Iraqi poet Zaher Mousa’s excellent ‘The Iraqi Elements’ addresses the relationship between Iraqis and the natural world, specifically water, in these lines:
This is the birth of Water:
Mist is when water dies so that it can be born again.
Sluggish rivers swither among the dead, their banks overflowing.
These two poems are equally adept at characterizing the natural world, but they approach the subject from completely different angles and perspectives. It’s this sort of similarity that really pulls the book and its contributors together.
Of course, it’s the differences between the poets that show why this book is necessary. The editors and contributors want to show the positive aspects of both Iraq and the West, and show that, although the cultures have differences, they can (and should) live in harmony together. It’s fascinating to see different poems riff on similar subjects, often with a very different ‘feel’, based on the poet’s background and culture. Shared history and literary tradition is acknowledged, like in Ghareeb Iskander’s poems ‘Gilgamesh’s Snake’ and ‘On Whitman’. The Western canon often considers The Epic of Gilgamesh to be its first work of literature, but the Middle East literary tradition has just as much if not more claim to its influence. Whitman’s influence on the other hand is almost opposite, in that he is not just chiefly Western, but American. An Iraqi poem responding to Whitman’s ‘Song of Myself’ can’t be common. But that’s what makes this melting pot of a book so great.
I truly appreciate what the editors and organizers of Reel Festivals have done with This Room is Waiting, and it’s a great step in approaching mutual understanding, and peace, through artistic means. The poets, both British and Iraqi, are very good, and their influence on each other drips from the poems in this book. Reel Festivals would do well to continue organizing events which produce works like this. It’s a great thing for both the poetry community and for the countries involved. Poetry might sometimes seem inconsequential, but the poems in this book prove that poetry can connect even the most unlikely souls.
This Room is Waiting was published in April 2014 by Freight Books
Spenser is a freelance writer from Fort Worth, Texas. He graduated from Texas Christian University, and his work has appeared in The Rumpus and TCU’s student literary journal, 1147