My poem, “Pantoum for Aceh” translated into Tamil by Appadurai Muttulingam, 2014.

A few years ago, my friend and former colleague at The Nature Conservancy, Sanjayan, introduced me to Tamil poetry after a long chat about poetry while we were both speaking at a conference in Aspen.

Sanjayan, a Sri Lanka-born Tamil, recommended I start with Poems of Love and War, selected and translated by A. K. Ramanujan, a remarkable book of Tamil poems from throughout history.

Long-time subscribers to my Poetry Month emails will recall I shared a few poems from the anthology in April 2009. Sanjayan sent my email to his father, Appadurai Muttulingam, who in turn sent me a copy of his own delightful book of short stories.

I responded by sending Appadurai a few of my poems (my book was not yet out) and he offered to translate one of them, “Pantoum for Aceh,” into Tamil for a Canadian-based Tamil-language journal, URAIYAADAL, which was published in 2014 (see photo above). He also sent me an anthology of contemporary poetry in Tamil, which I reviewed on my blog, here.

That post led the Sri Lankan Tamil poet known as ANAR (Issath Rehana Mohamed Azeem), whose poem, “Marutham,” I had called out in my review, to reach out to me earlier this year and send me some of her poems.

How small the world becomes when we are open to discovery and exploring cultures beyond our own. We are a global people and, I’m convinced, the movement to close our borders and shut out “foreign” cultures will soon die, because technology and travel and our future on this planet demands it.

ANAR has been writing poetry in Tamil since the 1990s. Her works include Oviem Varaiyathe Thurikai, Enakkuk Kavithai Mukam, Perunkadal Podukiren, Utal Paccai Vaanam, and Potupotuththa Mazhaiththooththal (a collection of Tamil folk songs from Sri Lanka).

A number of ANAR’s poems have been translated into English and published. Her books have won several awards, most notably the Government of Sri Lanka’s National Literature Award, the Tamil Literary Garden’s (Canada) Poetry Award, the Vijay TV Excellence in the Field of Literature (Sigaram Thotta Pengal) Award, and the Sparrow Literature Award.

ANAR writes regularly on her blog, anarsrilanka.blogspot.com (Google Chrome will translate it for you) and lives with her husband and son in the Eastern Province of Sri Lanka at Sainthamaruthu.

Here is her poem, “The Brightness of Wind,” in an English translation by Professor Jayaraman and its Tamil original:

“The Brightness of Wind”

 

I allow the wind

To eat me

My eyes

I stroked its cool cheeks

For the first time

Before it showed itself in the wind

Intoxicated I drank the image day and night

Kisses I plucked from the wind

Overflowed as would the floods

These watery fingers

Reaching out from the wind

Play on my flesh

Tunes not known before

My dwelling has turned into a wind

You, the total haughtiness of the wind

You, the never-ending slight of the wind

The expanse of sand has gone dry with joy

Body, the green sky

Face, the blue moon

I saw the brightness of wind

In a flash of lightning

 

ANAR

translated into English by Professor Thanga Jayaraman

 

And in the original (Not sure how the beautiful Tamil script will work in WordPress, we’ll see):

 

காற்றின் பிரகாசம்

 

காற்றைத் தின்னவிடுகிறேன்

என்னை …

என் கண்களை …

குளிர்ந்த அதன் கன்னங்களை வருடினேன்

முதல் முறையாக

 

காற்றில் வெளிப்படுமுன் பிம்பத்தை

பகலிரவாக பருகினேன் போதையுடன்

 

காற்றினுள்ளிருந்து எடுத்த முத்தங்கள்

வெள்ளமாய் பெருக்கெடுத்திருக்கின்றன

 

காற்றிலிருந்து நீளும் நீர் விரல்கள்

முன்னறியாத ராகங்களை 

இசைக்கிறதென் சதைகளில்

 

என் வீடு காற்றாக மாறிவிட்டது

 

காற்றின் முழுமையான அகங்காரம் நீ

 

நீ காற்றின் முடிவற்ற அலட்சியம்

 

மகிழ்ச்சியில் உலர்ந்துகிடக்கின்றது மணல்வெளி

 

 

உடல் பச்சை வானம்

முகம் நீல நிலவு

நான் பார்த்தேன் காற்றின் பிரகாசத்தை 

ஒரு மின்வெட்டுப் பொழுதில்

 

–ANAR

c) 2007 ANAR, used by permission of the author

(On a side note, you should check out Sanjayan’s new video series on Vox, made in conjunction with the University of California. Here’s a link: Climate Lab.)

 

 

W.H. Auden

W.H. Auden

“September 1, 1939” is one of the most famous poems by W. H. Auden. He wrote the poem after learning the news of Hitler’s invasion of Poland at the start of World War II, published it a month later in The New Republic magazine, and reprinted it in his collection, Another Time, the following year.

Despite – or perhaps because of — rushing it into print, Auden appeared to dislike the poem almost as soon as it was published. As little as five years later, reprinting the poem in The Collected Poetry of W. H. Auden (1945), he cut the stanza with its most famous line, “We must love one another or die.”

“Between you and me, I loathe that poem,” he wrote to the critic Laurence Lerner, and resolved to keep it out of future collections of his work during his lifetime. He relented in 1955, allowing Oscar Williams to include it in his New Pocket Anthology of American Verse, but only with the proviso that the last line be edited to “We must love one another and die.”

Why did he hate this line – and the poem — so much? He claimed in a preface to the 1965 edition of his Collected Poems, “Some poems which I wrote and, unfortunately, published, I have thrown out because they were dishonest, or bad-mannered, or boring.”

In a Penguin anthology the previous year, the poem and four others were included along with a caveat: “Mr. W. H. Auden considers these five poems to be trash which he is ashamed to have written.”

What was it about the poem and, in particular, this line that Auden didn’t like? Was he embarrassed by its earnestness and sentiment, as some have suggested? Did he feel it was sappy and self-indulgent, as others would have it? Or was it “the most dishonest poem I have ever written,” as he put it?

And yet, the last line endures and the poem remains one of Auden’s most famous, surviving even today as one of the most eloquent pleas for empathy and peace in the face of totalitarianism. The poem even resurfaced as a touchstone for people in the wake of 9/11, as I have written elsewhere.

I wrote “Villanelle on a Line Hated by Auden” on 3 September 2014 as part of Jo Bell’s “52” experiment, and it was recently published in The Road Not Taken: The Journal of Formal Poetry.

Here is my poem, “Villanelle on a Line Hated by Auden”:

 

“We must love one another or die,”

The poet instructs, though doesn’t believe it.

“We must love one another and die.”

 

Revised to inclusive and on another try,

Then repudiated the poem, banning it.

He who must love another or die.

 

“Ours is not to reason why,”

Another poet said with the soul of wit.

Ours is to love one another. We die.

 

Changing a word makes meaning fly

To the far reaches of our minds and sit.

Must we, really, love one another or die?

 

Can we exist without knowing why–

Knowledge straining at the bit–

Until we can only love each other and die?

 

When we live without love, we die.

At least, those of us who desire it.

We must love one another or die.

We must love one another and die.

 

–Scott Edward Anderson

 

c) 2012 Alastair Cook

Sheree Mack c) 2012 Alastair Cook

Every month it seems there is another flashpoint of tensions between police and black communities in cities around the United States.

From Ferguson to Baltimore, our country seems ready to tear at the seams from a volatile combination of racial prejudice, police militarism, and the systemic poverty and disenfranchisement black people feel in America today.

It is impossible to ignore this critical issue of our day – we ignore it at our peril – even in a forum such as this.

In that light, I asked poet Sheree Mack if I could feature one of her poems for this final week of National Poetry Month.  I was thinking we’d choose one from her remarkable new book, Laventille, which I’ve just started reading.

But Sheree asked if I’d rather have a new poem, one where she is trying “to get my head around the issue of race in America now with #BlackLivesMatter and how things haven’t changed much since lynching was another arm of the ‘law’.”

When she sent me, “Called Witness,” I jumped at the chance to share it, with its unflinching mixture of found texts (from a source cited below) and its paraphrase of Billie Holiday’s “Strange Fruit” in line 8.

Sheree Mack was born in 1971 in Bradford, England, to a Trinidadian father and a “Geordie” mother of Ghanaian and Bajan ancestry. She worked as a teacher for several years before studying for a PhD on black British women poets.

Sheree now dedicates her life to “fostering creativity in everyone’s life” working with communities of women and young writers, and currently lives in Tynemouth.  She is the author of two collections, Family Album (Flambard Press, 2011) and Laventille (Smokestack Books, 2015).

I met Sheree Mack through the group “52,” which I participated in last year. Members of “52” wrote poems each week to prompts supplied by the group’s founder, Jo Bell, and commented upon each other’s work in a closed group on Facebook. (See my blog post on the subject here.)

Sheree’s poetry rose to the surface in my mind for its clarity, craft, and complexity of vision. Mack’s poems “lament, rage and mourn,” as the publisher says about her latest book. “But they also offer a song of healing, a celebration of survival, a glimmer of the flames that burn in the hearts of a people still living in slavery’s dark shadow. “

Her perceptive comments on a number of poems (mine and others) flagged her as one of those people you want to spend time with, even if the only opportunity is through the auspices of a virtual poetry workshop.

It was only later that I realized she was also the subject of my friend Alastair Cook’s stunning collodion portrait of a striking woman with captivating eyes, that I’d seen as part of his McArthur’s Store exhibition. There is something haunting about this portrait, as is the case of much of Alastair’s work in the medium.

The image is timeless or time-bound or both simultaneously. It could just as easily be a photograph of someone from Trinidad and Tobago at the time of the 1970 student uprisings in Laventille (the subject of her book) or an image from an even earlier era.

In short, the photo is a bit like Sheree Mack’s poetry: a bit timeless, a bit time-bound, but always unflinching and intriguing.

 

Here is Sheree Mack’s poem, “Called Witness”:

 

The exhibition opened in a small New York gallery.

The crowds came, self-righteous and proud.

 

Assembled and displayed were sixty photographs,

collected from family albums, attic trunks, flea markets.

 

Small, black-and-white postcards,

not more than a few inches long and wide,

 

depicting African-American men in Jim Crow

South; black bodies swinging from poplar trees.

 

Long lines stood for hours on the wintry

sidewalk, waiting for their view.

 

Once inside, bodies overwhelmed the intimate space.

Images laid flat on display tables or assembled

 

in tight groupings tacked to light-coloured walls.

Tattered, faded and worn, neither retouched nor restored.

 

Nor framed, matted, or captioned. Instead offered

as artefacts, not fine art objects. None for sale.

 

Visitor huddled close, hunched over tables,

faces pushed up against the walls, they felt

 

the warmth and proximity of others, jostling

and angling their bodies for a better look.

 

Through generations, onlookers enticed to the scene

by the spectacle of mutilated, dangling bodies.

 

c) 2015 Sheree Mack

Used by permission of the author.

_________________

Text cited: Lynching Photographs by Dora Apel and Shawn Michelle Smith,

University of California Press, Berkeley and Los Angeles, California, 2007

 

Table Mountain, Cape Town, South Africa. Photo by the author.

Table Mountain, Cape Town, South Africa. Photo by the author.

As some of you know, my new role in my day job at EY involves helping globalize prepaid smart metering programs for municipal utilities in emerging markets.

It’s a project that started in South Africa, and I think it’s pretty cool to be exporting an innovation from the African continent rather than imposing it from outside.

Traveling to South Africa, I’ve begun to explore the literature and art of the country over the last 20 years since the end of apartheid.

Thinking about poets whose work I could share, I thought about the work of Isobel Dixon. I know Isobel chiefly through social media — I believe it was Jo Bell or the Scottish Poetry Library who first introduced me to her work.

Dixon lives in London, but was born in Umtata, South Africa, and grew up in the semi-desert region known as the Karoo. She studied in the South African winelands country of Stellenbosch (where I was with my wife Samantha in January) and in Edinburgh.

In 2000, Dixon won the Sanlam Literary Award for her then unpublished collection of poetry Weather Eye, which was subsequently published by Carapace Poets (2001). She is also the author two collections, The Tempest Prognosticator and A Fold in the Map, both published by Salt in the UK. You can read more of her work at isobeldixon.com

I love the rhythms and musicality of Isobel Dixon’s poem, “She Comes Swimming,” and the mix of history and mythology that unfolds as we read. Of the poem Dixon wrote in an email to me,

“This is a poem very close to my heart, about my beloved country, South Africa. I wrote it in my first years abroad, feeling very keenly what it means to live far from the motherland, to yearn for it – and yet to fear that time away will change you, or change others’ perceptions of you, so that you might be perceived as an outsider, in spite of all you feel and are.”

Winelands, South Africa. Photo by the author.

Winelands, South Africa. Photo by the author.

Dixon “won a scholarship to do postgraduate study in my father’s native Scotland, the realisation of a dream, but at a time when I’d rather have stayed in South Africa – the momentous year of the first democratic elections.”

Another aspect of the poem that I particularly admire is what Dixon explains as “This sense of rueful distance, of vivid longing, and an awareness of the complex histories and hybrid mythologies of my faraway homeland, all fed into a poem about my imagined journey southwards, swimming back in time and language too.”

Dixon also told me that the poem has a central place in her Salt collection, A Fold in the Map, a collection that looks at the traveler’s state of “in-betweenness,” caught between lives and countries.

“The poem flowed onto the page in something of a hypnotic state,” Dixon wrote.  “One of those poems you look at the day after and think, ‘Where did that come from, and how?’ Wherever it summoned itself from, I’m glad it did.” We are too.

Here is Isobel Dixon’s poem, SHE COMES SWIMMING

 

She comes swimming to you, following

da Gama’s wake. The twisting Nile

won’t take her halfway far enough.

 

No, don’t imagine sirens – mermaid

beauty is too delicate and quick.

Nor does she have that radiance,

 

Botticelli’s Venus glow. No golden

goddess, she’s a southern

selkie-sister, dusky otter-girl

 

who breasts the cold Benguela, rides

the rough Atlantic swell, its chilly

tides, for leagues and leagues.

 

Her pelt is salty, soaked. Worn out,

she floats, a dark Ophelia, thinking

what it feels like just to sink

 

caressed by seaweed, nibbled by

a school of jewel-plated fish.

But with her chin tipped skyward

 

she can’t miss the Southern Cross

which now looks newly down on her,

a buttress for the roof of her familiar

 

hemisphere. She’s nearly there.

With wrinkled fingertips, she strokes

her rosary of ivory, bone and horn

 

and some black seed or stone

she can’t recall the name of,

only knows its rubbed-down feel.

 

And then she thanks her stars,

the ones she’s always known,

and flips herself, to find her rhythm

 

and her course again. On, southwards,

yes, much further south than this.

This time she’ll pay attention

 

to the names – not just the English,

Portuguese and Dutch, the splicings

and accretions of the years. She’ll search

 

for first names in that Urworld, find

her heart-land’s mother tongue.

Perhaps there’s no such language,

 

only touch – but that’s at least a dialect

still spoken there. She knows when she

arrives she’ll have to learn again,

 

so much forgotten, lost. And when

they put her to the test she fears

she’ll be found wanting, out of step.

 

But now what she must do is swim,

stay focused on each stroke,

until she feels the landshelf

 

far beneath her rise, a gentle slope

up to the rock, the Cape,

the Fairest Cape. Her Mother City

 

and its mountain, waiting, wrapped

in veils of cloud and smoke.

Then she must concentrate, dodge

 

nets and wrack, a plastic bag afloat –

a flaccid, shrunk albino ray –

until she’s close enough to touch

 

down on the seabed, stumble

to the beach – the glistening sand

as great a treasure as her Milky Way –

 

fall on her knees and plant a kiss

and her old string of beads,

her own explorer’s cross

 

into the cruel, fruitful earth at last.

She’s at your feet. Her heart

is beating fast. Her limbs are weak.

 

Make her look up. Tell her she’s home.

Don’t send her on her way again.

 

 

© 2001, Isobel Dixon

Used by permission of the author.

 

 

InOurTranslatedWorldIN OUR TRANSLATED WORLD: Contemporary Global Tamil Poetry, edited by Chelva Kanaganayakam (TSAR Publications, Toronto, Canada)

 

 

 

 

My first encounter with Tamil poetry came in the form of a short poem by Auvaiyar, written two millennium ago:

 

Bless you, earth:

 

field,
forest,
valley,
or hill,

you are only as good

as the good young men

in each place.

This poem appeared in a book of classical Tamil poetry called Poems of Love and War from the Eight Anthologies and the Ten Long Poems of Classical Tamil, selected and translated by A.K. Ramanujan, which featured poems from around 100 BC to AD 250, and late classical poems from the 5th and 6th centuries.

The poems were divided into two distinct sections, “Akam” (pronounced “aham”) which were love poems, and “Puram,” which were about heroes and battles. Akam means heart or household, and the poems are distinguished by the landscape each poem evokes and, in turn, the particular experience of love each landscape connotes. The Tamil called this “Tinai” in their poetics.

The subtropical climate of Tamil Nadu in southern India ranges from seaside to mountains, agricultural fields to forests, and desert. Each landscape is associated with a certain mood and the poems typically feature a flower, tree or plant of the corresponding biome. For example, as Ramanujan points out in his translator’s note, “Kurinci, a mountain flower; neytal, blue lily; mullai, jasmine; maratam, queen’s flower; palai, a desert tree.”

The poems are distinguished by straight-forward emotions and plain language (at least in translation), with a simplicity rivaling Chinese and Japanese poetry.

Take Kapilar’s poem of longing, “What She Said to her friend” (p. 13):

 

You ask me to forget him,

 

How can I?

 

His mountain,

 

wearing its dark raincloud

 

white-crested

 

as a bean flower

 

the east wind opens,

 

his mountain,

 

that blue sapphire,

 

is never out of sight.

 

We know from the Tinai that each landscape corresponds to a phase or experience of love: union/mountains; separation/desert; patience waiting/forest; anxious waiting/seaside; and infidelity and resentment/lowland farms. In the poem above, the speaker is clearly longing for the union or reunion with her lover on his mountain, which she keeps in her memory.

Tamils have a strong attachment to their language, which is central to their identity. Many refer to it as Tamil̲an̲n̲ai, “the Tamil mother.” It is one of the oldest surviving classical languages in the world, and written Tamil is a beautiful Brahmic script. Thankfully, this anthology is bilingual, which allows the reader to see the poems (if not read them) in their original form.

Poets such as Mahakavi Bharathiyar and Bharathidasan — the latter a kind of Tamil Fernando Pessoa who wrote many of his poems in various pseudonyms — brought Tamil poetry into the modern era. Their work gave Tamil poets freedom from the constraints of traditional Tamil poetics and expanded the subject matter available to Tamil poets.

In Our Translated World: Contemporary Global Tamil Poetry  is a recent anthology of contemporary global Tamil poetry, published by the Tamil Literary Garden of Canada and TSAR Publications in Toronto. The work of the Tamil poets in this anthology clearly bears the mark of its modern predecessors, but also the influence of modern and contemporary poetry from Europe and Asia.

Not surprising, given the book is a selection of recent poems from Tamils around the world. Indeed, the anthology, edited by Chelva Kanaganayakam, features around 80 poems from Tamil Nadu, Sri Lanka, Malaysia, Singapore, and the Tamil diaspora in England, Canada, and elsewhere.

As Chelva writes in the introduction, “for Tamils, particularly in the last three decades, the experiences have been one of displacement, trauma, nostalgia, and despair.” This is especially true of Sri Lankan Tamils, as many tried to escape ethnic conflicts on that island nation.

For some Sri Lankans, such conflict breeds a conflicting nature. For example, Chandra Bose Sudhakar, who defends his choosing a life of books,

 

Life began with some books:

 

that the words in books

 

produce no rice became

 

the problem of our lives.

 

For Sudhakar, “books swallow the howls/ of my tormented heart” and offer the Sri Lankan poet, who was killed by armed men in his house in 2007, a kind of acknowledgment he couldn’t find elsewhere.

Some poems in the collection have echoes, intentional or not, of classical Akam poems, such as this one by Majeed, which sounds to me like a desert or separation poem:

 

You live on

 

in the empty spaces

 

that cannot be filled

 

with anything else.

 

Or consider the seaside imagery of another poem by Auzhiyaal, which could be in the voice of an anxious lover trying to find solace in the littoral environment:

 

At the end of each day

 

our minute secrets

 

rise again

 

a pregnant silver fish

 

a sea weed

 

a pink sea rock.

 

The freedom afforded by contemporary poetics may bely an ignorance of Tamil classical themes and symbolism, as some of the poets freely mix landscapes, emotions, and place, such as in this poem by Rashmy,

 

Parting is always bitter;

 

everywhere, eventually brackish;

 

trembling flesh,

 

nerves starved with lust,

 

the soul’s love

 

draining, filled to the brim.

 

From our paddy fields

 

gold-hued grains

 

we will harvest

 

the day after yesterday.

 

Others call out the connection, such as Anar does in her poem “Marutham,” with its rich depiction of the farm fields and rice paddies indicative of the agricultural landscape and a hint of possible infidelity in the lines,

 

The fragrant smell of

 

ripe paddy in the fields,

 

offers a giddy sense of joy.

 

As much as the poets in this collection have deep memories of their Tamil past and poetry, the poems in this collection are, as the editor writes in his introduction, “a form of transformation, a gesture about the future. Whether the poems are ostensibly realistic or self-consciously fantastic, the poems move beyond ethnographic detail to offer an imaginative sense of the Tamil experience.”

And for poetry readers, the Tamil experience is a rich and rewarding one in the hands of the poets, translators, and editor of In Our Translated World.

 

##

 

 

 

 

Czeslaw Milosz, Miami Bookfair International, 1986

Czeslaw Milosz, Miami Bookfair International, 1986

This year marks a couple of important centenaries in poetry, which I will celebrate this week and next.  The first is the Nobel Prize-winning Polish poet Czesław Miłosz, who was one of the giants of 20th-century Polish literature.

Miłosz was born in Lithuania, where his parents escaped the political upheaval in their native Poland.  Late, as an adult, he fled Poland and the oppressive post-war Communist regime.  He could not have picked a place of greater contrast in which to settle: Berkeley, California in the 1960s.

As Seamus Heaney wrote recently, Miłosz “was poised between lyricism and witness.”  Indeed, as Miłosz himself wrote in The Witness of Poetry, “A peculiar fusion of the individual and the historical took place, which means that events burdening a whole community are perceived by a poet as touching him in a most personal manner. Then poetry is no longer alienated.”

But Heaney sums up the poet’s lasting power. “What irradiates the poetry and compels the reader is a quality of wisdom,” wrote Heaney. “Everything is carried and feels guaranteed by the voice.  Even in translation, even when he writes in a didactic vein, there is a feeling of phonetic undertow, that the poem is a trawl, not just talk.  And this was true of the work he did right up to his death in Kraków in 2004.

Probably one of Miłosz’s most famous poems, “Dedication,” was written in 1945 in Warsaw at the end of World War II.  That is, as Stephen O’Connor wrote in an excellent essay on sentimentality in Miłosz’s poetry, “after more than six years of Nazi occupation, after the bloody suppression of the Warsaw uprising, the subsequent deportation of the city’s more than one million inhabitants, the destruction of all its remaining buildings, and its liberation by the Soviet army… under such circumstances, the notion that poetry might help ‘save nations and people’ takes on a rather different character than it had for me when I first read ‘Dedication’ back in 1973.”

Here is Czesław Miłosz’s “Dedication,” in his own translation:

 

You whom I could not save

Listen to me.

Try to understand this simple speech as I would be ashamed of another.

I swear, there is in me no wizardry of words.

I speak to you with silence like a cloud or a tree.

 

What strengthened me, for you was lethal.

You mixed up farewell to an epoch with the beginning of a new one,

Inspiration of hatred with lyrical beauty;

Blind force with accomplished shape.

 

Here is a valley of shallow Polish rivers. And an immense bridge

Going into white fog. Here is a broken city;

And the wind throws the screams of gulls on your grave

When I am talking with you.

 

What is poetry which does not save

Nations or people?

A connivance with official lies,

A song of drunkards whose throats will be cut in a moment,

Readings for sophomore girls.

 

That I wanted good poetry without knowing it,

That I discovered, late, its salutary aim,

In this and only this I find salvation.

 

They used to pour millet on graves or poppy seeds

To feed the dead who would come disguised as birds.

I put this book here for you, who once lived

So that you should visit us no more.

 

Czesław Miłosz,Warsaw, 1945

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My poem, “The Poet Gene,”  received honorable mention in the 2011 ESRC Genomics Forum Poetry Competition announced this weekend.

The competition was co-sponsored by the Economic and Social Research Council’s Genomics Network and the Scottish Poetry Library of Edinburgh.   The judges for the competition were Pippa Goldschmidt, Professor Steve Yearley, director of the ESRC Genomics Forum, Peggy Hughes, the communications officer at the Scottish Poetry Library, and poet Kona Macphee.

Writing about my poem, the judges said, “Understandably, most of the poems were serious, and so we particularly enjoyed the humour in one of the runners up, “Improving the Human: ‘The Poet Gene’,” a nicely self-referential poem which imagines the perhaps negative impact of genetic engineering upon poetry itself.”

Here is my poem

“The Poet Gene”

The gene for “poet” has likely been isolated,
somewhere in a lab in southern California.
And I wonder how close it is to the gene
that makes you crave potato chips
or the “coffee-drinker” gene, perhaps,
or the one that causes procrastination.
If they have the poet gene cornered
in a Petri dish, will they admonish it
for all the bad poems ever written,
however unwittingly?
Would it improve the human
to have the poet gene spliced
into fruit or beef – or even bacon?
Poetry-enhanced bacon. Now that’s
genetic modification one can get behind!
Perhaps it can be modified by the reader gene,
increasing the number of poetry readers.
Oh, but what if it went “aft agley”?
What if this innocent experiment turned wicked?
Think of it, more bad poems by more bad poets—
(Increased productivity isn’t always a good thing.)
Perhaps this poem is, in fact, one of them,
a mutated, altered, monster poem
waiting to grab you by the throat and…Ahem.
Think of the sheer volume of bad poetry
overtaking the world, smothering us;
entire forests decimated for paper
upon which these poems are printed
or hundreds of iPhone apps built
to accommodate a staggering number of poems
cranked out by “GMPs” (genetically modified poets)
careering and MFAing all over the place.
Undoubtedly, someone will decide to splice
the poet gene from one poet into another. Then what?
Talk about trouble: one side striving for simplicity;
the other deliberately obtuse and indirect.
No, best leave the poet gene out of even this poem;
rather, focus on how to make potato chip consumption
actually slimming to the human figure, especially
when consumed with large quantities of your favorite ale
and generous servings of bacon.

–Scott Edward Anderson

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