Happy New Year!
I have a 2017 project I’m very excited about. Inspired by Ann Morgan’s wonderful A Year of Reading the World, I’m going to embark on my own around-the-world literary quest: this time, via poems. Within an unspecified time frame, I will share a poem from every country in the world: 230 in total.
Why 230? Where am I getting this number from? Deciding what constitutes a country is notoriously tricky. Morgan chose to read 196 books, using the 195 UN-recognised sovereign states plus Taiwan. I wanted to separate out the components of the UK, and I also wanted to err on the side of more rather than less when deciding whether to include territories (I don’t have any deadlines to meet, and if I can’t find a poem from a particular place I will simply skip it).
So in the end, I’ve chosen to use Lonely Planet’s The Travel Book: A Journey Through Every Country in the World to guide my journey. My copy is not the most up-to-date edition (it’s from 2004); moreover, Lonely Planet has its own agendas when deciding whether or not to include a place, some not necessarily conducive to finding poetry (Antarctica is on the list!). But I like how comprehensive the list is; I like that England, Scotland and Wales have separate entries (Northern Ireland is lumped in with Ireland); and most of all, I like that it is a beautiful big book, full of gorgeous images, and I can turn to a new page each time I am ready to find another poem.
I’m not going to impose many rules on myself. The poem does not need to be set in the country it is representing, or be “about” it in any explicit sense. The author doesn’t need to have been born there, as long as she or he identifies with the place. Nor does the poem need to be representative of broad literary/poetic trends in that particular country: no place can be summed up by a single poem, and that is not the point of this project, which is to broaden my horizons and those of my readers. Sometimes I will deliberately favour female poets because we are biased to favour white males – don’t believe me, pull down any anthology of poetry and open to the contents page – and making a little effort to counter our biases is extremely rewarding. Indeed, this is what this project is all about. The huge majority of my favourite poems are all from a single country, England: particularly given that I’m not even from England, that should be enough proof that cultural biases play an enormous role in dictating what we seek out, and what we assume to be valuable. And while I don’t for a second doubt the consummate skill of the male English poets I love, I have to also consider the treasure trove of poetry I am missing out on by maintaining such a narrow gaze.
I will do some research before selecting a poem, rather than simply googling “poem from Burkina Faso” and posting the first thing that comes up! I am excited by the prospect of learning about places I know next to nothing about, and also about languages – one of my other great passions. So to that end I will do as much research as time allows. I haven’t decided conclusively what I will do regarding translations. If the poem is written in a language I don’t understand (ie pretty much anything except for English, French and German), I will post an English translation where one is available; I may also post a translation of the French and German works if I came to them via translation. Full credit will of course be given to the translator in addition to the poet.
Finally, I reserve the right to narrow or widen these guidelines as I go!
I look forward to beginning my journey in Afghanistan…