Western Mail features ‘Sanctuary’ poetry collection

Jenny White, Arts and Culture writer for Wales’s leading newspaper The Western Mail gave Sanctuary: There Must Be Somewhere a double-page spread recently.

What is sanctuary and where do we find it? Poet and TV producer, Angela Graham discusses her debut poetry collection and its powerful central theme.

August 2020. The first summer of lockdown. Around the world, people were confronting issues of life and death. There was a tremendous sense of generalised threat to our health and to the systems we relied on: the NHS, transport, the food supply; and we were cut off from our normal networks of friends, colleagues and relatives.

My first collection of short stories, A City Burning (Seren Books) was awaiting publication. This included two stories about the pandemic, prompted by anger at gross injustices: the plight of domiciliary carers who were expected to keep going without adequate PPE and a similar exposure of workers in lower-paid, public-facing jobs.

My mind was full of other images of jeopardy: migrants forced to leave their homes in search of a safer life and action to combat climate change being undermined widely around the world.  In Britain democracy was under threat. Remember the attempted prorogation of parliament in 2018? And was there a role of the sacred in all this?

The decision to focus on sanctuary was immediate, as was opting to involve other poets. I wanted the collection itself to embody the welcoming aspect of sanctuary. I’m from Belfast and have lived for forty years in Cardiff. I now divide the year between the two places. I decided to look for two poets in Wales and two in Northern Ireland who had experience of sanctuary in one form or another and invite them to write a poem each in collaboration with me.

I have been a film maker most of my working life. Collaboration is second nature to me. Writing poetry collaboratively is challenging because good poetry comes from the individual’s unflinching engagement with her or his inner life as it encounters the world outside. For a poet to allow someone access to that inner life risks having that precious inner sanctum violated − by crass interventions or poor critical judgement. But it was precisely because engagement with another poet is a form of entering the sanctuary where the imagination is at work that I wanted to take this approach.

I opted for Welshman, Phil Cope straight away because he has unrivalled expertise in the holy wells and shrines of the British Isles and is a gifted photographer. The obvious choice for my mentor was the Northern Irish poet, Glen Wilson. He won the Seamus Heaney Award in 2017. I had first contacted him as a fan of his poetry and been impressed by his collection An Experience On The Tongue (Doire Press). Glen contributed a poem which entirely his own work. Mahyar, the other poet living in Wales, is an Iranian.

I looked for at least one poet who had had the experience of having been a refugee because although it is legitimate to imagine and write about such things, I felt it essential to include the lived life.

The search for this poet lasted almost the entire year. I didn’t worry about this because I expected complexity. Language, for one thing. I found, a poet who was skilful in a Middle Eastern language but who may have found the critical discipline too challenging, even though I employed as a mentor a professional poet/translator with a shared language background. I found a person from an African country who withdrew through fears of being penalised by the Home Office if they expressed certain views. It didn’t surprise me how circumspect people were.

Since the poets I found in Wales were men I was hoping to find a female former refugee in Northern Ireland for gender balance. I contacted many organisations in Northern Ireland which work with refugees but they were hard pressed to think of a female poet. Poetry also seemed to be, of all the art forms, the one with least presence. I wonder if this is because poetry makes heavy demands on language. In Wales cultural services in this field have had longer to develop. A good example is Hafan Books’ Refugees Writing in Wales series.

I encountered the Italian novelist, poet and academic, Viviana Fiorentino. She is an economic migrant now living in Northern Ireland. She campaigns via PEN International on behalf of prisoners of conscience and assists refugees and asylum-seekers.

The poet with a refugee background I eventually came across was a European. Film maker and writer, Csilla Toldy is a Hungarian who fled Communist Hungary for life in the ‘free’ west. Her experiences are remarkably similar to those being undergone these days by people from other continents.

I drew up an agreement with the poets, stipulating a fee, a time scale, deadlines and the handling of copyright − if I didn’t secure a publisher by a certain date the copyright would revert to them. I left the form of collaboration flexible, to allow for their individual style and requirements.

In practice, the process was wonderful. I could hold each draft in mind as the poet tried out various ideas so that I champion something they were about to abandon. I could indicate places that were obscure or bolster someone’s courage so they could take a risky option. I could robustly call out anything derivative or sentimental. Much of this is what a critic does. What is novel is the level of engagement as the piece is being created, while it is forming in the poet’s mind. It requires patience, humility and a holding of nerve on both sides.

As a result, there are poems in the book on subjects that take the reader way beyond what I could have achieved on my own. As the Introduction says,

 ‘At least five themes emerge strongly… Sanctuary in another person…; in the divine or numinous; in the world, as itself a sanctuary for humanity; as the goal of major population shifts and in the response of receiving populations; as the hosting of the self within the body.’

But how to get this all published? Given the urgency of the theme, the work ought to come out as soon as possible. But usually it takes years for a collection to get to publication. Amy Wack, who had recently retired as Editor at Poetry Wales, suggested that a pamphlet would have a shorter turn-around time. When I approached Seren Books I was found to have a book’s worth. So a full collection it was! All the same, it was brought out as quickly as a pamphlet, for which I am very grateful.

I’ve written poems since childhood. I didn’t make a serious attempt to have them published until about 2018. Although I am an award-winning film-maker I suspect my true love is poetry. I love the precision required – which is like film editing. Something good is lost for the sake of something better.

As a child, my family couldn’t afford to buy books, but we’d been given that perennial anthology, Palgrave’s The Golden Treasury of English Verse. Unusually, this version, from about 1920, had an ‘Anglo-Irish Supplement’. This one book introduced me to the English ‘greats’ but also to Irish poets, including Yeats.

And who isn’t a fan of Seamus Heaney? I love the mid-century Irish and Northern Irish poets, Austin Clarke and Padraic Fiacc. From them I learned (I hope) to be plain, accurate and lyrical. There’s a poem in the book inspired by the medieval Welsh poet, Dafydd ap Gwilym because Welsh-language poetry has given me a lot. I admire Gwyneth Lewis’s work, especially Treiglo. 

It was a great thrill to assemble and host, in Welsh, the bilingual panel session on Sanctuary in the Cardiff Poetry Festival on 31st July. Gwyneth Lewis took part virtually, and in person, the Rev. Aled Edwards, architect of the Nation of Sanctuary concept; novelist and poet, Dylan Moore and former refugee, Joseph Gnagbo from the Ivory Coast. What a breadth of contributions.

Gwyneth Lewis (on screen), myself, Joseph Gnagbo, Rev Aled Edwards and Dylan Moore at the session on Sanctuary and Poetry at the Cardiff Poetry Festival

When I began this book, I thought of sanctuary as a place but I have understood that is also something I can be. The Welsh Government has undertaken to make Wales the world’s first Nation of Sanctuary but we can be people of sanctuary any time we choose. My poem, There Must Be Somewhere mentions,

shelter in the cwtch of someone’s overcoat,

a harbouring gaze, if nothing else.

And Home puts it more succinctly,

…. We are a home for one another.

That’s what I hope readers will take away from Sanctuary: There Must Be Somewhere.

The book is availble from Seren Books and from bookshops.

I gratefully acknowledge financial support for the book from the Arts Council of Northern Ireland via The National Lottery.

Author photo of AG Credit @HirstPhotos