Panel discussion ‘Atlantic Drift’ builds literary bridge across international waters

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On Monday, “Atlantic Drift: A Discussion of Interconnections Between Contemporary Poets in the US and the UK” took place on campus in the Maude Fife Room in Wheeler Hall. The event featured two poets from the United Kingdom: James Byrne from Lancashire, England and Zoë Skoulding from Bangor, Wales. The event also featured two poets from the United States: Forrest Gander from California and Bhanu Kapil from Colorado. The poets were seated adjacent to one another and the event was structured like a speaker panel. The host, Lyn Hejinian, introduced the guests to the audience by reading short biographies, and Byrne introduced the anthology itself.

“Atlantic Drift” is also the title of a book — a poetry anthology edited by Byrne and Robert Sheppard, and consisting of the works of 24 poets from the United Kingdom, Ireland, Canada and the United States. Byrne emphasized the efforts of valuing innovation, which he defined as the divergence from movements that remain static. He explained that the purpose of the book, subtitled “An Anthology of Poetry and Poetics,” was to dispel the Atlantic divide and display the dialogues among artists across the globe.

This goal was clear when the poets read their own works. Each poet had a unique voice, which helped delineate stylistic differences. For instance, Gander steadily rocked back and forth on his feet while reading, a quirk that aided his articulation. Skoulding had impeccable control over her cadence when reading catalogs within her poem. One poet in particular demonstrated her stance on equality through her actions rather than her voice; Kapil decided to show her love for communal space by not standing at the podium. Instead, she explained that she wanted to read her work sitting adjacent to her peers. Overall, nothing within the artists’ posture, tone or attitude appeared amateur.

Yet, despite these distinct characteristics, the poets clearly demonstrated the unified objective. The mission statement specified by Byrne was met, and the poems read were saturated by a common theme — political and social turmoil are subjects that all countries undoubtedly have to face. The evening’s repertoire included a piece about terrorist attacks in London, as well as a poem named “Tyranny of the Times” that offered insight into Donald Trump’s presidential administration. Another reading was inspired by the poet’s experience being denied a visa after a visit to a poetry reading in Libya.

If there was anything to improve the interactivity and impact of this event, it would be the input of a visual aid. The Maude Fife Room contains a large projector screen that hung behind the guests’ heads. Why not utilize it? The influence of the poems would have surely been supported if the audience could have visualized the form of the poem and pondered the flourishes in their structures while listening intently.

After these readings, both Skoulding and Byrne stated that 2016 was an extremely turbulent year for the United Kingdom. By explicitly and implicitly mentioning multiple controversial events such as the 2016 U.S. presidential election and Brexit, and reminding the audience of all the adversities they have faced, the poets successfully managed to arouse an intense level of empathy from the room.

One other appreciated gesture was the poets’ willingness to address the amount of exposure to poetry that students gain from school. Byrne, in particular, mentioned the male-centric aspect of the instruction. He stated that there was a general lack of exposure to female poets, which he found to be rather bland and hierarchal. Additionally, most of the poets agreed that they were primarily exposed to British and American poets. Byrne also shared a humorous anecdote about how he was introduced to Allen Ginsberg’s “Howl” and Leonard Cohen’s work during school detention.

Skoulding, who has experience with translation, also offered her thoughts on how that ties into the interactions and dialogues among artists of different cultures. The poets all seemed to agree that it is erroneous to assume that entire nations are in conversation. It is more accurate to say that there are specific regions — and on an even smaller scale, individual exchanges — where transatlantic encounters occur.

The event was wrapped up neatly by concluding that the anthology is not intended to represent the entirety of artistic cross-pollination, but to highlight an amazing project that transcends national borders. Comprehensively, “Atlantic Drift” was an enlightening event that succeeded in educating avid poetry lovers, artists and students alike.

Contact Sophie Kim at [email protected].