The British Council supported the participation of Jamaican artists Tanya Shirley and Ishion Hutchinson at the recently-concluded Contains Strong Language, the UK’s biggest poetry and performance festival of new writing in Hull.
Contains Strong Language is the BBC’s national poetry and spoken word festival. It is a partnership between the BBC, Wrecking Ball Press, Arts Council, Absolutely Cultured, 14-18 NOW and the British Council.
Building on the huge success of last year’s inaugural festival, Hull welcomed 18 poets – the Hull 18 – along with local, national, and international artists celebrating poetry and spoken word through 30 events over the three days.
Unwritten Poems, a British Council-led project that took place in June, invited contemporary Caribbean Diaspora poets to write into that vexed space, exploring the nature of war and humanity – as it exists now, and as it existed during World War I.
“It’s an honour to have my poems included in Unwritten: Caribbean Poems After the First World War, edited by Karen McCarthy Woolf,” shares Shirley, who explained that the anthology represents the necessary inclusion of Caribbean soldiers in the ongoing discourse surrounding WW1. “The BBC Contains Strong Language and the Birmingham Literature Festival gave me the opportunity to perform these poems, as well as poems from my collection The Merchant of Feathers (Peepal Tree Press) to appreciative audiences.” Having also done a sit-down with BBC Radio 4, Shirley concluded that coupled with the readings from the festival, the interview cemented her belief that Caribbean writers continue to contribute meaningful and necessary work to the global literary landscape. “I am grateful to the British Council, 14-18 NOW, Wrecking Ball Press, Nine Arches Press and the BBC Contains Strong Language for their sponsorship of the project.”
Fellow artist Hutchinson, who led the Unwritten Poems workshop at Calabash in June, shares a similar perspective. “The Contains Strong Language events were stimulating and grounding. I felt we had a chance to pay homage to a considerable part of our history and the festival definitely had an air of celebration, even, to some degree, a reckoning.” Still, his fondest takeaway from the festival was, “Sharing in the brilliant company of Tanya, Vladimir, Jay and others and the impetus towards greater work, that Contain Strong Language marks the beginning of an exploration that’s full of possibilities.”
British Council Country Director Olayinka Jacobs-Bonnick highlighted the importance of a stronger Caribbean narrative in adding value to the ongoing global discourse around WW1 and the invaluable role the region played. “I have quite a personal connection to this programme. My paternal great-grandfather was relocated to the Caribbean from Scotland after serving in WW1. He came to build the railway. When meeting with the young Caribbean poets who participated in the Unwritten Poems programme in Jamaica in June, we discussed the displacement of Caribbean people who left the region to go and fight in WW1 and the effect that had on families, migration, nation building and why their stories had never been told. I encouraged them to also consider the reverse – the stories of people like my great-grandfather. What effect did being relocated to the Caribbean from the UK; have on the existing social norms both here and in the UK? What was the impact of this on the construction of our Caribbean identity and on the families may have been left behind, the new families that were formed? We must tell those stories too.”