I recently took part in an event which was a video interview with Manus Island refugee Behrouz Boochani – the prize-winning author of No Friend but the Mountain – and his translator Omid Tofighian. Neil Vallelly, author, academic and the event’s organiser and interviewer, invited four local poets to read work on migration or exile, partly as poetry is such a vital part of Kurdish culture, and as a way of honouring Behrouz’s extraordinary prison memoir. (The other poets were Rhian Gallagher, Lynley Edmeades and Fiona Farrell, all of whom read potent and confronting work.) I was still reeling from and absorbing No Friend but the Mountains so found I couldn’t write anything in immediate response. I was still absorbing its shocks, stoicism, lyricism and courage – and the gross injustice of his and other refugees’ detention without trial. Instead I read ‘Warning’, a poem which was in response both to an image of the tiny boy, Alan Kurdi, or Shenu, from the refugee crisis in 2015 – and to the way an article in The Guardian about his death was framed.
I wrote the poem in 2015, but hadn’t published it until the new collection came out. There is no explanatory note in the back of To the Occupant; I subconsciously assumed people would never forget the image. I hope I was right – desensitising, numbing and denial as part of the reaction to refugees’ plight seem all too prevalent.
Now, of course, the photo of Alan is freshly in people’s minds, because of recent comparisons between the equally distressing images in world media of Óscar Martínez and his 23-month-old daughter, Valeria, from El Salvador, who also drowned while seeking a better life.
Crisis, disaster or public poetry is a notoriously risky genre. React too soon, and a poem can seem like a tone-deaf misappropriation. Don’t react, and your work can be accused of being ‘too domestic’, ‘too trivial’, ‘not political enough’.
In the current climate, looking away feels like the grosser of two evils.