Parnassus Paper

Nick Dubois

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The Olympic Games brought not only athletes from around the world to London this summer, but also the greatest gathering of poets in history for the Southbank Centre's Poetry Parnassus. Curated by Simon Armitage and named after the home of the Muses, Poetry Parnassus found a poet from nearly every Olympic country to invite to the United Kingdom for a week, celebrating the world's poetry in all its diversity. Read, sung, rapped and performed, this festival of live poetry was collected into The World Record, an anthology of poems from each of the 204 Olympic countries published by Bloodaxe. Selected and translated into English from over a hundred languages under the editorship of Neil Astley and Anna Selby, The World Record reveals the power of poetry to speak across cultures and challenge the boundaries of language.

To mark this great migration of poets, an autograph edition of The World Record was conceived, where each poet could present their work in their own hand and tongue, accompanied by readings of their poems. The trace of a pen and the sound of a voice would record poem and poet alike, providing a visual display of scripts and alphabets and a visceral experience of the poets' presence. Something of Poetry Parnassus though eluded this process, the poets' journeys and the lands they came from, suggesting another absence, the countries and peoples beyond the Olympic family.

So before pen could be put to paper a journey was embarked on to the Balkan peninsula, home of Mount Parnassus and of Polip, a young poetry festival jointly organised by Kosovar and Serb writers in Prishtina, Kosovo. Gathering poets from across the Balkans, and held in makeshift premises in the basement of a communist-era tenement block, Polip shows poetry transcending borders once deemed unbreachable. As the festival unfolded, an open air paper-making studio greeted visitors at the entrance, inviting them to mix fibres from the five continents to make the paper for The World Record. In the absence of a press, the wet paper was laid between planks in the gutter over which a van wheel drove, squeezing out rivulets of water. Hung to dry at the base of the 'spinal cord' of Prishtina, a modernist edifice tiered with balconies painted a rich green, the paper blended with the lines of drying sheets and clothes that punctuated this vast theatre of the everyday. Involving poets and passers-by, lines written or slung, the paper made for Parnassus brought in those absent from Olympus, whether as a country or a people, Kosovo or Roma.

Lacking the ceremony of the Olympic flame, the paper was carried to London, where British designer Sean Dare had made a desk for the writing of The World Record. Made from dark walnut inset with green leather, Dare's striking interpretation of a traditional theme echoes the modernist-inspired interiors of the Southbank's Royal Festival Hall, home to the Saison Poetry Library where The World Record would be created and housed. The green balconies of Prishtina's spinal cord had given way to the pristine terraces of London's palace of the people, hosting poets not just from the Balkans but from every corner of the globe. And as they wrote their poems at the desk, its green field was filled with their signatures in gold, laureates jostling in contemplation rather than competition.

Amid this mêlée, a small hand-bound volume from the Presteigne Bindery recorded each poet's signature and country, while introducing a native emblem of literary diversity. Modelled on the scale of Laurence Sterne's Tristram Shandy, its pages are interspersed with hand-marbled leaves, referred to by Sterne as "the motly emblem of my work". Endlessly variable and open to chance, the paper's colours and shapes configure richly on the page, mirroring the wealth of poetic voices and forms gathered into The World Record.

Accident accompanied design to provide unique works for the handwritten edition, as poets responded to chance and error. Anise Koltz of Luxembourg, the senior poet of the festival, encountered two of her poems merged as one in the printed edition; as she wrote, she aptly entitled the second 'Un Mensonge' ('A Lie'). On seeing the wealth of alphabets on display, Ribka Sibhatu of Eritrea translated her poem 'Mother Africa' from the Italian original into her ancestral Tigrinya, one of the world's most ancient scripts shaped from over two hundred characters.

Resembling an alternative map of the world, the green field of the desktop teems with the signatures of poets, suggesting completion. But Poetry Parnassus was also a beginning, as The World Record travels to be exhibited, inspiring new gatherings of poets and voices. The empty sheets of paper we hung to dry in Prishtina were not only for the poets of the world to write on at Poetry Parnassus, but represented all those who go unheard, the people who are not present, and how poetry can speak for them.

An e-book of the autograph edition of The World Record will be published by Bloodaxe next year, containing the handwritten poems in the original language, their translations into English, and audio of the poets' readings.

Click here for Parnassus Paper, a short documentary by Ilir Gjocaj filmed at Polip International Poetry Festival, showing the creation of a portfolio of Balkan poetry for Poetry Parnassus alongside the paper for The World Record.