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Pascale Petit, Poetry Editor PL in Brit Lit: NYC

The Hudson used to flow under Ground Zero. Excavations for building the Twin Towers unearthed animal carcasses, cannonballs, oyster shells, a canister of eighteenth-century newspapers, a century-old slipper, a large Portuguese fishing hook, antique tools and old anchors. One iron anchor was so enormous, 19 men had to carry it up to where it was laid to rest in the Trade Center’s sixth-level basement. Up came more bombs, cannon muzzles, and one small gold-rimmed cup with two hand-painted lovebirds. Under the rubble there’s black river silt covering old docks and ships. Below the silt, there’s red quicksand called bull’s liver. Under that is glacial gravel scooped up and left by the glaciers that once covered New York. Under that is hardpan clay scoured dry by the glaciers. And finally under that is the Manhattan bedrock of mica schist the Twin Towers builders had to drill into to root them.

Poems need deep roots, heavy anchors and hard bedrock like the mirrory Manhattan mica schist. Which is why this editor and other panelists at the Brit Lit: New Writing from Britain and Ireland panel discussion in Manhattan last October entered into the mire of 9/11 poetry rather reluctantly. This event was arranged by the Council for Literary Magazines and Presses (CLMP), Baruch Center for the Performing Arts, Rattapallax Press, and Poets House, and promised in press releases to deliver a discussion of the dynamic connections between US and UK poetry. I was prepared for this. I had also tried to plan for the worst case scenario and bought the latest 9/11 anthology, Poetry After 9/11: An Anthology of New York Poets, but found few poems to admire in it — the ‘message’ dominated most.

So here we were — Simon Armitage, Glyn Maxwell, Paul Muldoon, Mimi Khalvati, the moderator Todd Swift, and myself, facing a full auditorium in Baruch College, and the moderator lost no time getting to the nub: how did British poets react to 9/11? Muldoon had plenty to say, and shouted to a delighted audience “Every poem should be revolutionary!” Brilliant tactic I thought — no need to address the problem of writing about issues, the act of making a poem is political in itself. We sat back in our seats and let our expert hold forth. But no, we had to chip in. There was a long pause before we each in our different ways nervously proposed to the restless audience that in Britain what matters is the quality of the writing, not the subject, the craft, not the message. Reactions to terrorist attacks must gestate before they can be made into poems.

I added that the response to 9/11 from Poetry London submissions was mainly antiwar. Women poets in particular seemed to be writing apocalyptic, grieving poems, already expressing a nostalgia for the planet, but that these heavy themes were being handled lightly and freshly. And to illustrate my point I read Moniza Alvi’s ‘How The Stone Found Its Voice’ and Penelope Shuttle’s ‘The Fields’. (Well — that’s what I would have liked to have done, and I did bring them along just in case.) There are fine poems that deal with 9/11 directly and with originality, and some crop up in Poetry London these days. Now that time has elapsed and the attack has had time to root in the imagination, see Sinéad Morrissey’s ‘The Wound-Man’ and Veronica Golos’s ‘The Sacrifice of Flowers’ in this issue’s excellent poems edited by Martha Kapos.

Then Glyn Maxwell delivered more bad news — the number of US poets known by most poetry writers and readers in the UK could be counted on the fingers of one or two hands. I backed this up but added a few more names to soften the blow. This revelation drew angry protests from one tutor in the audience. She said she’d attended our Waterstone’s Piccadilly launch in June, and on the strength of that, brought along her workshop students to hear this panel, because she believed there was genuine cross-Atlantic interest, and Poetry London was part of that. Yes! I replied, we were working on it. We are working on it, and so are a couple of other magazines. During my two weeks in Manhattan I asked poets which UK poets they knew, and those names also could be counted on one or two hands. Which makes Poetry London more determined than ever to bridge the Atlantic divide. The next issue will feature more US poets alongside ours, inviting further interchange, comparison, dialogue. And Poetry London will return to NY in the autumn, global crisis permitting.