Date Archives November 2018

Ooh, sometimes the truth is harder than the pain inside

I recently told a group of people that I had adopted a new philosophy called ‘Cheerful Nihilism.’ They laughed. Should I have been surprised? I aborted an attempt to do research for this blog (i.e. the usual wiki search: Camus, Kierkegaard, Nietzsche) – what’s the point?

So, this ‘new philosophy’ has basically meant that I am willing to actually do some art instead of just dream about it. Perhaps I should write an art manifesto and hope that it becomes adopted by a group of bored and revolutionary artists in Zurich? Such is the power of a blog, so I am told.

Here goes the manifesto:

• Practise
• Don’t assume that all lists disguised as manifestos are tedious
• Parodies are OK
• Don’t wait until tomorrow
• Don’t accept a difference of opinion or a wall of silence as a comment on your character or the quality of your ideas: if you want it, you can get it
• Just doing your art and/or writing listy blogs that no one will read is not OK – go beyond the guilty pound in the guitar case outside the train station and consider how your skills and passion can further enchance that great swell known as humanity
• Challenge verbosity (e.g. ‘great swell known as humanity’)
• Go beyond the guitar case – be kind whenever you can
• Time is running out
• No, really, the climate scientists have said this many, many times

Cheerful nihilism: it might catch on. You heard it here first. Except that you didn’t, of course. A German with a massive moustache and sour expression has been whispering the truth to you for over 120 years. Listen to him. And me. Type into Google: ‘Pointless existence, willing to have fun, skills in…’ I presume that such a search would lead to a meaningful result…

Let me know how you get on.

Art, Truth and Politics

World Press Photo of the Year 2004 – taken by Jean-Marc Bouju, 31st March 2003: an Iraqi man comforts his 4-year-old son at a holding centre for prisoners of war

George Orwell said, ‘What I have most wanted to do…is to make political writing into an art.’

I listened to a poem a few days ago that mocked art that is made to be political. It was a funny poem, but perhaps it was unintentionally funny in that it was itself an example of political art being about venting and doing nothing to encourage people to become politically active.

In Henrik Ibsen’s play Enemy of the People (1882), Dr Stockman discovers that the baths in his town, which are its main source of revenue, are contaminated with toxins from a factory upstream. The mayor convinces Stockman’s friends that repairing the baths would be financially disastrous for the town. ‘At the end of the play, Stockman remains true to his own moral compass but he and his family are ruined…’*

Aside from the obvious point that, given the current climate breakdown, this play written 136 years ago is more relevant now than when it was first performed, I wonder how many people who have seen it have decided to emulate Dr Stockman? Or rather, I wonder how many people have been inspired to be politically active in whatever small way possible after seeing Enemy of the People? Or were they satisfied that they had done their bit by simply seeing the play? Yep, that’ll show the powers that be: spending money on thought-provoking plays! That’ll show the powers that be: writing ranty poems about people spending money on thought-provoking plays! That’ll show the powers that be: writing a blog about ranty poems about people spending money on thought-provoking plays!

I’m not suggesting that we should all be so politically active that we end up with immaculate morals and no money. I just think that some people like talking the talk and letting other people get on with the unglamorous chore of activism.

However, I do appreciate political art for reasons other than its potential to jolt people into action. For example, I recently enjoyed Mark Titchner’s exhibition We Want Responsibility To Be Shared By All, which ‘explores ordinary people’s voices against a world of corporate and political messages.’ Pete ‘the Temp’ Bearder is fantastically talented: I have seen him perform twice, though sadly I didn’t get to see his show Pete ‘the Temp’ vs. Climate Change. He seems unusual in that he is able to monetise his poetry/spoken word and remain consistently politically active. Whatever your artistic or political tastes, you have to admire anyone who can perform an ‘oil orgy’ on the table in the middle of an oil company’s meeting… and with puns!

For years, I appreciated Leon Kuhn’s caricatures of Bush and Blair. Then there’s Banksy, Mark Wallinger, Susan Crile (bleak works such as Bleeding Prisoner, though I think the original Abu Ghraib photos are far more terrifying)…and I still listen to Rage Against the Machine, though given that I do this in the kitchen these days, they simply make me wash the dishes with slightly more vigour.

And there’s Harold Pinter’s poem American Football: A Reflection upon the Gulf War, which prompted Private Eye to start writing ‘Harold Pinter’s Nursery Rhymes’. I love Ibsen and I love Pinter, but goodness me: if ever there was a hilarious poem designed to vent, this is it. And I don’t think in a good way. But who gets to decide what is good in art and politics? And isn’t art just an unnecessary filter when, as Pinter did in his Nobel speech, you can say it as it is?

‘…We have brought torture, cluster bombs, depleted uranium, innumerable acts of random murder, misery, degradation and death to the Iraqi people and call it ‘bringing freedom and democracy to the Middle East’…’

Me dressed as Blair – taken by Felix Clay for The Guardian at the Hay Festival, 28th May 2008

*Lara Shalson, Theatre & Protest, Macmillan, 2017, p. 55

Thongs of Praise

See what I did there? I did a pun in the title and I used a word that everyone finds funny…

Why aren’t you laughing? I may as well have said this at the end of the gig I did a few hours ago, but instead I just glared at the audience (nine poets and a barman), pointed, and said, ‘I’ll have words!’ Which, on reflection, was an appropriate threat for a poetry gig, though sadly I wasn’t allowed to share any more words at that moment due it being the next poet’s turn.

In his show Content Provider, Stewart Lee regularly taunts ‘the Southend theatre people’ in the top row. Maybe I should plan my anger next time. Anything less than laughter with tears will result in a rehearsed sneer and silly name calling. I’ll heckle the audience and pretend it’s pretending, when actually I’m struggling to cope with their neutral expressions and my staggering sense of entitlement.


Pleased to meet you…Sascha A Akhtar


Sascha A Akhtar has been widely translated into Armenian, Portuguese, Galician, Russian, Dutch & Polish. She has performed at festivals such as the Poetry International Festival Rotterdam and Southbank Centre’s Meltdown Festival London curated by Yoko Ono. Her most recent poetry collection is 199 Japanese Names for Japanese Trees. She also works as a freelance editor and healer using therapeutic meditation practices at Be Meditation. Her latest work, ‘Only Dying Sparkles’, appears in the Winter 2018 issue of Poetry Wales in the form of a deck of tarot-like cards. Next year, she will teach a workshop at The Poetry School, ‘Technicians of The Sacred: The Poem As A Magical Event’, and publish a book of translations as the Belles-Lettres of Hijjab Imtiaz on Oxford University Press, India.


What makes you write poetry despite the overwhelming majority of people’s crushing indifference towards it?

Well, one reason is, I actually cannot not write poetry, so there’s that. I suppose it has been a pathway for healing for me since I was very young. So whether or not anyone’s reading it, I’m writing it!! The indifference makes no difference to my practice. #PathologicalPoet 😊 😊 😊

WH Auden wrote that ‘poetry makes nothing happen’ – how do you know that this isn’t true?

WH Auden must have been a very depressed poet if that’s what he believed! It is important though to put that in the right context. In his time, in his generation as a man, perhaps there were expectations of him that he did not fulfill and indeed poetry “made nothing happen,” like food, shelter etc (and it still doesn’t) It all depends on what you feel a “happening” is. Any action we take in this world with intention can affect change. Words are more powerful than most things; the most powerful of all. In that way, according to the laws of manifestation and even if you look back at the usage of words throughout human history, poetry has always been believed to make everything happen!! It was only when we started wanting to be “civilised,” and “enlightened,” that we lost the sense of our own individual power and how we can wield it.

Once when I sneezed, a piece of sweetcorn came out of my nose – can you tell me something interesting about you?

I name animals as soon as I meet them. In particular, if it is a goat or a duck. They may well be my spirit animals with the kinship I feel. 😊 😊 😊 So I named a goat Seymour and named two ducks that then became my pets actually Sophocoles and Socrates. The fact they are all “S” names is a coincidence.

Sherman the Goat in rural Northern Pakistan, the wild country where the mountain goat rules!

If poetry was a metaphor, what metaphor would it be?

The reading of it, the writing of it, the performance of it or witnessing a reading/performance? The reading of it: Can be like digging a ditch or meditating, depending on the poem. The writing of it: Digging a ditch or meditating, having open heart surgery, performing an alchemical act. The performance of it: Having open-heart surgery, being disembowelled, dying, creating a magical, healing space. Witnessing a performance: Digging a ditch & getting into it, undergoing an alchemical act, dying, soaring, healing.

What is your favourite room?

In my home? My daughter’s room. I feel safe, relaxed and happy there! 😊

What is the worst poem you have ever written?

Possibly the first poem I ever wrote when I was 7, directly lifted from Tyger, Tyger and beginning with “Oh Lord I thank thee”? (Colonial education did strange things to us in the countries where we were taught ONLY dead white men in English poetry)

Which poems or poets are currently inspiring you?

Sylvia Legris, a secret book of poetry I just discovered as the only work of a female occultist and hunted down via the Smithsonian Archive, which I will be sharing with students in my Poetry School workshop Technicians of The Sacred: The Poem As A Magical Event, the lyrics of most Delta Blues musicians, especially Vera Hall, Ma Rainey, Bessie Smith. Paul Celan.

What is the most annoying moment you have ever experienced at a poetry event?

Annoying in what way? I curated a poetry event with Anthony Joseph for about four years La Langoustine Est Morte, at the Poetry Cafe so there is a whole slew of moments that could be rated from Mildly Annoying to Moderate Irritation to Total Freak-Out!

What advice would you give to someone thinking about writing poetry?

Do it. If you sense that you are stopping yourself, before you even begin use the tools of introspection and circumvent that. I find ritualising the act can help. Make the intention, I’m going to allow myself to write. Think about if you like pencils or pens. Go to a stationery store that makes you happy. Hang out with the pencils, the pens until something calls to you. Do the same with a notebook. What will lend itself more easily to you getting it out at any moment? In the grocery store. Getting your morning coffee before your “day job”? Look at ALL the sizes. I used to always have small ones, which worked for me, blank pages, but then I found (after many years, mind) the space was restricting my poetry-thoughts. Then I had medium-sized ones, which helped the “flow,” better, but were hard to carry around, so then I had a small one for when I was out, and medium ones at home (I really enjoyed the size & format as the space for my words) and now I have really big ones with lines. Preferably hard-bound. Those suit me the best. I very rarely write straight into the computer.

What is the point?

The point is the point. Find it.



Call Me By Your Name

So I finally watched ‘Call Me By Your Name’, having refused for months to pay £6.99 for the DVD. I saw it in a makeshift cinema, and just as the two lovers crept into bed, an appropriately early 80s-style notice flashed up on the screen: ‘Projector is overheating: Clean your filters.’ That got the biggest laugh during the film. But none of us were there for laughs (though perhaps, like me, some in the audience were bracing themselves for a nervous giggle to relieve the tension caused by ‘the peach scene’). I spoke about the film with a friend, who said, ‘It has a lovely air.’ That’s a lovely, succinct, accurate way of describing it. It’s smothered in gorgeous light and made me wish I could spend a summer in northern Italy reading classics, playing the piano in a massive room and falling deeply in love. And if that wasn’t enough, the songs by Sufjan Stevens are incredible. This is my new favourite lyric:

‘Oh to see without my eyes
The first time that you kissed me.’

Sufjan Stevens – The Mystery of Love