Editor Blog: at Poetry International, Rotterdam

Arriving in Rotterdam for 2016’s Poetry International (7th – 10th June 2016) it felt refreshing, at first, to escape the shrill and anxiety-inducing debate on the UK’s future in or outside the European Union. Of course it’s what most people asked me about once there. But to enter poetry’s dimension for a few days was relief. Not because it transported me away from the conversation of political complexity, (there is no escape, we are all connected), but because it placed me more deeply within it.

Poetry realises language’s complexity. Speaking at the festival on the panel ‘Newspeak’ the Swedish poet Aase Berg described how in her upbringing language was used in a very simple fashion – black and white, good and bad. It was either us or them. Her rebellion was to invent new words, pushing them together, new language with new meanings. Her radical poetry now forces transformation out of the language of advertising, the internet and other sterile discourses.

The theme of the festival was Newspeak – a provocation under the name of the language in George Orwell’s 1984. The aim with Newspeak was that there would be no double meanings, no ambiguity where unorthodox thinking may develop. Of course the nature of language – formed in the mouths of humans who are infinitely shifty – dooms Newspeak to failure. Even Newspeak has a double meaning to me now: New-speak also now suggests News-speak, the language of the media.

In some ways the current use of language in the political-media sphere is a new Newspeak in that it simplifies and converts complexity to soundbites, tweets, slogans, rumour. In the EU referendum campaign, the complex interaction of bureaucracy and people that is the UK’s relationship with the EU and Europe was condensed into seemingly simple ideas like ‘economy’ or ‘immigration’. For the Leave campaign it was reduced to the idea of ‘control’.

Meanwhile poets like Aase Berg hack this language. She enters ‘perverted, simplified’ discourses such as those available on the dark web, in the how-to-get-rich or self-help books. She listens to the language therein, refashioning the words for her own strange and sometimes dystopian poetry. She is interested in the metaphor of hacking as a way of taking down capitalist patriarchy from the inside like a parasite.

In the same talk on Newspeak, Canadian poet Lisa Robertson noted the recent change of words in France where ‘strike’ has been replaced by ‘social movement’ in the media. What does this do? What meanings does this change or erase and what new connotations does that shift bring, how does it suit the agenda of those using it? Another contributor to the same discussion, young Dutch poet Maarten van der Graaff, spoke about getting ‘dirty’ down at the level of language’s multiplicity. He interrogated the hidden hierarchy in the hyphen in ‘Judeo-Christian’, whereby Jewish culture is secondary to the Christian and other cultures – Muslim, secular etc – are excluded altogether.


The poets here were paying close attention to the language of Newspeak. This is the work of the listening poet. The discussion made me think again about the often-simplified key words in the EU debate – ‘control’, ‘country’, ‘future’, ‘migrant’. ‘Control’ was supposed to stand for democracy, something we all want more of – a say in the future of our communities. But what has been promised – a British exit from the European Union – is not going to bring people democratic control to their lives, it will not give individuals agency under global capitalism. And ‘control’ of course also suggests enforcement, policed borders, state violence…

In language everything is connected to everything else – this is why doublethink was probably never going to be eradicated from the Newspeak dictionary despite the best efforts of the characters in 1984. Words cannot be cut loose from other words, neither can people, neither can countries. The isles that make up Wales, England, Scotland and Northern Island are connected. The seas are being crossed continually, dangerously. We cannot cut ourselves loose from other cultures, cannot say ‘here we are on our own, this is Britain and it means just this one thing alone: Britain’. We cannot deny the other meanings and contradictions. Everything is connected.

Solipsism, newspeak and an illusion of simple nationalistic ‘control’ will not save us from the violence of capital, climate change and war. Or to put it as Abdel-Ilah Salhi the Moroccan poet at the festival in his poem ‘Running in the opposite direction of beer’:

‘Astray like dogs. We opposed all directions and lost more awareness.’


‘Stupidity is not enough excuse in the face of all of this crumbling.’


Nia Davies’s visit to Poetry International, Rotterdam, was part of the Literary Europe Live project from Literature Across Frontiers

Read more about poets on Poetry International website.

Poems by Aase Berg, translated by Johannes Göransson will appear in the Winter issue of Poetry Wales, later this year.