The Bank of Cyprus Cultural Foundation is housed in a building constructed in 1936 — before the 1960 birth of this country, before the 1974 unrest that ripped it in two. On a Saturday this past November, a group of poets is gathered on the second floor, surrounded by displays of archaeological finds and antiquities. Israeli poet Tahel Frosh introduces a poem, “O My Bank,” with the invitation that “I hope this makes you blush.” She notes that the text has been censored a few times in Hebrew; she has never tried presenting it in English before.
“O my bank screw me you want to screw me good and not some tycoon you don’t want no tycoon, yeah yeah yeah,” she croons, at maximum volume, rocking back on her heels. “O my bank screw me and I’ll do a suicide bombing in the lobby,” she howls. Several startled attendees, here for a meeting in an adjacent room, make their way through our crowd, eyes wide.
I am in the capital, Nicosia, for a poetry festival sponsored by Ideogramma, a nonprofit organization that promotes Cypriot cultural exchange with the international community. The U.S. State Department, a co-sponsor of the festival, selected me to serve as the gathering’s American poet and paid for my plane ticket. This morning, some of the festival participants are on a tour of popular “old city” destinations; each stop includes the reading of poems. “I’m glad the Americans are represented,” a friend of the festival organizers tells me as we walk. “It’s important — well, in these times.”
We’ve already had to present our passports once today, when approaching the Ledra Street checkpoint of Nicosia’s old city. This is the reality of living in a divided country. Since 1974, the self-called Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus has occupied about 40 percent of the island. Only Turkey recognizes this designation; several people have warned us to not legitimize it with the word “border.”
A dozen of us, those who flew in from other countries, are still getting oriented and trying to sort out one another’s names, geographic affiliations and personalities. Following Frosh’s reading at the Bank of Cyprus, Icelandic poet Einar Mar Gudmundsson is up next; he’s an older poet with bushy eyebrows who wears a leather jacket. “Do not talk about / large nations and small nations,” he says, in a short poem called “The Eye of Chaos.” “This is a globe; its center / rests beneath your feet / and shifts its ground and follows / you wherever you go.”
Although this perspective is welcome, my own country is foremost on my mind. Every day, seemingly, I take issue with news of our latest policy decision, whether domestic or foreign. In the weeks before my trip, I imagine explaining Donald Trump’s election to someone from another country. Not my president, I could say. But the pragmatist in me knows that it is more complicated than that. I have to take ownership of systematic flaws that created this situation. The American Embassy has assured me that I can answer questions in any way I want, but that does not ease my deeper discomfort. For years, my patriotic instincts were shaped by my father’s role as a brigadier general in the Army. How can I respect his legacy while being honest about my anger and regret?
In January 1976, when Columbia University professor Stanley Kunitz arrived at the University of Ghana, he was met by demonstrators accusing him of working for the CIA. The 71-year-old poet was an unlikely operative. But artists do not exist in a vacuum. Kunitz was wrapping up his 1974-76 term as consultant in poetry to the Library of Congress. Writers such as Kunitz frequently traveled at the behest of the Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs, which originated in part with the U.S. Information Agency (USIA). The USIA, founded in 1953, has administered laudable operations that include Voice of America and the Fulbright Scholar Program. However, USIA also gave us the Project Pedro newsreels in Mexico, a secret initiative to sway the attitudes of Mexicans regarding communism during the Cold War. There is, it turns out, a fine line between soft diplomacy and propaganda. The poets at this festival who received government sponsorship through embassies or cultural institutes have to consider their actions as citizens of their respective countries: which side of the line we will land on.
The festival spans four days, which includes readings around town and a celebration of the life of Federico García Lorca. After the festival, I will stay for three days of programming that includes visiting Cyprus International University, a public reading, and teaching 60 local sixth-graders to write persona poems from the perspectives of animals or inanimate objects.
On Sunday, the third day of the festival, we travel to the mountain town of Platres, where, after another walking tour, we’re asked to each discuss projects in progress, and to share a poem — working organically toward the announced theme of “The Writer’s Role in the Political Life of a Country.” We pull chairs into a huge circle. Danish poet Ursula Andkjaer Olsen begins. In all of her books — several volumes of poetry and a novel — she is interested in how money and economy define society. “Capitalism has a lot of problems, but also some interesting possibilities of connection,” she says to the group.
“I feel that writers are deeply connected to the political issues of the time, even if they are not knowing it,” Frosh asserts. “Even if they are ignorant, the relation is one of ignorance.” Her collection “Avarice” deals with “work, money and the father figure.” She opts to share “Responsibility,” a poem by the late New Yorker Grace Paley, which is a litany of calls to political action.
When Senem Gökel of Cyprus speaks, with dark eyes and close-cropped hair, I lean forward in my chair. Born in Nicosia in 1982, she is close to my age of 37. Her first book was published under the auspices of the Fikret Demirag Prize: a single collection, two contributing authors, each with work put forth in both Greek and Turkish.
I was struck by her bravery, two nights ago, in punctuating the festival’s opening ceremonies by sharing a somber, complicated poem. Gökel’s introduction recounted an era when slain Cypriot bodies were thrown into the wells, contaminating the water. “Even souls are captive in the curse of this island,” she read. Now, she reads a poem called “The Last Question,” which engages accounts of the United States’ bombing of Hiroshima during World War II. As a PhD candidate in the SOAS University of London’s Department of History, she is interested as much in factual events as in literature. “When I write poetry about Cyprus history,” she says, “I may touch issues that people believe have been long forgotten. When they see something is mentioned in my poetry, they will come talk to me after. ... Change comes first in the person, and then becomes political change.”
Some poets are more circumspect about the combination of poetry and politics. Daniel Rodríguez Moya of Spain muses about poetry’s utility by paraphrasing a poet who sardonically proposes “placing a poem in front of a missile”; he is centrally concerned with poetry’s marginalization, insisting on art for all. For Monica Aasprong, a Norwegian poet, the crucial matter is resisting pressure toward convention of belief or aesthetic: “I really believe it’s political in a way to allow people to express themselves in different ways, as different as possible.”
James Mackay identifies himself as an academic who focuses on indigenous and First Nations poetry. “I’ve seen communities absolutely destroyed by genocide where poetry and culture was the only thing that allowed the community to survive,” he says. As a Brit, Mackay lives in Cyprus as a de facto inheritor of those who once seized the right to rule. “This is a country with a wound running across it,” he says, “and I think you can basically blame the British Empire for much of that wound.” He is married to a refugee of the 1974 divide. “If you think you understand Cyprus, you haven’t been in Cyprus long enough,” he explains. “So for me, I’m using poetry to think through some of the complexities of that situation.”
When the moderator recognizes my turn, there’s an unexpected quake in my voice. I explain that I grew up in Virginia, that my father was a military commander who was part of NATO’s mission in Bosnia and Herzegovina. (I wonder what the Serbian poet to my left thinks — the one who said he keeps poems simple and apolitical.) I explain how my early poems used memory-based details when intersecting with the theme of war, such as my father’s description of a particular operation, or a fallen soldier’s story. Putting together my first book coincided with the rise of the “Poets Against the War” initiative in the early 2000s; I admired their energy, but I opted out of any affiliation. My second collection turned militarized culture into an abstract landscape. I looked at the warrior mythos on surreal and comical terms.
My manuscript-in-progress, I tell the group, interrogates historical injustices and micro-aggressions in everyday contemporary American life. I no longer use the lens of my father’s experiences, relying instead on my own. As I speak, I’m surprised how much tension has gathered in my shoulders. Over the years I’ve grown accustomed to choosing my words carefully, toggling between the identities of “general’s daughter” and “D.C. poet.” In this moment, I’ve set those labels aside; I speak only for myself.
We take a brief break for boxed wine and cubes of charcuterie. Discussion circles again and again to language. Can the left develop rhetoric as strong as that belonging to the right? Does replying to an enemy require mirroring their vitriol? As Frosh puts it, “How can we write in language stronger than Trump?” We must be clowns, she argues, not orderly poets in panels such as this one. “We must shock the language.”
Moya says, “Everything is political.” Swedish poet Magnus William-Olsson replies, “But if everything is political, nothing is political.” Several people mention that our primary responsibility is simply to write the work. I’ve stayed quiet through several volleys about Trump — looking for eye contact or expectation of response, finding none. Now I raise my hand.
“In America, there are a few different ways this discussion is manifesting,” I say. “There’s poets who refuse to not only use Trump’s name or any phrases associated with him in their work, but they won’t even use it in their communications and social media.” I describe our struggle in responding to a volatile president. How does one debate an opponent, in the traditional sense, without repeating and validating his terminology?
Yet even without Trump in power, protest movements such as Black Lives Matter direct us toward older, underlying tensions. American artists weigh how to be involved; many believe that to ask whether one even gets involved in the first place is a luxury born only of privilege. As a practicing poet, I wonder whether my job is simply to write — the customary understanding of my vocation — or to not write, to instead focus on amplifying the voices of others.
In our discussion, several forefathers of poetry come up, including Lorca, Pablo Neruda, Vladimir Mayakovsky and Giorgos Seferis, for whom the cultural center where we sit is named. Each negotiated a country’s attempts to co-opt his language. “Is there a room, somewhere on this island, or anywhere else,” asks Pat Boran, the poet representing Ireland, “where 20 or 30 painters are sitting around pulling their hair out over the same question? ‘Are my paintings, the blue ones, more political than the red ones?’ ” He turns our thoughts to Irish Nobel Prize winner Seamus Heaney’s fraught relationship with his homeland readers. “The point is not to put poetry at the disposal of the revolution,” Boran says. “The point is to put the revolution at the disposal of poetry.”
After the festival closes, the poets slip away one by one, catching flights home. On my seventh day in Cyprus, I’m interviewed by Simge Cerkezoglu, a reporter for a local magazine, accompanied by a cameraman from a local television channel. The goal is to promote a reading, organized by the U.S. Embassy, open to the public that night. At first the questions are familiar, looking to provide a better understanding of what my poems might be about, but eventually Cerkezoglu broaches the observable difference in Cypriot communities and languages. I mention that America, too, had a historical North-South divide, and that we still experience informal segregation within towns to this day. She asks whether the arts can be used to bring communities closer. It must, I say. “Art thrives in places that are difficult.”
That evening, I spend 15 minutes as I always do before a reading, scribbling down titles of poems and nervously shuffling sticky-note markers through the pages of my books. The crowd fills into the room at the bookstore Rustem Kitabevi, a mix of unfamiliar faces, students from my visit to Cyprus International University and friends from the festival.
There’s one poem I’m nervous about reading. I explain that “Nostalgia” is new, one I haven’t read for an audience before. Although the opening images are of pleasure — catching shad from the James River, frying up the fish’s roe sack — the poem is concerned with relationships between white and black America. A favorite local rock band from my 20s, Emmet Swimming, named itself ostensibly to honor the life of Emmett Till, an African American boy killed in 1955. In order for this poem to make sense outside the States, I share the story of Till’s murder: accused of offending a white woman in a Mississippi convenience store, then beaten, disfigured and shot, his body dumped in the river, his killers acquitted.
I’d found a snippet of an old interview with band founder and singer Todd Watts, which I incorporate into the poem, in which he says that the idea of the name was that a 14-year-old boy should be swimming in the river, not dying in it. The problem, as my poem observes, is that “they spelled his name wrong. / They kept spelling his name wrong.” There are two T’s in Emmett Till’s first name.
Till’s mother left his casket open to shock a complacent society. The band’s name appropriates his life, but their music does little to acknowledge his violent death. They are the product of a late 1990s-era suburban Virginia culture that congratulated itself on liberal awareness while doing little to interrogate or challenge white power — the very culture of my youth. The poem’s speaker confronts nostalgia’s impulse to obscure by recognizing how a fuzzy-minded tribute becomes a violation.
I tell the group that Till’s death is an ugly story of what Americans can do to one another, and a story that cannot be forgotten. I am grateful that Gökel is in the room, as I remember her words about the intersection of the personal and the historical life of a country. Otherwise, I might have switched that out for a simpler poem. But I hear, in the moment, a connection with the audience.
Afterward, eight of us walk to a bar, where we find a large table on the upper floor. There are a few floating balloons, leftovers from someone’s party, and a cactus centerpiece on the table. We bat a balloon back and forth, laughing, waiting for the inevitable pop. The moment I’ve been waiting for has never come; no one asked me to speak for America. No one has demanded an apology. No one has gilded America, either; here, we are an imperfect country, in conversation with many other imperfect countries. I have come to Cyprus as a poet, and I realize that equates to being neither straightforward statesman nor unfettered rebel. My job is to hunker down in the muck of contradiction and discomfort — personal, social, political — and to live in this moment, to try to find its strange beauty.
Sandra Beasley is the author of three poetry collections and a memoir.