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  • In our November blog, poet Jacqueline Saphra explains the reasons for hosting a marathon poetry reading in aid of refugees.

    Like many of us, I awoke late to the humanitarian disaster that has long been building as millions of refugees attempt to find safety in Europe. Like many of us, I wept at the photographs of dead children recovered from the sea. I desperately wanted to do something.

    I began to think about my own relatives who were murdered in concentration camps during WW2. I remembered the Evian Conference of 1938, where many of the world’s nations citied ‘racial and religious problems’ and blamed the Great Depression for their refusal to offer a home to Europe’s Jews.

    (flyer designed by Sophie Herxheimer)

    But what of this current situation where disenfranchised people have been forced to leave their homes and risk everything simply to survive? ‘What,’ I asked myself, ‘can we do to raise funds and raise a greater understanding of the plight of refugees?’

    I wanted to stage a live, visible, fund-raising, noise-making event. I know a lot of poets, and I know a lot of poets who know a lot of poets! So I put out a call for help and ideas. This was met with a huge amount of support and encouragement, and the result of this is our ‘Poem-a-thon’, that will take place on 5 December at Vout-O-Reenee’s, a private members' club near Tower Hill.

    Sixty poets will each read for eight minutes over the course of the day. Each of our poets is already embarked on raising individual sponsorship. To date we have raised nearly £5,000. No amount of sponsorship is too small. Every hour, this figure grows and more is expected in pledges and loose change on the day.

    All the money will go to the pioneering organisation Médecins Sans Frontières and it will specifically target their work in the Mediterranean. MSF provides health care, shelter, tents, and hygiene kits all along the refugee trail where women and children (especially) are dying from minor complaints that go untreated.

    I am so grateful to the bohemian, glamorous and welcoming Vout-O-Reenee’s for hosting our event free of charge. The Poem-a-thon will be a celebration of poetry and of the good will and optimism that I know exists. The overwhelming support we have received shows that people are thinking about the plight of refugees in a productive and creative way.

    Everyone is welcome to pop in and enjoy the day. Sip a cocktail, listen to poetry, enjoy good conversation or just soak in the atmosphere.

    I know I’m not alone in thinking of poetry as a form of secular prayer. At important rites of passage, people turn to poetry for wisdom, comfort, emotional connection and a greater understanding. You only have to look at the wide sharing of Warsan Shire’s poems to see that people are hungry for the right words. I believe we are going through a rite of passage right now. This is a moment in history where the world may tip one way or the other. Following the terrible events in Paris, the backlash of reprisal against innocent refugees has already begun. We need to raise money, but we also need to acknowledge both the horrible complexities and the innate simplicities of this problem. Poetry has a potency that cuts through rhetoric and shuns manipulation. It distils thought and feeling into image and finds new ways of expressing hope and kindness.

    Here is an extract from Philip Levine’s poem, ‘The Mercy’ named after the boat that brought his mother to Ellis Island around 1910. Mercy is what we need at this hour of great peril:

    A long autumn voyage, the days darkening

    with the black waters calming as night came on,

    then nothing as far as her eyes could see and space

    without limit rushing off to the corners

    of creation. She prayed in Russian and Yiddish

    to find her family in New York, prayers

    unheard or misunderstood or perhaps ignored

    by all the powers that swept the waves of darkness

    before she woke, that kept ‘The Mercy’ afloat…


    Buy Philip Levine’s Selected Poems


    Sixty poets have more than sixty voices. We will make a lot of noise. People will listen.

    About Jacqueline Saphra

    Jacqueline Saphra is a poet. Her first collection, The Kitchen of Lovely Contraptions (flipped eye) was nominated for the Aldeburgh First Collection Prize. An illustrated book of prose poems, If I Lay On My Back I Saw Nothing But Naked Women (The Emma Press) won The Saboteur Award for Best Collaborative Work 2015. She teaches for The Poetry School. Her website is www.jacqueline.saphra.net

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