Exiled Writers Ink support and give a platform to exiled writers from around the world. Nicole Fordham Hodges went along to one of their monthly readings at the Poetry Cafe. She heard some Romani voices, and they certainly hadn't been silenced.
It was a striking audience flamboyantly dressed: black hats, beards, dark skins, green eyes. I joined a scattering of Anglo-Saxon looking ladies at the back of the small basement room.
The evening began with Antonio Riva's band Le Gazhikane Muzikante: 'the Non-Gypsy Musicians' who play Gypsy music “just because it is amazing.” By the end of the first haunting, life-affirming song I was inclined to agree. Antonio Riva sung in the many different Roma languages, translating only a few fragments: “Please don't wake up. Wait for the sun to rise on Romani people.” At the end of the set, Anthony Riva introduced 'Opa Cupa': the song, he said, was known amongst all travelling people. I noted a darkhaired girl in front of me listen intently, look down, shake her head.
Valdemar Kalenin was the first of four writers. He read first in English then Romani, with no need to glance at his lengthy collected works. He spoke of the conflict between a gypsy son seeking an education “newspaper under his arm”and the traditional father: “who will look after the horses?” In Romani the poem became spellbinding.
The spell was broken by Janna Eliot, a British Gypsy from London, who read from her novel for young adults 'Settela's Last Road.' Based on the true story of a young Sinti girl killed in Auschwitz, it was painfully direct in its style. Janna Eliot, who also teaches Gypsy dance, read with a dancer's lightness, finishing with a simple, lyrical description of the moment of Settela's extermination: “there was a song that would never stop singing.”
Poet Damien le Bas followed on with some virtuoso wordplay. In 'Words I Like' he effortlessly juggled English Romani with Latin and Greek in order to “feed my needy traveller brain.” As poet David Morley says, Damien's poetry “fizzes with life....but doesn't give away trade secrets.” In the most memorable poem of the evening, Damien described a gypsy wedding in the New Forest, in “the lilac tint of the Hampshire dust” lacking “only of hautiness/ perhaps some thin unknowable inscription.”
The final reader was Mike Cheslett, who read his comic adult fairy story 'In a Mirror at Midnight', in which a refreshingly feisty heroine cuts off her Dad's head. Following the theme of the night, even the severed head started to sing.
The evening finished with 'Le Gazhikane Muzikante'. As another extraordinary song began, the dark-haired girl in front of me nodded deeply and began singing. The chairs were pushed to one side, as Janna Eliot offered to lead everyone in a gypsy dance. Some of the audience melted away. I felt privileged to have heard these varied, haunting, lively voices. But it was time to leave.
Next reading: Monday 5th March 2012 at 7.30 pm
Post Exile Poetry
An evening with International Poets and Critics
Poetry Cafe, 22 Betterton Street, London WC2
Lift access, disabled toilet.