A festival of Olympic wordsmiths
A view of the Southbank Centre. (Belinda Lawley)
Weeks before records will be tested in East London’s Olympic Village, a non-sporting record is due to be set in an arts complex on the banks of the Thames.
The Poetry Parnassus, part of the Southbank Centre's Festival of the World, is aiming to be the biggest poetry festival ever held in the UK. Its creators - Southbank artistic director Jude Kelly and artist in residence, poet Simon Armitage – also intend it to be "the largest gathering of international poets in world history". Each of the 204 countries taking part in the Olympics is represented and every poet will contribute a poem in their native language – which organisers are billing as a World Record Anthology.
This record-breaking meeting of bards and rhymers kicked off 26 June with a performance piece titled “Rain of Poems” by Chilean collective Casagrande. In it, a helicopter dropped 100,000 bookmark-shaped poems over the Southbank Centre.
The piece was previously shown in cities including Dubrovnik, Guernica, Warsaw and Berlin – all of which, like London, have suffered siege or aerial attack.
Just like the Olympics, this festival of the written word takes its name from a Greek mountain – Parnassus, home of the mythical poet Orpheus. The games in Ancient Greece also commissioned the Epinicians, poems to commemorate the athletic events.
Taking part will be several of the poetry world's leading lights, including Irish writer Seamus Heaney, New Zealand's Bill Manhire and former US poet laureate Kay Ryan. There will also be a reading celebrating one of Britain’s best-loved poets, Ted Hughes.
Other less well-known poets bring fascinating back stories along with their verse. Luljeta Lleshanaku grew up under house arrest in her home country of Albania, and is the daughter of opponents of the country's communist regime. Another attendee, Jang Jin Seong, was the former court poet of North Korea's late leader Kim Jong-il, who escaped to China carrying 70 of his poems.
The organisers aren't just aiming this festival at avid poetry fans, however. Events, which will run through 1 July, include a Letter Party on 30 June, where attendees wear a T-shirt with a single letter on it and combine to form words with fellow dancers, and an edible poetry workshop where verses are written in chocolate and then eaten.
"London, it seemed to me, was always going to be the perfect city for such an unprecedented coming together," Armitage has said in a book accompanying the Parnassus. "[It is] home to communities of people from every corner of the globe, offering the possibility of connecting those communities with poets of their own tongue and background, and generating new readerships and audiences beyond the usual literary crowd."