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
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."