Rescuing poetry from the edge of extinction

Wednesday, October 16, 2019 - 16:49

As anyone who maybe trying to follow British politics can certainly attest; a lot can happen in two years. At the last instalment of Poetry International, our long-running biennial festival, the National Poetry Library launched their Endangered Poetry Project in an attempt to preserve the poetry of languages on the verge of dying out. Fast forward two years and that same project has manifested into an anthology, Poems from the Edge of Extinction, which was officially launched at Poetry International 2019.

Political upheaval, climate breakdown, genocide, war, the enduring impact of colonialism; these are just some of the many things which can see a language come under threat, and face potential extinction. This groundbreaking anthology, edited by National Poetry Librarian Chris McCabe, brings together poets from each continent to both highlight the pressure their languages are placed under in an increasingly globalised world, and celebrate their work as poets and activists.

Ahead of the book’s launch event, and 2019’s Poetry International, we caught up with Chris McCabe to understand more about the initial project, and how it evolved into the publication of Poems from the Edge of Extinction.


Southbank Centre: So Chris, what initially prompted the Endangered Poetry Project?

Chris McCabe: The project was in response to the reports by linguists that half the world's languages could be lost by the end of the century. This set us thinking about what this meant for poetry, and if we could play about in collecting, sharing and even activating interest in the poetry cultures inherent in these languages.


Was an anthology always the natural outcome of the Endangered Poetry Project?

This wasn't the aim to begin with. We first of all set about collecting poems for the library, and focussing our 2017 Poetry International around this theme. In the summer of 2018 we asked artist Mary Kuper to create new artworks in response to some of the European poems we have collected, which led to the Language Shift exhibition at the National Poetry Library. It was only when Emma Green, a commission editor from Chambers, got in touch with the proposal for manifesting the project as a book, that we realised that we had the makings for a great anthology.


Lost languages MUSIC


Was there ever a point at which your work began to cross over from compiling an anthology to becoming a kind of endangered language poetry detectorist?

The work of editing the anthology might be my biggest undertaking of literary detection! The process involved deep research across collections, the internet and the SOAS Endangered Languages Archive, trying to find leads to endangered languages in which their poetry culture had been documented. My proudest moment as editor of this book was persevering with my attempt to find a poem in Patua, the critically endangered language of Macau in China, and eventually receiving a comment from Miguel S Fernandes on Facebook, who told me he was the last person writing poetry in that language.


The Endangered Poetry project asked for people to submit their poems, were there any languages you were surprised to receive poetry in?

I was particularly surprised to find a poem submitted in Kristang, a Portugese-influenced, Creole language spoken in Malaysia. Even better to find that this poem by Martha Fernandez was a love poem to the Kristang language itself, in which she writes 'I know you ... Today you are a part of me'. I'm so pleased to have included this poem in the book.


You mentioned Miguel S Fernandes as being the only poet writing in Patua; presumably there are others too who are now the only person writing poetry in their language. What does it mean to share one of their poems out to a wider audience?

Yes, another example is John Smelcer, who writes in the Alaskan, Ahtna language. Smelcer is thirty years younger than the next fluent speaker, and has made it his work to document the language, creating dictionaries and teaching words form Ahtna on YouTube. It is an honour for me to have been in contact with poets like this, who have spent their lives as activists for the language they care about so deeply, and to be able to make a contribution to sharing their work with more readers.


It’s an honour to have been in contact with poets who have spent their lives as activists for the language they care about so deeply, and to be able to make a contribution to sharing their work with more readers.
Chris McCabe


How did you decide on which poems and languages, from the many received, to feature in the anthology?

As with any editing project I had to draw on my lifetime's experience as a reader of poetry to inform my decisions, yet this book is particularly unique in that in some cases there was only one documented poem to draw on from a particular language. In these instances my decision wasn't about assessing 'literary merit' in the sense we are taught at western universities, but to present this language and poetic culture as a window into a kind of verbal art that might be very different from what readers of poetry anthologies are used to.


How much would these poems lose in translation to languages that are more widely spoken across the globe; be it English, Spanish, Mandarin or French?

I never see translation as a form of loss, but as a gift given to us by the world's translators. We all gain from every new translation, which is a unique work of art in its own right.




The anthology Poems from the Edge of Extinction, edited by Chris McCabe is available to buy now, from the Southbank Centre Shop.

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And, if you know a poem in an endangered language, you can still contribute to the Endangered Poetry Project

find out how