I wasn’t expecting it to, but then you never do. I was getting ready to go to America but I went to Bradford Literature Festival first.

Was it the warm Northern welcome I got? The bold dynamism of festival directors Irna Qureshi and Syima Aslam? Was it meeting my teenage idol Liverpool poet Brian Patten and hearing him read his quirky new poems of Sufi stories. Or hearing Abbas Zahedi who performed a multilingual flowing fusion of ancient and modern verse? Seeing poetry buddies?11402902_978091198891378_7926147200791135448_o11402429_978091522224679_7984485600965014969_o11337063_978090388891459_8258207230847855813_o

Was it the dervish dancer who whirled in ecstasy and sorrow on the spot, her feet softly scuffing the floor for what seemed an eternity – how did she do it when I felt wrung out just watching? (Was that the ‘wall’ runners speak of? In every long form – dance, poem, relationship even – there has to come an excruciating moment when you just can’t go on and yet you do. For poems, when you want an alternative to sound-bite/quick fix culture, I recommend the audacious Long Poem Magazine )

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Was it being swept along to an evening of Sufiana Kalam, poetry sung to music by the inimitable Shabnam Khan which had the audience (mostly  word perfect) clapping and singing along? I was still tired from the train journey and hadn’t really wanted to go but as soon as it began I was wide awake, feet tapping by themselves in sheer joy. A Kashmiri woman next to me carefully translated some of the Punjabi lyrics. She asked what brought me to the festival and I told her I’d been invited to read the next day at the Commemoration Event for the 75th Anniversary of Siberia Deportations. When I tried to explain the reason for the event, something about Poland’s history, a country squeezed between more powerful neighbours, she understood immediately and said: ‘Oh, like Kashmir’.

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Or was it the Polish event itself? Wonderful singer songwriter Katy Carr got everyone singing along to her songs and her versions of partisan songs which the mainly Polish audience all knew. Historian Anita Prażmowska was in conversation with historian Matt Kelly – what they don’t know about the historical background isn’t worth knowing. There was an impromptu appearance from B E Andre reading from With Blood And Scars her epic novel about the Polish post war community of Manchester, which coincidentally includes a poem of mine.

11219558_978092125557952_7562370498954102383_oA group of women from Rochdale had come over specially for the event; five were former deportees. Their families had been forced to leave their homes by Soviet soldiers when the women were small children. I write a lot about that war. Whatever I am writing about it just seeps in. But they lived through it. Some ended up not only in Siberia but in the farthest corners of what was then the British Empire after Stalin had switched sides to join the Allies and a Polish army was formed from among the deportees. I felt very humbled and moved reading to them.11406706_978092095557955_5627653474561375834_o (1)

1506088_978092235557941_5259721179503138287_oBradford is such a vibrant city of very different communities.  How much do we know about one another’s histories and each other’s art? I hope this exciting festival continues to grow, creating more opportunities for new bridges, new connections to be made.11334010_978092162224615_1236927525023049550_o
11357249_978092185557946_376566775016223195_oAll photographs courtesy of Tim Smith and Bradford Literature Festival.

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