Poetry and Policy: Commonwealth Writers at the Commonwealth People’s Forum

Posted on 01/06/2018
By Commonwealth Foundation

We gather here
and feel the weight of the world
on our shoulders.
It does not feel like
we’ve inherited
But rather
common problems.

These lines open Tongan-Aotearoan/New Zealander poet Karlo Mila’s ‘Poem for the Commonwealth 2018’, written for and delivered to a thousand-strong audience of delegates from the Forums that preceded the 2018 Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting (CHOGM). Mila – alongside poets Kendel Hippolyte (Saint Lucia), Melizarani T. Selva (Malaysia) and Mr. Gee (UK) – played a central role at the Commonwealth People’s Forum (CPF), the platform for civil society coordinated by the Commonwealth Foundation. Whilst Mila’s opening stanza talks of ‘problems’, ‘weight’ and ‘inheritance’, the piece is a work neither of resignation nor of looking back; the poem proceeds to explore the imperatives of renewal, hopes of reform, and models of sustainability for the future of the Commonwealth.

Opening and closing CPF, storytelling acted as both a vehicle to ask and a way of answering the questions of renewal explored during the three-day programme: what would a just, inclusive, and accountable Commonwealth look like? Poetry breathed life into these questions; the themes of climate justice, knowledge sharing, religious freedom, community, and cultural sensitivity running through the poets’ pieces ensured that stories and lived experience were placed at the forefront of policy discussion. A collaborative piece between the four poets reflected this spirit of discussion and sharing, working across regions, generations and cultures to ask what the ‘wealth’ of Commonwealth might be. The poem concludes that this wealth is passed on as ‘a planet in healing, the body of the Earth, Our Mother/ recovering towards Her health’.

Such conclusions were approached, but not settled on, in Ben Okri’s keynote address to the Forum – because, according to Okri, ‘conclusions are risky, and, in our world, conclusions even are possibly dangerous’. But Okri’s address – delivered, in his words, on three levels: as an oral storyteller, an old-fashioned intellectual speech giver, and a poet – also set the tone for the role of poetry and stories in calling for action throughout the Forum. He posited that, ‘maybe, it is time, given the state of the world, to begin to reconfigure the perception of ourselves into something new’. He argued that ‘we are all postcolonial’ – that, out of contested histories and common problems, we must ‘make something good’. In summarising (though not concluding), Okri delivered something akin to a storyteller’s rallying call: ‘Only free people can make a free world. Infect the world with your light. Help fulfil the human prophesies. Press forward the human genius. Our future is greater than our past’.

And such future-oriented, hopeful storytelling continued to be central as CPF progressed: days one and two, focusing on inclusion and justice respectively, featured readings from two Commonwealth Writers anthologies: So Many Islands: Stories from the Caribbean, Mediterranean, Indian and Pacific Oceans and We Mark Your Memory: Writing from the Descendants of Indenture. Whilst So Many Islands explores the sometimes difficult histories of the thirty island-nations of the Commonwealth, it also shares the richness of the present – of island living and the transoceanic links which bind islands together. The pieces shared by Tracy Assing (Trinidad and Tobago), Angela Barry (Bermuda), Cecil Browne (Saint Vincent and the Grenadines), Erato Ioannou (Cyprus), Hippolyte and Mila are as much about futures and legacies – be they legacies of knowledge or legacies of resistance – as they are about histories. We Mark Your Memory, similarly, is about inherited marginalisation. But it is at once about forging futures and hopes. Pieces by Prithiraj Dullay (South Africa), Gabrielle Jamela Hosein (Trinidad and Tobago), Fawzia Muradali Kane (UK), Gitanjali Pyndiah (Mauritius/UK) and Anita Sethi (UK) tell stories of heritage in order to imagine future ways of belonging, and to challenge continuing injustices.

The discussions and stories shared through the three-day programme were brought together to form the People’s Forum Declaration and Call to Action, the mandates civil society brings to the Commonwealth Heads of Government that ask for social, cultural and political change. Commonwealth Writers’s mission is to amplify lesser-heard narratives in order to effect social change; the closing delivery of the Call to Action saw both the amplification of stories and a powerful, reverse amplification of political requests through the affective capacity of art: performances by Mila, Hippolyte, Selva and Gee, and recordings from Ray Antrobus and Keith Jarret, made real and emotive thirteen calls for change, concerning: legislative reform, accessing justice, rights of indigenous peoples, women negotiating peace, migration, people-centred health and education, climate justice, just world order and just economies, the digital age, separation of powers, accountability in development, decentralising power, media accountability, and renewing the Commonwealth.

Returning to Mila’s all-Forum poem, and with the renewal of the Commonwealth firmly in mind, we see the piece closing with a demonstration of the power art holds in both attesting to complex histories and ensuring a future which is equitable and just:

So let us harness our collective wisdoms:
diverse, different and divergent.

Let us create an atmosphere
of kindness and love
for even the air we breathe,
freshwater, trees, people,

Let us create a dream house,
a great place to raise a family.

For therein lies the fate
of an extraordinary family of relatives.

Where what we have in common
Is all of us.


Will Forrester is an intern at Commonwealth Writers.