National Poetry Day: Who Are We?


Jules Mann introduces some key events for this year's National Poetry Day on 5 October, 2006 which takes the theme of Identity.


A recent notice from the Newcastle Literary and Philosophical Society put the question of identity through some scrutiny, in a call for poems on this theme for National Poetry Day (NPD): "Identity is perceived externally but we can only exist within it. There are many meanings of identity and many ways of presenting / representing identity. Identity as image. Identity as biological. Identity as fantasy. Identity as labels. Identity as concept. Identity as spiritual. Identity as non-identity. Identity as voice. Identity as creativity. With advances in technology, it is easy to shift and change identities; create the person we really want to be without a witness to confirm or contest the creation…".


Over at the Cheltenham Festival, "birth and upbringing, creed and race, homelands and geographical borders: what makes us who we are?" is stated as the premise for a poetry event programmed with the Poetry Society. In looking around the country to see how other people are approaching this theme, I've discovered workshops "to explore personal, community and national identity using poetry"; "A 10-hour poetrython …to raise funds for the homeless, those who have lost their sense of identity"; and "a celebration of 'international identity', concentrating on the works of poets from around the world who have contributed to English literature, despite the fact that English is/was not their main tongue".


This year's NPD theme, then, invites us to explore through poetry one of the crucial issues and talking points in today's culture. What is identity? How do we define it? And how are we defined by it? Three years ago, when we launched the Poetry Landmarks of Britain, we began to collect examples of poems that firmly captured the identity of place. Now is the chance to advance that further by peopling those places.


Naming a particular place can have a powerful effect on a poem. Poems with a distinct personality that seize the reader can have a similar effect. We've tried to offer you a range of poems dealing with identity for your reading pleasure, both through our virtual NPD bookshelf, in which we point you to sites that contain full texts of poems or books that are chock full of identity-based poems, and the autumn issue of Poetry Review, in which Fiona Sampson invites you, in her editorial, to consider not just "who do I write as", but also "who do we read as?"


We've also appointed poet Jackie Kay to be the Poetry Society's 'virtual' poet in residence in the run up to NPD. She will be providing a regular online diary of her thoughts on identity. She will also be appearing in several events around NPD.

Earlier this year, Peter Hewitt, Chief Executive of the Arts Council, England, addressed the theme of identity in his Smith Institute Lecture: "the arts provide a medium through which the current debate about identity, and Britishness as part of that, can be explored. [They] provide a space in which difference, mutual respect and the beauty of otherness can all be considered… This country would be an infinitely more dangerous, ill-informed and intolerant place without artists and arts organisations from the full range of our diverse cultures interacting… The continuous debate about our identity would be hugely impoverished were we not able to look at it through a series of artistic prisms." We hope this year's NPD will be an inspirational prism for poets and readers alike.