Marjorie Lotfi Gill was born in New Orleans, spent her childhood in Teheran and lived in the USA before moving to London in 1999 and finally Edinburgh in 2005. She is a poet, performer and creative writing facilitator. She runs Open Book, a project that promotes reading groups for the vulnerable and for adults in the community. She also works with schoolchildren and adults in community settings, exploring issues of journey, assimilation, flight and immigration through her initiative The Belonging Project. Her poetry has been performed on BBC Radio 4, has won several competitions and has been nominated for a Pushcart Prize. She has recently published a collection of poems, Refuge (2018), based on her experiences in Iran in the 1970s. More about Open Book can be found at: http://www.marjoriegill.com/open-book/ More about The Belonging Project can be found at: http://www.marjoriegill.com/projects/the-belonging-project/
Marta Donati: Your recent collection of poems, Refuge, is a remarkable meditation on the concept of leaving, be it a house, a country or a family. Could you tell me about the genesis of the collection?
Marjorie Lotfi Gill: Given the current crisis around refugees and migrants, I’m often asked to read my poems about Iran and my family’s experiences of living through a revolution, loss and assimilation. I thought it would be a good idea to put all those poems in one place, so that reading them together might give you a more complete picture of how those experiences might change a family, or affect your outlook. The sequence of poems “Pilgrim”, which is loosely based on my father’s life and makes up the second half of the pamphlet, was commissioned by the St Magnus Festival in Orkney to accompany some new musical compositions by Stuart MacRae. I decided to include it because it feels a kind of parallel to the other poems in the pamphlet as it follows many of the same experiences through the eyes of one person.
MD: Refuge seems to be concerned with two different kind of ‘spaces’ that naturally influence each other: the space of the self, which is personal and related to family roots, and the space of politics, which is filled with news reports and photographs. How do you navigate this relationship between the personal and the political?
MLG: In short, I don’t. My poem “On seeing Iran in the news” is making that exact point: I wrote that poem because when people ask me what I think of Iranian politics, I never know what to say because my views are shaped by personal experiences. I’m not trying to make a political statement with the poems, but expose the living breathing world that politics impacts. (The most political poem in the book is possibly “Route”, which was written in a fury at the BBC’s suggestion that one might understand the real dilemmas of refugees by playing an online game.)
MD: You often write in response to art. The poem that gives its name to the collection – Refuge – is written in response to ‘Les Voyageurs’, a series of sculptures by French artist Bruno Catalano. Each sculpture shows a person in motion, holding a suitcase, but missing parts of their body. They are, in a sense, characters you can ‘see through’: they blend with their surroundings. There is a tension between the movement of these bodies, and the sense of disembodiment provoked by migration. Could you say a bit more about your encounter with Catalano’s work and why you decided to write a response to it? Does poetry help you understand and relate to other works of art?
MLG: I wrote “Refuge” because when I first encountered that Catalano sculpture, I immediately recognised the life of a refugee. To me, the sculpture is remarkable because it actually stands, despite missing such a large part of the body, and on first encounter I spent time initially trying to figure out how it worked. That puzzle is true for refugees too: despite having lost so much, they manage to hold on to their suitcases and stand up, keep going. The end of that poem refers both to our unwillingness to allow refugees into our societies (written at a time when refugees are often kept in “camps”) and the inability of some refugees to do more that simply make it onshore, and hope for more for the next generation.
I find that artwork helps me express what I’m trying to say in poetry, rather than the other way around. If I’m struggling with a subject that I want to write about, often the form of an artwork will help me. (This sculpture of an oversized rifle by Cornelia Parker, for example, helped me to articulate the way that we’ve grown accustomed to guns in America in this poem – https://www.rattle.com/the-gun-in-its-holster-by-marjorie-lotfi-gill/.) Of course, the act of observing an artwork closely in order to use it in writing does help me to understand the work better, to consider it more closely, and to draw connections between it and my own experiences, so I’m sure that the result works both ways!
MD: Reading your work, I often felt that art and poetry are somehow telling a ‘truth’ that news, television and reportages are not. One of my favourite poems of the collection is Route, which I read as a particularly angry and frustrated piece. In this poem you respond to BBC’s interactive Syrian ‘journey’: ‘if you were fleeing Europe, what choices would you make for you and your family? Take our journey to understand the real dilemmas the refugees face’. Does poetry represent a kind of ‘activist’ counterpart to the rhetoric of television and journalism in your mind? Would you say it is a healing device?
MLG: I don’t think of poetry as much as a device for healing as an expression or revelation of where we are right now. So that poem, for example, was intended to point out the madness in suggesting that anyone, even someone with life experiences like mine, could ever understand the “real dilemmas refugees face” from the comfort of their living rooms. I’m coming to the conclusion that the job or poetry – or at least one of its jobs – is to hold a mirror to the world, unmask what we’re too busy, or tired or distracted to see. It’s up to the reader to do something with that information.
MD: I’d like to speak a bit about your role as a performer. Do you generally write poetry that is already destined to be performed? What kind of layer of meaning does performing add to your writing?
MLG: I don’t think of performance when I write, but I do want the poems I write to be in my voice. Part of the process is reading drafts of poems out loud, to hear what they sound like (where the natural pauses are, where the line breaks could help with a play on language), and to make sure it sounds like me. (The danger, of course, is that you write the same poem over and over again!) Each time you perform a poem, it’s a different poem because the audience is different, is listening for different things; it would be impossible to write a poem with a particular audience or performance in mind. (That said, I did write “Pilgrim” sequence for performance at the St Magnus Festival in Orkney.
The written form in Refuge is slightly different from that performance draft because I knew the audience wouldn’t have a chance to see it again, and would need things to be a little more laid out, a little more joined up.)
MD: Throughout your career, you have worked with women’s charities, refugee groups, LGBTQ+ groups, disadvantaged children. Your poetry is filled with moments of solidarity: the opening poem of the collection, Gift, narrates a beautiful encounter between your Muslim grandmother and your Methodist mother in Teheran. Could you tell me about your work for and with the community and could you share with me a ‘gift’ you have received, a moment that has proven particularly meaningful to you and your writing?
MLG: My aim in writing with these communities of women (whether it’s refugee and migrant women, or those living with domestic violence) is always to honour their experiences. I don’t regularly ask about difficult times (though of course they often come up), but want to know about the other parts of their lives, to let these women know that they are valued, worthy, that their experiences as a whole person matter. We do that often by writing as a group, weaving the offerings of those around a table into a communal poem, which not only allows those who feel less confident to participate, but also brings the group together as a whole. My latest joy is training others to do this work through Open Book, so we can expand how many groups we can support in the long run.
I have been so lucky with gifts – I am regularly given the gift of trust, when women I’m working with tell me their stories, and trust me to use them wisely. I’m also often thanked by participants for this work, for listening and valuing where they come from, rather than their difficulties – and each one of those bits of feedback feels a gift to be treasured. To offset this kind of intense work, I was exceedingly lucky to be offered the Poet in Residence role at Jupiter Artland, where I was given the precious gift of time, silence and space for two years to walk alone in their woods and write whatever I wanted. Most importantly, I’ve been given the gift of encouragement by my husband, who suggested I return to poetry rather than law when my youngest child went to school, and has made space for my work ever since.
MD: Finally, I am curious to know about the poetry that inspires you and that you would recommend to others. Do you have a favourite poet and a favourite poem?
MLG: I have loved the work of Adrienne Rich since I was in my early 20s – and since then have added others like Sharon Olds and Sinead Morrissey. Philip Levine’s poems, particularly the close up look at the every day, stay with me wherever I go. John Glenday’s poems have a stillness with depth that I admire and return to again and again. And last but not least are the poems of John Burnside; I almost always carry his poems with me because his poems are a good reminder of the duality of our daily life, the inward and the outward.
One favourite poem?! Really? It would have to be an Adrienne Rich poem – maybe “Roofwalker” or “Prospective Immigrants Please Note” or likely “What is Possible (for its lines “If the mind were clear/ and if the mind were simple you could take this mind/ this particular state and say/ This is how I would live if I could choose: /this is what is possible.”). The last lines are a challenge to myself that I carry with me