Anna in the land of poets

A link between Bangladeshi and British writers has produced a rich fusion of poetry, and the results will be performed for all to see this week. Norfolk-based poet Anna Steward has been on an exchange trip to Bangladesh and is now looking forward to welcoming her new friends to Norwich this Friday.

Poetry is part of everyday life in Bangladesh, and it is said that everyone there has tried to write a poem at least once. While the same may not be true of Britain, it's certainly the case that there are many budding poets around - and there are plenty in Norfolk, given the county's growing reputation as a hotbed of literary talent.

When the British Council decided to organise an exchange between British poets and Bangladeshis, they were deluged with interest from people wanting to experience life in the culturally rich country between India and Pakistan.

So when Anna Steward heard that she had been chosen to for the trip, her response was understandable.

“I sent in my application form five minutes before the deadline on the day it was due in,” she says, explaining that she thought she might have left it too late.

“I heard a few days later that I had got it and I screamed and danced around!”

Anna, from Norwich, is a student on the UEA's acclaimed MA course in creative writing, specialising in poetry.

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She heard she had been accepted in November and then visited Bangladesh from December 12 to December 20, working with Bangladeshi poets.

“There was a group of 15 writers and they were brilliant,” she said. “They were really enthusiastic and passionate and creative.

“They are the only group of performing poets in Bangladesh and people there don't always know how to take it. They write and perform in English, and a lot of them are students and lecturers at the various universities.”

Dinesh Allirajah, a Bangladeshi performance poet who is involved in the project, said: “I can honestly say I have never enjoyed or got so much from working with a group of writers than I have with this group.”

The other British writers involved are Joe Dunthorne and Susan Vittery who, like Anna, are students from the MA in Creative Writing at UEA, and Amanda Smith, who is a graduate from Middlesex University. Since they visited Bangladesh, the group has kept in regular contact, for instance collaborating on poems over e-mail.

Together they have formed a poetry group called Brine Pickles, which is described by the British Council as “a fusion of young contemporary writers from the UK and Bangladesh ... They have marinated in each other's countries through workshops in Dhaka and Norwich and are now bringing their blend of poetry and performance to the stage”.

This will happen on Friday when the Bangladeshis' return visit culminates in a performance at the Assembly House in Norwich.

The Bangladeshi writers arrive tomorrow and will spend the week before the big show in workshops and seeing the sights of Norfolk.

This particular exchange trip has been entitled Maps and Metaphors, but it is all part of a larger project called Connecting Futures - a programme run by the British Council that aims to bring young people from different cultures and countries together to learn from each other.

“They were such a wonderful group of people, I have really missed them since we came back,” said Anna, who is 23 and originally from Shropshire.

“It was such an exciting time, I wanted to wake up at 5am every day to get the most out of my time there. It was full of amazing sights and sounds and smells.

“It was strange coming back to England, where everyone looks like they're going to a funeral every day. There's so much passion for life there, and for poetry.

“They say that everyone in Bangladesh has tried to write a poem at some point, and their national anthem is written by a poet,” she said, referring to the 1913 winner of the Nobel Prize for Literature, Rabindranath Tagore.

“It is a big part of their culture.”

t The British Council is the UK's international organisation for educational opportunities and cultural relations. For details see: www.britishcouncil.org. Also see www.creativeartseast.co.uk.

The performance at the Assembly House, Norwich, at 6.30pm on Friday, February 24, is free, but people are advised to reserve a place by ringing the British Council on 01223 354786 between 9am and 5pm Monday to Friday or e-mailing eastofengland@britishcouncil.org

Borders, by Anna Steward:

My twenty-two-year-old feet

Let them slip

Open-toe stilettos drop down

Heel to tiled floor

They click like

Balls in pool halls and echo together

Red on white.

My dial tone rings out and signals stretch

Down the lane, past the phone box on the corner,

Up, over the Stretton hills,

Straight through the Shropshire border,

Nuzzling its way along the sea bed

Then across Burma and Laos

Reaching you earlier.

Where you spoon

Cellophane noodle soup

Sat at a dusty street stall.

Where waterboys walk over

Yellow river, tip-toe over

Sleeping buffalos.

And their fathers, farmers

Walk stilt bridges

Grasping hulks of paddy grass.

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