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Poems from the Edge of Extinction: A conversation with Chris McCabe

We spoke to National Poetry Librarian Chris McCabe about his new anthology, Poems from the Edge of Extinction, and just why it's so important to talk about the languages from across the world that are dying out.


“Half of the world’s 7000 languages will fall silent by the end of the century”, poet and National Poetry Librarian Chris McCabe tells us. It’s a startling figure.

His new anthology, Poems from the Edge of Extinction, is not simply a collection of poetry from some of these languages. It’s a powerful story of preservation, exploring some of the most remote civilisations in the world and some of the most endangered.

It’s a tale of rebellion, where a poet from Mexico declares her grandmother never learned Spanish and instead prayed to her gods only in her native Zoque. It’s a tale of a Maori poet talking directly to British colonialism with no fear and telling them his people and culture will never, ‘sure as a white hell’, turn into a ‘britain of the south seas’. Poems come from corners where words aren’t written down because a written script for their language doesn’t exist, instead poems are sung and passed orally from one generation to the next. They come from everywhere from Latvia to Alaska, where poets are keeping a language alive because if they don’t, who will?

Poems from the Edge of Extinction is an essential guide to the power of language and its inseparable ties with local culture, even as that culture comes under threat from colonialism, globalisation and modern life. What it finds, across 50 poems from 50 languages from every continent of the planet, is that only through poetry can a language preserve the story of its people in the face of extinction. For, as Chris says, ”politicians might spread it far and wide, but the poets are the true gatekeepers who care for and protect a language.”

We talked to Chris about the anthology and why it’s so important to bring voices at the risk of extinction to the wider world:


(Poetical) How did the project come about, and how did you get involved in it?

(Chris McCabe) The project came about from an initiative we (the National Poetry Library) launched in 2017 called the Endangered Poetry Project. The idea behind that was to respond to the global situation with the risk of so many languages of falling silent – UNESCO estimates that half of the world’s 7,000 languages will fall silent by the end of the century. We were really keen to look at what happens to the poetry of those languages – whether spoken or written – as those languages disappear and the poetic cultures of those languages disappears as a result. We put a call out to the public and received loads of submissions, and on the back of that we put on a visual art exhibition, and the conversation grew and we arrived at this wonderful book. That includes some of the poems from the Endangered Poetry Project and many more that I’ve gone off and found out about and contacted poets and received permission for. The callout is still active and I’d like the book to be a launchpad for more people to get involved in the project.

Were you surprised by just how many languages and cultures you received poems from?

Yes, it was the breadth of it as well. We thought we’d get poems similar to the UK endangered languages – Cornish or Welsh, for example –but we received poems from much further afield that aren’t too known by a UK audience, which was amazing. We had a lot of submissions from places like Malaysia and Afghanistan, but then also closer to home across Europe, poems in Italian dialects and in Alsatian and Bretton. It’s really interesting how the callout rippled out and people responded from all these places.

Were you taken or surprised by the similarities/differences from poems from such different cultures?

Well there’s so many ways a poem can be written. We know that better than ever now in the 21st century. It’s so hard to define exactly what a poem is because it’s constantly being reinvented, this idea of the poem and where the parameters end. What I did find was there’s certain forms which do exist and travel from place to place. One of the more prevailing forms I found was the couplet. I was aware of the Landay poems which are written by women in Afghanistan. What was really interesting for me is to find that just across the border in Pakistan is this tradition of ‘Zo’ couplets which are really similar and a little bit different inthat they’re often about lost love and unrequited desire and not as acerbic as the Landay poems, but they’re similarly traditionally written by women. What this book allowed me to do is look up these different poetic cultures, and we also found that up in the Afghan mountains, they also have another couplet tradition which is quite similar to both the Landay and Zo couplets. So it’s allowed me to map out a lot of these cultures and see how they have similarities even though they’re geographically and culturally divided.

A lot of the poems have been translated and translated into English, into the Latin script – for example one of the Landay poems makes use of rhyme when written in English. How faithful is this to the original meaning, and how much have they been adapted to work in English?

The way I see it is every translation is a new piece of work, it’s a new offering to literature. Rhyming words in English aren’t always going to be the same as they are in the original language, so the translation has to be inventive. I actually, in the Torwali language, translated it with the person who gathered the poem. Without knowing the language myself and relying on the help of a translator, I wanted them to feel and emotionally resonate as the original poem would in it’s original language. There’s a lot going on when you are trying to make an oral poem ‘sing’, and we made sure the people involved in writing or gathering the poem would sign off on the English version of the poem.

A lot of the poems in the anthology are a response to colonialism, including a poem by Maori poet Vaughan Rapatahana who in his work switches between Maori and English so that the British colonialists can clearly understand his thoughts about their rule when he says the direction of his people “sure as a white hell / isn’t toward London.” When you present your book at its launch event at the Southbank Centre, how interesting is it that he will be reading this poem of rebellion against Britain in England to a majority British crowd?

It’s really interesting, isn’t it! Vaughan’s poem is really about speaking truth to power and voicing the other side of colonial aggression. He’s making a statement about where those people are now – his poem is confident, it’s direct and it’s really engaging to hear. I’m looking forward to hearing him read – he actually reads to music – and it’ll take on an incredible power because it’s in London just across the river from the Houses of Parliament. It’s a real opportunity for a British audience to hear the other side of the history this country has been involved in.

The Rohingya language still has over two million active speakers, compared to some others included have as little as 30 active speakers left. The language is included in the book as a language that is being silenced, rather than so being so immediately at risk of going extinct as others are. What are your thoughts on the importance of including a language like Rohingya in the book?

What I really wanted to do with this book is to open it up and explore ideas of what extinction means. Most of the languages covered in the book are identified on the UNESCO list of endangered languages, which is a piece of work that is very useful but can sometimes define endangered as a mathematical problem. This isn’t quite true, there’s many cultures where the speakers feel in danger. With Rohingya, this group of people have been removed from Myanmar culture and their own language is at risk. There’s something empowering that, in the face of this danger, they choose to write poetry in their indigenous language even if they might not have a large audience but shows the massive commitment to their own culture that they want to share it to anybody who will listen.

There’s a lot of languages which don’t have a written script, whether Arabic or Latin or a local script, so it’s really interesting to see poetry being represented in this book which exists only in an oral tradition.

Yes, in many many parts of the world, poetry is an oral art form. Tt’s probably safer to refer to it as ‘verbal art’ rather than using the word poetry. A western audience automatically thinks poetry is something which largely exists on the page or will be printed. But in many cultures, it’s something that will be shared in the moment and is transferred from person to person. The challenge that presents is how we disseminate it more widely outside of that culture – audio is a great way of doing that. What I hope is people take this book and use it as a launching pad to explore what these languages sound like and what else they can find.

Were there any languages that you hoped to obtain poems from but found that they had already gone extinct – either there are no active speakers left or no active poets in that language?

Aside from the 50 languages in the book, we must have looked at hundreds in total. It wasn’t always possible to find poetry in those languages, or it wasn’t easy to find. There’s a poem in the book from the Livonian language, an endangered language of Latvia, where there’s only around 20 active speakers left, but 3 of them are poets! That’s an incredible reality. Imagine how many poets there’d be in the world if that ratio was the norm!

Does that ratio come from poets simply loving and wanting to keep a language alive?

Yes, the important thing is poets ‘wanting’ to keep the language alive. And the Livonian language isn’t just an isolated example – there’s the Ahtna language from Alaska in which the poet we highlight in the book is going to be the last speaker of the language in a few years as the other speakers are elders who are significantly older. He does Ahtna lessons and videos on YouTube, teaching others words and using technology to get it out there. He’s created a dictionary and thesaurus for the language. He’s someone who has identified the endangerment of the language and he’s stepped up, and found that poetry is one of the most powerful mediums to engage people in what’s happening in that language and culture. Poets step up to the plate when a language is under threat. They are the unofficial custodians of the language, in my view. Politicians might spread it far, but the poets are the true gatekeepers who care for and protect a language.


Poems from the Edge of Extinction edited by National Poetry Librarian Chris McCabe will be presented at Southbank Centre's Poetry International festival on Saturday 19 October:


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