Poetry To Welcome Others: Sheltering Under The Owl’s Wings Reviewed

The readings in Sheltering Under The Owl’s Wings at Leeds Beckett University followed in the long and honourable tradition of rabble rousing, intellectually provocative and emotionally charged poetry that Leeds writers have long been able to produce.

As a teenager I attended meetings of Rock And Against Racism and the Anti-Nazi League and heard speakers from the department of cultural studies rail against the National Front and their alarmingly visceral and visible presence on the streets of Leeds.

As a seven year old I was unaware of the death of David Oluwale, a British Nigerian who, released from High Royds asylum, was hounded to death by racist police officers and drowned in the river Aire.

Oluwale’s memory was kept alive at the event with readings of work by Teresa O’Driscoll, Chérie Taylor Baptiste, Ian Duhig, Halima France-Mir, Sai Murray, Ian Harker and others, including creative writing students from Leeds Beckett University. The student poetry slammers nearly took the roof off with powerful and thought provoking word paintings of Belfast and Derry, and a bilingual Dutch poet showed the crassness of the binary, divisive rhetoric spewed out around the Brexit debacle.

Emily Zobel Marshall’s poem about walking beneath the Dark Arches over the swirling River Aire, trying to find some way of replying to her children’s question about whether anyone ever drowned in this river was poignant. She told them that yes, they had, but that the river had been kind and taken them home. Home, though, is a disputed territory.

Teresa O’Driscoll spoke of the motorways that link Leeds to London, referring to the Irish workers who toiled on them — I know your roads, she said, because I built them.

The long tradition of immigration to Leeds and the city’s complicated relationship with those who have enriched its culture, taught its children, nursed its sick, fed its hungry and made its infrastructure was unfolded and examined.

One or two voices took the theme of home more lightly, but were no less welcome. Interesting reflections on white working class boys and how they respond to the disconnection with their roots that education and relocation often brings about were addressed with humour and warmth. “I’m from the seaside,” one student poet said to introduce himself, “for any of you that know Grimsby.”

I left Leeds in 1985 and returned in to a different city, a city of clean washed walls, brand spanking new shops and glittering arcades. In many but not all ways it has improved for the better but the old debates about class, belonging and culture are more relevant now than ever. And a city never completely sheds its past. Vigilance is still required, especially in these dangerous and troubled times. To think that poetry can help do this, can alert, entertain, provoke and demand, gives us some hope.

Sheltering Under The Owl’s Wings was a collaboration between Irish Health and Homes, Leeds Beckett’s Dept of Cultural Studies and the Oluwale Charity, for Leeds’ first Literature Festival.

Karen Tobias-Green is a writer and course leader of Creative Writing at Leeds Arts University