At First Sight: floating islands, floating lands

in-words’ first-ever event at the British Library played in front a full room on the evening when people could easily have dropped out to watch football or tennis… And we were all treated to an evening of storytelling, poetry and music from voices and sounds from England and Oceania, highlighting issues raised by the voyages of James Cook (the subject of an excellent exhibition at the British Library)

Vanessa Lee Miller – poet, journalist, playwright from Hawaii was the force behind the project, and her enthusiasm, grace and perseverance ensured the participation and support of many diverse creatives. Her own beautiful poem, recited in English and then read in Hawaiian, and her evocative short end-poem focused appropriately on water: fresh water as source of life and death and the ocean penetrating a bay haunted, according to local legend, by Cook’s spirit in the shape of a great white shark. I am truly grateful to her for involving me in this exciting project. I learnt so much working on it!

We had live music played on many instruments collected, and in some cases constructed by Giles Leaman, from a didgeridoo to percussion to the smallest whistle, providing the mood for the readings – eerie, martial, gentle and always evocative.

Rich Sylvester’s story followed the young James Cook getting his sealegs and fulfilling his passion for mapping and cartography, and had us spellbound as it recounted his encounters with Oceanic peoples and the blunders and heavy handed attitudes and responses that led to the killing of many indigenous men, the abuse of many women and ultimately to his own demise in Hawaii.

Rich was also the voice of Cook in the reading of the final pages of Cook in the Underworld, a long poem/libretto by Maori poet Robert Sullivan (b.1967). The part of Orpheus was read by Crystal Te Moananui-Squares, photographer and member of the Interisland Collective of Maori/New Zealand descent, and the ‘judge’ was Jo Walsh, a London-based artist and Pacific Arts Producer of Maori/Scottish ancestry.

Sara Taukolonga, a freelance journalist and performance artist of Tongan/Latvian Jewish descent, read a poem written by the longest-reigning queen of Tonga, Queen Salote Tupou III (1918-1965), translated into English by Sara herself, who then sang it in Tongan, accompanied on guitar by her brother David.

Australian Rhys Feeney gave a sharp and painfully accurate potted history of the Aboriginal People and of the contemptuous disregard for their status as human beings by the colonial powers since 1770, and ended his performance with a cutting poem by Australian poet Steven Oliver.

I know I’m biased, but I feel really happy to have been part of this. My thanks to all the participants, the audience and to Jonah Albert and Steven Gale of the Cultural Events Department at the British Library for giving Vanessa and me the space and time to produce this wonderful and moving evening.

Sadly, no one was available to record it in video or photographs…