"DON'T GIVE ME MORE IDEAS, I'M TOO CREATIVE!": INTERVIEW WITH POET, ARTIST AND ACTIVIST SONIA QUINTERO.
The interview was conducted by Paul Dudman
CRW Activist & Researcher, Archivist at the University of East London, Convenor of the Oral History Society Migration Special Interest Group
#HUMANRIGHTS #SONIAQUINTERO #POETRY
“The poet is a healer of this sick society; is a revolutionary that transforms suffering, loneliness and hurt into paper, brush and truth. For this reason, we write poetry, to repair our wounds.”
The use of creative approaches to issues of reconciliation, dialogue and exploring ways of repairing our own wounds whilst taking a revolutionary stand against the heart of social injustice and human rights abuses are for many of us at the heart of what
we would like to achieve through our own activism and work. For the artist, poet and activist Sonia Quintero, these core beliefs are represented throughout her artistic and poetic endeavours, reflected by her inclusion in two events during March and April 2019 on the themes of refuge and diasporic communities. The first, "Artistic and creative strategies/methods in refugee projects," organised by UEL's Centre for Narrative Research and held at the University of East London's USS Campus in Stratford on Friday, 29th March, brought together a range of speakers to use artistic and creative methods to engage with refugee/migrant participants, and to help enable opportunities for the participants to creatively tell their stories about their past and present experiences, their journeys and their lives in the countries of settlement. Sonia's presentation on “Poetry creates bridges where people build walls" can provide opportunities to help validate diverse voices and establishes the foundation of a community, whilst how poetry as a creative practice helps to build up bridges between languages and borders.
The second event on Thursday 25th April, 2019, follows The truth, memory and reconciliation commission of Colombian women in the diaspora held the UK book launch for a new compilation of poetry reflecting on the experiences of Colombian women living in diasporic communities away from Colombia. The book, 'Poetic Memories of the Colombian Women in the Diaspora', has been designed as a tribute of women affected by the Colombian conflict and represents over five years for the truth, memory and reconciliation of Colombian women in the United Kingdom.
We are very excited and honoured to be able to discuss this book with one of the contributors, Sonia Quintero, with the and learn more about the background to this work and the importance of poetry in making a stand for social justice and, healing and reconciliation. Sonia Quintero is a Colombian poet, artist and photographer living in London. Sonia’s art expresses her own passion for creativity through the mediums of sculpture, photography, drawing and poetry. Sonia is the founder of Newham Poetry Group and has experience of running poetry workshops with diverse communities in East London and beyond.
Sonia is an activist and has been an active member of DIASPORA WOMAN, for the Truth, Memory and Reconciliation of Colombian Women in the diaspora - UK, an initiative to empower women in the diaspora to become agents of change in the Colombian peace process and in their host countries. Issues of healing and reconciliation feature strongly in Sonia’s art and poetry.
Sonia has published several books of poetry both in her native Spanish and in English. These include: Metaforas de dos mundos, Retazos (Spanish); Words are Not Enough (English) and Poetic Memories of Women in the Colombian Diaspora (just published in English and Spanish).
"The process of creating a poem not only demonstrates the inherent characteristics of the imaginative experience but, when it is written and shared in a supportive group, validates diverse voices and establishes the foundation of a community."
Sonia, you are a very inspirational character for everyone that knows you, what are your inspirations?
R: The easier answer would be; People. “Anonymous” people. Ones that in their anonymity, still work hard and with passion for the things they love. It is easier to do things when you have the support and recognition. And I feel privilege for having found in my path people who fight for the things they love, without any expectation. They are my inspiration. Colombia has so many anonymous heroes, amazing people who dream and work for a better place to live. Community leaders who work for equality and justice, they are my inspiration.
A lot of your poetry reflects your commitment to social issues, can poetry be the Trojan horse by which we are able to challenge social inequality?
R: I truly believe it! Words are powerful, and poetry gives voice and empowers people to say what has not been said yet. Poets, artists, creative minds, critical thinkers must occupy spaces and slip into this society to change the roots of inequality and intolerance. I love the metaphor of the Trojan Horse, because I can imagine a horse full of poets “invading” every single space, making people imagine a better world. I am a dreamer but I try to keep my ground. I know every single grain of sand is important.
The just published collection of poems, Poetic Memories of the Colombian Diaspora, includes some of your poems, and reflects your work with the Woman Diaspora for the Truth, Memory and Reconciliation of Colombian Women in London movement. How has the situation in your home country influenced your engagement with issues of healing and reconciliation?
R: The worse things in Colombia, and I guess around the world, is corruption, add it with indifference and you have a dangerous combination. Colombia has been asleep for long time and there is now a great opportunity for us as a country to do things in a different way. There would be no peace if we still deny the right of everyone to know the truth about the different actors of the conflict and their responsibility of repair the victims of the conflict. The government has failed in their duty of protection of the social leaders.
The founding of the Diaspora Woman for the Truth, Memory and Reconciliation of Colombian Women organisation responded to the need of give sense to the pain that we had all suffered. We must use all forms of expression to heal the wounds that the conflict has left in all of us.
Your work has highlighted a very strong commitment to the local community, has re-connecting with the community you are based in always been important for you and is poetry a good way of encouraging communities to engage?
R: I am aware I cannot change the world, but I want to do all I can, from the bottom of my heart, to make the place I live in a better place for everyone. Newham is a very diverse borough, in terms of language, culture and so on. For me this is the best place to demonstrate that our differences make us stronger and wiser. Community is quite wide and subjective concept, I would prefer to think that my community is every single person I meet on the street, at the library, at the GP, at community’s centres. Community for me is not only an abstract -academic concept, community is people.
Poetry helps us to see beyond us. Poetry humanises abstract concepts and help us see other alternatives, create new concepts and archetypes. Using poetry, or any other art expression, we start from questioning your own narrow mind and then by opening our mind, we open the mind of the people around us.
What was your inspiration for founding the Newham Poetry Group and who do you feel it has inspired local people?
R: One day, I decided to stop complaining about life and create what I couldn’t before. I love poetry and wanted a place where people can freely express themselves without judgement. I didn’t want a school model, just wanted to express myself without the limitation that a second language can impose to you. So, I created what I wanted for me. Everyone with a talent is welcome in the group, everyone with a unique understanding of what poetry is. Even a sentence or a single word is appreciated because it comes from their heart. I encourage people in the group to not just follow my instructions but their hearts. You don’t inspire free-creative thinkers by asking them to blindly follow you.
I hope the group has inspired many people not only to write poems but also create connections between them. I personally find inspiration from every single person in the group. Sometimes, when I see them write, talk and share, I feel so touched. The group is a great reflection of Newham’s different ages, backgrounds, languages, memories, stories...
Writing poetry in a new language. Sonia, you have published your poetry both in your native Spanish and in English, what has been your experience of writing in a new language and how has this influenced your poetry?
R: Writing in English has been such a weir experience. I still remember the first poem I wrote in English. I wrote it and looked the paper and I was so surprised, like... “wow this is me”, ... the other me. However, it has also been liberating and has helped me a lot with my confidence. It also made me questioning “who am I”, and the role of language in shaping my identity. It is a permanent inner-battle. I am still in that process where the “Spanish speaker poet” doesn’t want to recognise the “English speaker poet” ... emotions are difficult to express in other languages and there is sadness when one realises that words maybe will never be enough.
The poems in Words are Not Enough seem to reflect a very personal reflective journey for you? How would define the power of poetry within your experience?
R: Each poem in that book speaks about an experience or person in the poetry group.
The poems are my answer or reflection about something/someone in the group. All these experiences would be stuck in my breast if poetry wouldn’t help me to express them. Since these experiences occurred in an English setting, they come to me in English naturally, I didn’t translate them, they just emerged. These stories emerged from my life experiences in the UK, narrating how I dealt with them emotionally...I can’t imagine writing about it in Spanish. This is a part of me that belongs to this place, the poems belong here. This is where the power of this experience lies... the liberation of talking about something that in any other way would suffocate me.
Does the work of organisations like the Poetry Translation Centre offer opportunities for poets whose native language is not English to be published and have their voices heard?
R: Translating poetry is huge! We must not only have a good knowledge of the languages but also the sensitivity of a poet. I think what Poetry Translation Centre is doing is massive. Poetry is not only what western society knows about. Syrian poetry, American native communities’ poetry, Siberian, African poetry.... We all use words in different ways and the poetry translation centre gives us a closer view of the different perspectives.
In addition to all of this, you have been studying Psychosocial Theory and Practice at the University of East London and this has led to opportunities to engage with refugees and asylum seekers on the UEL OLIve course and create a University-based poetry group focusing on archival collections. How have you responded to these new opportunities?
R: To have the opportunity to lead a poetry session with the OLIve course has been one of the main highlights of my university experience. It is not only for the talent that people have, but being honoured to be able to hold a space for them. I have been touched from participants’ trust and open hearts.
I have the opportunity to learn a lot from both my tutors and the people I have been lucky enough to work with. Every session at OLIve makes me feel inspired to continue working for a better place for all. I want to touch as many hearts as I can. I don’t want to forget that there are still many things to improve in our society, many people who still need a hand to hold.
Does poetry have a role in supporting human rights and citizen rights both locally and internationally?
R: I wound not say that poetry has a role but poets do have one. It is the hand that holds the pen that can make a difference.
We all have a role in supporting human rights, not only a role but a responsibility. We need as many hands as we can ... poets, writers, journalists, nurses, farmers, teachers, community leaders, drivers, and so on... I express my support to human rights through poetry, by inspiring people to think for themselves, encouraging them to question society and empower them to build a better one. I want to think that we all are in the same boat when supporting human rights, the hands of the farmer are as important as the hands of a writer.
What advice would you give to young people who are interested in poetry and who may be inspired by your story and wish to follow your footsteps?
R: I would advise them to find and follow their passion. Our society pushes us towards being competitive with each other, consume more and more. We shouldn’t let competition and money drive us. Be creative, dream a better society for all, no for few, a society where we can all have the same rights, without distinction.
Thank you so much Sonia for such an amazing, thoughtful and reflective interview for Citizens’ Voices. For established and inspiring poets and anyone reading this who is interested in helping and supporting the work and activities of Newham Poetry Group’s work and activities, who should we contact?
R: Thanks. I am currently working on the next project, aiming to set up a “Poetry Cafe?” at Stratford park. We first need to refurnish the building in the middle of the park, it would be the first Poetry Cafe? at Newham, a place where everyone is welcome... poetry workshops, poetry reading, spoken word and open mic. The refurnishing of the place has been funded by Pocket Parks Plus and I am a stakeholder. So, I am now in the process of looking for human and financial support for the project.
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