‘Atlas’ has the rare distinction of being a poem written specifically for World Poetry Day, composed in 2009 by British Poet Laureate Carol Ann Duffy. It may also hold some significance for World Storytelling Day because of its subject – taken from a story in Greek mythology. Duffy draws on the age-old oft-told story of Atlas, the hero in the Greek myth who carries the world on his shoulders. The poet makes a plea for the salvation of the world today with specific reference to the natural environment, if only in support for the hero who saves it through his strength in the story.
It may therefore be appropriately dedicated to the two international days celebrated last week – World Storytelling Day on March 20, and World Poetry Day on March 21. Although they both glorify forms of literature, they are close to each other only by coincidence as there is no known connection of any kind between the two dates. The histories and origins of both are fairly sketchy and undisputable facts are few among the available sources.
World Poetry Day is better known and more established – one can even say officially established – having had the benefit of a Unesco Declaration in 1999 and an official launch in 2000. World Storytelling Day has less official authority; it evolved from a national festival and is orchestrated internationally by an unofficial network of storytellers who communicate with each other.
What has emerged is a day that is observed on March 20 each year, known as the first day of the spring equinox in the northern hemisphere (autumn in the southern hemisphere). It is believed to have started in Sweden in 1991 or 1992 (the exact year is not certain) when a National Storytellers’ Day was held on March 20. The idea developed around Scandinavia (Sweden, Norway, Denmark and Estonia) before it spread around the world from Europe to Canada and gradually to other countries. It is now driven by a network of storytellers around the world who are committed to perpetuate, preserve and promote “the oral art of storytelling.” So the main interest is in the tradition of telling stories as a performance.
The network decides on a theme each year around which stories are rehearsed in different languages and cultures for entertainment and to preserve and invigorate the art. The theme for 2014 is Monsters and Dragons. The series dates back to 2007 and includes Trees in 2012 and Fortune and Fate in 2013.
It is very interesting to note that a festival of storytelling started in Barbados around 1990 and flourished for a few years before it ceased. It is not known whether there was any link with Sweden or if the two events were aware of each other. In Barbados it was an annual storytelling festival consisting of a few nights of performances around the beginning of July each year. Two Guyanese, Ken Corsbie and Stanley Greaves were prominent in its production; each evening storytellers from the Caribbean and from the USA performed at the Central Bank Auditorium in Bridgetown. They also began to make awards named the Earthworks Awards to persons for their achievements in the field of storytelling performance.
Guyana began to observe World Storytelling Day about three years ago with an annual feature on March 20 in which many persons including diplomats and representatives of various missions are invited to read stories from different countries. Storytelling was prominently featured in Carifesta in Suriname in 2013 and was also a component of the Inter Guianas Cultural Festival in Guyana 2012 and French Guiana 2013.
World Poetry Day, although ‘established’ in 1999, is an older affair which has received much more attention, and has seen many more activities than its counterpart in oral narratives. There is more information, but it is not much better documented. According to some sources it dates back to 1936 when Tessa Sweezy Webb started programmes to honour poets of Ohio on the third Saturday in October each year. The idea fructified and by 1951 it had been taken up in 41 countries, but on different dates. Eventually October 15 became the most commonly accepted. Wikipedia tells us that that was so because October 15 is the birthday of the celebrated Roman poet Virgil. Apart from being one of the foremost poets from the Classical period, his work has been influential, very widely quoted and textually engaged by other writers.
After many years the poetry agenda commanded the action of Unesco which declared March 21 World Poetry Day. That Unesco Declaration was taken seriously around the world and the first day under this cover was launched in 2000. Then in 2001 the United Nations started the Dialogue Among Civilisations. This was taken up by certain groups led by Rattapalax, a publication headed by Ram Devinini in New York. In collaboration with the Prince Claus Fund and the Poetry Forum both of the Netherlands, American Academy of Poets, the journal Callalou, as well as The Kenyon Review and other institutions, the Dialogue Among Civilisations Through Poetry was launched. Emphasis was placed on the development of National Poetry Days and International Poetry Days.
Also of great interest are activities in the Caribbean long before the Unesco Declaration. Trinidadian poet Anson Gonzalez may be credited with enlarging the idea of international poetry. Among his endeavours was the report of an International Poetry Day programme held at the Hotel Normandie in Port of Spain on October 15, 1979. International Poetry Day was taken up in Guyana with a programme held on October 15 by the University of Guyana at the Theatre Guild in 1990. This continued annually once at the Russian Embassy, then at the National Cultural Centre at which members of the diplomatic community were invited to introduce and read poetry from their various countries.
This series was then passed over to the Guyana Association of Writers and Artists who held successive programmes on the University Campus and then at the Umana Yana when the AGWA joined forces with the Ministry of Culture. These events faded away, and were later revived by the ministry. For 2014 it hosted a programme of presentations for Storytelling Day at the Umana Yana on Thursday March 20, and will observe Poetry Day on Tuesday, March 25 with a similar event at the same venue.