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Baghdad to Bukhara: Yvonne’s journey to celebrate power of poetry

Sarah Whitehead
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Published: 6 June 2019

Last updated: 4 March 2024

THE EVENING BEFORE we spoke, Yvonne Green’s reading of her poem The Farhud had cast awe over a theatre full of people in Sydney and connected listeners to a point in history which took place 13,3888 km from where they were standing in that moment.

Such is the nature of poetry, Yvonne believes, “it has the ability to connect people across history and distance”. The Farhud: Baghdad's Shabu'ot 1st and 2nd June 1941, was commissioned by Harif (The UK association of Jews from the Middle East and North Africa) to memorialise the hundreds of Jews who were murdered in the June 1941 pogrom in Baghdad  on June 6, 2016. Green's poem was read in the Israeli Knesset to commemorate 75 years since it took place.

Green  wrote the poem from her desk in Israel. “I had been carrying these stories and research for months and one evening I sat down at 6pm and by 6am it was finished.” As shown with the opening line, We walked on Shabbat/ in the Bustan al-Khass, the poem speaks from a collective perspective.

Before putting pencil to paper (she only ever writes in bic pencil), Green spoke to people from her synagogue Tiferet Eyal in Hendon in London, who had survived the Farhud as children. She also went to Israel to meet with experts in the field.

She says her own poetic voice became “suffused” with the intimacies and emotions from the experiences shared with her and in turn she was able to write these into verse over the course of one night. “I felt in this poem I was able to ventriloquise people’s stories,” she says.

But Green’s approach to her poetry is unsurprising given that her own voice is interwoven with so many perspectives. Her mother was raised in Egypt and her family is from Bukharan Jewish descent. Her roots inspired her first poetry pamphlet, Boukhara, which takes the reader deep into the world of Bukhara and Judeo Tajik culture in Uzbekistan.

Green’s great aunt was also a poet and she says that it is precisely because she has verse in her blood that her mother “didn’t want to encourage” her poetry ambitions when she stood up at the age of five to recite.
“When a good poet writes it’s the soul speaking in tongues. The first time you hear it; you listen. The second time you hear it again but with the eye, you read it with a copy in front of you.”

“I always loved poetry but it took me a while to dedicate the time it deserved. My mother always tried to put me off because she knew how consuming it can be. She was right!

“[Poetry] has become a condition,” she says, “a condition you can inform by reading and reflecting. You’re like a tuning fork picking up movement through your senses; what you feel, what you hear, smell. Things which reinforce you. You then interrogate these things which makes you tremble.”

At Limmud Oz in Sydney next weekend, Green will be speaking about the Power of Poetry. “For too many people, poetry remains a mystery and I want to demystify it,” she says. “Poetry is about capturing the true meaning of our intentions and emotions and that should be accessible to everyone. Poetry like music or art should be first and foremost an instinctive experience.”

“When a good poet writes it’s the soul speaking in tongues. The first time you hear it; you listen. The second time you hear it again but with the eye, you read it with a copy in front of you.” Such a description reflects the words of the famous English poet T S Eliot, who once said, “it is a test [that] genuine poetry can communicate before it is understood”.

For this reason, Green always gives readings for her poems and currently convenes two monthly poetry groups in London, one at Hendon Library and the other at JW3, Europe's largest Jewish cultural centre.

Green will also speak at a session titled Asia’s Unknown Jews, in which she will explore the history and culture of the Jews of Bukhara and their Judaeo–Tajik language. “Many people don’t know about Eastern Jews,” she says. “Did you know that there has been a constant Jewish presence in Central Asia for 2,700 years?”

Her most recent work is the poetry collection Jam and Jerusalem, a title which reflects her intention “to make something as whole capable of sweetness but also down to earth”. These poems entwine the personal and political; exploring the complex nature of Anglo-Jewish experience from a feminist perspective while evaluating the human cost of war.

Among other things, she hopes they will “contest the orthodoxies which have led to the delegitimising of Israel as a state and the [conflating] of anti-Zionism with anti-Semitism.”

Across the cover of this book is a painting by the prominent English artist Frank Auerbach, who said Green had lived a ‘life worth living’. It’s an elegant reference to a life that Green has been anything but straightforward.

“I did everything twice; driving test, marriage, a-levels. The lot!” She was called to the bar in New York and London before retiring in 1999 to commit fully to being a poet, which she said required a huge amount of persistence. “Through poetry I received thousands and thousands of rejections. Each rejection had a place of honour on my wall,” she laughs.

Reflecting on her work, Green says “poetry is a process, a journey which changes with your state of mind. I often find that my view on the subject of one of my poems changes shortly after I have finished writing it and this in turn will influence my next poem. My poetry has changed as my life has developed and I hope it will continue to.”


About the author

Sarah Whitehead

Sarah Whitehead is a freelance journalist in London who writes about art, culture and literature. She has worked for The Guardian, International Herald Tribune and BBC.

The Jewish Independent acknowledges Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples as the Traditional Owners and Custodians of Country throughout Australia. We pay our respects to Elders past and present, and strive to honour their rich history of storytelling in our work and mission.

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