An accomplished poet, Sleigh took up journalism to see for himself the realities behind the abstractions in places including Libya, Iraq, Somalia, and Lebanon. More than just reports, his essays are troubled and thought-provoking reflections on violence and our response to suffering. Impatient with statistics and the pre-fab language of popular opinion, and interested more in bodies than in body counts, Sleigh hoped to develop feelings about what he saw, not just to hold convictions. Writing with the “physical immediacy” he demands from poetry, he looked closely, questioned people about their memories and fears, and tracks the lived experience of occupation, displacement, drone strikes, and starvation. He vividly conveys what happens to someone growing up in a refugee camp and shows what a mother goes through when she has to decide which of two sons to leave, because she can carry only one across the desert. Struggling to achieve a new kind of reporting that, like the poetry, “embodies emotion as opposed to riding on top of it,” Sleigh asks whether empathy is possible, of if we should strive instead for a truer sympathy and questions whether journalists really speak for the voiceless or only add their own voice to the din drowning out the stories they’re after. Finally, looking again to poetry, and showing the different approaches taken by writers such as Akhmatova, Tranströmer, Heaney, and David Jones, Sleigh proposes a “politics of negative capability,” which means “immers[ing] yourself as fully as you can in what you’re observing, to take it in in all its sensory immediacy” with any judgment coming only afterward.
The Land Between Two Rivers - Tom Sleigh