Sunday, 29 October 2017

Keep My Words Forever: Mandelstam at Pushkin House

London's Russian cultural centre Pushkin House is currently running a programme about Russian poetry in exile, to commemorate the centenary of the Russian Revolution. Along with information about their 101st km Further Everywhere pavilion on Bloomsbury Square (until 10 November) you can also find the programme of poetry events here. There are still a few events to go.

On 19 October I went to see the film Keep My Words Forever (directed by Roma Liberov, in Russian with English subtitles), about the life of Osip Mandelstam. The film combined puppetry, animation using cutouts and other effects, and documentary filming. I wasn't totally sure how this was going to work but it turned out to be an extremely moving film, capturing Mandelstam's often manic energy and its disintegration into illness and depression after years of persecution. As the director said, particularly with the use of puppets, it felt as though there was a short period of adjustment needed while watching and then viewers start to see the people in the puppets. This was exactly how it was, for me. The translations used were by a wide variety of Mandelstam's many translators.

Speaking after the film, Roma Liberov referred to the Russian Revolution and what followed as "interrupted history - a social experiment" (which reminded me of when I saw Russian poet Maria Stepanova some years ago and she spoke of decades of "frozen history"). Liberov pointed out that poets in Russia died for the right to write outside of the propaganda machine, and that Mandelstam died principally because people in the literary establishment didn't like him and decided to ensure his downfall. (The latter was an interesting point because it is often assumed that he died specifically because of the 'Stalin Epigram', but Mandelstam didn't particularly consider himself a political poet and his views were more complex than that.) He was hard to capture in the film, said Liberov, but I felt there was success up to a point. I thought Keep My Words Forever was a beautiful and appropriate title. Osip Mandelstam's wife Nadezhda memorised his work and ensured that it was preserved (her story is completely extraordinary in itself) and there we were hearing his words nearly 80 years after the poet died. I wondered how Mandelstam would feel if he could know that.

In the lobby at Pushkin House, film clips with photos of Mandelstam and his handwriting were playing, and a recording of his voice. Liberov said that while it is often difficult to know at which speed old recordings should be played, this one had been listened to by Mandelstam's friend Korney Chukovsky (himself a famous Russian children's poet and literary critic) and that Chukovsky had confirmed at which speed his friend's voice sounded right to him.

Thursday, 26 October 2017

A Report from Poetry International (London) 2017

Joy Harjo at Poetry International, October 2017

Ted Hughes founded the Poetry International festival in 1967, and its 50th anniversary celebration was on 14-15 October at Southbank Centre in London, where it all started.

I had hoped to attend more events at this year's Poetry International, but I've been very busy lately and couldn't manage to plan a whole weekend of poetry events; I still made it to a few, though. There was a particular focus this year on disappearing languages, and the first event I went to was called Seven Thousand Words for Human: Endangered Poetry. Translator and poet Stephen Watts asked "Is poetry an endangered language?" and pointed out that translation can either be colonising, or have a bringing-in effect. Joy Harjo, a Native American of the Muscogee (Creek) Nation, read in her indigenous language and said "Part of coming home is the language." There were also wonderful readings by Nick Makoha and others from a variety of languages under threat, such as Luganda and Sardinian.

The Modern Poetry in Translation event on Saturday evening was partly to say goodbye to Sasha Dugdale as its editor - she is handing on the role to Clare Pollard. Sasha has done an incredible job in extending the reach of MPT during her years with the journal. There were amazing readings by the Syrian Kurdish poet Golan Haji, whose work I first discovered a few years ago now, and his translator Stephen Watts, who also read some of his own poetry.

On Sunday, the World Poetry Summit featured Joy Harjo (US), Sjón (Iceland), Yang Lian (China), Anne Carson (Canada), Claudia Rankine (US), Vahni Capildeo (Trinidad) and Arundhathi Subramaniam (India). Choman Hardi should have been there and at other events, but couldn't get out of Kurdistan due to the ongoing crisis there. We did hear recordings of her poems. All of the readers were excellent, but I was particularly moved by Joy Harjo singing her extraordinary poem 'Equinox' and by Claudia Rankine's contrasting readings from Citizen and Don't Let Me Be Lonely (the former sombre, the latter more hopeful.)

Coincidentally, at the World Poetry Summit I found myself sitting next to Elzbieta Wójcik-Leese, who I already knew a little and who is one of the world's foremost translators of contemporary Polish poetry. It was good to catch up, and after the readings we went to the Poetry Library's open day, which this year focused on the theme 'A Universal Language'.

Photos by Clarissa Aykroyd, 2017

Sunday, 1 October 2017

New Poems Published in Shot Glass Journal

Shot Glass Journal has published three of my recent poems, 'Lisbon', 'Dakar' and 'Kingdom'. You can read them here:

These all came out of trips I took in 2016 - 'Kingdom' was written after a trip to Finland, and I travelled to Portugal and Senegal a few months later.

I had thought to myself that perhaps one poem was more about the place, perhaps another was about the emotional state generated by it: but in fact, the two are often indivisible for me.

Photo by Clarissa Aykroyd: Lisbon, 2016

Thursday, 28 September 2017

National Poetry Day: Osip Mandelstam's 'The Twilight of Freedom'

Today is National Poetry Day in the UK, and the theme for 2017 is 'Freedom'.

For this year's theme, the poem I have chosen is by Russian poet Osip Mandelstam: 'The Twilight of Freedom' (translated by Clarence Brown and WS Merwin).

This is one of Mandelstam's earlier poems, from his collection Stone (1913). "O sun, judge, people, desolate/are the years into which you are rising!" he writes - presciently, considering that the regime had not yet arrived under which he would eventually die (in 1938, in a transit camp, after years of persecution).

The lines "In the deepening twilight the earth swims into the nets/and the sun can't be seen" made me think of Isaiah 25:7. Mandelstam urges courage, but with a keen, sad understanding of the extent to which the world has drifted from what it should be, in humanity's insatiable quest for power.

Sunday, 24 September 2017

A Salt Wind: Cross Currents in Polish & British Poetry

A few days ago, I went to a launch event at Ognisko Polskie in Knightsbridge for the online publication of A Salt Wind - a series of commentaries and poetic responses to each other's work by Polish and British poets. Unsurprisingly, this was a project of the great Modern Poetry in Translation.

Poets working on the project, some of whom read at the launch event along with translators, included Jahcek Dehnel, Tara Bergin, Vahni Capildeo, Ruth Padel, David Harsent, George Szirtes, Alice Oswald, and Krystyna Dąbrowska. They responded to the work of poets including Philip Larkin, Czesław Miłosz and Leopold Staff, among others. You can read the original poems and responses here: 

There was a lot to like about this project, but I was intrigued by the fact that every response was very different: some poets wrote commentaries, some wrote poems or translations, some did both. The openness of the project was intended as a response to recent rises in xenophobic attacks and hate speech in the UK and, indeed, in other countries. In the light of recent events in the UK, many of these attacks have targeted Polish people.

This year when I've gone to poetry events, they've usually been translation-related: poetry-wise, this is what gets me out of the house. It's no coincidence. In a world not characterised by its selflessness, translation does a pretty good job - it's hard work, it's often not well paid or recognised, and few people read poetry, let alone poetry in translation. I've found this reflected in the poetry-in-translation communities, which (it seems to me) are less noted for their egos and drama than other parts of the literary world, including the poetry world.

Saturday, 2 September 2017

Rosemary Tonks: 'The Sofas, Fogs and Cinemas'

Tonight I thought I would share the deliciously cynical 'The Sofas, Fogs and Cinemas' by the late Rosemary Tonks.

Rosemary Tonks had an unusual life, and if you wish, you can find plenty of more or less judgmental commentary about it online. Setting aside the details of her life, I've found 'The Sofas, Fogs and Cinemas' absolutely delightful from the very first time I read it. It is evocative of London in the '50s or '60s, but anyone who has lived in London for a decent length of time will still recognise many of the details: "My café-nerves are breaking me/With black, exhausting information" is a little too reminiscent of my own life when I don't sleep enough and drink too much caffeine.

It appears that in this poem, the speaker has an unbearably annoying and rather creepy flatmate or romantic partner: this, too, is London. ("He wants to make me think his thoughts/And they will be enormous, dull...") Tonks also takes aim at, well...annoying people. But in particular, she takes aim at annoying artistic types. I love it when she writes "And their idea of literature!/The idiotic cut of the stanzas". This reminded me irresistibly of a terribly stupid discussion I witnessed online wherein poets (apparently) discussed whether or not the first letters of all lines in a poem should or shouldn't be capitalised. According to a shocking number of them, capitalising the first letters of all lines in a poem was no longer a valid artistic choice (although a large number of remarkably gifted living poets, ranging from Sean O'Brien to Sasha Dugdale, do it on at least a semi-regular basis). Apparently this should have gone out with the first half of the twentieth century and some considered it "distracting". Given that probably 90% of poetry in the history of the world has featured capitalised first letters of all lines (since it's only recently that this has ceased to be a universal convention) it really made me wonder if they'd ever read anything good.

Rosemary Tonks was a brilliant poet with a remarkably distinct voice, and I do recommend her poetry if you're looking for well-crafted, so-spot-on-it-hurts observation of human nature. And I, too, like going alone to the "taciturn, luxurious" cinema.

Photo: End of an era by Nic McPhee. Used under Creative Commons license

Thursday, 24 August 2017

Louis MacNeice: 'To Posterity'

Louis MacNeice, in his occasional guise of near-prophet, published the poem 'To Posterity' in his 1957 collection Visitations.

'To Posterity' is an unusual poem to dedicate to, well, posterity - although MacNeice only had a few more years to live in 1957. The use of the word "media" was surely less common then (or perhaps used a bit differently) but it gives the poem an unmistakably technological air, although it is also pastoral, with its longing for green grass, blue sky, and other simple, fundamental elements of nature.

Succintly - and with a strangely prescient air - MacNeice touches on the issues which trouble us today: are technology and social media cutting us off from each other and from nature? Are they rearranging the connections our brains (and our hearts, perhaps) are capable of making? (It is only fair to point out that similar concerns arose during the advent of radio and television.)

The use of the words "seized up" hit me particularly hard: that's the kind of thing we say when our phones, tablets and laptops freeze or die, but here MacNeice applies it to books themselves. If he saw where we are today, he might not be so surprised. But perhaps MacNeice would also be happy to know that books have not actually seized up, and that the death of the paper book and the triumph of the e-book have so far been much exaggerated.

Monday, 31 July 2017

The Benjamin Fondane Update

In case you thought this was just a lot of big talk, I actually did pick up Benjamin Fondane's Le mal des fantômes in Paris a few months ago and I've now translated a few of his poems. I'm looking at translating a few more and seeing if I can find a suitable home for them somewhere. (I feel more trepidation over sending out translations than over sending out original work, but that's another story.) 

In the meantime, I thought I'd share this interesting excerpt from a 1985 interview with EM Cioran, who knew both Fondane and Paul Celan. It confirmed my readings of their respective work. (The interview was with Leonard Schwartz and appears in the recent selection of Fondane's work in English translation, Cinepoems and Others, published by New York Review Books, 2016).

Leonard Schwartz: Do you see any sort of connection between Paul Celan and Fondane?

EM Cioran: I knew both Fondane and Paul Celan well, and I suppose it is true that they had something in common. They came from almost the same geographic area in Romania: Bukovina and Moldavia are provinces that border on each other. Both were Jewish poets and both had an intellectual curiosity which is not absolutely normal in a poet. But they were very different as men. Fondane had an immense presence; all became enlivened around him; we were very pleased to hear him speak. Around Celan one felt a kind of uneasiness. As I've told you before, Celan was so susceptible, so vulnerable: Everything hurt him... With Celan one always had to be on guard. He was a wounded man, in the metaphysical and psychological sense of the word, and that was why one felt so uneasy. Whereas Fondane was the contrary: You felt you didn't have to supervise yourself.