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.

Friday, 28 July 2017

Recent (Sherlock Holmes) Poem Publications

I still write poems on other subjects (I promise) but my recent poetry publications have been of the Sherlock Holmes variety.

In late June my poem 'Beekeeper' (which first appeared in The Ofi Press Magazine) was reprinted in Canadian Holmes. This is the journal of the Bootmakers of Toronto, one of Canada's pre-eminent Sherlockian societies. I was a member for several years, during which time I published several reviews and essays in Canadian Holmes - including an essay written when I was in junior high and attempting to prove that Sherlock Holmes was a Canadian. Canadian Holmes also printed a poem I wrote in tribute to Jeremy Brett (my favourite Sherlock Holmes actor, and probably my favourite actor full stop) after his death in 1995. I was 16 and it was either my first poetry publication or one of the first. This was my first publication in Canadian Holmes for something like 15 years, so it's nice to be back.

In early July, Ink Sweat & Tears published my poem 'Watson on Dartmoor', which strictly speaking is a Watson poem rather than a Holmes poem. Watson, a romantic soul, seems quite overwhelmed by the eerie atmosphere of Dartmoor in The Hound of the Baskervilles. But if I'm honest, this poem is mainly me being Watson. I visited Dartmoor a few years ago - it was December, and it was just like the descriptions in the Hound, but more so. It truly feels like a world part of but separate from our own, and so it can never be fully captured.

Image: I Looked Out Across the Melancholy Downs (Sidney Paget, from The Hound of the Baskervilles, 1902)

Tuesday, 18 July 2017

Hokusai at the British Museum

The Great Wave of Kanagawa. Hokusai, 1831

About ten days ago, I went to the British Museum's exhibition Hokusai: Beyond the Great Wave (until 13 August, but check ticket availability if you're interested in going).

Hokusai (1760-1849), one of the greatest Japanese artists of the creatively rich Edo period (1603-1868), is best known for The Great Wave of Kanagawa, one of a beautiful series of Thirty-Six Views of Mount Fuji. The exhibition featured many of these famous prints but it also highlighted the unusual European influence in many of his works and the extraordinary range of his art. I saw cherry blossoms whose petals were so soft and multifoliate that I wanted to touch them, birds that seemed photographic but with a hyper-real beauty, swirling dragons, sharply defined bridges and lakes like something out of Tolkien, wry and delicate self-portraits.

Hokusai was also very close to the poetry world. He provided illustrations for poems, and depicted poets, in the series A True Mirror of Chinese and Japanese Poetry and One Hundred Poems Explained By the Nurse. In this particularly beautiful example, Poet traveling in the snow, the rider may be the Chinese poet Du Fu (or Tu Fu; 712-70), one of the greatest figures of Chinese literature. It's suggested that he could also be the poet Su Shi (1037-1101), who was famous for writing poems about snow.

Hokusai's work became more and more extraordinary in the last years of his life. In the final room, looking at the paintings on silk from the two years before he died, I found myself struggling to breathe, then in tears. I saw a dragon with desperate human eyes emerging from rain clouds, diving ducks transforming beneath the surface, a joyous tiger bounding upwards through the snow. Shortly before his death, Hokusai reportedly said "If only Heaven will give me just another ten years... Just another five years, then I could become a real painter."