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Pebbles, Poems, Friends


At the weekend I was in Aldeburgh, in the chill, blasting sunshine of a glorious autumn weekend: taking part in a panel for the Society of Authors, buying smoked cockles off a hut on the pebbled beach, catching up on poetry gossip in The Cross Keys, and listening to some wonderful readings: Bernard O’Donoghue, Lavinia Greenlaw, Jacqueline Saphra’s sonnets about Lee Miller from her Hercules Editions pamphlet A Bargain With The Light (set off rather wonderfully by surrealist canapés of skewered eyeballs and meringue nipples), and the brilliant Ishion Hutchinson reading from his Faber collection House of Lords and Commons – this poem, ‘After the Hurricane’, in particular, felt awfully relevant (flies returning to genuflect / at their knees, on Aunt May’s face.) Many thanks to all the volunteers who make Poetry in Aldeburgh possible and so special.

Then on Monday I headed to Queen’s College Oxford, as they generously hosted a launch for Sasha Dugdale’s final issue of MPT, which has a Russian and Ukranian focus. It’s a double-length issue packed with wonderful things. David Constanine’s Hölderlin translations were exquisite. It was also very special to hear Maria Stepanova, and Sasha’s own translation of her ‘War of the Beasts and the Animals’, a mindblowing 26 page masterpiece that is the issue’s centrepiece and the best thing I’ve read all year. Honestly, I felt like I’d just heard ‘The Waste-Land’ for the first time. You can read her editorial and an extract here, or why not subscribe to MPT instead?

I also want to say something about Sarah Maguire, who very sadly died last week. She was the founder of the Poetry Translation Centre and a huge influence on me: encouraging me to think I could translate though I’m not a linguist and bringing me round to her conviction that ‘poetry only ever develops through translation’. Without her Asha and I would never have published The Sea-Migrations this month, and I don’t think I would be taking on the editorship of MPT. She was a superb poet in her own right (read ‘The Florist’s at Midnight’ and feel your heart break), a superb anthologist (as a fellow gardener, Flora Poetica is perhaps my favourite anthology of all time), a superb translator of Arabic. But I will remember her most of all sharing gossip over heaped plates of Persian food with dried limes and saffron, or dancing joyfully with the women at Somali Week. I visited her in her last month, and she was still surrounded by flowers and friends. RIP Sarah.

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The Sea-Migrations

Asha Lul Mohamud Yusuf’s The Sea-Migrations is now real!! Here’s my beautiful copy:

asha

I’m so pleased I’ve been able to work with Asha over the last ten years, and be involved in putting together this book with Bloodaxe and the Poetry Translation Centre. Buy your copy here.

Right now, it feels more vital than ever that we listen to the voice of a black, Muslim woman who has lived in exile in the UK for 20 years, and whose poems explore patriarchy, colonialism and immigration. But describing her poetry in such a way also feels strangely reductive – first and foremost Asha is just one of our most important writers. These poems are astonishing formal feats, and expand my sense of what poetry can do.

It’s really worth listening to her live too, so please do come along to one of our upcoming launch/tour dates:

– British-Somali Women Poets at the Southbank Centre – October 24th, 7.30pm

(Our London launch! One of Time Out’s picks for the London Literature Festival. Do come, even my mum is coming)

– Sea Migrations Reading in Sheffield, Burngreave Library – October 26th, 7pm

(I’m also leading a translation workshop earlier that day if you’re interested…)

 

The Lady or the Tiger

Last night I was part of a panel talking about Sylvia Plath’s new collected letters (1950-63) at the Cheltenham Literature Festival, alongside Erica Wagner and Matthew Hollis. And so for the last week I have been steeped in Plath’s letters, reading them on every journey, every night, in every snatched moment, skimming occasionally (I admit) but trying to glean all the pleasure and interest I could out of them before the event. They are full of delights. The earliest -sent to her mother from summer camp – make post-war America seem utterly alien. She spends her whole time trying to feed herself up, gorging on steak and puddings until she can hardly walk. Plath obsesses over tanning, collects stamps and only has a shampoo every two weeks. Camp activities include a minstrel show and making ashtrays.

Sometimes Plath’s hyper-articulacy and attempts to sound mature and successful backfire. There are some very funny letters to a German penpal where she explains Christmas trees and skiing to him (Americansplaining, perhaps). As she gets older, too, her attempts to get published are unbelievably shameless – at one point she writes two villanelles in a day and sends them off that afternoon to the Atlantic and New Yorker. (The New Yorker send them back saying some of her rhymes don’t work, especially ‘up’ which is ‘not even an assonant rhyme.’ She cheers herself by sending them a third villanelle immediately). In her letters about the college dating scene too, she asserts a world-weary bravado that doesn’t always fully convince but is very enjoyable (‘the dearest boy – just eighteen, very unspoiled and quite delightful…’)

But in these letters we also see Plath’s vulnerability, as she keeps up a brave face for a mother who ‘reverberates so much more intensely than I to every depression I go through’ and has to constantly take second jobs and account for every penny to keep up with her richer classmates. And we watch as she becomes a really exquisite prose writer, hungry for experience and evoking place perfectly whether describing babysitting or a cocktail party, a new York summer or a hospital ward. There are so many marvellous details that bring her to life. Plath’s attempts at making an ‘esoteric’ dinner with ‘consommé in champagne glasses’; her brimming sexual desire, which makes her feel like a ‘feminine H-Bomb’; her obsession with cocaine nose-packs for her sinuses (her fury when they are not provided on the NHS is palpable). There is a letter to Gordon Lameyer about the many parts she plays – ‘serious creator’, party girl, ‘sun-worshipping pagan’ – where she asks: ‘shall we release the lady? or the tiger?’ There is also her growing realisation that she is foremost a writer, and that ‘I have to live well and rich and far to write’.

Near the end of the volume too there are the letters about Ted, including a couple of wonderfully sharp ones from Yorkshire – rapture at the romance of Bronte country quickly souring to complaints about the food and Ted’s mum’s ‘sloppy cupboards.’ And then just a few letters to Ted himself – astonishing things to read. You get the sense of them as true literary partners, Plath’s writing lifting up a whole other level as she articulates her love. It very much leaves you wanting the next volume, which is due out in October next year…

Now though, the next thing on my literary calendar is Poetry International at the Southbank Centre this weekend. I’m involved in two events if you’re interested – I’ll be attending the (free) Modern Poetry in Translation event on Saturday night, where I’ll be raising a glass to Sasha Dugdale’s wonderful editorship and there will be readings from Golan Haji & Stephen Watts, and I’m also chairing a panel that asks ‘How Can Poetry Respond to the Present?’ on sunday.

Art Nouveau

The last month of summer was eventful: Shambala Festival, Folkestone Triennial. The circus came to Peckham. I took my mum to see the glorious Bob Dylan musical, ‘The Girl from the North Country’ for her birthday.  Gruff started school.

Cate is speaking lots now, and her most recent word is ‘toes’. Appropriate, as I also fully dislocated my toe on the stairs in the middle of the night. The X-Ray looked like a cartoon. At A & E they wriggled it back in whilst I sucked on the gas and air an eternal minute (it was apparently ‘a bit slippery’), and then I had to wear a comedy sandal for two weeks.

Workwise, I was very pleased to award the Live Canon Poetry Prize jointly to Kirsten Irving’s ‘Amsterdam, 1901’ and Sophie Fenella’s ‘Noah’. You can buy the anthology here. I’ve been finishing up at the Poetry School/Newcastle MA, which I’m leaving for the Modern Poetry in Translation post, going through the final portfolios of students I’ve been working with for two years.  So impressed with how far they’ve come… I did a Q & A at Stoke Newington Library’s poetry reading group. And I also managed a whirlwind trip to Riga, travelling with other publishers and editors to learn about Latvian literature ahead of the London Bookfair in the spring.

Riga is stunning: intricate Jugendstil medusas and sphinxes everywhere. Shops full of Baltic amber trinkets. Spires. Delicate beetroot broth and lingonberry pavlova. We toured the enormous new library overlooking the old town; saw its chests of ancient folksongs. There was a giant space-monkey in the park. After dinner there were shots of ‘Black Balsam’, a pitch black spirit that’s secret recipe is rumoured to include swamp birch, valerian, bilberry, wormwood and linden blossom, and which saved the life of Catherine the Great.

In a cafe called ‘Nice Place’, beneath a ceiling of suspended novels, we watched presentations on Lativian literature and illustrators, and the talented Anna Vaivare drew a postcard of my daughter in minutes from a verbal description, which is one of the best souvenirs I’ve ever brought home. (Note on the image: Cate’s favourite tune is Amy Winehouse’s ‘Rehab’, but we’ve changed the lyrics to the more appropriate: ‘They tried to make Cate go to nursery’. She does all the no, no, nos with great verve).

And then the poetry, wow: like many in the UK, I’ve enjoyed poems by Kārlis Vērdiņš before, but so much else was equally modern and sharp. I learnt about Madara Gruntmane (look out for a co-translation of her work by Richard O’Brien in the spring with Parthian), Inga Gaile, Anna Auzina. The remarkable ‘Seed in Snow’ sequence by Knuts Skujenieks, written in a gulag. Then the guys from Orbita too, who make the most amazing books creating a dialogue between Russian and Latvian – books that look like chequebooks; books held together by magnets – and are known for their multi media performances (check out this video on youtube). They have a selected forthcoming with Arc next year, it will be fascinating to see what it looks like…

Back in London now anyway, ready for an autumn packed with translation events – I’ll put up the dates soon, but in the meantime I’ll be doing a rare reading of my own work at The Author’s Club in London this wednesday with Sue Hubbard, Annie Freud and Philip Gross (I like the sound of ‘The elegant Lady Violet room’)

 

 

Parklife

Two days a week I currently look after the children – and at the moment, as it’s summer, this means parks.

We are lucky to have a huge number of parks nearby to choose from in South London. There are the smaller playparks: Little Park, Fox Park, Moody Park, Goose Green and Green Log Park (some names our own – the last christened for a mouldy log). Then there is Telegraph Hill, for views of the Shard and Gherkin, a giant slide and One O’Clock Club (once we also saw a toad). Peckham Rye has the labyrinth of the Sexby Garden, perfect for hide-and-seek amongst roses and verbena; the pond where we feed coots and sometimes see turtles; the annual arrival of the fair and circus on the expanse of common (I think three poems in my last book at set there, as I’d write in my head whilst pushing Gruff around: ‘At Peckham Rye’ , ‘Beholden’ and ‘The Fair is Coming’).  Burgess Park has a walled garden full of irises and an ice-cream van; Brockwell has water-fountains to play in and a miniature railway that runs on summer weekends.

Our favourite of all though, I think, is Crystal Palace, the perfect free day out with little ones. There is a city farm that has a pony, zebra finches, and an exotics room with a chameleon, turtles and snake skins to measure yourself against (Gruff is the height of a king snake). There is a proper maze, which I can vouch it is perfectly possible to get lost in. There is a playpark with a huge sand pit full of ‘dinosaur eggs’ and ‘dinosaur bones’ where the children can do some light archeology. And then there is the main event – the dinosaurs themselves.

I have been reading Travis Elborough’s marvellous book A Walk in the Park: the Life and Times of a People’s Institution – it has been a perfect accompaniment to these weeks of picnics. It’s full of amazing facts about all of London’s parks, and particularly Crystal Palace and the ways in which after the exhibition closed it tried to lure people in with a full-scale mock Egyptian court, cat-and-dog shows, a tightrope walk by the Great Blondin and some of the first ‘carpet’ bedding (the elaborate formal planting of greenhoused flowers like yellow and crimson nasturtiums.) They also had Waterhouse Hawkins sculpt the dinosaurs which are still there today. He described his role as a chance to: ‘call up from the abyss of time and from the depths of the earth, those vast forms and gigantic beasts which the Almighty Creator designed with fitness to inhabit and precede us in possession of this part of the earth called Great Britain.’ Actually, given he rejected the theory of evolution, they’ve aged quite badly and look a bit paunchy, but Gruff enjoys pretending he’s Andy from CBeebies’ Andy’s Dinosaur Adventures, spotting a glimpse of Iguanadon through the monkey-puzzle trees.

On friday we also spotted a heron, which always makes my day.

Talking of Andy from CBeebies, we actually saw him perform with his band the Odd Socks at Port Eliot Festival the other week – given the mud I had to get my pram through, pretty much the only live music I heard. Still, the children had a fun weekend and it was great to read Incarnation in the Idler tent and sell a few copies. Next I will be appearing with the Idlers at the Shambala Festival on the 27th August, with events on how to make a living as a poet, and a panel on whether it’s possible to live a Bohemian life in today’s world.

Now, though, to make myself a pot of coffee and decide on the shortlist for the Live Canon Poetry competition – some very strong entries to choose between…

 

The Dream Job

Translation has been lucky for me. Ever since the British Council trip to Hungary where I first discovered that I loved translating – and that, in fact, as someone who isn’t a linguist I was allowed to translate – it has brought so many good things into my life: adventures; friends; a whole, thrilling world of poetry beyond what I thought I knew. And this month has brought more luck. I was really pleased to hear we have won a 2017 PEN Translates Award for Asha Lul Mohamud Yusuf’s The Sea-Migrations. The Poetry Translation Centre workshops I help lead also featured in an episode of Helen Mort’s brilliant new radio series Mother Tongue.

mpt

And then my big, exciting news – I’m thrilled and honoured beyond words, really, to say I am going to be the new editor for Modern Poetry in Translation. It is the job of my dreams. I mean, it is my favourite magazine – beautiful, political, diverse, essential. Ted Hughes co-founded it for goodness sakes!! With Daniel Weissbort, he sought to create ‘an airport for incoming translations’. John Berger has said of it: ‘MPT is the Fifth International, anyone who wants to change the world and see it changed should join.’

I will be learning as much as I can from Sasha as she puts together her final issue this autumn, and putting out my first issue in the Spring. I hope you will join me on this journey! Pleased beyond measure.

 

Such a hectic week, full of things I wanted to share, so I’ll jot some of them down. Last weekend I attended a Poetry Translation Centre event, launching two Turkish pamphlets in the Arcola in Dalston. Bejan Matur’s translations were read by Jen Hadfield, and they both spoke beautifully about the process afterwards – Bejan talked about her shamanic leanings and declared: ‘In sun and darkness are words. Poets can hear them!’ I was particularly blown away by Karin Karakasli’s poems though, translated by Sarah Howe and Canan Marasligil. They are just my sort of thing, full of amazing leaps between very specific, personal images and politics – a poem about schoolgirls rolling up the waist of a ‘mouse grey’ uniform becomes about state oppression.  And its evocation of Istanbul is stunning:

 

I am in love with a tower

I am one of the fluorescent white seagulls

spinning like magnets

round its axis by night

 

This week I also did edits on my translations of Asha Lul Mohamud Yusuf, ran the PTC class on Chinese poetry, and attended a marvellous Idler dinner, where my hosts were Tom Hodgkinson and Victoria Hull. In exchange for a short reading, I got to sit at a table with the geniuses John Lloyd and Rowley Leigh who both gave short talks, and was plied with wine and delicious food; seaweed butter, Labneh, broad beans, dukkah, bavette steak, grilled peaches… I’d highly recommend you book their next dinner (with Lavinia Greenlaw) for a convivial night out. Also, I’ve just agreed to be the Idler’s new poetry editor (light duties, I’m assured).

Then on Thursday I headed to Newcastle to the Northern Writers Awards. It was absolutely pissing with rain, which felt comfortingly appropriate. We went to a grand building at the University of Northumbria for a swanky occasion with real champagne, many speeches, and everyone sat round tables applauding like the Oscars. I was very pleased to present awards to Niall Campbell, Vidyan Ravinthiran and Rachael Allen. Also to meet the New North Poets I will be mentoring this year: Michael Brown, Jasmine Chatfield, Elizabeth Gibson, Maria Isakova-Bennett and Rosa Walling-Wefelmeyer. You’re going to be hearing a lot from me over the next twelve months about these exciting talents. Another delight was bumping into a New North Poet from a few years ago, Degna Stone, and receiving a copy of Butcher’s Dog 9. It’s as beautiful as ever and was good train reading for my return journey – poems by Will Harris and Rachel Long particularly.

On Sunday I braved rail replacement hell to get to Ledbury, aka poetry heaven. Luckily when I got there the sun was shining on the monochrome timbered houses and rainbow hanging-baskets, and two of my favourite poetry people Luke Wright and Jacqueline Saphra were in town to drink wine with and exchange gossip. Luke delivered a blisteringly good new show with poems from his collection The Toll, which by coincidence (they hadn’t met before) Jacqui recently reviewed for The Poetry School – it’s as good as she says. 

The next morning I ran a workshop about putting your manuscript together for Mslexia, and had lunch in hospitality before catching the train home (during which I gulped down Larchfield, by Polly Clark, which won the Mslexia Prize, about Auden and a young mother who is also a poet – a subject sometimes uncomfortably close to the bone. It’s a really clever, moving read about the horror of always being watched and your privacy being eroded – both when you become a mother and suddenly your domestic habits are everyone’s business and for Auden as he realises the same is true of his sexuality. Do read it.)

And I haven’t even got onto all the Life Stuff – the children’s party, the haircut, the reception meeting at the school Gruff’s going to be starting at this autumn. It was also the week of our big move, back from the flat we’ve generously been allowed to stay in near Tower Bridge during building works to our Peckham home. It’s been a little cramped, but a strange privilege to walk along the river every morning, sometimes seeing the bridge lift or swans bob past and people taking selfies. I made the most of my last days there with the kids, taking Gruff to climb on the big anchors and propellers he loves, then to the fountains by City Hall to splash around, whilst Cate paddled in the tiny corporate river. I also managed to enjoy the stunning new Dreamers Awake show at the Bermondsey White Cube, which includes some of my favourite artists: Louise Bourgeois, Leonorra Carrington, Lee Miller. Gruff kept saying things like ‘Why does that lady have teeth on her nipples?’ but seemed to enjoy it. This review by one of my favourite essayists Olivia Laing is worth a read.

And then packing everything up, moving it back across London and arriving at a house still covered in scaffold and without curtains and with so much to do. But I’m glad to be home. Our new room where the loft used to be is lovely and light with a big window over the garden and a new bathroom. I’m lucky to be able to live in such a beautiful space my husband has designed, whilst Cate sleeps for the first time in her own nursery downstairs.