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Hummingbirds

I was in Berlin last month, launching Jan Wagner and Federico Italiano’s new European anthology Grand Tour at the Haus für Poesie with Luna Miguel and Sergej Timofejev. I also managed to fit in a visit to Brecht’s grave in the rain and have a long lunch with my friend, the Hungarian poet Anna Szabo. I’m currently working on co-translations of her Selected for Arc, more news to follow soon I hope. Since then the UK issue of MPT has come out, which I’m really proud of, do check out our poetic map of the United Kingdom, put together by our brilliant digital editor Ed Cottrell.

Otherwise I’ve just got back from an Easter break with the family in Tobago. It was relaxing (or at least as relaxing as a holiday with a 2 and a 5 year-old can be), with lots of swimming and sand; lots of nature. We breakfasted on papaya, mango and melon every day whilst bananaquits hopped on the tables and pelicans flew past. We swam in a waterfall, and took Gruff on his first rainforest adventure, where he saw leaf-cutter ants, termite mounds and a fruit bat, and held an ancient fish called a ‘jumping wabeen’ that leapt from his palms. There were many, many hummingbirds, fencing flowers for sweetness, and hermit crabs, and geckos, and once our hotel phoned our room at one in the morning, and I dragged myself out onto the beach under the stars to watch an enormous leatherback turtle lay eggs like pingpong balls in a deep hole, blinking tears from her dinosaur eyes.

In the evenings, I’d read Gruff a tale from Trish Cooke’s brilliant Tales from the Caribbean and then have a rum and ginger on the balcony. Lovely food too – corn soup, little juicy chick-pea and tamarind wraps called doubles, shrimp, crab curry and dumpling, lobster. And great taxi drivers who played very loud music – the family favourite was ‘Hookin Meh’ by Farmer Nappy, if you fancy a blast on sunshine…

Back now, for my final term at Essex with the RLF (the woods are full of bluebells), and hard at work on the summer issue of Modern Poetry in Translation, which has a Maghreb focus, and a small, secret pamphlet project, which means I’m finally writing poetry again after a hiatus of (at least) three years – wish me luck…

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Belated New Year Post

Apologies this blog has gone quiet lately, but am hoping to reignite it in the summer, once my RLF fellowship has finished and I’m not spending endless hours commuting to Essex and back two days every week. It’s been a busy 2019 so far. I was part of the glamorous and stressful process that is judging the T.S. Eliot Prize; we’ve been copy-editing Fierce Bad Rabbits and trying to chase up the final permissions (a complete administrative nightmare); and I’ve been putting together the UK Languages issue of MPT, ‘Our Small Universe’, which ended up a huge job – so many brilliant submissions. Anyway, that went to the typesetters yesterday, and I’m very much looking forward to launching it in Swansea on International Women’s Day (March 14th), with an amazing line-up including Sabrina Mahfouz, Menna Elfyn and Liz Berry.

I’m also very excited about Fierce Bad Rabbits becoming real. The whole process is very different from having a poetry book published. I’m having to put my first ever index together at the moment, ready to slot the page numbers in when the proofs come (my favourite run is: Hedgehog crisps; Hemingway, Ernest; Hello Kitty.). I have bought a Miffy T-Shirt ready to hit the festivals, and the cover and blurb is up on the Penguin website (eek). So I’m hoping 2019 will mainly be me talking about Dogger and Meg and Mog… 

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Tapas and Cider

I’ve had two very different weekends away in the last month. For my 40th birthday, Richard took me to Madrid for the first time. There was a bit of culture – I posed by a statue of Lorca; read Ben Lerner’s Leaving the Atocha Station; went to see Picasso’s Guernica at the Museo Reina Sofia; looked at Goya’s palpably evil Black Paintings and Bosch’s Garden of Earthly Delights at the Prado. Mainly though, it was just a three day tapas crawl through markets and tiled, stand-up bars, washing down polpo served on potatoes, tortilla, croquettes, prawns in bubbling garlic oil, ham (at the Museo del Jamon), sea urchins, gazpacho, chipirones, padron peppers, salt cod and snails with albarino or little glasses of vermouth. A very lovely couple of days (although I definitely felt 40 when I got home)

Then there was Aldeburgh, my favourite poetry festival. Despite an unpleasant cold, I lugged my MPT banner and a suitcase full of copies of the new issue onto rail replacement buses to get there, and it was definitely worth it. The sun was smashing into the sea on my arrival. My New Writing North mentee Maria Isakova Bennett had installed a beautiful exhibition of hand-stitched sea views in The Lookout; poems scribbled on pebbles were piled outside. I caught a few readings, including the marvellous Sophie Herxheimer and Chris McCabe doing their Blakean double act from their new Hercules Editions book The Practical Visionary, managed a quick bag of chips, and then it was time to launch In a Winter City: Focus on Ted Hughes and Hungary, with Chrissy Williams, Zaffar Kunial and George Szirtes all doing sets (and Sasha Dugdale with some amazing revelations about why Ted Hughes’ planned Hungarian issue never happened…) Afterwards I was also really happy with the MPT LGBTQ+ workshop with Kostya Tsolákis, who helped us create a new version of Vassilis Amanatidis’ poem  ’09. [escort: the trick]’ over wine and nibbles. And then The Cross Keys, of course, jammed with poets and poetry gossip, where they serve Aspalls cider on tap which I can never resist…

The next morning I had lost my voice, but managed to attend Will Harris’ brilliant lecture on line-breaks and grab a free coffee. If you haven’t been reading Will’s blogs, on everything from the poetry of Yang Lian to shampoo branding and Keanu Reeves, I couldn’t recommend them more highly, he’s such an interesting critic.

A little lull now in my Modern Poetry in Translation schedule, whilst I try and finish up edits for Fierce Bad Rabbits by the end of the month. But soon I’ll be starting putting together the British issue, so please do think about submitting before December the 14th. We’re accepting both translated poems and poems in dialects, and want to represent as many of Britain’s language communities as possible, from Scots to BSL to Angloromani to Arabic to Yiddish to Cockney rhyming slang.

 

 

 

Amtssprache

This week I read how the word ‘lügenpresse’, meaning ‘lying press’, which was used by the nazis to discredit any media outlets which were against them, has experienced a revival in German discourse. Those who use it are emboldened, of course, by the fact that another good translation of the term might be ‘fake news’, as used by Donald Trump. Confusing people, so that they are no longer certain what is true, is one way to ensure complicity in fascism. When they are confused, too, people often look for a ‘strong’ leader. Making our own moral choices, taking responsibility, thinking – these things seem too difficult. It is much easier to be obedient, although a cursory glance at history tells us obedience is not a virtue.

These are frightening times. Today is the launch of the Extinction Rebellion, an international movement using mass civil disobedience to force governments to respond to the ecological crisis. I have no doubt that in the future those who are arrested will be seen, like Sophie Scholl of the White Rose movement, as heroic, as will those who have taken part in Black Lives Matter demonstrations, or anti-fascism marches in Charlottesville, or anti-fracking action in Lancashire. Those of us who are not so brave must reckon with ourselves. This poem I wrote a few years ago seems relevant.  ‘Amtssprache’ means ‘official talk’ and was a term used by Eichmann during the Nuremberg trials. Asked if it was hard to send those tens of thousands of people to their death, he answered: ‘To tell you the truth, it was easy. Our language made it easy.’

 

Amtssprache

 

So what would you pay to have your family safe

in that house with the garden and the clean running water –

and you walk in and hold them and kiss their faces?

Your life? Too easy, and nobody’s asking.

 

How about the life of an Afghan child,

a city, the birds in the sky?

Would you turn a blind eye? Would you turn off the news?

Would you run the trains to death camps?

 

Of course you would. You do.

You do these things.

 

 

In the abundance

So the season of flu vaccines and soft play and parent’s evenings begins. My children have taken to their fluffy onesies. This weekend we had friends over for a roast dinner, with rainbow chard and a first crop of Jerusalem artichokes from our wet garden, and I wore my new cords. I’m back at Essex University as a Royal Literary Fellow again, two days a week, leaving the house when it’s still dark and Gruff waves goodbye from a glowing upstairs window. Pret porridge. The walk to the campus from Wivenhoe train station has been making me feel autumnal: grey skies; banks of fern turned to rose-gold; dark sloes; an egret in pale brown water; a flicker of yellow wagtail.

If you want to get into a similarly cosy mood, can I suggest you subscribe to MPT? Our new issue is at the printers as we speak, with this beautifully seasonal cover by Budapest illustrator Ilka Mészely.

Hungary cover

Hungarian poetry is full of mists and cups of coffee, and the issue also contains tributes to Ted Hughes’ translations by Polly Clark, Zaffar Kunial and Tara Bergin, new versions by Mona Arshi and Chris McCabe, and some seasonal poems such as this beautiful haiku by Yasuaki Inoue, translated by Katrina Naomi:

In the abundance
of autumn a baby cries
like a giant fire

 

My Tunisian Trip

If I haven’t been posting much lately, it’s partly because I’ve had a perfect storm of deadlines – I had to send my first draft of Fierce Bad Rabbits: The Tales Behind our Picture Books to my publishers, my TS Eliot shortlist to the other judges AND the autumn issue of MPT to the typesetter this week!!!

It’s also, I must admit, because I’m not on Facebook any more. This is partly because I think they are morally vile, so don’t see why they should make money off my writing (was hearing only last night how hate speech against the Rohingya has mainly been spread in Myanmar on Facebook), but it is also an attempt to cut down on social media. I’ve always told myself I’m on social media for professional reasons, and as most professional stuff is now on Twitter I realised I was just lurking on Facebook for the gossip and arguments.

Still, I have to admit that, although I’ve barely missed it at all, the events calendar was kind of useful, and Facebook was also the main place my blogs got shared and commented on. Writing them now feels a bit like talking into a void…

Anyway, since I last blogged I’ve been to Tunisia, helping run translation workshops with the British Council for their Majaaz project – we are hoping to have a fabulous Maghrebian issue of MPT next summer. I didn’t explore much as we worked very intensely, but the place where we did the workshops was stunning – all rugs and art and cacti, and the food was amazing: these salads with fruit in them, like tomato and peach, and melon and cucumber, and seafood, brik, crepes, spicy eggs, prickly pear, homemade olive oil, tiny honeyed cakes, mint tea... The company was also lovely, and there was sea swimming, and lots of poetry chat late into the night, and the smallest tortoise I’ve ever seen.

 

Whilst you’re here, if you’re in London I should flag a really lovely MPT event coming up, celebrating Ted Hughes’ Translations, on October the 10th with the amazing Tara Bergin, Zaffar Kunial and Polly Clark. It’s FREE but you need to book here.

This month I’ll also be at the National Poetry Day Future of Translation Summit, the Winchester Poetry Festival, and Aldeburgh Festival – their lovely brochure is out now, do check it out. MPT will be launching our new issue ‘In a Winter City: Focus on Hungary and Ted Hughes’ there, with readers including George Szirtes, and also involved in a seminar on translating LGBTQ poetry with Kostyra Tsolakis, where we’ll try and make a new translation of Vassilis Amanatdis.

 

Camel Milk

 

Had a wonderful week in Somaliland, attending the Hargeysa International Book Fair to launch Asha’s book The Sea-Migrations. We did two events, and it was one of the first times I’ve heard a poet applauded after every line of her poem! It was wonderful to be part of a Woman and Wisdom event, and to hear traditional womens’ poems sung. I also finally tried camel milk, after years of translating descriptions of it (fresh, with a hay and smoke taste – I was only allowed two sips as it is ‘very strong’). This long read in The Guardian explains how the country is unrecognised at the moment. It’s hard to comprehend when you’re there – the city was peaceful and welcoming, with international guests invited to dinner at the university by Edna Aden (stuffed lamb, fish curry, carafes of fresh watermelon juice) and even to the presidential palace on my final night. The people are entrepreneurial and tech-savvy: goats and camels wander the streets with phone numbers written on them, and I was impressed by the way locals pay for even bus rides by money-transfers on their mobiles.

The trip was a blur of brightly painted shops; qat shacks with piles of green leaves outside; jugs of sweet, spicy tea; dusty breezes; dancing; ceaseless political debate. In the Mansoor hotel, guarded by its giant tortoise, each breakfast delegates from Rwanda, South Sudan and Ethiopia discussed the future of Africa, and I ate my mango and got an education…

(Also managed to reconnect with the cultural zeitgeist on the flight back by watching Black Panther and reading the whole of Olivia Laing’s Crudo.)

Then this weekend it was Port Eliot – sadly wet and windy, but it’s always nice to catch up with the Idlers and I was very pleased to do my first talk about my forthcoming non-fiction title, Fierce Bad Rabbits: The Tales Behind our Picture Books, in the Idler Academy tent – it seemed to go well. I also caught Luke Wright’s enjoyable Frankie Vah show and Martha Sprackland’s set at Caught by the River, and the children seemed to enjoy Morris Dancing and sleeping badly in a leaking tent…

Back to my desk now to start putting together the next issue of MPT, which has a Ted Hughes and Hungary theme (Hungarian submission deadline is 10th of August)