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Archive for June, 2012

Parnassus Day 3

Yesterday was the schools day at Parnassus, and shoals of excited children swarmed along the South Bank, eating edible poetry and taking ‘imagination exams’.

There were still some grown-up events programmed though – I began my morning at the Literature Across Frontiers Arabic translation debate.  Iman Mersel and Marilyn Hacker discussed the processes of moving between Arabic, French and English, and then the fantastic Vénus Khoury-Ghata turned up ten minutes in (she’d been lost), hair flame-red, and began talking so animatedly in french that Marilyn could hardly keep up the translation for laughing. She told us French poetry has gone on a diet and ‘its language has become as skinny as its women’, and that even translating a great poet like Adonis from Arabic to French she had to tell him: ‘You have three adjectives here, which one do you want to keep?’  She also declared: ‘I am a bigamist! I live with two languages like two men’ and ‘I’m a very dangerous translator.’

There were some lovely readings in the afternoon, and in between I hung out in the festival village.  At the risk of name dropping, at one point I was sat at a table with Kim Hyesoon, John Agard and Jo Shapcott!  ‘This is poetry heaven,’ Jo declared, correctly.

And then in the evening I read at New World Order.  It was a real privilege to be a small part of one of the best poetry readings I have been to in a very long time.  There were 16 young poets from around the world and the show was so full of new ideas and brilliant variety it almost rewired your brain.  My Romanian ‘partner’ in the readings, Doina, read exquisite prose poems about a love affair, Kate Kilalea read one of my favorite poems of the last couple of years, Henneker’s Ditch, and Jacek Dehnl and Valzhyna Mort were both every bit as good as I’d hoped.  But really, everyone was exciting in a different way – I mean, this is the Russian poet Ilya Kaminsky:

The only disappointment of the day was attendance, which was a little thin.  Audiences at the moment seem 75% made up of Parnassus poets themselves, which as an English poet makes me slightly embarrassed.  Come on London poetry scene! Where are you?  Hopefully at the gala reading tonight with Kim Hyesoon, Seamus Heaney, Simon Armitage, Wole Soyinka, Jo Shapcott, Kay Ryan and Bill Manhire.  I hear there are still tickets…

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I’ve been at the Poetry Parnassus the last two days.  In the evenings I’ve had to teach, so I sadly missed the Rain of Poems over the Southbank, although Jacqueline Saphra saved me a few of the bookmarks Casagrande dropped from their helicopter.

Just the daytime sessions have been amazing though.  I mean, really, this is the kind of event people are going to be talking about for years: if you’re in London and interested in poetry you have to come.  When I arrived I got the beautiful Bloodaxe book ‘The World Record’, which I’ve been using as a guidebook – I’m pleased to have my translation of Slovakian poet Katarina Kucbelova in it, and have already made lots of discoveries  (I had no idea Karen Solie was so good).

The days have been given over to debate – the ‘World Poetry Summit’ on Tuesday and events curated by PEN yesterday.  And it’s been a privilege to hear so many important global voices protesting, arguing, thinking aloud, bearing witness, and, most of all, asserting how important poetry is.  Jude Kelly began to week by saying that in countries like Britain we can be very glib – that we ‘snack and browse’ on culture and forget how precious it is to many people, whilst under many regimes poetry can ‘challenge the authority of who speaks.’  It’s a theme that’s been followed through in much of the conversation about money, media and elitism.

The week has made me think about how afraid much of British poetry is of the political.  Not because we’re afraid to speak truth – we have the great luxury of freedom of speech – but because we self-censor on aesthetic grounds.  We’re scared of asserting or taking a political position or giving a clear, engaged message in poems in case we’re accused of ‘preaching’; of ‘bad poetry.’  So it felt important to hear the Kenyan poet Shailja Patel say we too often label poems that resist as ‘political’ and those that don’t resist as somehow ‘pure’.  She told us that all art is political as it takes a position – even if that position is one of comfort with the status quo.  I was blown away by her poem ‘For the Formal Masturbators’, beginning: ‘How big is your voice? / Bigger than your dick?’ and asking: ‘If you costed your words and each word cost, would you pay?’

Other stand-out moments for me have been John Kinsella’s anarchist manifesto; the Burmese poet Zarganar reminding us of the cost of freedom of speech with a harrowing account of his years of imprisonment and torture; and the Palestinian poet Radeef Ziadah reading a poem for murdered 9-year old, ‘Hadeel’, asking us to honour the child with ‘a moment of sincere resistance’.  Radeef recounted how she wrote her first poem after being told: ‘You deserve to be raped before you have your terrorist children.’  She sees ‘Poetry as the anti-soundbite’; the antidote to news coverage.

And there have been joyous moments as well.  I’m ‘buddying’ the lovely Romanian poet Doina Ioanid, and it’s been great to hang out with her, to see my friend Katarina again and to catch up in the beautiful, straggly English roof-garden.  There are lunchtime readings there too: I listened to the hypnotic, tremulous voice of Al-Saddiq Al-Raddi and the Finnish poet Pekko Kappi singing ancient spells whilst playing his lyre. I also met the poet representing the Democratic Republic of Congo, Kama Sywor Kamanda, and was shocked when he placed a brick-thick, red bound hardback in front of me which I assumed was some kind of bible, and told me it was his Oevres Poetiques Completes.  1367 pages!!! It puts most of our work-rates into perspective…

I’m reading at ‘New World Order’ tonight at 6.45 – tickets at £5 and Doina is reading too, along with the Belarus poet Valzhyna Mort, South Africa’s Kate Kilalea and India’s Tishani Doshi, and many other amazing poets. Hope to see you there.

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A Short Story

I’m a voracious reader but, until recently, I never read short stories.  There was something about them that seemed slight – lacking the breadth of a novel or the depth of a poem.  Then a couple of years ago the novelist Christopher Wakling suggested that I read Alice Munro, and I realised the best short stories had breadth and depth.  Since then I’ve been giving myself a crash course in the greats – Mavis Gallant, Grace Paley, John Cheever, David Foster Wallace, Richard Yates, Lydia Davis, Lorrie Moore, Ludmilla Petrushevskaya, Gogol, Chekhov, De Maupassant, Saki, Scott Fitzgerald, Anais Nin, Mansfield, Poe and MR James, not to mention new writers in the form such as Clare Wigfall and Sarah Hall (I read Sarah’s wonderful book ‘The Beautiful Indifference’ last week).

I’ve also been dabbling tentatively in the form myself, so for National Short Story Day – June 20th, the shortest night of the year – I thought I’d post a small, unpublished story. It’s inspired by the two years I spent at the University of Essex for the RLF – in spring I’d always get off the train at Wivenhoe and walk to university through the bluebell wood.  I also wrote it after a week immersed in Somerset Maugham’s colonial tales, where the narrator is so often a new man in town – a stranger who, over drinks, induces a confession from one of the locals.

The Ballad of Tom Allan

I was travelling.  I am always travelling.  This time I was in Wivenhoe, a town on the River Colne that had once been a centre of shipbuilding.  In my room in the bed and breakfast, I washed my hands and slapped my face with handfuls of cold water and put on a clean shirt and trousers.  Then I went out for a stroll in the early evening light.  There were high, blonde, shushing grasses by the water, and a couple of small, tethered boats that thudded against each-other.  There were pastel houses – pale, skin pink and a bone colour.  I imagined how the place must have been three centuries before, when they were building cargo vessels and fishing smacks: fishermen coming in with baskets of sprats and oysters and workers spilling out of the ropery towards the taverns.

When I’d completed my stroll I went to a pub to get some dinner.  It was April, but it was a muggy night.  The barman was flush-faced.  ‘Needs to break, doesn’t it?’ he asked.  I nodded and ordered a pint of Adnams and a steak and kidney pie.  I was given a number on a stand, for my order.  There were no seats free, so I asked a man reading a paper if I could sit at his table.  He nodded assent.

The man was about fifty.  He had thinning brown hair and grey patches in his beard.  He was wearing a finely checked shirt.  It was only after I’d begun to drink my pint that I realised he wasn’t reading the paper at all, he was staring.  He seemed agitated.  And then he looked up at me: ‘You’re not a local are you?  New in town?’  He tried a smile, but it sat awkwardly on his face.  His upper lip shone with sweat.

‘Just passing through,’ I said.

‘I thought you were.  I thought I would have known you if you were a local.  It’s a beautiful place, don’t you think?’

‘Yes,’ I said.  I didn’t want to talk particularly, but it seemed he did.  I considered moving, but there was something very nervous about him.  I didn’t want a scene.

‘Hoe means ridge,’ he said.  ‘Wifa is just a proper name.  Wifa’s ridge.’

‘That’s interesting.’

‘I’ve lived here twenty years,’ he said.  ‘Twenty years!  I had such dreams as a young man.  I was into folk music.  Fairport Convention, Pentangle.  Carrying my guitar around.  I was once on a bill with Richard Thompson.  I was going to be a musician!  And then Sian, my wife, my ex-wife, Sian got pregnant and I started teaching.  Teaching at the university – those big concrete towers you can see from outside?  Those.  And you settle.  You settle for playing at the pub now and then on your guitar, and your children having dreams instead of you.  And now they’ve all gone.  Kids to uni.  Sian.’

‘I’m sorry,’ I said.

‘Would you like a drink?’

‘No I’m alright, honestly,’ I said.  ‘I’ve only just got this.’  But he put down his paper and went to the bar and came back with a pint for himself and a half for me.

‘Top you up,’ he said.  ‘I’m Tom Allan.’

‘Nice to meet you, Tom,’ I told him, ‘Thanks.’

‘You like folk?’

‘Music?  I don’t know much.’  But he broke into song:

‘O western wind, when wilt thou blow, that small rain down may rain? Christ that my love were in my arms and I in bed again.’

‘You’re good,’ I said.

‘An expert,’ he said.  ‘An academic expert.  They’re the greatest English poetry, you know.  The – the soul of this land.  But it takes all the soul out of them doesn’t it?  Analysing them.  Cutting them up.  It’s a violence.’

‘A violence?’

‘It’s not in the paper yet,’ he said.  ‘It’s too soon.  I thought it might be, but it’s too soon.  Did you hear the sirens though?  Did you hear the sirens this afternoon?’

‘No,’ I said.

‘It’s all taped off now,’ Tom said.

Tom Allen told me that, two hours before, he had walked home from the university along the estuary, as he always did.  Halfway back, he had realised that the bluebells would be out and had decided to take a cut through the woods to see them.  The woods were on the other side of the railway track.  Inside them the light was cool and mottled; an old tree creaked like a door opening.  There was no one around.  Feeling alone, he’d begun to sing a ballad that he’d been giving a lecture on that day: ‘How came that blood on thy coat-lap? O dear love tell me.  It is the blood of my gay goshawk, that flew so fair and free.  It doth look too red for thy gay goshawk, that flew so fair and free.’  It was for two voices, really.  He had sung it with Sian once, in the back-room of a pub near Whitby.  He came to a clearing where bluebells had pooled.  The colour of their heavy, droopy heads was astonishing, a searing violet-blue against the greeny green.  The bluebells had a kind of dark light to them; an anti-light.  And then he saw a crow, pecking at something.  Tom stepped over a fallen tree and moved towards the crow.  Oddly, it did not flap its big wings and fly off; it was concentrating.

The crow was pecking at the guts of a girl.

When Tom saw her, he began to tremble all over.  She had soft blonde hair and a beautiful face.  Green eyes like eyes made of glass.  Blood had trickled from her mouth, over her jaw and down her cheeks like tears.  Her breasts were exposed and as pale as sunlight – and below them the mazy guts, already shuddering with flies.  Tom Allen stood looking at her for a long time, until his hand stopped trembling and he realised that he was smiling.

It was wrong.  Wrong.  He punished himself.  He phoned the police and told them to come straight away. They said he had to stay, of course, until they arrived.  He was a witness.  And it was probably a student, so the university would need informing.    ‘Okay,’ he said into the phone.  ‘Of course….Terrible, terrible.’  But still he was grinning away, grinning to himself, because it was so beautiful.  The dead girl lying amidst the bluebells was so beautiful.  She was a poem.  It felt, Tom Allen told me, as though life had finally given him something: a wonderful gift.

In the pub he drained his pint.  He laughed, and then his face turned to mine.  His eyes were pink and very tired and I could see my face in them.  ‘Well?’ he demanded.  ‘Well?  What does that make me?’

Outside the rain started.

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The British Summer

Britain, eh? Sometimes it’s really disappointing. You know, like when bunting is flapping in the drizzle as the yummy wife of some noxious management-consultant tries to tempt her jaded child with a red, white and blue cupcake.  Or when Cameron is dismantling the NHS and our unemployed are being told that unpaid work and a sleeping-bag under a bridge is an opportunity (and frankly they should show a bit more gratitude) but the Daily Express still manages to come up with the headline: QUEEN SAVES COUNTRYSIDE.

Still, sometimes it’s really wonderful.  This month, for example, I performed at Neu Reekie in Edinburgh, and then climbed Arthur’s seat the next morning in the sun to see miles of bright water and city and crag and gorse and croaking crows.

(photo by David Monniaux)

I dined in New College, Oxford, with my friend Hannah and Craig Raine, and then spent the next morning exploring sauterne-coloured colleges with blowsy gardens full of lavender and roses.  I took my mother to Greenwich to see Captain Scott’s expedition biscuit, and the chapel that looks like it’s made of Wedgwood china.  I sheltered from the rain in Ai Wei Wei’s Serpentine Pavilion.  And my husband cooked Jamie Oliver’s Empire Chicken, a multicultural take on the Sunday roast so insanely delicious I’ve been evangelical ever since.

It will probably be hard to avoid think-pieces about Britishness for a couple more months with the Olympics coming.  But it might be useful to ignore the tabloids and listen to what the foreign visitors really think about us.  Last week I taught some Singaporean teenagers for the Poetry School and was surprised to discover that one of the most memorable discoveries they had made in England was the tuna sandwich.  When I asked what images they’d take away with them, a girl told me it was ‘a homeless man keeping warm with a lighter’, which is a fairly stunning indictment of London in June on every level.  They wrote (brilliant) odes to, amongst other things, umbrellas and Primark.

Anyway, despite my mixed emotions about our current lather of nationalism, there are some aspects of the British summer I’m really looking forward to: boules in Ramsgate, Rufus Wainwright at Latitude, wild swimming at Wilderness, raspberries coming into season…  I’ve got a ticket for the basketball, and I’ve already mentioned how excited I am about the Poetry Parnassus – I hope to see some of you there. I’ll be blogging about it and will have a poem in the Rain of Poems, and be performing on Thursday night at an event called New World Order.

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