Archive for March, 2015

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(Photo of Else Lasker-Schüler)

Mentoring in the English Lit department of a girl’s school this week, I noticed there were a great many pictures of men looking down at me. Shakespeare, Keats, Byron, Tennyson, Eliot, Burns… In a border that surrounded the whole room, there were only three women, Austen, Woolf and Plath, and only one of them was a poet. It’s easy to assume that, although things have now changed, in the past women simply didn’t get the chance to write poetry. That we should just be glad for one or two exceptions. But as I get older I’m constantly surprised by how many female poets from the past I discover who were AMAZING and I just simply haven’t been told about. It’s easy for young feminists to think that the work of rediscovering female writers has already been done by trailblazers like Virago in the 70s, but actually the canon is changing all the time and we can still change it just by finding and reading and talking about the female poets who came before us.

A couple of weeks ago, for example, I was googling German Love Poetry, as I’d promised to translate something for a wedding in Bavaria, and I came across ‘Dann…’ – ‘Then…’ – with its swoony ending:

I would burn upon your mouth
In a dream of a thousand years

It was by Else Lasker-Schüler (1869–1945), a Jewish German poet and bohemian, who was affiliated with the Expressionist movement in Berlin. She seems to have been a kind of fantasist, declaring: ‘I was born in Thebes, Egypt although I came into the world in Elberfeld in the Rhineland,’ and often signing her letters as ‘Jussuf’, identifying with the biblical Joseph – the poet who was betrayed and sold. Her life was full of tragedy – her son Paul (who she insisted was the son of a Greek Prince) died of TB and she later fled Nazi Germany and lived out the rest of her life in Jerusalem, where she was often homeless or starving. She was buried on the Mount of Olives. Her poems are astonishing: dense and dreamy and sensual and rich with biblical and oriental imagery, but it seems she’s hardly been translated into English, and she certainly doesn’t feature in my old copy of the Penguin Book of German Verse (which contains a total of 3 poems by women).

I’ve been researching female Islamic poets for some translations for my next collection Incarnation (who deserve a separate post sometime soon) and have repeatedly had the same sensation: why haven’t I HEARD of these astonishing writers and their remarkable stories? And this week I accidentally discovered the US writer Ai too, whilst looking for dramatic monologues.

Why hadn’t I heard of Ai? A poet whose name means ‘Love’ in Japanese? A writer who described herself as who described herself as half Japanese, Choctaw-Chickasaw, Black, Irish, Southern Cheyenne, and Comanche? A woman whose poetry collections are called: Cruelty, Killing Floor, Sin, Fate, Greed, Vice and Dread!? Who Anne Sexton called: ‘All woman—all human’?

Her poems seem to add up to a just astonishing confrontation with evil, in which she takes on the voices of all human sinners: a woman putting a dog leash on her daughter, a child killing his family, mass murderers, rioters, Joseph McCarthy, J Edgar Hoover… I’ve never seen a woman taking on so many male voices before. I have to buy her collected now, which is expensive, as it’s only available in America, but I just really really really want it.

If anyone knows of any good translations of Else Lasker-Schüler I’d be really grateful to hear. And what about other female poets who have fallen off our radar in the UK? In recent years I’ve been grateful for Sandeep Parmar’s work on Hope Mirrlees’ modernist masterpiece ‘Paris’ (which Virginia Woolf called ‘obscure, indecent, and brilliant’), and the Rosemary Tonks’ Collected from Bloodaxe, both of which show that reputations can be recovered with articulate champions… For world poets I suppose it’s more about the politics of translation, where another go at Rilke seems a safer bet than rediscovering someone who isn’t a Great White Man.

Who else should I have heard about (but probably haven’t)? The more we talk, the more others will hear…

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Just a quick roundup of links, as lots to report this week.

First up, I’m pleased to announce I’m going to be one of the core tutors, along with Roddy Lumsden, on the new Poetry School/University of Newcastle Poetry MA. It will be part-time, based in London, and include a summer school.

This week also brought the new Rialto through my letterbox – it’s a terrific issue, and I’m interviewed in it by assistant editor Holly Hopkins under the title ‘A Poet Getting On With It’!

I was also pleased to read this review of Ovid’s Heroines in The Manhattan Review. Don’t think I’ve ever featured in a US magazine before…

My blog for the Poetry School about Sylvia Plath’s Ariel has also just gone up, focusing on it’s intriguing publication history, called ‘Viciousness in the Kitchen: Reading Sylvia Plath’s Ariel(s)’ – a taster for the online reading course I will be starting in May.

It touches on the issue: what do we have the right to write about? A very topical question this week as controversy has been swirling around poet Kenneth Goldsmith reading out the autopsy report of Michael Brown, and whether, as Amy King suggests: ‘the selection and manipulation of Brown’s body, the reordering and rewording of descriptions of Brown’s body […] allows Goldsmith to symbolically assert authority over Brown, much in the same way white supremacy has historically “animalized” black and brown bodies in order to claim dominion over them and establish positions of power.’ I’d recommend the whole article, which raises interesting, complicated questions to which there are no easy answers, such as: how can white writers acknowledge racism in their poetry without risking complicity? (Thanks to Rebecca Tamás for sharing).

Next: Ovid hits York’s literary festival on on Monday and we’ve sold out. I’d better get on with practising…

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Hear us Roar


(Photo of hens by Ashleigh Cooper)

Appropriately, as it was International Women’s Day on Sunday, I spent the weekend at a hen-do in the lakes for my dear friend Anna. We stayed in a lovely cottage near Windermere, where I got to enjoy a blustery walk up Gummer’s Howe, sticky toffee pudding, pubs, Negronis in the sauna and a Spotify-disco with some of the most amazing women I know.

Then, on Sunday night, I had the first show of my Ovid Tour as part of Lancaster Litfest’s ‘Hear me Roar!’ Feminist Festival. I was nervous which made me nervous, and definitely a bit clammy (I couldn’t work out if that was the Negronis or the stage lights) but it seemed to go really well, even if Medea’s fury made me husky near the end. (My fabulous producer for the show, Julia Bird, took a photo-diary of the weekend, if anyone would like to admire her logistics!) I also got to spend time with my sister and niece Rose, which was a bonus (Rose had written her first acrostic, about Niall from One Direction).

So, it all felt like an apt celebration of strong and brilliant women. But just in case I’d forgotten why International Women’s Day is still needed, I then watched Storyville: India’s Daughter, directed by Leslee Udwin, about the gang rape and murder of Jyoti Singh and Jesus. So many jawdropping lines – like the bit where a defense lawyer in the case claims “If my daughter or sister engaged in pre-marital activities and disgraced herself and allowed herself to lose face and character by doing such things, I would most certainly take this sort of sister or daughter to my farmhouse, and in front of my entire family, I would put petrol on her and set her alight.”

I think of all the countries I’ve travelled to India is the only one where I’ve felt judged, endangered and slightly loathed for being a woman – just this palpable threat in the air – but I still couldnt quite believe some of the men’s statements. (“We have the best culture. In our culture, there is no place for a woman” another lawyer says). Recommended, so long as you don’t mind getting very very angry.

Alternatively, if you’d like your dose of feminist rage in poetry form, booking has now opened for my online reading group this summer ‘Out of the Ash I rise’: Reading Sylvia Plath’s Ariel.  I also recommend my latest poetry crush Cate Marvin, whose poem Dead Girl Bang Bang is totally devastating, and has been stuck in my head since I read it.

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