Archive for October, 2017

The Sea-Migrations

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


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…)


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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 ‘consomm√© 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.

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