Wednesday 29 October 2008

Agnieszka Kuciak and Tomasz Różycki in Conversation with Zoë Skoulding: Four Perspectives

Breaking out of Reverence
by Gloria Dawson

The chair mentioned the ‘opening field’ of poetry in Poland and I wondered if it was open-field as in poetics. But Simon was reading Charles Olson next to me so forgive me. Tomasz Różycki spoke of himself as the king of "some Eastern European country" which, Plato-like, excluded "deserters, poets, traders and profiteers." Różycki’s strength is his ability to project himself into different stances, characters. Why is he the king of a regime which exiles poets? The place is always changing. But for Rozycki it is often islands and beaches, or looking into a watery mirror, which "moves, and the whole neighbourhood with it." This power is not just migratory - ‘nowhere’, he says later, is a comfortable place for a writer - but transubstantiatory. "The poet in his room will then eat God." There is a sureness in God’s presence in Agnieszka Kuciak’s work, as well; but the only guarantee is of his presence in the poem, not his actual substance. Różycki opens and closes his set with an (ironic? must be) statement of the ‘riches’ that poetry brings - but through that irony (the private island, all the food you can eat) is the real freedom - of thought, of movement.

Agnieszka, heavy with Dante, invents poets (I was reminded of Pessoa) rather than narratives. But she too touches on Plato’s exiling of the poets in the ‘Symposium’ (a hypothetical proposition). I don’t want to draw trite political inference from this, but it’s an intriguing overlap, the poets proposing the rope from which to hang themselves. She is deeply modest (irritatingly so); her poems, even in translation, are incredibly sensitive to the relationship between, for example, architecture and painful history - "roof’s yarmulke in place" in the ceiling in the swimming bath tells us everything, and she doesn’t need to footnote the poem with the dark history of those baths "where I, unfortunately, learned to swim." I would have liked more of this meditation on culpability in the reading. She writes as though things say things for themselves rather than the writer’s solipsistic ventriloquism. The rain is "the tiny quiet yes that will destroy you." And writing, imagining, can take you too far, somewhere where "there are no dogs, no rooms, no mothers." Her relationship with Dante and fear - fear is something, for all her protestations of levity, that is holy, that is sacred. She characterises the poetry of Milosz and the Polish poets of his generation as ‘the poetry of incantation, of prayer.’ She is breaking out of reverence.

Falling into Holes
by Holly Hopkins

During this event I fell into holes. Kuciak and Rozycki read in Polish, their words subtitled them on TV screens and I was continually lost. Which surprised me, given I have not had problems with earlier subtitled events. This is entirely my own baggage, literacy was never my strong point. But today I could not match pace, in a hurry not to be left behind I would skim and then be left floored at the bottom of the screen, or I would give myself time, catch an image and then lose out on a handful - no idea how many - of lines, scooped up and dropped into the next stanza. It was frustrating, yet at the same time interesting, to catch only fragments. I felt everything shook up, context shattered.

The synagogue turned municipal swimming pool with ghosts bathing and showering on the bottom - I could not catch the tone at first, though it dawned. The Italian men waiting for blondes, were they comic? Tragic? This is a response to visiting Italy, home of culture and refinement and finding a “culture of eating pizza and hunting for blondes.” Is this a poem about unrealistic expectations, or a comment on cultural decline? Both? My failure to keep up and my continual unhealthy stitch was my own experience, but the room did feel full of frustration. Particularly the questions and answers. Mistakes and confusion and guesses and other very interesting occurences.

Monopoly Really Barrier Unassailable Gulf Truly
by Adham Smart

The translator has a MONOPOLY over what you hear and what it means! How can you know what it is that the poet REALLY intends with their words when the interpretation of those words is up to the gobetween who does not know you? The BARRIER of language is UNASSAILABLE!

But isn’t this true of poetry in one’s own language too? The GULF of understanding between the writer and the reader! Is it ever TRULY reconcilable?


Yes, I cried myself to sleep
the night I heard old Poland speak
it was not the rhymes that got me
but the inflation of the złoty

Social vs. Individual Freedoms
by George Ttoouli

The event showcased two poets from a new Arc anthology featuring six Polish poets, cunningly titled Six Polish Poets. I was a big fan of the earlier Polish poetry anthology published by Arc, called Altered States, arguably a more cunning title.

The new anthology is a kind of response; where the earlier book showcased American-influenced poets in the confessional or New York mode, this anthology takes a more traditional response, containing sonnets and other established forms. I had a quick flick through the pages of the book and saw very little play with the poem’s shape on the page. In fact, the pentameter seemed a common line unit, or something thereabouts, and regularity abounded.

Within that, though, the poets found their freedom. Różycki, for example, found sonnets “restricting, and I enjoy breaking through those restrictions.” Kuciak, similarly played with tradition, taking Cavafy’s poem, ‘Waiting for the Barbarians’, and making her own version: ‘Waiting for the Blondes.’ I felt a surge of latent Greek nationalism listening to the piece, which was fortunately not the dumb tripe I expected from the title, but I still had the urge to shout out Edward Flint’s ‘Waiting for the Communists’ in response.

Różycki described himself as an anti-poet, which instantly endeared him to me. (Doesn’t take much, even on a bad day.) For him, poetry no longer means ‘Poetry’ any more, just as for some of the young Romanian poets featured in No Longer Poetry, that groundbreaking anthology of New Romanians published a couple of years ago.

What I found most notable in Różycki’s poetry was the folding of concepts - religion, politics and nature. At the end of one poem, he lists the targets his utopia will persecute: “deserters, poets, traitors, profiteers.” In another, he describes, “the whole sky: the clouds, the air force and God.” These lists are loaded, not wasted. Sparks fly off the poems, even when form seems to take them to obscure constructions.

Kuciak’s work plays with multiple voices and personae, with reported speech mixing with narrative. This was very interesting. There was something deeper going on than I was able to grasp in the reading (she read quite fast, grumblegrumble), but the formalism was strong, the language complex as a result. I’ve already talked about the way she played with tradition, so no point repeating myself.

The really interesting angle for me was in the discussion: Różycki talked about how he was from a displaced background; his family were forcibly relocated after the Second World War, leaving them rootless, constantly pining for the golden age of their family’s history, when everything was perfect and “carrots could be bought for minus eleven złoty”. Nowhere is a comfortable place for him now, he is used to not belonging.

This seems to be a positive counter-example to John Berger’s notion of poetry demanding roots, place. Oppression is divorceable from displacement and rootlessness is not the exclusive territory of capitalism. This is the problem I’m left with (and please excuse the leap of logic, I haven’t thought about this enough): is it better to be able to choose to leave your home than it is to be able to stay in your home with restricted freedoms? I.e. is freedom of individual action and thought more important than social freedoms? Jury’s out. I will mull some more and come back to this.

Sean O’Brien’s T.S. Eliot Prizewinner’s Lecture: Two Perspectives

[Cross-posted from Poetry International. For reasons of guilt and in light of several verbal comments, I have edited my review a little bit - GT]

by Adham Smart

“Nothing is outside, or above, the sphere of the political,” I muttered, sitting outside on the first floor of the Royal Festival Hall, a glass of wine in my hand and Sean O’Brien’s gonglike voice conveyor-belting through my head. “Nothing is outside the sphere of the political. Well, of course it isn’t. I’ve looked for something that is. Donaghy’s poetry does not simply rub up against fiction, it is the most exotic fiction of it all, and so the most political. An Irish-American who lived most of his later life in the UK - if he wasn’t being political there would’ve been something wrong with him!”

At that moment the wind grabbed the notes I’d taken during the lecture that I’d been writing from and whipped them over the edge into the London-thick air. Instinctively I leapt after them, stretched out my hand to grasp them, but they flew too fast for me, and both of us met the river.

I sank like a joke on Remembrance Day, while the wretched paper clung to the meniscus. (”Like a child that comforts its father simply by existing,” I mused.)

As the hellish-cold tides of the Thames violated my lungs I felt a disturbance in my wake, and as I looked skywards I saw Sean O’Brien himself in descent towards me, an unpoetically sharp knife clenched between his jaws. He removed the knife to angrily burble at me:


These were the last words I heard and, as I’m sure you’ll agree, they are most political.

A Nonsense of Comparison
by George Ttoouli

A partial list of comparisons made for Michael Donaghy’s poetry

Modernist poetry
TS Eliot
Ezra Pound
WB Yeats
Postmodernist poetry
Anti-postmodernist poetry
Academic poetry
Anti-academic poetry
Irish poetry
Paul Muldoon
American poetry
Richard Wilbur
Robert Bly
English poetry
Irish-American poetry
Irish-American English poetry
Anglo-American poetry

A partial list of abstractions used by Sean O’Brien during his lecture on Michael Donaghy

poignant absurdity
authentic but uncategorisable
supreme heresy
adjacently placed
bleak series
the horrors of complacent ignorance
the monopoly of reason
a more complicated poem
crowded yet often solitary
lies, illusions, things which are not there
sacred personal thing
sacred with profane
faith with deception
web of contradiction
an inheritance he is powerless to evade
dispel the fears
compellingly intimate
rapturously self-interested
remote self-regard

The one sentence review

Abstraction after abstraction - POEM BY MICHAEL DONAGHY! W00T! - name drop after name drop.

The one-line poem review

Singing the anthems of abstraction in the square.

The haiku review

Ice on the lake
fascists drown in the shapeless
murk of late frogspawn

Valzhyna Mort, Mourid Barghouti, Jorie Graham & Mark Doty: Two Perspectives

[Cross-posted from Poetry International, two separate posts combined]

The Multiverse
by Gloria Dawson

Valzhyna Mort seemed tiny on the vast dark blue stage of the Purcell Room. She read with directness and passion, throwing us “an acrobat in a fiery hoop” and white apples drowning in a black lake. Hard sounds sparked off each other but she always seemed to just keep hold of the sparks, hard and tight. I saw too, though, a healthy mistrust of the neatness of metaphor; the drowning white apples are just for the image, they do not necessarily mean. Recollection is not simple or hermetic either; she sees a wall, “blood invisible on its red bricks.” It’s these absent presences which make her a small Cassandra, bursting with intense cruelty and wisdom. Her work reminds us, as tragedy does, that suffering can be limitless, can be nameless and immeasurable; “horror no longer had a signifier.” But the poet can train their eye on the wall with the invisible stain; they can see the shape of the past, even when it has been scrubbed out. I can’t see or feel any whole poem that she read (and she didn’t fill her allotted time, either; I wish there had been more) - but images burn through, and I can see her sureness.

I was incredibly excited to see Mourid Barghouti, whose 1997 meditation on his life and his city, I Saw Ramallah, is one of the best books I have ever read. He was well-paired with Mort - both their poems tend towards concision, repetition, aphorism. More than with Mort, I found the running translation on the big screen above his head a problem. I wanted to watch every movement of his hands, his body, his lips; they shaped the poem as much as his vocal chords (I find Arabic effortlessly mournful, soft yet powerful, and I cannot match English to it at all. I have almost no comprehension of Arabic but I sense that its rhetoric often sounds clumsy and trite when rendered into English). Barghouti reminded me tonight that it is details that wound us the most - in them we see ourselves, and we can mark change, or consistency. Barghouti has a moral seeing rather than a moral saying. Take these last lines from ‘The Three Cypress Trees’:

Yesterday, in my sudden cheerfulness,
I saw their immortality.

Today, in my sudden sorrow,
I saw the axe.

The devil is in the details, but so too is God, or redemption. Meaning for Barghouti is not always permanent, but it is always true. The object is always the same, be it the cypress or the cloak of his grandfather in a vision, wearing ‘that cloak, not a different cloak, that same cloak’; the cloak that now hangs from the jaws of a bulldozer. The past is always now, it leaps over what happens after it. The hand of his grandfather, ‘the hand that opens in forgiveness’, is also ‘the hand that was amputated many years ago.’ The anti-chronological revelation is shocking, but not just that. It reminded me that gesture is always sincere. And it was said with such quietness and reserve.

After an interval, Jorie Graham and Mark Doty read. I was anticipating Graham with excitement and worry. I had not enjoyed her recent work, Sea Change, and had concluded, like the man in the record shop, that she has never bettered her early collections. She is, in some ways, deeply complacent; she knows that she is revered enough to spend ten minutes of her allocated time on a preamble about the importance of artistic imagination in allowing people access to the impending climate catastrophe (rather marred by easy side-swipes at Sarah Palin). Her work frequently seems abstruse, so in some ways the context she gave was helpful, although she could have been more concise. In my final year at university I spent some months studying Graham’s work, and never considered her ‘politics’ (I think I discovered John Kinsella at the same time and wrote her off against him).In fact, her lifelong projects of ‘undoing’ and of going against conclusion and direction sit well with tonight’s impassioned defence of the need for ecological understanding through art. In one of tonight’s three poems, the line ‘I multiply on the face of the Earth’ rings out. Here is the spreading of an artistic imagination that at least attempts omnipresence, whilst at the same time resting in the details as markers (in a rather different way from Barghouti);

Deep autumn & the mistake occurs, the plum tree blossoms, twelve
blossoms on three different
branches, which for us, personally, means none this coming spring.

George said afterwards he found the reading dispiriting but I found there was light (there is always light in Graham’s poems) as well as darkness. A typically Graham-esque pronouncement flew out: ‘You have a wild unstoppable rumour for a soul’. Mercifully, Graham does not here indulge her tendency to get hung up about what she means. She simply says it. ‘I have become the action of beauty again.’ The relationship between making beauty and saying you see it - she has enthusiasm for this. And although she and Barghouti seemingly have little in common, they both reminded us that poetry is about the present - the past and future being far, being realized, in that present. Paradoxically perhaps, poetry can show us in a unique way the perversion of nature that is global warming - the tree fruiting and flowering at the same time, the seasons collapsed. It is very hard to write about what Graham does (doubly so if you’ve studied her) - some people would use this as central to their dislike of her. She is not marketable. But there is something alchemical in her best linkages and stoppages and she conjured tears from me. I find it hard to explain how or why.

I have never been grabbed by Mark Doty. He was warm, open and polished but I still eluded his grasp. Like Graham, he has a distrust of anthropomorphism, worrying in his first poem about ‘freighting [the bat] with something not exactly his’. His anxiety feels, though, self-regarding rather than world-regarding. And he wanted us to like him. Not entirely his fault, though, this bum note after such energetic and different readings. He is a poet of another cast entirely, and I would have left him off an already-crowded platform. I feel it rather an insult that two of the most significant living poets were then put with two other also-significant poets. After all, all four had much material to draw from. This felt like a rather tokenistic internationalism, a taster menu of four full-flavoured national dishes, the South Bank Centre perhaps biting off more than it could chew. Each one of these poets, especially Barghouti and Graham, deserved more time and consideration.

Reviewed in Verse
by George Ttoouli

The Watermelon Fortress
for Valzhyna Mort

a place where nothing celebrates
past its twentieth birthday, except
the government.
Where babies crawl in and out
of the bomb
shelter/ruin. Eyes in suits
watch the creche
make sure no one
grows up:

Your child did well in school
but we regret we must terminate
for the good of the state.

Mothers are made of machines.

The Bullet in my Heart
for Mourid Barghouti

and you mustn't worry
and you must be happy
rest yourself here, friend
here where there are no chairs
and you must, like everyone else, wear Khaki,

Bring us all to love again, my friend,
so we might kill. Sorrow swings
its ambush at the day's trunk.
Living is like carrying
a bullet in your heart,
fists clenching on the grass of home,
on the sun,
on an icecream,
on a gun.

Imagining Collapse
for Jorie Graham

“You have to write your poems like they’ve been dug up from sand.”
–Jorie Graham

Imagining collapse, sacrifice begins: Measuring the qualities
of survival-"If we are alone
on this planet, will we still
feel human?" Fruit and the blossom
at the same time on the same tree, the wassailers speechless,
customs must be abandoned
the specific tree outside the window will be what? huh? language?
a blat-flash of each day flowers
like barrel flares-every syllable
a shelterless plosive, hot tracers show
you to where the sentences should end;
if we arrive we will shelter in a period, pray generations will return
a new inheritance; fingerprints evidence
the attempts to scare off death; mental distress-wool on barbed wire
rusting-I wish to talk to you about
your future: what can we call an evolution of the mind?

for Mark Doty

I carry myself so that no one else has to.
Look on my work, you might, and despair with me!
History can go screw itself! I’m stuck in the gear
marked “only those who have personality and emotions
know what it means to want to laugh at my poetry.”
Now let’s escape for a Qigong in Chinatown.

Monday 27 October 2008

Simon Turner - “The newt is a realist”

[More from Poetry International!]

On the journey down to London from the sunny Midlands, I was lucky enough to be reading an extract in the Guardian of Roger Deakin’s forthcoming journal, entitled Notes from Walnut Tree Farm. Lucky because they were (are) beautifully written; lucky because it is good that his untimely death has left something behind which readers and writers can learn from, can apsire too. Lucky, ultimately, beacause of its correlation between poetry and uselessness:

“The poetry,” writes Deakin, “is all being efficiently excised from our land. Where there once stood a magnificent old barn, a rick yard and some half-ruined cow byres and feeding sheds at Withersdale Street, there is now a deeply boring, ordinary converted barn. We need ruined barns like we need ruined woods.”

Deakin sets up an opposition between efficiency and poetry, and it is an opposition I happily subscribe to. George, in an earlier post, made reference to John Berger’s claim that poetry is essentially in opposition to capitalism: for what is capitalism but rapacious efficiency raised to the level of a malign godhood? Poetry, like the natural and man-made ruins that Deakin celebrates, serves no purpose which can be codified in terms of profit and loss. Therefore, it is something to be celebrated.

Something which I think has come into focus so far this week is the need to define what poetry is for, why it matters. Deakin suggests one reason in his journal, and Jorie Graham, earlier this evening, suggested another (more on that tomorrow). I want to use the space of my forthcoming posts to suggest others. Really, I’ll only be thinking aloud, but I hope that some of you will be listening in, and may be able to shed some light on the matter.

To close, for now. Reading Deakin put me in mind of a derelict house a few doors down from a friend of mine back home in Middle Earth (or Warwickshire, if you want to use the received term), where a small colony of bats has set up home in the attic. The landlord of the house in question has had trouble with squatters in the past, but I suspect that these air-borne tenants are here to stay. One night we watched them feeding as the light failed. Swooping and ascending, they snatched insects out of the air which had grown plump and numerous in the midst of a garden grown luscious and wild in the absence of human habitation.

Saturday 25 October 2008

John Berger, David Constantine and Rema Hammami: Two Perspectives

[Cross-posted from Poetry International blog.]

by Holly Hopkins

I want to say it was the idea of translation as a utopian act that will stick most in my mind. It might make me feel learnéd. Or the description of how a literal word for word translation will kill a poem and one must go back to the “pre-verbal” on the way to a new poem (how I wish Richard Lattimore had been forced to study that idea before I had been forced to study Richard Lattimore). Or perhaps my favourite John Berger moment was,

“Lyric poems are always a last resort, if there was a more direct way it would be done, it is an appeal to the sky and you only appeal to the sky when you’ve done everything else.”

These ideas interested me, but are not the strongest taste in the mouth.

That was a new realisation of something I am sure should have been obvious, which came from watching a video of Mahmoud Darwish’s last reading in Palestine, in June this year. I was not aware of just how much a poem’s meaning and worth derived from its sound. I know that statement is ridiculous, indeed if you think about it literally, it’s nonsense. I have never met anyone who enjoyed poetry who didn’t sound the words in their heads when they read. Indeed I have often wondered if this was a fundamental distinction between those who enjoy poetry and do not. But it never occurred to me how much I would enjoy listening to a man reading his poem in a language of which I do not understand a single words.

I feel rather guilty about writing about an event I found engaging from Modern Poetry in Translation and then saying how much I enjoyed the un-translated poem. It is perverse. But that can’t be helped.

Some thoughts about asylum seekers interspersed with notes verbatim from the event
George Ttoouli

The English language marching towards hegemony
Martin Colthorpe

About five years ago I worked with some refugees and asylum seekers at a night shelter. I ran a few creative writing workshops. In one, a Congolese journalist brought in a story about becoming un fantôme. His story was based on the idea that, when you are displaced, no one will recognise you on the street, no one would smile at you and, by doing so, register your humanity. You became ‘a ghost waiting for a smile.’

The discussion moved on to cultural ghosts. I had been researching ‘vrikolakas’ at the time, a very particular Greek folkloric spirit. During the conversation the Kurdish-Iraqi journalist in the group had to leave the room. He had heard the footsteps of his dead friends walking on the floor above us.

Your rapidly moving lips
time rotating with the rotors of the plane’s engine
abandoning this prison Gaza
existing in a trough of misery
a small oyster lost in oppresive loneliness
a spewed out combat with time
Gaza more cramped than the mind of a sleeper
in the throes of a fearful nightmare
a happy life as a social deviation

(Misremembered from a 1955 short story by Ghassan Khanafani, read by John Berger, in which Nadia loses a leg protecting her brothers and sisters from Israeli bombs; a demonstration of love. There was no applause after Berger finished reading the story and at the end of the film he held his head in his hands.)

Working at the night shelter we would have to arrive at 20.30. The doors opened at 21.00. We prepared the food, ate dinner with whoever had showed up for the night and then put the lights out by 23.00. Breakfast was early, 07.00. everyone had to leave by 08.00

Some of the ‘guests’ (I am equivocal about what to call the shelter users, but that seems accurate) were so used to sleeping on the streets in winter they had to have all the windows open, even when it was below freezing. This was fine when we only had three or four guests. Some weeks, when there were new or temporary arrivals from a particular country, the shelter might have a dozen or more people, and because the men and women had to be separated we would need every room. The only couple we had to let sleep together was a Congolese husband and wife, in their late sixties. Many had trouble sleeping with the lights off, others with the lights on. Another needed the radio on, he couldn’t stand silence. We bought him earphones, but there were arguments still. Some never slept.

Normally the women would sleep in front room, so if any of the men turned nasty in the night they would be able to escape out onto the street. There was never a problem while I was there, many looked out for each other. I vaguely recall some flirting between one of the Kosovan farmhands and an Eritrean woman, both in their early twenties. It gave the guests and staff something to gossip about when they weren’t around.

Elementary justice.
John Berger

thoughts the Sword and Book can dispatch to the wasteland
the only flower we know is the red anemone

And I have of her…

Arguing with the herald of the invisible
[meeting the godhead, who is Death]

I am not mine,

I am not mine,

I am not mine.

(Misremembered from ‘The Mule’ by Mahmoud Darwish, read by John Berger and Rema Hammami.)

A former Iraqi PE teacher was at the shelter for a very long time. Months and months. He somehow managed to retain a degree of dignity throughout the time I knew him, simply by his ongoing demonstration of intelligence and compassion. He had spent some time in Crete, where my family is from, picking oranges and helping with farmwork while he traveled north through Europe. We would speak in our very basic Greek and laugh lots.

His case was desperate though, continually rejected. He was on the edge of deportation for years, some kind of invisible bureaucratic precipice, like the cliffs at Dover, which the Home Office was trying to push him off. A week before the (third?) anniversary of his arrival in the UK, something broke for him. He announced he would be killing himself on the day of the anniversary. He would go to Birmingham and climb up one of the giant cranes where they were constructing the Bullring, set himself on fire, and jump into the huge hole they had dug there.

The shelter manager argued with him all week. She didn’t sleep for the last 48 hours, staying on suicide watch. Eventually he backed down. Something changed. I later heard he found a woman who wanted to marry him, moved to live with her. I didn’t see him much after that.

Timeless and prophetic.
Rema Hammami, describing two short poems she read, by Mahmoud Darwish.

Translation is an emblemmatic act.
David Constantine

you say I don’t belong in this country
this country does not belong to you
and neither of us belong to this country
these weapons do not belong in any country
and these words, well, think about them
and you’ll see - now we’re out of coffee,
I’m going to the shop, I won’t be long.

Others weren’t so strong. One tried to electrocute himself by climbing on the table in the dining room after everyone had gone to sleep, smashing the lightbulb and putting his fingers in the socket. They got to him, but not before he had cut himself. He put blood all over the floor and walls as he struggled.

Translation is triangular, penetrating to what is behind screen of one language, taking the unnameable behind it and taking it across to the unnameable, the pre-verbal, behind the other language; bringing the poem forwards from the pre-verbal.

The translation of poetry is important now because of the history we are living in. Poetry has a greater significance in darker ages… Poetry was globalised before the traders got there. This is important given the catastrophe the traders have brought us to.
(paraphrased from John Berger)

There is no Iron Curtain, but there are more people than ever on the move from places they don’t want to to be on the move from… [Modern Poetry in Translation] receives Iraqi poetry from New Zealand, Somalian poetry from Canada…
David Constantine

Violence was common, though rarely escalated too far, except with the one or two that were either heavy drinkers, or had severe trauma and stress. One man broke his hand punching the wall.

Another, who hated the shelter manager for no reason he could ever explain - When I see her, I just see red, I don’t know why, but this sheet of red comes down over my eyes, he said to me once - he found her in the street an hour before the shelter opened, wheeling the food donated by the local Gurdwara down the road in a trolley. In his rage he hit her, knocked her to the floor and threw the trolley into the road, tipping out the food.

He was arrested, and instead the shelter staff cooked a vegetable rice dish. It was one of the happier meals they had together. Some of the shelter users couldn’t stomach the spices in the Sikh food every night.

One man hung himself with his belt. A guest found him before the shelter staff did.

Capitalism has no sense of place, no loyalty to place; poetry only works when it is rooted. Poetry becomes necessary in the face of this; it has autonomy against rootlessness, it defines the place it comes from.
John Berger

I entered the event with a false preconception about the festival: that I would be examining the aesthetic dimensions of translated poetry - the differences in syntax that arise that make the familiar seem less so. Instead the event brought out the political dimension, a discussion of the social significance of being exposed to poetry beyond our cultural expectations, limits. As Berger put it, the effect is “immeasurable”; it can’t and shouldn’t be measured, but we must all accept that the exposure is positive, benevolent.

Lyric poems are in effect a last resort; if ther was something quicker that could be done, it would be done. It is an appeal to the sky, a last resort… but it is listened to by other people, not the sky… it becomes shared, it increases endurance and strength in others.
John Berger

Friday 24 October 2008

The John Berger Fanclub

[Manual syndication from Poetry International. I've edited and extended this version.]

Now hold still while I put the leather glove on. Good kitty.
Now hold still while I put the leather glove on. Good kitty.

Maureen Freely once loaned me a copy of ‘A Seventh Man: Migrant Workers in Europe’. At the time, Berger was a distant inkling in my mind, a symbol of '70s leftwing radicalism, old hat, irrelevant. The book had all the hallmarks of ’70s leftwing radicalism: the grainy B&W photos, the gritty, bare prose, the bluntness of the suffering it portrayed with the underlying message of ‘Look, these are people, not animals, love everyone, everyone deserves love’. But at the same time, it was chock full of real sentiment, none of that hippyish stereotyping that goes on in a lot of mass media representations of the era. This was writing that took it’s time, a project that clearly had a lot of deep, moral thinking behind it; and one that didn’t compromise for any notions of market audience, or readership.
It made its way into my consciousness via the photography, first of all: migrant workers from Turkey and Greece, the tracking of gasterbeiter in particular. I still have some of the images in my head - men in locker rooms, dormitories, the sense of isolation, the sense of a community based on shared despair. My introduction to gasterbeiter started a few years before with a university friend, a poet, who had written a poem of that name. He himself had Turkish background, and, I assume, family who came over in the '70s, or earlier, and found themselves locked into this cycle of work where they weren't granted permission to become citizens, to establish a home. They were an underclass of the worst kind: locked into an economic cycle which commodified them, dehumanised them. They had only each other to recognise their selves in and from that oppression came community.

LinkBerger's treatment of the subject could be called journalism. Whistle-blowing is a crass way of putting it, especially when the exposé targets a government. However, I'd argue it's a landmark text for experiments in New Journalism, an attempt to push creative approaches to factual writing into a new level. The aesthetic construction, the blending of photojournalism with poetic prose: these raised the project above an attempt to "capture the reality of the migrant worker’s life" (from the introduction, available here with some images).

What really got to me was the outsiderliness of the writing and the photography. Berger 'went there’ to his subject’s heart, he got a hold of the experience in a way that most journalistic treatments would never do (aren’t allowed to do), and the language never once tried to patronise me with those experiences. Something clicked: the possibilities of being political without being a parody, or without being so cerebral about it, or passionate about it that you were derided. Here was a mode of political engagement that wasn’t preaching, wasn’t flimsy; Keats’ negative capability funneled into a challenge, one that asked, ‘If this goes on, why are you still sitting there?’

Comparisons to Jean Genet are obvious. It’s the decisions as to how he would live, and how this relate to his aesthetic life that inspire me so much. Even, perhaps, to Audrey Hepburn, though she made her money first. I'm quite obsessed with writers who step outside of expectation, of established norms, particularly those which are so comfortable, like here on our little island in the North Sea. Even with a banking crisis and recession, the supermarkets are full, petrol readily available.

Sure, it’s easy to leap on that ole chestnut about what Berger did with that slightly-famous literary prize pot, but that’s the caricature, the 15 seconds of fame moment (and also the obvious hook which I’ve used to try and make this post look more interesting that the fan-clubbery rant it’s turned out to be), in which it’s easy to believe you can learn everything you need to about a person. But I was lucky enough to read one of his recent short stories, ‘The Red Tenda of Bologna‘ when it was published in a magazine, and it was absolutely wonderful. Yet another facet of the man’s writing that has me salivating in advance of the Festival’s launch night. My one gripe: I haven't read enough of his work yet, there's so much more.

Wednesday 22 October 2008

The Editors Depart Their Natural Habitat

Due to a clerical error, or more likely some other misfortune on the part of the Royal Festival Hall's excellent team of staff, Gists & Piths have been invited to London as part of the Poetry International Festival's official bloggers.

Joining an elite team of long-running and world-renowned bloggers, the Editors will attempt to maintain their cover for as long as possible, before the Southbank realises its mistake.

We will be reporting live from London, bringing you coverage of events and general reports of our pillaging forays into the café and bar stocks. We have also assembled a small team of raiders, who will be reporting simultaneously on particular events, to provide a multiplicity of views, or simply further confusion as to the state of play, depending on how optimistic your worldview is.

Whether Gists & Piths will be assimilated into the hegemonic vortex of London, welcome as a benign misfit-mascot, or find itself rudely ejected for being too damn weird, is up for grabs. Tune in from Friday. Between now and then, suggestions for what we should be packing in our knapsacks are most welcome.

Tuesday 7 October 2008

Simon Turner - Waitrose's plumbing of the depths

Just a quick note, as much for my benefit as for anybody else's (ie, I wanted to make sure I wasn't hallucinating this after ingesting a bad sandwich): Waitrose have a new ad they're running for their autumn foods campaign, which features the usual montage of images of conkers and kids kicking through piles of autumn leaves and miraculously not whanging foot-first into a dog turd. None of this is especially offensive, and is no more nor less anodyne than most televisual advertising. What is worrisome is the soundtrack: Roger McGough reading Keats' 'Ode to Autumn' with 'Golden Brown' by the Stranglers tinkling away behind him. This is wrong for so many reasons, not least of which is the narrow and smug notion of 'poetry' that ad execs clearly have. Immediately after this I saw the new ad for Warburton's, an eerie and imaginative concoction, which contains far more poetry than a whole barnful of McGough-endorsed conker-stuff doughnuts, or whatever it is that Waitrose are peddling. I feel like going to bed for a month and hoping that all this goes away...