Tuesday, 24 May 2011

Valzhyna Mort (again), Jorie Graham, the dangers of speaking to poets at readings

This is a postscript to my last piece on Valzhyna Mort and Factory of Tears.  A London audience heard her a couple of years ago at Poetry International on the South Bank.  She read very well and intensely, including some poems in Belarusian, but seemed quite shy.  Maybe she was shy in the company of Jorie Graham, Mark Doty and Mourid Barghouti.  She’s been described as a ‘fireball’ and ‘electrifying’, and the internet audios of her reading in Belarusian sound great. 

Mort’s publishers hadn’t managed to get her book to London in time, and at the end of the interval when the poets had been signing books I went along to say I loved her poems and would get the book when it arrived.  She wasn’t there, and instead two of the contemporary poets I most admire, Graham and Doty, were sitting side by side at empty desks.  As Jorie Graham signed a book for me, I asked her if she knew where Valzhyna Mort was.  ‘WHO??’ she said.  I repeated the name, loudly and too clearly.  She didn’t seem to be fully aware of her co-reader. 

Moose thinking about Sarah Palin. 
 Alaska Moose Foundation

Just shows one should never approach famous poets at readings, especially those one admires.  I was then too put out to say to Mark Doty I was only not asking him to sign Theories and Apparitions as I’d got it at home… but that would probably have gone wrong too.

Anyway I remember it as a really good reading, all four of them – though Jorie Graham nearly spoilt it by starting her spot with a rant several minutes long against Sarah Palin hunting moose from a helicopter.   
This didn’t go down at all well with the audience, who had come to hear her read her poems and didn’t need to be told what Sarah Palin was like. Did she think we didn’t know?  Was this all to do with not everyone thinking Graham’s recent books are as good as the earlier ones? 

I’m still not sure what I think about that.  The earlier books are more accessible, but I am fascinated by Sea Change and Never, the way she seems to write at the edge of both geography and consciousness.  Here is an extract from near the end of ‘The Time Being’, from Never:

… The breaking waves tossing
spume the whole length of the beach.  The glassy
tidal-retreat zone where the reduced
incline allows for a full measure of sky
every eight seconds or so to be strewn over the
otherwise dark-wet sand – a sun, a blueness,
clouds clearly moving, the skin of water
giving us “where-the-earth-opens” [it must open],
sun in there one cannot look at any
more than one can look at the one above – then the retreat –
sun, clouds, blue, all being taken back
into the shorebreak, tossed-up, in-ruffled
airily into huge plumes and upcast mists, the looking-down
leaving tiny holes where clam and crab and tubeworm
suck back under and the water goes down as well as out
and the earth is filling and the earth is
shut.  The time presses.
The sense of one’s person
numbs as in having been too long in too
strong a wind.  The idea won’t
hold as I push it out.  Then it will.  Then it
is held [not by me].  Then it is all gone. 

Monday, 16 May 2011

Factory of Tears

That is the title of a collection by Valzhyna Mort.  What a wonderful title.  A poet’s work, poems’ work, life, one’s homeland…  The last poem in the book has the same title, and starts –

And once again according to the annual report
the highest productivity results were achieved
by the Factory of Tears. 

It ends –

I’m a recipient of workers’ comp[ensation] from the heroic
                                        Factory of Tears.
I have calluses on my eyes. 
I have compound fractures on my cheeks.
I receive my wages with the product I manufacture.
And I’m happy with what I have.

The whole poem can be read here.  Great to see the language of Soviet era central planning put to such absurd use.  And to be made to wonder about the Factory of Tears that is poetry. 

The last line takes us back to the smiling workers of socialist realism.  If the poem had been written by someone from any other former Iron Curtain country, we might suspect ironic Ostalgie.  But Valzhyna Mort is from Belarus which is a dictatorship, very repressive; see the BBC, today.  See also the Belarusian Telegraph Agency, if you want to enter the strange land the Factory came from – note that in the menu of news topics, President comes first, before Politics, Economy etc.  It’s hard to imagine that Mort is popular with the Belarusian authorities, though her first poems were published there.

Valzhyna Mort now lives in the US.  Factory of Tears has Belarusian and English in parallel text, the translation done by the author and Elizabeth and Franz Wright.  An excellent idea – if only there were more such poetry books.  Someone who has a Slav language and Cyrillic script can follow the original, which makes a huge difference to the reading experience.  (I was reading it yesterday sitting on the train, and became aware that a young man with a check shirt was standing there, staring intently at my book.. he then turned abruptly and walked off.  Had he thought it was Russian and then realised it wasn’t?)

However, this may also be a disadvantage.  Mort said in an interview:  “For me this is something that I would like to escape, this label of being a Belarusian poet because I truly don’t know what is Belarusian about my poetry and when I come to a reading, I feel people have some kind of expectation that I will not be able to fulfil unless I wear a national costume!”

Socialist realism (across the
border in long-ago Poland)

I confess I find it hard to get away from the Belarusianness: the  Belarusian text, the book’s title; even the novelty value, the costume.  In the poem quoted above, the Factory of Tears has ‘adopted a new economically advantageous / technology of recycling the wastes of the past - / memories mostly’, and the theme of memory, some of it very Belarusian, runs through the book.  It is a first full collection, published in 2008; her next book will be written in English.  Maybe the interview comment, from 2010, is more about her recent work.   

Anyway, one of the book’s strengths is the poet’s ability to draw on the unusual material provided by her country of birth.  The opening poem, ‘Belarusian I’, begins

Even our mothers have no idea how we were born
how we parted their legs and crawled out into the world
the way you crawl from the ruins after a bombing…

and later

completely free only in public toilets
where for a little change nobody cared what we were doing
we fought the summer heat the winter snow
when we discovered we ourselves were the language
and our tongues were removed we started talking with our eyes
                        …and when they ate our heads alive
we crawled back into the bellies of our sleeping mothers
as if into bomb shelters
to be born again

and there on the horizon the gymnast of our future
was leaping through the fiery hoop
of the sun

That’s the end of the poem (read it here, plus a video interview), which she says is a response to criticism she and her contemporaries received for writing in Belarusian rather than their first language, Russian.  It shows another of the book’s strengths, the vigorous imagery which drives so many of the poems.  She often starts with something simple – a tiger, a train, snow – but the way she uses the images is very striking.  The short poem ‘Fall in Tampa’ ends

..summer is standing stock-still
like a white heron in green water
‘for Rafal Wojaczek’ has death as a fly:

getting into your eyes
like a filthy fly
death is circling
with seeing

A grandmother, to whom the book is dedicated and whom I understand as symbolic / folkloric as well as very real and loved, appears in the poems; this one’s called ‘Grandmother’.

she swallows the sun-speckles of pills
and calls the internet the telephone to america

her heart has turned into a rose the only thing you can do
is smell it
pressing yourself to her chest

By now it will be clear that she writes in free verse, without much punctuation, and that the line breaks mostly go with the sense.  The translators have done a good job of being faithful to this without losing the energy. 

The poems that don’t work so well lack the thematic force that otherwise welds different metaphors together within one poem.  A long prose poem, ‘White Trash’, in the middle of the book has some great bits which could be more effective on their own, each as a short prose poem. 

Minsk: socialist realist sculpture
I suppose it’s a cliché that the first post-war generation of East European poets wrote politically, and the post-Fall of Berlin Wall generation turned towards individual experience.  Though Mort belongs to the younger end of the latter group (and writes poems about sex and growing up) it seems to me her poems contain elements of both, and her surreal metaphors certainly recall some of the former, such as Różewicz and Holub.  Her perspective can be both very personal and broad at once, as in ‘for A.B.’:

it’s so hard to believe
that once we were even younger
than now
that our skin was so thin
that veins blued through it
like lines in school notebooks
that the world was a homeless dog
that played with us after class
and we were thinking of taking it home
but somebody else took it first
gave it a name
and trained it stranger
against us

Mort has said she is old-fashioned in that she believes in ‘inspiration’.  Audios of her reading in Belarusian sound great – she’s been described as a ‘fireball’ and ‘electrifying’.  The best poems come across on the page with the force and originality of something inspired.  Wherever she’s going, I hope she doesn’t abandon the national costume completely, to be lost in the great American crowd. 

Factory of Tears is published by Copper Canyon Press (love its cover, the laminated flower tablecloth and low enamel kettle – that’s Ostalgie).  Collected Body, same publisher, comes out in September 2011.

Tuesday, 10 May 2011

Moon poems by Sidney and Laux

Last year I was obsessed with the full moon.  How come it’s still possible to write poems about the moon, after all those years of people doing it, from Shakespeare to Wordsworth to Dickinson to Plath and Hughes?  Somehow it is.  At the Torriano on Sunday I mentioned one of my favourite moon poems: this one by Philip Sidney, from Astrophel and Stella. 

With how sad steps, O Moon, thou climb’st the skies! 
How silently, and with how wan a face!
What, may it be that even in heavenly place
That busy archer his sharp arrows tries?
Sure, if that long with love-acquainted eyes
Can judge of love, thou feel’st a lover’s case;
I read it in thy looks; thy languisht grace
To me that feel the like, thy state descries.
Then, even of fellowship, O Moon, tell me,
Is constant love deemed there but want of wit?
Are beauties there as proud as here they be?
Do they above love to be loved, and yet
    Those lovers scorn whom that love doth possess?
    Do they call virtue there, ungratefulness?

I love the conceit behind the poem, and the way the syntax and Petrarchan sonnet rhyme scheme hold it together. 

I’d never heard of the American poet Dorianne Laux before the Aldeburgh Poetry Festival last year, where she read.  The people I discussed her with hadn’t either – an example of how American poetry to the 21st century British reader is a bit like the continent of Africa to a 19th century European explorer: vast, known only in patches, and full of revelations. 

Here is part of Laux’ poem ‘Facts about the Moon’, from the collection of the same name.  The poem has great breadth and assurance, and after this passage it moves in the most extraordinary direction.  You can read the whole poem on her website.

What bothers me most is that someday
the moon will spiral right out of orbit
and all land-based life will die.
The moon keeps the oceans from swallowing
the shores, keeps the electromagnetic fields
in check at the polar ends of the earth.
And please don’t tell me
what I already know, that it won’t happen
for a long time. I don’t care. I’m afraid
of what will happen to the moon.
Forget us. We don’t deserve the moon.
Maybe we once did but not now
after all we’ve done. These nights
I harbor a secret pity for the moon, rolling
around alone in space without
her milky planet, her only child, a mother
who’s lost a child, a bad child…

And you can hear / read a short poem of hers about the moon here.

Monday, 2 May 2011

Invitation to 2 poetry readings; films in strange settings; the new MPT website

I’m reading at the Torriano next weekend, along with Jane Speare and Kate White, hosted by Lisa Kelly.  Do come along: Sunday 8 May at 7.30, first half is open mic. 

The annual poetry evening at Greenwich Yacht Club is coming soon. Friday 27 May. This will be the 5th year we’ve held it, ‘we’ being the Greenwich poetry workshop.  John Hegley is coming as guest reader.  Years ago, the Yacht Club was a delightfully shambolic collection of rundown wooden shacks, on the east side of the Greenwich Peninsula.  Then the Dome was built, and the club had to be relocated a short way downstream.  The result was this!  Paid for by the Dome project: the best thing they did..?  It’s a wonderful venue, especially on a summer evening with the sun setting towards the north-west.

Greenwich Yacht Club, photo simonward.com
From 7pm, 1 Peartree Way, SE10 0BW.  You can walk there along the Thames Path from North Greenwich tube.  There will be a bar, a free glass of wine and some open mic slots; contact oonachantrell@yahoo.co.uk for the open mic, or apply on the night.

Oona (see above) invited me to the Yacht Club this weekend for a film night: Zorba the Greek.  Perfect, with the river all around, and the boats’ rigging clanging in the wind, which I realised at one point my subconscious was assuming was goat bells.  I’d never seen Zorba before, despite having lived in Greece, and was a bit suspicious that it would be full of cod-Greekness.  In fact some of it was all too real…  The Zorba cliché is living-life-to-the-full Greek waking up an inhibited Englishman.  OK, Anthony Quinn is entertaining, but what about the lengthy scene in which the whole village stones a young, beautiful widow whom all the men fancy / fear, and then she gets her throat cut?  I’d never heard that mentioned.  Perhaps people would rather forget it, and stick with the comfort of the cliché.  As for the latter, why wasn’t there more of the dancing on the beach? 

The film reminded me that in Greece in the early/mid 1990s, 30 years after the film and 50 after the novel, Cretan men still had a bad reputation, at least with women.  They were supposed to be unloving and often violent.  (Of course they weren't all like that...)  Women turned to each other for tenderness, and there were – I was told – many lesbian relationships between married women.  I wonder if the men knew about it.  But in the Eastern Mediterranean, what went on in the women’s quarters wasn’t of interest to the men; I think there was still an element of this culture in Greek attitudes. 

Seeing a film in a strange place is always interesting.  A few years ago I saw Battleship Potemkin in a fortress in St Petersburg, with someone playing a piano accompaniment.  In the mid-1980s I lived in Poland and every now and then a film that contained the seeds of dissent would get passed by the censors; the few showings sold out, and at the end the audience would applaud.  I remember everyone applauding Bez Końca, No End, a Kieślowski film that ended with a suicide in a kitchen gas oven – because the film reflected what life under martial law had felt like.   

And I remember an archaeological dig in Italy: going to the cinema in the local town with Italian fellow-students, and being mystified when we went in halfway through the film, watched it to the end and then the first half, leaving at the point we’d come in at.  The whole audience was doing the same – coming and going throughout.  I’ve no idea what the film was, except that it did have a plot. 

MPT latest issue
Modern Poetry in Translation has a new website, which I’ve added to the links.  It’s full of interesting stuff.  Maybe it helped them get their increased Arts Council grant, well-deserved unlike some (why on earth did Faber get an increase!?)  There’s an online translation workshop.  There are ‘poetry postcards’: you can choose one of the books they’ve been sent for review, they’ll post it to you so that you can write a mini-review of it.  The best ones will appear on the website.  You can keep the book, or pass it on.  What a great idea – could be even better, if they stated what language each of the books is translated from. Sometimes this is obvious, sometimes it isn’t.  Also, why don’t they say whether the edition to be reviewed has a parallel text with the original poems?  Come on MPT, we’re not all monoglots!