Tuesday, 27 September 2011

Day of Poetry

This was Saturday, day of the Poetry Book Fair in Exmouth Market.  Why hasn’t something like that happened before?  Never mind, it’s happened now thanks to CB Editions and it was wonderful.  Imagine a church hall, complete with red velvet stage-curtains and metal icicles hanging from the ceiling.  There are trestle tables all round the edge, covered with poetry books - 22 publishers from Anvil to zimZalla, from all points of the compass, co-existing amicably - and the hall is full of people talking about poetry.  Scraps of publisher-conversation emerge.  “Oh, I had such difficulty with [insert well-known name of modernist poet], he kept changing his mind about what to put in.”  “So-and-so’s doing a lot of stuff online, he films himself writing and reading out at the same time.” 

This was so, so much better than visiting 22 internet sites. It’s much easier to get an idea of who publishes what - to make connections - when the books are there like a jigsaw puzzle with extra colour and you can hold them, finger the pages, look at the typeface; and browse through them, taking in the shape of the poems, reading bits here and there, reading half a book...  I discovered that Arc publishes poetry in translation in parallel texts: I’d got one from some event long ago, had assumed it was a fluke, but no!  Anvil does a few too; I bought Nikos Gatsos’s Amorgos.   I nearly bought the Reality Street book of (modernist/innovative) sonnets edited by Jeff Hilson - but thought of its weight and the several miles I had to go.  Have just ordered it the usual, boring way, plus a book from their online September sale, Out of Everywhere edited by Maggie O’Sullivan. 

It was also good to put names to faces.  Most interesting for me was meeting my publisher-to-be, Helena Nelson of HappenStance.  And several authors in the HappenStance stable, who were telling me how much they enjoyed being edited by her.  I bought pamphlets by Mike Loveday, Kirsten Irving and Jon Stone.  The latter two run Sidekick Books, so were manning both stalls at once.  Then there was Stephen Watts, whose book The Blue Bag I reviewed here; and Nii Parkes of flipped eye, who had a really great poem in the last South Bank Poetry.  flipped eye’s stall had some great pamphlets and I bought Malika Booker’s BreadfruitNot everyone was there: London-based Hearing Eye and tall-lighthouse weren’t. 

There were readings all day upstairs, via a staircase-with-lift-in-the-well straight out of Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy.  Helena Nelson had a neat way of fitting her six readers into less than half an hour: she lined them up along the front of the small room like one half of Strip the Willow and they each read a poem in turn, then another.  Listeners had to be sharp about making connections between rounds one and two - interesting.  It was great to hear DA Prince, whose poems I always like in magazines.  And I especially enjoyed ‘Ants’ by Kirsten Irving, which ends:

She chews these ants to dust
for you, who have become a spear for her,
a rocket launcher she will fire backwards.

She chews past nothing,
past ant-pockets of clarity,
past the ghost ants scaling her body,
and trains her throat to open.

There was too much to do and not enough time… between talking to the publishers (who are all heroes of course, to be publishing poetry), looking at books, meeting friends, going upstairs for readings or outside for a coffee in Exmouth Market.  I didn’t register all the publishers.  Where was superhero CB Editions who organised everything so well?  I couldn’t take it all in.  And I wish now that I’d bought more books; I only bought half a dozen while there.   CB Editions, I promise I will if you run it again next year.  Best of all, if this isn’t totally impractical, run it for several days so people can come back. 

The fair filled a gap in the market (yes, there must be a poetry market because there is a gap).  As Chris Hamilton-Emery writes in an excellent crusading piece on the Salt blog, if only some of the funds given to and taken away from poetry could be devoted to subsidising real space for small publishers and their readers.   A shop.  Or pop-up events in empty shops, of which there are now plenty; and a blog directing one where to find the next one.  Or a back room in a bookshop somewhere.  Or in any shop.  Or the upstairs room in a pub that doesn’t use it and wants more custom.  Or a café.  Or a barge (OK, there’s a book barge already; and, according to the Salt blog, other cities have poetry fairs).  Or an HGV (Salt blog again), a yurt, a magic carpet, someone’s garden shed…  Or the Festival Hall, inside and outside the Poetry Library - there’s lots of space on Level 5.

After the fair I walked down through Clerkenwell to the river and Tate Modern, where a workshop run by Pascale Petit was holding a reading - on the 7th floor, in a glass-lined room with wonderful views.  People had used the paintings to write about their own stuff, and there was an impeccably designed Tate pamphlet.  The last reader was Karen McCarthy Woolf with an utterly compelling poem, online here, which starts:

The Wish

spreads its branches so twigs scratch
third floor windows, pushes through cracked
glass into front rooms cluttered with books.

Tuesday, 20 September 2011

The Probabilities of Balance by Stephen Payne

This pamphlet was published by Smiths Knoll magazine last year.  It arrived free with the magazine for subscribers.  There’s something very nice about getting free poetry like that - maybe it has something to do with the quality of the Smiths Knoll brand…   Anyway, I really liked the pamphlet.  I’ve been trying to work out why.  A lot of the poems look at things from an unusual angle.  There are, in the world at large, quite a few poems about parents becoming forgetful.  In ‘Given Name’, Stephen Payne uses his own name to get, in four lines, from this: 

Too many in my year at school and one
I couldn’t stand.

to this:

But only since it started to slip her mind
have I held close this common given name:
imagining her sounding it against

In ‘Dyslexia’, the narrator tries to explain the condition to an eight year old:

How to lift from everything we know
a clutch of truths by which he’ll be consoled. 

It’s only six lines long, and ends: 

        Hard to answer no
when he asks quietly, Are you the same? 

I love the conciseness of these two moving poems, and the way ‘Dyslexia’ slips into being metaphysical - a characteristic of several poems in the book.  Payne has a concise descriptive gift too.  ‘Guitar’ starts: 

It’s part of the furniture,
slumped open-mouthed against a wall,
sleeping off the party. 

He runs his poems with skill: placing of words and line breaks, use of rhyme and rhythm, movement through each poem.  As good as the performer in ‘Unicyclist’, the poem that gives The Probabilities of Balance its title.  His endings are all perfect - he makes ending a poem look easy. The whole book conveys pleasure at the possibilities of form.   In ‘The River Swimmer’, the rhythm and rhyme scheme become more regular as the poem develops.  Hard to pull off, but it works here as it mirrors the action in the poem (which you can read at Payne’s page on poetrypf).  The swimmer pushes himself to take risks, testing his feelings about what they symbolise:

He slips his ring and watches as it falls,
dives steeply into an amber blur to fetch.
Or fail - a sudden panic of remorse
until a glint of gold, his fingers stretch. 

There are only 23 poems, a nice small number.  No fillers, though ‘At Carlton’ and ‘Overheard’, both anecdotal poems, rise above the commonplace less than others.  

Maybe I like what the poems are not.  Their tone is modest and not knowing, with the exception perhaps of ‘Guessing Game’, the opening poem, which I liked less although it’s clever, graphic and works on several levels.  The knowingness makes it seem more like other people’s poems.   

Rereading the pamphlet just now, a couple of poems made me laugh out loud in delight.  ‘The Career Academic’ begins: 

Enthusiasm for peptides
provides only limited protection
from loneliness
or lust.  His recent embrace

of online dating
is no more
than a rational response
to circumstance…

You can buy the pamphlet to discover how that contrast gets resolved, or not; to laugh (and not-quite-cry) at ‘Maths Teacher’; and to read ‘In My Dreams’, four perfect lines of bittersweet fantasy about a teenage son.   

The Probabilities of Balance is well produced - plain, with a section of the familiar Smiths Knoll chart on the front.  No blurb, which is good.  We are told that Payne is Professor of Human-Centric Systems (computer science) at Bath.  What a great title for a poet-scientist. 

[Declaration, or rather question: is it incestuous to praise a pamphlet published by a magazine one’s had poems in?  Too bad, if so.  This pamphlet could have come from outer space and I’d have liked it just as much.]        

                        ***           ***           ***

The Poetry Society AGM - nearly a week ago now - did its work, and elected what should be an excellent board.  Good luck to them - they have got a lot to do.  PoSoc is apparently considered to be financially viable until around the end of the year, but not beyond that unless the current, delayed Arts Council grant is paid. 
From stgilesonline.org

The meeting was rather surreal - St Giles’ Church off Charing Cross Road is a lovely place to sit and sip a glass of wine, but the acoustics were terrible.  Apparently the sound system wasn't working.  I was sitting near the back and couldn’t hear well, especially not the questioners and only one of the poets who were called to entertain us while the votes were being recounted (four times).  You’d think a society of poets would know about voice projection.  There were some eccentric exchanges, including one worthy of Kafka or Beckett - about when an AGM is not an AGM.  Baroque in Hackney has a good account.  When I lost the thread, I traced with my fingers the gold fluting of one of the wooden columns holding up the gallery. 

Monday, 12 September 2011

Guest Post: Irish to English - Creating Translation by Oona Chantrell

Oona and I go to a poetry workshop in Greenwich.  Most weeks, the first hour is spent discussing a poem or poet - could be anyone from the dawn of poetry until now, though it’s usually 20th or 21st century.  The sheer unpredictability of people’s choices makes this fun.  One of the most enjoyable sessions was led by Oona.  She has very kindly recreated it for this blog.  Here it is.  

“The most difficult task in the world is the translation of verses.  Mr Robert Lowell’s translations (of Osip Mandelshtam) are very free.....a far cry from the original.”   Nadezhda Mandelshtam, 1976.

What does the translator of a poem want: to render an original faithfully or to raise his or her own monument on the foundations of what went before?  When we think of the Rubaiyat, do we think Khayyam or Fitzgerald? 

What does the reader of the poem want?  Not, we are advised, a wooden, word-for-word rendering.  To keep the ‘spirit’ of the poem we must make sacrifices.  Any translation seeking to be the original will certainly fail. 

And yet, when faced with an English translation of a famous poem from the Irish (my native tongue, which for reasons of history and politics I never learned as a child) I found myself critically raking the lines of Muldoon`s version of ‘The Language Issue’, ‘Ceist na Teangan’ by Nuala Ní Dhomhnaill, wondering: where is the truth; how much is this a good poetic creation and how much a faithful thread back to the original.

The poem, as rendered by Muldoon, is beautiful.  But his translation is into English.  With the centuries-long suppression of the one language by the other, how could the truth of an Irish poem, on the very subject of language, be assured in English.  Both texts are in full at irishpage.  The poem starts:

Cuirim mo dhóchas ar snámh        I place my hope on the water
i mbáidín teangan                          in this little boat
                                                    of the language..

I hovered over the pages comparing the two versions, seeking clues in the very shape of words, of verses, of line breaks.  Only in my fancy did the Irish original text seem to breathe authenticity as if its roots stretched back to the ancient Celts.  But though I spoke not a word of it, a surface examination suggested discrepancies between it and the English version.   I lingered over the arcane-looking word ‘feileastraim’ in Ní Dhomhnaill`s fifth line, searching for what might be its equivalent in Muldoon’s.  The word ‘féachaint’ (‘looking’) is echoed in Ní Dhomhnaill’s second verse but with no equivalent repetition in the translation.  And why was the capitalised name ‘Mhaoise’ (Moses?) missing in the English?

féachaint n'fheadaraís            only to have it borne hither and thither,
cá dtabharfaidh an sruth é,     not knowing where it might end up;
féachaint, dála Mhaoise,         in the lap, perhaps,
an bhfóirfidh iníon Fharoinn?   of some Pharaoh’s daughter.

Quickly, it became clear that although Muldoon’s text appeared to mirror the form of the original, he had taken some liberties with words, with phrases.  What was changed? Or omitted?  I felt a need for something we are rarely given: a literal job.

Writing to my Aunt, an elderly, well-read nun in a Dublin convent and a fluent speaker of Irish, I begged her to make me an honest, literal translation of the poem   -   and let the sentiments speak for themselves.  Her version came back soon.  She apologised that it wasn’t as poetic as Muldoon’s but, for me, her promised fidelity to the original satisfied a craving.  Here it is.

The Language Issue

I put my hope in swimming
in a little boat of the language
just as you would lay an infant
in a cradle
that would be made of
intertwined leaves of the wild iris,
a mixture of bitumen and pitch
rubbed into its underside. 

Then to let it down
amid the sedge
and wailing of the fairy women
by the edge of the river,
looking and wondering
would the flow take it
looking to see, as happened to Moses,
would Pharaoh’s daughter come to save it? 

from wildflowersofireland.net
Contrasts jumped out, some minor: but relevant if you suppose that words are the units of meaning in a poem.  The intriguing word ‘feileastraim’ that had caught my eye, she rendered as ‘wild iris’.  In Muldoon’s version the ‘wild’ is dropped.  As an aside, my aunt noted that this Irish word “has come into English” in some parts of the country, especially in Kerry and parts of the West,  “although they omit the ‘f’ in Kerry”.

Nuala Ní Dhomhnaill’s original poem embodies the belief that the Irish tongue may survive, travelling on the flow of the more far-reaching English.  Others have questioned Ní Dhomnaill for publishing in this little-spoken language rather than in English, but she has chosen to hope that her poems will somehow ‘find a way’.  With new generations of Irish people now speaking both languages, my aunt’s comment about the ‘feileastraim’ seems to bear out that hope: the one tongue infiltrating the other, or ‘intertwining’ with it as the poem suggests.
Fairy spindles (see below).
© Bob Gibbons 

Most puzzling in the second verse of Aunt Mona’s translation, is a reference to the ‘wailing of the fairy women / by the edge of the river.’   This can’t be found in Muldoon’s.  Instead of fairy women he has ‘bulrushes’ which set me wondering about localised folk names for plants that perhaps my aunt may not have known.

It was in one of her final letters to me that Mona enclosed the translation.  In that letter she also touched on Irish political history, commenting that she had been too young to remember the Civil War of the 1920’s between the Irish Republican Brotherhood and the Free Staters.  She did, however, recall the story of her mother, whilst pregnant with her, being shocked by a bullet coming through the window and hitting the wall above her head. 

Heeding this early steer away from the armed struggle, my Aunt was nevertheless a nationalist, believing in the essential need for the Irish to know their own history and culture.  This embraced not only her long study of Celtic myths and early Irish writings but also expressed itself in the interest she took in everyday usage of the language. 

When based in the order’s convent in Galway and the West of Ireland for a number of years before she retired, she took particular delight in conversing with Irish speakers.  Local names for places, for animals and plants always intrigued her and formed part of her conversation with me.

With this in mind, I’m biased in favour of her translation, accepting that Muldoon had his own reasons for dispensing with the striking image of wailing women in the original poem.  My aunt stresses in her accompanying note that she is trying to make an accurate, ‘not a poetic’ translation: she takes no poetic license.  At times, this is exactly what a reader wants.

Many thanks to Oona for this.  We’ve since discovered that the Irish for bulrush, ‘coigeal na mban sí’, means ‘spindle of the banshee’.  Mban sí = banshee.  SOED: “a female spirit whose wail portends death in a house”.  I wonder how Aunt Mona made her choice for this bit of her translation; whether she thought, as Ní Dhomhnaill must have, how fitting for this Irish poem that Moses was hidden in bulrushes.  Reading more of Ní Dhomhnaill’s poetry, which moves in and out of the fairy world - mermaids, a phantom boat, a fairy with a Black & Decker - and reclaims it for modern times, I think a fairy reference here is appropriate.  I love both English versions.   

The poem ends with a question, using the conditional; Muldoon’s translation ends in a statement. I wonder if the former is a characteristic of Irish, also maybe apparent in Irish  English.   I thought about this when  walking in Ireland recently.  I was heading uphill and got asked: “Would you be thinking of going the wrong way up the mountain?” 

‘Ceist na Teangan’ appears along with Paul Muldoon’s translation in Pharaoh’s Daughter, published by the Gallery Press.  There is a recording of Ní Dhomhnaill reading it here.  There is a good commentary on Nuala Ní Dhomhnaill’s work at the Poetry Foundation.

Monday, 5 September 2011

Poetry Society AGM

In the summer, there was trouble at the Poetry Society.  Now both summer and trouble seem long ago and far away.  But PoSoc’s members have to elect a new set of trustees at the AGM on 14 September.  There are 32 candidates, who all look formidably well-qualified: how to use our dozen votes?

The Poetry Society’s director, Judith Palmer, was restored to her job in August after a petition signed by over 1,000 people.  The board apologised “for any of its decisions, statements or actions that may have contributed to the current difficulties”.  It’s not clear to me whether these things happened because of the petition, or Arts Council pressure, or both.

This doesn’t mean all’s well again… the new board will have a lot to do.

Let's hope it's not at risk
For a start, there’s the money.  As far as I know, the Arts Council is still withholding the July tranche of PoSoc’s current grant, as well as not confirming the award of a significantly larger grant from next year.  The overdraft must be rising (and the reserves are down by 20% or nearly £30k, thanks to the outgoing board).  The new board will have to convince the AC it can trust them to lead and support PoSoc towards recovery, and delivery of the promised programme. 

Then there’s the human factor.  The only visible bit of this is a board statement on PoSoc’s website, just before Palmer’s return, announcing the resignation of three vice-presidents… Anne Stevenson, Don Paterson and Sean O’Brien.  No explanation as to why, but the timing can hardly be a coincidence.  According to Baroque in Hackney, the word was that they resigned in support of Fiona Sampson, the editor of Poetry Review; as Ms Baroque says, one hopes this is not the case.  But it’s easy to imagine that relations between Palmer and Sampson may be strained, given the circumstances around Palmer’s resignation.  The board, without consultation, changed the reporting lines so that the editor of PR reported direct to them, rather than to the director. 

This change is presumably now in doubt.  So there may be a very tricky structural, policy and personnel issue to be resolved, which will require a great deal of sympathy, tact and open dealing – with the poetry world looking on, and possibly getting vitriolic.  There’s also the question of the length of the PR editor’s contract.

There’s PoSoc’s staff: though very loyal and restrained throughout, they were made miserable by the loss of Palmer, and by the whole mess.  The board will need to support Palmer in restoring morale. 

There’s us, the members; and there’s PoSoc’s reputation in the wider world.  A lot of work there too.

So how to choose the best trustees?  The candidates have got 200-word election statements, here.  They are all admirably well-qualified, with experience in relevant areas such as arts administration, the law, finance, advocacy, education, governance, poetry stuff…  Plus jobs past or present ranging from ski team management, forestry and mental health mentoring to trade unionist and high court judge. 

But the last lot looked well-qualified on paper too.

Above all, the new trustees will need to be exceptionally good at working with everyone whose trust needs restoring: Palmer and Sampson, all other staff, the Arts Council, the membership, the media, etc. And probably the bank manager.  The SOED’s first, now obsolete definition of a trustee is “a person who is trusted or to whom a thing is entrusted”.   

An echo of 'If' went through my head
while writing the para on the right...
21st century update, anyone?
These trustees will need to be able to listen, empathise, consult, communicate, persuade, resolve conflict; to think strategically, give a lead and be decisive when necessary; to be open and honest; and to support Palmer and co, rather than trying to manage them day-to-day.

This is why deciding how to vote is difficult.  The candidates’ statements, however impressive, won’t tell us who can do these things best.  We can’t interview them, which would be the best way to form a judgement, though even that’s far from infallible.    

I spent part of a rainy Sunday having a look at the statements, and thinking about how to use my votes.  I don’t have clear answers, only a few points that have helped a bit.  
On closer reading, I’ve realised that some candidates demonstrate they have thought about what qualities are needed for the role they are applying for, rather than just listing their experience.  Anyone whose statement refers to listening, acting as a resource for the staff, conflict resolution, etc is in with a good chance.   

Several of the candidates have played a creditable role in events so far.  Others have been nominated by people who have played such a role. 

It would be useful to have some PoSoc experience on the board, for continuity’s sake.  There are a few candidates who offer this.   

It would be good to have a diverse board.  Several candidates say they’d like to redress a London bias which I think is fair.  Around a third of the candidates are from London, though; only just over a third are female; and probably nearly all are white. 

Two-thirds of the candidates** signed the petition to restore Judith Palmer to her job.  There are lots of reasons why people might not have signed, such as being away, having problems with the technology, or not liking the herd- or even lemming-like nature of petitions.  But I want at least some of the people I vote for to have signed it, because I’d like to be confident that there will be solid support among trustees for the reinstatement, so they can move on from that issue. 

Several went over the 200-word limit.  See any statement that breaks off in dots half-way through a sentence…  Sticking to such rules does demonstrate consideration for one’s fellow candidates, and for voters.  Possible tie-breaker for marginal choices.

A few candidates mention the elephant in the sitting-room – factionalism – it’s nice to hear people say they are against it.  Even though living up to that might be hard!

Finally, for when all those cv-words lose their meaning, Alex Swann has created lovely Wordle wallpaper out of each candidate’s statement.  It's not just pretty - the most used words are in larger fonts.  This can be seen on the alternative Wordpress poetry society website, along with frequently updated info about the AGM, nominations, proxies etc.  As Martin Alexander who runs the site points out, there is a good deal more than 200 words about many of the candidates on the Nominations page.  Some have posted their unedited statements, and others have added additional material. There is also discussion on the About page of the 200 word limit and how the over-long statements got cut.

I’m willing to be a proxy again – you can email me at fionamoore at aetos dot freeserve dot co dot uk.    

**Candidates who signed the petition to reinstate Judith Palmer:

Martin Alexander, Cary Archard, Tom Bell, Polly Clark, Claudia Daventry, Valerie Dunmore, Helen Jagger Wood, Charles Lauder Jr, Kona Macphee, Bert Molsom, Cheryl Moskowitz, Heather Neill, Mark Niel, Graham Norman, Paul Ranford, Jon Sayers, Michael Schmidt, John Siddique, Laurie Smith, Tim Turnbull, Isabel White, Dr Stephen Wilson.  [Some who didn’t sign it are nominated by people who clearly wouldn’t have nominated them if they were against the reinstatement.]