Wednesday, 27 June 2012

Rain of Poems. Al-Saddiq Al-Raddi

Poems are hard to catch… I didn’t believe that Chilean collective Casagrande was really going to release 100,000 poems last night at Poetry Parnassus.  Surely that was a typo for 10,000, an order-of-magnitude error?  One reason soon became clear: in a gusty breeze, the helicopter struggled to drop its bookmark poem-cards on target.  Crowds in Jubilee Gardens swirled to and fro, many people chasing few poems, each catch greeted with cries of delight and disappointment.  The poems looked lovely as they fluttered down, half giant moth, half propeller – and they were as quirky as paper planes, banking and diving away from reached-up hands. Some drifted towards the Shell building and were floodlit purple.  

Eventually we got direct hits, but there must now be poems all over the hinterland of Waterloo, Waterloo East and The Cut.  A few were floating downriver as I walked over Hungerford Bridge.  The tiny slips of card made the waves and bridge-pier currents appear to scale – larger than I usually think of them, from so high up.  Poems were scattered around like miniature railway sleepers on the track between Charing Cross and Waterloo East.

Casagrande have rained poems down in several other cities, including Berlin and Warsaw, the common factor being that they have suffered aerial bombardment.  This wonderful idea was even better in reality, making one see things anew (and breeding lots of metaphors).  Our rain felt nearer to a drought, which was somehow right: a few good poems are more valuable than many. 

The subtext of aerial threat became horribly real when, at last, a poem evaded several people’s grasp and zoomed into my hands.  It is by Kathy Jetnil-Kijiner from the Marshall Islands.  It’s an extract from ‘History Project’.  It ends like this:

        God will thank you they told us
as if god himself ordained
those powdered flakes
to drift onto our skin our hair our eyes
to seep into our bones
we mistook radioactive fallout
for snow

I googled the Marshall Islands to check where exactly in the Pacific they are. Creepily, the first map was from the CIA’s website. 

Every day this week there is a lunchtime reading in the garden on the top of the Queen Elizabeth Hall, among olive trees and flowers.  I think, in retrospect, I’d heard of the Sudanese poet Al-Saddiq Al-Raddi, who writes in Arabic.  But I didn’t realise this yesterday lunchtime.  He read with Sarah Maguire, his translator – vivid and conceptually interesting poems, which seem to draw their authority from a sort of stillness.  Among those we heard were ‘Nothing’, which begins:

Before you start reading,
put down your pen:
consider the ink,
how it comprehends bleeding

and ‘Someone’, which contains this:

I wrench beauty from ugliness
and fall prey to possibility
In the knot of temptation
the possible is jettisoned

I am nothing but a digger of graves
The dead are abandoned
beneath the roof of their loved ones
They turn pale keeping watch
over those not yet dead

This is the sort of poet for whose work one wants to learn a language.  There is a generous selection on the Poetry Translation Centre’s website; apparently he has a pamphlet in English – I hope it’s available at the fair later this week.  See also a Guardian interview here.  

Nice piece from the BBC, with rain and poets, here.  

Saturday, 23 June 2012

Poetry Parnassus

I got lost on the middle slopes of Mount Parnassus once, wandering along paths between age-old oaks, up and down small hills and cliffs and valleys, through patches of snow among spring flowers.  There was no-one else.  Sometimes the view would only be of the immediate surroundings, the geography of a small part of this massive mountain; other times I could see miles of mountains and the Corinthian Gulf. 

Parnassus (Parnassos), a lofty mountain, whose summit, a few miles north of Delphi, rises to about 8,000 ft.  On it were the Corycian Cave [sacred to Pan and the Nymphs] and the Castalian Spring [an eponymous nymph plunged into it to escape Apollo] and the mountain was associated with the worship of Apollo and the Muses.  It was often referred to as having two summits, one sacred to Apollo, the other to Dionysus.   

That’s from the Oxford Companion to Classical Literature, a useful volume, if old-fashioned and sometimes far too brief.  It was first published in 1937, and my 1974 copy is a reprint from that.  There’s a new edition available now.  

Photo by Phokeus
It took me a while to wake up to Poetry Parnassus. I was led by the Southbank Centre’s brochure into thinking there were a couple of staged events a day, plus some fun free ones.  And then people started talking about it, and finally I realised that a massive and largely eclectic international poetry festival’s about to take place in London, 30 minutes down the railway line from here. 

Understanding it is difficult, as you have to click on each of the hundred+ events on the SBC website (clunky at the best of times) to find out what time they are at.  Getting lost on Mount Parnassus was more interesting. 

Getting lost at the festival will be interesting too, but here are some of the events I least want to miss.  They reflect my tastes and interests; there are dozens of other possibilities. 

None of these are in the paper brochure.  They are nearly all free, apart from the few marked ££, so you can’t book, just turn up.  Venues etc are on the website.  All events are Tuesday 26 June – Sunday 1 July.
  • Tales of Fire and Ice: poems from hottest/coldest countries (including Iceland, Finland, Ethiopia, Sudan).  1pm Tuesday. 
  • Free the Word! Day of PEN events – discussions on free speech, exile, minority languages, poetry and nationhood etc – see here.  Most of Wednesday.  (The Wednesday evening reading “celebrating poetry of resistance” has been cancelled… which sounds like a joke from the sort of country where such poetry exists.)
  • Bahamian/Trinidadian poet Christian Campbell.  6.45pm Wednesday.  ££
  • Wolf Magazine, with Valzhyna Mort and others.  7pm Wednesday.
  • Poetry from the Balkans; with a discussion about political and cultural change there.  5pm Thursday. 
  • The Mask of Anarchy, young voices of protest. 7pm Thursday.  
  • Translation Laboratory; pick up a literal translation (I hope they have the original too, just looking at it, even if it’s in an unknown script, will help) and turn it into a poem.   1pm Thursday and Friday.  
  • Poetry Karaoke.  Translations of Heaney, Shapcott, Larkin et al into other languages including Chinese and Turkish.  2pm Friday.
  • US poet Kay Ryan, 12pm Saturday.  ££
  • Canadian poet Karen Solie, 2pm Saturday.  ££
  • Caribbean poetry.  3.30pm Saturday. 
  • Call & Response: island poetry.  5pm Saturday.    
  • Experimental and avant-garde poetry.  Brits and others. 7pm Saturday.
  • Environmentalism and eco-poetry.  Discussion with John Kinsella and others.  2pm Sunday.
  • Diversity in poetry.  Discussion with Patience Agbabi, Christian Campbell, Daljit Nagra etc.  3pm Sunday.
  • Word from Africa.  Finale.  African poetry and music.  6pm Sunday. 
There are readings taking place most of the time in the Clore Ballroom, which is the back ground floor of the Festival Hall.  There is more background information on the poets here.   And I believe there may now be a paper brochure listing all the events.  [PS: there now is.]

Why have I written about this?  Partly because I’ve been trying to make sense of the events myself, and I know lots of other people have too.  Also because it would be such a shame if the poets taking part – from so many places, from so far away – didn’t get an audience worthy of their journey, and of their poems.    

Thursday, 7 June 2012

Don Paterson at Poetry East

Late, getting changed, wanting to catch the next train into town, I noticed a hole in one sock.  Cursing in an unBuddhist way, I found a clean pair, and ran.  (This was about 3 weeks ago, when it was cold, before it got hot and then cold again, so going barefoot didn’t seem like an option.)

Sure enough, at the London Buddhist Centre we were invited to remove our shoes – a civilised custom, not just in temples or mosques but when entering a house, one’s own or anyone else’s, in many countries.  Why is it still a minority habit in Britain?  It could become highly fashionable; would do wonders for sock / pedicure / nail varnish / glamorous slipper sales.  There would need to be less cleaning of floors.

The LBC used to be a fire station..
The event took place in a square room, with a large golden Buddha statue presiding.  Maitreyabandhu, prize-winning poet himself, interviewed Don Paterson; after the interval, Paterson read for half an hour.  But first of all, Maitreyabandhu led the room into a few minutes of meditation.  If told about that I’d wonder whether it would work – but it did.  It quietened the mind, made it more receptive.  Other people seemed to react similarly; any sceptics stayed silent.  It also reduced my anxiety about being in a crowded room without any windows open, presumably because Roman Road (of market fame) runs outside.

Next, two of our hosts read poems chosen by Paterson, Frost’s ‘Design’ and Muldoon’s ‘Mules’.  One sonnet and one near-sonnet, both combining exact description with metaphysics, both very, very deft with metre and rhyme.  Talking of those attributes, here are lines 5-8 of one of Paterson’s new sonnets, ‘The Air’, that he read later: 

How was it that this empty datastream,
this cache of dead light could so lose its way
it wandered back to feed on its own dream?
How did that dream grow to the waking day?

The whole poem’s on his website – if not at once then keep refreshing this link, and it’ll turn up. 

Listening to Paterson being gently drawn out by Maitreyabandhu, talking fluently and brainily, making us laugh quite often, I wondered what the composition process is for someone who thinks so fast. 

He came to poetry at the end of his teens: coming down to London to do music, he heard Tony Harrison and was struck. 

There was an indirect attack on contemporary poetry mores, at least that’s how I took it.  Spontaneity, said Paterson, produces the commonplace, what anyone might have thought of.  Being forced by form can produce something exceptional.  He described pushing against the form as like pushing against a wall.  Later in the evening, his reading style was distinctive: he emphasised the metre much more than is fashionable (among those who write in metre, that is).  It worked.  Now, looking through Rain, I can hear his reading voice. 

He read one poem in Scots – wonderful, to have that extra dimension at one’s disposal.  I remember going to a London reading by Kathleen Jamie and longing for her to do that, but she didn’t.  Anyway this one was ‘Zen Sang at Dayligaun’ (at twilight), from Landing Light, which starts:

As aw we ken o the sternless dark
is the warld it fa’s amang
aw we hear o the burn and birk
is thir broon or siller sang

Paterson flirted with the Buddhist theme, bringing out what he said were his most Zen poems.  The new work in particular was metaphysical.    Maybe he’s becoming more so, with deepening middle age.  

Why wasn’t he a Buddhist? asked Maitreyabandhu.  He didn’t like rules, said DP.  What rules? asked M. 

Paterson read his poem  ‘On Going to Meet a Zen Master in the Kyushu Mountains and Not Finding Him’.  An expectant, then questioning silence followed the title – not like the earlier meditation silence.  Afterwards, signing copies of Rain, he said that last time he read it, he pretended he’d lost the poem.  Perhaps he really had. 

Photo by Riggzy on Flickr
People who’d heard Paterson read before said this time was better, he seemed more relaxed.  The interview may have helped – a warm-up, a chance to make connections with the audience.  At one point he quoted Michael Donaghy (though my version is probably a misquote): “All poets are mutants, misfiled in the cosmos”. 

This was the first time I’d made it to Poetry East and I’m sorry I came to it so late.  Also slightly concerned by Maitreyabandhu saying at the end that they intend to expand from poetry into other areas: fine, so long as it doesn’t mean less poetry. 
To end, I’m going to confess that I’d like Paterson to escape his controls and maps, and SPLURGE.  The result could be extremely interesting, not least because he might find the process difficult and uncomfortable.  Though ‘Song for Natalie ‘Tusja’ Beridze’ is a splurge.

Oh, and thanks to Anna Johnson's blog, I've just found the whole evening's now available on video...