Saturday, 28 November 2020

Remembering Paul Celan, 1920-1970

November 2020 is the centenary of Paul Celan's birth, and in 2020 it is also 50 years since he died. I have often written about him in this blog, but it has been lovely to see him widely commemorated this year and especially in this past month, even if many events had to be moved online due to the pandemic. And this has its advantages - in the past couple of weeks I attended a couple of excellent Celan events from Deutsches Haus in New York, despite living in the UK. 

While Celan's poetry is often considered difficult, he has managed to gain legions of readers who haven't been put off by this discouraging label and who often (like myself) can't read him in German, the language in which he wrote most of his poetry. Sometimes if I'm looking at Twitter late at night (a bad habit) I find myself searching to see who's tweeting about Celan all over the world (a good habit, or at least a better habit). English is by no means the dominant language, and I'm not sure German is either - he seems particularly popular in Spanish and Turkish. 

Celan's identity is very difficult to pin down in any way. He was Jewish, but that isn't necessary the dominant influence on his work (although it is massive). He was German-speaking but not German. He was Romanian, but his hometown of Chernivtsi is now in Ukraine. His greatest poetic work came from years in Paris, and he worked as a translator with many languages. All of this has probably succeeded in making him more universal. His poems are like radio transmissions directly from his mind and heart, in an new language, untranslated, somehow and mysteriously unmediated in a way that is different from most other poetry. The silences, gaps and elisions in his poems are also like the moments when the radio waves break up - but they are entirely deliberate, an essential part of the work of art, at times the most essential.

My love for Celan's work has sometimes puzzled me. He is not particularly like any other poet or writer that I love. The fact is, though, that he is simply not much like any other poet or writer at all. While his work evidently poses many extreme difficulties for translators, there is no question that the emotions carry across and pierce through. Celan's poems can seem surreal or abstract but they often refer to very specific people, places, events. To know him fully, perhaps these need to be unpicked to a level most of us never will reach. And yet Celan himself said that his work could be understand if readers would simply engage and read the poems again and again. At one of the events I attended, the author Paul Auster said that Celan's intellectual prowess was immense but that the defining factor and what has made his work so loved was the spirit, the emotion that burns from him onto the page. The Celan expert Christine Ivanovic said that even when you engage deeply with Celan and read him again and again, there will be texts that you don't understand, but you still live with the words. This has been entirely my experience. I have lived with Celan since my late teens (which seems to have been a crucial moment at which many enthusiasts and experts encountered him.) I love and admire translations by dedicated translators such as Pierre Joris and John Felstiner, but in English Celan truly lives in me through the work of translator and poet Michael Hamburger, because that was the encounter from which everything else followed. There is always an encounter with Celan - there are many encounters and they persist and can last for a lifetime. He once wrote "I see no difference between a handshake and a poem," and this despite the extraordinarily personal and often mysterious nature of his work. 

In some way I think about Paul Celan and his words every day. I feel as though a small, dedicated area of my mind (or perhaps more accurately, my heart) is occupied with his poetry all the time, even if I may not have read him for a while. He influences my own poetry and beyond that, he takes me to a Celanworld of such unique specificity and beauty that it hurts. His words are a place where no one else had ever gone and where we can all go now, across the threshold. "Louder whirring. Nearer glow. This world and the other." (from 'Under a Picture', translated by Michael Hamburger)

Here are a few of his poems to read if you haven't before or if you wish to revisit him.

Image: Paul Celan's passport photo, 1938. Author unknown. 

Wednesday, 18 November 2020

My poetry reading with Chris Kerr and Nisha Bhakoo on Thursday, 19 November

On Thursday 19 November (yes, tomorrow!) at 7 PM GMT (UK time), I will be reading my poetry on Zoom with Chris Kerr and Nisha Bhakoo, both poets who are also published by Broken Sleep Books.

Each of us plan to read for 10-15 minutes and it would be wonderful if you could join us from any time zone in the world that permits it.

The reading is free, but you need to register through Eventbrite and then you will receive the Zoom details to join the event.

To register, please go to the Eventbrite event page here: 

Friday, 2 October 2020

In memory of Derek Mahon, 1941-2020


Today I am looking at the London rain and crying over the loss of Derek Mahon, who has died at the age of 78. 

Mahon meant as much to me as Heaney, if not more. He was a wry and delicate poet, a great stylist who could make a photograph in your mind or share a personal event and radiate it outwards to larger meanings. I have been reading him for decades and I cannot believe he is gone. So many of his poems are close to my heart. 

I would have a hard time choosing a single favourite poem by Mahon - so many come to mind, including 'Courtyards in Delft', 'A Disused Shed in Co. Wexford', 'The Chinese Restaurant in Portrush', 'Dog Days' - the list is long. 

One of my strongest contenders, however, is 'Kinsale' - a perfect short poem which captures a place, a mood, and optimism in the face of Ireland's difficult histories. 

Here is a video recording of 'Kinsale' released just a few weeks ago, read by Tony O'Donoghue and produced by Made to Measure Films Kinsale. I love this poem dearly and think of it often. 

I will always miss Derek Mahon. 

Photo: Derek Mahon in Moscow, 2010. Photo by Marina Masinova. Used under Creative Commons license CC BY-SA 4.0

Thursday, 1 October 2020

National Poetry Day 2020: Vision


Today is National Poetry Day in the UK, and the theme for 2020 is 'Vision' or 'See It Like a Poet'. There are many wonderful resources and poems available on the National Poetry Day website, and a lot more out there generally on the internet (even more so than usual this year, of course...) 

Wandsworth Art has done a 'Wandsworth is poetry' feature to mark the occasion, and delightfully, I am included as a Battersea/Wandsworth poet, alongside excellent contemporary poets and the greats of the past such as Edward Thomas and Thomas Hardy. You can read it here: 

(Thank you so much to Hilaire, another poet who lives locally, for getting me on this list!) 

Black Bough Poetry's 'Deep Time Volume 1' issue, published in print during the summer, is now also online and includes my poem 'Open Ocean'. You can download it here. Buying the print issue is also highly recommended, particularly as the artwork is beautiful and more so in print. You can buy it here in the UK and also on Amazon in other countries. 

Muse Pie Press, who have published several of my short poems over the years in Shot Glass Journal, recently crowd-sourced a 'pandemic poem' from writers who they have previously published. We were asked to contribute a line responding to our feelings about the COVID-19 pandemic, which could then be woven into a long poem. You can now read the ambitious and startling result here. I could ask you to guess my line, but rather than do that, I'll tell you that it's 'Waking to light's anxiety - the distance of all things'. 

Thursday, 27 August 2020

Victoria Kennefick: 'Cork Schoolgirl Considers the GPO, Dublin 2016'


I recall first reading Victoria Kennefick's poem 'Cork Schoolgirl Considers the GPO, Dublin 2016' at least a couple of years ago. The poet is from County Cork, Ireland, and the poem was first published in Poetry Ireland Review in 2016, around the 100th anniversary of the Easter 1916 Rising. (The GPO, or General Post Office, is one of the most famous buildings not only in Dublin but in all of Ireland, because it was the headquarters of the Easter Rising.) Now, you can both read and listen to a reading of the poem here, on the iamb website: 

This is absolutely one of my favourite poems of the past several years. In 20 lines, Kennefick captures humour, pathos, history, and the total insanity of being a teenager - the latter being possibly the most difficult accomplishment of all. 

The poem pays tribute to "those boys in uniform" but it also captures the problematic ways in which our countries teach us history: "all the men of history sacrificing/themselves for Ireland, for me, these rebel Jesuses." This obviously isn't a particularly healthy perspective, but what brings me close to tears in these lines is also how true it is to how teenage girls think, or at least some teenage girls. Falling in love with dead heroes is just the kind of thing a lot of us did at 16. At the end of the poem, when the speaker says "I put my lips/to the pillar...I kiss all those boys goodbye", we understand that some day she'll look back at this as a crazy, sentimental, teenage moment. And yet, we also kiss those boys goodbye along with her and we feel the poet's empathy for those in history who were lost to war, and her equal empathy for the wild emotions of the teenage years. 

Image: The shell of the GPO on Sackville Street (later O'Connell Street), Dublin in the aftermath of the 1916 Rising. Date: May ? 1916 NLI Ref: KE 121

Sunday, 16 August 2020

New poems up on Anthropocene

 Once again, distraction takes charge: I think I was pretty convinced that I had already written a blog post about the following.

I've had a couple of poems published on the Anthropocene website, another excellent online journal published by Charlie Baylis (who is also Chief Editorial Advisor with my publishers Broken Sleep Books. Yes, I love saying "my publishers".) You can read them here:

Anthropocene is a very impressive journal which has also published the likes of Vahni Capildeo and Mark Waldron, among others. As for my poems 'Brush Pass, Royal Albert Hall' and 'Scarlet', it will come as a surprise to hardly anyone that the first one is inspired by spies and the second by Sherlock Holmes. Especially in the case of 'Scarlet', though, I think you could read them outside of those contexts and still find a way in. 

Rereading 'Brush Pass, Royal Albert Hall', which I wrote a while ago, made me miss the Proms terribly in this pandemic year. In a "normal" year I always go at least a couple of times and usually feel as though I should have gone more. The Gallery, in particular, with people wandering up and down and behaving mildly oddly, is an excellent location for the discreet exchange of secrets. 

Friday, 31 July 2020

Dear readers...all my recent poetry updates

It's hard to believe that it's over two months since I last posted, but also not hard to believe. I've moved house and returned to work (though soon again to be not working, for a while), which technically are my excuses but I think that a lot of us have found it difficult to concentrate enough to write much during the pandemic, even though (in some cases) we have more time than usual.

I also feel that a lot of my blog posts have been very self-focused lately, and this one will be no exception. I'm not entirely happy about that and really feel that I need to start making more of an effort again to write about poems, rather than just what I've published lately.

That we are with my updates, all of which happily do concern other poets and publishers as well.

Colin Bancroft has recently set up a new website called The Poets' Directory, where he generously and usefully posts information about journals, publishers, events and so forth in the UK and Ireland. There is also an extensive list of Collections, Pamphlets and Chapbooks by poets in the UK and Ireland, which includes my Island of Towers.  And there is a showcase of poems from these collections, which now includes my poem 'As though we lived falling out of the skin into the soul'. This website is really a remarkable resource and is well worth your time.

I've just had a new poem, 'Open Ocean', published in the latest issue of Black Bough Poetry. This special issue is Volume 1 of a theme around Deep Time, inspired by the work of Robert Macfarlane in his acclaimed book Underland, and it will soon be appearing online but for now is only available in print. You can find all the details on this website, including several wonderful reviews (one of which specifically mentions my poem!) and information on how to buy the print edition:
I highly recommend buying the printed version, partly because of the wonderful poetry by so many poets including Paul Brookes, Ankh Spice, Matthew M.C. Smith (also the publisher of Black Bough), Jenny Mitchell and Robert Minhinnick, among others. But the artwork by Rebecca Wainwright is absolutely stunning and beautifully reproduced in this edition.

The superb iamb website, which features poetry read by the poets and which included a few of my poems in its 'wave one', has gone from strength to strength. It was shortlisted in the prestigious Saboteur Awards, and its 'wave three' is just about to appear - you can already see which poets are featured, including the likes of Aaron Kent (my publisher at Broken Sleep Books!), Jorie Graham and Victoria Kennefick. iamb's publisher Mark Antony Owen was also kind enough to nominate my poem 'I dream the perfect ride', which appears on the website, for Sundress Publications' Best of the Net 2020.

Finally, I had an acceptance which won't appear for a while but which I'm excited about. My publishers Broken Sleep Books are preparing an anthology to be published in 2021, featuring poems based on vintage video games, and I'll have a poem about a classic role-playing game in the anthology. We've already been informed that the anthology will appear in two slightly different versions/editions, with covers in Mario Red and Luigi Green...

I hope that you and yours are staying as well and safe as possible.

Sunday, 24 May 2020

Previously unpublished poem: 'Breath'

The second unpublished poem of mine that I wanted to share is called 'Breath'.

This poem is an old favourite of mine, and when I say old, I mean really old. I would have to look back in my notebooks to see when I actually wrote it, but I believe it was in Dublin in the early 2000s.

The image which is the genesis of the poem - the lilac and the iron sky - is from a very specific place and moment in time, in Dublin. When I moved to Dublin from Canada in 2002, I first stayed with my relatives in Dundrum for a few months, and then moved to a tiny flat on Greenmount Road in Terenure. It had a garden and I wonder why I hardly spent any time there - a combination of being busy and the unpredictable weather, probably. But my window looked out onto the garden, which was a blessing. And there was a lilac. It seemed to be a reflection of the lilac in the garden of my parents' house in Canada. The sunlight and the iron sky are very characteristic of the Dublin climate, and piercingly beautiful.

I really love this poem and have submitted it many times. Several times another poem in the submission was chosen, but not 'Breath'. I'm not sure if I have a clear view of the poem, as it's been in my life for so long. But it always calls up a very, very slow turning of the earth for me - the passage of time, but for a change, not in a painful way.


Into the sudden sunlight
springs the lilac

under an iron sky
sleek as hematite

and the air is a prickling
sharp as cold ashes

blown past velvet houses
where light recedes

into the settled darkness
beyond the earth's shoulder 

Photo: "Lilac in Spring" by njtrout_2000 is licensed under CC BY-NC-ND 2.0