Wednesday, 27 June 2012

Poetry Parnassus: 'Alternative Geographies' of Middle Eastern Poets

I went to my first Poetry Parnassus event tonight at the Royal Festival Hall, which was 'Alternative Geographies', an evening of Middle Eastern poets reading their works in Arabic and French, with English translations. The poets included the following:

Iman Mersal (Egypt)
Vénus Khoury-Ghata (Lebanon)
Amjad Nasser (Jordan)
Amina Saïd (Tunisia)
Qassim Haddad (Bahrain)
Hassan El Ouazzani (Morocco)

Some of the poems had been translated by Marilyn Hacker, who also read her translations in the course of the evening.

This was a pretty wonderful event. I was able to understand the poems in French (by Khoury-Ghata and Saïd), as French is my second language. For the Arabic poems, I had to rely entirely on the English translations, but Arabic is an incredibly resonant language and it was a pleasure just to listen even without comprehension, knowing that the excellent translations would help me to grasp the meaning and emotion.

These poets read with so much passion. I feel that many Western poets could learn something from their unabashed emotion and their dark/bright chiaroscuro of language. I was nearly moved to tears at some point during every poet's reading. One of the highlights was Amjad Nasser's poem 'The Phases of the Moon In London', where he finds the gulf between himself and one of his English neighbours hard to bridge:

I wanted to tell her that the skies of eastern cities, bent under military rule and corruption, are also blotted out, and that the stars that freckled our childhood with comets have also disappeared, but I feared to lose the only gift for which she envied me.

I was also deeply moved by Amina Saïd's incredibly beautiful, transcendent poems, delicately translated by Marilyn Hacker. And Moroccan poet Hassan El Ouazzani read with incredible verve and excitement. All of these poets ventured deep into difficult and dangerous territory, such as the ravaging of their countries by invasion and conflict, family relationships, and the quest for self-knowledge.

Here are a few pictures from the evening (lousy ones - I really need a new camera). First, Vénus Khoury-Ghata, who recently received the prestigious Prix Goncourt in France:

Amina Saïd:

And Hassan El Ouazzani:

The audience was a pleasant mix of nationalities and knowledge of languages, but there was an air of excitement and pleasure throughout the evening from pretty much everyone.

This was an awesome start to my Poetry Parnassus experience. More to come!

(Incidentally, the Guardian has provided an excellent interactive poetry map with selections from all the Olympic countries and the poets attending Poetry Parnassus. This is extremely helpful if you want to get a taste of the amazing range of international work on hand this week.)

Tuesday, 26 June 2012

Poetry Parnassus: The Poetry World Comes to London

One of the biggest poetry festivals ever staged and part of the 2012 Cultural Olympiad, Poetry Parnassus kicked off today in London, with the star event of the evening being the Rain of Poems staged by Casagrande. I had to miss this due to another commitment, but it sounds as though it went off well and no doubt provided an incredible start to this festival.

I'll be going to several ticketed Poetry Parnassus events this week, and generally taking in the atmosphere and the poetry freebies at Southbank when I can, so I can't really complain. I'm looking forward to seeing and hearing some of the greatest poets of our time, along with lesser-known but brilliant writers, but I think what really thrills me about the whole event is its international scope, and the way it is bringing poetry into the public eye. Poetry seems to be pretty hot right now, relatively speaking, though that probably still makes it a brave candle flame.

I'll be writing some more about the events that I've attended at some point, but I've also been reflecting on poetry as a public art form and on its place in other parts of the world. For most of my poetry-reading life (which has now been actively for more than fifteen years) I've thought of it as a more private art form - not just because it tends to be quite "specialized" and "niche", but because it is a very personal and individual experience. The poems that I love, not unlike my other passions, are tied in to all sorts of events and memories in my life, past, present and future. Poetry strikes so deep into the subconscious and the inner person that it can be even more individual than other art forms.

At the same time, there are many parts of the world where poets are the figureheads and spokesmen or spokeswomen for artists, rebels, oppressed groups, and others. The English-speaking world has probably lost sight of this in many ways, but it's notable that a great many of the Poetry Parnassus events revolve around poets in exile, or from war-torn countries, or who are somehow disenfranchised or fighting non-violent battles. Even without specific response to conflict, there are many non-English-speaking countries where poetry has traditionally been the number one form of literature. When you look for poetry pages on Facebook, an enormous number are dedicated to Arabic poetry, and perhaps even more are dedicated to Urdu (Pakistani and Indian) poetry. In other words, those who call poetry a dead art form haven't got a clue; it's far from that in the Western world, but it is particularly alive in huge areas of the world such as the Middle East and Central Asia.

Beyond this, I'm just very interested in poetry as public art in the most literal sense: whether it's the Rain of Poems where tens of thousands of bookmark-poems fall from a helicopter onto the waiting crowds in cities around the world, or the Wall-to-Wall Poetry project in Sofia, or the poem by Carla Funk which I saw in the park in my hometown of Victoria, carrying on a great tradition of garden poems, or the extraordinary poem in the tunnel by Waterloo station in my adopted town of London. I've developed a radar for anything that might be called poetry in public places, and it's great if I have a chance to take a picture.

Some of the above rambling might provide matter for some further posts. But for now, I'm more than ready to enjoy Poetry Parnassus, and I'll be writing about it again in the pretty near future.

Saturday, 23 June 2012

"Horsemen for Companions": Me At Royal Ascot, Yeats At Galway Races

Royal Ascot 2012, © Chris Turner

I spent yesterday at Royal Ascot, thanks to a friend's generosity. Lunch, Pimms, fascinators and funny hats, the Queen, people-watching, good company, and horses horses horses...pretty much a perfect day. I loved seeing a microcosm of the English personality in this event.

I think this was the third time I'd been to the races, and it eclipsed my visits to the small racetrack outside my hometown in Canada - the last of which was more than twenty years ago, when I was a horse-obsessed child. I have very mixed feelings about racing, but I couldn't help being caught up in the beauty of the horses. If you want someone gorgeous and neurotic in your life, you could do worse than to go for a Thoroughbred. I'm a non-gambler and some say that takes the fun out of watching racing, but I didn't even care who won. I don't have a gaming mentality in the least, anyway. I felt swept away every time the horses went past me, whether cantering down to the gate, or streaming at high speed to the post. I was too busy capturing and filing away moments - the checkerboards and little stars brushed into gleaming hindquarters, the dilated nostrils and shining eyes, the beautiful angular flow and colours as they ran down the track, like a Raoul Dufy painting - to really care about the outcome. And at least turf racing isn't quite as rough as dirt racing.

I also couldn't help thinking that I was probably enjoying myself a lot more than some of the posh people who come every year. I don't quite know how, but even after years of living in London I've managed to maintain a totally unjaded attitude towards special experiences; perhaps because I do view them very strongly as being special. I'd rather have my starry-eyed moments of wonder than become someone who always compares an experience unfavourably to the last one that vaguely resembled it. It's one thing that I've found very valuable in my life.

I'm not that familiar with poems of the horse racing world, and I invite anyone to make suggestions if you wish. I thought of this poem by W B Yeats, 'At Galway Races'. The Galway Races are still a famous racing meet in Ireland, and one that I thought I might go to when I lived there but never did. A different atmosphere from Ascot, I imagine. This is a mid-period Yeats poem, and I imagine that as well as evoking the sweep and rush of a racecourse, he was also thinking more broadly of the "indomitable Irishry" who he referred to in 'Under Ben Bulben', and their potential for the nascent future of Ireland. I wonder if he ever went to Ascot or what he would have made of it. Yeats was Anglo-Irish - my own ancestry is partly Anglo-Irish, and when I researched and wrote about Jonathan Swift a few years ago, I realised that I related strongly to these men's conflicted view of Ireland, from my few years living there.

Anyway, the poem, which would find a place somewhere among my many Yeats favourites:


There where the course is,
Delight makes all of the one mind,
The riders upon the galloping horses,
The crowd that closes in behind:
We, too, had good attendance once,
Hearers and hearteners of the work;
Aye, horsemen for companions,
Before the merchant and the clerk
Breathed on the world with timid breath.
Sing on: somewhere at some new moon,
We'll learn that sleeping is not death,
Hearing the whole earth change its tune,
Its flesh being wild, and it again
Crying aloud as the racecourse is,
And we find hearteners among men
That ride upon horses.

Sunday, 17 June 2012

Earle Birney's 'Vancouver Lights': "A Spark Beleaguered By Darkness"

Photo of Vancouver by keepitsurreal. Used under Creative Commons license

The following link will take you to 'Vancouver Lights' by Earle Birney, as well as other poems and biographical information, on the University of Toronto Canadian Poetry website:


I returned from my holiday on the West Coast of Canada a few days ago (and so far have failed pretty miserably with the jet lag). Most of my time was spent in Victoria, on Vancouver Island, a few hours by ferry and car from Vancouver. My parents live in Victoria, where I grew up, and I spent time with them and catching up with some friends. My brother lives in Vancouver, so I usually spend at least a day there as well.

Although I didn't take the above picture - which vividly captures Vancouver by night - I have seen this view or very similar views. I particularly remember my cousin's wedding reception on Grouse Mountain. I have never skiied Grouse, but it is reckoned to have perhaps the best night skiing in the world, and I can believe it. Even just standing on the deck of that restaurant, looking out over the city, I felt as though the eternal dream of flight was not far away. Skiing down towards that "winking/outpost" - yes, that would be flight. Perhaps I will try it some day yet.

I bought Earle Birney's Selected Poems (One Muddy Hand) at the wonderful Munro's Books in Victoria, and I've already loved what I've browsed. I had not yet read many of his poems, although he is one of Canada's most significant poets and an influence on the likes of Al Purdy. His poems tend to run in long loose lines, but still with a sense of tautness and structure. He wrote love poems, poems about Japan and South America, and great poems about Canada. 'Vancouver Lights' is one of his best-known works.

I've seen that throbbing glow of cities by night, and Vancouver surely is "this twinkle we make in a corner of emptiness", relatively speaking. It is far away from most of the rest of the world. I now live in a city at the centre of the world (also relatively speaking), and so I'm acutely conscious of how far away the place I grew up is. Not by the standards of Australia or New Zealand, perhaps, but the Pacific Rim towns and cities certainly have an edge-of-the-world vibe. On the flip side of this poem's darkness, there is a Pacific light that is like nothing else. I saw it in Japan, too, where I was frequently and sharply reminded of where I grew up. Architecture and Asian culture, yes; but also the light.

In this poem, Birney primarily conjures the light of humanity. "These rays were ours/we made and unmade them". I love the West Coast for its natural beauty and laid-backness, for the mountains, and for the sea, perhaps above all in terms of nature. The older I get, though, it seems that people have grown more and more important to me, in all their complexity. In moments of extreme complexity I wish I could free myself from this, but I can't, and wouldn't really want to. The lights of this poem remind me of the people I'm so far away from and love so much.

Wednesday, 6 June 2012

Walking Amongst Poets and Poems in Bulgaria

The month of May slipped away at more or less lightning speed – pretty much in a blur, actually – and now I find myself on a visit home to Canada, needing to write about Bulgaria. I have already shared a little of my Bulgarian experience in this entry, where Louis MacNeice and I wandered through towns, over mountains and into internet cafés, but I did have some fairly unexpected poetic moments in Bulgaria which I'd like to describe a little.

I had a great time in Bulgaria, where a friend who has lived there for several years guided me along ancient Roman streets, into beautiful blue and red National Revival houses from the nineteenth century, past spooky, crumbling art nouveau monuments, and to places and moments where I was able to spend time with the Bulgarians themselves. As I mentioned in my poem, I found them hard to read, which I think (among other reasons) can be a legacy of Communist regimes; it's best not to show too much. I found them hospitable and pleased to have a visitor, and the customer service was surprisingly good, but they were anything but transparent.

In poetic terms, Bulgaria gave me a few unexpected gifts. The above photograph is of a monument in Plovdiv to Hristo Botev, still a legend in the modern country; I saw his name graffitied onto at least a few walls. He was both poet and revolutionary, a key figure in the failed April Uprising of 1876 against the Ottoman occupation. The Bulgarian city of Botevgrad is named after him, along with places as far-flung as locations in the Shetland Islands. Botev wrote patriotic, revolutionary and romantic poems. On this monument, as elsewhere, the quotation is from his words: "He who falls while fighting to be free can never die."

As it turned out, my encounters with poetry in Bulgaria turned out to be more international than specifically Bulgarian. Wandering past the lovely houses in Plovdiv's old town, I came across this plaque dedicated to the French poet and politician Lamartine, who had passed through in 1833. Apparently this trip was partial inspiration for his work Voyage en orient:

My poetic journey in Sofia was equally unexpected, and actually started in Plovdiv. I went into a bookshop with a decent selection of English-language books, and asked if they had any Bulgarian poetry translated into English. Apparently they didn't, but the staff handed me a little book which at first confused me slightly. I thought it was some sort of anthology, but it turned out to be a guide (in English and Bulgarian) to a project called Wall-To-Wall Poetry, in Sofia. I was quite excited when I realised what it was all about.

Wall-To-Wall Poetry was launched in 2004 by the Dutch Embassy in Sofia, when the Netherlands temporarily held the Presidency of the European Union. The project took about five years to reach completion and involved installations of verses from poems, or short poems, on walls around the city of Sofia – one from each EU country and candidate countries. I'm still not sure why Sofia was chosen for this project, as opposed to another EU country, although it obviously had to do with Bulgaria's entry into the EU around that time. To me it does suggest an enthusiasm for poetry in that city. It was also a wonderful coincidence that I stumbled across this guide while still in Plovidv, because I really spent only half a day in Sofia at the end of my trip, and I could easily have missed the project entirely.

In Sofia, I managed to track down four of the poetry installations. The map inside the guide wasn't exactly stellar, so it took some wandering around and asking directions from locals without much English (and my Bulgarian is non-existent – but they were quite helpful.) I eventually located the installations from Denmark (Piet Hein) and Luxembourg (Raymond Schaak), below – it helped a lot that they were both on the side of the Sofia City Art Gallery:

A little later, I came across the Dutch (Jan Hanlo) and Lithuanian (Marcelijus Martinaitis) installations more randomly. The third picture shows the plaque which accompanied the Lithuanian installation and which was reproduced by all the installations.

The selections varied pretty widely: Bulgaria's of course featured Hristo Botev, and the Italians also went for an old classic with Dante, but numerous selections were much more modern. Many of them featured verses of poetry specifically about the contributing country, which I could understand, but I tended to prefer those that were more universal. The installations appear on schools, museums, galleries, underground stations, and elsewhere.

I'd really love to see a similar project elsewhere, especially as I have a growing interest in poetry as public art, and I felt quite privileged (and surprised) to have stumbled across this so unexpectedly on my trip, having no idea that it was part of Sofia. However, I did leave the country feeling that I still knew very little more about Bulgarian poetry. Online, I tracked down selections by the poets Konstantin Pavlov and Tsvetanka Elenkova, which can be found on the links below:



While there were moments in these that delighted me, I haven't yet had time to digest them, and I remembered meeting a Bulgarian woman at a poetry reading in London. I told her that I had plans to visit Bulgaria, and it turned out that she was from Plovdiv. I asked her about Bulgarian poetry and she told me that while they had a strong poetic tradition, little of it had been translated – or at least translated well – into English. I'd like to dig further, but in any case I can confirm that the people of Bulgaria live in a country where poetry has left many traces.

Tuesday, 5 June 2012

In Which Your Humble Author Has Two Poems Published

I've just had two poems published by Shot Glass Journal, which can be found on this link:

Shot Glass Journal is dedicated to short poetry of sixteen lines or less, which fits well with the form of many of my poems. It is published by Muse Pie Press.

These are both poems of place, written under rather different circumstances. 'Andalucia' was written about six months ago on a holiday to the south of Spain, where I spent two weeks based in Jerez de la Frontera and also visited Seville, Cadiz, Arcos de la Frontera, and other towns. It's a simple poem, a film-reel of images made up of heat and light and music.

'Temple' is a more complex poem, and as I wrote it close to five years ago I'm no longer entirely sure about its genesis. At least, it is about the Temple area in the City of London, a historic enclave of barristers and other legal practicioners. During a brief stint working nearby, I went there frequently and always felt as though I was stepping back in time. It was a true haven for me and is still one of my favourite locations in London, if not my favourite. I think, though, that I was uncertain about my place in London at the time, perhaps even wondering if I should consider moving away. The poem carries at least a hint of the feelings I tend to have at these moments of uncertainty. Several years on I would say at least that I feel like a part of London - not just watching.