Thursday, 24 July 2014
Poetry International 2014: "It's Important That Poets Be Awake In Their Times"
Carolyn Forché giving the Poetry Society Annual Lecture 2014 at Southbank, London. Photo © Clarissa Aykroyd, 2014
Poetry International, at London's Southbank, ran from Thursday 17 July to Monday 21 July. The festival was founded in 1967 by Ted Hughes and takes place every couple of years - in 2012 it was the amazing Poetry Parnassus.
On Thursday I went to the launch event, which featured the rather astonishing and diverse lineup of Nikola Madzirov (Macedonia), Anne Michaels (Canada), Kutti Revathi (India), Carolyn Forché (US), Mohammed El Deeb (Egypt), Robert Hass (US) and Ana Blandiana (Romania). Nikola Madzirov opened the reading and I was absolutely thrilled to see him: his collection of selected English translations, Remnants of Another Age, has left lines and images with me that I will never forget. (More on Madzirov in another blog post soon...) For the non-English language poets in this event, the translations were projected overhead while they read in their own language, and I found this worked well - you can absorb the meaning while also experiencing the sensory and emotional power of the original words. Madzirov reads beautifully with a kind of occasional tempo rubato and gestures which form an organic whole with the words. When he read 'Fast Is the Century', he went over to English for the last few (heart-stopping) lines. It was a thrill like a phone call from a country you've never visited.
Fast is the century.
Faster than the word.
If I were dead, everyone would have believed me
when I kept silent.
Anne Michaels read with heartfelt emotion from her Correspondences, which is an elegy for her father as well as remembrances of writers including Paul Celan, Nelly Sachs and Anna Akhmatova. It made me want to read more. Carolyn Forché was another poet who was really my reason for being at Poetry International and she read with a passion which I found both shy and forceful. Her poems included 'The Lightkeeper', 'The Ghost of Heaven' (about El Salvador, but a poem it took her decades to finally write) and another which I think was new. The other poets were also remarkable: Kutti Revathi read brave poems of the body, El Deeb brought us Arabic rap straight from the heart of the Arab Spring, Robert Hass read a lovely long poem in tribute to his friend Czeslaw Milosz, and Ana Blandiana's poems were both delicate and cutting. Afterwards I was able to meet Carolyn Forché, Nikola Madzirov and Neil Astley of Bloodaxe Books - all were really gracious and interesting. I knew Nikola and Neil a little already from social media and they both remembered me when I introduced myself, which was very nice.
On Friday I went to the Poetry Translation Centre's event, which was the launch of the anthology My Voice, commemorating the PTC's first ten years. The PTC puts on some of my very favourite poetry events. In terms of diversity and vibrancy, their audiences are second to none. Theirs are the events where I am as likely to find myself sitting next to an Iranian woman or a Somali man as I am to see people as Western, white and middle-class as myself. Their readings really reflect London's communities, and as Sarah Maguire explained, she started the PTC partly because of her passion for poetry from Arabic, Somali and other languages and partly because she wanted to help make people from other cultures feel at home in the UK. The poets reading either originals or translations included Al-Saddiq Al-Raddi (Sudan), Reza Mohammadi (Afghanistan), Jo Shapcott and Mimi Khalvati, among others - an incredibly star-studded and international lineup. Like the anthology, the poems moved "from exile to ecstasy", and the former hit particularly hard - Al-Saddiq Al-Raddi's 'Lamps' had me in tears. It was a wonderful event, and the anthology (which I hope to review soon) looks amazing.
During the weekend I went to two events, the first of which was the launch of Modern Poetry In Translation's new issue. MPT was founded by Ted Hughes with Daniel Weissbort and its association with Poetry International has been particularly close on many occasions. We heard German poet Christine Marendon reading poems of nature and introspection including 'Evening Primrose' with translator Ken Cockburn, and Hubert Moore read his translations of the mysterious Iranian poet Bavar Rastin. Again I was there mainly for Nikola Madzirov, who was reading with his translator Peggy Reid. Poems such as 'The Perfection of the Forgotten Ones' suggested to me that his recent work may be even better than previous poems. Afterwards I saw a few poetry acquaintances, including MPT's own Sasha Dugdale, talked with Nikola about how his poetry has become a best-seller in Spanish-speaking countries, and also spoke with Peggy Reid (who, typically for those who know Nikola, prefaced her praise of his wonderful work with "He's such a lovely person".)
My last event was the Poetry Society Annual Lecture, this year by Carolyn Forché on 'The Poet as Witness'. This is, of course, her area of speciality, but I think that many in attendance weren't very familiar with her anthologies, her own poetry, and her championing of the idea of "poetry of witness". Forché is quite a big deal in North America but I have gathered she isn't that well known over here (even in poetry circles). She spoke of the international poetry reading she went to in Libya, in 2012, after the death of the dictator, where "the posters covered up the bullet holes". One of the poems Forché read there was 'The Colonel', probably her most famous poem - she said that she had been reluctant to read it in Libya, as it was about El Salvador, but she later realised that the Libyans had interpreted it as being about their own experiences under Gaddafi. When she read it for us, the auditorium went gradually into an absolute pin-drop silence which was eerie. In poetry of witness, she said, "the mark of experience is burned into the poem, and regardless of content, the mark remains legible." Speaking of the tragic life stories and extraordinary poems of Miklós Radnóti and Georg Trakl, she described "poetry of witness" as more a mode of reading, not of writing - writers don't set out to be poets of witness, but their experiences allow others to find that mark of extreme experiences. This poetry, said Forché, is frequently marked by (among others) characteristics such as: the experience of the self as fragmented; the past as another country; addressing the dead, War and Death as personified figures; and recognition of the failure of language and words. Speaking about her new anthology, Poetry of Witness: The Tradition in English, 1500-2001, she described how she had long thought poetry of witness to exist more in non-English traditions, but she found such marks of experience in many, if not most, English-language poets before the twentieth century, and in the war poets and others in the past hundred years. "It's important that poets be awake in their times," she said. I found the lecture very strong and moving, and I think it was particularly a revelation for those who didn't know her work.
So it was a lovely and inspiring few days of poetry events. And also, I got hugs from the finest Macedonian and Sudanese poets of their generations, and that's automatically a good weekend.