Wednesday, 29 April 2015

Nikola Madzirov: 'The One Who Writes'

Nikola Madzirov. Photo © Thomas Kierok (Blue Flower Arts)

I met the Macedonian poet Nikola Madzirov at Poetry International, on London's Southbank, last July. He was reading a few times during the festival and I saw him alongside other incredible poets such as Carolyn Forché, Anne Michaels and Robert Hass. We also spoke a few times - I had briefly been in touch with him on social media before, although some time previously, and he still remembered me, which was great but not that surprising. He seems to have a widespread reputation as not only one of the best poets out there, but one of the nicest.

In the course of one of these conversations I asked him if I could reproduce one of his poems (or one of the translations, anyway) in my blog, and he said yes, of course. This blog post is therefore something like nine months late, which I can only put down to procrastination, not being sure which poem to choose, and feeling slightly daunted.

Madzirov seems to be one of the hardest-working poets out there - every time I've googled him or looked him up on Twitter, he seems to be appearing at yet another poetry festival on yet another continent. His poems, on the other hand - which have appeared in English translation in Remnants of Another Age (Bloodaxe Books, 2013 in the UK; BOA Editions, 2011 in the US; translations by Peggy Reid, Graham Reid, Magdalena Horvat and Adam Reed) - are hard-working pieces which feel effortless. They seem like spiritual-secular prayers spoken inside the head, like the mind whispering of the most personal, trivial and essential things and weaving all the connections into a haunting whole.

These poems are very often about doubt, inbetween states, statelessness, travel, and a sort of forwards-and-backwards nostalgia. Madzirov was a descendant of refugees and he was coming of age around when the Balkans descended into war - unsurprisingly, the images of body and identity in these poems are often fragmented, beautiful but also broken. They are poems which, lightly but sometimes painfully, seem to be constantly moving, sometimes groping toward something, somewhere or someone.

We'll meet one day,
like a paper boat and
a watermelon that's been cooling in the river.
The anxiety of the world will
be with us. Our palms
will eclipse the sun and we'll
approach each other holding lanterns.

(from 'Shadows Pass Us By')

I had a hard time choosing a poem for this post, but decided my choice was 'The One Who Writes'. When Madzirov read this at Southbank, he said "People ask me if I am a poet. I say, 'I am the one who writes.'"

THE ONE WHO WRITES (Nikola Madzirov - trans. P Reid, G Reid, M Horvat and A Reed)

You write. About the things that already exist.
And they say you fantasize.

You keep quiet. Like the sunken nets
of poachers. Like an angel
who knows what the night may bring.

And you travel. You forget,
so that you can come back.

You write and you don't want to remember
the stone, the sea, the believers
sleeping with their hands apart.

I liked this poem partly because of a certain familiarity to the opening lines. Madzirov's poems, even when dark, usually have a considerable gentleness, but there is a kind of snap to "And they say you fantasize" which as a writer I recognised.

The final lines are both frightening and peaceful - to me, it seems an image of death, possibly violent death, and possibly with implications of trauma. If the one who writes can't forget, he might not be able to come back.

Poem  © Nikola Madzirov, 2011 and 2013. Used by permission.


  1. And you can watch Nikola reading his poems here:

    1. Thanks Neil! Any videos/recordings of him reading are well worth watching/listening to...