Thursday 5 October 2023

National Poetry Day: Refuge and Carolyn Forché's 'The Boatman'

Today is National Poetry Day in the UK, and this year's theme is 'Refuge'.

On a global scale, the world is experiencing the highest levels of displacement ever recorded. On a more personal level, I have friends who have become refugees this year. And while the disastrous war in Ukraine or the horrors of migrants drowning in the Mediterranean may be prominent in the thoughts of many, they are just the tip of an iceberg which includes mass displacement in and from countries such as Congo, Afghanistan and so many others, due to war, natural disasters, famine and a host of other reasons. Even for those who have fled or claimed asylum under marginally less terrible conditions than some others, the emotional impact (at the very least) is shocking.

Carolyn Forché's 'The Boatman', from her most recent and truly wonderful collection In the Lateness of the World, speaks in the voice of a taxi driver who is also a Syrian refugee. I find the juxtaposition of the incredible horror of what he's endured to arrive in a (relatively, apparently) safe city, with his determination to "see that you arrive safely, my friend, I will get you there", almost unbearable. Forché brilliantly conveys the contrasts between the warm taxi and the filthy, dangerous rubber boat, the hotel in Rome with its portraits of films stars and the dead child floating in the water. How surreal it is to hear someone in a calm environment quietly describe the inhumanity they endured to arrive there. And there is also an underlying sense that death is never far away. 'The Boatman', as a title and the self-description of "the boatman, driving a taxi at the end of the world", makes me think of Charon, who took the souls of the dead across the river Styx. 

On this melancholy note, please enjoy National Poetry Day and the many ways in which it explores 'Refuge', some surely more comforting than others. 

Image: Syrian and Iraqi refugees reach the coastal waters of Lesbos in Greece, after having crossed from Turkey. Author: Ggia. Used under Creative Commons license

Tuesday 21 March 2023

World Poetry Day: 'The Stare's Nest By My Window' by WB Yeats

It's World Poetry Day, and tonight I will be going to a Josephine Hart Poetry Hour event at the British Library, about WB Yeats. 

By my reckoning, Yeats has been in my life for about 30 years. I was a young teenager, as with so many of the artistic influences which ran into my bloodstream and stayed there forever. I was thinking tonight that the records I listened to between about 12-16 are part of who I am — they are me — and the records I listened to between about 17-22 are time machines, which is actually something quite different. Yeats is part of who I am and thus, part of what led me first from Canada and then to Ireland and then to London. And certainly to being a poet, as far as it goes. (A small thing, but mine own.) 

The poem that came to mind tonight, in another year of global turmoil, was Yeats's 'The Stare's Nest By My Window', part of the sequence 'Meditations in Time of Civil War'. It weaves together the extreme focus on the personal, the immediate and the close-by, with the broader crises and concerns which put the poet in that place of absolute focus in the first place. It grasps at what can be seen and held, and also hoped for, amidst profound uncertainty. This is, in varying degrees, the story of the world in recent years (and in less recent years). And it was written a little over a century ago.

Below is the poem, but you can read the entire sequence here, which I encourage you to do.  


The bees build in the crevices
Of loosening masonry, and there
The mother birds bring grubs and flies.
My wall is loosening; honey-bees,
Come build in the empty house of the stare. 

We are closed in, and the key is turned
On our uncertainty; somewhere
A man is killed, or a house burned.
Yet no clear fact to be discerned:
Come build in the empty house of the stare. 

A barricade of stone or of wood;
Some fourteen days of civil war:
Last night they trundled down the road
That dead young soldier in his blood:
Come build in the empty house of the stare.

We had fed the heart on fantasies,
The heart's grown brutal from the fare,
More substance in our enmities
Than in our love; O honey-bees,
Come build in the empty house of the stare.

Saturday 31 December 2022

Year-end: poems in Bad Lilies, and Best UK Poetry Blogs of 2022

2022 has drawn to a close and I don't really have a list of accomplishments to offer, but I do have a couple of highlights in poetry-world.
In February, the wonderful poetry journal Bad Lilies published my two poems 'Brilliant cut' and 'Yustas'. They appeared in the journal's sixth issue, entitled 'Private Universe', alongside a host of other great poets and poems. 
A few years ago I first discovered the work of Julian Semenov (or Yulian Semyonov). He was a Russian and Soviet thriller writer who is little known in Western countries but whose impact in Slavic countries, and regions formerly in the USSR and its sphere of influence, was profound. Most famously, Semenov wrote a book called Seventeen Moments of Spring, which was published in the late 1960s and a few years later was adapted into a television series of the same name, which is probably the most famous Soviet TV show ever made. This spy show is really only known in Western countries to those who are deeply interested in world spy films, or in Soviet or Russian culture. My own interest came mainly from a curiosity about what the USSR was doing with espionage fiction and film in the early 1970s, but watching Seventeen Moments of Spring also led in a very direct line to my starting to learn Russian in 2020. 

These two poems, specifically inspired by Semenov's works, were published in late February. Less than a week later, Russia attacked Ukraine and beyond the fact that the news was shocking and overwhelming, it didn't feel like an ideal time to be blogging about Russian pop culture (although "Soviet" is more accurate here than "Russian", for what it's worth) - hence the very long delay. Strangely, though, Seventeen Moments of Spring and Semenov's books can genuinely be said to have slipped the considerable constraints of their origins. Today they are still relevant (even to the current moment), open to a wide variety of interpretations, and of course entertaining. The Seventeen Moments series was specifically intended as propaganda at the time of its release, part of a campaign to improve the KGB's image. But the show's surprising subtlety allowed many viewers to interpret it as a comment on the Soviet Union itself and the pressures of working inside, and against, a powerful oppressive system which keeps everyone under constant surveillance. Stirlitz, the double-agent hero, has inspired an endless stream of ironic jokes which continue to be instantly recognisable in countries formerly in the Soviet sphere of influence. And since February, I have often seen clips and quotes from the show online used as criticism of the Russian government's actions.

Seventeen Moments was directed by Tatyana Lioznova (a Jewish woman), featured remarkable music by Tariverdiev (of Armenian descent) and performances by many wonderful Soviet actors, and still holds up as a work of art, which is how I experience it. It is a personal work for me in a way which is difficult to explain, but I watched it a lot during the Covid lockdowns and I think it will always stay with me as a portrait of loneliness and trying to do the right thing in isolation. (I am also permanently enthralled by the beautiful, wistful Vyacheslav Tikhonov, who played Stirlitz.) 'Yustas' is specifically based on the TV show, while 'Brilliant cut' evokes a scene from another novel in Semenov's series of books about Stirlitz. 

A nice year-end highlight this month was the re-appearance of my blog on Matthew Stewart's Best UK Poetry Blogs of 2022 list, in great company - this time as one of the irregular bloggers. It was very kind of Matthew to include my blog at all given that I hardly posted this year. I hope that next year will be an improvement - in many, many ways. 

Wednesday 26 October 2022

2022 Sarah Maguire Prize for Poetry in Translation

The winner of the second Sarah Maguire Prize for Poetry in Translation will be announced this Tuesday, 1 November. Awarded every other year, the prize recognises the best book of poetry by a living poet from Africa, Asia, Latin America or the Middle East, published in English translation. In 2020 it was awarded to Anniversary Snow by Yang Lian, translated from Chinese by Brian Holton and others. 

In 2022, the prize was judged by Rosalind Harvey, Kit Fan and Kyoo Lee, and the shortlist is as follows:

  • Come, Take a Gentle Stab by Salim Barakat - translated from Arabic by Huda J Fakhreddine and Jayson Iwen (Seagull Books)

  • Exhausted on the Cross by Najwan Darwish - translated from Arabic by Kareen James Abu-Zeid (New York Review Books)

  • Migrations: Poem, 1976-2020 by Gloria Gervitz - translated from Spanish by Mark Schafer (New York Review Books)

  • Unexpected Vanilla by Lee Hyemi - translated from Korean by Soje (Tilted Axis Books)

  • The River in the Belly by Fiston Mwanza Mujila - translated from French by J Bret Maney (Deep Vellum)

  • Cargo Hold of Stars: Coolitude by Khal Torabully - translated from French by Nancy Naomi Carlson (Seagull Books)

You can book a ticket here to watch the announcement on Zoom (for free) on 1 November: 

Sarah Maguire was the founder of the Poetry Translation Centre, an organisation which was very important to me personally in my poetry development during the past decade or so. Sarah died in 2017, leaving the PTC and her own remarkably impressive body of work. In a time when cross-cultural understanding seems more important than ever, I'm glad that the Sarah Maguire Prize has become another part of her legacy.

You can find more details about the prize and the shortlisted works here: 

Tuesday 15 February 2022

New(ish) poem in The Crank: Return to the Night City

Amidst hardly blogging at all last autumn (can you do something amidst not doing something?), I sadly neglected to apprise my more-faithful-than-I-deserve blog readers of a new poem publication. 

My poem 'Return to the Night City' appeared late last year in The Crank, a new-ish online poetry journal edited by Humphrey Astley. This journal is trend-minimal (or words to that effect), and thus inclines more to formal or formal-adjacent poetry than my work often does, although I do think my poetry likes nodding to form. 

You can download the PDF of issue 4, where my poem appears, here:

The past issues are very much worth reading, and I think another is on its way soon. 

'Return to the Night City' was specifically inspired by WS Graham's 'The Night City', one of my favourite poems about London. My tribute came partly from reading 'The Night City' and thinking of all the associations, particularly literary, that I have with this city. It also came from a slightly stupid incident a few years ago when I flew back so late from somewhere in Europe (Portugal, maybe?) that I could only get a train to Blackfriars, and I then started hiking along the Thames with my suitcase at about 2 in the morning. I came to my senses after about fifteen minutes and got a cab, but this poem is sort of the magical realism version of that incident. Tonally, I tried to approach the original Graham poem, without turning my own poem into pastiche. 

Friday 31 December 2021

Ten years of The Stone and the Star

As 2021 stumbles to a close, it might be obvious to anyone who was paying attention (and I don't know if anyone was) that I was not writing in here much in recent months; to be precise, since September. In many ways, September and onwards was a big improvement over the rest of my life since the start of the pandemic in early 2020. I got a new job working with children's literature - so far, on course to be my best job ever - and before starting, I had time to visit my family in Canada. I also spent September weekends as part of the Sea Reconnection exhibition, which as an art-and-poetry exhibition was a first for me and certainly a highlight of the year.

I haven't felt much like writing, though. My pandemic experience has avoided the worst that many have experienced (severe illness, death of loved ones, prolonged unemployment, etc) but at times I feel like it's sort of flattened me out. I hope to get back into more of a writing frame of mind in the months to come, even in small ways, which I think will help.

Matthew Stewart, in his excellent Rogue Strands blog, has once again very kindly included this blog on his list of the best British poetry blogs of the year. Possibly a little more than it deserves this year, but at least we're still here.

On that note, in October 2021 it was ten years since I started writing The Stone and the Star. In 2011, I think I thought it was possible I'd keep going for this long, but ten years is always a long time to look ahead. It really has entwined itself with my life in unexpected ways, and helped to open up many worlds of poetry to me. I definitely urge you to go back and read some of my earlier blog posts; that's where a lot of the good stuff is. And thank you for sticking around for this long, or for joining in along the road.

Friday 24 September 2021

Sea Reconnection: the final weekend!

Sea Reconnection, featuring my poetry and the art of Miles Taverner and Darren Hewitt, is now drawing to a close and this is its final weekend. I wanted to share a few photos of the exhibition and to thank everyone who came, and particularly to thank Paula Taverner and Kathy Brown, who did so much work behind the scenes. (There are others: we love you all!) The exhibition has been part of the wonderful Totally Thames Festival 2021. 

The exhibition is still open this Saturday and Sunday (25 and 26 September): 11-5 on Saturday, and 11-3 on Sunday. 

Le Sorelle, 1 Thames Quay, Canary Wharf, London E14 9SG
(across from South Quay DLR Station

Thursday 2 September 2021

Sea Reconnection: an art and poetry exhibition in London, September 2021

This month at Canary Wharf in London, the Le Sorelle river barge will host the Sea Reconnection exhibition (part of the Totally Thames Festival 2021), featuring my poetry and work by the visual artists Darren Hewitt and Miles Taverner. 

The exhibition has been in the works for a long time - since 2019, in fact, although I joined the project at a slightly later stage in early 2020. Originally it was planned for spring 2020, but sadly due to COVID, all plans were off. We are delighted that it is finally happening and particularly that we have been able to join the Thames Festival.

Darren Hewitt's paintings are focused on expansive, light-filled seascapes and human interactions with these perspectives, while Miles Taverner uses materials recovered and recycled from the sea to create tactile, colourful, often large-scale pieces. 

Several of my poems appear alongside these artworks and bring together the themes of the sea and the Thames. In new works such as 'Great Eastern' and 'Pool of London', I have written about historic connections between London's river and the ocean. 'Great Eastern', below, was inspired by the ship of the same name, designed by Isambard Kingdom Brunel, built at Millwall and eventually destined to lay the first lasting transatlantic telegraph cable in 1866. 


At Millwall, an iron hull
like a fallen star.
Brunel with his fierce eyes
fixed on the future.

Grey Atlantic fought and held
the telegraph light.
Great Eastern, a meteor,
ploughed into the night.

The exhibition is free to all and is open every weekend from Friday to Sunday in September - details below. Please come if you can.

Sea Reconnection
Le Sorelle, 1 Thames Quay, Canary Wharf, London E14 9SG
(across from South Quay DLR station)

September 2021
Fridays and Saturdays 11am to 5pm
Sundays 11am to 3pm