Monday, 12 April 2021

William Carlos Williams' 'Heel & Toe to the End': Yuri Gagarin and the Idea of Space


On 12 April 1961, the Soviet cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin completed one orbit of planet Earth in the capsule Vostok 1 and became the first human being in outer space.

I remember hearing about Gagarin when I was a very small child (ie. in the early 80s), not so much because anyone in my family was that obsessed with space travel, but probably because my parents thought it was good for kids to know things. I suspect that Gagarin was the first Russian who I ever knew about by name (with the possible exception of Tchaikovsky, one of my dad's favourite composers and now one of mine, who I may not have realised was Russian). I vaguely remember having a mental image of Gagarin as a severe-looking man with darker hair, sternly flying around planet Earth, an image I must have somehow picked up of what Russians looked like. At some later point it was surprising to see photos of a baby-faced young man with a slightly goofy smile. 

Gagarin died in 1968 while flying a military jet, an ironic death given that Soviet officials had banned him from further space missions. He was a useful representative of the USSR and they had feared for his life after the death of Vladimir Komarov in the failed Soyuz 1 mission. Gagarin was only in his mid-30s at that point and his death ensured that he became a fully legendary figure, perhaps more of an idea now than a human being.

I watched the film Бумажный солдат (Paper Soldier, directed by Aleksei German, 2008) on the Klassiki film platform a couple of days ago. It was about the preparations for Gagarin's mission and the moral dilemmas faced by people involved, who knew that his death was very likely. The film depicted the accidental death of Valentin Bondarenko, another candidate for the Vostok 1 mission, who was burned in a fire in an oxygen-rich isolation chamber. I was quite shocked by the film; I'd never really thought about the realities of trying to get a man into space in the USSR in the 1960s, and everything depicted looked terrifyingly old-fashioned and precarious, as well as brutal in terms of the well-being of individuals. Gagarin came across as cheerful, committed and uninterested in thinking too much about the fact that he might die, which probably made him a perfect candidate. "He flew like an angel," said witnesses after the success of the mission.

In the context of the USSR, but of other nations as well, space travel seems to encompass a duality of something pure and unencumbered, but also an immensely useful tool of propaganda. Nations know that space flight looks idealistic but that it's also a display of power. I knew about Laika, the Soviet dog who was the first living creature in space and who died, and the story still upsets me and fills me with a profound loneliness. My perceptions of space exploration were also coloured as a small child by the Challenger disaster in 1986. When I look at it in a certain way, though, the feeling of purity still attaches. 

I started thinking about poetry related to Gagarin when I noticed that his name shows up quite regularly in the Russian rock/pop music I've been listening to in recent months. When I asked for suggestions on Twitter, many people directed me to more poems and songs about Gagarin, in Russian, Ukrainian, English and other languages. I particularly liked this poem by William Carlos Williams, 'Heel & Toe to the End', which captures the sense of wonder: "he could have/gone on forever". 

Here, too, is one of the Russian rock songs I've enjoyed in recent months, by the band Смысловые Галлюцинации ("Semantic Hallucinations"). The song's title 'Звёзды 3000' translates as 'Stars 3000' and is a reverie about what space means to us back on earth (well, that's what I got from it...). Gagarin is name-checked in this but I can't quite figure out the context, even from the dodgy translations I found online: if any Russian speaker can help me I'd appreciate it...

Photo: The Soviet cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin at a press conference during his visit to Finland, 1961. Arto Jousi/Suomen valokuvataiteen museo/Alma Media/Uuden Suomen kokelma; Restored by Adam Cuerden - Finnish Museum of Photography. Public domain. 

Wednesday, 31 March 2021

Yang Lian's Anniversary Snow wins the Sarah Maguire Prize for Poetry in Translation


The inaugural Sarah Maguire Prize for Poetry in Translation, which recognises the best book of poetry by a living poet from Africa, Asia, Latin America or the Middle East published in an English translation, was awarded last Thursday 25th March. The prize is an endeavour of the Poetry Translation Centre and is in memory of its founder, the late Sarah Maguire, who I knew for a few years before her untimely death and who was a brilliant poet in her own right as well as a champion of poetry from parts of the world often under-recognised in English translation. 

Out of a fascinatingly diverse field, the award went to the collection Anniversary Snow by Yang Lian, translated from Chinese by Brian Holton with further translations from WN Herbert, L. Leigh, Liang Lizhen, Pascale Petit, Fiona Sampson, George Szirtes and Joshua Weiner. Anniversary Snow is published by Shearsman Books and you can find it on their website here:  

The panel of judges commented: "The book is grounded in the historical roots of Chinese culture, poetry and art, but goes far beyond it, reinterpreting with poise and intelligence the very essence of our existence, from the changing landscape that surrounds us, the appeal of the natural world and the inner beauty of language, exemplifying its political force and its political teachings." 

The PTC website has several excellent articles regarding the prize but I particularly recommend this fascinating and touching article by the winning poet Yang Lian:

I'm delighted to be able to share a poem from Anniversary Snow. It appears below first in the original Chinese and then in its English translation. 


不能真 是不是美的? 想象一件河底撒开的

想象那双眼睛呛满 呛满

谁说死不是湿淋淋的和声? 河底的小窗亮着那演奏 河底 一个不停下的

不停找到漏下的 叶子向下而口向上

房子向下 的雪意向上 舌尖 住的是否远远?

想象一个落的自我 呛满历史的黑水 落如卵石


法除了剥开生命那件 身人形的茫茫



进这 力追赶自己的河底

亲飘散的白逆着美的方向  拓展噩耗 没目睹急急赶来



3. Poetic Inquiry − Another Embedded Voice

can’t be real is that beauty’s fault?
imagine a shirt spread out on the riverbed

steeping in the black of a Berlin night
imagine two eyes water-choked mother choking on water

who says death isn’t a drenched harmony?
a little window on the riverbed lights up the show riverbed a word that never stops leaping downwards

never stops finding leaked-out sobs leaves go down and wounds go up

houses down enjoyment of imminent snow goes up tongue tip is hooked ruin not enough by far?

imagine a self plunging down drowning in history’s black water plunging like a pebble

there’s no time other than a contraction of the lungs

there’s no grammar other than a shirt that strips life away say death’s immeasurable side-on human shape

is filling up with sediment again still not enough?
in self-indulgent poetry there are only newly-arrived words

touch in here he does all he can to pursue his own river bed to become it

mother’s vaporizing white travels in the opposite direction to beauty spreads the worst of news no one saw this poem coming so quickly

dazzling as

our aesthetic?

(from Anniversary Snow by Yang Lian, published by Shearsman Books) 

Sunday, 28 February 2021

Keep My Words Forever: a tribute album for Osip Mandelstam


In January, it was 130 years since the birth of the great Russian poet Osip Mandelstam. Mandelstam is widely translated and read in the English-speaking world, but unsurprisingly, his influence is greater in Russian-speaking countries. A victim of state persecution and of the efforts of other literary figures who opposed his subversive views, Mandelstam is as readable and relevant as ever today.

This year, a group of popular musicians have released a tribute album which sets Mandelstam's words to music. The album is called Сохрани мою речь навсегда (in English, Keep My Words Forever) and can be found on streaming platforms including Spotify, Apple Music and others. 

Some of the artists (who will be better known to Russian speakers) include Ilya Lagutenko (lead singer of the popular band Mumiy Troll), Leonid Agutin, Noize MC and Sansara. Alina Orlova, from Vilnius, performs in Lithuanian, and Mgzavrebi perform in Georgian. The artist who I think may be known to some non-Russian speakers is Oxxxymiron, a prominent Russian rapper who has lived in Slough and the East End of London, and who studied English literature at Oxford University. He performs a rap version of 'Lines for an unknown soldier'. The songs are all musical settings of Mandelstam poems, and they appear on the album in the order that the poems were published.

The project was initiated and produced by Roma Liberov, who I crossed paths with a few years ago. He had already directed the documentary film Keep My Words Forever (2015) about Mandelstam, and in 2017 I went to a screening of the film at London's Pushkin House, where Liberov spoke about Mandelstam's importance and about his work on the documentary. You can read my writeup of the event here: 

I have listened to the album and was very moved by it. My own grasp of Russian is still nascent and as a result, I'm obviously missing some of the impact of the words. The musical styles featured include jazz, 80s-style pop, rap and more, and the poems include works such as 'I despise the light', 'This night is irredeemable' and 'I returned to my city, familiar to tears'. Personally, I definitely liked some tracks better than others. But above all, this project reveals the extreme vitality of Mandelstam's work in our time, and a desire to bring him closer to new audiences, many of which I am sure will embrace his poems if they haven't already. I love to see that Mandelstam is still loved so much.

I recommend checking out the project's official website, . (You can use the Translate function on your browser to see it in English, if you don't speak Russian.) Here you can see the album's wonderful artwork and find links to videos of the songs on Youtube. 

Image: Osip Mandelstam (far right) with Chulkov, Petrovykh and Anna Akhmatova. 1930s.

Monday, 8 February 2021

The Sarah Maguire Prize for Poetry in Translation Shortlist

A few days ago, the Poetry Translation Centre announced the shortlist for the inaugural Sarah Maguire Prize for Poetry in Translation. The Poetry Translation Centre has helped to bring great contemporary work from around the world to English speaking audiences, and this new translation prize is likely to play a significant role in years to come.

This new prize is in honour of the late Sarah Maguire, who founded the Poetry Translation Centre, and it will recognise the best book of poetry by a living poet from Africa, Asia, Latin America or the Middle East, translated into English. This year's judges are Alireza Abiz, Ida Hadjivayanis and Leo Boix. The award winner will be announced on Thursday 25 March.

The shortlist includes the following titles:

Factory Girls by Takako Arai (Action Books, 2019. Translated from Japanese by Jeffrey Angles, Jen Crawford, Carol Hayes, Rina Kikuchi, You Nakai and Sawako Nakayasu.)

A Boat to Lesbos and other poems by Nouri Al-Jarrah (Banipal Books, 2018. Translated from Arabic by Camilo Gómez-Rivas and Allison Blecker.)

Incomprehensible Lesson by Fawzi Karim (Carcanet Press, 2019. In versions by Anthony Howell after translations from the Arabic made by the author.)

Hysteria by Kim Yideum (Action Books, 2019. Translated from Korean by Jake Levine, Soeun Seo and Hedgie Choi.)

Tiawanaku: Poems from the Mother Coqa by Judith Santopietro (Orca Libros, 2019. Translated from Spanish by Ilana Luna.)

Anniversary Snow by Yang Lian (Shearsman Books, 2019. Translated from Chinese by Brian Holton with further translations by WN Herbert, L Leigh, Liang Lizhen, Pascale Petit, Fiona Sampson, George Szirtes and Joshua Weiner.)

You can read more here about this year's prize and associated events and publications: 

Friday, 22 January 2021

Kharms: a film about the Russian poet Daniil Kharms


Having a lot of enforced time off over the past surreal, nasty, stressful and boring year has been a mixed experience. The one really good thing about it, for me, has been the opportunity to immerse myself in the Russian language. I had been interested in doing this for a few years already, but when I was first furloughed in the spring I thought that I needed to start using my time. This has meant lessons, apps and discernible progress, though I think my teacher may be about to notice that I have been spending more time listening to Russian rock music and watching Russian films and TV than assiduously studying my grammar and vocabulary. I may say that it's also been nice to discover that I am still capable of learning a new language in adulthood. I learned to speak French as a small child and Spanish as a young teenager, and I haven't tried learning another language until now. 

One of the films I have recently enjoyed is Kharms (2017, directed by Ivan Bolotnikov). You can watch it on the Kino Klassika Foundation website here, and the link also includes some very nice programme notes:

You can watch this for free for just a few days, until Tuesday 26 January at 12 noon GMT. I think it may only be available in the UK due to rights issues, but you can always check to see if it's available in your territory.

Kharms is a film about the life of the surrealist Soviet-era poet Daniil Kharms. I was only vaguely aware of this poet, partly because he loved Sherlock Holmes and used to smoke a calabash pipe. 'Kharms' was a pen name and may be a reference to the Russian pronunciation of 'Holmes'. This was noted in the film by the poet's sartorial choices and one subtle joke. 

The film isn't a strict biography; it celebrates the poet's work, his life in the beautiful city of St Petersburg/Leningrad, his friendships and romances. Colour and black-and-white film, static and moving shots combine to create a wistful and quirky view of different eras and events. The tragedy of Kharms' death by starvation during the siege of Leningrad is also part of the film. 

Currently, Kino Klassika are sharing weekly broadcasts of Soviet, Russian, Caucasian and Eastern European films, but they are about to launch a dedicated online streaming platform of such films, called Klassiki. Given the centrality of poetry in Russian culture, I suspect there will be more tie-ins to poetry in the future. 

Thursday, 31 December 2020

A Few Nice Things To End Horrible, Nasty 2020

As 2020 draws to a close (and that's both sad and glad because it was a terrible year for everyone), I have a few more poetry successes to round up in this blog post.

A couple of months ago I appeared in the Spotlight section of Colin Bancroft's Poets' Directory, and for some reason forgot to write about it at the time. Colin is a poet himself and has also started a press, Nine Pens, this year. The Directory is a wonderful resource and as part of the Spotlight I answered some questions about poetry in my life and also shared my poem 'Kingdom'. I was #17 on the Spotlight feature so you need to scroll down, but all the different profile of poets are fascinating and worth reading.

Matthew Stewart once again included The Stone and the Star on his excellent year-end roundup of The Best UK Poetry Blogs, calling it "different, curious, always exploring poetry". Matthew's own blog Rogue Strands is always thoughtful and thought-provoking, as is his own poetry.

I was delighted that the iamb website, where I was one of the first poets to appear when it started this year, nominated my poem 'I dream the perfect ride' for a Pushcart Prize. iamb is the work of poet Mark Antony Owen and it features poems both in readable form, and recordings of readings by the poets. The website had a really amazing year and is definitely one of the poetry sites that you need to be browsing.

Finally, I was enormously pleased when my poetry publisher, Broken Sleep Books, won the Publishers' Award at the Michael Marks Awards a few weeks ago. The Michael Marks Awards are specifically dedicated to poetry pamphlets (rather than full-length collections) and they are run by the British Library, The Wordsworth Trust, Harvard University and The TLS. Winning a Michael Marks Award is really a wonderful honour and even being shortlisted was cause for great excitement. As my pamphlet Island of Towers was published within the required dates for the 2020 awards, I played a small role as my pamphlet was part of the overall submission. I'm just as proud of all my fellow Broken Sleep Books poets. And I'm even more proud of the whole Broken Sleep team (which expanded this year, or was it last year now?) and above all of Aaron Kent, who runs the press. Aaron was extremely ill earlier this year and thankfully has made a good recovery. I'm so happy that he was able to end 2020 in such a positive way and that we all played a part, because we needed that.

(And by the way, if you would like a copy of Island of Towers, you can of course buy direct from Broken Sleep Books on the link above. But I also have some copies to sell, sign and send out, so please get in touch here if you would like a copy, or on my Twitter account: @stoneandthestar)

I'm sending a big hug to everyone who reads this blog and asking you to take good care of yourselves and others in 2021. 

Tuesday, 22 December 2020

In memory of John le Carré, 1931-2020


Ten minutes to midnight: a pious Friday in May and a fine river mist lying in the market square. Bonn was a Balkan city, stained and secret, drawn over with tramwire. Bonn was a dark house where someone had died, a house draped in Catholic black and guarded by policemen. Their leather coats glistened in the lamplight, the black flags hung over them like birds. It was as if all but they had heard the alarm and fled. (John le Carré, A Small Town in Germany)

Bonn was a Balkan city, stained and secret... Bonn was a dark house where someone had died...

John le Carré died on 12 December at the age of 89. The shock felt more considerable than it probably should have considering his advanced age. I considered him my favourite living author, and as with Ursula Le Guin (who died in 2018), longevity was a factor. I was reading both of them by my early teens, if not before, and for many of us very little that follows will have quite the same impact. Others have written more eloquently about his significance as a spy writer, and simply as a great writer. For me his work is deeply personal, and I know that I'm not alone.

I recall le Carré as a sort of mysterious concept before I recall him as an author. My father was often reading his books when I was a child, and I would also see them in the library. In the slightly over-dramatic cover art of the 1980s, 'Le Carré' in huge letters would take up 90% of the space on the cover, and it was years until I learned this was a pseudonym (his real name was David Cornwell). There was something both intimidating and alluring about this monolithic concept.

At some point in junior high, when I would have been 12 or 13, I read The Spy Who Came In from the Cold. My memory of that first reading, or at least a part of it, is extraordinarily vivid. I was sitting outside at lunchtime, on a sunny and quiet staircase round the back of the school, and riveted to the book. What I remember is reading this passage:

"As he stood there peering into the room, surprised to find it empty, the door behind him closed. Perhaps by itself, but Leamas made no attempt to open it. It was pitch dark. No sound accompanied the closing of the door, no click nor footstep. To Leamas, his instinct suddenly alert, it was as if the sound-track had stopped."

My reaction to this was absolutely visceral. I remember feeling frozen to the spot - somewhat like Leamas himself. At the moment when the door closed I am pretty sure that the hairs stood up on the back of my neck. In my memory, this is when I knew that I would go on reading this author. 

There is a way in which memory flows in all directions, in time or in our lives (and I am not sure that time is linear, although we perceive it as such). What I don't know is whether I remember such moments so clearly because they pointed the way forward, or whether they have later taken on a greater significance. I'm not sure it matters. 

There are many, many le Carré moments in my life. I remember reading Absolute Friends on a Mallorca beach holiday 15 years ago with my parents, when my father had finished reading it. I remember reading Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy exactly ten years ago while visiting my friends in Japan, and being utterly confused but knowing that it was going to be important. And although I never met him, I was fortunate to see le Carré four times. The first was at the Queen Elizabeth Hall on London's Southbank, in 2008, when he gave a talk for the release of A Most Wanted Man. I cannot forget the thrill of seeing him walk onto the stage. In 2011 (I think) he read from The Spy Who Came In from the Cold on Trafalgar Square, for World Book Night, saying "I want you to imagine that this is the Brandenburg Gate". Later that year I saw him at the premiere of the Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy film, and I was as delighted to see him as I was to see the likes of Benedict Cumberbatch and Colin Firth (or very close!). And in 2017 I was in the second row at the Royal Festival Hall, a night attended by a cross-section of the literary and artistic world, when he gave a spectacular speech about his life (and George Smiley's) for the release of A Legacy of Spies. The advantage of living in London is that your life can be full of such highlights; le Carré's appearances were especially bright ones, for me. 

In the past ten years, I engaged with le Carré's work more intensely than I had previously done. I have joked that moving to south London and, for a while, having a view of MI6 from my window had an effect, but it's actually possible; geographic locations have quite an powerful effect on me. Although I had been writing poetry for about as long as I'd been a le Carré fan, I also started writing poetry more intensely in the past ten years, and publishing. Here and there, I also found his influence creeping into my work, whether in the occasional poem actually about spies, or in some acerbic tone or wry observation. Le Carré loved poetry, too. In The Russia House, he quotes Stevie Smith and Theodore Roethke in the space of one page. Our Game references Osip Mandelstam. The Honourable Schoolboy opens with Auden's famous lines: "I and the public know/What all schoolchildren learn,/Those to whom evil is done/Do evil in return." Perhaps most tellingly, George Smiley loved "the lesser German poets". 

I have realised that we create a kind of internal genealogy for ourselves. We find the things that matter and they become linked together into a system or a map, and that is who we are, at least in part. The lamplight falls especially brightly, or at least with a particular light, on certain people, places, beliefs, concepts and artistic works on our map. John le Carré's works reside in one of those pools of light, for me. It is very hard to now say goodbye. 

Image: John le Carré at the 'Zeit Forum Kultur' in Hamburg, 2008. Photo by Krimidoedel. Used under Creative Commons license

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.