Wednesday, 12 May 2021

Reading at Broken Sleep Books 2019 showcase





A little belatedly (sorry) I wanted to invite readers of my blog to a poetry reading I will be part of tomorrow (Thursday 13 August, 7:30 PM UK time, on Zoom).

This reading will showcase authors who appeared with my wonderful publishers Broken Sleep Books in 2019. As well as myself, the following poets will read: Ollie Tong, Christine Taylor, Matthew Haigh, Charlie Baylis, Yvonne Litschel, Eva Griffin, Jasmine Gray and Jack Belloli. 

I knew I'd found a good publisher when Broken Sleep Books accepted my pamphlet Island of Towers and published it in 2019, but they really have surpassed all our expectations since then with more great publications, charitable endeavours and awards. 



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: https://www.shearsman.com/store/Yang-Lian-Anniversary-Snow-p140803770  

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: https://www.poetrytranslation.org/articles/where-did-anniversary-snow-fall

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. 


三,学探——另一个嵌入的声音

不能真 是不是美的? 想象一件河底撒开的

柏林秋夜的黑
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

时间除了抽的肺

法除了剥开生命那件 身人形的茫茫

再淤是否仍然不?

     沉溺之里只有正在到来的

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

粉碎
煌如

的美学?


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

shattering
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: https://thestoneandthestar.blogspot.com/2017/10/keep-my-words-forever-mandelstam-at.html 

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, https://om130.ru/ . (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: https://www.poetrytranslation.org/articles/sarah-maguire-prize-for-poetry-in-translation-shortlist 



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: https://www.kinoklassikafoundation.org/project/kharms/

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.