Sunday, October 28, 2012

In Transit

For my many train journeys last week, I had the perfect travelling companion: Ruth Padel's The Mara Crossing (2012). I was already a fan of her book on her great great grandfather Charles Darwin, in which she manages to capture the character of his life, but also the character of his times, showing how the challenges of modernity, religious doubt and the advance of science were part of the fabric of Darwin's personal experience. In that earlier book, Padel skilfully weaves together her own words and those of Darwin from his letters and writings to make a narrative which is also an experiment in story-telling through verse. The Mara Crossing approaches a not unrelated topic, that of migration, and there are again many references to evolution in this book. But what is particularly fascinating, apart from the tremendous amount the reader (or, at least, this reader) learns about the natural world, is the mixture of prose and sections of thematically linked poems which structure the narrative. The prose sections aren't exactly essays. Framed within a personal narrative of migration (the poet moving house), they combine observations on nature and anecdotes of the people and places Padel encountered while researching and writing the book. She writes movingly and humanely of our common fate as migrants, from the very first migration of cells to the detention centres of 'fortress Europe', and makes a powerful case for tolerance in world whose ecology is threatened as its population explodes, a process both driven by and driving migration. Then, in the poems themselves, particular scenes and characters are evoked again from new perspectives and in greater concentration.

I certainly found the book compelling, and many of the poems stand alone as excellent pieces which would work well without the context provided by the overall story, which is nothing less than ambitious than a history of life on the planet. Having said that, there are times when the particular figure or episode presented in the prose did not feel like it needed revisiting in the form of a poem, of rather where the poem itself did not seem to add a great deal, but I think that is more a side-effect of what is, in the final judgement, a very successful experiment. It has certainly made me think about my place in the world differently - and that is not something many contemporary poets achieve.

Wednesday, October 17, 2012

In Translation

I've had a busy few weeks with work, but have also been attending poetry events as reader, audience member or workshop participant. In particular, I enjoyed several excellent sessions of this year's Cheltenham Literature Festival unofficial fringe - Words on the Side.

I'm not, sad to say, a huge fan of workshops which try to inspire you to write poems, often by giving you a model or a prompt. They just don't work for me, although I know others get a lot out of them. At best, they give me something to go away and think about much later, but often it feels like a great pressure to jump through a hoop I would never have chosen myself.

A workshop I did enjoy, however, was Philip Rush's excellent session on 'translating Lorca' for Words on the Side. I have no Spanish and my knowledge of Lorca extends only as far as having seen a production of The House of Bernada Alba and loving Leonard Cohen's 'Take this Waltz'. The real point of Philip's workshop, though, was to explore how a poem written in another language could be the starting point for re-interpretation and re-invention as much as for literal translation. Using English translations of the poems or prose summaries, he encouraged us to produce new versions of Lorca. The result was not exactly mimicry, but it did help us to consider different ways of writing which might enrich our own.

Anyway, here's my very modest effort, slightly tweaked since the workshop: a version (but not a translation) of Lorca's 'La Luna Asoma'.

after Lorca, for Philip Rush

When the moon first rises
it muffles the bells,
draws unnavigable paths across the infinite
land, then floods that land
leaving only an island for your heart.

And there you sit, hungry for oranges
but eating only cold and unripe fruit,
turning two silver coins in your pocket,
sliding their faces across each other
to hear them weep.

Wednesday, October 3, 2012

Words on the Side

Live Canon

I'm very happy to have been shortlisted for the Live Canon Poetry Prize with my poem 'Domestic Gods'. I wrote this poem a few years ago and never did anything with it after getting some uncomprehending looks at the one slam I ever entered. Maybe the slam was a mistake, but it just goes to show you should never give up on a poem.

The Live Canon team are producing not only an anthology of the shortlisted work, but also a performance of the poems by their own actors. I'm going to have to miss this, unfortunately, due to family commitments, but I'd certainly encourage anyone within easy reach of the Greenwich area to go along and check it out on Sunday 21 October at 3 p.m. Full details of the shortlist and of how to get free tickets are here. After the performance, judge Antony Dunn will tear the golden envelope and announce the lucky winner.