Tuesday, December 27, 2005

Urgent invitations

Reading a review in the TLS of a book of essays by WS Merwin in which reviewer talks about the different Merwins, the different poets that live in the neighbourhood , as it were, and I liked that idea of different kinds of poets, different impulses, co-exisiting. I find that a much more congenial notion than a poet of one aspect, one kind, recognisable and predictable. But the reviewer also made another point about Merwin that I think is important. He talked about the Merwin who writes out of impulsion, and the Merwin who writes out of invitation. The first referred to a need to write something, the second to a kind of professional writing, where the writer sits down at his desk, because this is what he does, and produces language in the hope or expectation that this invitation might lead to a discovery. This seems to me to go to the heart of the poet’s relationship with his writing, particularly in an age that favours and expects productivity. The point was that a good deal of Merwin’s work begs the question, ‘did this really need to be written?’. And should something ‘need to be written’ if it’s any good or is that just old fashioned romantic twaddle? I don’t think it is, therefore I think that one characteristic of poetry is its built-in sense of compulsion, urgency. There are many kinds and levels of urgency, of course, but if it isn’t there in some shape or form you have dead language on the page. And yet, there is something puritanical about the impulsion model too, something of the old Romantic imperative. What’s wrong with invitation as a mode of working? Not a thing. Exercising the poetry muscle seems like a very good and necessary activity to me, a way of getting at the core. Urgency sometimes has to be dug for, waited for, invited.

Thursday, December 22, 2005

Playwright attacked

The literary world has been rightly exercised recently at the outrageous treatment by the Turkish government of writer Ohran Pamuk, but we don’t always have to stray too far from home to see bizarre treatment of writers. Incredible reports in today’s paper about loyalist attacks on Belfast playwright Gary Mitchell and his family. Mitchell is well known in this part of the world for plays like In a Little World of Our Own centred on a family of three brothers living in the Rathcoole District of North Belfast, produced in the Peacock. Many others were produced in the Lyric and the Royal Court. According to the report , the playwright is now in hiding ‘after a campaign of death threats and bomb attacks by loyalist paramilitaries’. Mitchell’s plays, including As the Beast Sleeps and the Force of Change, which dealt explicitly with loyalist violence, have been controversial in his own community, but this seems astonishing:
    Mitchell's home was attacked by paramilitaries carrying baseball bats, their faces hidden by football scarves. His car was petrol bombed and exploded in his driveway. His wife, Alison, grabbed their seven-year-old son from his bed, ran outside with him, put him over a wall and threw herself on top of him to protect him. She said: "I heard an explosion and I thought they've killed Gary.

Mitchell spoke to the Guardian from a secret location:
    We are in hiding now. I feel a mix of confusion, anger, frustration and despair. There is a feeling that certain people are jealous and feel that I am depicting them in a bad way. They have decided that they will do this no matter what anybody says ... I haven't done anything other than write.
    "Some say the way to deal with this is to sit down with paramilitaries and ask them why they are doing this. I have no interest in doing that because I don't want to give people authority over my writing. If I negotiated with them, I would be recognising their authority, which I don't.

The Belfast novelist Glenn Patterson has organised an open letter in support of Mitchell with 30 other writers and if I find it I’ll link to it.
Susan McKay has a strong piece about it in the Irish News:
    It is a terrible thing to hear of a child so scared he says to his mother, "I'm going to die, amn't I?"

    This is what Alison Mitchell's seven-year-old said to her after men petrol bombed their home in Glengormley two weeks ago. She was terrified her son might be right. Her father-in-law, Chuck, took a heart attack. Alison's husband, Gary, ran after the attackers but they got away. The family was told to get out of the area and they are now staying with relatives.

    Chuck and his wife had already been intimidated out of their home in Rathcoole.

    The thugs who did this would call themselves loyalists but this wasn't the usual sectarian intimidation of a Catholic family out of a Protestant area.
    Gary Mitchell is a Protestant. He is a writer. He has, in a series of excellent and award-winning plays and films, given a voice to the angry men of loyalism. He has presented their dilemmas to the world and demanded that they be understood. He is passionately committed to his own people.

It will be interesting to see what coverage this attracts in the Irish press. Had Mitchell been intimidated and driven out by republicans it would have been front page news and we would have Michael McDowell foaming at the mouth....

Blogs and more blogs

Article in today’s Guardian about the growing popularity of blogs. According to Technorati there are now 23 million of the things, with 1.8 billion links. And here are some more figgers: The Pew Internet study estimates that about 11%, or about 50 million, of Internet users are regular blog readers. According to Technorati data, there are about 70,000 new blogs a day. Bloggers update their weblogs regularly; there are about 700,000 posts daily, or about 29,100 blog updates an hour. The Cat Flap is going to have his work cut out out to cut it in the blogosphere. The specific angle of the Guardian piece , is the arrival of a blog by the inventor of the Web, Sir Tim Berners-Lee :
    In 1989 one of the main objectives of the WWW was to be a space for sharing information. It seemed evident that it should be a space in which anyone could be creative, to which anyone could contribute. The first browser was actually a browser/editor, which allowed one to edit any page, and save it back to the web if one had access rights.
    Strangely enough, the web took off very much as a publishing medium, in which people edited offline. Bizarrely, they were prepared to edit the funny angle brackets of HTML source, and didn't demand a what you see is what you get editor. WWW was soon full of lots of interesting stuff, but not a space for communal design, for discourse through communal authorship.
    Now in 2005, we have blogs and wikis, and the fact that they are so popular makes me feel I wasn't crazy to think people needed a creative space.

Monday, December 19, 2005

Not a child in the house washed yet

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A new poem. Not sure if I like it yet. Another mushy parent piece, of which there are getting to be too many. Thinking of dedicating the next Poetry Ireland Review to parenthood, smiling babies on the cover, mushy poems inside. Actually this thought was prompted by sitting in O’Neill’s pub the other day after James McAuley’s Out to Lunch reading in Foster Place. I could see James looking around bemusedly at one point at the encumbered poets: The Cat Flap, EW and baby; MG spooning food from a jar into his son; PB with child asleep on his knee. The place awash with buggies.A pint of Guinness and a jar of organic cottage pie. ‘What’s happened to poetry?’ he said.

But enough idle gossip, time for an idle poem.

The Danger Zone

The stairs are gated, the play cage is assembled,
the electricity is hidden
and the maps have all been erased.
You can barely sit, yet still we’re afraid.

We know you by the mad
frolic of your eyes and the wild explorations
of your hands. Do you not, every morning,
with quiet concentration pull my glasses off?

And would pluck out my eyes and roll
over the edge to the mystery of the floor
and leap where you could. Don’t we see
Antarctica in your eyes, and hear

the landmasses quake in your laughter
and doesn’t the whole world loosen when you go out
in your Peruvian hat? We’re watching you,
we’re busy with our endless preparations

but already you fall between the cracks,
you slip through our fingers, you have
somehow worked free of the straps and harnesses,
and move, delightedly, towards the dangerous places.

Out and about

out and about
Originally uploaded by greenville17.

Freya in the Peruvian hat....

Saturday, December 17, 2005

The Milkwoman Will Cut Our Throats

One of those brilliant sharp clear cold winter’s days. Off to Dún Laoghaire for a meeting. Brisk walk to Tara street, so long since I’ve been on a Dart I can’t find the ticket office. What’s that line of Durcan’s about the apex of happiness being ‘on a Dart to Dún Laoghaire’? That’s what it feels like today. The first glimpse of sea and something lifts. Even the canal basin gladdens, flat stretch of urban water surrounded by old stone buildings, warehouses now turned into offices and apartments. Water should be compulsory in cities. The soul is hard-wired to respond to water and stone. Two tiny kids opposite me, staring at me. Hey mister, what’s your name? Ma, where’s me dooough----nu’? My nan’s friend has that name. Are you going to the beach? Only in spirit, alas. For company I’ve brought along Continued, a selection of poems by the Polish poet Piotr Sommer, translated by various hands. I’ve coveted this book since I read Mark Ford’s review of it in The Guardian last September. In that review he quotes the late DJ Enright, one of his translators here, who characterised the work as ‘low-key and terse. Irony there is, but it keeps its head down, while the occasional uncertain joke raises an uncertain smile. Obliquity is the rule.’ Excellent, I thought. I can’t get enough uncertain jokes and obliquity. So I immediately amazoned it and waited patiently. And finally, last week, it arrived.

What I like about the work so far is that it seems to be calculatedly incidental; it’s interested in the tiny things that are happening to one side of events, and these things become the event, as in ‘A Small Treatise on Non Contradiction’, for instance:

From the kitchen window I watch the boys kick a ball.
The door opens, and while the door’s open
you can hear that the lift works today,
clicks shut and moves on, to be useful

or in the poem beside it, ‘A Maple Leaf’:

A maple leaf with the sun shining through it
at the end of summer is beautiful, but
not excessively so, and even an ordinary
electric train passing by
nearly three hundred yards away
makes music, light and unobtrusive,
and yet to be remembered, for its own sort of
usefulness perhaps....

I like the cool appraising intelligence of this, and the sense of the importance of the small human interventions, the humble quotidian machinery about its business. The poems play with inconsequentiality in order to establish a true sense of what is of consequence. That is, in their way, in their apparent casualness, they are very sure of themselves. Part of their attractiveness is precisely this indirection, the sense of the gaze being withheld from the obvious. Maybe this is a function of our perception of work from a country like Poland, where we’re schooled to expect the large gesture, the public responsibility, the speaking on behalf of...

August Kleinzahler, in his introduction, puts it well: ‘The art of the poetry – and its art is considerable, singular and memorable – is in the way it matter-of-factly transforms ordinary incident, character, landscape, object and the assorted interactions thereof, into tiny metaphysical and epistemological essays: investigations into the subjects of language, imagination, impermanence, memory, identity.’

The book also seems to me a model of how poetry translation makes available a range of utterance that is memorable and distinctive even if it necessarily involves the loss of many elements essential to the total impact of poetry. Kleinzahler talks about the musicality of Sommer in Polish, based on hearing him read aloud (though not on an understanding of Polish) and clearly much would have been lost in the transition to English. Much more interesting is what has been gained by the team of translators that includes John Ashbery, Douglas Dunn and D.J. Enright. A hard-edge worldly wit, the stamp of a distinctive poetic personality and vision.

You’re not going to find a better place
for these cosmetics, even if eventually
we wind up with some sort of bathroom cabinet and
you stop knocking them over with your towel --
there’ll still be a thousand reasons to complain
and a thousand pieces of glass on the floor
and a thousand new worries,
and we’ll still have to get up early.

(‘Believe me’, translated by D.J. Enright)

Piotr himself is a noted translator of poetry by American, British and Irish poets into Polish, and his sense of the shifting landscape of translation, of being ‘between, that is, nowhere’, informs the poetry – his earlier Bloodaxe selection was called Things to Translate :

words stay behind the doors
of strangers’ mouths, gestures
get written in the air
by strange hands, and the child
asked at school
for his father’s occupation
answers shyly ‘transportist’.


The book is hugely quotable, itself a tribute to the quality of the translations, and here, to end with, is ‘Don’t Sleep, Take Notes’, translated by Halina Janod and D.J. Enright:

Don’t Sleep, Take Notes

At four in the morning
the milkwoman was knocking
in plain clothes, threatening
she wouldn’t leave us anything,
at most remove the empties,
if I didn’t produce the receipt.

It was somewhere in my jacket,
but in any case I knew
what the outcome would be:
she’d take away yesterday’s curds,
she’d take the cheese and the eggs,
she’d take our flat away,
she’d take away the child.

If I don’t produce the receipt,
if I don’t find the receipt,
the milkwoman will cut our throats.

Continued. Poems. By Piotr Sommer. Foreword by August Kleinzahler.Bloodaxe Books, 2005.

Monday, December 12, 2005

Eddie's Own Aquarius

Eddies’ Own Aquarius is a special issue of the legendary poetry magazine put together by Constance Short and Tony Carroll for Eddie Linden’s 70th birthday. It features contributions from a host of English, Irish, Scottish, Welsh and Americanpoets including Dannie Abse, Sebastian Barker, Seamus Heaney, Leland Bardwell, Dermot Healy, Alan Brownjohn, Robert Creeley, Anthony Cronin, the late Michael Donaghy ( who threw a party for Linden’s 60th birthday and whose idea this tribute was), Paul Durcan, Elaine Feinstein, Pearse Hutchinson, Joy Hendry, Alan Jenkins and John Montague. Handsomely produced, it also contains photographs and paintings, essays about Eddie Linden, and some of his own poetry, including his well known ‘City of Razors’ :

Cobbled streets, littered with broken milk bottles,
reeking chimneys and dirty tenement buildings,
walls scrawled with FUCK THE POPE and blue-lettered
Old woman at the corner, arms folded, babe in pram,
a drunk man’s voice from the other pavement,
And out come the Catholics from evening confessional;

A woman roars from an upper window
‘They’re at it again, Maggie!
Five stitches in our Tommie’s face, Lizzie!
Eddie’s in The Royal wi’ a sword in his stomach
and the razor’s floating in the River Clyde.’

There is roaring in Hope Street,
They’re killing in the Carlton,
There’s an ambulance in Bridgeton,
And a laddie in the Royal.

Sydney Bernard Smyth remembers Linden reading this in the bar of Murray’s hotel on Inishbofin at the Arts Festival in 1971:

‘The attendance was riveted. They understood immediately what this anguish was about. City of Razors made a startling impact.’

Sean Hutton’s essay, ‘In praise of Eddie Linden’ is a good introduction to the man and his work. The first issue of Aquarius came out in 1969 and it became an annual publication, with many special issues devoted to Irish, Scottish, Welsh, Australian and Canadian poetry, or to individual poets (Hugh McDiarmid, John Heath-Stubbs, George Barker and W.S. Graham. And there’s a slew of reminiscences about the man, his magazine and the Soho arts world that no longer exists. All in all, a worthwhile tribute and a great introduction to a fine literary magazine for those who might have missed it first time round.

Eddie’s Own Aquarius. Compiled and edited by Constance Short and Tony Carroll. Published by Cahermee Publications. €25. Book orders: constanceshort at eircom net.
ISBN -10: 0-9551584-0-0
ISBN -13: 978-0-9551584-0-7.

Sunday, December 11, 2005

Setting the weathercock free

Reading a book of poems by the German poet Johann P. Tammen, recently published by Coiscéim.(Und Himmelwärts Meere/And Skyward the Seas/Farraigí i dTreo na Spéire . It's an unusual book in that it's trilingual, with translations into English by Hans-Christian Oeser (whose normal direction is English into German) and into Irish by Gabriel Rosenstock, whose own selected poems, Rogha Dánta, was published recently. It's rare enough these days to see poetry published bilingually, so seeing three languages side by side is a treat in itself, even if difficult to accomplish in a relatively small format book. Tammen was born in Hohenkirchen, Friesland and works as an editor and organiser of literary events. Since 1994 he's been editor-in-chief of the literary journal die horen, and has edited it since 1968. Since 1968? How is this possible? A literary journal with a print run of 5500, which celebrated its fiftieth anniversary this year. How many Irish journals get to celebrate their tenth anniversary? He has also ventured into book publication and one of the results is a series of books co-edited with Gregor Laschen devoted to 'Poesie der Nachbarn' (the neighbours' poetry), making available inn German selections from contemporary poets from an impressive range of other cultures.

In their afterword (and again what a civilised creature an afterword is, and how few books like this come freighted with any critical apparatus), the editors situate Tammen as 'clearly a poet from the North of Germany, deeply rooted in the austere landscape of his child- and adulthood, a denizen of the seaboard, that peculiar border zone between terra firma and the wide expanse of the sea, with its mud-flats, tides, channels, streams and groynes.' Not sure what a groyne is but I promise to find out. The editors also discuss the difficulties they had with the translations, not least, they say, because both English and Irish resist the kind of abstraction that German is quite at home with: 'Among readers of Irish there has always been a very strong gut reaction against the nebulous or the obscure....However well-intentioned the translator may be, the work of poets such as Johann P. Tammen will sound stutterish or maimed in Irish.' This is the eternal concern of poetry translators, who in the end have to be realistic about how far they can replicate the effects of the original. They have to respond to the particular genius of their own language. There's always too much talk about what translation misses, rather than about what it actually achieves. As Oeser/Rosenstock put it: ' Some literary and linguistic echoes – those specific to the German language - will, inevitably, be lost in translation. Nevertheless, we as translators affirm the importance of our art and craft because we reject a monochrome view of mankind and of the world.' And here's another bit I like: ' It may sound strange, but it is possible to read a poem without fully understanding it -- just as it is possible for a poet to write a poem that he does not fully understand himself.'

Time to see a translation, I think.

Johann P. Tammen

Kleine Aufforderung zur Freilassung des Wetterhahns

Holt doch endlich
den Hahn
vom Dach
seine Wetterfühligkeit
ist ihm schon lange
eine Last

über uns
thront er
Stunde für Stunde
Tag für Tag
mit beiden Beinen
an die Pflicht
sich drehend
sich windend
hoch über

holt ihn vom Dach
den Hahn
und er wird
noch bevor ers verlernt hat
krähen aus voller

Small request to set the weathercock free
Will you get
that bloody cock
off the roof
his sensitivity to the weather
has long weighed
him down

above us
he perches
hour after hour
day after day
both legs
to duty
and turning
high above

get him off the roof
that cock
and before
he loses the knack
he shall crow
at full throttle.

Dein gar dom agus saor an coileach gaoithe

an diabhal coiligh sin
den díon
tá a thuiscint
don aimsir
ina heire air le fada

os ár gcionn é
de ló is d’oíche
go ríogúil
a dhá chos
ceangailte dá dhualgas
ag lúbadh
is ag casadh
in airde
os ár gcionn

baintear den díon é
an coileach sin
agus sula
gcailleann sé a cheird
ligeadh sé scairt
in airde a chinn
is a ghutha.

Translated into English by Hans Christian Oeser, and into Irish by Gabriel Rosenstock.
From Johann P. Tammen, Und Himmelwärts Meere/And Skyward the Sea/Farraigí i dTreo na Spéire, Ausgewälte Gedichte/Selected Poems/Rogha Dánta, Coiscéim, 2005.


Friday, December 09, 2005

After the event

A horrible rainy wind tossed night. Surely no-one would come...IADT is the kind of place where most people have gone home by 5pm, and the place was ominously deserted. In the event a few brave souls fought the elements and clambered into the theatre. Both Julie and Hugo gave excellent readings. Julie read new poems from her chapbook Problems, itself designed as a problem to be solved by the reader, with the front cover on the reverse.

Take weeds for example.
Like how they will overrun
your garden and your life
if you don't obliterate them.
But forget about weeds
-- what about leaves?
Snails use them as handy
bridges to your flowers
and hordes of thuggish leaves
will invade -- ever thought of that?

'Problems', from Problems , Pressed Wafer, 9 Columbus Square, Boston, MA 02116.

Hugo began with a passage from The Speckled People where the father attempts, disastrously, to bake a Christmas cake. And then he read a long extract from his forthcoming The Sailor in the Wardrobe, a further installment of the memoir, and if that powerfully read extract is anything to go by, it will be as memorable as The Speckled People .

Friday, December 02, 2005

Hugo Hamilton and Julie O'Callaghan

This blog has so far failed the crunch test of blogness: regularity. The true blogger refuses to sleep until the daily task has been completed, the brain properly flushed and the web page filled with a satisfying clump of print. So, I'm emerging from silence now to urge everyone who can to cancel their early Christmas shopping and come out to the Dun Laoghaire Institute of Art Design and Technology next Wednesday's (7 December) for a reading with Hugo Hamilton and Julie O'Callaghan.
You can find details of the reading here

The student writing workshop has just one more session to run, and the workshop for people outside the college, in the borough of Dun Laoghaire-Rathdown will start in the new year. I'll post the details here soon. You can also get them from the Dun Laoghaire Arts Office by mailing arts at dlrcoco dot ie.

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