Friday 29 April 2016

Helena Nelson on Andrew Waterhouse

Over at Anthony Wilson's blog, Helena Nelson has written a guest post about Andrew Waterhouse.

She tells the story of how she discovered his poetry, how it affected her and stays with her even today. Moreover, she also gets to grips with the linguistic mechanics of why, and that's where her insight reveals new facets to his poems.

Her post is a lovely read for a bank holiday weekend. If it encourages readers to learn more about Andrew Waterhouse and seek out his startlingly original verse, so much the better!

Wednesday 27 April 2016

Time to write?

Yesterday I tasted the tank of Zaleo that we'll be bottling on Friday, scheduled the loading of our extra virgin olive oil for China, proofread the copy of a new back label, processed a couple of orders for Germany and Belgium, cooked lunch, made the bed, helped David with his maths homework, played tennis and wrote the first draft of a poem.

This space for poetry to be written couldn't have happened without all the rest. That's because the poem had been working through my head for weeks, waiting for the right moment to pop out, just when I'd been bombarded with enough stimulation and was ready to grab a hour on my own with a pen and notebook (never a screen!).

In other words, I fail to write anything when I've got otherwise empty days on my hands. I just lounge about, wasting time. And what about if poetry/creative writing were my day job? After going through students' work in tutorials, marking, sorting out funding applications, etc, etc, the last thing on my mind would be creating verse myself. Unless I ended up writing about that very world of poetry I inhabited. Which would be worse. I can only admire those poets who manage to produce excellent stuff in such circumstances and even seem to thrive.

Poetry is my escape valve, a counterpoint to obligations yet intrinsically and intimately linked to my everyday life. I treasure it.

Tuesday 19 April 2016

Phil Brown on what Hugo Williams means to him

Back in 2009, Rogue Strands featured Phil Brown's excellent interview with Hugo Williams in the now-disappeared Horizon Review. Seven years on, Brown has published a feature in The Huffington Post in which he describes the curious context of the above-mentioned interview, together with other anecdotes about his experiences with Williams from 2007 to the present day.

Brown's article is a lovely example of how one poet can affect another. This is down to the generosity of its frank tone and revelatory content: we learn a lot about Hugo Williams, but just as much about Phil Brown himself.

Wednesday 13 April 2016

Version or translation...?

Terminology gets complicated when a poem is rendered into another language.

Before dealing with the thorny issue of the difference between a version and a translation, it’s worth clarifying another term that gets far too much snotty treatment: literal translation. Its original meaning referred to a mistake that some translators make in their work by working word by word without forming language into semantic blocks and setting off from there. A consequence is that sense is often lost and an incomprehensible text results, such as in the case of certain dishwasher instruction manuals.

In the above context, the use of the term literal translation is clear and precise. However, it’s also thrown pejoratively at literary translators who do their utmost to stick close to the text, trying to stay in the background as much as possible. Its original meaning thus gives us the impression of a translator who’s leading us astray by lacking imagination or creativity. Instead, such an approach is hugely demanding on the translator and involves a rigorous method. Moreover, it’s no more and no less valid than the following term: interpretative translation.

In the interview with Michael Hofmann that I discussed last week, he provides an excellent description of how an interpretative translator approaches a text:

“One of his guiding principles for translating, he says, is to avoid the obvious word, even if it is the literal equivalent of the original. When the opening page of a Roth novel contained the word Baracke, he insisted on going with “tenement” rather than “barracks”. In the second paragraph of Hofmann’s version of Metamorphosis, Gregor Samsa doesn’t ask “What happened to me?” (Was ist mit mir geschehen?), but “What’s the matter with me?”. He liked the phrase, he says, because it sounds like someone having trouble getting up after a heavy night.”

“Nobody will notice, but you have taken a step back from the original. You have given yourself a little bit of self-esteem, a little bit of originality, a little bit of boldness. Then the whole thing will appear automotive: look, it’s running on English rather than limping after the German.”

At this point, it’s useful to take Hofmann’s quote and compare it with statements from Don Paterson about how he worked on Antonio Machado’s verse, the key point being that Paterson eschewed the word translation and opted for version.

“…these poems are versions, not translations. A reader looking for an accurate translation of Antonio Machado‘s words, then, should stop here and go out and by another book…

”… literal translation can be useful in providing a snapshot of the original, but a version — however subjectively — seeks to restore a light and colour and perspective…”

Is Paterson thus using version as a synonym of figurative translation? Or is he simply allowing himself greater scope for individual creativity, using Machado’s verse as a point of departure. A close analysis of the Spanish and English texts shows that the latter is the case.

In other words, there’s an argument that a progressive line can be drawn, starting at the original: from literal translation to figurative translation and on to version. Of course, there’s an inevitable grey area in each case as to where one begins and another ends.

All these attempts to find answers lead us back to the start: maybe all translations are versions, maybe all translators are traitors. Once again, it’s a question of terminology.

Sunday 10 April 2016

English is not a trap

Michael Hofmann is one of the most interesting figures in the U.K. literary scene. As a consequence, I'm always on the look-out for features about him. They tend to provoke numerous thoughts on my part, so it was no surprise when I was deeply struck by his interview in The Guardian this week in which he states the following:

"English is basically a trap: class trap, dialect trap, feeling trap. It’s almost a language for spies, for people to find out what people are really thinking." 

As someone who speaks three languages and has lived in a non-English-speaking country for over twenty years, I couldn't disagree more. English itself isn't the trap. Instead, it's Hofmann's upbringing in a certain social environment that traps him. The interviewer mentions his RP tones, while also describing his boarding school and Oxbridge education.

In other words, Hofmann feels hemmed in by the English he associates with the society that he knows. Of course, this linguistic world view is hugely limited, as if the English language were restricted to how it is used at Winchester College and Cambridge University. In the interview, Hofmann also states the following when comparing German with English:

“I have come to be very fond of German again. There are reaches of simplicity that English cannot do without sounding ignorant and stupid. In English you always have to sound as if you are making an effort."

When attempting to generalise, he's actually comparing his specific experience of the two languages. For example, the English that is spoken in the playgrounds and pubs of my home town bears no resemblance to the language he describes. Nor does the English that's used in numerous other parts of the British Isles. And this is before invoking the English of other countries.

Language doesn't trap us. The burden of its social connotations form the real trap, and this is true of English, German, Spanish, French, etc, etc. Of course, the personal knowledge of an extra language is another trap: bilingualism enriches you in terms of the layers and texturing that you can encounter in both languages, yet it also means you are never quite at home in either. This is no fault of the languages themselves. It's down to the societies where we've experienced them.

Friday 8 April 2016

Paul McLoughlin on Sarah Howe in London Grip

Sarah Howe's verse has intrigued and challenged me over the past few months, so I was delighted to read Paul McLoughlin's review of her prize-winning Loop of Jade on London Grip this week. Like all the best criticism, his work encourages readers to get hold of the book and form or revise their own views.

Why is the review in question so good? Well, it strikes an excellent balance, especially bearing in mind the opinion-laden minefield that has been created beyond Howe's verse itself. McLoughlin manages to highlight Howe's terrific strengths, while also discussing aspects that I too find difficult in her poetry. It would be hugely unfair to extract out-of-context quotes from McLoughlin's piece, so I recommend you read it in full here.

Saturday 2 April 2016

Fizzing tensions, Sarah Barnsley's The Fire Station

Sarah Barnsley’s pamphlet, The Fire Station (Telltale Press, 2015), is firmly anchored in time and place. The collection is littered with mentions of a Lada, a Commodore 64, Mr Sheen and The Kenny Everett Show, all alongside Sunday joints of meat from Bejam’s.

This last reference is especially telling. How many readers of this piece know what Bejam’s was? If you didn’t live in the U.K. in the 1980s, you wouldn’t be aware that it was a chain of frozen food shops with connotations of a lower-class clientele. In fact, it was taken over by Iceland in 1989 and disappeared from town-centre landscapes forever. I can still remember its shiny-blue livery, so exciting and modern in the drab surroundings of the Woolmead in Farnham just along from Wimpy!

So a key question immediately comes to mind: is Barnsley’s verse limited in poetic scope by its concrete settings? Far from it. Her portrayal of specific incidents within a class-ridden society opens up beyond such details but also thanks to them.

One such instance is the way Barnsley starts poems off by playing with the caricature of a happy-go-lucky working class childhood before whipping its legs away in the final stanza. Here are two examples, firstly from the collection’s title poem:

“…Dad whacking
Terry Marshall,
teeth fizzing blue,
us being rehoused,
no one laughing now.”

And secondly from the ending to “Dad’s Cars”

“…Like a trifle, it wobbled, out of the driveway,
and conked out in the street. You kicked it
like it was us. Like you, it never worked again.”:

The tension between upbringing and education fizzes throughout this pamphlet. It’s implicit in the poems that draw on childhood from an adult’s perspective, but it becomes explicit at certain pivotal moments such as the following stanzas from “The domestic white-throated Lincoln imp lizard (familia albigularis)”:

“They have seen it all,
and they have seen you,
coming up the path with
your London ways

like untied shoelaces,
your university education
splatted in your hair
like pigeon shit.”

In the above example, Barnsley juxtaposes different linguistic registers so as to highlight the social clash that is being described, syntax and semantics working together for poetic effect.

The Fire Station is an intriguing pamphlet that knows exactly what it’s doing and executes its aims with clarity and skill. It works on the margins of poetic trends and engages with readers even if they’ve never savoured the delights of a joint from Bejam’s! I very much look forward to seeing where Sarah Barnsley takes her verse from here.