First off, I’ll use any excuse to revisit posters of the Spanish Civil War. But I do have a reason, which will become clear soon enough.
Secondly, this may turn out to be a shorter post that usual…or one that I revisit and add to during the next couple of days. The thing is, I’m really really tired and finding it difficult to concentrate. The latter is because I’m currently treating patches of sun-damage/skin cancer on my face with what the specialist describes as the dermatological equivalent of oven cleaner. I looks worse than it is, and people keep asking me if I’ve been in a fight…basically it looks like your knees looked when you’d graze them as a child. It’s sore and and it itches and burns, and I have to keep it up for three weeks. Just three days to go now, but it does wake me up/stops me from going to sleep.
I’m also tired for a good reason, which is that I was out four nights running last week, and three nights were poetry events. By midnight on Thursday I’d O.D.’d on poets and poetry, head buzzing with it all. Another thing to stop me sleeping. Wednesday I went to Square Chapel in Halifax, where Keith Hutson hosts Word Play. Guest poets were Roy Marshall, Kim Moore and Alison Brackenbury, any one of whom I’d cheerfully travel long distances to listen to…add in an open mic that included Cobweb guests, Julia Deakin and Laura Potts, and you have a night of riches.
Thursday was the Albert Poets. No open mic. there, but three star poets. Geoff Hattersley, who I’ve finally caught up with. Dry, laconic, ironic and utterly listenable. Keith Hutson, whose one-man show built round his sonnets celebrating variety and music hall artists and artistes will shortly be going to Wilton’s Music Hall. Wow. No wonder Carol Ann Duffy’s so enthusiastic about his work. And a poet I didn’t know, but now want to know a lot more about: Ruth Valentine. Since Thursday I’ve read and reread the collection I bought: Downpour [Smokestack 2015]. It really is a stunner, proving that it’s possible to write about death and hospitals and be nothing but life affirming, and life enhancing. I think I may come back to this in a post of its own. Don’t let me forget.
And there was Monday, The Puzzle Poets Live at The Blind Pig in Calderdale. Two great guests in Mark Connors and Genevieve Walsh, each celebrating the launch of a new collection. And in the open mic, my guest for tonight, Alicia Fernández Gallego-Casilda. (How’s that for a smooth segue!)
I heard Alicia read for the first time at Mark Connors’ poetry venue..Word Club at the Chemic Tavern in Leeds. It was also the first time I’d heard another of our cobweb guest poets read..Ian Harker. At an earlier event, I heard Tom Weir for the first time. It’s worth a trip is Word Club! Alicia reads with great clarity, great rhythm and engagement. It made me sit up and listen. I sat up even straighter when she read in Spanish as well as in English.
I’m going to digress for a bit at this point before we come back to Alicia and her poems. At the time I heard her first, I was struggling with a book review. (I did finish it. It’ll be in the July edition of The High Window). I was trying to come to terms with the fact that the collection was a homage to, or a translation of, Occitan troubador poetry from 12th C France. I couldn’t work out which. In the end, I decided it didn’t matter. Here were poems, and the thing to do was read and respond to them, just like any other poems. Except they’re not, quite. You can’t stop yourself wondering what the originals actually sounded like. Not French, certainly, any more than Piers Plowman or Gawain sound like modern English. I wondered about what’s lost in translation, the music,the nuances, the irreplaceable rhymes. After all, English suffers from rhyme-poverty in comparison with inflected languages, doesn’t it.
That’s one issue. If a poet is writing into another language..a Spanish speaker writing in English, say…or reading into another language, making links between English and Occitan, say…..what’s happening exactly? I have no answers. Just the fact that it bothers me, because I can’t imagine it.
The other issue grows from a friendship I have with a Hungarian who I met 4 years ago at a writing residential in Spain…an artist in metal, a sculptor, a creator of serious street furniture, great embassy gates..that sort of thing…and exquisite smaller pieces. And he writes poetry, in Hungarian and in English. I’ve spent a lot of time with him on courses, and via emails, workshopping his English poems. Sometimes he’s translated from Hungarian. Sometimes they’re written directly in English. My job is usually to work with him to find the core idea and the context. I may ask him to give me the literal English translation of the idea he had in Hungarian. And then I try to find the idiomatic English that fits his intentions and, if possible, his rhythms. I learn a lot about my own language from writing with Gyula Friewald.
So, there we are. I’m puzzled by the business of translation, the way ideas and feelings may only have their true form in this or that language, and what it’s like to to write in or into a foreign language. My sister in law has lived in Germany for so long now, she says she thinks in German and has to translate back into English. Me, I can ask for directions, prices, food, drink and cigarettes in four languages. That’s it. Not enough to write poems in, that’s for sure. It’s hard enough writing in English. Especially when I’m tired. Time for our guest. Let’s have a picture, because ever since I read Homage to Catalonia 50 years ago I’ve been in love with a certain idea of Spain. Humour me. There will be a poem that draws on the Civil War before long, honest.
I asked our guest to send me two or three poems, and also, if she had the time, to reflect on what it’s like to write in a language that’s not your first, but may well be, nevertheless, your own. Here she is:
Alicia Fernández was born and raised in Spain. She is a translator and conference interpreter, and currently lives in Leeds. Her poems have been featured online by Sleepy House Press and Algebra of Owls, and published in print as part of the anthology ‘Freefall’ by Bradford Poetry Foundation (Wellhouse Publications). She has been recently shortlisted for The Poetry Kit’s Open Poetry Competition 2017. Her debut solo pamphlet will be published by Half Moon Books in September 2017.
and this is what she wrote for the cobweb.
“We feel in the primary language into which we’re born. We apprehend our surroundings through this language and it marks all our first experiences; and that language for me is Spanish. When all your emotional transactions start to happen in another language, they will be inevitably permeated by your mother tongue.
Behind the things we write about, and the way we write about them, there is a heavily-loaded layer of meaning guiding our choices for words. I believe these choices are based on how our own life events have allowed us to delve in the many nuances clustered in those words. For example, when I describe something as green in English, my experience of the colour is not the same as if I resorted to the word verde when writing in Spanish – verde is the colour of the olive groves amongst which I grew up, and it makes my heart skip a beat with homesickness as I picture my grandfather hitting the branches with a wooden rod during harvest season; verde is also the colour Lorca used to represent death in poems such as ‘Romance Sonámbulo’, and having read his poetry since my adolescence, I cannot detach all those implications from the word. All this isn’t to say that using a second language implies an impoverishment of your writing by default – in fact, it can add a wonderful creative dimension it. The silver lining to writing in a second language is that the untranslatability of certain expressions can sometimes result in idiomatic “errors” that become a stylistic added value to the poem.
As a full-time translator, and plainly as a Spaniard living in England, my brain spends most of the day trading out meaning from English into Spanish, and vice versa – it is a constant quest for the idiomatic. My creative process entails that quest too. Spanish is the starting point in my mind more often than not – it’s only natural. Once an idea is in my head, I start building around it. When it begins to take shape, I try to transpose it into English. Sometimes the potential it had is ‘lost in translation’ (using Eva Hoffman’s expression): the alliterations and the sonority are gone, or the metaphor doesn’t work. However, some other times the translation offers a pleasant surprise and turns into something that works much better in the target language. I agree with George Szirtes when he says that “over a period of time both the first language and the second begin to talk to each other, so that they seem both natural and unnatural at the same time”. That is the blessing in disguise of bilingual writing – that blurry line between grammatical correctness and awkward or made-up expressions that can result in a distinct voice.”
I think I know, from hearing Alicia read in Spanish, what she means by the loss of sonority, alliteration…and dance and rhythm, too.There’s a regularity that comes from inflected languages that creates a music that we have to force into English. I think.
I love, really love, that notion of the first and second languages talking to each other, and the way a slight discord or snag of idiom makes a meaning fresh and unexpected, the way the reward of the struggle and the dialogue can be a new distinct voice. And a distinct(ive) voice is what we’ll share now.
Let’s start with a poem that Alicia introduces as follows:
I will just mention that ‘Enemy Lines’ is a poem about my grandfather changing sides half-way through the Spanish Civil War. He was recruited by the Republican army and set to battle but, alas, he ended up joining the Nationalist faction.
You readied your body,
battle-bruised and consumed,
to run across the firing line
in your muddy boots,
carrying your musket
on your shoulder.
As your tattered skin
sustained the sultriness
of a Spanish July night,
you took a leap of faith
through a mist of bullets
that whizzed by and landed
decades from where you were.
Your heart raced with you,
as you traded your copy
of the Manifesto for a Messiah’s
promise of no lack of bread.
As you lurked in the shadows
of a new world, the light of the
world you had abandoned wept,
and the silence of the barricade
was only blemished by the sound
of shotgun shells falling on the dirt.
I wonder how you pictured
the future then, when you had
only the smell of your own piss
and a monochrome photograph
that you pressed tightly
against your chest.
When I heard this for the first time, I know I was struck by the tactile strength of the language. There’s something very ‘English’ about ‘battle-bruised’, isn’t there, and the same goes for the bleakness of that last stanza: ‘the smell of your own piss/ and a monochrome photograph’. I love the ‘moment’ of
a mist of bullets
that whizzed by and landed
decades from where you were.
The way it elides space and time in the confusions of history and conflicted loyalties.At the same time, I ‘notice’ those little idiomatic slurs : consumed, sustained. I understand what’s meant by that idea of a distinct voice, and ideolect synthesised from two languages. The next two are rooted ‘closer to home’, if by home we mean contemporary.
In Praise of Exit Lights
Oh, green stock cubes of hope!
How you twinkle from above door frames
and revolving glasses that lead nowhere,
everywhere or home after bad news
or failed attempts at breaking something off.
Gentle bulky reminders of a way out,
you look down on us but never in reprisal
for the arrogance with which we lie
about our past amid fumes and booze,
the pitiful quivering of our hands
or the humdrumness of the goodbyes we bid.
May you always have our backs
so that we can feel righteous or brave
when we cross the auspicious thresholds
that you guard from the heights and burst
out into the future,
The stock cubes of hope make me grin…but how about
revolving glasses that lead nowhere,
everywhere or home after bad news
What I like so much is that sequence: nowhere|everywhere|home. It’s a songwriter’s sequence, I think, that you understand without analysing.
And finally, a poem that reminds you that here’s a poet pretty much comfortably at home in two languages and two countries and at least two cultures. It’s rare to come across the Small Faces these days, so to find them in this poem is very heaven.
The plan is to plunge into the canal
and collect treasures that I can
tape to your bed frame:
shivering damp daffodils
and rusty Czech crowns.
I will spend hours knelt over them
on the floor, sorting through the colours
and the different levels of degradation
and glow. I intend to take my time.
In the absence of a garland of ivy
there will be unravelled tape from a cassette
of the Small Faces’ greatest hits
and a collection of blanched stamps
featuring forgotten railways and beaches.
I will fill you with fugitive expectation
in an attempt to retain you. Don’t go yet.
Paper butterflies and fairy lights
will do the rest. It will take a while.
Once I have finished my display,
my hand will grab your hand and
drag you back from the caustic world
where I left you behind.
Should you ever have wondered what it would be like to transpose Ophelia from the 17th Century to a contemporary cityscape, look no further. Here’s rosemary for remembrance. Or the unspooling tape of the Small Faces Greatest Hits for garlanded ivy. I can see it. I can hear Steve Marriot belting out All or nothing. It’s a poem that had my attention from the first line. The plan. Plan? To plunge into a canal, to tape its dredgings to a bed frame? Your bed frame? Those stamps with images of ‘forgotten railways and beaches’. Everything intended and precisely odd.
I have a feeling I’m not doing this justice. I said I was tired, and I am. I shall stop, here. I shall say thank you, Alicia, for being our guest. I shall post this now, because I feel guilty if I don’t post on Sunday. I shall come back to it in the week and if anything needs doing better, then I promise I shall. But nothing’s been lost in translation. Really.
There were things I sort of planned to write, but tiredness intervened. Feeling perkier on Monday, so here’s a couple of thoughts. Tacked on. Coda. depends on how generous you feel.
Did you watch that very odd BBC drama about ‘Charles the Third’? I was watching it on catch-up, and thinking about this post. Which was distracting, because I couldn’t concentrate on either. What struck me was that the playwright, having made a decision to write it in blank verse, then had the odd idea of writing in a pastiche of Shakespearian blank verse. What I found curious was that Shakespeare was writing in , for him, contemporary English in a basic iambic rhythm. Now, the thing is, as Tony Harrison has said again and again, is that blank verse is as near as formal verse gets to the rhythms of everyday English speech. The example that Harrison used when I heard him has always stuck. Overheard on a bus. ‘His brother worked at Bisons outside Leeds.‘ Totally natural and unforced. Some of the time in the script of the play, the language had this unforced naturalness. And then there were these snags and jars….. mainly bits of anachronistic and totally unnecessay inversion and elision. Obvious things like ’tis and ‘twould. Cringeworthy enough. You had to feel sorry for the poor actors who had to fit their mouths and minds round it. But it was the clunky and pointless inversions that really made me groan. Take this:
‘….Finn, who was a dick, if truth be told, but because we lived in different cities did text our love.’
Now, I assume there’s a line break somewhere, but I’m buggered if I can see where. And you think for a second and wonder why on earth you’d write that when you could much more easily write
‘….Finn, who was a dick, if truth be told, but we lived in different cities, and we had to tell each other that we loved each other by text’
‘….Finn, who was a dick, if truth be told, but we lived in different cities, so he used to send me texts to say how much he loved me’
It’s still a bit lumpy, but at least it’s idiomatic. And it’s in regular iambics. What the play felt like was someone trying to translate a modern tale into some sort of imagined 16th century English without grasping how it worked originally. Does that make sense? It’s the business of thinking in the rhythms of the language. Which is what Alicia, our guest, does with great assurance. It’s because she’s so assured that you notice the occasional glitch. Let me take a couple of small examples, not to carp or criticise, but to acknowledge what a huge accomplishment most of the work is;
I will fill you with fugitive expectation
in an attempt to retain you. Don’t go yet.
There’s a lot of abstract /Latinate words, and they’re packed together. I really like that first line, the sound of it, the dance of it. I think I’d like to see what happens if you switch to simpler, more direct stuff in the second line.
I will fill you with fugitive expectation.
I’ll do anything to keep you. Don’t go yet.
I love that ‘don’t go yet’…as though the writer knows she’s losing his attention, as though he’s stopped listening. I wanted to say how reading these poems challenges me to know more about how my own language works. I wanted to say, that after all, I forget this is a poet writing in a second language, and I become a workshopping second-guesser. It’s a privilege to be allowed to do it. Alicia, thank you.
Just one more thing. There may not be a cobweb post for a couple of weeks. I’m waiting on poets to accept invitations to be guests, and if they don’t, what will I write about? Parasite. That’s me.