This post also appears on the website of WALES ARTS REVIEW today. The new re-vamped Wales Arts Review serves as a media platform where a new generation of critics and arts lovers can meet to engage in a robust and inclusive discussion about books, theatre, film, music, the visual arts, politics, and the media.
Saltillo has proved the most hospitable and generous city I have visited in Mexico. It seems to be filled with people who love books and actually read them, in spite of being the centre for Mexico’s automobile industry. Yesterday the temperature soared to 38 degrees by midday and my hosts Monica and Julián put on an asado – the Latin version of a barbecue – and many of the people who attended our reading on Saturday night at the wonderfully named Cerdo de Babel (Pig of Babel) turned up. The Pig of Babel, incidentally, for anyone who intends travelling in northern Mexico, is officially Blanco’s favourite bar, seamlessly marrying the themes of Pork and Borges, and taking over from Nick Davidson’s now defunct Promised Land as the most congenial hostelry in the Western Hemisphere (although I realise such a term is entirely relative and depends on where you are standing at any given moment).
The culture section for the state of Coahuila produced a beautifully designed pamphlet of five of my poems, for which I have to thank Jorge and Miquel. I would also like to offer my thanks Mercedes Luna Fuentes, who read the Spanish versions of my poems in Jorge Fondebrider’s fine translation, and Monica and Julián for the use of their and Lourdes’ home – especially since Julián had to endure my garbled Spanish explanation of the rules of Rugby Union last night, which may well have been a bewildering experience for a Mexican poet, but which I considered an essential duty of a Welsh creative ambassador.
On a different theme entirely, the fifth issue of that very fine magazine The Harlequin is now online, and it contains three new poems by my alias, Richard Gwyn, including this one, reflecting on an entirely different – but inevitably similar – journey to the one currently being undertaking.
From Naxos to Paros
Of the journey from Naxos to Paros
all he could remember
were the lights of one harbour
disappearing into the black sea
and the lights of another
emerging from the same black sea
and he thought for a moment
that all journeys were like this
but that many were longer.
Writers Chain tour of Argentina & Chile, continued:
After three days of readings, lectures and tea parties in Puerto Madryn, Gaiman and Trelew, yesterday we made the long trip across the Patagonian meseta to Trevelin, in the foothills of the Andes. We travelled in two cars, laden down with suitcases, snacks and literary confabulation. Our car was driven by Argentinian anthropologist Hans Schulz and contained myself, Jorge Fondebrider and Tiffany Atkinson. We endured two punctures, the first in the middle of absolutely nowhere, the second after dark on the outskirts of Esquel. The first puncture proved problematic as we could not remove the tyre despite our manly efforts. We flagged down a truck, driven by a local farmer, Rodolfo, who kindly took Tiffany and myself to the small settlement of Las Plumas, where we had arranged to meet the other vehicle, driven by Veronica Zondek, and with instructions to find a mechanic, or at least to borrow the right tools from the garage there. Having acquired these, a relief party (Zondek and Aulicino) was sent back to the stranded Schulz and Fondebrider, and the flat tyre changed, while the contingent of Welsh poets and our coordinator, Nia, waited in a roadside canteen and ate empanadas and pasta.
During the rest of the journey across the prairie, the landscape began to change. The endless flatlands of sparse bush began to erupt into extraordinary outcrops of sandstone, stalagmites of sharp russet pointing skyward, or else solid slabs of sediment rising against the backdrop of an enormous sky, across which were layered fabulous accumulations of cloud. We arrived at Trevelin at midnight, where the hospitable proprietors of the Nikanor restaurant served us leek soup and homemade ravioli, washed down with an organic Malbec wine. Around us, the snowcapped mountains provided the sensation of having arrived in a place encircled by sleeping dragons. The casa de piedra, our hotel, is done up like a Tyrolean ski lodge, with a huge fireplace in the lounge, and carved wood furnishing. We slept the sleep of the just.
Day five of the Wales Writers Chain tour of Argentina and Chile. We began in Buenos Aires on Monday, at the Spanish Cultural Centre, where Mererid Hopwood and I gave lectures on, respectively, the Welsh and English literary traditions of Wales. On the Tuesday, Tiffany Atkinson and myself launched new collections in Spanish, published by the innovative and excellent imprint Gog y Magog – at what might well be my favourite bookshop in the world, Eterna Cadencia. We flew south on Wednesday, to Puerto Madryn, where the first Welsh settlers arrived on the Mimosa in July 1865, and were ourselves received by a small delegation of the Argentine Welsh community, where we were served soft white bread sandwiches, Malbec wine, teisen and tarts in a little hall used for Welsh and cookery classes. Incredibly hospitable and welcoming people.
The tour was organised by the Argentine poet, critic and translator, Jorge Fondebrider along with Sioned Puw Rowlands, and sponsored by various city councils in Patagonia, the ministry of culture of the city of Buenos Aires, Wales Arts International and Wales Literature Exchange. Jorge has christened the tour ‘Forgetting Chatwin’ in refutation of the English author’s semi-fictitious account of Patagonia.
In spite of a heavy schedule of readings, lectures, translation workshops, informal talks, school visits etc, we were able yesterday to have an excursion. Puerto Madryn happens to be very close to the natural reserve of the Valdes Peninsula, so yesterday we travelled along the isthmus to Puerto Pirámide – a charming and dilapidated frontier settlement on the beach – and took a boat trip to see the whales (all of them are the Southern Right Whale, called ‘right’ because of the ease of hunting them in the days of harpoon whaling). The trip to the peninsula allowed us to take a look at the blasted landscape of the interior, the endless bare scrub falling away into the distance under an enormous sky. We passed llama and guanaco – a smaller version of the llama – one of whose characteristic features is the particularly touching way in which the males decide who is to become the paterfamilias. According to our guide, Cesar, the males run at each other and bite their competitor’s testicles, thereby rendering him incapable of reproduction (as well, one imagines, of immediately converting him from tenor to soprano). How terrifying is nature in its simplicity.
And then the whales, which leave me speechless. I heard one sing, truly.
Today, more lectures and poetry readings in Trelew, where Mererid Hopwood and Karen Owen will visit a Welsh school, followed by a reading at the University of Patagonia with myself, Tiffany, Karen, Mererid, alongside Jorge Fondebrider, Marina Kohon, Jorge Aulicino (Argentina) and Veronica Zondek (Chile).
We met up in Nick’s bar, The Promised Land, to discuss literature in translation with some friends, editors, writers and such luminaries from the field of literary translation as Christopher MacLehose and Boyd Tonkin, chaired by the erudite and perennially entertaining Charles Boyle. By the end of the day I had the impression that we had achieved what we set out to do: we had talked about interesting stuff in good company; we had provided a forum for our guests to listen to and discuss literature in translation, and we had introduced to a Cardiff audience – for the first time but definitely not for the last – the prodigiously talented Argentinian novelist and poet, Andrés Neuman. More than that, most of us seemed to have enjoyed ourselves.
The day began with a reading and discussion with Andrés, who led us on a merry dance through Russian Jewish migration of the early 20th century, German Romanticism, the music of Franz Schubert, European identity in the 21st Century, an hilarious impersonation of Jorge Luis Borges, and an account of a chess game with Roberto Bolaño, in which the Chilean author plied his young admirer with whisky while playing Mexican heavy metal at full volume as a way of gaining tactical advantage.
There followed a delightful reading by the poets Jorge Fondebrider and Tiffany Atkinson, their lines bouncing off the walls with a playful (and sometimes darker) exchange of ironies.
The Fiesta was made by its participants, especially our Argentinian guests, and the fine writers who made the afternoon come alive: Des Barry, Zoe Skoulding, Tristan Hughes and the superb Philip Gross.
In the end it all went swimmingly, although afterwards I wondered – rather like a medieval adventurer returning from the Forest of Enchantments – whether it had all been a mysterious dream. But that was probably just the lack of sleep.
It’s always an education to read in unusual locations. The organizers of FILBA appear to be steering me towards a socially engaged role that I am not normally associated with back in the UK. But that’s fine with me. The reading last night took place in a cobbled courtyard next to a rehabilitation centre for women recently released from jail, and behind an abandoned market, a steel-girdered hangar that resembles a nineteenth century railway station. Outside, the place was covered in graffiti and creeping vines, and in the darkness a wind began to stir, causing a few paper cups to scuttle across the cobbles like the rats that you knew were there, but were sitting out the poetry reading in a nearby drain. The perennial smell of the Buenos Aires night – barbecued meat, with an overlay of almonds – wafted by, and an engaged and enthusiastic audience sat alongside the vendors of bags, table-cloths and other artefacts made by the women prisoners.
I am posting a poem that I read last night, as well as at the Club de Traductores on Monday, because it seems to be popular here – probably due to the excellence of the translation – but which I don’t think I have ever performed back home. My Spanish reader on this occasion was the poet and journalist Jorge Aulicino. Strange how on a reading tour there is usually one piece that gets more attention than the others, for no particular reason. It is followed by the Spanish translation by Jorge Fondebrider, since Blanco’s blog has acquired an encouraging following in Argentina and Spain, perhaps because they think I am someone I am not.
When you spoke of dissolving in my arms
I realised it was not a figure of speech
that in a sense (in any sense), you meant it
to be just so, that you would disintegrate in me,
I in you, and both of us in water. Could this be
what is meant by marriage, in which both parties
disappear entirely, leaving only ripples
on the water’s quiet surface? But marriage
was a curious fantasy for us, and who could
possibly officiate? You were promised to another,
a dark figure stalking alleyways at night,
an ever-busy debt-collector, and I knew
my thin credentials would never count for much
with your imaginary father. So I led you
to a pond instead, with lilies and an oriental bridge,
a bench named for a local shopkeeper,
the path which circumscribed the water
shaded by hydrangeas and a vast magnolia.
The place was known to me, but since
the I that remembered things was by now
already dissolving in the you that forgot things,
the memory might well have been a false one.
You walked around the pond, around my island,
diminished with each circuit, each time drawn by
the gravity of the island’s green intelligence,
around and around, while I waited, an idiot
in a drama with no plot, no foreseeable conclusion.
from Being in Water by Richard Gwyn, with drawings by Lluís Peñaranda
Cuando hablaste de disolverte en mis brazos
advertí que no era una figura retórica,
que en un sentido (en todo sentido), lo decías en serio
que así fuera, desintegrarte en mí,
yo en ti, y ambos en agua. ¿Será eso
lo que se llama matrimonio, cuando ambas partes
desaparecen completamente, dejando apenas ondas
sobre la quieta superficie del agua? Pero para nosotros
el matrimonio era una curiosa fantasía, ¿y quién quizás
podría celebrarlo? A otro estabas prometida,
una figura oscura que acechaba de noche en callejones,
un cobrador de deudas siempre ocupado, y yo sabía
que mis escasas credenciales jamás servirían de mucho
con tu padre imaginario. Así que en cambio te conduje
a un estanque, con lirios y un puente oriental,
un banco bautizado con el nombre de un comerciante local,
el camino que circunscribía el agua
sombreado por hortensias y una vasta magnolia.
El lugar me resultaba conocido, pero desde que el yo
que recordaba cosas para entonces ya estaba
disolviéndose en el tú que se olvidaba cosas,
el recuerdo bien podría haber sido falso.
Caminaste alrededor del estanque, alrededor de mi isla,
disminuida con cada vuelta, cada vez atraída
por la gravedad de la inteligencia verde de la isla,
una y otra vez, mientras yo esperaba, un idiota
en un drama sin argumento, sin previsible conclusión.