Tag Archives: W.N. Herbert

Fiction Fiesta, reality, and Alastair Reid

26 Sep

borges in library

The first Borges story I ever read was ‘Tlön, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius’, in the translation by Alastair Reid, while living in a derelict shepherd’s hut on a Cretan hillside. A couple of years later, like so many others readers, I underwent a kind of epiphany while reading One Hundred Years of Solitude.

I was twenty years old, and from that point on, Borges’ fictions, alongside García Márquez’s recreation of the semi-fictional world of Macondo, forced me to re-evaluate almost everything that I had been reared to believe about literary fiction.

Thinking back, I had never had much truck with either realism or naturalism – the antagonists, in their way, of so-called ‘magic realism’ – and since my exposure to Borges and García Márquez, I never quite trusted them again. These two writers, followed by other discoveries, such as Juan Rulfo, Julio Cortázar, Carlos Fuentes, Mario Vargas Llosa and Augusto Monterroso, opened the doors to different perceptions of reality, in which the frail membrane separating one world, one mode of understanding, from another, was always permeable, subject to movement and interpenetration. Everything was a fiction. This was a model, I believed, that could be applied to almost anything: culture, language, philosophy . . . it was almost, but not quite, a religion.

Alastair Reid, who died in 2014

Alastair Reid, last year.

Last July I was reminded of this lifelong struggle with the false dichotomy between fiction and reality, when I travelled to Dumfries and Galloway to meet Alastair Reid himself. The Scottish poet – friend as well as translator of Borges, Neruda and García Márquez – spent a large part of the day talking with me about Latin America and its literatures, especially Borges. I recorded the conversations, and consider myself incredibly fortunate to do this as, just over a month following my visit, Alastair passed away, at the age of eighty-eight.

One of the things he told me – which also crops up in one of his essays – was the reluctance of Latin Americans in general (not just authors) to discriminate between what ‘actually’ happened, and what might have happened under other circumstances. Thus life (and storytelling) is a continuous weave of memory, confabulation and invention. In one of his essays, Reid cites the American diplomat George F. Kennan, who, after an investigatory trip through several Latin American countries in 1950, wrote, in a tone of exasperation:

Latin American society lives, by and large, by a species of make-believe . . . a highly personalised, anarchical make-believe, in which each individual spins around him, like a cocoon, his own little world of pretense, and demands its recognition by others as the condition of his participation in the social process.

While the sentiments expressed here might be familiar to many as a symptom of European or North American ethnocentrism, the diplomat had a point. Reid himself lived for many years among villagers in the Dominican Republic, and describes a ‘fictive’ cast of mind, in which the vague boundary between history and invention is blurred beyond recognition. This is not simply a case of the ‘objective’ European mind critiquing the supremely subjectivist world-view of those in ‘the third world’: it is a truth (if such a word has any meaning) borne out by Reid’s experience, and one described most succinctly by Borges himself. For Borges, everything put into language is a fiction, whatever ‘literary’ or non-literary’ form that might take. Thus a poem, a newspaper article, or a letter from the bank manager all fit the category of ‘fiction’ as each uses language as their mode of expression. As Reid says:

A fiction is any construct of language – a story, an explanation, a plan, a theory, a dogma – that gives a certain shape to reality.

And it is with this in mind that we must think of Fiction Fiesta; not in the limited sense of a festival that celebrates the genre of literary fiction. FF is a platform for building fictions that give shape to reality. On one level, FF complements work that I am doing, alongside others – with the invaluable support of Wales Literature Exchange and Wales Arts International – in taking Welsh writing out into the wider world; at the same time we are helping Welsh readers discover more about contemporary Latin American writing.

Fiction Fiesta started out in early 2012 as a conversation in a pub between myself and Nick Davidson, landlord of the now defunct Promised Land in Windsor Place, Cardiff. My idea for Fiction Fiesta was simple: to team up writers in both the languages of Wales with writers from Latin America, and initiate a discourse between us and them, with the aim – among other things – of dismantling such notions as ‘us’ and ‘them’

Nick got some money from the San Miguel brewery and I managed to secure some from Cardiff University and the thing was on. We followed up in 2013, with an Arts Council of Wales small festivals grant, inviting Eduardo Halfon from Guatemala, Inés Garland and Andrés Neuman from Argentina, alongside writers from Wales and elsewhere in the UK, and The Independent covered the event, with a feature on one of our guests, Angharad Price, which attracted more attention.

Through Fiction Fiesta, we set out to pay particular attention to literature in translation and, by extension, to explore the larger idea of translation as a concept that, to some degree, governs all our lives. In literature, even without being translated into other languages, we are translating emotions and thoughts into words. ‘Reading poetry is itself a kind of translation,’ commented Andrés Neuman during a discussion at Fiction Fiesta in 2013. And Octavio Paz goes further: ‘in writing a poem we are translating the world, transmuting it. Everything we do is translation, and all translations are in a way creations.’

It was never our intention to put on a big festival. We always wanted Fiction Fiesta to retain a sense of intimacy that came from holding the first edition of the fiesta in the upstairs room of a local pub. And we wanted to keep a sense of celebration, of literature as something to be savoured and enjoyed by readers, like food and drink, which the large-scale corporate festivals cannot provide. In addition, we wanted Fiction Fiesta to help develop contacts and friendships between Welsh writers and writers from Latin America, which, as I explained at the start of this piece, is where a lot of my own literary interests are centred.

This year’s Mexico-themed Fiction Fiesta teamed up with Wales PEN Cymru and the British Council to hold an event at the Wales Millennium Centre on Friday 17th April. Owen Sheers hosted the Mexican writer Juan Villoro, along with Francesca Rhydderch, while I was in conversation with Pedro Serrano and the Scottish poet W.N. Herbert. FF is hoping to maintain the partnership with Wales PEN Cymru, and bring many more writers from Latin America to Wales over the years to come.

 

Juan Villoro, Owen Sheers and Francesca Rhydderch at this year's Fiction Fiesta, held at the Wales Millennium Centre, Cardiff

Juan Villoro, Owen Sheers and Francesca Rhydderch at this year’s Fiction Fiesta, held at the Wales Millennium Centre, Cardiff

 

Blanco (centre) with Pedro Serrano (left) and Bill Herbert at Fiction Fiesta

Blanco (centre) with Pedro Serrano (left) and Bill Herbert at Fiction Fiesta

 

This piece first appeared in the New Welsh Review, 1st July 2015

Feet

28 Apr

beautiful female legs isolated on white

 

A taster from Mexican poet Pedro Serrano’s collection, Peatlands, translated by Anna Crowe and fresh off the press from Arc, who are to be congratulated, yet again, for bringing another fine writer to the attention of the English language reader.

There is also an introduction by W.N. Herbert, where we find these lines, which seem so apposite with regard to the poem I have chosen: “The intention [is] to transform us through language, compelling us to rethink, re-imagine and re-envision the world and our place in it; and to break down our unconsidered assumptions about opposed categories like thought and feeling, human and animal, by continually returning us to the matrix of the body . . .”

 

FEET

Feet clench, make themselves small, run away,

creasing their wretchedness and fear in lines

identical to those on our palms and different.

Feet are extensions of God

(which is why they are low down),

hence their distress, their rounded bulk, their lack of balance.

Feet are like startled crayfish.

Such vulnerable things, feet.

When they make love they clench and huddle together

as though they were their own subjects.

So feet are not made, then,

to cling, like wasps

to every pine-needle pin,

to every branch of the soul that makes them there.

They are more wings than feet,

tiny and fragile and human.

However much we overlook them.

 

 

 

LOS PIES

Los pies se doblan, empequeñecen, huyen,

curvan su miseria y su miedo en unas líneas

que son las de la mano y no lo son.

Los pies son extensiones de Dios

(por eso están abajo),

de allí su angustia, su volumen redondo, su desajuste.

Los pies son como crustáceos asustados.

Tan sensibles los pies.

Se doblan y apeñuscan al hacer el amor

como si ellos fueran sus sujetos.

Los pies, así, no están hechos ahora

para prenderse como avispas

a cada aguja,

a cada rama del alma que allí los haga.

Son más alas que pies,

chiquititos y frágiles y humanos.

Tan desconsiderados que los tenemos.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Facts about Things

18 Feb

 

omnesia-remixOmnesia, W.N. Herbert’s new collection of poetry, comes in two volumes, subversively titled Alternative Text and Remix, so as to disabuse the reader of any notion of an ‘original’. The word ‘omnesia’ is a conflation of omniscience and amnesia, the latter quality bringing into question the actuality of everything we know – especially, perhaps, our omniscience.

Herbert’s oeuvre is already varied and profuse, and this new collection is expansive in every way. The two volumes mirror and reflect upon each other, so that the airborne squid on the cover of ‘Alternative Text’ is flying towards the reader while the one on ‘Remix’ travels laterally – just as the author in the photo gazes amusedly to the right on the one book, and bemusedly to the left on the other. As an epigraph from Juan Calzadilla, tells us: ‘I have transformed myself into another / and the role is going well for me’. The concept of non-identical twin texts embodies, as the poet reminds us in his Preface, a rejection of ‘or’ in favour of ‘and’. A core of poems appears in both volumes, and the title poem opens ‘Alternative Text’ and closes ‘Remix’. But this sequencing does not signify a preferred reading order. Instead, we are warned off any kind of systemic coherence in the poem’s opening lines: ‘I left my bunnet on a train / Glenmorangie upon the plane, / I dropped my notebook down a drain; /I failed to try or to explain, / I lost my gang but kept your chain – / say, shall these summers come again, / Omnesia?’

Almost anything is a cue to Herbert, setting him off on one of his preferred riffs, especially our inescapable doubleness, exemplified by the two books – themselves containing other books which scurry off at tangents – and the frequent collusion of the narrative ‘I’ with other selves. In ‘Paskha’, the narrator sees a dead scorpion ‘in silhouetted crux’ and is ‘troubled by the brain’s chimeric quoins / its both-at-onceness, how the memory’s / assembled with our present self for parts . . .’ And it is this very both-at-onceness that has me riffling through the pages of ‘Alternative Text’ while reading ‘Remix’, following the demands of a connectivity which the poet’s Preface planted at the outset.

The poems take place in and meditate upon the poet’s journeys from Crete to the north of Britain, from Mongolia to Albania, from Finland to Israel, from Venezuela to Siberia, and among the poet’s several antecedents I was pleased to meet the shadow of Byron, especially in the ‘Pilgrim’ sequence. There is also a fine selection of poems in Scots.omnesia-alt-text

The choice of epigraph usually serves as a pointer towards the poet’s intended direction. We are warned, in a quotation from Patricia Storace, that ‘In Greece, when you hear a story, you must expect to hear its shadow, the simultaneous counterstory.’ And not just in Greece. In ‘News from Hargeisa’, for instance, the counterstory of Somalia’s troubled history lies beneath every line, evoking local parable in the story of a lion, a hyena and a fox (animal imagery predominates in many of Herbert’s poems), as well as in the poet’s mourning of his friend Maxamed Xaasi Dhamac, known as ‘Gaarriye’, the late great Somali poet to whom both volumes are dedicated.

I am sure I missed subtle allusions and even whole thematic directions, and yet still enjoyed the poems I didn’t get. I did wonder how many people – outside of those who have lived on Crete – would ‘get’ ‘The Palikari Scale of Cretan Driving Scales’, a poem in which the driver’s recklessness is measured in direct relation to the magnificence of his moustache.

One might complain that there is simply too much in these books: not in the sense that they are lacking in editorial discretion, but that they demand a readerly imagination as febrile as Herbert’s in order to keep up. Is W.N. Herbert one person? I suspect not: and in any case he seems quite comfortable swapping costumes with his multiple others. I suspect also that Omnesia is a work one needs to live with for a while before appreciating all the shifts and mirrorings, puns and doublings, but even on a first acquaintance it offers richly rewarding reading.

Review published in Poetry Wales, Summer 2013 49 vol 1.

And nearly a year having passed since writing the above review, I can assure you that Omnesia repays revisiting. In so many ways.

 

Facts about Things

Things are tired.

Things like to lie down.

Things are happiest when,

for no reason, they collapse.

 

That French plastic bottle, still half-full,

that soft-back book, just leaning on

another book, drowsily:

soon they will want to go outside,

 

soon you will find them in the grass

with the empty bleaching cans and that part

of an estate agent’s sign

that’s covered in a fine grime like mascara.

 

That plastic bag you’ve folded up

feels constrained by you and wants

to hang from bushes, looking like a spirit,

sprawled and thumbing a lift.

 

Things are bums, tramps, transitories:

they prefer it when it’s raining.

Lightbulbs like to lie in that same

long, uncut, casual grass

 

and watch the funnel effect: the way

on looking up the rain all seems

to bend towards you,

the way the rain seems to like you.

 

Things which do not decay

like it best in shrubbery, they like

to be partly buried.

They like the coolness of the grass.

 

Most of all, they like it

when it rains.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Losers’ Club

13 Mar

losers club

 

Following a comment made about my last post; namely Tom Gething’s remark that not getting it is essentially another way of getting it, I am reminded of the pragmatic consequences of not getting it, in relation to The Loser’s (sic) Club, an association of persons – I am not quite sure whether or not ‘membership’ is a valid descriptor here for one who has been randomly recruited – but you can read about it on Bill Herbert’s blog, Dubious Saints.  The story concerns a very wet night in Istanbul in which Bill, Zoe and myself decided, at Bill’s insistence, that we find the place, the real place, rather than allowing it to remain where it clearly belongs, in the realm of the imagination. We even had a general direction, if not a precise map location. This urge to conjure the subliminal or the rumoured into actual existence is precisely the kind of ‘getting it’ that most handsomely illustrates Phillips’ thesis. Getting it, (in this instance, locating and identifying a place called The Loser’s Club) becomes a sort of insanity, and is most definitely to be avoided.

And yet . . . one can see the allure. The club – or rather our desire for it – beckoned us on under the persistent downpour, through street after street of not getting it.

You will notice that on the sign, (photo courtesy of Nia Davies, a ‘member’ of the club) that the apostrophe is placed before the s, indicating that there is only one loser in the loser’s club. This shatters all concepts of a club. A club of one is something of a paradox, if not simply a contradiction.  It also means that if the eponymous loser is not at home, then no one will be there to open the door.

I must ask myself: did not getting it, I mean, not getting, or finding, the losers’ club (in his post Bill opts for a more felicitous use of the apostrophe) enhance or enrich my life? I don’t know, because I never got there. We went somewhere else instead, and that was OK, but you never know what you’ve missed when you don’t get it, you only know what you get, which isn’t what you originally sought, and therefore isn’t it.