Tag Archives: WN Herbert

Cretan threads: Jacqueline Saphra, Tacita Dean, John Craxton, Patrick Leigh Fermor et al.

2 Jun
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John Craxton, Still Life with Three Sailors, 1980-85

 

It began with a poem, which Bill Herbert used in teaching an MA class at Cardiff last month. The poem was ‘Crete, 1980’ by Jacqueline Saphra, from her collection All My Mad Mothers. I reproduce it here:

 

I lived on hard-boiled eggs and yogurt

with a slug or ten of ouzo as my waist grew

 

waspish and my flesh indifferent

through my lean and solitary season.

 

I was girlish and abandoned, took my bed

of sand, those oh-so-green and casual boys

 

for granted, dreamed on beaches

naked, mouth grazed with the taste

 

of smoke and strangers’ kisses

and I howled into the drunken dark for

 

stupid reasons and I thought

this was an education.

 

The poem had me thinking about my own time on Crete; first a prolonged stay in 1975 as an awestruck eighteen year old, when I spent three months squatting a deserted shepherd’s hut that overlooked the Libyan sea; then an ill-fated trip in the autumn of 1977 as one side of a thorny love triangle, and finally a stay of nearly three years between 1981 and 1983, when I lived mainly in Hania.

I have been back only once, in 2004, to research a novel I was writing, but the island lives deep inside me and from time to time I visit it in dreams. It has had a similar effect on other people I know. So any reminder, especially one that stirs such deeply entrenched memories as those dislodged by Saphra’s poem, is bound to linger, and breed a contagion of contingent reminders. This is how synchronicity works, as a cascade of little jolts, each one nudging you into the realisation of something you often cannot quite put your finger on. But this time, clearly, it was Crete.

I have been looking for a picture that might go on the cover of a new collection of poems concerned with (largely) imagined journeys in the Eastern Mediterranean, and I immediately thought of John Craxton. On Thursday I ordered the wonderful book on Craxton’s life and work by Ian Collins which arrived in the post yesterday.

Just before the delivery man popped it through the door, I had been reading, in the TLS, of an exhibition by Tacita Dean – ‘Landscape’ at the Royal Academy, and shortly afterwards, leafing through my newly arrived book on John Craxton, the artist’s name leapt out at me again:

‘Tacita Dean met John Craxton by chance in Crete when she was 17, and he said her rotary-pen drawings of street scenes, plants and people had ‘linear confidence’. But his way of life was even more inspiring. She says:

“He was having fun and living doing what he loved. It was the first time I’d met a REAL artist and suddenly I could see such a life was possible. I still carry around the dream that I might one day live my life in the way that I imagined then John Craxton was living his: peaceably making my work in a beautiful room with the light from the water outside reflected on the ceiling – deadlines, budgets, emails and unremitting travel as yet unimaginable ingredients of my artistic life. It’s good to remember these fantasies of the unattainable, in order to make some adjustments from time to time.”’

In a recent interview with The Guardian, Dean makes a reference to W.G. Sebald, which further excited my demand for overlapping interests:

‘She cites the late German writer WG Sebald as an important influence on her method, in particular the way his writing made the life of the past so present, as if in a dream. “I really liked his description of his work,” she says. “He said when he worked he was like a dog crossing a field, following its nose.” She picks points A and B in the National Gallery air, and traces a slow meandering line between them with her finger.’

(The idea of ‘working like a dog’, by which I mean following one’s nose like a dog in a field, chimes with me particularly strongly just now. My own dog, Bruno, now in his twelfth year, and somewhat arthritic, takes his time crossing any open space. I may be projecting here, but in the past year or so, it has seemed to me that his prolonged dawdling – the achingly long caresses of snout on grass as he inches across park or field – involves a kind of remembering; that the savouring of the scent, indulgence in the raw odour of matter, involves the stuff of memory, a comparing of smells encountered by his doggy brain across the years, and that by sniffing he is remembering, and in remembering, the urge to sniff simply grows and grows, in a hall of scented mirrors.)

So it is with me and the jolts to the imagination that – by analogy – these reminders of the part of my life I call ‘Crete’ continue to bring about.

I remember the first time I met John Craxton. It was in 1981 on the harbour front in Hania. I was with Peter Green, painter and piss-artist extraordinaire, who introduced us: ‘This is my friend Richard, he’s a poet’ – the kind of thing I found deeply embarrassing, having published precisely nothing at the time. I sensed that Craxton did not suffer fools lightly.  All I knew about him in those days was that he designed the covers of Paddy Leigh Fermor’s books. And there lies another story, as over my nearly three years in Crete, I devoutly followed the PLF trail, and even – without planning it,  following an introduction from a Cretan friend – spent an afternoon in the village of Tavronitis chatting with George Psychoundakis, author of The Cretan Runner.

I came across John a few more times and we exchanged greetings but little else, as he was a regular visitor to To Diporto – The Two Doors – a rather insalubrious fish restaurant in Hania’s Leather Street (Odos Skridlov) in which I worked as the (only) waiter through the winter of 1981-2. To Diporto has been closed for many years now, but in the 70s and 80s it was a favourite haunt of Greek sailors, a cacophony of local low life, backpackers, students and terminally stoned hippies on their way back (but where to, man?) from India. I always suspected the Craxton painting reproduced above was set there, and am now convinced, having read Patrick Leigh Fermor’s notes to the 1985 Christopher Hull Gallery exhibition of Craxton’s work:

‘the composition . . . finally took shape in a cheap taverna in the lanes of Hania, none too clean, and very noisy, in spite of ‘NO BREAKAGE BY ORDER’ on the wall. The walls are green, the table blue; the red plastic bread-basket nudges the used beer-bottles [Amstel, as I recall], now recycled as carafes to hold bad wine.’ This could only be To Diporto.

And here another memory begins to twitch: I do remember a very young English woman in Hania in 1982, who was always drawing, and with whom I chatted on a couple of occasions when she came to eat at To Diporto. She was staying up above the harbour, in the part of town where John Craxton lived . . . could she have been Tacita Dean?

According to Ian Collins’ account, Craxton ‘revelled in the continuous settlement of Hania from early Minoan times, saying: “I like living on a dung-heap. I love the idea of thousands of people underneath the house. Nothing would put me off painting more than living in a new town.’ A similar sense of wonderment at living on the ‘dung-heap’ of human remains lay behind my own collection of prose poems, Walking on Bones (Parthian, 2000)many of which are set in Crete.

If these synchronicities happen for a purpose, I am still figuring out why this one came along, and is with me still. I had better get along to the Royal Academy of Arts and see Tacita Dean’s exhibition, and find out where that leads. Perhaps to Bloomsbury, and to John Craxton’s exhibition – alongside Nikos Ghia and Patrick Leigh Fermor – at the British Museum. And then, with any luck – like Bruno the dog – I will simply continue sniffing my way across this particular, fragrant Cretan field.

Dark Ages

31 Oct

A new poem by Pedro Serrano, translated from the Spanish by Richard Gwyn.

Bill, Pedro, Me @ Pen & Wig

Pedro Serrano (in mirror), with Blanco (left) and Bill Herbert.

DARK AGES

The tiger leaps

from a cloud of smoke into transience.

Falls on the devastating corral with an idleness

corresponding to the haste of his victims,

not to his elasticity.

He brushes past the bars of his cage

swinging his tail, rattling, tac, tac, tac, tac.

Crackling, he licks the circus sands

and raises ripples of dust,

traces of an approaching wake.

The motive for his observation

journeys in the smooth rhythm of his stomach,

velvety, gluttonous, elastic.

He turns circles before the spectators,

ears cocked, instincts fixed

on the excitement in the air.

He walks by the tables, propitious,

exudes substance and style.

The head sinks between the shoulders,

swells in the rail that encircles him.

The claws are extended

in the animal body that awaits him.

In the mirror of midday

the night’s end was taking shape,

beatific, inscrutable.

DARK AGES

El tigre salta

de la humareda a la fugacidad.

Cae en el aplastante corral con una pereza

que alude a la prisa de sus victimas,

no a su elasticidad.

Pasa rozando las rejas de su jaula

meneando la cola, golpeteando, taq’, taq’, taq’, taq’.

Restallante lame las arenas del circo

y levanta espejuelas de polvo,

huellas de una estela aproximándose.

La razón de su observación

viaja en el suave ritmo de su vientre,

afelpado, glotón, elástico.

Da vueltas a los espectadores,

las orejas prestas, su olfato

en la agitación que se respira.

Pasa propicio por las mesas,

se enjundia, se estiliza.

Sume la cabeza entre los hombros,

crece en el riel que lo circunda.

Deja las uñas puestas

en el cuerpo animal que lo acecha.

Desde el espejo del mediodía

se apuntaba el final de la noche,

beatífica, hierática.

Fiction Fiesta 2015

15 Apr
Preview | Fiction Fiesta 2015

PREVIEW | FICTION FIESTA 2015

Fiction Fiesta started out three years ago as a conversation in a pub between myself and Nick Davidson, landlord of the now defunct Promised Land in Windsor Place, Cardiff. I was expecting a visit from two Argentinian writers, Andrés Neuman and Jorge Fondebrider, and Nick and I decided to hold a small celebration to welcome them to Wales. However, we got a little excited and ended up inviting all kinds of people, including the publishers Christopher MacLehose and Charles Boyle, and the literary editor of The Independent, Boyd Tonkin, and then a load of people from closer to home got involved. 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 and Inés Garland from Argentina to join several writers from Wales and elsewhere, and The Independent again covered the event, which attracted some attention.
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’. The way we set out to approach this was to pay particular attention to literature in translation, and explore the whole idea of translation as a concept that to some degree governs our lives. After all, we are translating from the moment we are born: early childhood is the acute phase of translation, and of being translated. Those moments in which every gaze, every enraged instinct on the part of the infant meets with either incomprehension or else with a tentative, and then a more assured translation. As parents we are constantly engaged in acts of translation, as are friends and lovers and enemies and strangers of all variety. 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. We are all translators, just as we are all, to some degree, writers. ff-e-flyer 2015
The novelist and essayist Ali Smith, in her preface to English PEN’s report on literary translation, Taking Flight, wrote:  ‘If we value literature at all, we know the worth of literary translation. If we want language to be as subtle and supple and layered and resonant as language can be, we know the worth and the work and the subtlety of literary translation. If we care at all about looking beyond our back yard and our own dominant narratives, we know the worth, the work, the open border, open mind, open eyes and ears of literary translation. If we belong to a culture which rates the word literary, we know the value, the scope, the touchstone, the creativity, the generosity that exist in this fusion of literary and translation.’
Engaging with the literature of another country, another culture, enables us to understand not only the world as it is now, but also the shared history that brought us here, which will be our legacy.
As Edith Grossman, the modern translator of Cervantes’ Don Quixote puts it: ‘[Translation] permits us to savor the transformation of the foreign into the familiar and for a brief time to live outside our own skins, our own preconceptions and misconceptions. It expands and deepens our world, our consciousness, in countless, indescribable ways.’
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, like food and drink, which the large-scale corporate festivals cannot provide. Above all, we wanted Fiction Fiesta to help develop contacts and friendships between Welsh writers and writers from Latin America, which is where a lot of my own literary interests happen to have sprung from.
I was fortunate enough to spend some time in Mexico last year on an Arts Council of Wales project, and part of my task was to familiarise myself with the wide expanse of literary culture there as well as trying – within a month – to gauge as much as I could of the wider cultural climate within that country. I came away with my head filled to bursting, but enthusiastic about the task of developing closer relationships with individual Mexican writers, of translating the poems of some, and of reading the work of many others.
This year Mexico and the UK are teaming up for two big events: the London Book Fair, running this week from Tuesday to Thursday, where Mexico is the guest nation, and at the Guadalajara Book Fair, in November, where the UK is the invited country. We thought that Cardiff should see a slice of the action, so together with the newly formed Wales PEN Cymru, and with the support of the British Council, we decided to hold a small event here with two of the Mexican writers whose work I discovered last year, and who are visiting for the Book Fair. As is the usual pattern with FF, we teamed them up with local writers – or in this instance a Welsh writer and a Scottish Poet – to see what happens.
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The event takes place on a Friday night, at the Wales Millennium Centre. In the first session, which begins at 5 pm, Owen Sheers will be in conversation with Juan Villoro, a contemporary and friend of Roberto Bolaño, and an extraordinary writer of short stories in the broad lineage of Borges, alongside Francesca Rhydderch, who achieved widespread recognition last November with her shortlisting for the BBC Short Story Award. In the second half, following a wine reception, I will be talking with Pedro Serrano along with the Scottish poet WN Herbert, and they will be reading from their work. The event takes place in the Preseli Room at WMC and entry is free of charge, with donations to Wales PEN Cymru welcome.
This year Fiction Fiesta is supported by the British Council and Cardiff University School of English, Communication and Philosophy.

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.

Murder Bear

30 Aug

murder bear

 

I dreamed last night that American intelligence operatives were investigating the poet WN Herbert, allegedly because, according to dream-logic, he was responsible for – dream quotation marks – ‘blocking up areas of cyberspace that the US security forces deemed particularly sensitive’. In the dream a homeland security spokesman announced on television that the subversive Prof was under suspicion because his online activity was in danger of provoking a conflict with Russia. Bill was in trouble. I decided I had better call him, although I can hardly imagine he would need warning when the CIA had already made such a meal of announcing their investigation on TV. And besides, according to the previous day’s FB posts, Bill was in Crete: would he have signal there? And his phone was bound to be bugged. Perhaps I had better email. Same problem. Poor Bill. What would he do? What could I do to help?

On waking, I wonder where this particular dream has come from. I suspect it may relate to Murder Bear, Herbert’s horrifying ursine trope, perhaps interpreted by the spooks as a code matrix relating to Russian mobilisation on the Ukrainian border. But more likely, on reflection, would be Dogbot Borstal. This bizarre online association, or secret society, clearly harbours individuals of dangerously paranoid leanings, such as Goat Dog, Dumbo Octopus, and other cyphers.

goat dog

 

 

 

 

Images of Istanbul

29 Jan
Bosphorous from the terrace of Megara Palace

Bosphorous from the terrace of Megara Palace

 

Ist_leaning house

Leaning house by lamplight

 

Ist_ramshackle house

Ramshackle house

 

Aghia Sophia at night

Aghia Sophia at night

 

Ist_Bill with friend

Bill with friend

 

Chap doing something unspeakable to sheep

Chap doing something unspeakable to sheep

 

Sappho wondering what they they put in her herbal tea

Sappho wondering what they they have put in her herbal tea

 

Ist_Orpheus plays his harp

Orpheus twanging his harp

 

Bill and Gokcenur at work

Bill and Gokcenur at work

 

Efe makes a point to Zoe and Gonca

Efe makes a point to Zoe and Gonca

Spiral on wall

Spiral on wall

 

Orhan Pamuk's Museum of Innocence

Orhan Pamuk’s Museum of Innocence

 

Rhizome of the plant Zingiber officinale

Rhizome of the plant Zingiber officinale

 

Dome of Aghia Sophia

Dome of Aghia Sophia

 

View of dome via candelabra

View of dome via candelabra

 

Bill and Zoe pretending that what they are looking at is really there

Bill and Zoe pretending that what they are looking at is really there

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Poets who translate

27 Jan

Dome of Aghia Sophia

 

It is our last day in Istanbul, and the rain continues, as it has done since Friday evening, shrouding the Bosphorous in grey mist. Before catching a taxi to the airport we snatch a visit to Aghia Sophia, that magnificent evocation of the implausible. The days of translation, of this particular kind of translation, have drawn to an end. Yesterday evening WN (‘Bill’) Herbert, Zoë Skoulding and a certain Richard Gywn, along with our respective translators, Gökçenur Ç, Gonca Özmen and Efe Duyan read our work at the Nazim Hikmet Centre in Kadikö on the Asian side. We went by ferry through the soft rain, a rain almost as comforting as the sahlep we slurped, that peculiar sweet beverage of orchid root, milk and cinnamon, the liquid polyfilla of the Levant, as Bill calls it.

 

Istanbul reading

 

We had an early dinner at Çiya, one of Istanbul’s most successful new restaurants, whose owners have set out to collect recipes from lost corners of Turkey and recreate them in a modest but harmonious three-storey building. I should really say they have translated recipes found on research trips, dug up from family notebooks, dictated by aunts and grandmothers, and have brought them to an Istanbul all too well known for its predictable variations on ratatouille and lamb combinations as a reminder of the glorious culinary past of Anatolia. These recipes have been translated from a time and place distinct from our own, rejecting the universalist culture in which the staple has become ever more dull and tasteless.

It is easy to forget that translation is something we are engaged in, without option and at all times, from the very start of life.  It is an activity that is by no means confined to those who term themselves ‘translators’.

Early childhood is the acute phase of translation, and of being translated. Those moments in which every gaze, every enraged instinct on the part of the infant meets with either incomprehension or else with a tentative, and then a more assured translation. Maybe we don’t change that much in this respect, as we continue to translate others, and ourselves, in and throughout the course of a lifetime, with varying degrees of success. The fact that we exist as part of a functioning element within society (family, school, member of this or that group or organisation) consigns us necessarily to different modes of translation.

Literary translation concretizes and makes specific acts of translation that otherwise exist in our everyday lives. Poets who also translate join a community of international poet-translators who are enabled, through a process of collaboration, to sharing their respective poetry with new audiences. Many lasting friendships are made in the process, as well as dialogues being opened between cultures in essential and surprising ways.

This is what the organization Literature across Frontiers – under its indefatigable director Alexandra Büchler – manages to such good effect. In meetings across Europe practitioners use a ‘bridge’ language, so that poets who have different first languages but share another language in common (English, most commonly, but any language will do) can combine forces with a native speaker of the bridge language to make new versions of their work. It sounds complicated but it can be a very stimulating process, and it must be said that a lot depends on the individuals gathered together on these occasions, and whether or not they gel as a team. Working as a small unit has other benefits – there are always at least two perspectives – indeed, as many as four or five– on a single poem, and this multiplexity of approach can lead to small epiphanies in the act of translation. Translation is not only a linear and logical progression of a text from one language to another; it is also a process of revelation, an uncovering, de-layering: a transmutation of materials, an act of linguistic alchemy.

Sometimes, needless to say, translation goes all wrong. I have written about this before, in relation to restaurant menus, a constant source of entertainment for anyone who travels. But in the last few days, Istanbul has coughed a few examples of translation weirdness that are equally diverting. I post a selection below.

 

Dried Nute

 As Class

TITIZ