Monday, 31 March 2014

Some poems from Delhi: Ranjit Hoskote

Ranjit Hoskote has already had a remarkable career as poet, translator, theorist and curator. His work is published by Penguin (India). He is a very fine poet in a way that an internationally minded reader would immediately recognise. He writes in English for a start and his sensibility has been formed as much by his reading and wide culture as by his specific location. His imagery is sharp and the intelligence and sensitivity behind the images is subtle and moving without ever looking as though it has designs on the reader. The poem below comes from Vanishing Acts, his New and Selected Poems, 2006

Poste Restante

Instead of addresses the postman finds
a child pumping a thirsty hydrant,
and a barber's throne twisted by fire,
marooned in a side-street;
to the north, a dented milk churn
sits across the road from an upset pannier,
buns scattered; past the traffic island,
a leather suitcase, handle wrenched off;
to the south, a public library,
stack on stack of carbon ghosts.
The letters fall from his hands
like homeless prayers.

The terror that has overtaken the place in the poem is comprehensive, There has been a great fire, and maybe more judging by that dented milk churn. And it is not so long ago either. There are buns spilled from an upset pannier. Perhaps it was a military attack or a riot. The library has been burned out. There is just a child with a useless hydrant.

The poem addresses these details with a calm that amplifies the desolation. The tone is measured. The very title and the word pannier alert you to a knowledge whose realm extends beyond the specifics of place. The eye is like a video camera panning the scene. The voice stands at roughly the same angle to its subject as does Derek Mahon's in A Disused Shed in County Wexford. But this doesn't look to build history and echo into the scene, it lets the scene resonate with itself. It is, after all shock, not archaeology.  That most normalising of figures, the postman who introduces us to the poem, ends it with the one symbolic gesture required, still underplayed and all the stronger for that.

The poem goes about its business quietly without any attempt to raise the stakes. The scene is the stakes. The history is in the control.

Sunday, 30 March 2014

Some poems from Delhi: Ingrid Fichtner

Zum Zentrum hin

dornig das Zweigwerk am
Weg die Blätter gezeichnet
aus Stunden Gläsern Tag-
bogen aus nachtgewölbten
Blickwinkeln ein Hürden-
oder Himmelslauf bis hin
zum Achspunkt Brennpunkt
Mittelpunkt ist unsere Sonne
zugleich eher am Rand und
eigentlich recht klein ein
Zwergstern nur ein kleiner
Spritzer unter den vielen
Spritzern verschütteter Milch

Towards the centre

A raft of branches thorny
leaves scattered marked
by hours glasses the
diurnal arc night-vaulted
vantage points the sun's
path or a steeplechase
toward the centre our sun
being a centre yet pretty
small at the same time
a dwarf only a little dot a
tiny dash amongst the
many dashes of spilt milk

I admired these tiny poems by Ingrid Fichtner though they only came fully alive for me when she read them in German and the delicacy and precision of her phrasing brought out their exquisite musicality. That wasn't because she made a great fuss of articulating them - it wasn't theatre - but because the words themselves (I can't read German) found their proper place in the ear. It was like hearing crystal speak to itself. The English text is nice and particularly powerful in the last two lines where the repeated dash sound and the sharp pizzicato of spilt milk catches something of spritzer / spritzern / milch.

Poetry is generally a matter of intense listening, listening as carefully as you might look at a complex half familiar object. The writing in English seems descriptive but description is beside the point: it is the embodiment not the description that matters, the poet's intense attention becoming our intense listening.

Saturday, 29 March 2014

Some Poems from Delhi: Nikola Madzirov

Kunwar Narain, Nikola Madzirov, George Szirtes

The haze hangs over the city
like the Virgin Mary’s bowed head
from a fresco far away.

Satellite dishes talk to
trying to determine tomorrow’s weather:
clear, safe, significant
like a calendar with
red dates.

But as soon as the night joins
the shadows to the wall,
you will sneak out towards the branches
like a rare bird
from the other side of a bank-note.

I have asked a few of the poets I heard in Delhi if I might print one of their poems on the blog and they have been kind enough to say yes, so this is the first of the series.

Nikola Madzirov is Macedonian, born in 1973, in the old Yugoslavia that collapsed when he was just eighteen when he had already been conscripted into the army. His book, Remnants of Another Age (Bloodaxe 2013)  translated into English by Peggy and Graham W. Reid and by Magdalena Horvat and Adam Reed,
is full of poems that are  lyrical, surreal, inventive and full of love, magic, and loss.

The blurb speaks of some resemblance to Popa, Milosz, Herbert and, later, Zagajewski, as well as Tomas Tranströmer, which is a reasonable set of orientations, but there is something quite special about Madzirov, a very personal kind of invention and form of address, that is born not out of political stasis but out of change.

That may be too abstruse a speculation. I love this particular poem because, from the very first, it provides a transformation that opens a dialogue between the sacred and the ordinary, between the haze and the Virgin, the satellite dishes and the angels, and tomorrow's weather and those red dates in the calendar.

It is a classic three-part poem so, in the third verse, we move to a new state of affairs that throws a transforming light on what had preceded it. It is night, secretive, amorphous. It is ourselves that are the rare birds, but we also inhabit the far side of the banknote, a different kind of otherness, one that is both grossly material and yet mysterious and heraldic. The emergence of that last image is the natural climax of a poem coming into full generous dreamlike focus.

Gorgeous translation too.

Friday, 28 March 2014

The Threat to the Tiffey Valley
A guest post by Terry Povey

Steam train moving through the Tiffey Valley

Families walking through the Tiffey Valley

The Threat to the Tiffey Valley

I have invited architect Terry Povey of the Friends of the Tiffey to write a guest blog in which he argues against those who want to develop it. I am not an admirer of nimbyism as a whole but this is a beautiful valley with long-treasured views actoss it, and there other places an expanding town might use for development.  Please note the link to the appeal and do follow up. The link is at the bottom of this page.

Noel Coward did a terrible disservice to Norfolk with his calumny “…..very flat, Norfolk”. Yes, there are areas of marsh and fenland but in the heart of the county are enchanting river valleys, of which the Tiffey Valley is one. It lies immediately to the west of the ancient market town of Wymondham and in recent years local people have managed to negotiate “permissive footpaths” (known as the Tiffey Trail) through the valley, alongside the river. A “heritage” train line also threads through the valley, with steam trains chuffing through the countryside in the summertime when the meadows are dotted with sheep, and the whole valley celebrates its ancient role as the agrarian setting for the magnificent Wymondham Abbey. The biodiversity of the valley is also very special; there are three County Wildlife Sites just to the west of the town and a rare Great Egret was seen there last year. All Guardian readers, which amounts to a lot of people in Britain, are aware that the Tiffey Trail is one of George’s favourite places.

This precious place has now become the target for developers; they wish to build a housing estate in the valley on the grounds that this would be “sustainable development”. The Government has greatly helped housing developers by declaring that if a local council cannot demonstrate a 5 year supply of land upon which houses can immediately be built, then the relevant planning policies preventing development within the countryside can be ignored, and whatever the scheme is it will be “sustainable development”. In this case the housing estate would undermine the valley’s biodiversity, increase the risk of flooding and destroy a significant part of the precious rural landscape of the valley and its wonderful setting for the Abbey. English Heritage have objected to the proposal and South Norfolk Council unanimously voted to refuse planning permission, but we have just witnessed a Public Inquiry at which the top planning QC in Britain represented the Appellants, who are owned by the third biggest hedge fund in the world. The appeal has now landed on the desk of the Secretary of State for his decision.

Hundreds of people in Wymondham, and elsewhere, have objected to this proposal. Not one single person has written to the Council supporting the scheme. These people are not “nimbys”. They represent the authentic voice of concerned citizens who have a deep love of Wymondham and its ancient heritage. They seek reassurance from the Secretary of State that the planning system, and their involvement in it, can ensure that the precious and irreplaceable environment of the Tiffey Valley can be safeguarded for both present and future generations.

Terry Povey
For The Friends of the Tiffey

I append to this the circular asking for signatures  of the e-petitition

Subject: Request to sign a petition against building on the Tiffey Valley in Wymondham
         Dear All

Would you mind signing the petition below to object to the proposal to build 70 houses in the Tiffey Valley in Wymondham please. Please circulate this email to any other people that you know of that may be interested.

The decision will be made shortly. The local MP George Freeman has written to say that the Planning Inspector is likely to find in favour of building 70 houses on a technicality. George Freeman has asked Communities Secretary Eric Pickles to make the final decision. It is very important that the politicians understand the breadth of unhappiness with this proposal.

To sign the petition please go to :

The field in the foreground is the field on which the housing is proposed:

Thursday, 27 March 2014

Sabad World Poetry Festival, New Delhi
Reflections 4, World Poets, Politics

Najwan Darwish

Public Arena

Parts of the public arena are related to the same traditions as outlined before: ritual, prayer, the sense of communality on the basis of family, childhood and tribe. Tiziana Cera Rosco, for example, presented a long poem, consisting of two parts, about the Passion of Christ. She read fast and furious in Italian, in an outpouring of images and propositions that were between drama and prayer.

But beyond ritual, prayer and communality as comfort there is also the directly political. So Maram Al-Masri's poems address the condition of her native Syrian people. They are an act of identification, making claims on the hearer in terms of compassion, presenting an invitation to identify partly with the subject and partly with the poet. They want to raise consciousness and to highlight the humanity of the victims.

The Palestinian Najwan Darwish (his book in English is published by The New York Review of Books) invites the reader to share his passion for the Palestinian cause. He laments the loss of land and territory. He laments the dead, commemorates the murdered, and lambasts the guilty (Israel), speaking of 'Narcissus surrounded by Zionist lies', declaring in another poem 'To Hell, you occupiers, you and all your progeny' and, in one poem, dreams of reoccupying Haifa. The translations were excellent and his poetic gifts are apparent. He can write beautifully.

However, there is, in the poems, a clear victim and a clear criminal. There is no complexity about that. The poems are musical cries of pain and anger directed one way. Like Maram Al-Masri's poems they invite the reader and listener to participate. They do not invite agreement: they assume it and demand it.  It is revolutionary poetry in that sense. There is tenderness and gentleness directed towards those he writes for: there is only hatred towards those he attacks. The poems are acts of war by other means.

This raises a fascinating question about the role of passion and partisanship generally. We tend to admire passion in everyone, even in our opponents, providing that passion is articulated in terms we share, in symbols, registers, tones, and forms of musicality. But we can't go all the way with their work since we know it to be oppositional.

That is even more the case with the press. People who vote with what remains of the left will not pick up The Telegraph, let alone The Daily Mail. People on the right will avoid The Guardian and The Mirror, and will certainly not be subscribers to The Morning Star. They don't want the other view. They already have it tabbed, and feel certain they never have to listen to another word of it. What they need is constant confirmation of their views. Aesthetic matters are put aside. A well-written piece by the opposition remains anathema. Symbol, register and tone are of no interest.

In terms of the press I am fiercely opposed to the substance of some arguments and prefer not to indulge too heavily in their expression but I try to read across and understand the reasons why other perfectly reasonable human beings disagree with me. With poetry it should be different but, in the case of Darwish, I am clearly on the other side of the barricades. His dream of reclaiming Haifa - not part of the occupied territories - tells me everything. If I stood in his way he would do me harm.

I can't help but be aware of that fact when reading or listening to the poems. To those who agree with him he will be a hero. Those who have no strong view will nevertheless admire his passion and craft and may be swayed by it. As for me I acknowledge that this gifted poet, whose gifts I admire, wants me dead or at least living as if I were dead. And please don't argue the odds. That is the natural logic of the poems.  I myself have never written such poems. I doubt I could, I am far too fascinated by complexity and paradox, but there are a good many who love the act of passion in itself and for itself. Everyone loves righteous anger and longs for something of Swift's saeva indignatio. It is, after all, exciting: it sets the pulse racing and the blood boiling.

And how beautiful and gentle those cadences are when turned to those the poet loves. How good to be loved by him.

He did not speak to me in the festival, nor I to him. There was no need to.

I may write one more blog on the festival.


The gender balance among the 'world poets' was much more balanced: 12 men to 10 women. The nationalities included Spanish (1), Bangladeshi (1) UK (2, one of them myself), French (1), Seychelles (1), Austrian / Swiss (1), Norwegian (1), Sri Lankan (1), Australian (1), Irish (2), Philippine (1) Syrian / French (1), Czech (1), Palestinian (1), Macedonian (1), Danish (1), Nigerian (1), Italian (1). Nepalese (1) and Cuban (1).

Sabad World Poetry Festival, New Delhi
Reflections 3: World Poets / Stage and Page

Marc Chagall, The Reader

Ways of reading: stage and page

The manner of reading was much more standard European, that is to say book rather than voice-based, the voice serving a the presenter of the text. At one extreme was Helda Marie from the Seychelles whose context was communal performance, complete with singing, dancing and acting, at the other the Norwegian Ingrid Storholmen who spoke of the visual function of the page.

I myself am closer to Ingrid than to Helda by instinct and practice and while I have written about this before I will recap on the nature of the contrast.

The oral tradition is rooted in the following: the community, the concept of the many and the sharing of an essentially conservative, traditional and ritualist space. The voice is public. It is heard by any within earshot. It moves into the individual's space and occupies it, asserting its confidence in shared communal values. It can talk of private matters (Helda read a very moving poem about the death of her father) but it does so on hallowed public ground. There is an implication of physical proximity, a swaying or flowing. The collective is greater than the individual. The poet performs a priestly role, mediating between the mass and the transcendent.

The page tradition depends on the one-to-one contract between writer and reader. The book is, most of the time, read silently and reorientated as voice in the reader's imagination. The loud and the public are suspected of being rhetorical intrusions, acts of demagoguery, The poem is a meditated space that creates an internalised physicality that may produce a faster heart-rate, tears, finger tapping and so on but within the confines of individual sensibility. It values the individual more highly than the collective. It is to some degree, or so I suspect, an extension of the protestant sense of God as someone addressed directly without mediation. Inevitably I think of Rembrandt's self-portraits or of the monasticism of Mondrian's abstractions.

It is not a matter of preferring one to the other, but of being who one is with one's own history. To an African or Caribbean poet the book tradition might seem cold and formal, not warm and intimate as others might interpret it. To those brought up in the European tradition, performance is crowd space without regard for complexity of thought and feeling, not a magical arena that supports a common way of life.

Antonio Collinas (Spain), Ingrid Fichtner (Austria), Ingrid Storholmen, Lorna Shaughnessy (Ireland), Marra PL Lanot (Philippenes), Gerard Noiret (France) Miloslav Topinka (Czech Republic), Moya Cannon (Ireland), Nikola Madzirov (Macedonia), Pia Tafdrup (Denmark), Richard Gwyn (UK), Oscar Cruz (Cuba), and myself, we were all of the page-to-individual-reader sort. We have learned to project and perform our poems as an extra to the words on the page.  Others among us - Les Wicks (Australia), Maram Al-Masri (Syria), Najwan Darwish, Tanure Ojaide (Nigeria), Tiziano Cera Rosco (Italy) and Tulasi Diwasa (Nepal) - make complete sense on the page but move further into the public arena for one reason or another.

The  three perfect encapsulations of the intimacy of the page were, for me, Richard Gwyn, with poems of intense personal feeling controlled by a delicacy of touch that transformed the poems into acts of grace;  Ingrid Fichtner, whose tiny, crystalline poems performed themselves, even in translation,  but were given their due translucency and musicality in her voice; and Nikola Madzirov, who richly visual lyricism and invention needed very little projection, perhaps none at all.

(I mustn't forget, of course, that we were mostly reading and hearing translations into English and a dull translation loses all the impact of the original.)

This post is getting too long so I'll divide it into two

Wednesday, 26 March 2014

Sabad World Poetry Festival, New Delhi
Reflections 2: Indian Poets

Les Wicks (Australia) reading, other poets seated

Reading and reception

The practice in the readings was to have the poet at the lectern while, behind him or her, and also at the side of the auditorium, the words of the poem were displayed in English. The poems on display were selected from the ten that were requested to be sent. If the poet had chosen to read something not previously sent, there was the official portrait instead. The auditorium was large and dark, bar for the first two rows where some light from the stage spilled over. The poet could see neither the screens nor the audience. We spoke into the dark.

The Indian poets 

There are various ways of performing poetry. One may read, recite, chant, act, sing, speak with or without gesture, with or without dramatic inflections. One may invite an audience to listen; one may amuse, address or harangue; one may whisper, bellow, sermonise, rant or simply talk to, as if talking to many individuals at once, but to each individual personally, in dialogue.

Most of these ways were in evidence in Delhi. All have a context of culture, tradition and expectation. Each demonstrates a different understanding, not only of the nature of projection, but also of the role of the poet.

We certainly heard chanting and singing in various original languages of India - in Sanskrit, for example, in Kannada and others. The voices were always strong and forceful, all male. The text was by heart and accompanied by marked hand gestures as if the lectern were a pulpit, all rhythm complex and emphasised. The translations were of marginal help here since the rhetorical pattern of the poems on screen was divorced from both voice and language. The voices were commanding, addressed outward rather than inward, the poems themselves often involving a clear first-person  'I' figure who served now as exemplar, now as priest. Understanding that figure 'I' is difficult from the outside, since, with few exceptions, we don't really have a European equivalent. Sometimes it sounded boastful and self-admiring, establishing its importance within a cosmic realm, other times, simply an epic voice on an epic scale.

Even when the poet was not chanting the poetry retained a ritual, almost didactic manner that assumed the poet was an important figure accustomed to teaching - not in the university sense (though that too) -  but in the sense that he was delivering wisdom: as if delivering wisdom were the poet's role. The poems included lines of philosophical or moral perception, emphasised with a crescendo and a powerful hand gesture, that the audience would greet with a murmur, or even a faint ripple of applause. The audience expected wisdom, not new wisdom, but succinct expressions of a wisdom it already knew. It was a rather liturgical performance in that sense, a liturgy without the formally phrased response, but with an inward 'Amen'. The same applied, in a subtly different way, when the poet dealt of political matters. Applause signified agreement, another sort of Amen.

Not all were like this. There were some who read as a European poet might, saying the poems, talking to the audience, referring to the page: Mangalesh Dabral, for instance, who wrote in Hindi chiefly of memories, the Malayamam poet P. F. Ramachandran (whose poems were as Larkinian as Indian poetry probably gets) and the much younger, English-language poet, Ranjit Hoskote, more intellectual, more learned in the modern sense, more international. I say more 'learned' but almost all the poets were consciously scholarly in one way or the other. The scholarship was part of the poetry.

There was a clear contrast between the poetry of cosmic forces and the poetry of specific things. This came fully into focus in the course of one of the two discussions, about Time and Timelessness in poetry. One poet argued for the classics, for eternity, for broad symbolic elements, for a grandeur of vision; the other for the details that made up life, the transient human detail of which human lives were composed.

As Europeans we know and feel more of the latter while recalling some elements of Ginsberg, Whitman and Blake as well as of certain Spanish or Italian poets, but modernism generally means 'no ideas but in things' to us.  We have been busily following Rimbaud and wringing the neck of rhetoric for over a hundred years now. Having said that, my impression was that the former - the chanted, the didactic and the rhetorical  constituted the majority here.


Two further notes since the subject of time has been mentioned.

Indian time is not quite western time, in the same way that raga is not quite sonata form. Many Indian poets overran their given time limit without, apparently, any consideration for the poet due to follow. The following poet, however, did not seem to mind. In commenting or introducing a subject some of the Indian poets - generally those who were of the chanting, singing kind - preferred high monologue to conversation.  The procedure reminded me somewhat of Delhi traffic where cars cut each other up all the time but no one minds. People just learn to negotiate each other without much reference to rules. Nevertheless they survive in a condition of relative equanimity. Nothing, not even patience, is inevitably a virtue, but it works here. As Europeans we can learn to live with it.

And what of the audience? They were always there, always attentive, always in numbers. Some were official observers, some the general literary public. Their approval was hard to gauge. They began slowly, with silence and an occasional, very brief, ripple of applause. This brief ripple sometimes greeted the performers, but not always. Some poems elicited a brief ripple, some didn't. All performances ended with a brief ripple. Rapture would have been signfied by a slightly longer ripple, possibly slightly louder. These ripples increased in number as the festival went on, possibly because the audience was developing greater confidence. Afterwards, outside the hall, the enthusiasm would be more overt, more individual.

I came back with many more books than I had set out: gifts accompanied by business cards, addresses, compliments. More on this later.

There were only two women among the Indian poets, one of them, Mandrakanta Sen, young, in her early thirties, with an extraordinary nineteen volumes of verse already behind her, as well as eight novels and much else. She was clearly modern. She wrote in English, read the poems crisply, with no introduction, and was firmly in her time limit. She was also very good, and formally adroit.

There were considerably more women among the 'world' poets.

The next blog on the other readings and not so much on manners as themes and forms.

Sabad - World Poetry Festival, New Delhi
Reflections 1

Drums for the opening of the festival

Home again after a very long and mostly sleepless journey with tight train connections at the England end, so no time to eat or drink at any point before arriving home at c 10:30 UK time, 4 am India time.

The nature of the festival

All literature festivals are intensely concentrated affairs for both the organisers and the participants.

For the organiser the festival is the cumulation of months of work in terms of fund-raising, programming, venue selection and preparation, accommodation, travel, PR and exhibition mounting, hospitality events, and  time-keeping as well the diplomacy of dealing with participants who may not be particularly mindful of all the work involved in the preparation. Consisdering the short time in which this particular festival had to be organised it was miraculously seamless and grand. The committee must have worked themselves to a standstill. They deserve the highest praise. I have already thanked the organisers but want to thank them here too.

For the participants it means playing an appropriate part in the machinery of the festival as a whole, which entails travel, new surroundings, adapting to whatever slot the programme has prepared for them, getting keyed-up to perform or to take part in panels, being amenable at all times and constantly being with new people for several days, people who are just as much the centre of their own fine universes as they are, maybe more so, maybe with more powerful centres, finer universes.

There are some festivals and some participants who do not stay for the entire duration but travel in and  travel out. Sabad, the World Poetry Festival, was not like that. We were all there for the duration, 21-24 March, that is to say more then forty poets from various parts of the world, twenty or so from outside India and twenty or so from various parts of India, representing its various languaages. India is, in effect, a world in itself, with twenty-three larger groups and several hundred others.

Over the four days we had nine sessions of poetry and two of discussion, each (nominally) an hour and a half, two of the days with four sessions, as well as the inaugural session at which I spoke. The days ended at four, to be followed at six by entertainment on two of the days, the first of dancing, the second of singing. The evenings after that were mostly back at the hotel.

It is all a little breathless, not so much a machine as a constantly bubbling soup in which you sink or swim.

This being or not being India...

India is a world in itself, in fact several worlds. Delhi is not India, nor is New Delhi, Delhi. The world of New Delhi - hotels, institutions, grand houses, dual-carriage highways lined with  peepal, cassia, jasmine, borage, kadam, medlar and much else, boulevards where the houses are hidden behind the trees - is far from typical.

New Delhi is a colonial administrative area. Old Delhi is narrow streets, throngs, buildings that seem on the point of collapse, only held together by an invisible mesh of string and wire. Life is packed, jangling, familal and harsh. It has smells and textures and contrasts. Personal space is reduced to an inch or less. Most people are on foot.

As you move out of Delhi and find yourself on the road or on a train, the vastness of the country, its wealth and intolerable poverty, its lushness and barrenness open up. Modernity is succeeded by pre-modernity.

This was my fifth visit and still I haven't really seen anything. I register a mixture of intimacy and officiousness, of courtesy and direct speech, of compliments mixed with opportunism. I got over the cultural shock the first time I went but am always back on the edge of it when I return. I see the people in the crowds and think: how strange they seem, and how complex must be the life of each individual figure, while realising how strange I must seem to them. We both have conceptions of the other but no depth of understanding. We don't really understand what each other's lives consist of, what are our morning, noon and night thoughts, our expectations, our conscious and unconscious passions. We fly past each other like meteors in a universe that occasionally brings us to within sight of each other, then we've gone.

This was an Indian festival to bring together worlds outside India and worlds inside it. It  operated on both an international and its own complex Indian level. Like any major event it is not only cultural entertainment, not only a form of mutual education, but a political act, a kind of united nations declaration of both similarity and difference.

More on that in the next blog.

Monday, 24 March 2014

Sabad -World Poetry Festival: Will return

Richard Gwyn
Nights too late for proper blogging, mostly sitting up with Richard Gwyn, Lorna Shaugnessy (last night) and, tonight, Richard, and Nikola Madzirov, over glasses of Old Monk rum.

Rather than report on every day's routine (reading, tea, reading, lunch, reading, tea, reading, evening evene) I will attempt a general recollection of the festival as a whole once I have returned.

Tomorrow the plane home, but home late.

Invitation to Boston, USA in May.  Looks very tempting.

More to come.

Saturday, 22 March 2014

Sabad - World Poetry Festival, Delhi (3)
Poetry and Other Arts, etc

Four more sessions today, all very well atteded. The first involved Nigerian poet Tanure Ojaide, Kamal Vore, Desmond Kharmawphlang and Chandrakant Devtale from India, and Les Wicks with his second session. Readings in various Indian languages with translations on the screen or spoken. The idea of having a 'chair' foir the poetry readings is a little odd and has been adapted here. The chair doesn't have to do all the introductions but does announce each poet and finally reads himself or herself. Tanure had us singing in response, and Les spoke one poem with music. Everyone does a notional 15-17 minutes and, on the whole, most people do.

Both Tanure and Les  were on the next panel, a discussion about Poetry and Other Arts, joined by Norwegian poet and novelist Ingrid Storholmen, and Indian poet and scholar Bhalchandra Nemade. I was in the chair.  I had quickly devised four basic questions to address to the panel though it came down to thre in the end, and made sure to link and ask each poet in turn, and to vary the order of answers. The danger is always that people will set off on long solos because the subject interests them, but this group was very good so we finished with military precision, on the dot, then allowed questions from the floor. It went splendidly. I have now been told I have a future as an entrepreneur something i devoutly wish not to become. The four original questions were about the experience of the various arts in childhood, about practical experiment with other art forms, though this blended into the proposed third question regarding collaboration with other arts, and the last, briefly addressed was essentially about ecphrasis and how far the different art forms constituted a unified field.

These are all huge questions and the occasion was informal so we had to rest content with brief answers tha would have led to many more given time.

I met Bharat Ravikumar, a close Facebook friend, in the intervals, but it was brief as was every other conversation. If you really want conversation you have to stay up late at night.

Two after reding slows, the first with Irish poet Lorna Shaughnessy (chairing), the Oscar Cruz (Cuba), Maram-Al-Masri (Syrian but living in France) and Shafi Shauq, India. After a short break we were back with Sheen Kaaf Nizam (India) Ingrid Storholmen, Moya Cannon (Ireland) and Nikola Madzirov (Macedonia). If I don't comment on the readings at this point it is because this is all present tense and it would be invidious to remark, though after all this is over I will write a book considering highlights and other points of interest.

Having not slept more than a couple of hours the night before, I returned at 6pm missing an apparently marvellous singing performance. I was quickly asleep. Then downstairs and to that longer, more satisfying conversation over Old Monk rum, involving Sudeep Sen, Ranjit Hoskote, Richard Gwyn and, at the end, Nikola, into midnight in the restaurant.

I won't try to put a live photo up here. I'll borrow a generic one until I am home and able to edit a little.

Early tomorrow again.

Friday, 21 March 2014

Sabad - World Poetry Festival, Delhi 2(b)

Kavita Dwivedi dancing

Sometimes things happen by a kind of improvisation. Before the events started, Tibor, the director of the Hungarian Cultural Centre in Delhi found me and was looking for a way for me to visit the centre and maybe talk to some students.

After the readings were over for the day there was to be a dance performance that was projected to finish at 7pm, so we arranged to meet after that when he would drive me to the centre. The dance, which was new and in praise of femininity by one of the doyens of Indian dance, Kavita Dwivedi,  was beautiful and highly descriptive, its movement full of recognisable social gestures. Watching it I kept thinking of the way such classical or classical-modern stylised dances worked. It was, I thought, something to do with the tension between intimacy and distance, which is the key to anything classical. The work means at a deep level but through stylised formal means within its own parallel world. There is clearly much more to think about here another time but it's latehere - 1am - and I have more to tell.

I only saw two acts of the five act dance because it started late. Tibor arrived and we drove off to the HCC. A party was already in full swing and elegantly dressed. I felt a little awkward because I was in my day clothes, no ties and a day's growth of beard, but that is probably permissible in poets. I was formally introduced and somebody immediately asked me to recite some lines from one of my poems. So I did; then they asked for another, and I did that too. I had sung for my wine. Two glasses of it in fact. This was accompanied by pleasant conversation then I was taken into the library where a Hungarian language class was in progress, a very nice Hungarian woman teaching five Indians. I had been speaking Hungarian to Tibor and his wife, but this next session continued in English because the class were beginners. I was asked about Márai and Krasznahorkai, told a few anecdotes, a little about my own Hungarian language background, and it was all very lovely so I was quite sorry to break up.

I thought that was over, and we'd return to the hotel but we stopped at the Ethiopian Cultural Centre, where, apparently, we had been invited impromptu. We were each presented with an Ethiopian hat then sat down to an Indian meal, since both the owner and the director of centre are Indians. After the meal and conversations we were taken into a far more luxurious version of an Ethiopian coffee lounge than you'd find in Ethiopia, where coffee was ground and brewed for us by a possibly Ethiopian lady, and if so, the only Ethiopian member of staff we met,  the coffee rich, dark, delicious.

The conversation was partly anecdotal, partly practical (not my affair). It was strange to be sitting unplanned with a very nice Hungarian couple currently fasting for Lent, in an Ethiopian centre talking with more Indians in Delhi, at the end of a day when I had already talked - unplanned - about translating, attended a vernissage, recited poems impromptu rather than reading them, having just delivered my first ever inaugural address, done one brief reading, then a surprising second one.

Tomorrow may be less hectic, though I do have to chair a panel. Here's the hat to prove all this happened.

Sabad - World Poetry Festival, Delhi 2(a)

Welcome with drums at the theatre complex

Days tend to be very full at festivals and this was no exception - in fact it surpassed most that I have known.

It is a miracle that the festival has come about at all since it was quite late before it was confirmed and we all received our invitations in mid-February, with quite lot of information and paperwork afterwards. Considering that, the organisation has been quite astounding - very grand, with musicians, everyone's portraits and a poem printed bannersize,  with an exhibition of our books, full colour programme book gifts, all meticulous.

The previous night I had sat down in the hotel restaurant and met some of the other participants. We chatted, noted where we might or might not have met before. A little background. All very open.  People moved round, came and went at tables, that's how we make our first contacts. A number had been at Medellin at the same time. Then back to our rooms to sleep off the journey, and, in my case, to write the inaugural address. I must have fallen asleep afterwards in bed without meaning to because I found my glasses on the floor - that is after quite a lot of panicky peering.

The festivities began in the big auditorium, well packed, of the theatre complex. There were formal welcoming speeches then straight on to the inaugural address. I talked for about 10-15 minutes then read six poems. All that was fine. Then the chief guest, a delightful, but blind Kunwar Narain made a brief speech, followed by the Guest of Honour, then four readings, by Les Wicks (Australian), Nikola Madzirov (Macedonian - I'll come back to him), Ingrid Fichtner (German, but living in Zurich) Najwan Darwish (Palestinian and very political). I enjoyed them all very much but it was particularly fascinating for me to listen to Nikola because he is a fellow Central European and the feeling for imagery, texture, and rhetorical level is something I understand at gut level. Rhetorical level? In this case a mixture of lyricism and historical irony. There is no over-reach in the poems but the feeling gathers and locates them in images and memory. He is in Bloodaxe, so it's a good idea to find his book. This is the latest leg of his two months world tour.

After lunch I was, surprisingly, called back on again to read, taking the place of the absent Philip Nikolayev, and had quickly to be driven back to the hotel to fetch more poems so I missed about half an hour of the 2pm session, but did hear three of the poets in full: Marra PL. Lanot from the Philippines, Miroslav Topinka (Czech Republic), Vanita (India), and some of Keki N. Daruwalla (India). Then a cup of tea and more chat, and the 4pm session, where I read with Pia Tafdrup (Denmark), Tamilanban and Thangjam Ibopishak Singh (both India). Mine was a hasty selection, mostly new stuff but including The Death of the Translator, which was a risk because it's prose and it's humorous. My best general advice to myself would normally be: Don't try humour on a foreign audience. They won't laugh because they are not certain they are supposed to. But at my age I don't too much. I just do stuff and hope it goes well.  And indeed there were a good number of translators there and it all went off well.

I particularly enjoyed Pia Tafdrup's poems about her father's dementia. Such beautiful simple yet organic things, memories of childhood chiefly, beautifull translated by David McDuff.

Indian audiences are quite quiet. A brief ripple of applause is the equivalent of a rapturous reception, and silence is good too because people are listening. And people really do listen very hard here. It is very flattering to us all.

Let me now split this post into two....

Thursday, 20 March 2014

Sabad - World Poetry Festival, Delhi 1

René who frisked me at Heathrow

It's some twelve days since I last posted though there would have been much to post about - just too busy, getting things done on time.

I am in New Delhi a day before the start of the World Poetry Festival, to which I will link just once here.  It is a great privilege to be invited and an even greater one to be chosen to give the Inaugural Speech tomorrow morning. It wasn't an honour I was looking for and it is a little awing, but I wrote something this afternoon that might be OK. Having spoken it,  I am due to read for about 15 minutes. The full session will begin after lunch.

I have been in Delhi before, maybe three-four times in all, the first time for Katha, then after for the marvellous Almost Island conferences that has had guests such as Bei Dao, Claudio Magris and, this year, László Krasznahorkai. Those event were at the IIC, near the Lodhi Gardens. This will be at the Meghdoot Theatre Complex which, I am told, is only a few minutes from this hotel.

Delhi is bright and sunny. It is about 29C so I have dressed lightly for it. I have also brought a lot of books, as requested, to give and display. It was a night flight on Air India, which is comfortable enough, though not great on food, or technical things (my screen wasn't working) nor particularly attentive in terms of staff, but it's good enough for everyone else and it's good enough for me. Sleeping is always a problem and was this time. I had my Kindle and carried on reading Zweig and maybe slept for two or three hours.

I was met at the airport by the kindly librarian of the academy and driven to the hotel. Security is quite high here in a gestural sort of way. On entering the hotel I was  nominally frisked with a detection device waved respectfully in my direction. Back at Heathrow, boarding, I was frisked with a brisk, antagonistic thoroughness by a man with a comic moustache rather like René in 'Allo 'Allo, (see above). He must have had a toothache. Then something in my hand luggage (I bet it was the Kindle) caused it to be searched and passed through security again.  I was clean. I generally am.

Going to a festival anywhere is like entering a different time zone on a different mental planet. It is a little like being thrown into a pool. Once you are in you are in, and the mind has to be fully engaged or else it drowns. Everything is denser, everything more intense.

This one is organised by the Ministry of Culture and the Sahitya Akademi. I am not sure what difference that will make, but we shall see.

Saturday, 8 March 2014

Back to Walt: Back to Breaking Bad

Walter White / Vince Gilligan

There was much more I wanted to think and say about this remarkable production but needed to finish watching it first, which I have now done. You may think that is obvious and that I should have waited with those other earlier posts but I was excited not only by the story, the script, the characters, the acting, and the direction, but by the ideas that animated it and the ideas it started in me.

I don't think those ideas have changed greatly with the end of the series, in fact I think they have been fulfilled in that they have run their course, and that the difference by the end is one of added layers rather than of re-reading or revaluating. Nevertheless it is possible to see more clearly now where some of those ideas have gone.

Briefly to recap, I took the whole as a reflection on the predicament of maleness in a contemporary yet conservative world. The 'contemporary' world of Breaking Bad was not in set up to question maleness as a political structure in the series. There was no overt feminist challenge, no particularly powerful female figure to disturb the  tenor of a relatively traditional society. The women presented are old fashioned wives whose domain and power-base is the home.

But first I want to return to the beginning with a lightning sketch of two of the three main male characters, Walt and Hank, to see how they exemplify masculinity. I want to do this without going over all the earlier material here, here, here, and here,

Walt and Hank

We first see Walt as a schoolteacher under a female principal, but that is never raised as a problem. In fact both Walt and his brother-in-law Hank, the DEA cop, lead what one might think of as vestigially traditional roles, as earners and providers away from the home, each as assertive as his work requires him to be.

Hank is the more pumpingly masculine, running part of the show in a macho DEA culture - one that has to be macho if only because it is dealing with very dangerous people, mostly other men outside the law that the DEA is bound to enforce. Hank is likely to be earning good money. The only thing preventing us from seeing Hank as the perfect traditional husband is that he and his wife, Marie, have no children. That situation is never explored in the series, we just take it for granted. In every respect bar that Hank is a model provider and family man with a stable and affectionate marriage. Marie has her quirks - chiefly kleptomania - but that is a relatively small crime compared to those we are going to witness.

The trouble with Walt is that he is weak and failing as a provider to the extent that being a 'provider' has become his first level fixation. Walt does have an adolescent but physically disabled son and a baby is on the way to Skyler, his wife. Walt is dashing between two jobs, one of them as a menial in a car wash, the other as a frustrated potenitally visionary chemist teaching a mediocre class in an average school. He is working on the car wash because he isn't providing enough.

Once Walt is diagnosed with cancer he realises that the cost of treatment - which may very well be ineffective treatment - would ruin his family and prevent his son paying his way through college.

This is too much for him. He has failed as a chemist, he has failed as a father, he is failing as a husband (he has in fact become impotent): in other words he has failed as a man. The nadir of his self-worth is when his extended family is sitting around discussing his cancer and what to do about it. He doesn't even get asked. At this point he announces his decision not to have treatment. He has realised he can achieve more by going outside the law, by using his talent - in fact his latent genius - to produce a drug so extraordinarily pure that people would pay fortunes for it.

That decision is the premise on which the whole stands.

I am going to think on my feet as seems right for a blog which is neither a scholarly essay not entirely a personal diary. It' a place to think. That means a few more posts to work things through, persisting with the idea that the theme of masculinity is in fact central.

What Vince Gilligan, the creator of Breaking Bad actually said was this:

If religion is a reaction of man, and nothing more, it seems to me that it represents a human desire for wrongdoers to be punished. I hate the idea of Idi Amin living in Saudi Arabia for the last 25 years of his life. That galls me to no end. I feel some sort of need for Biblical atonement, or justice, or something. I like to believe there is some comeuppance, that karma kicks in at some point, even if it takes years or decades to happen. My girlfriend says this great thing that's become my philosophy as well. 'I want to believe there's a heaven. But I can't not believe there's a hell.

The question is, whose heaven and whose hell? Who is Walt? Where is he in the order of things? Why do we care enough for him to follow him? And why does he do what he does? What of Jesse, Skyler and Marie? Next time.

Monday, 3 March 2014

Israel and 'Apartheid':
A Guest Post by Peter Ryley

A South African MP who personally experienced apartheid speaks about the charge against Israel

George Szirtes

There are various accusations thrown around in criticisms of Israel - including that it is in some ways a Nazi state behaving towards Palestinians just as Hitler behaved to Jews. That charge is intended to achieve two aims: first, to demonise Israel by association, to isolate and delegitimise it and, eventually, to eradicate it; second, to relieve any lingering sense of guilt, even by complicity, for the Holocaust since if its victims have turned out the same as its perpetrators, the one cancels the other. This is a natural conclusion to draw since Israel is the only Jewish state in the world and some parts of it are made up of post-Holocaust Jewish refugees and their descendants. The country was in fact intended as a place of refuge and a homeland where Jews for the first time would not be in a vulnerable minority.

Once the Nazi equivalence has been recognised as a smear the next move is to declare Israel an apartheid state, one that should therefore be treated exactly as South Africa was, and thus to bring it down another way thorugh boycotts and disinvestments.

Some people think any defence of Israel is an attack on Palestinians and that the writer must in some way hate Arabs. I do not. I believe Palestinians have the right to live lives as normal as anyone else's. Furthermore I believe that is possible.

The background to this guest post by Peter Ryley is that I had put up a post on Facebook in response to a plea to deplore another Facebook page where Israel was depicted as a rat spreading a plague. The iconography was a direct echo of Nazi propaganda before and during WW2. These things naturally concern me, especially since I think the powers of the far right are on the rise again. In the comments below my post Israel came to dominate and the apartheid charge came up again. I suggested various ways in which the charge was false but was particularly grateful to Peter for his more detailed and knowledgeable responses. I asked him if I might blog his responses as a single post with any editions that he wished to make and he kindly gave me that permission. Here is his own editing of the material.

Peter Ryley
Apartheid and Israel

Apartheid [in South Africa] was constructed through a cluster of legislation mainly in the early 1950s. The main ones were:

  • The Prohibition of Mixed Marriages Act (1949) 
  • The Population Registration Act of (1950)
  • The Group Areas Act (1950)
  • The Immorality Act (1950)
  • The Suppression of Communism Act (1950)
  • The Bantu Authorities Act (1951)
  • The Reservation of Separate Amenities Act (1953)
  • The Bantu Education Act (1953)
  • The Separate Representation of Voters Act (1956)

If anyone can point to a similar legislative framework in Israel then the analogy can be made. If not, they are playing the game of guilt by association.

Let’s work through some of the list. 

  • Is it illegal for Palestinians to marry Israelis? - NO 
  • Is it illegal for Palestinians to have sex with Israelis? - NO
  • Are Palestinians denied the right to vote? - NO 
  • Do Palestinians have to live in designated areas and carry internal passports? - NO 
  • Are Palestinians divided into different racial categories on the basis of skin colour? - NO 
  • Are they registered under those categories with the state? - NO 
  • Are Palestinians forbidden to attend Israeli educational establishments? - NO
  • Do they by law have to follow a separate and limited curriculum? - NO … etc etc 

Beyond that, some people argue that a majority of Palestinians do not vote in Israeli elections.  The reason for that is because they are not citizens of Israel. They live in the territories and so vote in elections to the PA, or live in the diaspora. 

  • Palestinians are members of the Knesset,
  • have been cabinet ministers,
  • generals in the armed forces,
  • serve on the boards of major corporations,
  • hold senior university posts,
  • work in the civil service etc. 

They are not barred by law from doing any of these things.

We need to distinguish between a state that has a declaratory policy of equal rights with one that had a legal enforcement of unequal rights.

We should not confuse legal segregation with discrimination and prejudice. The first is absent, the latter is widespread.

Analogies and propaganda go hand-in-hand. The Apartheid analogy is a tool for mobilisation and a handy device to prevent the need for thought. 

The history is complex and the current debate is being shaped, not so much by history, as by mythologies. These mythologies are ubiquitous and are part of a process of delegitimisation. Both sides practice them. 

To be pro-Israeli and pro-Palestinian at the same time is not a contradiction: it is a necessity.

*Peter Ryley is a reluctant retiree from adult and higher education. He spent fourteen years working at the University of Hull's now defunct Centre for Lifelong Learning before returning to Manchester. He continues to work as an independent scholar and author, writing mainly on the history of anarchist ideas. His book, Making Another World Possible: Anarchism, Anti-capitalism and Ecology in Late 19th and Early Twentieth Century Britain, was published by Bloomsbury in 2013. He also blogs intermittently at Fat Man on a Keyboard.

Sunday, 2 March 2014

Back Late

Gardening and pet shop window, Wymondham

So, let me recount, as if for myself alone.

Last Sunday I went to Peripatetics, a Norwich group I joined a few years now, comprising professors, professionals and politicians (and the odd poet) who regularly give papers on a subject of their choice at a round of houses. I hadn't been for months, maybe more than a year, for various work-pressure or absence reasons, so felt I had almost fallen through the floor, but this time I could go and was particularly pleased because the paper was being given by Abby Innes of the LSE who specialises in Central European matters. This time though she talked about corruption in Britain, specifically through privatisation and politicans' connections with various large companies that could not be allowed to fail. Not being allowed to fail  meant they had to be propped up with public money so a move that was ostensibly designed to save the state (us) money was, in the end costing us much more and the money was landing up in the pockets of investors, directors and the politicans themselves many of whom sat on the boards of the same private companies that could not be allowed to fail. Figures were produced, chief among them that Britain, now number 17 on the list had fallen precipitously down the corruption index from number 12 and was in fact the fastest falling nation.

It was fine and passionate paper with very well informed discussion afterwards, rambling occasionally, but that is the way things work in any discussion.

Back very late.

The next day to Senate House, London for the board of Poetry London, my first meeting as a member. That's obviously board business, so no discussion here.

Back very late.

On Wednesday I woke late and had to dash to Cambridge for Debating Matters, the debating competition for schools organised by the redoubtable Institute of Ideas. I had agreed to be a judge - one of three on a panel - on one of the dates, having done so once before. This is an non-paying gig and it is fascinating. The debate I was given to judge was about smacking and whether it should be banned. You'd think the banners would win easily on emotion alone but the smackers had a more solid argument and kept their statistical powder dry so finished up winners. I like these counter-intuitive arguments where everyone is assumed to feel one way without discussion, but then people begin to doubt their own certainty because the issue has been intelligently argued from an unexpected yet obvious angle. Nothing is changed by the debate, of course, but the wit is sharpened and you can defend your corner better next time.  Great fun. The lesson is that too great a confidence in your rightness and moral superiority is a recipe for failure. Outside of the debate I would prefer not smacking, though I don't know whether I would go down the legal route to enforce it.

Back middling late.

On Thursday back down to London for a PBS board meeting. Again, this is confidential stuff.

Back very late again.

By Friday I am just about on my feet. Have books to review, another to read, arrangements to fix. I am off to India for a few days on 19 March. Possible trip to USA now postponed to next year. Various invitations to various places. I am reading in Peterborough on Wednesday night.

No doubt back late.