Category Archives: Poetry

An Interview with Sophia Walker

Editor’s Note- I met the poet at the Dhaka Lit Fest in 2017 where I was moderating a panel featuring Sophia, Kaiser Haq and Nausheen Yusuf titled ‘Words of Conscience? Poetry and Activism’.  What immediately struck me over the course of our conversation then and the subsequent interview was her unapologetic honesty and constant desire to improve and discover more ways to infuse her vast experiences into script and deliver it in performances that took on a collective and universal form. I realised I had an opportunity to discuss in depth; the world of Slam poetry from one of its truly global stars. We discussed beginnings, influences, issues about the world of Slam Poetry as well as where it maybe headed.

Syed Shehzar M.Doja
Founder/Editor-in-Chief

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Dhaka Lit Fest 2017- Panel ‘Words of Conscience? Poetry and Activism’ Photo: The Daily Observer

About the poet: BBC Slam Champion Sophia Walker is an internationally renowned poet and teaching artist. 2015 UK representative for the World Slam Championships, 2015 London Slam Champion, winner of the 2012 Poetry Olympics, and the Edinburgh International Book Festival Improv Slam, among other titles, she represents the UK for the World Queer Slam, where she has previously ranked third.

Sophia has performed everywhere from Holyrood, the Scottish Parliament, to Royal Holloway Prison, with a TEDx talk for London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine in between. She is the host and organiser of the annual BBC Slam Championship, now viewed by many as the most prestigious slam on the UK circuit. Her poems have aired on BBC iplayer, BBC Arts, Radio 4, Franceinter and stations across the US, India, Singapore, Vietnam, Italy and Ireland.

Her debut poetry collection Opposite the Tourbus was published in 2014, and was shortlisted for the Reader’s Choice section of The Guardian’s First Book Award. She was called “a highlight of the list”. (Source:Website)

Interview

Shehzar: Sophia, Hi, thank you for doing the interview with the Luxembourg review.

 

Sophia: Thank you for asking me, I’m honoured.

 

Shehzar: Tell me a bit more about yourself, how you got into poetry, slam poetry.

 

Sophia: I lost a bet. There’s a TV show, or was a TV show in the states called Def Poetry Jam. Poets would get up and do one poem and it was televised on HBO and was a hugely popular series and we were watching  it one night and I was 21 and I’d never written anything in my life and the last poet who performed was not very good and ‘cause I was arrogant as 21 years olds are, I said I could do better than that in less than 10 minutes and my friends were tired of my shit and they handed me a pen and paper and pulled out a stopwatch and it took much longer than 10 minutes. That’s where it all started.

 

Shehzar: And how did that move onto this career? Going across the world and performing and being the host? (of the BBC Slam)

 

Sophia: I don’t know. I’m not sure whether its like a snowball affect or a Sisyphus thing but it gets away from you. You start doing something as a hobby and then people respond to it so you engage in it more and it moves from being a side hobby to one of the main things that you do outside of your job and then you start getting asked to do stuff and travel and I find that the rest of the world takes you seriously before you take yourself seriously. So it’s almost like we don’t decide we can pursue this, until we are shown they want to hear from us.

 

Shehzar: There is always a sense of dissonance with poets and their writing, something I have experienced as well that others do take you more seriously before you take yourself because we are our own harshest critics.

 

Sophia: Well Ira Glass had that famous comment that he made about how your taste always advances more quickly than your talent. You are never gonna think you are great if your taste develops faster than your talent because you have taste that immediately tells you that you could and should do better.

 

Shehzar: Is that a boon or does the sense of always self-criticising hamper you?

 

Sophia: I think it’s a real asset because where I get sad is when the poets that really excited you, that you used to go to a different city on a train to go and see; and you see them 6 years later and they are not 6 years better and it kind of breaks your heart and I am sure there is a point in which the hunger stops but for as long as you are always expecting more from yourself, you are forcing yourself to always get better and that’s how you maintain career longevity. Because every time people see you, you are better than the last time they saw you and that’s how you maintain audience loyalty. This is about respect. You have to have more respect for your audience than anything else. They’ve given you their time. That’s priceless. Show up and show up having put effort.

 

Shehzar: One thing I’ve told up and coming writers is whether you have an audience of one or one thousand, you go out there and give your best performance no matter what.

 

Sophia: And know that performing to an audience of one is far harder. So if you are showing up to readings again and again and it’s a small audience, as you progress and start speaking to larger and larger rooms you will be so grateful  because in that small room, you properly learnt everything you needed to learn to be good in front of a larger audience and when you see people ascend very quickly and almost come from nowhere, you watch them die, and you watch them die publicly on stage in front of 400 because they haven’t learnt the basic skills.
Shehzar: So what are some rituals you have before you start writing or performing?In fact, do you have any?
Sophia: I used to. I used to listen to certain music en-route. I preferred to walk to a venue. I can only write outside, which in England is difficult because of the rain so I had to buy a waterproof notebook. I walk around a lot and the rhythms of walking process are how I do my editing process. I need to walk to the venue, that gets me in the headspace, increasingly you get to a certain level and the bookers don’t think of things like that. That you’ll need. You’ll show up to a conference or a festival or something and they’ll put you in back to back things. So you don’t even have the ten-minute headspace that you need to get yourself straight to perform properly so you are forced very quickly to dispense with any needs that you have. You have to learn how to be able to just step up on a stage with no warning and do it – and do it well.
Shehzar: So you have been hosting the BBC slam, what are your thoughts regarding the current ‘scene’ in the UK?
Sophia– Umm, I worry about it because our scene oddly has always been slightly behind the states and the states had this problem with YouTube voice and all slam poets sound the same 5-10 years ago and I would say they that have broken away from it in a huge way and that really only exists still in a younger crowd, in a small way. That’s different, how you learn when you are younger is more challenging so its more important to look at YouTube and those kinds of things. We are still in the midst of YouTube voice, we are deeply embedded in it and I think the other difficulty is that in the 90’s quite a few  poets I knew in the states started doing ads and the ad companies only want to work with poets for a fad for a couple of years and then they go away and those poets were never accepted back in the literary community because they’d sold out. Long term – we’re the people who hire you, long term you need to be aware of how your community feels about things because the ad companies go away.  They’ve just been this surge of poets hired to do ad campaigns and I just worry where they will be in 5 -10 years because the scene is angry about it. It’s alienating people . I don’t think that’s right either. We‘re poets, we’re not cool and we’re not big, we’re fringe so let’s have each other’s backs.
Shehzar: Who would you say were your influences coming into the whole scene, whether it’s a traditional poet or fellow slammer?
Sophia: My first huge influence was Langston Hughes from the age of 12 and I didn’t hear of performance poetry until I was 18, but as soon as I heard of performance poetry, I went “Oh, that’s what Langston Hughes was” -so he’s my favourite. That was a massive influence. In terms of contemporary poets, I am hugely influenced by a British writer called Ross Sutherland, who has an ability to work across so many genres, like he’s currently writing a libretto, the guys a poet, like you know – that’s amazing. But when I was little I never got bedtime stories, my parents read me poems every night.
Shehzar: Exact same thing happened with me, that’s why I decided to become a poet.
Sophia: It’s a wonderful privilege
Shehzar: Langston Hughes for example, he was not only a great poet but a jazz musician and one of the main features of jazz is the ability to add on top of pre-existing music and make it your own. Do you believe that new poets coming in are drawing anything from this malleability?

 

Sophia– I think so, yes, for a lot of us in spoken word, me certainly. I’m a massive hip hop head and my love for hip hop always eclipsed my love for poetry. If you properly love hip hop, and I don’t mean gangster rap, I don’t mean Drake, that’s not Hip Hop. I mean people who can properly rhyme. I mean Talib Kweli, I mean Mos Def, you’re schooled in word play, schooled in near rhyme and slant rhyme and how to play with syllables and not whole words and lot of us are coming to poetry only because. In my case, I’m a privileged white girl, if I try to be a rapper that would be the most ridiculous thing on the planet.

 

Shehzar: What advice would you give to up and coming scenes?
Sophia: A lot of people are gonna tell you to write every day, every time I teach a workshop I say the exact opposite. I think- I believe that you should only write when you have something to say. I go to too many slams and poetry nights where people are saying what they should say or what they think will be popular rather than saying what they need to say. If it’s not what you need to say and if its not in your voice, your audience isn’t going to connect with it. Think of every single time you switched off in a slam or in an open mic night. Pay attention to yourself and what you are reacting to and what you are not reacting to. You’ll learn from that because input is always more important that output. It’s not what you’re writing that’s going to make you better, its what you’re reading, listening and what you’re seeing. So in the first instance, input over output, read every day, absolutely every single day, in as many genres as possible and particularly in poetry; you have to read back, the reason the stuff still holds up 500 years or in the case of Rumi, even longer. That needs to be studied because that stuff is amazing and nothing I’ve written is ever gonna have any value at all in 100 years. The best advice I ever received in my life was from my best friend who is not a poet. I was ranting about not being where I should be career wise 5-6 years ago and she said
“I’m not being funny but have you ever thought you just need to write better” – Stay humble, keep writing, write better.

 

Shehzar: It’s always difficult for a poet to hear that they need to improve because  you always have this sense that now matter what we write, at least in the initial stages of writing – you always feel that whatever you write is great and you want to immediately share it with the world. What do you think? How would you break those particular barriers in order to reach the next level?
Sophia– Every time I write something I send it out to 3 specific people and not one of them is a poet or in anyway involved in the poetry scene.I find that priceless feedback because if your stuff works for people who don’t particularly like poetry, your stuff works. Find 3 people who give you; or even one, who give you honest feedback that you are willing to drop your ego and listen to. You cannot afford to be precious about your work. If you wanna be precious about your work, don’t share it.

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Shehzar: How do you see the next evolution of slam poetry?
Sophia: I don’t to be honest. I think slam poetry is a limited form. I don’t know whether it’s run its course or if it will keep going as it has. I don’t see any evolution there. What I see is that people  progress out of it into becoming – I don’t want to say proper writers but writers who work in wider forms- slam is a specific thing and because it’s competitive there are tactics that work, there are tropes that work and it’s very easy to fall into that and you don’t need to write very well to  win a slam. That’s a problem so you need to break out of it into the wider literary world where you will be forced to take yourself more seriously and you will be forced  to work much harder. Slam is typically won by gimmickry and gimmickry has very little place it the lit world…or in an audience. Gimmickry is bloody boring. When I see people do gimmickry, like in the BBC slam this year, beforehand, one of the guys emailed me (I don’t allow singing or music or any of that), he said; “can I beat box?” and I responded back “yes- of course” but what I was thinking of course – ‘but you will not make it out the first round’ and he didn’t.

 

 

Shehzar: So what are your judging criteria for someone at a national level?
Sophia: Because I organise and host the slam, I have another person who deals with the 3 judges. I pick the judges but I don’t see the score and I don’t speak to them and I don’t brief them because I think one of the hardest things to achieve in Slam is transparency. I don’t believe in audience judge slams. I think they are ridiculous and they are usually won by gimmickry. When we say the best poet never wins- because of audience judged slams- the audience don’t really know what they are talking about. They don’t know how to sift through the gimmickry so I find slams where there are actual judges taken across from the lit world or even outside of it. People who are properly briefed- or at least been to a slam before and have some idea. They are far more interesting and in the UK we tend to brief whoever has the scorecards, they should be looking at writing, performance, audience reaction and it should be equally weighted in your mind across those. The BBC slam does not work like that. We very very heavily weigh the writing. It’s almost like; say you get 10 points for writing, 10 poems for the poem and only 5 points are available for audience reaction. Because we are writers first and foremost and yes this might be performance but if you can’t write well, go and do something else.
Shehzar: Have you noticed any sense of nepotism in the slam poetry world or is that not seen?
Sophia:I think that changes from slam to slam. All slams are run quite differently. It’s a very cliquey world but it would be because it’s a young world. People tend to leave slam in the UK by 25 and move on with your life. I’m 32 and how much I’ve changed as a person between 25 and now, I sort of understand, from a different perspective, all of the things that go on with slam. It’s just that it’s the province of youth and that’s wonderful and we need that. Its also harder to handle competition and there are a lot more self-doubt, anxiety and people are maybe more fragile because they have not been beaten up by the world yet and they haven’t developed the carapace that slam can be cliquey and there is often is nepotism. There are certainly popular groups and in crowds and I see a lot of people getting quite hurt by the slam world.
Shehzar: Hurt in what sense?
Sophia: It’s a very very hard thing to stand up there and say the stuff of your life and have a stranger assign your life a numerical value. That’s a hard thing to take.

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Adonis in conversation with Kaiser Haq at Dhaka Lit Fest 2017- Interview

Editors Note: This article was first published in the Arts and Letters Segment of The Dhaka Tribune (Title sponsors of the Dhaka Literature Festival). Republished with permission of the newspaper  and editor for The Luxembourg Review audience.

If you wish to read more on the Dhaka Literature Festival coverage, please visit their page by clicking here: Arts and Letters.

In an invigorating conversation, Adonis shared his thoughts about poetry and the Middle East on the opening day of the Dhaka Lit Fest 2017

Note: Due to some technical glitches, the first two questions and Adonis’s responses to them could not be retrieved. In consultation with Kaiser Haq, we have decided to provide readers with a summary of the missed responses. The first question was about his name which originally was Ali Ahmad Said Esber. In response, Adonis explained why he adopted the name of a Greek divine figure. According to the mythological story, Adonis, the handsome young hunter, is killed by a boar. Shelley had turned this myth into a mythopoeic representation of the Romantic poet Keats “butchered” by critics. Ali Ahmad too saw himself as Adonis and the newspaper editors as boars that tried to destroy him. The second question was about his first collection of poetry that catapulted him as a prominent voice in Arabic literature. In response, he shared that after doing his mandatory military service in 1955-56 in the Syrian Army, he was imprisoned because of his political affiliation with an opposition party. On his release he and his recently wedded wife, Khalida Said, a literary critic, crossed over into Lebanon and settled in Beirut, where they devoted themselves full-time to literary activities. The first of Adonis’s 20 plus poetry collections appeared in 1957; soon he became the leading innovator in Arabic poetry, exploiting the resources of prose poetry to extend the thematic and emotional reach of poetry. – Editor of Dhaka Tribune- Arts and Letters.

 
Kaiser Haq, left, asking a question while Adonis, middle, looks on Mahmud Hossain Opu/Dhaka Tribune

 

Kaiser Haq: Elaborate your ideas on the Arab world.

Adonis: Religion has a strong influence on politics, so that’s why it’s been corrupted. Politics is corrupted these days. The best thing would be the separation between religion and the state. I propose a rereading of the Quranic text from a more secular perspective. At the same time, I believe that the reading should not be against religion but that religion should be an individual practice and it should not intervene in any other religious practices. The society should be based on three things: Human rights, liberation and liberty of women. The society or the individual attitude should not be based on religious confessions; rather, it should be based on secularism and at the same time civic sense.

My poetry is a kind of rupture from the past tradition and it announces a kind of modernity in the Arabic world. It launches a new tradition. Before that many things were not allowed to be expressed. There was a kind of constraint on alternative thoughts. So, what I did was I created in my poetry a character, who worked as a kind of mouthpiece for the articulation of my thoughts. So, through literature I expressed my ideas. It was a kind of roundabout way that I invented myself. Through my intellectual, political and literary voice, I wanted to change the society.

Kaiser Haq: You are a critic of your own society and religion. And at the same time historical events impacted you. You also responded powerfully to the debacle of 1967, the Israeli invasion of Lebanon in 1982. So, how did you create poetry out of this extreme experience of a war?

Adonis: The Quran is not against creativity like poetry. However, in my society poetry and writing were creative output that was eyed with suspicion. So, I opened up a new journal and the purpose was to open up those creative faculties of different Arab people. And this journal gave us a chance to write poetry, to express our thoughts creatively. One of our main problems was reading. There was a project to reread all those texts from a different perspective and when one rereads a text out of a mediocre perspective, the text itself becomes mediocre. An importance was put on the culture of rereading our tradition and the literary texts emanating from it, and the meta-narrative as well. We should look at the poetic tradition from a new angle and we should reread the whole of our cultural tradition. What we found through our rereading was that the literature we liked was marginal due to its opposition to power. Literature connected to power was less important, less poetic and less creative. Marginal literature is more interesting and more vibrant. We had begun a movement and this movement gave us a new concept of the world: The first one was the conception of God and the second one was the conception of our cultural identity. We found out in the process that identity is not something we inherit from our generations; rather, identity is something that we create. So, there is some sort of existentialist connection here. My own self is not competing with itself, so I need other selves to communicate; I need other selves to enrich myself because my own self is the whole constituted of different other selves.

Kaiser Haq: It is by now clear that you are interested in mysticism. You also say that Sufism and surrealism are similar in many aspects, and you have written a book on this. So, how do you think Sufism and surrealism are similar?

Adonis: There is a debate about the relationship between poetry, national tradition and internationalism or globalisation. We have said that we want to be open to all other cultures and all other traditions. And what we also found that the very mysticism we find in surrealism existed 1000 or 1500 years back. The west is not the inventor of surrealism; rather, this kind of mystic tradition is something that goes beyond our nationality that has existed in the Arabic culture for centuries. The mystics used to believe that there was a reality beyond reality, and reality does not have to be something that is visual or visible. It can be something invisible. And that’s the connection between mysticism and surrealism.

Kaiser Haq: Surrealism has had a connection with leftist politics. You also have had a long association with left politics. In fact, now you claim that you are a leftist. I would like to know how you define leftist politics today and how things have changed.

Adonis: I believe humanity constitutes the essence of leftism. And this essence lies in change. Human beings are not a static entity. There should always be prospects for a change in the future. The future is basically constructed by human beings.

Kaiser Haq: You said that the perfume of poetry should be able to combat the dark forces. What do you mean by that?

Adonis: My poetry has its own force. For example, if we consider the door is rectangular, it’s a very simplistic and linear expression. But if we say that the door is like a woman who is opening her arms, then it gets some different meanings and different nuances. There is an interesting chemistry between the world, the word and the self. And there is also a kind of triangular connection between the world, the word and the self. It is important to me to create a world of images. The Arabic language is very corporeal. It has got some sensorial charm. So, it is always important to me to create a world of images through language, which I call “the world of images.” If we consider the whole world to be a flower, then we can consider poetry to be the perfume of that flower.

Kaiser Haq: Do you think people are more interested in a flower than its perfume?

Adonis: I think the American society and the American politics could be that flower we are always looking for. This is the flower of money, this is the flower of politics and this is the flower of power. The American politics distorts the smell of this flower.

Kaiser Haq: The recent events in the Middle East have provoked sharp comments from you. Would you share your thoughts on that?

Adonis: The Arab Spring opened up a new horizon for the Arab people. But at the same time, it was a kind of American creation the way they had created Osama Bin Laden. The Arab Spring has destroyed some of the Arab countries, such as Libya, Iraq and Lebanon.

Kaiser Haq: In literary festivals, one topic that keeps coming up is the increasing difficulty of circulating literature and the declining readership and the declining reading habit in the younger generations.

Adonis: I am not really worried about the new generations because they read more than readers of the previous generations. Different media that have emerged are helpful for facilitating the act of reading and also, the documentation process.

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Adonis has graciously given permission to The Luxembourg Review
to publish his poem in the next issue of the review.

Adonis with Autumn 2016 volume of The Luxembourg Review

An interview with Ben Okri

Ben Okri was born in 1959 in Minna, Nigeria. He is considered to be one of the best novelist of the postmodernist era. His list of accolades is vindicated with the sheer volume of honours conferred  upoun him, with  governmental recognition, gaining an OBE in 2001 and Fellowship into the Royal Society of Literature (1997) and he is also the recipient of some esteemed literary prizes, most notably the Man Booker Prize in 1991 (making him the youngest ever winner) for The Famished Road. He has produced 10 novels and 9 books of poetry, The Age of Magic (2014) and Wild(2012) being the last in the two categories respectively.

Ben signing autographs at Dhaka Literature Festival 2017

I had the chance of catching a truly mesmerising discussion with Jerry Pinto at the Dhaka Literature Festival in 2017.  His assertion on the spiritual nature of writing was a true and encapsulating insight into his own literary philosophy and his revelation that each writer dies after producing a significant novel and is then reborn anew was a concept I had to further explore. At the author lounge of the DLF I managed to sit down with Ben in order to delve further into his literary psyche and influences. Did he consider himself primarily a poet or novelist? From where did he derive his inspiration from?What ignited his love of literature? What significant event in the modern landscape compelled him to write?Ben was keen and gracious enough to provide The Luxembourg Review with these answers and more.

Syed Shehzar M Doja
Founder and Editor-in-Chief

INTERVIEW

Shehzar: Hi Ben.. first of all a big thank you for doing this interview with The Luxembourg Review. In lieu with the talk you had given today, how many lifetimes ahead do you feel you have?

Ben: I think I have as many lifetimes as I have significant books.You have to understand that a strong book takes life but it also gives life. Every strong book that you write you lose something of yourself into it but it gives you secret energy. So it is both creative and destructive.

Shehzar: And would you say that it is a cycle continuously emanating from within a writer?

Ben: It is a cycle continuously emanating from a writers psyche. But it also comes out of a health. It comes out of your spiritual health and the health of your imagination. Some writers don’t recover as well after significant books.

Shehzar: What would you attribute that to?

Ben: Insufficient spiritual nourishment.

Shehzar: You said you were a lot different growing up. As a writer, what were the axial thoughts? The pivot from where your thoughts gyrated from? What were the central elements that distinguished  you?

Ben: An absolute sense that life is infinitely richer than we realise. The central thought for me is that life is constantly self generating. That life is concealed from us, that life is a mystery to us. Life is a revelation to us. Life is a house of many mansions. Life is a house of many universes.That’s where it comes from.It is this feeling I have about something immeasurable about life itself.

Shehzar: And that compels you?

Ben: It keeps me going upwards and inwards.

Shehzar: What would you say are the external factors that recently invoked your writing?

Ben: Many things. One of the things is the Grenfell disaster.

Shehzar: You had written a poem about that.

Ben: The Grenfell tower disaster moved me very very deeply in a way that I’ve not been moved for almost 15 years. It moved me very much because it made me aware that there is a gaping hole in the centre of capitalism and that hole is called humanity.

Shehzar: This reminds me a bit of that famous Yeats poem. The opening of The Second Coming ‘Turning and turning in the widening gyre, the falcon cannot hear the falconer’ and I feel that movement away from that spirituality is reflected a lot in your writing

Ben: We human beings are many things.we are flesh. We are shadow. We are moonstone. We are tree. We are spirit. We are forgiveness, we are love. We are many things. And where spirituality of one kind or another disappears from the human story we become smaller and we are able to condone all sorts of monstrosities happening to one another.People can still lose spirituality whilst being religious.All you have to do is look around the world right now.Most of the terrible things taking place are taking place among religious people.

Shehzar: As an excuse?

Ben: Not as an excuse but as a blindness. I think sometimes peoples religion gets in the way of their humanity. Or that humanity should come first.  A religion without humanity is an insult to God.

With Ben after the interview.

Shehzar: You seem to have borrowed from what I understand a lot of the traditional stories. How deep is this embedded in you?

Ben: Stories are deeply embedded in me. I grew up with stories. My mother was a great storyteller. Told me stories all the time. My culture, where I grew up in Nigeria, all the different places are storytelling places, we told stories to one another as kids. Africa is a storytelling land so stories are part of how I breathe, of how I think. But the writing I do, I am interested in oblique stories, in indirect stories. In stories that have more angles that you suspect. I’m interested in secret stories, stories people carry in them and they don’t know they carry. Stories that sometime destroy and sometimes liberates them, sometimes ruins them and sometimes lifts them up. We are always carrying these unknown stories and I think its one of the most important things about novelists and poets, that they bring out these unknown stories in their people, in their times and age. They bring it out so people can see it, face it and begin to deal with it. Grenfell was one of those stories.

(The Grenfell Tower poem by Ben Okri on Channel 4 News)

Shehzar: You had written a poem about it as opposed to writing a novel or short story, in general you are regarded very well as a novelist and as a poet but which one do you feel closer to? Spiritually do you feel your stories are created as a novel or as poetry?

Ben: Everything I do comes out of poetry, I am primarily a poetic being. By poetry, I do not mean metre or syllables and beats. For me it is also angles of seeing, ways of being, the relationship between things, the tangents and spaces, suggestions, the pressure and space around things.

Shehzar: That reminds me of Khalil Gibran’s ‘Let their be spaces in your togetherness’. One of my favourite single lines.

Ben: Thats lovely. I know it very well. There should be spaces in our imagination to. We have gaps but not enough spaces. Big difference.

Shehzar: So what next for you? You had alluded to the success you had with The Famished Road, how it wasn’t there initially but after the Booker prize, things changed, but now when you write a new story, do you still go in with that original feeling of it being not so great. How do you feel about that?

Ben: I don’t particularly care what people think when I start to write. And I don’t particularly care what people think when I finish.I care really, mainly about the truth of what I am trying to say. I care truly about the truth of what I am trying to say and how deeply I can touch one person through this work. One person at a time.

Shehzar: Thank you Ben.

Ben: Pleasure

 

 

Night Sky with Exit Wounds by Ocean Vuong; A review.

Ocean Vuong
To Purchase the book click on the image.

Editor’s Note: Vuong was awarded the Felix Dennis Prize for Best First Collection at the Forward Prize 2017

In living with Ocean Vuong’s book over the last week or two I have on occasions mistaken its title for Night Sky with Exile Wounds. It will become obvious why. But it has also been hard to ‘see’ this collection because of the accumulated material – interviews, awards, perhaps hype – that already surrounds it in a way that affects none of the other Forward First Collections this year. Vuong has already appeared on the cover of Poetry London and been interviewed by The New Yorker. He has been nominated as one of Foreign Policy magazine’s 100 Leading Global Thinkers. Such recognition is even more extraordinary given that Vinh Quoc Vuong was born in 1988 on a rice farm outside Saigon and, at the age of two, he and six relatives emigrated to Hartford, Connecticut, where they lived together in a one-bedroom apartment. On learning that ‘ocean’ (in American English) is a body of water that touches many countries – including Vietnam and the United States – his mother renamed her son.

Ocean Vuong is also gay. Hence his exile – the word that kept coming into my mind – is one not only from his birth country and culture but also from the mainstreams of his adopted country. It’s no surprise there are several Ocean Vuongs in this book in terms of subject matter as well as in its use of a variety of poetic forms. This might – reflecting his given name – be an essential, protean, shape-shifting style or it might reveal the kind of casting around in the sea of form and content one might expect from a first collection. I think it is more the latter than the former, though the thrashing and contortion involved in such self creation (we used to refer to ‘self discovery’ – the book title has ‘self portrait’) is now a topic of such ubiquity in Western culture that Vuong’s personal struggles may come to be considered as representative in themselves.

Though 13 years before his birth, ‘Aubade with Burning City’ portrays the American withdrawal from Saigon in 1975. Apparently, Armed Forces Radio played ‘White Christmas’ as a sign to commence the withdrawal and the poem assembles a montage of the song lyric, events on the streets of Saigon and a sinister, coercive-sounding male/female dialogue. The result reflects the chaos of such a moment of violent transition (though the ironies of the sentimental song are a bit obvious) and introduces a recurrent thread in Vuong’s work, the uneasy alliance between power and sex. ‘A Little Closer to the Edge’ seems a reminiscence, perhaps of his own conception (Cape’s cover image of the young poet encourages this biographical approach). Among bomb craters and anticipated domestic violence, a young Vietnamese couple are at first “hand in hand”. Then:

He lifts her white cotton skirt, revealing

another hour. His hand. His hands. The syllables

inside them. O father, O foreshadow, press

into her –

 

For his mother’s part, the narrative voice asks her to show “how ruin makes a home / out of hip bones” and also to “teach me / how to hold a man”.

Once in the USA, there are poems that treat both parents with some tenderness. In ‘The Gift’, the son teaches his mother the alphabet. She can hardly get beyond the third letter, the fourth, gone astray, appearing only as

a strand of black hair – unravelled

from the alphabet

& written

on her cheek

Several portrayals of Vuong’s father suggest violence and drinking but in ‘In Newport I Watch my Father Lay his Cheek to a Beached Dolphin’s Wet Back’ he is seen to express concern for the creature, “the wet refugee”, though the poem is fractured by bullets, Huey helicopters, shrapnel and snipers as if to suggest the root of the father’s violence and his inability to express affection for his own family.

Or perhaps such things innate to a man? Another major theme in the book is masculinity itself as expressed through father figures and a young gay man growing up. The former is seen in two poems involving guns. ‘The Smallest Measure’ has the father instructing the boy on how to handle a Winchester rifle (it reminds me of a photograph of Hemingway and his son). ‘Always and Forever’ (Vuong’s note tells us this is his father’s favourite Luther Vandross song) has the father substituting himself with a Colt.45 in a shoe box: “Open this when you need me most”, he says. The boy seems to wonder if the gun might deliver a liberation of sorts: “[I] wonder if an entry wound in the night // would make a hole wide as morning”. This image of an aperture being made in darkness – most often through an act of violence – to let in light recurs in these poems. I can’t quite see what is intended here but there are again links to the erotic/violence motif. Later, the gun barrel must “tighten” around the bullet “to make it speak”, making further obscure, but interesting, links to violence and the ability to speak (or write).

aseq

What it is to be a (young, gay) man is explored in the second part of the collection. Andrew McMillan’s physical comes to mind in reading these poems (McMillan interviewed Vuong for Poetry London recently). ‘Because It’s Summer’ is a more conventionally lineated poem in the second person singular (some distancing there) of slipping away from a mother’s control (and expectations) to meet a boy “waiting / in the baseball field behind the dugout”. It’s particularly good at conveying the exciement (on both sides) of a desire, previously played out alone, being mutually gratified: “the boy [. . .] finds you / beautiful because you’re not / a mirror”. ‘Homewrecker’ evokes the energy of erotic discovery as well as the ‘wreckage’ it threatens (to some) in the “father’s tantrum” as much as the “mothers’ / white dresses spilling from our feet”. ‘Seventh Circle of Earth’ is particularly inventive in its form. The poem – set as prose, but with line break slashes included (a baggy, hybrid form Vuong uses elsewhere) – appears as a series of footnotes. The footnote numbers appear scattered across a blank page. The poem deals with the murder, by immolation, of two gay men in Dallas in 2011. The mainstream silence is cleverly played against the passionate love poem only recorded as footnotes.

Elsewhere, Vuong hits less successful notes and styles. There are some dream poems – like ‘Queen under the Hill’ – which don’t always escape the hermetic seal around an individual’s dream world. On other occasions, he wants to use mythic stories to scaffold his own. ‘Telemachus’ is probably the most successful of these (the materials again feeling dream-like to me) as the son pulls his dead (shot dead) father from the ocean. Elsewhere we find allusions to Orpheus and Eurydice (and to Lorca’s ‘Sleepwalking Ballad’ and Rilke’s ‘Archaic Torso of Apollo’). Certainly, Vuong is not fearful of taking on big subjects such as JFK’s assassination (‘Of Thee I Sing’), the murders of Jeffrey Dahmer (‘Into the Breach’) and 9/11 (‘Untitled’).

But actually I think ‘ordinariness’ and those poems which show the influence of O’Hara and the New York School prove a more fertile direction. In an interview, Vuong has discussed the Rilkean imperative to look, what the young poet calls the “inexhaustibility in gazing”, something with which we might “resist the capitalist mythos of an expendable gaze”. So ‘On Earth We Are Briefly Gorgeous’ (I do hope Vuong thinks, as I do, of Jay Gatsby whenever he uses that last word) the fragments of vivid perception amount to more than the sum of its parts. ‘Notebook Fragments’ – which appears to be precisely what the title says – works better than some more crafted poems in the collection. And ‘Devotion’ – with its concluding placement suggesting Vuong knows how good it is – rises out of the sometimes conflicting biographical currents that by his own admission have buffeted him. It’s a beautiful lyric (the form, tripping, delicate, this time not drawing attention to itself) about oral sex; its debatable claims made with utter conviction:

there’s nothing

more holy than holding

a man’s heartbeat between

your teeth, sharpened

with too much

air

The lilting lineation, the brush-strokes of punctuation, work better here than in some of Vuong’s more Whitman-esque streamings of consciousness. The enviable, insouciance of youth – “& so what” – is thrillingly conveyed. Yet, it turns out,  this is not really about the provocative challenges of a variety of states of exile and  ‘otherness’, but about the need to feel anything “fully”, however transient it may prove to be:

Only to feel

this fully, this

entire, the way snow

touches bare skin – & is,

suddenly, snow

no longer.

 

______________________________________________________________________

Martyn Crucefix’s recent books include The Time We Turned (Shearsman, 2014), A Hatfield Mass (Worple Press, 2014) and Daodejing – a new version in English (Enitharmon, 2016. Just published is The Lovely Disciplines (Seren, 2017) and forthcoming are limited editions of O. at the Edge of the Gorge(Guillemot Press, 2017) and A Convoy (If a Leaf Falls Press, 2017)

This article is republished with permission of the author. To find more of his reviews, click here: Martyn Crucefix

Welsh Poetic Forms and Metre- A History

Translations:

Welsh Poetic Forms and Metre

 

A History and a Little Bit More

 

The language of Wales is vivid and vivacious. To hear it spoken is to listen to music and to understand it is to be part of a culture that has existed for centuries. There is more to Wales than its language (and I’m not talking about food), Welsh poetry has been influenced and written in the cerdd dafod and cynghanedd since at least the fifth century.  It is a part of our culture that has evolved directly under the influence of the Welsh language.

 

The cerdd dafod (Welsh poetic forms) and cynghanedd (Welsh metre) remains in use throughout modern Wales, with the most notably example being the annual Eisteddfod. The cerdd dafod comprises of twenty-four poetic forms that involve internal and end rhyme with many stanzas ranging from two to four lines. The cynghanedd is made up of four metres that use alliteration, rhyme and consonantal harmony to balance the sounds within a line. These twenty-four poetic forms and metre date back to when Wales was an independent nation and the courts of the Princes of Wales were informed by the poetic voices of master craftsmen.

 

One of the most famous and earliest examples of the cerdd dafod and cynghanedd in Welsh medieval poetry was during the fifth and sixth century where poets such as Aneirin and Taliesin, the great bards of Wales, wrote in these forms and metre. There is no known beginning of the cerdd dafod and cynghanedd but it is certain that as the Welsh language evolved Welsh poetry matured alongside it. During the following centuries the cerdd dafod and cynghanedd underwent a critical transformation but it wasn’t to be formally codified until the thirteenth century.

 

The most striking transformation took place during the twelfth and thirteenth century amidst the battle for Welsh independence. Prior to the death of Prince Llywelyn ap Gruffudd in 1282, poets were afforded the privilege of being a respected member of court. These poets were known as the Poets of the Princes (‘Beirdd y Tywysogion’).

 

The highest position that a poet could hold in a royal household was that of the ‘Pencerdd’, a literal translation would be ‘master craftsman’. It was a great honour for a medieval poet and the position would have brought with it many benefits as well as responsibilities: through the patronage of his prince, a poet could trust to receive a formal pay structure, swords and other weaponry but, counterbalancing this great luxury, he would have been expected to participate in battles as a warrior fighting by his prince’s side. It is of little surprise that medieval poetry during these centuries focused predominately on the reality of the battlefield, often describing the aftermath with horrific accuracy.

 

When battles were not being waged the ‘Pencerdd’ held a chair in court. Religion and superstition empowered the medieval court poet: they were believed to be able to predict the future (prophecy) as well have a strong connection with God. The ‘Pencerdd’ would use his position to advise the prince; before battle he would declaim a poem to God and another that would honour the prince or his ancestors’. Royal blood in medieval Wales was cherished. Many held the belief that a prince was chosen by Divine rule and by composing verse that praised his ancestors’, the poet was still honouring the living prince. This form of praise poetry is common in medieval Wales with its practise commanding a great deal of respect. That is not to infer that a ‘Pencerdd’ was a corrupt figure, indeed, many were fiercely loyal to their patrons choosing to risk their life on the battlefield. The elegy was a widely used poetic form during this time. It depicted absolute grief at the loss of a patron. The most beautiful example of an elegy poem was written by Gruffydd ab yr Ynad Coch entitled, ‘Llywelyn ein Llyw Olaf’.

 

“See you not the way of the wind and the rain?

See you not the oak trees buffet together?

See you not the sun hurtling through the sky,

And that the stars are fallen?

Do you not believe God, demented mortals?”

 

There were two lower positions within a royal court for a poet still learning his craft. The ‘Bardd Teulu’, the literal translation would be ‘poet of the household’; the lowest was that of the ‘Cerddor’, the literal translation would be quite simple ‘musician’. All positions within the household would have had formal and informal duties, although the role of ‘Cerddor’ is not completely known but it is safe to assume that they would have required the ability to play the harp or lyre. The ‘Bardd Teulu’ was one of twenty-four officers at court. He was expected to perform his poetry before battles and to entertain the Queen. The duties of medieval court poets would have included the role of chronicler, oral archivist and entertainer, three vital responsibilities to a society that depended on oral traditions for its religion, history and entertainment (which would have most likely been a concoction of praise poetry, history and morality).

 

A court poet did not originate from a position of privilege although they would have been of noble birth. Their training was long and arduous. If they did develop an attitude of self-importance then they could hardly be blamed. It would take nine years to master the necessary skills to become a court poet and upon completion of training a ‘Pencerdd’ would demand twenty-four pence and the right to the ‘amobr’ (the virginity of the ‘Cerddor’s’ daughter). A court poet would be required to recite extracts from the Bible and famous verses from memory; he was also expected to be a master at composing verse written in the cerdd dafod and cynghanedd within his head and at the whim of his prince. For all its requirements and demands, a court poet still held an enviably position within medieval Welsh society.

 

After 1282 and the loss of Welsh independence, the Poets of the Princes suffered a great indignation: they became uprooted and dispersed, thrown out of their royal residencies and into the age of the Poets of the Gentry (‘Beirdd yr Uchelwyr’). To survive they began a tradition known as ‘clera’; this demanded that the poet undergo an expedition, wandering from manor to mansion seeking food, coin and anything else that would assist in their survival. These expeditions enabled them to continue receiving the patronage of their princes, now demoted to gentry by English rule, keeping the practise of the cerdd dafod and cynghanedd flourishing within Welsh culture. If the twelfth century established the practises of the cerdd dafod and cynghanedd, then the thirteenth century defined them.

 

A Little Bit More…

 

The tradition of the cerdd dafod and cynghanedd remains vibrant throughout Wales. It is far from being forgotten, evidenced by the continued popularity of the Eisteddfod. My study, entitled Translations: a poetry project, researches how Welsh poetic forms and metre could be used to reconsider, engage and accurately represent the changing cultural identity of modern Wales. It does this through two considerations, firstly, a critical analysis of three relationships: the coastal and industrial landscapes of Wales; Welsh, Anglo-Welsh and English speaking poets; and, mainstream and grassroots publishing. Secondly, the creative response translates the cerdd dafod and cynghanedd into the English language and applies that translation practically in the shape of two poetry collections each with an accompanying epic poem of substantial length.

 

The project has two aims: to engage with a wide readership by promoting the use of the cerdd dafod and cynghanedd through myself and modern poets; to discover all the voices that define the modern Welsh cultural identity; to challenge mainstream and grassroots publishing and by doing so establish a national platform where all the voices of modern Wales have an equal representation.

 

The study is in its primary stage and in order to remain loyal to its values and principles, the project researches and experiments with the ideology of direct translation. It uses a Welsh perspective to inform these translations through interviewing Welsh speaking poets who have knowledge of and write in these forms and metre in Welsh and English. My MA thesis, Grandiloquent Wretches (then titled Hiraeth) translated the cerdd dafod into the English language. It is a poetry collection that combines history, mythology and Welsh poetic forms to create an urban fantasy. It doesn’t focus exclusively on Welsh mythology and history; instead, it draws from a wealth of international identities, all of whom live and contribute to the social, economic and culturally wealth of modern Wales.

 

The cerdd dafod’s twenty-four forms are made up of two to four lined stanzas. The collection reconsidered these forms to develop a modern variation that had a more visual relationship to that of a sonnet. This supported the use of poetic devices, such as an octet and sestet, which provided a formal narrative structure. Grandiloquent Wretches achieved this by experimenting with the stitching together of two complementary and, at times, conflicting poetic forms to create a sound that a modern readership would appreciate. For example:

 

Justice*

 

 

Let us just play this arid game,

if we lose then you should not blame

them, you got cocky, let bedlam

dictate where the pious venom

strikes in righteous indignation;

 

 

war sought the tired Thracian

lilt, invoked wrath from lethargy

and called it justice. Liturgy

transformed from sacred to mundane,

fudged fingers gouged out his left brain.

He had cold justice on his side;

least the Imp took the time to chide

 

 

him with keen doe-eyed promises;

justice lobotomises…conscience.  

 

*Poetic form: Cyhydedd Fer (Welsh sonnet).

 

The Wolf’s Honey**

 

 

The rat snatched the wolf’s honey;

sore, he tore its soft, bunny

flesh into a gunny mess, bejewelled

he bugled an umbrae

with sugar-snapped bayonets;

laced with perse, cloud silhouettes

will make the plaster sweat; hope to previse,

incise these mottled webs;

the spider drank flaxen cider,

drunk, the piper used the barrels

to play a sniper’s tune, cipher

tasseomancy from pyre ashes;

hope that it was not your fault.

Suck a lolly dipped in salt,

thwart their strikes with rumour, club her cries

to equalise and escort

her moans with guided patience,

mistake twists for gyrations

of pain, stained laces tremble at the scream,

cetirizine harks, chases

the tussles that burst the bubbles

as convulsions spilt drooling

from silver buckles, sand knuckles

with piteous justice mewling.

 ** Poetic form: two stanzas of Englyn Crwca; two stanzas of Rhupant Hir; two stanzas of Englyn Crwca; two stanzas of Rhupant Hir.

 

 

The collection is unapologetically baroque in language and style, revelling in its past through the use of Welsh poetic forms whilst firmly set in the present. Translations: a poetry project places a higher value on a cohesive narrative but it does not deviate too far away from its grandiloquent nature. See the poem below taken from The Silver in the Water, Chapter Three.

 

 

Swathes of Empyrean Heather***

 

                                                   Wyled**** curdled the stomach;

                                           Cistern snagged the Bittern co…pse.

                                              Scourge dirge steep like Icarus,

                                                  periwinkle him; skim milk

                   to the broth,                              froth                 this relief;

        temper                                                     this heather                    charnel****

                                                                                                                           with carrion,
virion******

river

     malingers

       and infers

                                                                                                                          sea.

 

 

***Poetic form: Cynghanedd Sain. Seven syllables per line. The poem uses a rhyme scheme between the first and second caesura of the line; the second bar decides the consonantal harmony for the third bar and third caesura creates a bridge over additional consonants to create a harmony with the two. For example: X X dog | bog | B (N D N) B. The final syllable in the second and third is stressed.
 ****“Wyled” means to deceive or entice; it also means sorcerer.
 *****“Charnel” short for charnel house; associated with death.
 ******“Virion” means the complete, infective form of a virus outside a host cell.

 

These poems use internal and end rhyme along with consonantal harmony that has been demonstrated by the use of alliteration. Swatches of Empyrean Heather follows the pattern of cynghanedd sain. The writing of Welsh poetic metres has a strong similarity to a line of music: the line is broken into caesuras ( | ). These sections dictate where the rhyme, stress and consonantal repetition fall. See the example below for a visual breakdown of the poem’s structure:

 

Swathes of Empyrean Heather

 

                                                   Wyled | curdled | the stomach;

                                           Cisternsnagged the Bittern | co…pse.

                                              Scourge | dirge |steep like Icarus,

                                                  periwinkle him; |skim | milk

                                                   to the broth,                        |froth |   this relief;

                                temper  |                                                      this heather  |                  charnel

                                                                                                                           with carrion,|
virion |

river

malingers  |

                                                         and infers  |

                                                                                                                            sea.

 

Ultimately Translations: a poetry project ensures that the forms and metre continue to evolve into modernity. Preserved, not like a museum artefact but as a living organism; an organism that is open to failures as well as successes and, most importantly, informed by its history and culture, constantly evolving, harmonising to the needs of its society.

___________

Rhea Seren Phillips is a Ph.D student at Swansea University. Rhea specializes in the cerdd dafod and cynghanedd (Welsh poetic forms and metre) and is reconsidering them through the English language for a modern Welsh readership.

Twitter: @MissRheaSeren

Patreon: https://www.patreon.com/grandiloquentwretch

Website: https://rheasphillipspoet.wordpress.com/