Category Archives: Uncategorized

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

1511549888
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.

20171118_133846

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.

Advertisements

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

 

 

The Luxembourg Review at Dhaka Literature Festival 2017

What is the significance of a literary festival?  Celebrated in abundance across many countries, it is becoming a more pronounced and regular feature of the Asian landscape only over the past decade. Whilst Jaipur holds the distinction of hosting the largest and most globally prominent one in the region, other areas in India are striving to replicate its overwhelming success. The importance of these literary arenas has subsequently spread to places like Karachi, Singapore, Bhutan and beyond. However, in Dhaka, this much needed momentum and gap was addressed with the birth of the Dhaka Literature Festival in 2012. In a press conference I attended for the 2017 edition, the directors expressed their desire for the festival to act as a starting point of important regional and global discussions.  In spite of the haze of censorship in the subcontinent via political clout and overt intimidation blurring open dialogue, the DLF stands united as a focal point in addressing these concerns to expand dialogues and minds with exposure to some of literature’s great modern luminaries. This is evident with a prestigious line-up over the years with authors like Nobel Laureate Sir V.S Naipaul, Pulitzer Prize winning Vijay Seshadri, Man Booker Prize winner Deborah Smith, highly acclaimed poet Sudeep Sen and more. This uncompromising ambition carries onto this year with the inclusion of Adonis, the greatest living Arabic poet, Booker Prize winner Ben Okri , Oscar winning Tilda Swinton, Playwright /BAFTA winner Sir David Hare etc among a distinguished host of Bengali writers and poets.

Inaugural Press Conference for Dhaka Literature Festival 2017 held at Bangla Academy

 

This year will also see the festival announce the winners of the DSC prize for the first time. A truly prestigious award of 25000$ presented for the best South Asian book, comprising of names like Booker winner Aravind Adiga, Anuk Arudpragasam, Anjali Joseph, Karan Mahajan and Stephen Alter making the 5 person shortlist.

What I find wonderful about the festival is the fact that local established and aspiring authors now have the opportunity to engage with and learn from authors of various genres without any distinguishing formalities. This cross pollination of ideas will hopefully lead to increasing the prominence of Bangladeshi writers worldwide. Access to world class literature is imperative towards this dream and the inclusion of literary agents like Kelly Falconer and Granta magazine may help expedite this vision.  This is not a literary festival that panders only to the elite of suburban Bangladeshi society with exorbitant fees;in fact, the festival and all panels remain free of any cost (allowing in the satiation of  any budding intellectual curiosity).  Another topic that was reiterated during the initiating press conference.

Karthika V.K (Former Chief Editor of HarperCollins India) in conversation with Pulitzer Prize winner Vijay Seshadri at Dhaka Lit Fest 2016
(Photo:Syed Wasama Doja)

Last year I had the opportunity to be invited to the Dhaka Literature Festival  to launch my book and spread word of the review. It holds a special place in my heart because growing up in Dhaka during my formative years I never would have envisioned seeing a Pulitzer prize winning author casually strolling along the lawns of Bangla Academy in conversation with a host of other critically renowned writers. I am certain this simple yet exuberant sense of joy was replicated in the hearts of many attendees, now able to claim such moments not as some vague mirage from an obscure festival review online but to savour the opportunity  and relish it instead as a first-hand experience.

In conversation with Bangladeshi Cultural Minister Asaduzzaman Noor – Dhaka Lit Fest 2016
(Photo: Syed Wasama Doja)

 

 

Serendipity is often a neglected muse.  However, this year I am hoping to honour her as I find myself coincidentally in Dhaka during the tenure of the festival alongside Luxembourg Review Columnist Ikhtisad Ahmed and with our global team we plan to cover various aspects of the festival whilst eagerly engaging in the festivities and panels.

A link to the official Speaker List can be found here: DLF  2017
A link to the official Programme can be found here: DLF Programme

The Luxembourg Review at DLF 2017 events:

Words of conscience? Poetry and activism
Nausheen Eusuf, Kaiser Haq and Sophia Walker with Syed Shehzar Doja–   16th November 3-4 pm (Lawn)

The Bengalis: A race divided
Sudeep ChakravartiKushanava Choudhury, Ikhtisad Ahmed and Ananya Kabir with David Davidar 16th November- 3-4 pm (Vaskar Novera Exhibition Hall)

From page to screen

Sharbari Ahmed with Ikhtisad Ahmed 16th November – 5-6:30pm (Cosmic Tent)

Ceaseless Chatter of Demons

Ashok Ferrey with Ikhtisad Ahmed 18th November – 11:15-12:15 (Lawn)

 

¬ Shehzar Doja
Founder and Editor-in-Chief of The Luxembourg Review.

 

The Sad Part Was- Prabda Yoon

the sad part was
The book is available to purchase here – The Sad Part Was


The Sad Part Was – Prabda Yoon

 

“They catalysed my consciousness as though it had been struck by lightning, and I briefly became abnormally perceptive, able to absorb information about my environment instantaneously and effortlessly. Thank god I stopped just short of Nirvana.” – Prabda Yoon, “Miss Space”

 

Prabda Yoon’s collection of short stories The Sad Part Was (Tilted Axis Press, 2017) invites the reader into a world of idiosyncratic characters often confronted with the impermanence of experience and the choice of how to view and remember each moment. A short definition of the term “ploang” – to be at peace with letting go of past events, without assigning any negative or positive emotions to them – announces the collection’s most important theme. Many of Yoon’s characters are confronted with situations beyond their control (just as the text itself is beyond the reader’s control), but their emotions and reactions determine how they will cope.

The stories in The Sad Part Was pull us into their various worlds, distilling information about characters that seem both familiar and utterly baffling at times, before pushing us out again to reflect on the act of reading itself. What right have we to assign meaning to a writer’s words? What purpose does it serve?

Yoon’s unusual approach is clear from the beginning. “Pen in Parentheses”, the very first story, immediately subverts expectations by placing the bulk of the text within parentheses, thus creating different levels of reading. “Miss Space” stands out through its narrator’s almost hysterical need to understand a young woman’s penchant for leaving large spaces between words when she writes. Every time he sees her, he launches into an in-depth analysis of all the possible causes for her behaviour, but rather ironically, he never gives her the opportunity (or space) to speak. He is more invested in his own line of questioning than whatever she has to say.

The same occurs in “Shallow/Deep, Thick/Thin”, where a traveller discovers a secret from outer space. The whole world begs him to reveal it, because there are no other secrets left, but the traveller soon realizes his audience is more interested in exploiting the sense of mystery than the knowledge itself. No one cares about the insights he has to offer. People look to others to teach them, when they should be looking inside. They should seek experience, rather than the passing on of second-hand information. Yoon puts forwards the idea that knowing everything does not bring happiness, because then only the absence of knowledge seems interesting… and once it is broken, it cannot be reversed.

Yet the author himself is not exempt from this rule. Cleverly placed near the end of the collection, “Marut by the Sea” acts as a tongue-in-cheek reminder not to take Yoon and his ideas too seriously:

“Don’t waste your precious time with his nonsense. Granted, he might say or do things to amaze you. He might write words that tug on your heart strings. You might find his unusual perspective charming. He might lead you to believe that he has something important to say. But believe me, every single thing that you think you learn from him in fact comes from you yourself.”

Yoon plays with our natural tendency to experience excitement upon discovering new and intriguing ways of understanding and experiencing life. He warns us of the fleetingness of such a sense of revelation and tells us not to trust even our own impressions. This of course calls into question everything we have read so far, but if we do indeed adhere to the notion of “ploang”, we come to realize that judgement of a thing does not change the thing itself. Yoon’s words are there for us to do with as we please. We can draw our own conclusions, without feeling right or wrong.

“The Disappearance of a She-Vampire in Pattaya” is the perfect example of this. The reasons given for Rattika the She-Vampire’s sudden absence vary widely and contradict each other more than once, yet it is still tempting to come away believing one version or the other. At the very least, we understand that something dramatic has happened and that the people interviewed are explaining it in their own way. Truth has nothing to do with it.

As for the language Yoon uses in his stories, it is deliberate and precise. It serves to build an atmosphere in which we must find our own balance, our own understanding. The texts are peppered with Thai words, deliberately left in by Mui Poopoksakul, who translated the book into English. The sense of setting (all the stories appear to take place in Thailand) is thus reinforced in a subtle but effective way. The stories carry a sense of national identity (foreigners, Westerners in particular, are described with a distinct sense of “otherness” and are never given names) while at the same time veering away from more traditional Thai literature, as Poopoksakul explains in the Translator’s Afterword.

The result is an intriguing collection where words and form matter more than coherence. Yoon doesn’t seek to persuade the reader; rather, he invites us to examine his stories without passing judgement. We may find some funny, others sad, but we are free to draw our own conclusions and move on.

____

Zoe Perrenoud was born in Switzerland in 1987. Her work has appeared in Aesthetica’s Annual Creative Works, Crossing the Lines, Delano Magazine (online) and Stardust, Always. One of her short stories was shortlisted for the 2016 Bridport Prize. She has an M.A. in Creative Writing from Bangor University and currently lives in Luxembourg.

THE WORDS OF MY MOTHER – A REVIEW

Final-Cover-anthology-377x600
To purchase  the book, click on the picture

 

Chukwudi Okoye’s anthology of poems is steeply didactic. A greater portion of it is also retrospective, Eurocentric, and, in some lines, pantheistic; although, the breath of metaphor conjures up a panoply of imagery plumbing deep the African core. In his book, one finds the “Niger” and the “frogs”; the “broken bamboo” and “black columns of ants”; “flutes” that are “urged to speak”, and “palm fruits ripe with fear”; “divine secrets from stones”, “sorrowful psalms of birds”, and “the rustling anguish of falling  leaves”.

The technique of the poet is to make these landmarks the vestige of a lost story, “the ancient rhythm of the land”, which suffers repression from the acts of “scavengers”. In The Music of the Flute, a long poem which preludes the collection of twenty-three poems, there is the lyrical and gruelling canvassing for a people’s awareness against a season of anomie. The apprehensions of the speaker, densely woven into a revue of parables and allusions, are based on the socio-cultural progression of his society; of its coming-of-age from a pilfered identity, a “plundered soil”; and of the need to, as the Music of the Flute urges, “remember” and “speak”.

. . . Shadows wait at the corner of evening.

Shadows pay homage at the feet of decay (82).

This first poem is a story of Shadows, and the poet is generous with the defining details of their essence: they came from a “distant” and “foreign land”; are devious, “come from the corners of the evening”; are “organised”; they “infiltrate the watchmen’s bones” and, “giving life to them” as stooges, “become the watchmen we know”. These Shadows are also portrayed as the “scavengers” who are everywhere, entrenched among the people, perpetrating common anguish.

The western wind has blown us away

The eastern waves have torn us apart (152).

The poet’s knowledge of colonial history is evident in his lines and filters into his stream of consciousness. His retrospection is most likely inspired by—as the title of the book points—the words of his mother, one who certainly must have lived in the time he has chosen to philosophise about.

Ezeamalukwuo; the name you gave

Me, Dearest Mother, so that I may speak (4).

His account of the Shadows speaks volumes about the imperial divide-and-rule system the English devised to colonise the poet’s native Ibo land in Southeast Nigeria in the early part of the twentieth century. This system placed absolute power in the hands of warrant chiefs who spoke for the black man and conquered for the white man. The fruit thereof was a pseudo-aristocracy, a subversion of the democratic political structure of the Ibo, one which turned the land against itself. Connotative words and phrases such as putrefaction, infiltrate, watchmen, outline of the land, strange voices, and plundered soil illustrate colonialism. Okoye’s choice of the evening as the fateful period of the day when the Shadows invade is symbolic; as that period is associated with rejuvenation, a time when a community is reformed to vacate its toil. His description of the western wind is reminiscent of Okonkwo’s discerning frustration in Chinua Achebe’s classic novel, Things Fall Apart: “The white man… came quietly … and we have fallen apart.”

It goes without saying that the effects of colonialism were extremely evident in the Ibo region of Nigeria, as after the entry of the White ensued a dramatic evisceration of the people’s cultural values and political institutions which were a sharp antithesis to the culture of the colonists.

. . . Green hopes of our generation

They fall on the cemetery of dreams,

To die and decay,

To reincarnate in time (270).

In the latter parts of The Music, there is an inquiry into the roots of redemption (of “land” and of “self”). It is asked, “Who knows the significance of the frog/Running about in day-time?” “It is not for nothing,” the flute replies (214). The poet strikes a stoic re-affirmation at the core of a reparative spirit.

The palm fruits have come of age

Not in the perennial passage of time

But in the sprouting of the spirit (319).

At the heart of his proposal for redemption, Okoye stages “a second coming”. It is not the literal apocalypse of the Bible that he refers to, but a political allusion to a revolutionary Day of Reckoning against the corrupted watchmen of the void, “butchers of dreams” and “betrayers of day”; a day which, according to him, would emerge if ignorance of the past be banished from the land, and actions for originality enthroned above intentions.

Biblical allusions, parallelisms, conceits, and repetitions are major devices of the poet. His repetitions engender an incantatory rhythm which enriches the epic voice. He uses parallelisms, conceits and allusions to strike emphases and embellish his storytelling; though artfully, yet to a point of near-weariness. Somewhere, there is a reference to the biblical Rachel in Ramah, “weeping for her children”; and the poet compares her mourning to that of his, for his native land. Elsewhere, “it is not by power, it is not by might/But by the sprouting of the spirit” (311); and “on enlightenment pathways of meandering roots/The flesh is weak; the flesh is weak” (325). However, it is those who heed the Music of the Flute that “shall possess the riches of the land”. His verses are also rife with indigenous aphorisms; the reader could pass them for a compilation of proverbs than a spontaneous flow of poetic thoughts.

But, as the pages turn, “Mother” is not always Mother, in the literal sense of the word. In Ezeamalukwuo, a poem on patriotism, Mother is Country; a nation the poet belongs to, but is, in a way, regrettably estranged from.

. . . Oh Mother! My eyes were little and blind. . .

No I did not understand you at all.

All I saw was your nakedness, Mother!

All I knew was wars, famine, death and dust

Your harsh sun, your Harmattan and your rain

That beat constantly on our leaking roof. . .

Thus I abandoned you, Dearest Mother (25).

In The Discovery, with a sombre tone as in Kofi Awoonor’s Songs of Sorrow, Mother is Life itself: “Oh Mermaid, oh Mother/In your presence alone have I come to see/That all my quests and questions/Are but a chase after the wind” (47).

Okoye explores a humanistic array of themes with the poems that emerge in the second section of his collection. They are, one time, a tribute to pensive joy; and, at another, a song of questions from a stricken heart. His language is unhappy, but his vision is bold.

Little Child, I Wish, and Remember, Soul Brother are poems on youth and innocence. In them are “the brownish recollections of a child” to a distant season of equality and freedom; and a hundred noble wishes to, with simplicity, “cross-pollinate the flowers of every mind”. I Love to Take a Walk, I Shall Go, Little Cherry Gold, The Bicycle Repairman, and A Plea for Paradise are powerful statements on the subject of death and origin. The poet’s position on death is a stoic and open-minded one, as he illustrates it to be an important mystery which is the punch-line of life. In two poems, he uses stories of bereaved characters to also mirror the stunning transience of human life. One is “a little ebony child”, “a sweet girl” whom the poet says was “stolen in Harmattan’s whim”. The other is “the bicycle repairman”.

The bicycle repairman was my friend

We bonded over a bicycle wheel. . .

Tomorrow we shall break more words and tears. . .

Someone was dead. . .

The next day I met a man pedalling his bicycle.

He looked familiar;

So I stopped him, and I asked:

“Who died yesterday?”

“The Repairman,” he replied,

And cycled away in time (20).

Yet, the poet would “prefer the wild uncertainties of life/To the deafening silence of certain death” (53). While his disposition towards death is enduring, his attitude towards life is adventurous. I Prefer the Wild Uncertainties of Life, All I Know of Life, and In the Midnight Hour are poems that undermine the “seriousness” of life, and, at the same time, celebrate its possibilities. The poet does not wish to make absolute sense of life; he is only interested in living it, open-mindedly and courageously.

. . . I walk the land of the living

In search of the secret of the dead

Before me is the fountain of hope,

But my path is covered in red (36).

Among other sarcastic poems on religion, science and the very fragile politics of identity; Okoye extols love as the bottom line of life. The Pilgrim Song, There is Something in a Song, and Woman of the Niger are love psalms. Through them, authorial assertion is vivid on the nature of love as a grand neutraliser; a plain where all philosophical waves of confusion are, for a moment, silenced.

You said: “Death is in the air. Death is on the earth. . .

I replied: “Life raised us up, then cut us down.

Death bound us to the underworld, but

Love raises us again, this time a zombie.” (59).

A glimpse of the grief that embodies the sensitive African soul is an achievement and cause for rejoicing at a postmodern evening of senile sensibilities. Chukwudi Okoye’s The Words of My Mother is, for this reality, and for the post-colonial African, a clamour for the restitution of lost Ideals on countless grounds.

—-

Oyin Oludipe, Nigerian writer, edits nonfiction at EXPOUND: A Magazine of Arts and Aesthetics. His poems and essays have been published in various national and international journals like Ijagun Poetry Journal and Sentinel Literary Quarterly (SLQ).

Paul Valéry in Translation

paul-valery-3
Picture from AbrasMedia

The poems reviewed are found here: Translations

A Review of English translations of Paul Valéry’s “Les Pas” and “Le Cimetière Marin” by David Leo Sirois

 
French Post-Symbolist Paul Valéry’s masterful—even obsessional—crafting of consistent patterns of meter and rhythm presents translators with the daunting task of preserving the integrity of his poetic architecture while upholding the precision and polyvalence of his diction. Translator-poet David Leo Sirois performs this balancing act artfully, if not entirely with ease. Sirois’s translations of “Les Pas” and “Le Cimetière marin,” both published in Valéry’s talismanic interwar Charmes (1922), veer towards literal fidelity to the French originals mingled with gleams of more creative approximation.

 

Published in 1920 by Émile-Paul Frères before its inclusion in Charmes, “Le Cimetière marin” is likely Valéry’s best-known poetic work. Sirois’s translation of the poem, a quasi-histrionic progression of twenty-four sextets planted on the page like as many tombstones, fails to transmit the richness of Valéry’s decasyllabic rhythm, rhyme, and alliteration. However, Sirois’s English version holds strikingly true to the original’s shrill and clamorous tone, drawing readers into the metaphysical drama at the heart of the poem. Sirois’s encapsulation of the poem’s imperative to live in spite of the inevitability of death—and its revendication of the poetic process as a creative act that defiantly embraces life and its struggles—is particularly strong in the final three stanzas.

 

Certain lexical decisions in both translations strip key lines of the ambiguity they carry in French, closing off open ends. For example, Sirois’s translation of the title “Le Cimetière marin” as “Cemetery by the Sea” significantly narrows the breadth of an adjective akin to the word “marine” to a description of location only. In the case of “Les Pas,” Sirois translates the leitmotif of “les pas” as “the footsteps” where it appears in the poem’s title and first and last lines, although he opts for the more literal and less concise “steps,” which might more loosely refer to footsteps as the steps of a doorway, flight of stairs, or choreographed dance, in line six. His translation of the poem’s second quatrain substitutes the superlative “purest” for “pure” in line five.

 

Other choices result in awkwardly stilted language not present in the French poems’ turns of phrase. Most markedly, Sirois translates line 31 in “Le Cimetière marin,” “Beau ciel, vrai ciel, regarde-moi qui change!”, as “True sky, handsome heaven, see me! I change.” Without apparent justification, Sirois radically fragments Valéry’s syntax and inserts a disruptive first-person singular declarative statement where there ought not to be one. In the same line, Sirois sacrifices Valéry’s poetic repetition of “ciel,” inverts the order of the poem’s adjectives, and leaves readers to grapple with the odd selection of “handsome heaven.” Likewise, in his translation of “Les Pas,” Sirois maladroitly retains the literal “nude feet” for “pieds nus.” Here English idiom would favor the more familiar expression “bare feet.” Likewise, the choice of “hurry” for “hâte” in line thirteen has a jarring effect that mars the smoothness of the poem’s syntax. In English we do not commonly use “hurry” in clauses that contain direct objects; we tend to lean towards “rush,” or, in more formal contexts, “hasten.”

 

Such uneasy moments aside, at many points Sirois takes creative liberties with his translation to more effectively reconstruct Valéry’s tone and rhythm for readers in English. For instance, Sirois’s rendering of the final line of “Les Pas” as “My heart nothing but your footsteps,” while omitting the imperfect verb found in the French, astutely conveys the tormented anticipation and yearning of the poetic subject—and of the poem as a rumination on Lacanian lack avant la lettre. Sirois’s mindful translation of this line has the additional merit of mirroring the octosyllabic form maintained throughout Valéry’s poem, anchoring this allegory of poetic inspiration with an eerily calm and measured declaration of desire and expectancy.

 
Review by Adele Okoli

An Interview with Gillian Clarke

Born in Cardiff in 1937, Gillian Clarke is The National Poet of Wales since 2008 and a remarkable figure in British poetry. She is a poet, playwright, editor, translator, lecturer and translator. Her work – including Poetry Book Society Recommendations, Letting in the Rumour (1989), The King of Britain’s Daughter (1993) and Five Fields (1998) as well as her T.S. Elliot Prize shortlisted Ice (2012) – are emotionally laden with feminism, politics, life events, and are heavily centered around the theme of Place. Clarke is a poet who’s cultural upbringing in Wales shines through her work. Her work is studied in the GCSE and A-Level curriculum and she was on the panel of judges for the poetry competition named Anthologise, where school students aged 11-18 sent anthologies of their own poetry. Her contribution to the arts are widely recognised. She received the Wilfred Owen Association Poetry award in 2012.

Clarke provides The Luxembourg Review answers to questions about life as the Poet Laureate of Wales, the inspiration of traveling and its effect on poetic practice and advice to young poets who are interested in practicing the craft of poetry.


How much does the natural world inspire you?

I live in Ceredigion, 900 feet up, 6 miles in from the Irish Sea, which is visible between hills. We have 18 acres of land, and live several miles from the nearest village. This is our life. Being alive is what I write about. Wales has a low density population, and most of our towns and cities are close to the coast. Even when I lived in Cardiff we were surrounded by the countryside, in sight of mountains, and the sea visible from everywhere I have lived.

Is poetry an extension of our relationship with the physical forces of nature which govern us in our day-to-day experience?

I am sure that is not true. Poetry is art, and like all art, it is about what human imagination makes of what we see, hear, think etc. A main characteristic of being human is our pleasure in rhyme and rhythm, and poetry in its simplest forms (nursery rhymes, song lyrics) is natural to all. Its sophisticated forms are refined versions of human language. It’s word-music?

How important is nationality in defining yourself as a poet as your work can be accessed across the globe by a multitude of cultures?

I am Welsh, and I don’t know a life as anything else. I never think of ‘defining myself’, and did not call myself a poet. Other people did. The attention my nation gives to poetry and poets is supportive and nurturing. My parents (not educated people) had a great love for words, books, stories and poetry, in both langages. However, being Welsh is just one way of being human. The best writers are true to their culture, and are most universal when they express themselves through their own culture. W.H.Auden says:

“A poet’s hope: to be, like some valley cheese, local, but prized elsewhere.”

Seamus Heaney is a fine example, most Irish, most universal. Small countries look outward. Because my work is on the GCSE and A Level syllabus, it reaches wherever English is studied. I receive a steady stream of emails from students all over the world, and I answer them all.

gillian
Gillian Clarke with Founder and Editor-in-Chief of The Luxembourg Review Shehzar Doja at Chapter 1 bookshop, Luxembourg City.

Do you find that travels away from your homeland – to countries such as Luxembourg and Bangladesh – help your poetry go in new directions? Do you find these experiences pave the way for  new and varied inspirations?

Travel turned my focus from children, home and the domestic about thirty years ago. Every new place is fascinating, stimulating. I am an observer. I write what I know. It’s made me friends in many countries, taught me that the human being is the same everywhere, though coloured by a multitude of cultures, languages, ways of life. I must write from my own version of being human.

In 2008 you became the Third National Poet of Wales. What new challenges has this given you? Has this brought more pressure on you to write your poetry with Welsh readers in mind?

I like deadlines. That goes back to the weekly school essay! Over the past eight years I must have written well over a hundred commissioned poems and poems to support something. The commissioned, or requested poem is a tradition in Welsh culture that goes back to the 6th century. It is a ‘village’ tradition, here in Ceredigion, that poets rise to the occasion, as long as it’s an honourable subject. I write in English, but have ensured that all my public poems are translated into Welsh by a poet-friend whose first language is Welsh. So, on the Literature Wales website the poems appear in both languages. I have several poems placed on buildings, walls, pathways, as part of public places, and I usually use both Welsh and English in their writing –  except the most recently completed work by an artist in a long wall in a car park, in Newport, Gwent, five 6-line verses on the Welsh Chartists. In English.

With social media and online blogs making it simple to share poetry across the globe, do you believe the Age of Information has been beneficial to the poet? Do you think this has saturated the market in a way that devalues the art of poetry?

I don’t use social media, so I don’t see these works. It’s an open space for expression, which is good. It will have no effect on great poetry, and its enduring value. The internet as a tool, an infinite library, is wonderful. As I don’t do Facebook, Twitter, Linkedin, and delete all invitations to connect, I can choose my correspondents, and my poets.

Some believe that poetic talents are innate or, at least, the potential is. Many fancy themselves as poets. What is your best advice to aspiring poets?

No, it is education, listening, reading, culture and family that make a poet. Had I been the daughter of painters, maybe i would have been an artist.

In a world where we are bombarded by so much information, what advice would you give young poets look to get their work out there and noticed?

Advice: read, and listen. Be alert to language. Forget being ‘noticed’. A real writer wants to learn and improve, rather than ‘be noticed.’ Submit poems for competitions. Book a week at a poetry course at Tŷ Newydd, our beautiful Writers Centre in North Wales, and be tutored by published writers.

Poetry is an art-form that most people believe they can take on. If someone pens a piece with a bit of rhyme and structure, there is a small potential they can claim themselves to be a poet. If someone were to sit at a piano and hit the keys without any prior instruction, I do not feel they would fancy themselves as a pianist. Do you feel the intrinsic nature of poetry is such that it allows people of all abilities to call themselves poets?

It is because language belongs to all humans, and a love of rhyme etc is a child’s natural way forward. Instead of taking the piano as comparison, take singing. All can sing, though not all are the greatest. If a person wants to write, I salute them, and welcome them aboard. Advice, apart from ‘read’: write to enjoy it, and don’t expect fame, money, publication.

Poetry, including nursery rhymes, seems to be loved in childhood. Poetry is read at life events such as weddings and funerals, through which can they leave a powerful impact. The emotional nature of poetry is not the issue, but people’s desire to read or listen to poetry outside of these contexts presents a significant problem in poetry’s popularity.

This is an out-of date view. If ‘poetry’s popularity’ is a problem. how come so many Literary/Poetry Festivals in Britain flourish – more every year? Why do so many young people contact me, all year round? How are so many readings by the best-known poets sell-out events?

Does modern poetry do enough to connect new readers as well as stimulate the majority of existing readers?

I have no idea. It varies from good amateur to truly great poetry, as all art does. A poet has to write true to herself, himself, and if it is appreciated, that is an extra bonus.  My emails from everywhere, those sell-out events, the two hour queues at Hay Festival signing books, the requests for a poet, special poems for events, buildings, public squares, tell how popular poetry is in Britain. It is a phenomenon, and the envy of many other countries.

____________________

Interview conducted by Nathan Hassall.