The Visit

Low-slung, hunched the houses hug

the other side of the tracks.

She’d been warned not to go but

the Ministry of Education decreed that all

ten-year-olds must be in full-time education so

when he didn’t show up for the third week to her class

when she saw that no one else noticed or cared

when the emergency phone number produced no results

she put on her rubber boots and braved

the mud across the divide.

It took many nervous side-looks and stumbles

to find the house.

There was no one wandering about, a midday

stillness of any commuter town

except it was dusk.

Herbs in pots, geraniums winked red and white,

all in earthenware, nothing rooted to the ground

in fear of rapid decampment.

A woman worn transparent and thin

was taking down the washing from the clothesline.

She startled when the teacher spoke her son’s name.

She shrugged when asked why –

no shrug of indifference this, no convincing cool.

She was too young to be adept

at arguing the merits of the Roma ways.

She missed her boy and did not want

him to beg on alien streets.

She never saw any of the money sent home anyway.

She spoke and spoke

and the teacher could not begin to comprehend

why she was so disloyal to her tribe

and wondered if she would have done the same

to someone who thought of her child

as something else

than danger and scum.

I’m linking this attempt at narrative poetry (based on a real-life situation) with the Open Link Night at dVerse Poets Pub. Join us there for some poetic fun and a wide range of styles and topics!

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World Poetry Summit for #LondonLitFest

What an amazing, talented and diverse line-up of poets at the Royal Festival Hall as part of the London Literature Festival and Poetry International! I felt very fortunate to see two of my personal favourites Canadian Anne Carson and American Claudia Rankine, as well as the Icelandic writer I know more for his novels Sjón and recent discovery from Trinidad Vahni Capildeo

Sadly, Iraqi poet Choman Hardi could not fly out of her country, as the airport was closed because of a crackdown against the Kurds, but she had recorded some poems for the event. It was also an opportunity to become acquainted with three new to me poets: Native American Joy Harjo, Indian poet Arhundhati Subramaniam and Chinese poet Yang Lian.

Joy Harjo from Poetry Foundation.

Two hours of poetry just flew by. Each poet was so different, there was no chance of being bored. All of them chose quite political poems to read, so there was a common thread. After all, it’s not easy being a ‘truth- teller’ in these times…

Joy Harjo was a revelation: making use of the spoken tradition of the Creek Nation, she sang her poetry in a mix of English and her tribal language, with a sense of freedom and extravagance which is not at all common in poetry readings I have previously attended. The poem to get rid of fear particularly struck a chord with me – you can read it here.

Arundhathi Subramaniam from Goodreads.

By contrast, Arundhati Subramaniam was full of wry humour and an understated irony very reminiscent of the British tradition. She has anticipated my surprise at her style (she must have heard it many times before) and replied with this wonderful poem To the Welsh Critic Who Doesn’t Find Me Identifiably Indian.

Sjón was adept at making Icelandic sound very melodious – and then read the English translations as well. His poems were restrained, minimalistic, almost Japanese in their conciseness and slant meaning, with close observation of nature as a metaphor for human unrest.

Vahni Capildeo when she won the Forward Prize for Poetry.

Vahni Capildeo was the exact opposite – a gush of emotion, opening up her guts and showing us all the vulnerability, passionate and playful and incantatory. Her experimental style must be very hard to read out loud, but she did an excellent job of it.

 

Author photo of Yang Lian from Bloodaxe Books.

Yang Lian recited from a long narrative poem in Chinese, while Stephen Watts read it in English translation. It struck me how much more concise Mandarin is, but it is hard to listen to long pieces of poetry in that language, as the syllable sounds are quite limited in number, so there is a lot of apparent similarity, yet they differ by tones, which makes for an interesting sound. And no obvious falling tone at the end of a sentence, as we have in Western languages. It was also fascinating to see him referencing Syracuse and Thucydides’ History of the Peloponnesian War – although he used it to reference that contradiction and tension between internal democracy and external empire-building impulses, which has characterised so many imperialistic nations since.

Anne Carson read an essay which she described as ‘it sounds like prose but, as you know, poetry is also a mentality’. She has sometimes been described as a poet more admired than understood, and some complain that she is too intellectual, her allusions to Ancient Greek myths and German philosophers are too dense. But her poetry (and her experiments at the very boundaries of what one might consider poetry) are all about fragmentation, about trying and failing, about pinning down the elusive, about making unexpected connections. I don’t expect to like everything of hers, but she always makes me work – and makes me think – and puts wonderful ideas into my head.

Author photo of Claudia Rankine, taken by John Lucas.

Finally, Claudia Rankine read a fragment from her truly seminal work Citizen (which has changed the whole conversation about race in the US) and also from Don’t Let Me Be Lonely. She has one of those grave, impressive voices – just what I expected from her.

One slight regret: that the hall was not full to bursting, as such a fantastic display of talent warranted. Meanwhile, Hillary Clinton’s event later that evening was sold out. Clearly, poetry still has a way to go before it reaches the popularity of politics. Or, as one person behind me said: ‘If this had taken place in New Zealand, it would have been standing room only. But you Londoners are spoilt with too many great events.’

I wasn’t allowed to take any pictures – and with those low light levels, my mobile phone would have struggled anyway. So I just included some studio portraits of the poets instead.

 

Quick Reviews on Video: October 2017

I am so busy with my two new jobs that I haven’t had time to write any reviews, so I have taken what is laughingly known as the ‘easy way out’ by filming myself talking about some books I have recently read and ones I am currently reading. 5 crime novels, one Israeli apartment block in Tel Aviv, an Argentinian in France and a sweeping Hungarian family saga. Pretty much par for the course…

[I should stop apologising for my awkwardness while filming – static camera and a very movable person do not mix well.]

Friday Fun: Retreat to the Writing Havens

Any of these writing nooks seem like the perfect haven to hone your art and clarify your thoughts. Some are perhaps cosier than others, some may be more conducive to procrastination, while others are a no-no for tall people. But they all make me dream…

Traditional luxury desk with not enough space for computers and notebooks, from http://www.traditionalhome.com
A nod to craft workshops, from The Black Workshop on Tumblr.
The hidden chalet look, from spacearchitection.ru
The mezzanine study, so you can see all the comings and goings and eavesdrop on conversations. From Pacific Home Studio.
The Sturm und Drang office, from Joachim Guanzon Photography.
The inside outside study, from Jeremylevine.com
Beware of the beams, tall people! From Copybloggermedia.com

Six Degrees of Separation October 2017

Hosted each month by Kate at Booksaremyfavouriteandbest, the Six Degrees of Separation meme picks a starting book for participants to go wherever it takes them in six more steps.

This month’s starting point is the Mexican author Laura Esquivel’s novel Like Water for Chocolate. I must be one of the few people who never saw the film adaptation of it, but I heard about it and was curious to read the book. I enjoyed its combination of recipes and home-spun wisdom, but I never quite understood the bestseller status of it.

 

 

Valeria Luiselli is another Mexican writer that I have started to really appreciate. So far I have only read some of her essays and interviews, and really enjoyed her fragmented, unusual yet very evocative novel Faces in the Crowd. But I definitely want to read more.

 

Another author I keep meaning to read more of is Sarah Moss. The novel Night Waking is the next one of hers that I have on my bookshelf, sitting nice and pretty and hoping I will pick it up.

 

Another novel with Night in the title is of course Tender Is the Night by F. Scott Fitzgerald, one of the most excoriating portraits of a marriage and expat society that I can imagine.

 

Speaking of expats, an example of expats behaving badly (or the extreme loneliness of expat life, if you are feeling kindly disposed) is Jill Alexander Essbaum’s Hausfrau. While I was intrigued by the depiction of a woman going amok in neat and ordered Zürich, it was not as enjoyable and innovative as Essbaum’s poetry, for which she is better known.

There are plenty of poets turned novelists but the one who never ceases to fascinate me is Rainer Maria Rilke’s one and only novel (a sort of semi-autobiographical journal-meditation) The Notebooks of Malte Laurids Brigge. Just mentioning it here makes me want to read it again – it is such a rich source of wonder and inspiration, made to be read again and again.

My final choice also refers to notebooks: Anna Wulf’s famous coloured notebooks (black for the writer, red for political activism, yellow for her memoirs, blue for a diary) in The Golden Notebook by Doris Lessing. A seminal work of feminist literature, which had a profound impact on me when I was in my teens.

So my journey this month takes me from cooking in Mexico to political demos in 1960s London, via New York, the Hebrides, the Cote d’Azure, Zürich and Paris. As always, I like to travel! You can follow this meme on Twitter with the hashtag #6Degrees or create your own blog post. Where will your 6 degrees of separation journey take you?

Friday Fun: Houses with a Quirky Touch

It’s all very well to buy traditional cottages or restore abandoned mansions, but what about these mainly newly-built houses with an extra touch of quirkiness?

Barn in Pennsylvania, from Unusualhouse.com
How’s this for a swimming pool? From fabuloushomeideas.com
Straight out of a Grimm fairytale, not surprising since it’s located in Germany. From Pinlovely.com
The blueness of this terrace just dazzles me, from Revista Living.
Hideaway cottage in Lake George, from Pinterest.
Updated farmhouse, by Truexcullings Architecture.

Cialdini’s Science of Persuasion: The Principle of Commitment

Ask for small commitments first, then, when the large requests come, they will find it impossible to say no.

Image of Russian stacking dolls from TES teach.

Last week I cleared out boxes

loft-bound for the longest time.

I found cards and letters

from the days when we preferred them to email

when international phone calls were too expensive

for us scholarship students.

Too few of yours: proof that even then

you favoured silence as a method.

 

Sheet after sheet of colourful stationery

with my girly, high-pitched scrawl,

giggly, breathless, full of words

to reassure how free you were,

no demands at all.

How I played the game of reasonable

contrast to all those you’d loved before.

Not sensing all the while

the noose tightening around my neck.