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.

 

Reading with a Theme: Thorny Marriages

A while ago I happened to read a whole series of books about mothers. Since my return from holiday I seem to have been on a roll with books about marriages – I was going to say ‘difficult marriages’, but at least one of them is about a happy marriage… interrupted by death. Incidentally, it also seems to have been a bit of a catch-up with North American writers, as Anne Carson, Louise Penny and Maxime-Olivier Moutier are all Canadians, while two of the remaining authors are American.

Joan Didion and her family in Malibu in 1976. From back cover of the book.
Joan Didion and her family in Malibu in 1976. From back cover of the book.

Joan Didion: The Year of Magical Thinking

Life changes fast. Life changes in the instant. You sit down to dinner and life as you know it ends.

The portrait of a 40 year marriage of true minds. Didion’s husband died of a heart-attack in 2003, and this is the searing memoir of her befuddlement, grief, sense of guilt and sheer madness of the year following her sudden loss. (At the same time, her daughter was in and out of hospital, in and out of a coma, so it was probably the hardest year of the writer’s life.) This may not be her most polished work stylistically, but it has a rawness and honesty about it which is very moving.

I’m not sure why this has been branded as pretentious or whining or self-pitying rants of a rich bitch. It shows how grief can drive us all mad, whether privileged or not, whether calm and collected or dramatic and hysterical. The author has also been accused of coldness, because she tries to present things in a detached way. This feels to me more like a deliberate strategy to remain calm, to try and understand, to analyse oneself. The polar vortex of memory that she tries to avoid by not going to places that were familiar to them: how can that be described as cold and unfeeling?

Anne Carson: The Beauty of the Husband

beautyhusband

By contrast, Carson’s collection of poems all add up to an essay on beauty and truth, our search for perfection but our paradoxical human ability to put up with imperfection for a very long time. All in all, it presents the picture of a toxic marriage, a destructive relationship captured with true poetic flourish. Based on Keat’s assertion that beauty is truth, the poet then shows us just why the husband was anything but truthful, no matter how beautiful he was (and remained) in the eyes of the wronged wife.

 

Louise Penny: The Long Way Home

LongWayHome

I’m already a confirmed Louise Penny fan, but this 10th book in the Armand Gamache/ Three Pines series is less crime fiction and more the story of a Quest: for a missing husband, for inspiration, for one’s true self, for the Holy Grail almost. I wrote a full review of it for Crime Fiction Lover, but from the perspective of marriage, it is the sad story of the dissolution of a loving long-term partnership when the insidious three-headed serpent of jealousy, envy and inadequacy makes its appearance. Clara and Peter Morrow are both artists, who met in college. Peter has always been the more successful artist with his carefully controlled, intricate paintings, while Clara was the wild and messy experimentalist. But when Clara’s star begins to rise, Peter finds it impossible to rejoice for her, as he becomes aware of his own artistic stagnation.

 

louise douglas your beautiful liesLouise Douglas: Your Beautiful Lies

Set against the backdrop of the miners’ strikes in Yorkshire in the 1980s, this is the story of Annie, a woman who is feeling trapped in a very correct but rather dry marriage of convenience, which has provided her with a comfortable lifestyle but has also isolated her from the rest of the community. When her old boyfriend (who had been convicted of manslaughter) is released from prison and shows up on her doorstep, trying to protest his innocence, she is at first reluctant to engage with him. But then she unravels rather spectacularly and becomes very reckless indeed… This book has an old-fashioned feel about it, as if it were set in the 1950s rather than the 1980s, and I struggled to empathise with Annie.

And, just in case you thought that only women can write about marriage, here is the most depressing one of all, written by a man but from a woman’s perspective.

scelleplombeMaxime-Olivier Moutier: Scellé plombé

The title roughly translates as ‘sealed with lead’, which was apparently an old method for food preservation – until the poisonous qualities of lead were discovered. This hints at the poisonous conjugal relationship and what an odd, unsettling story it is. The husband is struck by lightning on a golf course and is buried by his wife and children in secret.  Told entirely from the point of view of the wife, but addressed to her husband in a tone designed to humiliate and provoke, we then discover the story of their marriage, the rising ennui, the many daily cruelties and sarcasms, the lack of communication, the secret lives each partner found refuge in. A chilling disregard for the children emerges from this novel: it appears it’s not the marriage, but the hearts themselves which have turned to lead.

 

Finally, I almost hesitate to include Ann Patchett’s ‘This Is the Story of a Happy Marriage’ in this post, not because of the word ‘happy’ in the title, but because this collection of essays is about so much more than marriage: it is about creativity, travelling, a beloved dog, a burgeoning interest in opera music, family, friendships and, above all, writing. It also talks about the author’s first marriage and divorce, which led to many years of avoiding commitment to her second husband. In her characteristic clear-eyed, fluid style, she describes the compassion and understanding that she developed for all women who suffered in their marriages, whether they were able to get away from them or not.

www.annpatchett.com
http://www.annpatchett.com

My mother had divorced my father when I was four. Two years later she remarried. My mother and stepfather spent the next twenty years trying to decide whether or not they should stay together. While growing up I had never faulted her for the divorce, but I hated what I thought was her weakness. My mother didn’t want to be wrong a second time. She wanted to believe in a person’s ability to change, and so she went back and back, every resolution broken by some long talk they had that made things suddenly clear for a while. I wanted her to make her decision and stick to it. In or out, I ultimately didn’t care, just make up your mind. But the mind isn’t so easily made up. My mother used to say the more lost you are, the later it got, the more you had invested in not being lost. That’s why people who are lost so often keep heading in the same direction. It took my own divorce to really understand… I understood how we long to believe in goodness, especially in the person we promised to love and honor. It isn’t just about them, it is how we want to see ourselves…