50 Poems from Five Decades at Southbank Centre

This April the Queen Elizabeth Hall and Purcell Room on the South Bank reopened at last after extensive renovations.

I arrived there early, after a lovely lunch and chat with a writer friend, Carmen Bugan, who was over from the US for a series of readings and lectures in Oxford and Liverpool. To my delight, in the foyer I got to tap along to school jazz bands taking part in a national competition.

A school band from Manchester.

As part of these celebrations there was a rather fantastic poetry reading: ten poets reading fifty poems offering a picture of roughly 50 years of life in Britain since the original opening of the music and poetry venue in 1967. Over the years poets such as Allen Ginsberg, Seamus Heaney, Anne Sexton, Anne Carson, Sharon Olds and many others have read in this building. And now it was the turn of established poets such as Fleur Adcock (who has translated a lot of poetry from Romanian, so a big thank you to her), Simon Armitage, Malika Booker, Imtiaz Dharker, Lavinia Greenlaw, Peter Finch, as well as relative youngsters, Jay Bernard and Caleb Femi, whose mellifluous readings belied their hard-hitting words and topics. Additional delight: Welsh poet Ifor ap Glyn and Sudanese poet Al-Saddiq Al-Raddi reading in their original languages (with translations being projected on the screen behind them).

The poems were mostly on the lighter and more colourful side of the spectrum, capturing certain moments in time (Imtiaz Dharker – ‘1977 (I am quite sure of this’ or Caleb Femi’s ‘Man of the People: Labour 1997 & 2017’) or the colours, sounds and smells of a particular place (Malika Booker’s ‘Brixton Market’ or Peter Finch’s ‘Spending Money in Soviet Russia’, Fleur Adcock’s ‘Summer in Bucharest’). Best of all, I liked seeing the joy in the other poets’ faces when one of them recited a particularly good verse or finish a challenging poem. Love of words bound all of us and a representation of the multicultural Britain I always admired and believed in.

Of course, I forgot to take a picture of the actual poets at the end, bowing. I was far too busy clapping!

 

Cultural Events Summary 22 April 2018

Let’s face it, there was no attendance at cultural events in my life this past week, merely one out-of-control commute home, and frantic catching-up with work on both literary and day-job fronts. The warmer days caught us by surprise, as I still hadn’t packed away all the ski attire, but we are gradually discarding our duvets and jumpers and daring to bare our white arms and legs.

However, there is one event that I can boast about! The Spring 2018 Issue of Asymptote is now available online and it has a stellar collection of big names (Swiss writer Robert Walser, who celebrated 140 years since his birth on 15th April; Dubravka Ugrešić with her straight-talking, clever brand of non-fiction; an interview with Mario Vargas Llosa) and emerging writers who will become big names (Iya Kiva from the Ukraine, Lee Young-ju from South Korea, Lea Schneider from Germany and Shu Matsui from Japan). As always, there is a fantastic mix of languages, from the usual suspects of French, German, Spanish, Chinese, Norwegian, to a special feature on Korean fiction, and less widely translated languages, such as Burmese, Ukrainian, Hungarian and Persian.

The whole issue is worth exploring, but I have to admit I have some personal favourites. The essay by Fabrizio Coscia ‘All I ask is to finish my work‘ about poets struggling against violence and tyranny is outstanding (translated by Emma Mandley). The poetic piece of prose by Brazilian writer Jacques Fux about memory is unforgettable (translated by Hillary Auker). Lybian poet Ashur Etwebi’s poems are heartbreaking and I am forever grateful for discovering the poetry of Blanca Varela, considered one of the greatest Peruvian or even Latin American poets, but hitherto unknown to me.

I have also been blessed with the arrival of three more books I really, really look forward to reading: Olga Tokarczuk’s Flights (which is my favourite to win the Man Booker International Prize), the Vanguard #2 Poetry Anthology, which contains poems by a few poets I know either online or off – Polly Atkin, Clarissa Aykroyd, Roy Marshall, Kim Moore, Isabel Rogers, Tara Skurtu, Rebecca Perry; and a proof copy of The Retreat by Mark Edwards – because I have always thought that a writers’ retreat would make a perfect setting for a crime novel. While I am getting a little bored of covers featuring the brightly coloured backs of women in a dark setting – they are omnipresent in psychological thrillers at the moment – I hope the contents make up for that cliché.

[Incidentally, I was planning to go to a Vanguard Readings in Peckham this past week to celebrate Richard Skinner’s new poetry collection, but after some horrible commuting problems, I had to go home and actually see my children.]

I also made the mistake of taking a stroll on Netgalley yesterday. I’ve tried to avoid it lately, as I feel so guilty about my low review rate, but I found a few temptations that would have destroyed even St. Anthony: Lucy Mangan’s Bookworm, Derek B. Miller American by Day, a new Belinda Bauer Snap and a bit of an unusual choice Robert Edric’s Mercury Falling, which from the description sounds like it might do for the Fenlands what David Peace’s Red Riding quartet did for Yorkshire.

In terms of writing on the blog, I’ve managed three posts in addition to my habitual Friday Fun pictorial content: a poem about a perfume, or maybe a man, on Monday; a quick look at what books are currently on my bedside table on Wednesday and a post about some recent remarks which opened old wounds and reminded me to check my own privilege on Thursday.

What’s coming up next week? I have to finally write 4 reviews that I keep putting off – and that’s not counting any reviews I want to write for this blog. Plus another very busy week at work means no more cultural events for me. Just a meeting at the weekend with the wonderful poet, memoir writer and friend Carmen Bugan! I can’t wait!

 

Four Women Writers

I was afraid that too many of my reading challenge choices were by male authors, so I made a point of introducing a female quota.  So here are four very different women authors, showing the variety and richness of what is sometimes disparaged as ‘women’s literature’. As it happens, I personally know three out of the four women writers whose books I feature below.  However, this has not influenced my reviews of their books – although I have refrained from giving stars on this occasion.  Sadly, the first two are only available in the original (Romanian and French, respectively).

Claudia Golea Sumiya:  În numele câinelui (In the name of the dog)

Not really a novel, more of a straightforward account of the true but surprising story of a man called Takeshi Koizumi, currently facing the death penalty in a high-security prison in Tokyo.  Back in 2008, the 46 year old unemployed man admitted his involvement in fatally stabbing a former vice welfare minister and his wife, and also wounding the wife of another former health and welfare minister in a separate incident. The reason for his crime?  Punishing the people who had ordered the detention and extermination of his pet dog, his childhood friend, in a local dog pound.  In Japan, these dog pounds are under the jurisdiction of the Ministry of Health and Welfare.  An animal lover herself, the author began corresponding with Koizumi in prison and  this book combines his letters with her own impressions of the man and her growing understanding of (if not condoning) his actions.  There are probably good (legal) reasons why the story could not have been written in any other way, but I cannot help feeling that it would have been so much more powerful as fiction.

Hélèna Villovitch: Petites soups froides (Little Cold Soups)

Artist, filmmaker and writer, Villovitch experiments with form, style and content in this collection of short stories.  The title story is written as vignettes in the shape of the ‘little cold soups’ which serve as nibbles at cocktail parties nowadays, a commentary on the inability to connect to others and the separate conversations going on in people’s heads.  Other stories capture celebrity culture and obsession with appearance, cross-cultural misunderstandings and little cruelties or envies between friends.  The author has a dry humour and unsentimental style which really suits the everyday subject matter. Although the stories were rather uneven overall, I admire this author for being brave and trying out new ideas.  Sometimes it feels like there is too little ‘radical newness’ in literature nowadays.

Carmen Bugan: Burying the Typewriter

This is a poignant memoir of a family very nearly torn apart by the secret police of the Communist regime in Romania.  The first part describes the near-idyllic childhood in the countryside, surrounded by friends and grandparents.  The author is a poet, and this is obvious from the rich visual imagery and melodic phrases to describe the passing of the seasons, village life and its traditions.  Then her father buys a ‘secret’ typewriter (i.e. one that has not been recorded by the secret police and traced to its owner) and starts writing and distributing pamphlets with the rather modest basic requests: “We ask for human rights. We ask for freedom of opinion. We ask for hot water and electricity. We ask for freedom to assemble.”  The safe, happy childhood is shattered as the author’s father is imprisoned, her mother is forced to divorce him, and they become subjected to constant surveillance and harassment.  The horrors of the regime are not fully revealed, as it is all presented through the eyes of a child: far more shocking to her is the sudden loss of friends or having neighbours inform against them.  A book that moved me not just for its shared cultural language and memories, but because it brings compassion, warmth and understanding to an area and a time which is usually so bleak and unforgiving; its ghosts and echoes are still haunting Romania today. What remains after reading this book is the clear picture of the luminous, redeeming power of love, of family and of literature.

Nicky Wells: Sophie’s Run

Just what the doctor ordered, when I was running hot and cold during the night and couldn’t sleep.  An engaging heroine who never quite falls into the ditziness which can sometimes plague chick lit, mostly adorable men (despite the odd rat or two) and a story line filled with surprises and humour.  In fact, my main point of contention with the story is just how caring and supportive the men seem to be – could this qualify as fantasy?  The story opens two years after the end of ‘Sophie’s Turn’ and the characters have matured a little.  The story too has become a little deeper and darker, with topics such as depression, loneliness and forgiveness all being addressed.  I also like the travelling theme which seems to feature heavily in the Sophie novels: in this book we can undertake vicarious trips to Berlin, Scotland and a remote German island in the North Sea, as well as spend a day sightseeing in London.  Escapist literature, yes, but what is wrong with that?