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.
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!
Tomorrow evening I will be presenting something in front of a roomful of people, most of whom I’ve never met before. ‘So what?’ I hear you say. ‘That has been your job (in various incarnations) for a while now.’ True enough: I’ve been a teacher, a lecturer, trainer/facilitator and what is laughingly known as a ‘headliner’. I’ve even been an enthusiastic participant in amateur dramatics – as if you can’t tell!
So what is different this time?
Well, this time I won’t be reading somebody else’s words. I won’t be presenting general knowledge or sticking to the tried-and-tested pedagogical methods. This time I will be reading my own contribution to Offshoots 12, the annual publication of Geneva Writers’ Group. It’s like cutting off small strips of your flesh and presenting them to the audience. I just hope none of them are cannibals.
So, of course, the question now is: what should I wear? In my corporate world, I have a ‘uniform’ – reasonably smart, modestly flattering, yet flexible enough for the temperature variations of training rooms and the mad dashes down airport corridors.
For poetry, however, something more free-flowing, more creative is required. Shall I go for the romantic look we tend to associate with poets (rightly or wrongly)? I cannot bear trailing scarves or opinion-piece jewellery. It’s not quite warm enough anymore for a strappy summer dress. The other major staple of my wardrobe (jeans and white shirts) is an over-done look for hip, happening SLAM poets and spoken word ambassadors. Besides, I’m neither hip nor happening (as you can tell from the fact that I am using these words, which are probably a couple of decades out of date).
So what do poets and writers more generally wear to readings? Any suggestions? Wikihow tells me (seriously, perhaps?) to either dress in existentialist black if I want to seem thoughtful, or in dramatic high boots if I want to be showy. Checking out videos of poetry readings, I notice that many have taken this advice to heart. Meantime, I’ve found some wise words here, but no matching, colourful clothes in my wardrobe.
Last night I discovered one of the great treasures literary life in the Lake Geneva area.
I had the great pleasure to attend a reading of poetry and prose at the coquette Chateau de Lavigny near Lausanne. This beautiful manor house set amidst vineyards overlooking Lake Geneva is home to the Ledig-Rowohlt foundation and has been hosting for two decades retreats for both emerging and established writers from all over the world. Once a month in the summer, the resident writers share their thoughts and works with a small public, in both English and French – and also, very often, their native languages.
Ousmane kicked off with an extract from his novella ‘La Revelation’. It is the story of a child who discovers that his real mother is dead. He asks the local priest what death means and is told that his mother is now with ‘le bon Dieu’ (the good Lord). From now on he will wage war with the good Lord, in an effort to gain back his mother. With his resonant voice and brilliant insights into a child’s confused thoughts, the author gathered us around an imaginary campfire to hear this moving, thrilling and often funny tale.
Janet’s poetry was about finding and losing one’s identity, about moving on, about moving to other countries and about being observed and scrutinised. Haunting, thought-provoking poems, which struck a deep chord in me, although she seemed to fear that she was too serious and said at one point, apologetically: ‘It doesn’t get any more cheerful.’
Alexander read fragments from his semi-fictional diaries depicting the life of an artist in present-day Russia, a mix of minute details and philosophical reflections, anecdotes about artistry and repression, acute observations of everyday absurdity and a healthy dose of satire.
Tatiana read the opening of her first novel ‘A chave de casa’, an exploration of her family’s past, from Smyrna to Rio. She was lyrical, funny, tender, with richly sensuous details and an air of sepia-coloured nostalgia.
Last but not least, Leonora very bravely read out her own translation into English from a rough draft of her current work in progress. This is a novel inspired by Agatha Christie’s ‘And Then There Were None’ and is set in a writer’s colony on a lonely Danish island. Murderous writers, tongue-in-cheek and witty style, mordant characterisations: I can hardly wait to read this!
So, as you can see, a remarkable diversity of styles and subject matters, but all equally talented and passionate about writing. Can you just imagine the dinner table conversations there? This is one of the beauties of writers’ residencies. While conferences within your own genre are very useful and huge fun, the best ideas often come from this diversity of visions and ideas. It’s the difference of approaches and the cross-pollination that ultimately leads to the most interesting experiments, that will make a writer venture out of their comfort zone.
Availability of English Translations
Or, rather, the lack of availability. In our post-reading chat over drinks, every one of the writers (except for Janet McAdams, who writes in English, obviously) emphasised how difficult it was to get translated into English and published in either the UK or the US. This rather reinforces the point I made earlier about reaching a wider public if you are writing in English.
Although Tatiana Salem Levy is featured in Granta 121: Best of Young Brazilian Novelists, her work is not otherwise available to the English-speaking world. How is it that her first novel has been translated into French, Italian, Romanian, Spanish and Turkish, but not in English? Alexander’s diaries are being translated into German – everyone there agreed that German publishers are so good at discovering new talent abroad, that they are the fastest with their translations. Yet the Germans themselves are just as worried about the demise of the publishing industry as anyone else.
To my mind, Leonora Christina Skov has all of the qualities to appeal to an American or British audience: she has that sly dark humour, she writes quirky Gothic tales and she is a Scandinavian bordering on crime fiction, for heaven’s sake! What more has that woman got to do to be noticed? It seems to me infinitely sad that she is seriously considering switching to English in her writing.
The Future of Writer’s Colonies
I don’t think there is a writer on earth who has not dreamt of going to a writers’ colony for a month or so, in a idyllic location, and having nothing else to worry about but writing. Not even laundry, cooking and cleaning, let alone earning a living. Most would agree that it is very conducive to writing, even if the company you find there may be challenging at times.
Of course, as foundation pots and art funds dwindle, it’s becoming harder and harder to fund these programmes. Last night I heard rumours about initiatives like these closing down in Spain and Greece. Smaller profit-making initiatives are springing up, offering no stipends, but instead comfortable surroundings in which a paying visitor can get away from it all and be creative. Not quite the same, is it, if you are still worrying about money and the taxman?
The group of volunteers from the steering committee at Lavigny are worried about the future. They can’t get any funding from the Swiss state or local canton, because they have an international rather than a local remit. Meanwhile, PEN or other international art foundations are overwhelmed with applications on a daily basis. Above all, they are reluctant to reduce the residency programme from its current 3-4 weeks to just one week, because they feel that is too short to get the creative juices really flowing. I do hope the magic of Lavigny will be able to exert its influence on writers worldwide for a while longer.