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Balkan Poetry Today, 2017 edited by Tom Phillips (Red Hand Books)

Balkan Poetry Today, 2017 edited by Tom Phillips (Red Hand Books)

In his editorial comments at the opening of this first issue of a new magazine, Balkan Poetry Today, Tom Phillips stakes out his purpose with clarity and determination:

Balkan Poetry Today is not designed to be a comprehensive survey. Nor is it a ‘greatest hits’ package. Not every country in SE Europe, not every language spoken there is represented in this issue (although many are) and readers already familiar with those few poets from the region who have been translated into English may wonder at some of the more notable absences. This, though, is a magazine, not a representative anthology, and our policy has simply been to publish the best work which we have been sent or otherwise come across rather than to fulfil the more ambitious task of charting an entire region’s poetic output.”

This is the beginning of an adventure and it carries with it the momentum of a serious journey. That setting of keel to breakers reminds me a little of J.H. Prynne’s ‘Tips on Translating Poems (Into or Out of English)’ which he wrote in Cambridge a little over ten years ago. The last of the 24 tips pointed to the importance of recognising that no translation work is ever fully completed since there “can never be a best or a right solution”. He reminded his readers that the best kind of poetical translation of a poem is another poem, “without any didactic extras” so that the reader “will be rewarded by enjoyment of a good poem which gives a strong experience of its foreign original”. Prynne concluded that this was the aim of all poetical translation and that it allowed the efforts of the translator “to bring very real benefit in understanding between cultures”.
This last point is one which was highlighted by Ana Martinoska in her introduction to the 2011 Arc publication of an anthology of Six Macedonian Poets in which she commented that “there are no nations or literatures that are small, insignificant or culturally less important than others” and that every culture and genre “should be presented to a broader audience without hesitation or fear of marginalisation”. Prynne’s last comment in his tips was “Translation is noble work!” and Martinoska referred to the translation of poetry as being “one of the best forms of cultural representation, as mediation among languages and nations, cross-cultural and inter-cultural communication bringing the world closer together, both in time and space”.
With this last statement in mind it is refreshing and heartening to read Tom Phillips’s words:

“It is, of course, conventional for any publication with the term ‘Balkan’ in the title to attempt a definition of the region. BPT has adopted a rather loose one with blurry edges – and one which includes the various and not inconsiderable Balkan diasporas. We are, in fact, pretty much leaving it to the poets themselves to decide whether they identify themselves as Balkan or not and to define where the cultural, geographical and linguistic boundaries lie. In practice this means that in this issue you’ll find work by a Romanian poet who writes in Czech, a Bulgarian who lives in Slovakia and a Croatian who writes multilingual poems in Croatian, French and English. In future issues we hope to publish work in transnational languages like Roma and Vlach. We use the word ‘Balkan’ in the broadest possible sense and with no intention of suggesting that ‘Balkan poetry’ exists as a single, homogenous entity.”

This first issue of an exhilarating new journal is sheer delight and one of the first poems that drew my attention immediately was ‘Private lessons in May’ by Aksinia Mihaylova (translated by Roumiana Tiholova):

“I’m trying to teach you the Cyrillic alphabet of scents:
that the geranium on the balcony across the street
is more than a mere geranium,
that the linden tree in June
is more than a mere tree,
but we aren’t making progress fast enough.
Your thumb is following the candle shadow
that the wind is making tremble on the open page,
as if drafting mobile borders
between you and me,
as if to protect you,
as if you are that boy,
who once lost his watercolours
on his way home from school,
and who’s still painting
the lost sky of his childhood and the hills
in the same colour.”

In 1923 William Carlos Williams had been convinced that “so much depends / upon // a red wheel / barrow // glazed with rain / water // beside the white /
chickens”. Wallace Stevens was to refer to those words as a “mobile-like arrangement” and Hugh Kenner suggested that they dangled in equidependency, “attracting the attention, isolating it, so that the sentence in which they are arrayed comes to seem like a suspension system.” The delicate movement in Mihaylova’s poem traces the act of translation itself, the spaces between one mind and another in a world of “mobile borders”.

Balkan Poetry Today is available in a limited edition print version via the Red Hand Books website: http://www.redhandbooks.co.uk/ and an e-book version will be available soon.

In a world of narrowing confines this new journal is refreshing: it opens doors on each page.

Ian Brinton 30th July 2017

Raceme

Raceme

This new Bristol-based magazine is edited by Matthew Barton and Jeremy Mulford and is published by Loxwood Stoneleigh, an imprint of Falling Wall Press. The first issue appeared in May last year and the Winter issue for this year, number 5, has just come into view. For those whose botanical knowledge is not quite up to the mark a quick glance at the Shorter Oxford is helpful:

From the Latin for a cluster of grapes ‘Raceme is a simple inflorescence in which the flowers are arranged on short, nearly equal, pedicels, at equal distances on an elongated axis’.

The editorial at the front of the first issue presented an attractive engagement with the way writing can prompt responses and it boded well for the future of this attractively produced magazine. As Barton and Mulford put that first issue together there was clearly an intention that the magazine could make space for ‘strings or sequences of poems with contextual thread or preface from the authors’. What they also discovered was that ‘connections began to sprout between pieces by diverse writers, a crackle of igniting responses’. The issue included poems by Graham Hartill (whose selection from Slipping the Leash appeared in my blog from earlier this month) and Philip Gross. It also contained tributes to Anne Cluysenaar alongside some of her poems and it is worth recalling the comments that poet made about the art of translation in her contribution to the book on British Poetry Since 1960 by Michael Schmidt and Grevel Lindop:

‘Translation is indeed a symbol of the basic activities of sympathy and metamorphosis involved in creative writing.’

As if in response to those words written over forty years ago Tom Phillips offered us in issue number 3 ‘Bulgaria Revisited’:

‘Not so many years ago, two young writers in Sofia, friends from school, launched an online project. Letters of Flesh was arguably one of the first signs that a new generation of writers was emerging in Bulgaria, a generation born after the end of the communism in 1989 and savvy to the potential of the internet and a generation which was almost certainly going to ruffle the feathers of the country’s literary establishment.’

The two writers, Georgi Belorechki and Ilyan Lyubomirov, had collaborated with Tom Phillips in translations of their own work represented in that issue. Belorechki had translated his own short poem in which the wall between the self and the other dissolves in a manner I have become used to in reading Philippe Jaccottet:

‘When you find me
in the dark,
don’t go out looking
for light –
I swallowed it.’

Phillips’s poetry has a particular timbre and when I reviewed his Unknown Translations in October this year I recall being struck by his reference to the way he started writing in Bulgarian as the new language prompted ‘unexpected connections in my mind’. There was in that fine collection a clear sense of life beyond the parochial and it is surely no coincidence that he should have found space for his work in this adventurous new magazine.

The editorial to that issue number 3 also offered a clear sign for the promising future:

‘Wherever we live we place our steps mostly unwittingly on the back of the past, but touching into it is a fascinating undertaking and one perhaps very close to the delvings of poetry, reconnecting with the undertow – all the more powerful because invisible – of a reality that exists for us only if we recreate it in the imagination.’

Other work to look out for in that issue included poems by Peter Robinson, David Cooke and David Punter . It also contained stunningly fine engravings by Trevor Haddrell, a retired teacher of Art who spent many years at Ashton Park School on the south side of the city.

Other magazines based in Bristol have included both The Resuscitator and The Present Tense. The former, co-edited by John James, started in 1963 and contained poetry by George Oppen, Charles Tomlinson, Roy Fisher and Peter Armstrong before it moved its headquarters to Cambridge for the second series. The latter was edited by Michael Abbott and contained work by Tomlinson, Anthony Rudolf, John Greening and Glen Cavaliero. All of this is far removed from the parochial sense of self-satisfaction gloried in by inhabitants of what Hugh Kenner was to call ‘The Sinking Island’ (a title by the way that he took from a letter written to him by Tomlinson!).

Issue number 5 of Raceme has just appeared containing amongst many other delights Peter Robinson’s translation of Georgio Bassani. Details of how to subscribe can be found on the Raceme website: http://www.racemepoetry.com and contact for subscription can be made via fallingwall76@gmail.com

Ian Brinton 30th November 2016

Unknown Translations by Tom Phillips (www.scalino.eu)

Unknown Translations by Tom Phillips (www.scalino.eu)

I recall reading a poem by Tom Phillips titled ‘Wearing Thin’. It was published in a fine collection, Recreation Ground, put out in 2012 by Peter Robinson’s Two Rivers Poets and it opened with movement:

‘Going home, with decisions unmade
and threats of further paperwork,
you’re jostling for position
at a crossing point, taking
the lights’ delay as a reluctance,
the pavement for a starting grid.
As if the whole town could do its best
to hold you back.’

A similar restless journeying also leads the reader through this hauntingly beautiful new mindscape which Tom Phillips has translated from the Bulgarian originals written by Tom Phillips! When J.H. Prynne gave his speech in 2008 at the First Conference of English-Poetry Studies in China on the topic of the difficulties of translation he quoted John Keats’s comment ‘I think Poetry should surprise by a fine excess’ before going on to add

‘I think that the excess he had in mind was to run past the normal bounds and limits, in making new combinations of words and thoughts that draw the reader into new kinds of pleasurable excitement. In a more technical way we can acknowledge that unfamiliarity plays an important part in pattern-recognition, and we can ask how this feature gains its effect. If two words are placed together that are not normally associated as from the same field of reference or meaning, a kind of semantic spark or jump may be created that is intensely localised within the continuity of the text process: it may be a kind of “hot spot” that burns very bright but which the reader can quite quickly assimilate within the larger patterns of composition.’

This placing of words together, prompting a brightness, is there within the pages of this new publication by Tom Phillips and his introductory note draws us into a world where language seems washed clean:

‘I started writing the poems in this book in Bulgarian because I wanted to practise a language that I have been studying since my first visit to Sofia in 2013. While I was learning vocabulary, noun by noun, verb by verb, adjective by adjective, I would find myself repeating seemingly unconnected series of words – “room”, “confused”, “hungry”, “flowers”, “silently” – and these sometimes came to suggest situations and images or at least to forge unexpected connections in my mind.’

Phillips continues by reminding us that it is very easy ‘to become trapped in your own voice, to repeat the things which have worked in the past, and pushing at the boundaries of your comfort zone – by, for example, attempting to write in a language whose traditions and riches you’re only just beginning to appreciate – is one way of finding an escape route’. To an extent he lets ‘language take the lead…’.
Unknown Translations, new journeys, are threaded with present participles: ‘children playing / by a war memorial’, ‘walking along the pavement, / past the market’, ‘in the park, the dogs are walking / like old men’. At the same time Phillips is fully aware of those trammels which recur and that ‘Purity / is only an instant of being’ (Olson). We carry our pasts like mollusc shells closely attached to us and ‘approach / a possible fate / under magnificent architecture / which the lightest breeze / can destroy’ (‘Old Directions’). That earlier poem from Recreation Ground concluded

‘As red turns to green,
you’ve almost reached the other side
before you’re pulled up short
by a misread fashion headline:
‘You Are What You Were’.’

The opening poem in this new collection offers ‘Sunlight in March’:

‘It’s clear to me that
in an unknown town,
I met another life
suddenly, unexpectedly,
like sunlight in March.’

Newness of both language and geography reveals a map of an unknown town and ‘then took me home’.

This is a refreshingly original little volume of poems and I recommend you to get hold of a copy before the poet melts back into Bulgaria.

2nd October 2016

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