Author Archive

Moniza Alvi, Katia Kapovich, Joan Margarit & Andrew Motion: Arvon Foundation Gala Reading

November 9, 2008

Saturday was the last day of Poetry International Festival at Southbank, celebrating the Arvon International Poetry Prize. This last event was, for me, one of the most inspirational poetry readings I have been to so far and a great way to finish this amazing project.


Andrew Motion was the first reader and, due to the closeness of the Remembrance day, he read out a couple of poems inspired by war heroes. One was based on an interview he did  with a man who fought in the First World War- last man alive from that period. Now aged 109 years, ‘the man is very frail physically but still quite intact in mind, the kind of person who has lived so long, that he might as well live forever’(Motion). The poem very well expressed the idea of getting old but also just the idea of an old man like Harry Patch reflecting on his life seemed very vivid and frightening yet kind of familiar in one way or another.


Suddenly everyone you know


And they visit you

And you visit them


Another one of his poems was based on the words of a young soldier James Farrer- a bomber pilot who died aged 20 during Second World War. This poem looked at the complete opposite side of the life spectrum. It was inspired by his diary entries that Motion got access to through Farrer’s mother. This idea, to me, seemed very interesting. I felt as if there and then on the dark stage, Motion was speaking through Farrer’s voice, bringing him back to life this one last time- or rather, ironically bringing back Farrer’s thoughts on life and his fear of dieing young.


We live by death’s negligence

And I believe that


Katia Kapovich- a bilingual Russian poet, came next. She is a tall woman with a strong voice who beneath the darkness of her poems manages to entertain the public with her jokes and reflections on her first visit to London-stories of how she ended up carrying an empty take-away coffee cup for half a day because she just couldn’t find a rubbish bin and when she finally got rid of it on the side of a street, she got charged by the police. Kapovich doesn’t like sentimentalism and this is reflected in her poetry with it’s rather gloomy rural settings. Here’s what I managed to note down:


She seemed happy with my paper coffin


To stare at nothing

Seemed to be her hobby,

Same as mine ( from the poem A paper Plane to Nowhere)


Sometimes truth necessitates madness ( from the poem Hero)


A man forgets man

Rather than forgives


After Kapovich came Moniza Alvi who started off with a few poems based on her reflections of 9/11 and what came after. These poems had titles such as How the world split in two and How the words feared the mouth, drawing our attention to the emotional hurricane that followed 9/11 and a set of questions with no answers- answers that perhaps the readers could contemplate on. The poems were electrifying, especially since Alvi’s warm voice is the kind of voice you would want to hear reading a children’s story before bedtime-not poems about 9/11 and rape. Yet I believe this approach is a part of her unique style.


Alvi then introduced to us Joan Margarit, one of Spain’s major modern writers, whom she has invited to read – a man with a strong handshake and a deep voice who also happens to be a great speaker (even though he read out most of his poems in Catalan). Alvi was right, his poems are great in translation and I felt such warmth and humanity both listening to his Catalan and by reading the translations on the screen behind him (I also realised the power of reading poems in Catalan and how I definitely must learn to speak it!). His poetry is full of melancholy and candour, reflections on life, aging and grief at the death of his beloved handicapped daughter. Standing there on that stage he looked like some kind of a prophet- teaching us and guiding us from his rich life experience yet not imposing anything on us; Simply inviting us to reflect on life with him. He makes everyday emotions seem mystical and unusual- connecting them with the deep realms of sub consciousness. He was truly inspirational and I just had to buy his book- a perfect ending to the Poetry International Festival.

See for yourself:


Midsummer night’s dream by Joan Margarit


We have stopped the car

beside a wall of cypresses.

It’s thirty years we’ve lived together.

I was an inexperienced youth  and you

A warm and helpless girl.

The last opportunity is casting

Its shadow over the moon.

I am an inexperienced old man.

And you a helpless middle-aged woman.



Lost in Translation: Reflections on ‘Zbigniew Herbert: Between Two Worlds Al Alvarez, Eva Hoffman and Nick Laird’

October 31, 2008


                     by Zbigniew Herbert

                     The pebble
                     is a perfect creature

                     equal to itself
                     mindful of its limits

                     filled exactly
                     with a pebbly meaning

                     with a scent that does not remind one of anything
                     does not frighten anything away does not arouse desire

                     its ardour and coldness
                     are just and full of dignity

                     I feel a heavy remorse
                     when I hold it in my hand
                     and its noble body
                     is permeated by false warmth

                      – Pebbles cannot be tamed
                      to the end they will look at us
                      with a calm and very clear eye

I came across Zbigniew Herbert in school in Warsaw where I grew up. My parents moved there when I was 2 years old and by 7th grade, when we came round to analysing his work in class, I was lucky enough to be able to understand it in its original language. Looking back on it now, I think I didn’t give him a chance. Probably I was too young to understand him.  On Wednesday I decided to give him a second chance. I went to the tenth anniversary of his death at the Southbank, sat in the dark and warm auditorium and listened… Of course, I couldn’t help thinking just how proud my Polish teacher, Mr. Motrenko, would have been to see me here.

Al Alvarez, Eva Hoffman and Nick Laird are all huge fans of Zbigniew Herbert. All of them have come across his work in different ways. Al Alvarez had personally known Herbert in the 60s; Eva Hoffman came across him when she was asked to write a review on one of his collections for The New York Times and Nick Laird picked up Mr. Cogito in a second hand bookstore for £2.50 and after some hesitation, he realised that he came across a unique artist.  They all read a few of their favourite poems by Herbert after which there was a discussion on his work and a screening of a couple of his short films.

Eva Hoffman read in polish and this made me confused. I didn’t know whether to read the translations, or listen to her words? I ended up doing both-listening to the poems in polish and picking out words in english that I thought really worked well in the poem. I was lost and found at the same time. The experience was quite unusual- it felt as if I was re-writing the poems in my head- making a virtual collage of his work. At the same time I felt as if I was experiencing his poems in 3D.

But putting aside my little game, I have realised that Zbigniew Herbert’s work was quite unique and that I probably would not have been able to play and enjoy this game of collage with any other poet because, as Hoffman said, ‘ In translation he is better than anybody else.’ Herbert was full of wit. He spoke in his own voice and was completely unafraid to speak his mind. He believed in Roman virtue, decency and clarity and as Laird said, ‘ he was a wonderful political poet in a totally neutral way […] he speaks in his own voice, he is ironic but never bitter’. He uses mythical figures in his poetry. He writes of angels and daemons and he actualises them- gives them flesh, talks to them and makes them real. Herbert was ‘ a poet whose life and work echo each other- a poet of historical irony who insists on having second thoughts on his work and ideas’ ( Al Alvarez). In one of his poetry collections Mr. Cogito, he immerses himself in ‘the questioning of his existential questing’ (Hoffman) whereby his poems are composed of conversations with his alter-ego; Mr. Cogito (deriving from Descartes’ ‘Cogito ergo sum’).

 Mr  Cogito and the Imagination

by Zbigniew Herbert


Mr. Cogito never trusted
tricks of the imagination

the piano at the top of the Alps
played false concerts for him

he didn’t appreciate labyrinths
the Sphinx filled him with loathing

he lived in a house with no basement
without mirrors of dialectics

jungles of tangled images
were not his home

he would rarely soar
on the wings of metaphor
and then he fell like Icarus
into the embrace of the Great Mother

he adored tautologies
idem per idem

that a bird is a bird
slavery means slavery
a knife is a knife
death remains death

he loved
the flat horizon
a straight line
the gravity of the earth


When it comes to Herbert, it’s difficult to ask what context he is operating in because ‘great poets bring their context with them’ (Hoffman). In one of his films,  Herbert stated that his aim as a poet was to appeal to a ‘universal emotion’ that people share. My impression is that as his poems work so well in translation- he has managed to reach into the core of his thoughts and those of the reader. I believe that with the honesty, clarity and the sharpness his words, he has become the universal.


This was a truly inspirational event and the best possible way I could have given Herbert a second chance.



Impressions from the William Blake Garden 26.10.08

October 27, 2008

‘Unorganised innocence: Impossibility. Innocence dwells with wisdom, but never with ignorance.’  William Blake


I went to the William Blake Garden today

And I saw what I never had seen before


An audience of parents with small children

Camping on the floor below the wooden stage

A woman with braided sandy hair holding a guitar

Singing low and mellow

Like mother earth-

The voice of hope

And the words of death


I was pushed in the waters of Blake’s dichotomy

Of Innocence and Experience

Still here I am struggling to catch my breath

On paper


This seemingly comfortable environment

Who was it for?



Or the people in between just like me

Slowly wondering through

The corridors of life?


Still today

I saw what I never had seen before

A funeral of my own childhood

A shrinking Neverland

Locked up in some wooden memory box


So I asked myself

Is the loss of childhood really that tragic?

Are we really just getting older but not wiser?

And to my left-

On the floor

A pair of golden boots stood next to a woman

She had a gentle angelic smile

On her face

And a little boy under her arm


To me

She seemed content…


Still the atmosphere in the Garden

So vividly exemplified a clash of two different worlds

Desperately feeding off one another

That I couldn’t help wondering whether

There and then

We were all characters in one of his songs