Last night’s final event of this year’s festival was to celebrate the Arvon International Poetry Prize. Yet another competition I didn’t enter this year! (I can definitively tell you I won’t be winning the National, and I’m not one of the shortlisted poets in this week’s TLS.)
The Arvon International awards ceremony had taken place the night before, on Halloween. Congratulations to the winners:
Classic FM First Prize – Peter Daniels with Shoreditch Orchid
Second Price – Giles Goodland with Serpent
Third Prize – Thomas Lynch with Mr President
Commendation – Alan Stubbs with A Philosophical Provocation
Commendation – Frances Thompson with Letter
Commendation – Frances Leviston with Story
Our little part in their festivities was last night’s excellent reading. Two of the judges, Andrew Motion and Moniza Alvi (what happened to Alice Oswald?) had a chance to invite the international poet of their choice to read with them. It was a marvellous reading. The two invited poets were both wonderful, and the ways in which they were wonderful differed hugely from each other and again from the two judges.
Andrew Motion invited Katia Kapovich, an intense – and intensely Russian – poet now based in the USA, whose book Cossacks and Bandits blew the top of my head off earlier this year. Moniza Alvi invited Joan Margarit, an older Catalan poet whose work is quieter, more overtly emotional, and whose presence is very kindly and rather theatrical. Motion himself read exclusively from the material for his next book which will be out in the spring – all written in the past eighteen months, a period, he says, of prolific creativity. And Alvi read from her childlike Jungle Book-inspired sequence, with its dreamy treatment of the present cultural and natural disasters that await us.
First up: Andrew Motion. There is something I’ve always liked about him. He’s cropped up in different guises over the years, always with a sort of open aspect that makes him feel very real…
His new material, he says, has jolted him out of a several-year rut, or block, which has coincided with the Laureateship. In the past eighteen months he’s written more than in years, and he has a new book, The Cinder Path, due out in the spring. The formal theme seems to be the “found” poem based on someone else’s words – a theme shared with Medbh McGuckian, of course, who read earlier this week.
He started with a poem about Harry Patch, the last surviving person who went over the top in the First War. Harry Patch was 109 when Motion met him (“he’s 110 now”) and amazingly sparky and together. Patch says that “almost everything he remembers of his enormously long life is filtered through the four months he spent in France in the First World War.” He only survived by accident – he was injured, and the war ended while he was recuperating.
Motion moved on to a poem based on an extraordinary book of writings published posthumously by the mother of the author, James Farrer, a 20-year-old bomber pilot in the Second World War: “we only live by death’s negligence” – certainly true of Patch.
A beautiful, atmospheric poem based on the memoir of Marc Chagall’s first wife, Bella Rosenfeld, about their home town, Vitebsk, which Katia Kapovich informs us is pronounced VITebsk. (Of course – if it were stressed on the second syllable, it would be ViTIEBSK. See?
Then Kapovich, who – I’ll be open, here – is the reason I went to this reading. She was nervous, I think. It was a two- or three-poem warm-up, but when she did warm up she was focused and powerful. She read almost entirely from Cossacks and Bandits, in both English and Russian. Her English is heavily-enough accented that it needed a little adjustment to get used to, especially after the mellifluous tones of Motion, and her words are fluently sophisticated and dazzling.
She is uncompromisingly intellectual; and she is so without apparent personal vanity – no make up, for example – that the effect is to put all the emphasis on the poems themselves. There is a no-nonsense seriousness about her, by which I don’t mean portentous or grim – she is a dazzlingly quick and funny talker, with no side at all.
She talked about the “natural alienation” English presents to her, how she had found it very difficult to write about some things in Russian. At 19 she had joined a “little group of provincial dissidents” and, arrested, found herself in a mental asylum. She said, “AFter I had my first dream in English, and cried in it, I realised I can write in it!” The poem she read, Paper Plane to Nowhere, is the first poem she ever wrote in English, and apparently it took about 15 (or did she say 50? It’s quite long) minutes.
I’ve read it before, and admired it, and reviewed it, but by the end of the reading I could feel the tears about to spring. And she finished with a poem about her mother, fleeing Romania as a child, at risk of missing her trains as at each station she passed through she wrote on the wall her name and destination so her father might stand a chance of finding her and her mother. This in response to Motion’s final poem about Vitebsk station.
Moniza Alvi opened the second half with her sequence of poems based on Kipling’s Just so Stories, which of course are all called “How the” something: How The World Split In Two, How The Answers Got Their Questions, How The Countries Slipped Away. Written in the wake of 9/11, these poems seem to me hampered by their deliberate childlikeness (I confess I always found Kipling’s originals patronisingly whimsical as a kid): there is something watercolour-bright about them, but they just don’t address the seriousness and depth of the issues at hand.
A poem inspired by the execution of Saddam Hussain – danger alert! – began with a terrifyingly inappropriate image of a raindrop clinging to a branch, a flower “about to say goodbye to its supporting stem” (I paraphrase from memory, sorry) – and then miraculously recovered when it turned out that the images represented the fragile state of the “trembling” world. Unfortunately the word “hanging” did describe “the tyrant” as well as the raindrop. Still, nimble footwork, and worth finding on paper to see how it works.
I do wonder, though – and I know I’m not the only one – why Moniza Alvi reads her poems as if she were a presenter on Children’s Hour, or a nurse addressing a patient with advanced Alzheimers. We can follow complex sentences, we are not as the raindrop trembling. Chacun à son goût…
I realise there are possibly issues of cultural/poetic tradition here, to do with non-linear thought and the tradition of expression etc; but I’m not sure that simply saying that is a respectful way to deal with someone’s work, as it implies that you shouldn’t expect to get much out of it in the first place. After all, the Chinese poet Yang Lian (who didn’t read this week, but I met him, at last, and so I have been reading/ rereading his Concentric Circles) has engaged very deeply with Pound, filtering his work through Chinese ideas in ways that are new and surprising. And these poems are based on the work of an English writer.
Alvi’s choice of visiting poet suited her immediate, instinctive, emotional approach: the Catalan poet Joan (Think “Juan” but pronouncing the J) Margarit’s work latterly revolves around the life and death of his daughter, Joana, who had a degenerative motor neuron condition and died at the age of 30. (He was born in 1937.) His poems are direct, unfussy, full of arresting imagery.
His reading was very Latin, with sweeping arm gestures, a rising crescendo of voice, and an utter emotional authority. It struck me that such a public delivery style applied to such intimate, personal material is part of the “original language” element of these poems. Here in England it’s not the usual thing to declaim one’s feelings in this way. The Joana poems are filled with intense sadness, of the pure healing kind, and were leavened in this reading by the finale, a short, sweet love poem to his wife. He made almost sweeping bows to the applause, and without realising what I was going to write till I wrote it, I put in my notebook the one word, “theatrical.” In a good way.
I wrote on my own blog before the week began about some interesting interviews he has given, talking about how strange it is writing in his childhood language of Catalan, when Spanish is the “cultural language” – a sort of translation before the poem has even been written. This probably applies to Moniza Alvi, as well. (In fact, I know it sounds stupid, and I’m not in exile as much as simply transplanted, but these issues of cultural identity are not unknown to me, either. When I started writing again, the initial difficulties of reconciling my American and English selves were such that I realised that split may have accounted in part for the years of not writing.)
In all, another wonderful, stimulating evening! A fine night to go out on.