The State of the Poetic Nation: StAnza 2020

Editors Rebecca DeWald and Samuel Tongue were invited to be “bloggers-in-residence” at Scotland’s International Poetry Festival StAnza in St Andrews, which took place from 4–8 March 2020.

By Rebecca DeWald and Samuel Tongue

Only a month ago, StAnza brought together a fantastic and varied programme of international poetry. It already feels like another age. As we write this, we are now in a Covid-19 lockdown, all gatherings of more than two people from the same home unit banned on grounds of public health. On the 1st April, it was announced that all the Edinburgh Festivals are to be cancelled; even if we were no longer advised to stay at home by then, August is going to be very quiet in the capital and many poets and writers are going to be without the major boon of the Edinburgh International Book Festival. With the benefit of retrospect, and at the current time, StAnza stands out even more as a generous meeting place of ideas and voices, perspectives and challenges. As we move on to online platforms – which have many positive aspects in themselves – it is worth reflecting on the irreplaceable value of face-to-face meeting, the chance encounter with a poet’s work, or the hushed gravitas of a Poetry Centre Stage reading from Anthony Anaxagorou or Carolyn Forché. These are what keeps the crowds flocking to St Andrews in early March, a special migration from across the world.

There have been many blogs and reviews of specific poetry that was performed, recorded, drawn, walked, and painted over the course of the StAnza 2020 (see the StAnza blog here). In line with what we do at the GRB, that is, spend time to reflect on books and events to give our readers an in-depth discussion on overarching themes, we decided to hone in on a series of themes and recurrent ideas that shaped our time at the festival. What emerged were intellectual and creative trajectories voiced by poets, editors and festival participants, which may be indicative of the current state of the ‘poetic nation’.

Astrid Jaekel, ‘Plastik (Kunst)’ (2020)
Astrid Jaekel, ‘Plastik (Kunst)’ (2020), after Arne Rautenberg’s poem ‘ich erkläre den plastikmüll’

Poetic Politics and the Archive

Among all of the concerns that marked the poetry, the conversations, and the discussions over the weekend, two overriding motifs provided orientation: the ever-present relationship between tradition and innovation in poetic practice and, related but aslant, poets’ self-understanding of their role as animating and political voices. One of the more pivotal events for which this was true was the ‘On the Same Page’ session (Friday 6th March) which brought together three newly minted Royal Society of Literature Fellows Jay Bernard, Sabrina Mahfouz, and Sophie Collins. In 2018, the RSL, in a special initiative asking publishers, literary agents, literature organisations and writers (not necessarily RSL members themselves) to nominate who they thought were the best young writers, elected 40 new Fellows under the age of 40.

Edna Longley, who chaired the event, had sent the following W. H. Auden quote to the panel participants, asking them to reflect upon its ramifications: “The social and political history of Europe would be what it has been if Dante, Shakespeare, Michelangelo, Mozart, et. al., had never lived.” An obvious echo of the famous and oft-quoted line from his eulogy for W. B Yeats: “For poetry makes nothing happen”, few commentators follow the poem further to the lines “…it survives, | A way of happening, a mouth” (see Don Share’s lovely exploration of the phrase). All of the members of the panel were aware of how this ‘happening’ can be effected. Sophie Collins acknowledged the ambivalence of her own poetry in making something happen, questioning whether this was ever really the role of a poem in itself, but emphasised that all language use is political and that as soon as you say something you have a responsibility to it and its effects. She also questioned the grandiloquence of Auden’s original statement – what ‘History’ is he talking about when we have long since learned that such a grand narrative elides so much of actual lived experience? This is where Jay Bernard added more depth: the point is not necessarily to change history but, by reading and writing poetry, to live through it. They felt that Auden’s quote demonstrated a very limited sense of what change can look like and enact. Poets are also historical actors not simply observers. Bernard’s own collection Surge (Chatto, 2019) is alive to the poet’s re-animating of historical archives (specifically documents relating to the 1981 New Cross Fire), events that are not necessarily lived-through but which cast long shadows over the present. We live with the past always present.

Sabrina Mahfouz noted another ambiguity in Auden’s original statement; the poet continued writing poetry. But she also issued a note of caution on the political nature of language and the arts more generally. If the arts world often acts as if making art is only ever a good thing, or that creativity can only ever be channelled for enlightened purposes, we start to lose the capacity to counter statements that are merely propaganda. Some of this propaganda can be identified in the idea that some works instil the idea that we can transcend our own lives – happy endings or unlivable aspirations – that are not rooted in the particular social structures or how lives are lived out.

One creative source for these fluid identities is the question of the archive: who has access to certain archived knowledge and how can it be deployed? Which alternative histories await discovery in official and non-official sources? All three poets used research or interview techniques to develop material into their creative work: Bernard delved into the George Padmore Institute archives and questioned how to categorise their contents, categorisation itself being such a powerful tool for institutional denigration and management of people-of-colour. In their poetry-as-enquiry, Bernard emphasised that this research is part of the process; although not trained in this particular sociological discipline, they explained that poetry is doing something different with the material. Utilising footnotes and apparatus does not turn the work into sociology – why would poetry bother to do this? Collins’ work also makes use of footnotes, critical theory, and the prose poem to extend the scope of poetry, preferring to call it more a non-fiction form of writing. Bringing in multiple voices complicates identity but also underlines the fact that language is always a collective endeavour, a living tradition that also allows for innovation and novelty, resisting closure. Such poetry foregrounds the production of knowledge, epistemology as a performative act, and the archive becomes a place of serious play and contemporary surrealism. Mahfouz’s work, especially How You Might Know Me (Outspoken Press, 2016) uses interview material with sex-workers as an embodied archive of knowledge to give voice to those members of society that are not granted access to cultural institutions and artistic expression.

So if poets make “nothing happen”, could it be that there is a new way of being a poet, a spoken word artist, a poet-sociologist, researcher or investigator? A way of facilitating change or a living-through that uses poetics, if not lyricism? If current poets-under-40 may be reluctant to adopt the label “political”, has the role of the poet changed?

Political Poetry: Carolyn Forché

Over dinner, we got talking with StAnza director Eleanor Livingstone about a recent BBC Radio 4 programme, in which historian Rhys Jones explored the notion of generational conflict throughout the ages.[1] In it, psychology professor Catherine Loveday describes the “reminiscence bump”, or “rosy retrospection” a phenomenon by which we glorify the time when we were between 10 and 30 years old. The older we get, the rosier our view of the past tends to be. Carolyn Forché, sharing a dinner table with us, jokingly interjects that she hopes those years were not her best. Unsurprisingly, her famous time reporting as a poet from El Salvador falls into this time-frame: she was 27 when she left for Central America. Despite the generational gap between Forché and the RSL Fellows, there is a similar hesitancy to define oneself as a political poet. For Mahfouz, the writer of narratives has a political responsibility; for Bernard, every writer is also a person in the world, therefore influenced by and influencing politics; for Collins, all language is per se political. In this, there are echoes of Forché’s “poetry of witness”, expanding the narrowly defined designation of “political poetry” or “engagé” whereby the poet’s own politics receives less importance than the political impact of their work. As Forché recounts in her Centre Stage reading on Friday night, she went to El Salvador to follow a call for a poet: while in Spain, translating the exiled Salvadorian poet Claribel Alegría together with a friend (the poet’s daughter), the name of a cousin, Leonel Gómez Vides, kept coming up. Months later, this mysterious person – a coffee farmer, champion marksman, and possibly CIA agent – turned up on her doorstep in San Diego, his two daughters in tow, and recounted the history of his country, with the premonition: there will be a war in three years’ time. His demand is direct: “I need a poet”, a poet to come with him to El Salvador before the outbreak of the war, to witness it and tell the story. “The American government doesn’t usually consult us poets – I think you need a journalist”, was Forché’s reply. But Gomez Vides insisted: “I need someone writing from the heart – so you need to change the US public.” And so she went. Her reading straddles the passing of time: she reads from her memoir, What You Have Heard is True (2020), which borrows its title from the opening lines of her world-famous poem ‘The Colonel’ (1978, in The Country Between Us). The passages she reads are taken from the diaries she kept during her time in El Salvador, written in pencil and omitting people and place names, so as to not identify and endanger witnesses or herself.

Written in pencil

This is the village abandoned a pitted road stretches between burned shacks in the mud there is a saint’s picture decorated with foil stars there is no smoke rising from cook fires where women would have turned the family’s daily tortillas nor any from the fires that chewed through this village during a ‘‘search-and-destroy’’ operation the people returned here briefly and held orange rinds wrapped in cloth over their mouths as they gathered the dead listing their names and where this was possible sex and approximate age they poured lime over the assembled remains until the bodies seemed covered with hoarfrost a woman who had hidden in the branches of a tree worked her skirt into knots as she told the story of what happened but she had so rubbed her eyes from grief that all she had seen could be seen in them in a different village a man told the story of having pretended to be dead in place of the cries of children for their parents a light rain ticks against the corrugated roofs that have slipped into the wet palms of the ravine. In Salvador, death still patrols, wrote Pablo Neruda in a poem. The blood of dead peasants has not dried, time does not dry it, rain does not erase it from the roads.

More than anecdotes (anecdotes seeming too easy a word for the place and time), the fleeting sections read like prose poems, processing the impression the country and political gravitas of the situation have left on the young poet’s mind. Forché also reads from her current work, her first poetry collection in 17 years, In the Lateness of the World (Bloodaxe, 2020), which shares a fantastical quality with her prose. It spans experiences of visiting a lighthouse (and wanting to be alone with it, much like all “lighthouse people”) but also recounts seeing puppet-makers at work in Indonesia, experiencing refugee camps in Greece, travelling to Ukraine with fellow poet Ilya Kaminsky, and a ‘Museum of Stones’ collecting vestiges from her travels. The settings, but also the sheer disbelief at what she experienced in El Salvador, and around the world, lends the prose sections and the poetry a fantastical sentiment, while providing precisely placed punches at the reader realising that there is nothing other-worldly about the reality Forché is depicting, the cruelty and violence, which meshes with glimpses of humanity and compassion. From ‘The Last Puppet’:

There are no hides left, this is the last puppet.
The puppet maker lifts it to the light and has it speak

a language it will never speak again, its shadow finding the shadow
on the wall of no one else. Then he puts a last song in its mouth.

Souls have their own world. They are the descendants of clouds.
Take this puppet to America. Hold it to the light.

A Shared Literary Past: Coasts and Waters

In another poem, ‘Exile’, Forché describes in similarly factual-fictional terms a city remembered from childhood, in the second person singular, so giving the sensation that this childhood memory is also the reader’s. In it, memory becomes so vivid that the past becomes present. “So yes, you remember, this is the city you lost, | […] where two things were esteemed: literature and ships, poetry and the sea.”

This bears close resemblance with Matthew Caley’s notes on the multi-media installation ‘Trawl’, citing Modernist poet Marianne Moore: “If the ocean stands for ‘the unconscious’, it is also quick to return a rapacious look.”[2] The collaborative installation, mixing raw footage of scientific marine field recordings, pre-recorded sound, and text extracts from Caley’s poetry collection Trawlerman’s Turquoise (the term for “a psychic glimpse of the ocean for city dwellers who have only ever heard of it”), shows the way in which complex relationships, such as our human relationship with the sea, as both appealing and terrifying “body”, implying it has a life of its own, benefits from being portrayed in multi-dimensional format, when words alone are not enough.[3]

Still from ‘Trawl’

Caley describes the combination of image, sound and text as “neither complementary nor indifferent”. In this way, the video-poem follows Ezra Pound’s ‘Make it New’ credo, which is, as he describes in his lecture on Thursday, 5th March, ‘Mother, Mother Ocean’ (the title is taken from a Jimmy Buffett song), “as much making poetry anew as ransacking the past.” The central subject of his lecture is Marianne Moore [1887-1972], a poet often overshadowed by male Modernist such as Ezra Pound. Without setting up a strict, and limiting, dichotomy between the ocean as female, and the (solid) ground as male, Caley plays with these ideas and the way in which they received treatment in Modernist poetry and its reception. In her early poem ‘A Grave’ (provided as a handout to the audience), she describes the experience of being at the beach and a man blocking her view of the sea.

Man looking into the sea,
taking the view from those who have as much right to it as
         you have to it yourself
it is human nature to stand in the middle of a thing,
but you cannot stand in the middle of this;
the sea has nothing to give but a well excavated grave.

For Moore to look at the sea, men, with their entire seafaring tradition (invoked by Jimmy Buffett), “have to get out of the way first”. Caley then offers us an even more detailed reading of ‘The Fish’ from 1918.

The Fish

through black jade.
         Of the crow-blue mussel shells, one keeps
         adjusting the ash-heaps;
                  opening and shutting itself like

injured fan.

The poem displays Moore’s characteristic composition in syllabic verse, whereby each line in a stanza has a set number of syllables (here: 1, 3, 9, 6 and 8). The indentation at the start of each line also corresponds to the rhyme scheme AABBC. Caley’s close reading of ‘The Fish’ is both enlightening and entertaining. While Moore’s poems appear chaotic at first sight, their patterns are in fact very strictly adhered to, and Caley points out that it is no coincidence that the non-rhyme “C” is a homophone to “sea”, excluding the sea from a set order. The poem begins with the word “wade”, not normally associated with fish, so it both humanises the animal and opens up the interpretative space to include a reference to Moore’s brother Warner, whose nickname was ‘fish’, and who was conscripted for World War I. The poem allows for multiple interpretations; “the fish refuses to be caught”.

The poem also features, so Caley, “one of the most violent breaks with form of any Modernist”, in the penultimate stanza.

cident – lack
         of cornice, dynamite grooves, burns, and
         hatchet strokes, these things stand
                  out on it; the chasm side is


This violent line-break splits the word “accident” in half, drawing attention to the rhyming “lack” and the “injured fan” mentioned earlier in the poem. Thom Gunn describes this trait as “her casually shocking enjambments” and uses this to label her a “hard poet”. “Accident” references an episode in Moore’s past: her father, separated from his wife Mary Warner Moore before Marianne was born, suffered from Christian delusions and once, in what was labelled an “accident”, cut his right hand off, following Matthew 5:30: “And if thy right hand offend thee, cut it off, and cast it from thee”. The combination of “lack” and the split word also offers parallels with Jacques Lacan’s elaborations on the split self, displaying the paradox that to know oneself, I must become an object of myself – a favourite topic for many Modernists; one might think of Walt Whitman’s “I contain multitudes” here, invoked in Virginia Woolf’s ‘Street Haunting’.

In the Q&A afterwards, chair Robyn Marsack picks up on the uncomfortable relationship between male poets, like Ezra Pound and TS Eliot, and female Modernists like Moore, HD or Mina Loy. While we are right to acknowledge issues with elitism, fascism and sexism in Modernist circles, Caley clarifies that in their time, women were seen as equal writers. The crunch came with the advent of New Criticism in the 1930s, which caused a great dip in the popularity of female writers, from which female US poets did not recover until the arrival of Adrienne Rich in the 1960s – Diving into the Wreck is a clear continuation of the theme on female poets’ relation to the sea. A legacy that is also continued in Zoë Skoulding’s Border Crossings reading on Friday. Skoulding is a senior lecturer at Bangor University in Wales, where she researches urban spaces, contemporary women’s poetry and translation. She reads from her recent collection Footnotes to Water, which follows the river Afon Adda, which used to flow through Bangor until it was culverted, tamed, and covered up, so that residents forgot about its existence: “as an adder stamped underground | only with the faintest hiss.”

To be British is to be everywhere – and archive of Empire

One of the key questions in the panel discussion ‘On the Same Page’ was about identity politics. Reflecting on the titles of Mahfouz’s and Collin’s collections (How You Might Know Me and Who is Mary Sue?, respectively) Edna Longley asks: “Is poetry at the moment particularly concerned with and fitting for questions of identity?” Noting that ‘identity politics’ as a concept now haunts much criticism of creative work and programming, how are lyric poetics in particular imbued with self-hoods in the present time?

Mahfouz shifts the focus: while it is true that poetry is obsessed with ideas of identity, so are other art-forms. And it isn’t necessarily the poets themselves who want to highlight identity questions, but often publishers and programmers select work that stems from identities other than their own. They sell identities back to an audience and, and as writers pick up on this commercial imperative, they are forced to mine an identity to produce work. She was frank as to how this has impinged on her own practice and access to cultural capital, with her Egyptian heritage becoming the focus of programmers’ interest in her. She asks: “Is only that part of my identity of interest?”

Collins noted that identity questions were central to her collection Who is Mary Sue? (Faber, 2019) where many of the poems refuse easy constructs of a subjective self, particularly in an era obsessed with identity. A ‘Mary Sue’, in the language of fan fiction, is an idealised and implausibly flawless character, an identity that can only be held up as a measuring-stick to which all real lives fall short. Even as self and work are identified as inseparable, especially in women and writers-of-colour, stable, unified identities are impossible to maintain. Bernard voices this frustration: “There is an institutional obsession with single identities. We struggle to comprehend more complex narratives. ‘Woman’ or ‘black’ don’t say anything about someone.” The obsession with singular identities is degrading the quality of discussion; what was needed was more critical awareness of intersectionality, how identities are never fixed but in constant flux between agencies over which we sometimes have little control. “We can’t account for ‘variousness’ in our discussion of identity,” Longley cites Northern Irish poet Peter McDonald.[4]

Friday night’s headline poet, Anthony Anaxagorou, has experienced similar pigeonholing. The 2019 TS Eliot shortlistee fuses theory with anecdote in verse that is immediately palatable on the stage, while offering enough subtlety and mystery to dig deeper into a poem upon second and third reading. In ‘A Line of Simple Enquiry’, Brit-Cypriot Anaxagorou describes what many immigrants, children of migrants, and non-white Brits experience: the repeated question, “Where are you from?” – particularly when it is couched in false curiosity, in polite formalities:

“But where really? The taxonomy of difference, along with the need or entitlement to ask so politely, with one hand resting on the elbow, displaying caution, not wanting to infer, with emphasis on assume, as in to avoid causing offence […] your people, as in extraordinary, as in don’t take this the wrong way, as in don’t take this to heart, but it’s all so fascinating, an appreciation if you will”

And the poet’s reply to this not-so-polite encounter, a situation that combines casual racism with mansplaining and an assertion of power through touching the other person’s arm:

“but look, is this your attempt to bid me farewell in my tongue? Are you here to help carry the burden of my name? Are your hands strong enough to lug it? We all know the stuck fishbone never meant any harm. Is that your hand still on my elbow?”

Recent political developments, Brexit and the rise of racism and populism, form the backdrop to his 2019 collection After the Formalities. And as such, news snippets are the intertext to ‘Cause’, where the lines “to be British | is to be everywhere” clearly reference Theresa May’s much cited and debated claim at a Tory Party Conference 2016 during the Brexit negotiations that “if you believe you are a citizen of the world, you are a citizen of nowhere”. Yet Anaxagorou also offers a bit of a history lesson, right at the start of his reading, in explaining Cyprus’s past as part of the British Empire: in 1878, the Cyprus Convention, a secret agreement between the UK and the Ottoman Empire, granted the former control over the island. In 1914, Britain annexed the country until its independence in 1960, by which point the divide between Greek Cypriots and Turkish Cypriots had deepened and split the country in half. The British Empire used to stretch far and wide, so subsequently what it means to be British encompasses various forms of citizenship, heritage and identity.

Earlier in the same poem ‘Cause’, Anaxagorou invokes the language of prominent politicians, just to invert their political propaganda:[5]

         During empire
my people were subjects first
citizens later       once the vigilantes
managed to zip up their coats

         flames lambent

         my grandmother died with umbrellas
outstretched in her gut my grandmother

As reviewer Katie Mennis so poignantly analyses Anaxagorou’s use of the evocative “flames lambent” from Enoch Powell’s infamous ‘Rivers of Blood’ speech, “ Anaxagorou turns the words of politicians back to the service of a poetry that expresses, inquires into and accounts for, rather than incites”.

Anaxagorou concludes his reading with the title poem, ‘After the Formalities, half ballad, half treatise on race as a social construct. The history of racism is traced, chronologically, in short, italicised paragraphs, from Jacques de Brézé’s use of the word ‘race’ in 1481 “to distinguish between different groups of dogs”, via François de Bernier’s first division of humankind into races and Charles Darwin’s On the Origin of Species, to Enoch Powell and Nigel Farage. Each theoretical paragraph precedes a stanza telling a personal encounter with racism:

“Those whom the gods wish to destroy, they first make mad.
We must be mad, literally mad, as a nation to be permitting
the annual inflow of some 50,000 dependants, who are
for the most part the material of the future growth
of the immigrant-descended population.” – Enoch Powell, 1968.

After the formalities of course I said London
and of course he asked again. When I said Cyprus
he leaned into his chair recalling a family holiday.
The weather sublime. The people accommodating.
Particularly towards the English. How it was a shame
about the Turkish thing. And your parents. When did they enter
here? In the late ’50s I replied. So before the Immigrants Act?
Yes I said. Before. Well good for them. He said.
Putting the lid on his pen. Closing his pad.
Asking me to talk a bit more about my previous roles.

The poem is both accusing, and pointing the finger backwards: poets were integral to the propagation of the term ‘race’, and Scotland makes no exception. William Dunbar introduced the term “race” to the English dictionary in 1507.

Found in Translation

“Words” and “dictionaries” are an obvious segue into translation at StAnza, with ‘Poetry in Translation’ having become a strong recurrent theme at the festival, which since 2010 includes Border Crossings, a reading series that pairs poets writing in different languages, giving them a platform to share work in languages other than English. Since 2019, the strand Found in Translation has a particular focus on the act of translation itself – the same year that the RSL elected its first translators as Fellows, beginning with the 40 under 40 campaign. Combined with this year’s focus on Nordic and Gaelic languages, we were treated to a multilingual translation showcase on the Saturday afternoon of the festival. ‘Found in Translation’ brought together two Scottish poets, Lesley Harrison and poet-translator Juana Adcock, Norwegian poet Morten Langeland, and Swedish poet Ida Börjel, chaired by Norwegian translator and writer Rachel Rankin, who also provided the bridge translations between English and Norwegian. The participants were sent each other’s poems beforehand and then met to translate each other’s work. Rankin asks a burning question straight away: “How did you find the translation process?” Both Harrison and Langeland admit that they started of with what they thought were quite ‘literal’, ‘accurate’ versions, that is, with a translation which remained close to the words and syntax of the source poem. But then Harrison realised that “poetry is the aftermath of all the connotations a word has ever had”.

Langeland, after his initial idea that translation means sticking closely to the source text, subverted the immediate sense of Harrison’s poem ‘Auchmithie Blessing’, which begins: “May you lie across hills, like cloud shadow | May all your mornings be new | May sunlight grow towards you”. He changed the syntactical invocation of a prayer, “may you”, to the month of May, keeping the second person singular. May, Langeland, explains, is the month of hope in Norwegian, so the sentiment remains in the Norwegian translation. This approach, although appearing extreme, is not unusual. “I have different versions of Tranströmer”, Harrison shares, “and it is hard to imagine they’re both from the same source”. Since different translators will put emphasis on different aspects of the source poem, resulting in varying versions of an identical source text. Both poet-translators agreed to call their playful versions a “response”, rather than a translation – a label which also acknowledges that translation itself necessarily implies knowledge of (at least) two languages, and the necessary work translators put into acquiring their language skills.

For Juana Adcock, a poet and translator working in English and Spanish, the reader’s experience of a source text guides her translation, with the aim of reproducing the same effect. But she also admits: “I feel defensive when people say anything is a translation, because I do this for a living.” Her experience of translating poetry for this event differs somewhat from Harrison’s, who experienced the limitations of having to “force yourself into another voice”, which can be scary and uncomfortable, but also really enjoyable. For Adcock, poetry translation is somewhat easier than translating commercial texts, as the “poem can invite you to be more creative in your response.” And she does this to great effect: in her intralingual translation of an English-language poem by Swedish poet Ida Börjel, she reframes the point of view of the source poem, twisting it into her own “anarcho-feminist agenda”, that of a migrant freelance translator, which includes snippets from Italian workers’ protest folk song ‘Bella Ciao’. In this sabotage of a translation, “a certain humour makes dissipate the fear”. And Adcock found something in the English source text, written by a Swede, that was equivalent to her everyday in Scotland, though Scotland does not yet have a comparable manifesto for freelance workers. “It is exciting how poetry may play a role” in changing attitudes.

For the act of translation also changes the language into which a text is translated: “Translation is a reminder of how fragile language is”, Börjel says. In her experience of translating Adcock’s poem about a couple attempting to cross the Mexican-US border, she faced the effect of a multilingual English-Spanish source text, and had to confront her own translation politics: “Why and how you choose to translate is political.” But how do you render the conflict between English and Spanish a poem about the conflict between the US and Mexico, when translating it into Swedish: include Finnish or maybe Arabic, to mirror the geographical or social border through a linguistic separation? “How do you recreate conflict between languages that don’t have the same conflict?” Instead, she reads us a translation containing multiple versions, exemplifying the indecisiveness of the translator and the multiplicity of the source text. In answer to the question what the poet-translators found most challenging about the process, Börjel replies that it made her think about the borders we put, and how languages can function as hurdles or walls. “Meeting in a room can also be like a wall: it is scary, unknown. You start from scratch, but then this becomes a crack in the wall.”

The Poetry “Community”

Concluding the ‘On the Same Page’ event on Friday, Zoë Skoulding asks: “What are your thoughts on communities in poetry? What kinds of community-building are happening? Is there any hope?” All poets are hesitant to reply. Mahfouz makes a start, with a clear: “No. I have many poet-friends, but poetry as a community is so strange that I wouldn’t be able to continue to work in it. My community is more in theatre and other arts.” Collins agrees: “I have many poet-friends, but get suspicious of factions in poetry. It’s increasingly important to me to have friends in different art-forms.” The audience seems a little put aback by this seemingly negative assessment of the poetry community. Don’t “we” usually think of community as something to be part of, rely on, and strengthen? After initial hesitation, both acknowledge a positive aspect to the poetry community: wherever you go in the UK, there is a poetry group, and the poetry world is generally very supportive. Bernard’s reply makes the reluctance to fully praise the poetry community clear: “I avoid communities. To me, it’s a vaguely oppressive term.” Might it be a generational shift, seeing communities as oppressive and boxing you in? Or is it more a question of terminology, since all said that the “community” is supportive and they gravitate towards individuals in that art-form?

In the last few weeks, since the UK has entered into lockdown on 23rd March, many of us have come to feel the double-edged sword that is a “community”: social distancing rules mean becoming wary of other people coming too close, for fear of contracting or spreading Covid-19. At the same time, many of us long for connection with other people, and a number of events that would have taken place in shared spaces are now happening online, such as the fabulous Stay-at-Home! Literary Festival recently. Who knows where we’ll be at for StAnza 2021, so our hope is that this selective write-up may evoke nice memories in StAnza 2020 attendees, and also give food for thought on the role poets might, should or want to play in society.


[1]OK, Boomer!‘, BBC Radio 4

[2] “Trawl” is a collaboration between Caley, musician and bio acoustician Alex South, artist Steve Smart, and experts in marine science at the University of St Andrews including Ellen Garlan, Luke Rendell, Bernie McConnell and Richard Bates.

[3] Another such border-crossing installation was Astrid Jaekel’s artwork ‘Plastik (Kunst)’. The large-scale prints, depicting stylised waste and rubbish floating in the sea and arranged in pleasing patterns, is a response to 2018 StAnza performer Arne Rautenberg’s poem ‘ich erkläre den plastikmüll’, translated into English by Ken Cockburn as ‘I declare the plastic debris of the oceans’, in which Rautenberg declares the waste floating in the sea “to be art”.

[4] Mistaken Identities: Poetry and Northern Ireland (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1992)

[5] See Katie Mennis’ review of After the Formalities in the London Magazine, 3rd October 2019


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The Glasgow Review of Books (ISSN 2053-0560) is a review journal publishing short and long reviews, review essays and interviews, as well as translations, fiction, poetry, and visual art. We are interested in all forms of cultural practice and seek to incorporate more marginal, peripheral or neglected forms into our debates and discussions. We aim to foster discussion of work from small and specialised publishers and practitioners, and to maintain a focus on issues in and about translation. The review has a determinedly international approach, but is also a proud resident of Glasgow.

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