Monday 27 July 2009

'Two Golden Eagles' from The Treekeeper's Tale

This is Saykhan the golden eagle in the Tien Shan mountains near Almaty. He was heavy! My nose is red because it's minus 20 degrees. I was in Kazakhstan in January 2008 tutoring 28 Kazakh and Uzbek writers with Tobias Hill for the British Council's New Silk Road project, and on our day off I asked if we could go up into the mountains which tantalised from my hotel window. And there he was. For 200 tenge (80p) we could hold him for a pic. These creatures catch wolves! I tried to write a poem about what this felt like, in my latest book The Treekeeper's Tale, and the closest I got was to describe it as like falling in love, that shock of the other, with all the wonder and fear intermixed. The poem is in two parts:

Two Golden Eagles


Holding Saykhan is unexpected as meeting you
after all those years on my own.

Here in the Tien Shan where it’s minus twenty degrees,

with this sudden weight on my gauntlet,

I peer into tawny eyes, see the wolves he’s killed,

swooping onto their napes to knock them down.

If he draws blood he’ll attack but the glove

protects me from his talons and he bears

those jesses that bind him to me.

If he took off he’d lift me with him –

the way we rise into sheer air above the rolling steppe of our bed,

our wing-feathers icicles

while we glide through snow’s embroidered sheets,

our faces cataracts of light.


This time it’s you holding a female golden eagle

and I’m her, gripping your hand through the gauntlet,

my hood pulled off as if for the hunt.

You’ve propped me on your arm for a photo

where we’ll always be together.

You’ve noted my beak, my two-inch claws,

how piercing my eyesight is,

and how at home I am in this biting cold.

For the moment I trust you, even when

your fingers feel my wings, so that although tethered,

I start flying in my mind.

And when you follow on horseback to claim

my quarry, I let you believe it’s yours.

I wait until you allow me to feed.

Yes, the female golden eagle is larger and is the one used for wolf hunts. This photo is of the poet Dauren Kassenov who attended my workshops in Almaty and here he's at Nauryz, the Kazakh New Year festival in March, with his daughter, holding a female eagle. He had just taken part in the yearly traditional poetry battles with audiences of 25,000. Sounds like the Eisteddfod, which I used to sing in when I was a child, only much harder because these 'battles' are improvised. Two poets go on stage and have to answer each other's improvised poems. The audience decides who wins. Even scarier than holding an eagle!

Tuesday 21 July 2009

The Lost World Part Three

This is Autana Tepui in Venezuela's Lost World, a plateau sacred to the Pemons who consider it the stump of their tree of life. It's pierced by a cave-tunnel through which the sun's rays shine. I went to the Lost World in 1993 and 1995 and wish I could go back. So here I am instead trawling the web for images.

It's hard to think that I climbed Mount Roraima below in 1995. There's a 'ramp' I scrambled up on the other side. It was really hard for me to do this but once I'd dreamt of being up there sitting over the edge with my legs dangling into space I had to do it.

I flew low over the great plateau Auyantepuy once, it took ages as it's so vast. I think it's the closest I've come to visiting another planet, the terrain was so otherworldly, with its criss cross of canyons and gullies, its quartz valleys and cities of columns, its jasper creeks. I often dream I'm living up there and am so sorry to wake up and find I'm not.

So what was it like on one of those sky-islands? I felt like an intruder. The first thing that hits you is the quiet, and the way your voice bounces off the prehistoric rock formations then seems to echo out into space over the Gran Sabana and riverine jungles below, a line of cliff-bordered plateaus rising out of the mist. The surface is made up of the oldest rocks on the earth, eroded and twisted into monsters. There's cushions of carnivorous plants bordered by pink quartz sand, and rockpools inside rockpools, concentric circles of them. I bathed in one alone, away from the group, while they went searching for the oilbird cave, led by Pemon guides who got lost in the labyrinths and quagmires and had to return as the mother of all storms started up. Night was spent in 'El Hotel', tents pitched under an overhang, but it was impossible to sleep with the dinosaurs running rampage (their roars and lightning tongues). According to the Pemon we had talked too loudly on their 'Mother of all Waters' and stirred up the local dragon.

I've tried to write about the experience in my first collection Heart of a Deer (Enitharmon, 1998) which is out of print though there are some copies on and at the Poetry Book Society. As usual I'm not satisfied with the results. I'm writing a novel now, part set in Paris, part in the Lost World. Which has plunged me back into this hard-to-capture-in-words landscape.

Monday 13 July 2009

The International Literary Quarterly editor interviewed

The prestigious webzine The International Literary Quarterly has only published seven issues but has already established itself as a leading literary journal. It was founded by editor Peter Robertson and has a dazzling panel of consulting editors. Contributors have included Meena Alexander, George Szirtes, Irina Ratushinskaya, Gao Xingjian, W.N. Herbert, Mimi Khalvati and Marina Warner. Each issue features a guest artist, among these the fabulous Tom Phillips. Peter generously published five of my poems from What the Water Gave Me – Poems after Frida Kahlo in Issue 6 .

Peter Robertson was born in Glasgow and lives in London and Buenos Aires, having spent more than ten years in Latin America. He has published fiction, literary translation of Spanish and French authors, and critical articles. He was elected a Fellow of the Royal Society of Arts in 2007, and a Fellow of the Society of Antiquaries of Scotland in 2008. He launched The International Literary Quarterly in November 2007. Here he answers some questions about this exciting new publication and the context from which it has sprung.

Why did you start The International Literary Quarterly?

All of my decisions are dictated by instinct. I wanted to create an international review, a literary broad church that would shun any idea of ethnocentricity, that would carry both creative writing and more academic writing, that would break down distinctions I consider to be artificial, for example by bringing literature and the plastic arts closer together, and that would be a vehicle that would eventually publish literature in many different languages.

What did you edit before and why?

Before I founded Interlitq, I was an Associate Editor of Mad Hatters’ Review, a New-York based webzine. In that capacity, I conceived and edited two features for MHR: “Viva Caledonia”, a feature that showcased work by many Scottish writers alongside artwork by Calum Colvin; and the first part of “Eclectic England”. I had planned to do a second part for EE but, for a number of reasons, I decided to branch out alone and start my own literary review. Having pulled off the two features I mentioned, I believed I could be successful in such a venture. I had a clear vision of what I wanted a literary review to be and set about making it become a reality.

Why did you decide to edit an online magazine?

Because the Internet is not the future but is, in fact, the present. Its massive reach is such an advantage. Potentially, the review could come to be read by vast numbers. One of our priorities as I speak is to build up our readership which is increasing every day. My overriding objective is to ensure that the best literature is made available to an ever greater percentage of the reading public all over the world. It is heartening to know that, if we publish, say, a story in the review, it could be read by many thousands while, in many paper publications, it would only be read by hundreds. I know that there are those dissenting voices who still find Internet publication anathema but it seems to me that such a position is more and more out of touch.

How did Interlitq get so high quality and so international so quickly?

Thank you for your kind words, Pascale. I have worked very hard and continue to do so. As I mentioned before, the review’s particular brief was to be international and I approached authors, who might prove to be potential contributors, from many different continents. Also, once Issue 8 comes out in August, the review will have over sixty distinguished Consulting Editors and, once again, these editors reflect a rich diversity of different cultures. With regard to quality, that is what I have always aimed for and, I assure you, our standard will not go down.

What are you after in submissions?

Fluid, intelligent, original and trenchant writing, whether this be prose, poetry or literary criticism.

What is life like in Buenos Aires and can you tell me more about the literary life there?

After ten years here I doubt I can be objective as I guess I’m quite “Argentinized”. It’s a process that’s bound to happen whether one wants it to or not. For all his remorseless intelligence, and limpid yet strenuous prose, I think that Naipaul is slightly severe when he says, with regard to Argentina, in his essay “The Return of Eva Peron”, “if you can live there you can live anywhere”. Mind you, I can see what he is getting at as this country is very far from being stable, either in political or economic terms, and there is still a tendency to authoritarianism and machismo. I believe that anyone spending a significant amount of time here will see beyond the decadent facades of the once-elegant avenues and perceive that this is not a diluted European culture but essentially a Latin American country. On this note, and taking certain of these considerations into account, Huntington, in his magisterial book, “The Clash of Civilizations”, does not consider Argentina to be “the West”.

With regard to literary life here, while I do know some Argentine writers, it is strangely the case that my links with Chile happen to be much stronger. I visit Chile, a country I feel passionately about, whenever I can, and I will in fact be back there soon, and, as I say, I know a great many writers and publishers there. As it happens, I have been working as the Translations Editor on an anthology of Chilean literature, to be edited by Marjorie Agosín, and which I expect will be published sometime in 2010. I would hazard that, at least as far as prose is concerned, in general terms Chilean writing is more precise and concrete, less concerned with abstraction and the labyrinthine. I wonder if this is due to the fact that, in cultural terms, English influence is stronger in Chile whereas in Argentina French aesthetic models are held up as the ideal.

Sunday 5 July 2009

Poems from What the Water Gave Me – Poems after Frida Kahlo

My next collection is called What the Water Gave Me – Poems after Frida Kahlo, to be published by Seren in May 2010. I've more or less finished it, just tinkering with a few last poems and editing the manuscript. It's taken me ten years to write, around other collections, and I've really enjoyed it. I trained as a visual artist so it's been like slipping into that previous alter-ego. Her range is quite narrow, mainly self-portraits, and that's been a challenge I've relished, while being aware of needing to make enough variety in the poems so they are hopefully distinct from each other. A few of the poems are fairly close representations of the paintings but most I think of as versions or parallels (as if I were painting my own after hers), and some of her paintings are represented by several poems. There are six versions of the title poem 'What the Water Gave Me'.

I'm sometimes asked why I write about Frida and how it all started. When I was at the Royal College of Art studying for my sculpture MA, a visiting Fellow said my studio reminded him of the Blue House and had I seen it, did I know her work. I didn't really, just one or two paintings. We weren't taught about women artists then, but I investigated her and felt an affinity. I'd been making lifesize transparent women out of epoxy resin and fibreglass and clear embedding resin casts of women with thorns and birds embedded inside them, iridescent metallic beetles on their wombs.

After I wrote
The Zoo Father (my second collection) I wanted to write poems about sex but couldn't see how to. Then I looked at her painting 'Self-Portrait with Thorn Necklace and Hummingbird' and that's what I started to do, in her voice, except the sex was merged with the accident she had suffered as a teenager when a tramcar crashed into her bus and a handrail pierced her back and exited through her vagina. That accident pierced her whole life. I went to the Blue House several times and wrote 14 poems which are in The Wounded Deer published by Smith Doorstop in 2005. I didn't know about the planned Frida Kahlo exhibition
at Tate Modern then but was invited to do a launch reading in the gallery which was a once-in-a-lifetime experience, reading next to her paintings.

I didn't expect to write any more Frida poems but a few years later another cluster emerged, then more. I thought I'd be lucky to have thirty but now there are around fifty. Like
The Zoo Father, the poems came in twos or threes a day when they came. One of my favourite paintings is 'The Wounded Deer' or 'The Little Deer'.

I've written two poems about this. The first 'The Wounded Deer', which is the title poem of my pamphlet, is a fairly close interpretation of the painting:

The Wounded Deer

I have a woman’s face
but I’m a little stag,

because I had the balls

to come this far into the forest,

to where the trees are broken.

The nine points of my antlers

have battled

with the nine arrows in my hide.

I can hear the bone-saw

in the ocean on the horizon.

I emerged from the waters

of the Hospital for Special Surgery.

It had deep blue under-rooms.

And once, when I opened my eyes

too quickly after the graft,

I could see right through

all the glass ceilings,

up to where lightning forked

across the New York sky

like the antlers of sky-deer,

rain arrowing the herd.

Small and dainty as I am

I escaped into this canvas,

where I look back at you

in your steel corset, painting

the last splash on my hoof.

But the later poem, 'The Little Deer' plays more with the deer as nahual (Aztec alter ego) idea I think. I wrote it very fast one evening just as I was getting up from my chair and drinking a glass of wine before cooking (perhaps the only poem I've written under the influence!). The first lines came into my head with a certain feeling about wanting to write a poem about all illness. It's in the current issue of Poetry Review which is a fantastic issue full of juicy poems so I'm very pleased to see it there.

The Little Deer

Little deer, I’ve stuffed all the world’s diseases inside you.

Your veins are thorns

and the good cells are lost in the deep dark woods

of your organs.

As for your spine, those cirrus-thin vertebrae

evaporate when the sun comes out.

Little deer too delicate for daylight,

your coat of hailstones is an icepack on my fever.

Are you thirsty?

Rest your muzzle against the wardrobe mirror

and drink my reflection –
the room pools and rivers about us

but no one comes

to stop my bed from sliding down your throat.