Saturday 19 May 2012

Chateau Ventenac poetry course 2012

Minerve on the Gorge du Cesse (see tiny people on the dry riverbed)

One of my top places in the world is the Languedoc Roussillon in the south of France, so teaching a poetry course there is a dream. Last week, for six days, eleven poets joined me at Chateau Ventenac for Making Worlds, my third course at the Chateau. They came from London, Palm Springs, LA, Colorado, Stafford and Herefordshire. We spent the mornings in creative workshops, the afternoons free (though everyone had two tutorials with me so I was busy), and in the evenings there were writing games and readings. Unlike Arvon courses we were catered for – the meals were exquisite.

It was during the afternoon tutorials, while we sat under the awning by the pool on the bottom terrace, that a nightingale perched over us and sang. I knew instantly that it was the bird in Keats' ode (the poem that switched me onto poetry when I was a teenager). The notes sounded like gurgles blown in glass, breaking through to our world from another dimension – they were piercing and ecstatic. The next day he returned and sang for longer. Justina wrote that it was "like a star running down your throat". The phrase is one from a series of lines from cosmological myths that I supplied the first evening, for them to incorporate into a short poem.

I also brought along a hoard of surreal contemporary art cards to kick-start poems, and animal fact-files which I bought from Oxfam, meant for children, but those have the most fascinating facts! These included info about the hoopoe, who also sang for us regularly, pipistrelles, which swooped over the veranda each evening, the grass snake, hares and owls. Inside each file I'd inserted another sheet about myths associated with each animal. The prompt was to write a poem which included some biological facts about the creature (handed out to everyone at random), which somehow resonated, some mythological aspect, and something personal (as well as free-associations). Perhaps the poet wished to tackle a difficult subject they could dress in an animal mask. One of the examples we discussed before starting was Joy Harjo's poem 'She Had Some Horses'. They could also try her use of repetition and hypnotic chant to build momentum.

On the third writing morning we changed tack and stopped using images and texts to generate poems, and instead went for a walk along the Canal du Midi, with the golden rule that although they could chat en route to the Pont-Canal two kilometres away, they had to be silent on the return. The process was to be like the contrast between Gauguin and Van Gogh's working methods: Gauguin painting from his imagination (as we had been doing indoors so far) and Van Gogh from direct observation outdoors. The group could respond to one object along the way back through
all eight senses, paying close attention to it.

Midway through the week, we had a day off and went to the medieval Cathars cité of Minerve, which leans over the intersection of two limestone gorges: the Cesse and the Brian. After a leisurely lunch in the Troubadour restaurant overlooking the gorge we wound down to the stony bed, hoping we could wade through the cave which connects the two almost-dry rivers, to a secluded valley the other side, but the water was too deep. So they explored the limestone cliffs and listened to the birds. I sat on a bank and read work for the following day's tutorials in this idyllic setting. Next year's course will also be in May, and I've already bagged my tutorial space down by the 'nightingale' bush.

 Taking notes along the Canal du Midi on Wednesday morning

 At the seventeenth century Canal-Pont, the first built in France, where the canal crosses a river

 The cave tunnel between the two gorges below Minerve

 From left to right: Maria Elena Boekemeyer, Stephen Linsteadt and Lois P Jones on the gorge bed at Minerve

 The Canal du Midi

 Moi in front of the bridge over the Cesse Gorge, entrance to Minerve

 Katrina Naomi with matching shutters and door at 1, La Caunette, another medieval village by Minerve

Apéritifs on the terrace each evening

 Writing game with the drinks!

 On the last evening a few locals and some of our helpers came to the reading by the group. Here is Jinny Fisher reading two of her poems from the week. Everyone read work written on the course. Next to Jinny is Julia Bristow (owner of the Chateau), Philip, Susan, Mary and Justina

 The residents of the canal. There were also otters and ducklings.

Justina Hart and Carl Burness on the terrace

Monday 7 May 2012

Metamorphoses Translation Workshop in Algiers April 2012

Just before I landed in Algiers I could see the Kabylie Mountains hovering above the coast. They have a special significance for me because my father lived there for a few years, during the thirty-five years of his disappearance. He told me he stayed there with his best friend, in the mountains, and he loved it. Before he disappeared, when I was still living in Paris with my parents, they ran a brasserie and beer business just by the Jardin des Plantes, and their customers were mainly Algerians. This was in the late fifties. Later I was told my father was part Algerian, but it turns out that was probably a myth. I had been to Tunisia and Morocco but I always wanted to go to Algeria. So when the British Council invited me to take part in a translation project (organised by them and EUNIC) I leapt at the opportunity. Even though getting the business visa was a lengthy, fiddly process made even harder by my French passport having Israeli stamps on it. Initially, I was invited in March for nine days, then that was postponed and shortened to a flying visit of five days in April.

At the three-day Metamorphoses workshop I worked with two groups. One translated two of my poems into Arabic and the other translated the same two poems, 'The Strait-Jackets' and 'What the Water Gave Me (VI)' into French. Each group was composed of translation or interpretation students and was led by a professional interpreter/translator. The Arabic moderator, Lotfi Zekraoui, had flown in from New York, where he is on a Fulbright scholarship at Cuny but he is from a nearby city. The French moderator was Walid Grine, son of one of the Algerian writers joining me on the project.

We only had three days to work in and I was disappointed I did not get to translate Algerian writers, especially as during the final event we all heard everyone's work (inlcuding translations into French) and I was very impressed by a short story by the novelist/poet Mostafa Fassi. The subject of the story was a wartime incident, but what impressed me was the immaculate description of a very moving scene, so moving that the moment he started to read the original in Arabic, his lead translator Malika Benbouza began silently weeping, even though she was on the stage. I heard other stories about living through wartime and under terrorism from the students as well and gained just a glimpse of what it means to be Algerian.

I was also impressed by how hard the students worked. I don't think my poems have ever been put under such intense scrutiny. One of the translation issues that came up with each of the four writers and our translators was religion and how to translate one set of references from one faith into another. I became acutely aware of the Catholic iconography in my Frida Kahlo poem, including an ascension and a reference to Saint Sebastian (Kahlo's rain of thorns). The students pondered: how does this metamorphose into the Islamic faith? There was also an issue for the Arabic students that they didn't know what hummingbirds were, since they are only a New World species.

My hotel was at the top of the hillside Algiers is built on, in the Embassy district, so, as we wound down in the car each day, round the narrow zigzags to our art centre just above the port, I tried to take photos. But this soon proved unwise, as police were everywhere and they did not like cameras, especially when the presidential convoy was about. Although there was little opportunity to take pics, we took our coffee breaks on a veranda at the art centre, and most of the photos here are taken from there. On the second evening I was going to go to the Casbah but came down with food poisoning and acute sick/dizziness. I missed the tourist spot but did get an insight into emergency healthcare, which is free and instant. The hotel, which was not a grand tourist one, provided a driver for free as well, to take me to the clinic. This was just one example of Algerian warmth and kindness. On the last evening, after our readings and public discussions, I was accompanied by Amina (from the BC) and Lotfi on a walk downtown. It was quite intimidating, as there were only men about and no tourists.

 I hope the translation project continues and that British poets get a chance to get acquainted with Algerian writers and culture.
If I can I hope to translate that short story by Mostafa. As the plane rose, I managed to take a photo of the Kabylie Mountains and I thought about my father living up there, probably under one of his many different names, and I warmed to him in his mountain home, remembering how fondly he had spoken of it before he died, and of the hospitality of his friends there.

 The port and harbour in Algiers

 Algiers La Blanche

 The French team, from left to right: Amina, Walid (moderator), Asma and Soltani

 The Arabic team, from left to right: Farouk, Aicha, Lotfi (moderator), Nabil


 The post office

 view down to the port

 lunch break with Lotfi and Nabil

 after the last event with discussions and debates, two teams, with Jeremy Jacobson, Director of Algerian British Council

The mountains from the air

Saturday 5 May 2012

Poetry from Art online anthology 2012, at Tate Modern

Alighiero e Boetti Mappa (Map) 1989 Embroidery on fabric 227.7 × 117.5 cm
Poetry from Art online anthology 2012

Edited by Pascale Petit

The anthology of poems by the poets who attended my Poetry from Art course at Tate Modern this spring is now up on the Tate website. (My next course Shaping Poems: Image-Making, starts on 11th June). Here is the foreword to the spring anthology by Sandra Sykorova, assistant curator of adult programmes:

For over six years now, our Adult Programmes team has worked with the award-winning poet Pascale Petit on a range of poetry writing public courses inspired by works of art in our collections displays and temporary exhibitions. This online anthology is the creative outcome of the Poetry from Art: Starting Poems – Writing course that ran over six Monday evenings at Tate Modern in February and March 2012. 

Twenty-one course participants, from all walks of life, had the opportunity to explore and directly respond to works of art by Alighiero Boetti, Yayoi Kusama and Catherine Yass.

In their encounters with often challenging artworks, the participants discovered new thoughts and experiences that spoke directly to them. We are delighted to share these poems with you. 

The next poetry course begins on 11 June 2012 and you can find more details and book here.