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Contemporary British Poetry

Pascale Petit is a French/Welsh poet who lives in London. She has published four books of poetry and was twice short-listed for TS Eliot Prize. She has been Poetry Editor of Poetry London and Poet in Residence for the Guardian. Her second and third collections, The Huntress and The Zoo Father, were Books of the Year in the Times Literary Supplement. Pascale has been selected as one of the Next Generation Poets. Her poems are translated into many languages including Russian. For Russian lovers of poetry she is quite a new author. A Russian poet and a translator Elena Shatskikh is interviewing the poet to find out more about her views on poetry.
Here is the interview.

Pascale, you have published four prize-winning collections and have been twice short-listed for the TS Eliot Prize. What can you say about modern British poetry? What is it like today as compared to the traditional verse of the 19th and the first half of the 20th century?
Contemporary British poetry is in a state of flux. It is wonderfully lively, rich and various and becoming less purely “English”. More immigrant authors are being published now, which I welcome. Britain is a multicultural society, at least in its cities, and I think London (where I live) may be the most multicultural capital of the world. Although it is still hard for Asian, Afro-Caribbean and other minority cultures to get recognition, a few months ago, Daljit Nagra, a young Punjabi poet born in London, launched his debut collection to huge critical acclaim. At heart, British poetry is rather conservative, but that’s changing. One of the main developments since the mid 20th century is that at least half of published poets are now women. It’s only in the last ten years that women poets have really flourished, thanks to such presses as Bloodaxe Books, where the editor Neil Astley made a point of publishing women. Apart from the effect of immigrant cultures, American poetry is an influence, generating more open and expansive verse. British poetry can be rather realist, sticking slavishly to the quotidian, but there are a few surrealists about, like Selima Hill and Jo Shapcott. Lately there’s been a surge in nature writing, encouraged in part by our anxiety about climate change.

You have been Poetry Editor of Poetry London. What are the general criteria for selecting new authors for Poetry London? Are there any restrictions in age, sex or race? Do you publish poets of non-English origin who write in English?
I was co-founder of Poetry London and Poetry Editor for fifteen years up until 2005 when I decided to leave. Generally, Poetry London is looking for the most exciting poems being written in English, from the UK, and from wider afield. It also publishes some work in translation. There are no restrictions in age, sex, or race. I can’t speak for the current editor, but when I was editor I purposefully published a lot of poets from out of the UK, both in English and in translation, in an attempt to widen the canon. My aim was to be international, and introduce British readers to poets from other countries.

Being a founding tutor of The Poetry School in London, could you tell us, what kinds of people write lyrics today? Are they of different professional background, religions and political views? Why do they come to The Poetry School and what do they expect from this course?
The students who attend the school come from all kinds of backgrounds; there is no barrier to anyone. The students on my current course include a Jamaican, a Bangladeshi, an East Asian, two Irish and one Welsh poet. I don’t know what their political views are because I only teach one ten-week course a year and there are thousands of students in the school. We don’t ask them their politics! More women than men attend. There is a range of courses so they have a variety of expectations: some may just want to learn about form, others may not have English degrees and may wish to widen their knowledge of past poets or world poets. Most simply want to improve their craft by attending workshops. The course I teach is Towards a Collection, which is for people who are fairly advanced and are thinking of putting a first collection together. I give them practical guidance on all aspects of getting their manuscript publishable, from editing poems, to titling, ordering a book, and submitting to a publisher.

You teach the eight-week course Image-making: New Poetry from Great Art at Tate Modern. What is the purpose of this course and its outcome? In what way can modern art influence modern poetry? And how would you define modern art?
We work in the galleries each Monday evening when the Tate is closed to the public. It’s a great privilege to be able to do this. I set writing exercises based on the pictures, sculptures and installations around us and the class write poems inspired by them. Anyone can join, beginners to advanced poets, though the group size is limited to twenty, which is large for a poetry group. Tate Modern is going to publish some of the poems that have emerged from my first two courses online. Some evenings are based in the permanent surrealist collection Poetry and Dream, among pictures and sculptures by Ernst, Magritte, Dali, Leonor Fini, Dorothea Tanning et al. In the collection Material Gestures (abstract expressionism etc) there’s the Rothko Room, and elsewhere two Joseph Beuys rooms: these have inspired exciting poems. The installation by Susan Hiller ‘After the Freud Museum’ with her anthropological objects and mementoes displayed in cardboard boxes is also a great stimulus.

Writing poems from art may benefit poets by improving their image-making skills. One thing art does provide for students is that they don’t have to start a poem from a blank page. Perhaps even more importantly, the art offers imagery they wouldn’t normally use, a new approach to writing out of their ‘comfort zone’, and this almost always leads to more surprising, fresher work.
I was originally an artist and write poems from the visual arts myself (I trained as a sculptor at the Royal College of Art). I’m currently finishing a book of poems based on Frida Kahlo’s paintings, which my publisher Seren plans to publish with the paintings next year. I can say how modern art has influenced my poetry, as I expect it’s different for everyone: I try to be an image-maker with words. When I’m making a poem I feel I am still working as a sculptor, manipulating imagery like materials, and am very aware of the shape and form of my images, of my poems wanting to be containers, like Keats’ ‘Ode to a Grecian Urn’. I see the urn with the pageant painted on is surface and it’s as if the Ode’s lines curve around the urn form – that’s what I’m after, that precise shaping. I think of my poems as objects, sometimes doubled. For example, in ‘Self-Portrait as a Warao Violin’ from my second book The Zoo Father, where the poem’s subject is a violin of the Warao indigenes of the Orinoco Delta, and this violin is also a child’s body. I frequently use this technique of superimposing two objects (in this case the violin and me), rather like the surrealist’s ‘unexpected meeting, on a dissection table, of a sewing-machine and an umbrella’ (André Breton).

I can’t define modern art; I can only guess what art/poetry is for me. I wanted to be a poet when I first read Keats and wanted to create those “two-and thirty Pallaces” in the mind which he described in a letter, his spider weaving an ‘airy citadel’ in his imagination. Every good poem I write adds a new room in my head.

Being a French/Welsh poet living in the UK, what can you say about contemporary Welsh poetry? Is it written in Welsh or in English or it is bilingual? Is it integrated into British poetry or does it stand aside? In your opinion, which Welsh poets have made great progress in developing national literary traditions?
Contemporary Welsh poetry is written in Welsh, English and bilingually. I learnt Welsh at school when I was a child but I’ve forgotten it now. There are Welsh poets who write only in Welsh; some do not wish to be translated into English. They are not well known in England but in Wales there is a thriving poetic community centred round the annual bardic festival – the Eisteddfod. Many write in strict Welsh metres. Welsh poets who write in English are better known. Gwyneth Lewis was Wales’ first National Poet; she writes Welsh and English collections. Menna Elfyn writes only in Welsh but her books are bilingual. Robert Minhinnick and Gillian Clarke, as far as I know, only write in English, but their Welshness is visible in their work. You can sense the sonorous cadences of Welsh metre behind it, and an expansive and deep love of nature and myth that’s quite distinct from English poetry. And there’s a whole younger generation now: Owen Sheers, Kathryn Gray, Samantha Wynne-Rhydderch to name three. Earlier poets such as Dylan Thomas and R.S. Thomas are very well known, and Dylan Thomas has a huge following in America where Welsh is studied as an endangered language in universities

Poetry has always been an exclusive domain. Poets are creatures with their nerves tensely strung - vibrating and sensitive. What is like it to be a poet in the UK these days? Do people read books of poetry and are they ready to invest in them? Or do they prefer to watch video films and play computer games in their free time?
It’s a lot of fun to be a poet here now, but not much money in it. It seems to me that far more people want to be famous poets than read poetry books! It is difficult to sell poetry and yes it is an exclusive art, despite much effort to make it more popular. I don’t know what it’s like in Russia. There are all kinds of related activities poets do here as well as writing to earn an income. Some teach on MA creative-writing courses, some work freelance like myself, doing countless readings, talks, and tutoring. Some also write novels to make income for their poetry. We are very lucky to have the Arts Council to which artists can apply for funding to finish books. In general, the middle class reading public invests in fiction. Poetry is seen to be esoteric and difficult, which it usually isn’t, but that’s how it’s perceived outside the poetry world, probably because it’s taught badly at school.

As a Russian interviewer I am greatly interested in your views on Russian literature. Are Russian lyrics popular in Britain today? What magazines or newspapers introduce modern Russian poets to British public?
Russian literature is very highly regarded in Britain. Silver Age poets are revered, thanks to some wonderful translators – Elaine Feinstein’s translations of Tsvetayeva for example. When I think of Russian poetry (and my knowledge is extremely limited) I hear her reading Tsvetayeva’s ‘An Attempt at Jealousy’. I have the impression, reading Tsvetayeva and Akhmatova, that Russian poetry is more passionate, electrically charged, more emotional and direct than British poetry. Elena Shvarts is a fascinating poet. I enjoy her visionary, vibrant imagery. She is quite different from any British poet, not restrained by realism. I am looking forward to Birdsong on the Seabed (what a title!), from Bloodaxe next year, (translated by Sasha Dugdale). I loved Paradise.

The journal Modern Poetry in Translation has introduced Russian poetry to many readers. The current editors David and Helen Constantine feature many Russian poets. The previous editor Daniel Weissbort devoted an entire issue to contemporary Russian women poets in 1992, and this led to An Anthology of Contemporary Russian Women Poets (edited by Valentina Polukhina and Daniel Wessbort) in 2005 from Carcanet. There was also a successful promotion tour of Russian women poets to celebrate the anthology. Poetry London reviews books of Russian poets in translation and I remember publishing Marina Boroditskaya, translated by Ruth Fainlight, in Poetry London then.

Cross-cultural dialogue has always been a means of communication as well as a means of better understanding through poetry, prose and art. With this in view, could you please say a few words about translators and translations? What qualities should one possess to make a good translation and what does “a good translation” mean for you? How close to the original can a translator be and what factors determine the process of translating poetry?
I recently took part in a translation project called ‘Poet to Poet’, in China and Scotland. The idea behind it was that four UK poets translated six Chinese poets and were translated by them, not using any literal translation, but through a poet-to-poet dialogue. This was talking through the poem line by line, chatting about its context and discussing its aims, images and form, often through an interpreter. I translated three Chinese poets – Yang Lian, Zhou Zan and Zhai Yongming – without any knowledge of Mandarin. What I wanted in my translations was to recreate the original through my ability as a poet, and in the end it had to work as a good poem in English – that for me is a good translation. I tried to be as faithful as I could to the original (as far as it had been explained to me), and in the case of poets who spoke some English – Yang Lian and Zhou Zan – we talked through individual words in considerable depth. However, I occasionally changed the meaning for the sake of the poem working in English, even once adding a line where a Chinese reference would have been baffling to readers.
I have also written a version of the long poem ‘The Boy Changed into a Stag Cries Out at the Gate of Secrets’ by the Hungarian poet Ferenc Juhász, and in this case I would call it more of a metamorphosis of the original as I changed it considerably. I found the process of writing a version liberating, as I could use his different approach and voice to write about my relationship with my mother. This is the central poem in my last collection The Huntress. I will include some of my translations from the Chinese in The Treekeeper’s Tale, my next collection, out next spring.

Thank you for interviewing me Elena. I appreciate the work that must have gone into translating my poems and feel very honoured that you did that.

I have translated a number of your poems and I can confess that it was not an easy task, but the excitement has fully overcome the difficulties. Thank you very much for speaking for Russian readers who are eager to learn more about you and your views on modern poetry in the UK.

Pascale Petit,
5 June 2007



Eye level with her blue-white face,
I fall into the green throat at the centre,
down silk corridors to a hushed ward
where I’m back at Mother’s bedside.
She whispers to me through closed lips
the texture of ghost orchids.
Her last breath
drifts out into the cool swamp air
of the Fakahatchee night
draws billowing hieroglyphs
to summon the great sphinx moth -
who appeared like a god
hovering in front of the bloom,
his wings a thunderous whirr.
He uncoils his six-inch tongue.
It arches out slow-motion, then darts
into the ghost’s long narrow nectary -
as if my mother is having all her words sucked out.



Поравнявшись с бело-синим лицом,
я падаю в центр зелёного горла,
вниз по шелковым коридорам
обратно в чрево матери, как в камеру.
Не разжимая губ, она мне шепчет
про строение безлистной орхидеи.
Её последний вздох,
подхваченный холодным воздухом
болота Факахат,1
рисует волнообразные иероглифы,
чтобы вызвать большую бабочку-сфинкса,
которая появилась, как бог,
зависая напротив цветка,
её крылья оглушительно хлопают.
Она разворачивает длинный язык.
Он медленно выпрямляется, затем вонзается в длинный узкий нектарник –
как если б из матери высосали все слова.


Like Cortes, I found her monstrous
and would have preferred
to bury her in the cathedral crypt.
But she was my mother,
as much a victim as a devourer.
When I reached puberty
and I moved into her house,
and for five years dusted
the skull rack and the flint knives,
and sat on her bed while she showed me
scenes from her previous life
carved into the soles of her feet,
and the scars seeping blue-green blood
that proved she was divine -
I never touched her basalt breast
or kissed her serpent lips.


Она ужасна, как конкистадор Кортес,
Я предпочла б её похоронить
под полом мрачного собора.
Она была одновременно мамой,
и пожирателем и жертвой.
Когда я перестала быть ребёнком,
я переехала к ней в дом,
где чистила ножи пять лет
и протирала пыль с подставки,
сидела на её кровати и смотрела,
как жизнь изрезала её подошвы ног
безжалостным резцом, оставив шрамы,
из них текла зелёно-голубая кровь,
доказывая, что она святая –
её базальтовой груди я не касалась
и никогда змеиных губ не целовала.



How simple it is: day knocks
And somebody opens, the shutter opens in
And in come light and warmth together
as one and the same
And where she stands
Is neither a circle of privacy
Nor the arena of a performance
But only a small round mat for her feet
on the cold tiles
While under an empty mirror
She bows to the water lifted in her hands
And sideways on her sunlight comes
in from the garden
And on her back there is a man’s admiration
You will say it is only a picture, another nude
But I say it has been that simple:
Jug, basin, washstand, towel and chair
The plain nouns, a woman at a meeting place
Of warm sunlight and loving admiration
And easy feeling both.



Как это просто: новый день пришёл,
Рука поднимет штору, впустит свет,
И он прольётся солнцем и теплом.
Она стоит не в свете от софита,
Направленного сверху на подмостки.
И круглый островок на кафельном полу -
Всего лишь коврик под её ногами.

Она нагнулась, чтоб умыть лицо,
И зеркало лишилось отраженья,
Поток косых лучей из сада падает на бедра.
Прекрасны линии её спины!

Всего лишь зарисовка, скажешь ты,
Фигура обнаженной в интерьере,
Но я в простых вещах – в кувшине, стуле,
И в полотенце – вижу смысл иной:
Свиданье женщины со светом и теплом
И полным восхищенья взглядом.

1 Безлистные орхидеи Флориды растут на болоте Факахат.
2 Coatlicue – ancient earth and mother goddess Aztec, 14-16th century

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