Now more than ever, in the face of racism and xenophobia – and especially on this island which has recently isolated itself in the name of imagined historical ‘greatness’ – we need to talk to each other in as many languages as possible. And it’s fun! Earlier this year I took part in an online discussion led by Jasmina Bolfek-Radovani with Zoë Skoulding and David Caddy. We savoured the multilingualism all around us: from Shakespeare to 21st century migrations and beyond. And while the subjects which multilingual writers tackle may be deadly serious there is an element of playfulness when different languages and codes – including queer codes, class codes etc – and translations (faithful or wilfully subversive) are involved.

Poetry translation is not for the fainthearted! I’ve translated some Polish poetry and co-translated from the Slovene. It’s incredibly hard – as well as exhilarating, absorbing – work. Translators (still) don’t get nearly as much credit as they should. Often they aren’t even named on the covers of books. Yet without translators the world is a narrow place. For any writer translation is the most precious gift – a magic ticket into another language, entry to a different culture, another world.

I’m especially thankful to three writer-translators, Anna Błasiak, Frej Haar and Iulia Brînzan who have tackled a poem from my recent book The True Story of Cowboy Hat and Ingénue (Cinnamon Press) in Polish, Swedish and Romanian. They’ve generously done it for the sheer craic. I asked them to translate this poem as it has been a readers’ favourite from the book. Not that you should have favourites – it makes the other poems jealous…

Here’s a quadrilingual collage of the poem. The different language versions follow separately.

Un urs se plimbă peo bicicletă în jurul pieței. Nosi czerwony kaszkiet, a na szyi ma tabliczkę z imieniem. Wyraźnymi literami jest na niej napisane: Mitt namn är Pimpo – TaDitt Livs Åktur!“ Bak på cykeln är en liten vagn påhängd. De spatele bicicletei e atașat un cărucior. Fem, sex barn åt gången kan klättra upp i vagnen för att tas runt stånden och in på en av gatorna som omringar marknaden. Na widok niedźwiedzia każdy dzieciak o tym marzy. The parents find themselves walking over to the trainer, a man with a face so tattooed, som röker den ena cherooten efter den andre, tuggar på ändarna och spottar ut dem. ‘Tre’ să întrebați ursul,’ le spune și trage un lanț la gâtul ursului. Niedźwiedź potakuje swoją wielką, brązową głową. Dzieci gramolą się do środka, po czym, ku przerażeniu rodziców, mężczyzna pociąga jeszcze raz za łańcuch i wypuszcza go z rąk. Ursul pornește de unul singur, copiii țipând de încântare. Jag trodde sådant här var olagligt, säger Ingénue. Inte häromkring, Nu și pe aici, mormăie, mamrocze pod nosem, muttrar Cowboy Hat.

En varm dag koło południa, gdy straganiarze zaczynają już składać swoje kosze, a jeden z drugim ogłaszają ostatnie przeceny dnia na niesprzedane pomidory, pigwę, indyki i jamon, gdy nad tym wszystkim kołują muchy, sätter Pimpo i väg på ännu en tur runt torget, vedea basca roșie a ursului disparând după un colț. Părinții are waiting to wave a greeting to the children. Man ser björnens röda keps försvinna runt ett hörn. Föräldrarna väntar på att vinka barnen välkomna tillbaka. De söker efter mannen med kedjan men han syns inte till. En säljare, packandes lådor med citroner, rycker på axlarna och pekar mot närmaste bar. Adulții se împart în două grupuri și aleargă în fiecare capăt al străzii ale po niedźwiedziu na rowerze nie ma już śladu, ursul care se plimba pe bicicletă, men den cyklande björnen, but the bear riding a bicycle has gone, a dispărut, nie ma już śladu, är borta.

The Translations:

Swedish

En björn cyklar runt på torget. Den bär en röd gubbkeps och en namnbricka dinglar från dess hals. Med feta bokstäver står det: Mitt namn är Pimpo – TaDitt Livs Åktur!Bak på cykeln är en liten vagn påhängd. Fem, sex barn åt gången kan klättra upp i vagnen för att tas runt stånden och in på en av gatorna som omringar marknaden. Vartenda barn som ser björnen tigger om en åktur. Föräldrarna kommer på sig själva gåendes över till dressören, en man med ett ansikte så tatuerat att man knappt ser hans ögon, som röker den ena cherooten efter den andre, tuggar på ändarna och spottar ut dem. Du måste fråga björnen, säger han och drar i en kedja runt björnens hals. När han gör det så nickar björnen på sitt enorma, bruna huvud. Barnen hoppar upp och till föräldrarnas förfäran ger mannen kedjan ett sista ryck och släpper sedan taget. Björnen cyklar i väg för egen maskin, barnen tjuter förtjust. Jag trodde sådant här var olagligt, myślałam, że takie rzeczy są zakazane, säger Ingénue. Inte häromkring,muttrar Cowboy Hat.

En varm dag, omkring mitt på dagen, just när torghandlarna börjar packa ihop sina korgar, en eller två utropandes en sista prissänkning på osålda tomater, kvitten, kalkoner och jamon, och då flugorna hänger över allting, sätter Pimpo i väg på ännu en tur runt torget. Man ser björnens röda keps försvinna runt ett hörn. Föräldrarna väntar på att vinka barnen välkomna tillbaka. De söker efter mannen med kedjan men han syns inte till. En säljare, packandes lådor med citroner, rycker på axlarna och pekar mot närmaste bar. De vuxna delar upp sig i två grupper och springer ned vardera änden av gatan som omringar torget men den cyklande björnen är borta.

Translated by Frej Haar

Romanian

Un urs se plimbă peo bicicletă în jurul pieței. Poartă o bască roșie și un ecuson cu numele îi atârnă de gât. Scrie cu litere mari: Numele meu este Pimpo – Să Ai Plimbarea Vieții Tale! De spatele bicicletei e atașat un cărucior. Cinci sau șase copii deodată sau un adult cu mai mulți bebeluși se pot urca în cărucior pentru a fi plimbați printre tarabe și pe una dintre străzile care înconjoară piața. Orice copil care vede ursul imploră pentru o plimbare. Părinții se trezesc mergând spre dresor, un bărbat cu o față atât de tatuată încât abia îi poți vedea ochii, care fumează un trabuc după altul, mestecând capetele și scuipându-le. ‘Tre’ să întrebați ursul,’ le spune și trage un lanț la gâtul ursului. În timp ce face asta, ursul dă din capul lui imens si maro. Copiii se urcă și spre stupoarea părinților bărbatul mai smucește o dată lanțul iar apoi îi dă drumul. Ursul pornește de unul singur, copiii țipând de încântare. Credeam ca lucurile de genul ăsta sunt ilegale, spune Ingénue. Nu și pe aici, mormăie Cowboy Hat.

Într-o zi toridă pe la prânz, în timp ce negustorii abia încep să își strângă coșurile, unul sau doi strigă o ultimă scădere a prețurilor la roșiile, gutuile, curcanul și jamon-ul nevândute, și când musculițele zboară peste toate lucrurile, Pimpo pornește într-o altă plimbare în jurul pieței. Poți vedea basca roșie a ursului disparând după un colț. Părinții așteaptă să le facă cu mâna la întâmpinare copiilor. Se uită după bărbatul cu lanțul, dar nu e de văzut. Un negustor care împacheta lădițe cu lămâi, ridică din umeri și arată spre cel mai apropiat bar. Adulții se împart în două grupuri și aleargă în fiecare capăt al străzii care înconjoară strada însă ursul care se plimba pe bicicletă a dispărut.

Translated by Iulia Brînzan

Polish

Niedźwiedź krąży na rowerze dookoła rynku. Nosi czerwony kaszkiet, a na szyi ma tabliczkę z imieniem. Wyraźnymi literami jest na niej napisane: “Na imię mam Pimpo – wybierz się na niezapomnianą przejażdżkę!” Rower ma z tyłu małą przyczepkę. Może się w niej zmieścić piątka lub szóstka dzieci i pojechać dookoła straganów, skręcić w którąś z uliczek otaczających rynek. Na widok niedźwiedzia każdy dzieciak o tym marzy. Rodziców nogi już niosą w stronę tresera, mężczyzny z twarzą tak gęsto pokrytą tatuażami, że prawie nie widać mu oczu, który pali jednego cheroota za drugim, żuje ich końcówki i je wypluwa. Trzeba zapytać niedźwiedzia, odpowiada i szarpie za łańcuch, który zwierzę ma na szyi. Niedźwiedź potakuje swoją wielką, brązową głową. Dzieci gramolą się do środka, po czym, ku przerażeniu rodziców, mężczyzna pociąga jeszcze raz za łańcuch i wypuszcza go z rąk. Niedźwiedź odjeżdża bez nadzoru, a dzieci piszczą z radości. Myślałam, że takie rzeczy są zakazane, mówi Ingénue. Tutaj jest inaczej, mamrocze pod nosem Cowboy Hat.

Pewnego upalnego dnia, koło południa, gdy straganiarze zaczynają już składać swoje kosze, a jeden z drugim ogłaszają ostatnie przeceny dnia na niesprzedane pomidory, pigwę, indyki i jamon, gdy nad tym wszystkim kołują muchy, Pimpo rozpoczyna właśnie kolejną przejażdżkę dookoła placu. Czerwony kaszkiet niedźwiedzia znika za rogiem. Rodzice czekają, żeby pomachać do dzieci. Rozglądają się za mężczyzną z łańcuchem, ale nigdzie go nie widać. Któryś ze sprzedawców, zajęty pakowaniem skrzynek pełnych cytryn, wzrusza ramionami i wskazuje na najbliższy bar. Dorośli dzielą się na dwie grupy i z dwóch stron obiegają plac, ale po niedźwiedziu na rowerze nie ma już śladu.

Translated by Anna Błasiak and first published in Babiniec Literacki.

My original:

A bear is riding a bicycle around the market square. It wears a red flat cap and a name tag dangles from its neck. In bold letters it says: My name is Pimpo – Have the Ride of Your Life! Attached to the back of the bike is a little cart. Five or six children at a time can climb onto the cart to be taken round the stalls and into one of the streets which circle the market. Every child who sees the bear begs for a ride. The parents find themselves walking over to the trainer, a man with a face so tattooed you can hardly see his eyes, who smokes one cheroot after another, chewing the ends and spitting them out. You gotta ask the bear, he says and tugs a chain on the bear’s neck. As he does so the bear nods its huge, brown head. The children climb on and to the parents’ dismay the man gives the chain one last yank and then lets go. The bear rides off by itself, the children squealing with delight. I thought this kind of thing was illegal, says Ingénue. Not around here, mutters Cowboy Hat.

One hot day, around noon, just as the market traders are starting to pack up their baskets, one or two calling out a last drop in prices on unsold tomatoes, quinces, turkeys and jamon, and as the flies hover over everything, Pimpo sets off another ride round the square. You can see the bear’s red cap disappearing round a corner. The parents are waiting to wave a greeting to the children. They look for the man with the chain but he is nowhere to be seen. A stall-holder, packing up crates of lemons, shrugs and points to the nearest bar. The adults split into two groups and run down either end of the street which circles the square but the bear riding a bicycle has gone.

There are words I have to be physically restrained from overusing. Polish – like Greek (which I’ll come back to in a minute) – carries many diminutives. Admittedly some are saccharine euphemisms employed when being coy about a subject like money say, though that’s less usual. Sometimes they are humorous, ironic, like a favourite of mine “depresyjka” (little depression). Often they are tender. They suggest too the miniature world of the supernatural (as a parallel I think of the Little People in Irish culture) and of children. I’ve had to accept that you can’t say “little” in poems in English without sounding sentimental. But “small’, also with a joyously double letter in it, is irresistible to me.

Nevertheless I did wonder about using “small” in the title of my new book. My hesitation was to do with the way that women’s experiences – and the experiences of marginalised people – are minimised or trivialised. But at the same time I wanted to include the so called ‘minor’, the everyday, the countless borders we cross, journeys we make, those things which aren’t considered heroic. And to beg the question of what is and is not considered ‘major’.

The first word of Homer’s Odyssey in the original Greek text is “andra”, which means “man.”  So for a woman to use the word “odyssey” as a title seemed a good idea. “Oddysey” itself has come to mean a long or epic journey, full of adventures, changes in fortune, where many things happen. All poetry books could be called oddyseys in fact…There’s debate among scholars as to the origins of the meaning of Oddyseus’ name, but there are suggestions of anger or lamentation, perhaps even of perishing or being lost. That worked for me!

Titles are very, very important. Sometimes we know what they will be straight away. Other times they are a last-minute panic. We go over and over our manuscript, racking our brains. I have to thank Moniza Alvi, that wonderful and generous poet, for nudging me towards the choice of mine fairly early on in the writing of this book. Even then, I did have some last minute panics…A title can serve many functions, as summary when it does what it says on the tin, as illumination when it draws our attention to a detail or phrase within a book highlighting it to shift and deepen our understanding, or as broadening of perspective, when it takes us further outside the parameters of a book, at a tangent or onto a different scale, another context. The title of my new book is Small Odysseys. I will have to leave it to readers to decide whether or how the title works.

But have I managed to finish this mini-series of blogposts about finishing the writing of a book? Reader, I’m just not sure…

Photograph of tulips in Warsaw with thanks to Jola Scicińska

Moniza Alvi’s most recent book is Blackbird, Bye Bye from Bloodaxe

Small Odysseys is forthcoming from Waterloo Press

Novelists (on the intense NANOWRIMO* ) say it’s either pantsing (flying by the seat of your pants) or planning (chapters, flowcharts, timelines etc).

Mimi Khalvati * first taught me to read poetry collections from beginning to end and study the underlying structure, which I found immensely helpful. But many readers prefer to dip in and out of a poetry book (and enjoy precisely that, instead of reading a novel, say, in a linear way). Does that matter? Not at all. It’s still worth all the behind the scenes work of structuring a collection and readers do benefit without necessarily realising. The best art appears artless.

But in response to Part 1 of these blogs the Swedish writer Louise Halvardsson commented about messing up the order she sets up. A timely reminder: Art needs to get messy.

Having previously written two books where I’d mapped out beginning, middle and end from the start, writing my new book, Small Odysseys felt different. I didn’t know where I was going. What was this book going to be ‘about’ – if poetry books are ‘about’ something. I had to go on my nerve and I had to keep going. It turned out my narrator needed to be baffled, perturbed, uncertain. Bewildered the way a child might be. But also bewildered as an adult. Getting lost was my process and turned out to be an essential part of my journey.

I asked innovative poet and friend Janet Sutherland who is currently in the process of finishing her new, fifth poetry collection about this messy stage. Her thoughts were uncannily similar to what I felt finishing Small Oddysseys. Uncannily so but maybe not surprisingly. And a relief to know I wasn’t the only one. Janet says:

“The new collection I’m working on feels more recalcitrant than my last two*. The Messenger House, will be a hybrid affair (a new way of working for me) with two sets of journals, one my own and two from the 1840’s written by my great great grandfather. I had no fixed idea until recently of how they might fit together and how poems would fit into the mix along with a forward, notes, and other historical documents.  I am gradually inching my way towards a shape.

I used to think of the manuscript as uncomfortably loose and baggy. I felt lost and doubted that I could find a way to move forward with it although I had lots of the elements already written. That lost feeling is useful though, it leads to experimentation, to trying things that might work, to opening out. The process of editing is exciting – the trick is to re-frame “being lost” and redesignate it as “going exploring”. Putting the different parts together into a single document helped me to think through how they might split apart and be juxtaposed, and writing a forward helped me to think systematically of the manuscript as a whole. There are still elements I’m struggling towards, poems that are just an itch at the moment and which occupy my mind when I’m walking or gardening or edging towards sleep.”

I happen to know Janet is a dab hand at editing documents. When I was finishing Small Odysseys the floor was so strewn with printed out pages of manuscript walking became hazardous. Shuffled, reshuffled, rearranged again.

There are lots of great guides about how to edit an individual poem, from beginnings and endings, to pace, diction or imagery. In a way the same things apply to a whole book – you can think of it as one whole poem. It takes time. Sometimes you just don’t know if your poem – or book – is ‘there yet’ and you have to put it aside, then start editing again.

All poets will tell you that you, your controlling authorial self, (ego?) have to get out of the way to let your poetry through. Visual artists talk about following the line to see where it leads and it’s the same kind of thing. If you are lucky, after a few sentences (paragraphs/stanzas/ pages… and pages) you suddenly think ‘oh, so that’s what I wanted to say’. Which is why it’s so important to write even when we don’t feel like it, or when the Muse seems far away, busy bestowing her gifts on everyone else…

Often we don’t know what we think or feel until we have written it. Similarly I didn’t know where this blog post was going when I started it and now I realise there’s more I want to tell you about writing Small Odysseys so I hope you will read Part 3!

*National Novel Writing Month

*Mimi Khalvati founded the Poetry School. Her most recent, sublime collection is Afterwardness published by Carcanet.

*Janet Sutherland’s last two books were: Bone Monkey and Home Farm published by Shearsman.

Small Odysseys by Maria Jastrzębska is forthcoming later this year from Waterloo Press.

Susan Wicks says it’s like making pastry, you just keep adding flour and water till you get the consistency right. She was speaking at the Bloodaxe launch of her amazing recent book Dear Crane along with Tiffany Atkinson, Aoife Lyall and Fleur Adcock also launching fabulous new work. Tiffany Atkinson was modest about her own process yet her stunning new book Lumen shows how much work and craft has gone in to it. Everyone agreed each book you write is different.

Certainly you have to push through your own doubts – oscillating between despair (no one will want to read this, it’s the worst rubbish I’ve ever written!) and ecstasy (this is brilliant, it’s my best work ever!) in varying proportions.

In the past finishing for me meant collecting together what I’d been writing and sorting everything into ‘keep’ ‘maybe’ and ‘whaaat?/noooo!’ piles (again strangely interchangeable) and then a search for order and relationship between the poems – curating as everything is called these days. Poems can be linked by theme, form, tone, imagery, sound etc. Do you group similars together for a cumulative effect or do you separate them, sprinkling in a leitmotif throughout? Often it’s an intuitive process.

But my last two books have both had clear overarching structures. Which meant writing towards something. Right from the start of At the Library of Memories, published by Waterloo Press, I had an idea of the entire book. Although the flesh of it changed over the years (sic) of writing it, the bare bones never did. All along I had in mind an imaginary building which the reader/someone would enter at the beginning, wander through and then leave at the end – or perhaps they’d never leave at all. I knew there would be rooms containing shelves, forgotten items, questions. Initially there were more staff working in this library but as the memories themselves grew in numbers of characters (mostly human, adults and children, but also some animals such as the wolves or the jackal) the staff – or guides – faded away. But there was always a beginning, a middle and an end, even if I wasn’t completely sure what would fill them. Ultimately it divided into eight areas with the Foyer at the very start, the Room of Dying as the penultimate section, FAQ, rooms of Coughing, Smells, An Interior Garden in between and so on.

At different stages I showed the new work to trusted readers. When they all agreed and when their feedback resonated with my own feelings about what needed doing it was bliss. When they didn’t I plunged into indecisiveness and despaired of ever finishing the book. Everything took longer than I thought. Luckily I know some fantastic fellow poets and mentors without whom I don’t see how I’d ever finish anything.

Even then some themes only become apparent after publication. In At the Library for instance I only realised as I was doing readings from it how central the notion of breath was.

The True Story of Cowboy Hat and Ingénue, published by Liquorice Fish/ Cinnamon Press, also very soon grew into an entire book length concept or in fact poem. Unlike other collections its characters were completely fictional and they had their own narrative which provided the foundations for the book. Again I knew the ending from the very start. There wasn’t an overall frame as with At the Library but there was an underlying story – and countless backstories – which provided the drive behind everything.

You can see I am mixing metaphors without a care here! We started with pastry and I have moved from flesh and bones into architecture and now some kind of engine – clearly I find my own process impossible to pin down.

During the writing, I travelled and many of the landscapes and places I visited found their way into the writing. Roughly speaking in the book Ingénue enters a community of outcasts and falls in love with Cowboy Hat. Both women go on a quest to find Cowboy Hat’s daughter but their story is interwoven with the stories of many other characters (also with their own stories) some their contemporaries, some not, (drag queen, children, a nun, brothel keeper, soldiers, Bearded Lady, bear etc). Most are refugees of some kind, fleeing war and oppression. I didn’t write the book in a linear way, though I had storylines in the back of my mind. When it came to piece it together the structure was not linear either, darting back and forth through time and space – fitting together more like patchwork (sorry!) although it is a ‘journey’ or quest book. A cross between an epic and a spaghetti Western as a friend described it…

And now it’s my great pleasure to tell you I have a new book coming out from Waterloo Press this year called Small Odysseys. As someone who grew up between cultures borders have always fascinated me. Reading back, the theme of journeys, whether inwards or outwards, is clearly there in all my work. In that respect this new book then is no different. But its process – and content – has been entirely different. More about that in another, later post…

Excuses, excuses, I could give you any number of excuses, some even rock solid like recent poor health, for why I’ve not been writing. I can’t remember how long it’s been since my last blog, (echoes of “it’s been X days/weeks since my last confession”…)

For some writers (artists, people generally) the pandemic has contributed to them being more prolific than ever, for others of us it’s just the opposite. Some vital nourishment along with the expansiveness/alternative perspective of travel is lacking. For others too increased workloads or teaching online have crushed creativity. Am I the only writer worrying I haven’t yet put a face mask in a poem? My references to Covid 19 are so oblique readers can be forgiven if they miss them. My new book (more about that in another post, promise) was written before the pandemic and while I finished editing it in last year’s lockdown (and the space of cancelled events did help) it felt wrong to try and stick something in just to appear relevant. And of course, the pandemic is not the only thing that has been happening, globally or locally.

If I haven’t been writing much, I have certainly been thinking. There have been events, albeit online, which I’m lucky enough to have been part of and which have provided some of that crucial nourishment for me, and for others I am certain. February 2021 saw a wealth of fantastic of festivals for LGBTQ+ History Month including Coast is Queer – if you missed it events were recorded and can be accessed online, Queer in Brighton focussed on friendship and Lambeth Libraries LGBTQ+ History Month event Pride & Prejudice in Poland shone a light on what is happening in Poland where those in power have condoned and incited outright hatred against LGBTQ+ people, while dismantling women’s rights and democratic process. At this event we were asking ourselves what we do as writers in the face of such oppression. Anna Błasiak felt an urgency to respond, confront – it had changed her to want to write more openly, explicitly as a queer writer. Jacek Dehnel saw the work of literature as a longer project. What was happening currently would not be successfully addressed or reflected upon until some time later, for now the most creative responses were appearing in graffiti, slogans and banners at demonstrations. I am somewhere in the middle. The present situation in Poland has thrown me back to a state of mind I remember where I wanted to come out continually and drape myself in badges or flags, anything, just to be visible. In terms of getting my work translated into Polish my priority has been for the explicitly lesbian or LGBTQ poems to appear – helped here by Anna. But in my current work while I feel the pull of that urgency (anger, dismay, sorrow…) to confront what is happening I also feel the other pull of following what the non-‘authorial’, less conscious voice has to say and to explore where that takes me which is not always immediately apparent or relevant in an obvious way. Emily Dickinson told us to tell ‘all the Truth’ but to tell it ‘slant’ and I find myself coming back to that again.

What a year it’s been… A global pandemic, which has not, as British/US leaders claimed created anything like a level playing field, we know. On the contrary, divisions of gender, race and class, along with regional postcodes have made all the difference to people’s experience and survival. In the UK racism and xenophobia were already on the increase thanks to Brexiteer scaremongering these last few years; even police estimates of attacks show this. With the pandemic there is increased domestic violence. 

 

What Black people – in America and everywhere in the world – have for years been telling white people about institutional racism and police violence finally received more media attention – it remains to be seen what real change will happen. But along with the increase of hatred – my Polish homeland introducing ‘zones’, ‘cleansed’ of LGBTQ+ people, and even further curbing women’s reproductive rights, while wrecking the judicial system and constitution – there has been a surge of rebellion, from Black Lives Matter to the Women’s Strikes with their lightning bolt symbol all over Poland, to XR protest about climate change and the earth being destroyed in the name of greed and profit. Not just the same (mostly older) people campaigning – young people, courageous and imaginative, all over the world have been leading the way and that gives me so much hope. 

As we approach Winter Solstice here, the year turns and you can’t help looking back over it. I thought I’d write a lot more posts but that didn’t happen somehow – though a new book is finished. Nor did I learn a new language or develop baking skills…But in Brighton more people than usual have taken to sea swimming and I have joined in. For the first time EVER in my life I’ve swum in the sea in December – with my partner and a few dear friends!! I never thought I could do it. Yes, it is cold. And exhilarating! A wonderful relief from too much screen time, too much thinking, worrying.

I asked my partner what she hoped for in the world in 2021 and her first thought was kindness. I agree: kindness to ourselves and one another and to our environment. But without change on the global/societal level will we be saying the same things a year on? I hope not. Let’s keep swimming – and fighting any way we can.

It begins in childhood. Outright lies or more subtle, unspoken messages about Black people, people of colour – which are used to justify prejudice, discrimination, apartheid, genocide. Growing up they didn’t make sense: how could the colour of someone’s skin make them a bad or lesser person? It seemed to me I had things in common with other children who were ‘different’, in my mainly English and white school, since I myself was a foreigner. But I was very young and had little way of making sense of the world and I wanted to believe the adults.

In the (then more recent) past, there was World War 2, the Holocaust, which had been so much about racial hatred, against Jews, Romani people, Slavs as well as about hatred for LGBT people, trade unionists, dissidents. How could people not make the links? I grew up in a white immigrant community in London, where mostly – sadly – people struggling with prejudice themselves felt better by looking down on other immigrants, especially people of colour. Luckily I met other people figuring this out, understanding what we’d been fed as children, working out how it all links up to divide everyone by race and gender and class.

At times it feels like it’s getting worse, plus we’re still mid-pandemic  – but the recent protests world-wide after the death of George Floyd, yet another Black person murdered by the police bring some hope. I remember years back how moved I was seeing a group of police for the first time in the Pride parade in Brighton after years of seeing them at their worst (Grunwicks, Lewisham etc for those of my generation). There have been moments like that recently with police in the USA taking a knee and joining protesters, with a slave trader’s statue being toppled in the the U.K, vigils and protests, signs in windows, messages of support.

The worst thing about being bullied is when people around you either don’t see it happening in the first place or turn away when they do, perhaps feeling too scared to stand up for you. But it makes SO much difference when we stand up for one another! If you are a person of colour reading this I simply want to say Black Lives Matter. If you are a white person, it’s not up to me to tell you what you should do – I just want to encourage you to do something, however small, however clumsy or embarassed you feel, because it’s up to us to end racism. And if you are Polish: nie dajmy sie nienawiści i głupocie! Solidarność jest cenna!

Fridays

 

 

The big shop –

I helped carry the bags

which left my hands stinging,

red stripes across the palms.

 

Sometimes she’d leave me

by the check out,

while she dashed back

for something she’d forgotten.

 

As the queue inched forward

I’d stop breathing:

what if she didn’t get back in time

what would I say to the cashier?

 

But this time we were together

when another woman slipped in front of us.

My mother wasn’t going to let that happen,

complained loudly.

 

The woman shouted back :

Bloody foreigners  go back where you came from

and everyone looked down into their baskets

till we stepped back.

Bladdifor aynerr.

The grown ups would pass this word

between them like a novelty,

scoffing – something to get used to

 

like soggy sausages or smog.

I refused to go there again,

so my mother went on her own,

each week carrying all the bags home.

 

That is a poem I once wrote about growing up in the England, having arrived from Poland in the late 1950’s.

Today, in the light of the UK government’s recent decision to isolate itself from its own continent and connections and given the racism and xenophobia which the campaign to leave so cynically stirred up and exploited causing an increase in attacks on migrants both European and non-European – prejudice and hatred don’t follow any real logic – I’ve been thinking about those times.

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Home Coming by Colin Grant (Jonathan Cape 2019)

I was reminded of them too listening to writer Colin Grant and photographer Howard Grey talking about ‘The Lost Images of the Windrush Generation’ at a Lewes Live Literature event recently. A welcome surprise at the event was the truly wonderful poet Grace Nichols’ reading of her poem inspired by the images. Colin Grant spoke so eloquently about the voices of that generation, while Howard Grey’s stunning, miraculously recovered, photographs showed the hopefulness on the faces of people arriving in the U.K from the West Indies. The scandal of how Black people of that generation were then treated in 2018 which continues with deportations on this very day, along with the creation of a ‘hostile environment policy’ by the government only adds to the poignancy of the images and stories.

Growing up there was much racism and sexism, but I was hopeful we could overcome it.  I’m still proud of the movements and organisations which I played only a very small part in but which my generation created. As a young Pole I was inspired by the work of people of colour who first coined terms like Black British. It made me feel Britain could be multi-racial, multi-cultural, inclusive, welcoming – where someone like me could be Polish British, somewhere that could be called home. Looking around today it seems unbelievable that after all those struggles we are where we are now. That feels very hard. After January 31st in the UK so many friends were in tears. We know what backward steps are being taken.

But I don’t think the answer is to berate ourselves with failure. Clearly we made/make mistakes – the terrible fragmentation not least. But I’m proud of the way my generation looked – still looks – at the world in collective terms, looks past our own individual or immediate concerns. I’m proud of alliances forged –  for example feminists and lesbians (among others) supporting the miners’ strikes of the 1980’s or fighting for contraception and abortion rights, proud that we Rocked against Racism and poked fun at gender stereotypes. Thatcherism has since destroyed so much of that way of thinking – of ourselves as part of a much bigger ‘we’. So it’s good to remember, reconnect.

What we’re up against is huge. It makes us feel small and helpless. Luckily there are both younger and older people who continue to stand up for the different, kinder, inclusive world we’ve always wanted and still want, yearn for, believe in. Looking around me : we may be hurting, but I don’t see any of us giving up.

So as, post-Brexit, we’re being told languages other than English won’t be tolerated…I’m especially pleased to be involved in a Polish/English as well as queer live literature production touring this very month, starting this week: Feb 13th, 18th, 20th , 21st and 22nd! You can find all the details here:

https://snowqproject.wordpress.com

 

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I’m also delighted to be compering a Brighton evening with 3 amazing poets, Seni Seneviratne, Sea Sharp and Naomi Foyle on Feb 19th:

https://www.facebook.com/events/473369793338434/

and on Feb 14th in Brighton too reading Love Poems:

https://www.eventbrite.co.uk/e/love-poems-14-feb-tickets-90122098623

 

Fridays was originally published in Everyday Angels (Waterloo Press)

Poczet 1By a happy coincidence, the Polish paper Gazeta Wyborcza  published Olga Tokarczuk’s Nobel laureate lecture in full the day I was flying back from Warsaw so I could read it on the way home. Home is of course the key word here. I recommend reading the lecture in full.

https://www.nobelprize.org/prizes/literature/2018/tokarczuk/104871-lecture-english/

Here’s why:Npx28ks0R42BYo%5mgnllw

On journeys between Poland and the U.K I can’t help thinking about the notion of home and belonging.  This year my partner and I fitted in a last minute, crazy weekend in the run up to Christmas to catch up with family and friends, which made everything more poignant. The lights were switched on while we were there, showering the city centre in shimmering gold, and my partner was bemused asking if anyone – anyone at all? – was planning to eat traditional karp at Wigilia (the main celebration on the 24th). (No one actually likes this fish was the answer.)

FlsPRPnrRpOG3HJnHvnwawSo where do I belong?  I was born in Warsaw but have lived practically all my life in the U.K. I’m writing this on the eve of a British election where the media have been championing right wing politicians hell-bent both on severing the U.K from its own continent and destroying the things I most value here: Britain’s openness and diversity, its not for profit NHS health service, its democratic institutions. These are cynical politicians who will happily plunge this country deeper into austerity and ignore climate change as they themselves will be immune anyway. And then there is my first homeland: 80 towns have been declared “LGBTQ-free” zones. (My civil partnership is not recognised, needless to say.) The constitution and judiciary are being demolished and undermined daily. And yet at the Ujazdowski Castle for Contemporary Arts in Warsaw we saw The Power of Secrets an exhibition by Karol Radziszewski & friends along with the Queer Archives Institute, interviews with artists & activists & a queer portrait gallery through Polish history.  There is talk of change. There is always hope.

I’m a Polish poet writing in English. I don’t sound Polish. I don’t feel English. But then sometimes I don’t feel Polish either. I’m like lots of ‘between’ people. I was schooled here to be lamentably ignorant of European (including Polish) – let alone world – poetry and culture. I’m also a queer poet though at times the LGBTQ literary community struggles to recognise that, since I write about war as much as love and my stories are not straight-forward coming out tales…My most recent collection The True Story of Cowboy Hat and Ingénue (Cinnamon/ Liquorice Fish Press) is a non-linear, cross-genre, lesbian love story interwoven with the stories of other outcasts and refugees, set in a Hispanic context of war. I mention identities because they shape how a person is seen but they are not exhaustive. Poetry is not necessarily ‘about’ one thing or another. Elsewhere I’ve written about being a fish out of water. Whose literary tradition do I belong to?

And then I’m on a plane flying from Warsaw Chopin to Heathrow London and reading Olga Tokarczuk’s speech. I’m not one for grand ceremonies but there is such a humility and such an openness in the way she speaks. And she is talking about literature striving for a ‘tender narrator’, a ‘fourth-person narrator’, which I find so exciting, about the need to:

‘drop the definition of “national literatures,” knowing as we do that the universe of literature is a single thing, like the idea of unus mundus, a  common psychological reality in which our human experience is united. The Author and the Reader perform equivalent roles, the former by  dint of creating, the latter by making a constant interpretation’.

It’s really worth reading her speech in its entirety as it makes better sense than any quotes or soundbites I can give you.nzKi+pecQKyVJOkqL4FF9w

For here is a Polish writer who speaks of ‘tenderness’ in literature:

‘Tenderness is spontaneous and disinterested; it goes far beyond empathetic fellow feeling. Instead it is the conscious, though perhaps slightly   melancholy, common sharing of fate. Tenderness is deep emotional concern about another being, its fragility, its unique nature, and its lack of   immunity to suffering and the effects of time. Tenderness perceives the bonds that connect us, the similarities and sameness between us. It is a way of looking that shows the world as being alive, living, interconnected, cooperating with, and codependent on itself.’

And suddenly I feel that my small contribution, my own work is a step on the right road at the very least. Olga Tokarczuk has articulated so well the things I’m reaching for. Here is a writer speaking my language, in all senses of the word. Decrying greed and prejudice and violence. Ridiculously, I feel she is speaking to me personally. Not that she’s the only one. Olga Tokarczuk would be the first to acknowledge there are many people behind her/with her. Not just writers or artists. But all the many people – my friends and family in Poland among them – who in countless ways, big or tiny, are making change.  Thousands of feet (or metres) in the air between Warsaw and London I feel I have a place. I’m home.AMpRpMIHQr2JWd31Ew8TWQ

Now that the wonderful, honest, open-hearted, open-minded and talented Polish writer, Olga Tokarczuk, has won the Nobel prize, we can rest easy. I needn’t worry that I haven’t and will not now win this prize since it is in such good hands.

Is that the end of my ambition? Maybe not quite.  If I were to be appointed Minister for Language Affairs – unlikely you may think, but you have to be prepared just in case –  I already have a few ideas. Of course poetry (and poetry translation obviously) would occupy a very different place in the world, in education and in the cultural pecking order. Poets would be issued with free coffee vouchers, fêted wherever they went; poetry would receive priority funding on a scale hitherto unknown before – no more back of a pub and pay for your sandwich jobs, red carpet only for us poets. Shallow you say? In my programme world leaders would exchange poems at summits! That’s not all.  I would encourage the use of some words (for instance: dark, silver, blueberry, bear…) but forcibly prohibit others. A fuller list of the (many) desirable words I leave to your imagination. Favourite words you say secretly to yourself, over-use in your speech and writing. But some phrases would be banned. End of story.  I can be ruthlessly uncompromising.

Let me give you an example:

I’m in a supermarket and I get chatting to another shopper and we both start complaining about the (ENORMOUS) amount of plastic packaging wrapped around almost everything in the shop despite people campaigning for this to change.  The supermarket has made promises but not delivered on them yet. Oh well, says my new friend and sighs, that’s just how it is.  Can you hear the ministerial announcement booming through the supermarket loudspeakers? NOOOOOOO!! DON’T SAY THAT!  don’t give up in resignation bellows the voice, pleads the voice, caresses and sings the voice. A choral piece with flashing (low emission) lights, unicorns, scents wafting, music to suit every taste, balloons, poetry (naturally) and dancers who lift the shopper on their shoulders and carry them off to a place so heavenly (for a while, all due health & safety adhered to etc) that this person never ever utters those words that’s just how it is again…

IMG_9635As it was, I did my best to cheer them up and encourage them not to feel resigned, ground down, powerless, discouraged, defeated.  Because that’s what’s getting to us. That sense that whatever we do is irrelevant and won’t make any difference. How much more effectively could I have intervened with full ministerial powers at my disposal!

4e397985-97e9-47f6-8dc8-6e92e7fb87cdIf appointed Oh well… is one of the key phrases I’m going to ban in the English language, currently used in the UK when people just want to give up in the face of the political circus played out on both the very small and the very large scale around them as this country courts disaster.  This disillusionment, this sense of helplessness would be tackled by my ministry.  So I’m just putting it out there. I have been very busy lately – hopefully more about that in other posts or on the link below – but if anyone is thinking of appointing a Minister for Language Affairs, I humbly offer myself as candidate.

 

https://snowqproject.wordpress.com/2019/11/20/hurray-we-have-good-news/