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We’ve had some fantastic television here in the U.K celebrating 50 years since the start of the decriminalisation of male homosexuality in 1967, (for instance: Patrick Gales’s Man in the Orange Shirt, Daisy Asquith’s Queerama.) It took decades to fully remove these vicious laws, the same ones which had put Oscar Wilde and countless other men behind bars and which were used to terrorise and humiliate so many others. As George Montague – the ‘oldest gay in Brighton’ – has made clear: it’s not a pardon from government that is now needed it’s an apology.

But – and, with notable exceptions, it’s an immense but – what of women, lesbian and bisexual…female homosexuals, gay women, dykes… throughout these last 50 years? Again and again our lives are ‘hidden from history’*. Did Queen Victoria really say “women do not do such things” and refuse to include women in the legislation vilifying gay men? Or was it male MPs not wanting to put ideas in women’s heads? (More likely.) Anyway, the silence surrounding lesbianism speaks volumes about social attitudes to all women’s sexuality. Those of us who have been around these last 50 years have countless stories still to tell, silences to break. No space here to go into the madonna-whore bind which all women have struggled with; suffice to say women’s sexuality has been defined for decades purely in relation to men. Not surprisingly then the 6th demand of the Women’s Liberation movement passed at the conference in Edinburgh in 1974 was two-fold. It included : The right to a self-defined sexuality and an end to discrimination against lesbians. The oppression of lesbians was always at the heart of all women’s oppression. Lesbian was the ‘accusation’ – unbelievably it still often is – levelled at any women who spoke up or stepped out of line, at groups of women getting together, acting autonomously.

As someone who became an activist in the seventies, I find it hard now to convey both how afraid we were and at the same time how hopeful of changing the world, how euphoric at challenging stereotypes. While huge gains have been made there is still so far to go, not least in the current political climates and with backlashes across the world.

The system of patriarchy squeezes everyone into a female or male stereotype. (Again unbelievably in the 21st century, one quick look at clothes for toddlers, sharply divided into tough camoflauge v fluffy pink, says it all). Lesbians, gay men, bisexual, transgender, intersex or queer people don’t fit neatly into that system. That makes us ‘other’ (which means lesser) and since women are already other lesbians are doubly so. The wisest of gay men saw that they needed to make common cause with women. The hatred aimed at gay men for being somehow ‘feminine’ was part and parcel of misogyny and of the division into ‘real men’ and ‘real women’ with all the inequality that implied. Gay liberation and women’s liberation cannot be separate. You just can’t have one without the other. At best we feminists saw how intertwined all oppressions are, how class and race and gender divisions work like clockwork together and that we had to look beyond our own particular struggles to those of people world-wide and to consider the planet we live on itself.  I’m not saying we always succeeded. Sometimes we just turned in on ourselves and there was dreadful infighting (as in so many opposition movements, on the Left, the women’s movement, gay groups etc) which Monty Python sent up so beautifully in the ‘People’s Front of Judea’ sketch in Life of Brian. But there were also breakthroughs, solidarity and clarity, like the many lesbians who supported Asian women striking at Grunwicks, or the equal pay strike at Trico, the LGSM (Lesbians and Gays Support the Miners) Campaign, or the many lesbians who campaigned for women’s refuges, for women’s reproductive rights, for disability rights, for Rock Against Racism, for awareness about AIDS and so on as well as fighting back when the insidious Section 28 was brought in by the Tories in the late 1980’s prohibiting “the promotion of homosexuality” in schools.

There were also much more hidden battles which don’t fit into timelines or newsorthy events. Women who were open about their sexuality lost custody of their children, others lived for years in fear of that happening, were shut away in mental hospitals, lost economic security, were attacked on the streets or in their homes, coerced, raped, ridiculed and belittled. It took courage and strength to come out to family and community. One week ahead of the Lesbian and Gay Pride marches in 1980’s London there were Lesbian Strength marches. Looking back it seems obvious to me that we needed all the strength we could get. Here’s hoping stories from the last 50 years will continue to be told, that this isn’t it ‘oh we’ve done gays now’ and that women’s stories are given pride of place.

 

 

 

* the title of Sheila Rowbotham’s ground-breaking book published in 1975!

 

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Some years ago myself and the wonderful Brighton-based writer John O’Donaghue were kidnapped (metaphorically speaking) by two Slovenians, the poet-mountaineer Iztok Osojnik and scholar/translator Ana Jelnikar. They took us to an international poetry translation workshop in the lovely, peaceful village of Škocjan in the Karst region famous for its limestone and Dante-esque caverns, festivals and plum brandy. This was The Golden Boat (a name referencing Srečko Kosovel, Slovenia’s iconic poet, translated into English by Ana Jelnikar and the American poet Barbara Siegel Carson who was also there). We met poets from Finland, Romania, France and Slovenia. That’s how I – who’d foolishly said I wasn’t really keen on translating poetry as it’s so hard – came to translate Iztok Osojnik’s poetry in collaboration with Ana Jelnikar, with Elsewhere his selected poems (Pighog Press 2011). It was extremely hard. And inspiring!

Elżbieta Wójcik Leese that most prolific of Polish poetry translators, and a very fine poet herself, then introduced me to the work of the Polish writer Justyna Bargielska and I have not looked back. Modern Poetry in Translation published an issue with a focus on Polish poets, among them Bargielska. She is the author of eight poetry collections, two fiction books and two children’s books, has won the Rainer Maria Rilke poetry competition, twice won the Gdynia Literary Prize and her work appears in a myriad of journals and anthologies and in a variety of languages in Canada, Czech Republic, France, Germany, The Netherlands, Russia and Slovenia as she gains a rapidly expanding international reputation.

I’ve written more in another blog about the challenge  – what Canadian poet Anne Carson would call ‘maddeningly attractive’ aspects of translation  – of translating Justyna Bargielska. Or keeping up with her as Jamie McKendrick accurately sums it up below. But now I am delighted to tell you for the very first time in the U.K Justyna Bargielska’s work will be published by Smokestack Press later this year in my translations of her selected poems The Great Plan B . I’m hoping audiences here will soon get to meet her for themselves. To translate a book I think you have to fall in love with the work and that’s definitely what happened to me.

Two poets I admire put it like this:

“Justyna Bargielska’s poetry is an art of fierce surprises. Poems that might look small and docile on the page are anything but: they soon reveal themselves to be rigged boxes of devilish wisdom, opening out onto a world that is both familiar and suddenly, unpredictably, luminous, frightening, or both at once: ‘Do you know what our odds are? Zero./ But I’ve learnt to play for time / as it’s the body no less which is left on the battlefield’.  Bargielska’s flexible idiom accommodates the most intimate, absurd and profound aspects of our contemporary lives at an almost breathless speed: like telegrams these poems demand to be read over and over. And Maria Jastrzębska’s razor-sharp, glittering translations now bring the full range of Bargielska’s extraordinary voice to an English-speaking readership. If there can be such a thing as a tender rallying cry, this poetry is it: ‘I’m not enclosing hugs, I don’t send kisses, I wage /war on all fronts. Write back to me asap’.” Tiffany Atkinson

“These poems by Justyna Bargielska make the word ‘daring’ sound tame. They move at a cruel speed, or as she puts it with characteristically mordant wit “I’m not leaving you, shoes, I’m merely walking ahead.” In a fairer world talent as prodigal as this would not be allowed. Maria Jastrzębska’s translations are urgent and electric, and effortlessly manage to keep up.” Jamie McKendrick

The Great Plan B cover

 

 

 


img_2634What does it mean to be different? How do we perceive others? It tells us everything about a society knowing how difference is treated within it. This will be the subject of a new exhibition at Fabrica the Brighton gallery, where I first began to write blogs as their artist in residence a few years ago. They/Onlar by Turkish artist Ipek Duben runs from April 8-May 29 2017.

This blog follows on directly from the last one where I spoke to writers I met in Poland about their experience of being different. Below is what 2 writersRadek Wiśniewski, writer, poet, editor, founding publisher at  Stowarzyszenie Żywych Poetów and cultural activist and Olgerd Dziechciarz, poet, prose writer and cultural activist had to say (translated from Polish). The title of this blog Chipboard (the wonderfully expressive paździerz in Polish – not least given three ‘z’s) was a word I discussed at length with Radek and translator pals. It was the cheap material used make furniture in Poland in the 1980’s. In the last year we have seen divisions between people deepen dramatically, yet in my social life these divisions don’t show up. Us and Them aren’t in contact. Is it different in Poland? Are people in opposing factions more bound up socially? That was my impression but it still shocks when chasms open. As over here, people I spoke to were focussed on surviving the current climate.

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Radek Wiśniewski

To be other doesn’t mean being at risk, for now at any rate but it’s already uncomfortable. And how long is for now? We think we’re the same and surround ourselves in good faith with like-minded people. That’s the illusion but it’s breaking up, the bubble is bursting. It turns out we differ in ways it was difficult to see until recently. For instance at a friend’s barbecue we went to with Małgosia last autumn: when conversation was flagging we turned to the latest news about refugees drowning at sea and were saying that if they do reach the shores of one or at most two countries and these countries aren’t coping, something needs to happen. We talked about Pope Francis himself calling on all Catholics to accept a family into each parish.

“Best thing to do would be to shoot at them and not miss.” said one person, a Catholic who had just sent their child for first holy communion. We looked at each other amazed waiting for some response from the other guests at this garden party of educated people, who’d worked hard, often earning money abroad, to build their small oases of family life.

“I’d go first, if you gave me a gun.” another father of the tribe joined in. The children were playing around us, singing along to Disco Polo.

“You told me to watch what I say about refugees and that we’re in a minority, but I didn’t believe you” said Małgosia on the way home.

It was getting dark. These same people will go to church on Sunday to worship a Jew, himself once a refugee from Egypt, his mother Miriam and father Yossef. These same people will gladly tell you about their community’s terrible fate throughout the great wars, migrations and exile. Yet the people who truly understand the legacy of the Polish people and of Poland are not the ones we met with at the barbecue. These are the inhabitants of some kind of Polandia, built on the ruins of Poland. They have settled for a sham, a shabby chipboard facade. Only I’m not sure whether the real Poland, as it once was, ever existed. Or is it that it exists only in the minds, the idealisation of a few individuals, foreigners, others. Like you. For now at any rate.’

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Olgerd Dziechciarz:

Being different means being yourself. I don’t know if I’m different, but I try be all right with myself. I see how people bend over backwards, let themselves get bent out of shape in order to fit in – I’m fairly resistant to that. Once in the 80’s I belonged to a punk band, it was harder then to be yourself, or maybe it was easier, I don’t know anymore. Anyhow that was a formative time. Basically I try not to judge other people. In political matters I’m getting closer (again) to anarchism, a humane kind, similar to Kropotnik’s. In matters of poetry I know less and less. Or maybe I just know less and less generally. Not important. What’s important is that sometimes I host cool people, we talk about literature, we have a laugh, sometimes we have a beer or something stronger and life feels more bearable. The world is beautiful, people are beautiful, except for those who aren’t especially beautiful but – oh wonder of wonders – are the ones who claim the right to make decisions for us. And that’s the only thing which worries me. But maybe one day we’ll get together and drive them out. Yes, I still believe that.’

Next week the London Book Fair has its market focus on POLAND. Opportunities to hear more from Polish writers, what will be uppermost on their agendas?https://literature.britishcouncil.org/project/the-london-book-fair-poland-market-focus-2017

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https://literature.britishcouncil.org/blog/2017/first-monday-blog-polish-literature-across-borders/

 

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I often wonder how my life would have turned out had we stayed in Poland. I came to England with my family as a small child and grew up different from the majority around me. We, my family, community and myself, spoke a different language, ate different food, had different customs, songs, stories. In time more layers got added to that. In my teens I fell in love with a girl and that too changed the course of my life. Difference became, as I wrote in an early poem, ‘simply the backdrop/to everything I do/…the sound of my own footsteps”. So otherness is never far from what I write about. This winter thanks to an Artist’s International Development Fund grant I visited Poland twice, first travelling to Wrocław, then Kraków. My publisher arranged a mini book tour of the dual language collection The Cedars of Walpole Park in which my selected poems are translated by Wioletta Grzegorzewska, Paweł Gawroński and Anna Błasiak. The time flew by so I asked some of the writers, who had hosted my events to continue the dialogue we’d begun and write to me about how they see being other, being different, in Poland. Ostensibly, as Poles they belong to the majority, people living in their own country – a country and its people e/migrating to these shores in turn at times and then seen as other from over here.

I was struck by how much my writer-hosts had to say about religion – the rise of Christian fundamentalism has gripped the country in recent years leaving many writers out on a limb. Here is Agnieszka Żuchowska-Arendt literary translator (from Serbian and Croatian), writer and cultural activist in Kraków, (translated by me):

“Being different means always being lonely. But also stronger. You have to be because ever since childhood you got called names, kicked, spat on for being fat, for not knowing how to play with dolls, because you read books and didn’t collect colourful trading cards…

“It’s not good being a ‘biscuit’ as bisexual people are commonly known. Among heteros at best you’re an undecided weirdo or show-off. There’s allusions to threesomes and infidelity…It’s not any easier with lesbians They’re always mistrustful, see you as a traitor or a spy because you’ve slept with guys. As a ‘biscuit’ you’re excluded from the lesbian and gay community too, which itself also suffers exclusion form the rest of society.”

And then there’s being an atheist:

 “Childhood experience has taught you that in a small town you must never ever admit to being an atheist. Don’t give anything away. But the secret weighs on your conscience. You get top marks in RE. You don’t go to church, you don’t lie about believing in God, but nobody actually asks you so you don’t have to lie. Surely nobody guesses…”

Kazimierz area of Kraków

Kazimierz area of Kraków

At university in a big city, Krakow, she thought it would be a safer place to exchange different viewpoints but found herself proved wrong. Those who believed in God saw atheists as Satanists, capable – in the absence of a belief in God – of any crime. Not only that but as communists to boot:

 “No matter that in 1989 you were six years old, you still represent the ZOMO [paramilitary-police of the Communist government]…the question of faith has to remain a private matter and not something you ‘display publicly’ say people wearing crosses and medallions round their necks, taking out rosaries on buses, crossing themselves as the bus passes a church, hanging crosses in schools and offices, wishes of blessings and grace at Christmas and Easter and from Baby Jesus or the Risen Christ on their lips. But one word about not sharing their faith and you become an agitator, someone doing battle with the church. Not everyone is like this, but sometimes I‘m surrounded by a circle of believing friends who openly declare they are praying for my conversion. The biggest compliment they pay me is to say: I like you because even though you are an atheist you are a good person. When I answer that I like them too even though they are believers, they look surprised.”

Part 2 of this blog will follow with a publisher/poet and an ex-punk rocker.

 

 

 

 

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img_2481Thanks to the Artist’s International Development Fund I am able to make 2 short trips to Poland this winter to pursue lines of poetic enquiry and promote my selected work The Cedars of Walpole Park translated int Polish by Wioletta Grzegorzewska, Anna Błasiak & Paweł Gawroński and published by Stowarzyszenie Żywych Poetów.

 

 

 

 

Here I am in Wrocław, European City of Culture 2016: I didn’t expect it to be gloriously sunny in November. I’m not sure where to go so I sit with my take-away coffee outside Wrocław Główny, the main railway station, once Breslau Hauptbahnhof, built by a royal Prussian architect in the mid-nineteenth century.

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Morose Man, aged 71 (he quickly tells me) comes to sit beside me. Within moments he informs me about his various health issues, including discolouration of the urine as well as heart problems possibly caused by side effects from strong medication he is taking for another problem. His body’s like a car, once one thing goes, everything begins to fall apart, only with a car you can get new parts, he says. He lives alone since his wife died, I learn and also how he and the grandchildren visit her grave together – well he can’t turn his back on his family can he – and how the oldest one won’t go to bed until he sings down the phone to him when his daughter calls of an evening. [Some comfort hopefully, I say.]

Politicians, it was ever thus, even harking back to the days of the Tsar, are all the same, they just want to make money, he tells me. He’s not interested. There’s nothing we can do anyway that makes a difference. But he did vote for the present government [ultra right, something like UKIP in the UK, threatening constitutional rights, women’s reproductive rights and currently planning to reinforce a territorial army to deal, inter alia, with civil unrest.] His daughter didn’t vote for them [hurray!] but he doesn’t try to impose his views on her. She has her own mind, he says. He never joined anything in Communist times, never rose up the ranks, doesn’t try to push himself up to the top. Doesn’t aim for the gutter either. He treads a middle path, well you have to. A Christian path. But there’s nothing any of us can do. Everyone has their cross to bear, some heavier than others. Jesus never wanted to die on the cross but he had to. He had no choice did he? 

Poland, oh Poland.

 

 

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My parents lost everything during the war. Their city was razed to the ground so that they lost their homes along with the very streets they’d stood in. So it’s not surprising that once they got to England they kept everything – from tiny salvaged black and white (even sepia) photographs to rubber bands or plastic carrier bags. Once they bought a house in London they never moved again. Over the years they filled it with more and more things, including mementos from my grandparents’ nearby house when my grandparents died. Then after my parents died in turn bags full of things ended up in my house. Recently my partner and I decided to downsize and move from a house to a flat which meant I have had three layers of belongings to sort. I had kept so many old letters and photographs, my own, my parents’ and their parents’. Sorting through the piles hasn’t been easy. I wish I could tell you I have finished the job but some of the old papers have followed me to our new flat although a little more sorted this time, in nice, see-through plastic boxes, though there are a still a lot of them. Along the way I discovered gems, notes written by mother during the Warsaw occupation.  Little books reliably called ‘My Book’ created by me when I was barely literate, confirming how I always planned to be a writer, along with a certificate for second place in the sack race at my primary school…Inevitably there was also a lot of dreck, although one person’s weed to be pulled up is another’s wild flower. Friends divided into the writers who all cried Keep Everything It Will Be Handy for the Memoir or Your Poems…and everyone else who said for heaven’s sake free yourself from all that emotional baggage and make space in your life.

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In a way it’s similar to editing poems. Some poems thrive on richness, on texture, colour crowding in; they bristle with rawness and sensory detail, depend on their ability to take the reader by storm. You need to throw yourself into them – writing on your nerve – and not hold back, not censor. Other times it’s all about what you leave out, what is unspoken. Some poems are so pared down you could say they’re written with silence as much as words. So that’s how it’s been these last few months – what to keep, what to take with me.img_2247

The magazines tell us moving house is one of the most stressful times in your life.  A few days without internet or the TV not working, disruption to daily routines, newness, unfamiliarity and we are tearing out our hair. Glasses, (glasses case!), pens (including that great thick black marker pen which keeps disappearing) – I daren’t put anything down or it will get lost among constantly shifting cardboard boxes, piles. I am tired, irritable. It’s only when you leave that you notice everything you’ve been taking for granted, the familiar route from your front door to the fishmongers, the cat who liked sitting on the roof of the neighbour’s car. And yet this is something my partner and I have freely chosen. We have the comfort of family and friends’ support, the luxury of choosing shades of white for the walls or the shape of new taps.  All the time I have been thinking of how it must have been for my parents who could only pack a few cases when we left Poland to flee communism. What – if anything – was I told about us leaving our homeland, not to return for years and years. But my parents were making a planned decision. I’ve been trying to imagine refugees being forced to leave suddenly, in immediate fear for their own or their families lives. It doesn’t bear thinking about. Yet the refugee ‘crisis’ is worse than ever.

Friends of mine have dropped everything and gone to Lesvos to help refugees there, others have been to Calais. Most of us shudder and look away. So in the midst of the recent surge in anti-foreigner feeling in this country it feels good to do even a small thing to help. In Brighton we are having a Poem-a-thon at Komedia on December 11th 2016 where 60 of us will be reading poetry non-stop to raise money for the School Bus Project at the Refugee Council. I hope you can donate something to it – any amount – and tell your friends about it. It doesn’t take long, honestly (take it from a non-techie poet). Just click on the link:

https://www.justgiving.com/fundraising/Maria-Jastrzebska

Dziekuję! Thank you!

Still stroppy after all these years...Siren feminist band, reformed with 2 daughters playing in Brighton daughters

Still stroppy after all these years…Siren feminist lesbian 1980’s band, reformed with 2 daughters playing in Brighton

 

 

Eleanor Barrett gave my father English lessons and I was sent to her small, cottage like house to stay for tea after school and sleep over – to improve my English and maybe to give my mother a break, or both. She had silver hair and blue eyes, was a widow and if I was sometimes bored it was because she was an elderly grown up and all I wanted then was to be outdoors playing with other children. But she had an open coal fire which was wonderful and she grated cheese and made me strangely named things like ‘Welsh rarebit’. She was a Quaker and her husband had been a conscientious objector in the war. Pacifism was a startling concept for someone like me who had grown up in a family where armed resistance to fascism was a given. Even my parents who were very much ‘you’re either with us or against us’ people respectfully agreed to disagree with her. I am writing about her now for 2 reasons: first, because there can never be enough written in praise of older women. But secondly because England has just voted 52 percent against 48 to leave Europe after a campaign of xenophobia and racism. Within days incidents of racism have soared, such as graffiti on the Polish Cultural Centre (which we visited when I was a child and where I have worked teaching creative writing as an adult, done readings and where my play was performed)  or school children and their families being told ‘Go home Polish scum’. Homeless people have been marking their cardboard signs ‘English and Homeless’ for fear of being attacked as migrants.

What has been heartwarming are the messages of support I have personally received and the amazing responses publicly telling me and others like me that we belong, are welcome here.

English roses my Polish mother loved so much

English roses my Polish mother loved 

One of the things English friends are saying is how ashamed they now feel being English/British. So to all of them/you, don’t be ashamed! Think of the best in your culture, history. Invoke it now. Remember everyone who has ever resisted the colonialist/racist mind set and behaviour. We badly need those role models at this time. I wish I had a picture of Mrs. Barrett, as I called her, to show you. Let’s replace all the media images of the men in power who have lied and led the country into this vicious and hideous mess with images of good and ordinary folk. If Mrs. Barrett was still alive we might be disagreeing about all sorts of things but I imagine she’d be opening her door and helping Syrian refugees as she once helped Polish ones.