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Russia 1924

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

My mother was ambivalent about International Women’s Day. On the one hand she saw it as a Socialist festival (for someone who had lived through a decade of post-war Stalinism this could only mean BAD.) On the other hand she loved flowers and liked the Polish custom of men giving women flowers on IWD. I have some ambivalence too, which runs more like this: how can 1 day a year be remotely enough to celebrate what we as women do or who we are? On the other hand I like any excuse to party. And celebrating ourselves as women is vital.

Tomorrow at 11am on March 8th 2016 I will be taking part in an International Women’s day online digital discussion with 3 other artists:

Rifa Thorpe-Tracey who is an advocate for women in tech. Amongst many things she is founder of the Brighton branch of global creative networking group for women in digital, SheSays.

Jamila Prowse who is founder and editor of the independent small-print magazine Typical Girls, which showcases the work of female creatives through print, discussions, talks, workshops and music events.

and Jinan Petra who is a campaigner for women’s rights and social justice. She is involved in a number of activist groups, projects and movements that fight to safeguard the rights of women and girls across the UK and beyond.

I am Maria Jastrzębska a Polish-born, Brighton based poet, editor and translator with a particular interest in borders and boundaries: between countries, cultures, languages, between social and sexual identities, health and illness.

This event is hosted by Melissa Ray who works in Communications at Fabrica the innovative art gallery in Brighton.

You can be our live audience from 11am tomorrow by clicking on:

https://docs.google.com/document/d/1TLiv8vZXE-T4tkyPoRVyyPJ36fKD2qqXrWob2wfhqc8/edit?usp=sharing

Zapraszam serdecznie/you are warmly welcome!

italy

 

 

IMG_9900_2Sometimes I think I am still in the middle of the ocean. Last year my partner and I sailed to New York and back from Southampton. We had so many adventures and the trip affected us both so profoundly I was sure when we returned I’d start blogging like crazy. Instead radio silence. Well not quite.  Our travels have been sneaking their way – at a slant – into poems. And into dreams. I have been working on a new manuscript and it is hard to write anything else.

There is something too about sailing away to another continent. It’s not fast track. But it is wholly magnificent, especially if you are fortunate enough to sail on the Queen Mary 2. Afterwards people asked us: what do you do all day? And: what is there to see? Everything and nothing are the answers although that’s where it gets muddled up.

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You can imagine how people went mad at sea. Nothing but water and sky, sky and water. Water and sky. Though the colours change all the time, every day. Blue isn’t an inadequate word. No birds. No animals. (One day porpoise were sighted but I missed them.) A meditation on nothingness. One day it is paler blue, a few little clouds on the horizon. Blue, blue, blue. Next day grey capped with small white breakers. Foam. A fine drizzle in the air. Dispersing. The sky swollen, puffy with white cloud. Dull but at same time a glare assaulting the eyes because of the sheer expanse of sky and light. The next day a mist which makes even the nothing vanish.

IMG_9901_2Really this is the headline event, the main stage. I find I can’t take my eyes off it. Everything else is a diversion, make believe. And there is so much on board to distract you. Shops that sell pricey wrist watches, perfumes, necklaces. Shows with comedians, live bands. Black tie dinners and dances. Dressing up! Talks in the planetarium. Even some poetry, jazz. A library. Quizzes. Bars. You can learn to dance or play bridge. There are treadmills and whirlpools, white linen, fresh towels. Friends of Dorothy and of Bill W. Someone could rub your feet or your back. The food is delicious, sumptuous. Meeting new people. You chat over cocktails: where are you going? Will you stay long? Are you on your way home or just setting out? Is this your first time? Oh no, say the old hands, we’ve been many times…Endless swaying from deck A to B.

We sail fairly near the spot where the Titanic was lost. We are sailing in comfort for the sheer pleasure of it. Elsewhere others in tiny, leaking boats are crossing seas to escape from persecution. We hear of crew members and passengers who have jumped over board. When we have to put on life jackets and be counted for a safety drill we laugh like children. We complain because none of our devices will work properly. We are living in a floating complex, a bubble the size of a village, miles away from anywhere, surrounded by nothing.

The staff are courteous, almost kind, as if they know all it takes is one look out at the horizon and everything disappears. Then you return to nothing but water and sky, sky and water. It’s there every morning. And last thing at night the ocean rocks you to sleep, rocks you all night long. At 20.1 knots in our case. Always the same ocean. Never the same ocean twice.

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I wasn’t expecting it to, but then you never do. I was getting ready to go to America but I went to Bradford Literature Festival first.

Was it the warm Northern welcome I got? The bold dynamism of festival directors Irna Qureshi and Syima Aslam? Was it meeting my teenage idol Liverpool poet Brian Patten and hearing him read his quirky new poems of Sufi stories. Or hearing Abbas Zahedi who performed a multilingual flowing fusion of ancient and modern verse? Seeing poetry buddies?11402902_978091198891378_7926147200791135448_o11402429_978091522224679_7984485600965014969_o11337063_978090388891459_8258207230847855813_o

Was it the dervish dancer who whirled in ecstasy and sorrow on the spot, her feet softly scuffing the floor for what seemed an eternity – how did she do it when I felt wrung out just watching? (Was that the ‘wall’ runners speak of? In every long form – dance, poem, relationship even – there has to come an excruciating moment when you just can’t go on and yet you do. For poems, when you want an alternative to sound-bite/quick fix culture, I recommend the audacious Long Poem Magazine )

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Was it being swept along to an evening of Sufiana Kalam, poetry sung to music by the inimitable Shabnam Khan which had the audience (mostly  word perfect) clapping and singing along? I was still tired from the train journey and hadn’t really wanted to go but as soon as it began I was wide awake, feet tapping by themselves in sheer joy. A Kashmiri woman next to me carefully translated some of the Punjabi lyrics. She asked what brought me to the festival and I told her I’d been invited to read the next day at the Commemoration Event for the 75th Anniversary of Siberia Deportations. When I tried to explain the reason for the event, something about Poland’s history, a country squeezed between more powerful neighbours, she understood immediately and said: ‘Oh, like Kashmir’.

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Or was it the Polish event itself? Wonderful singer songwriter Katy Carr got everyone singing along to her songs and her versions of partisan songs which the mainly Polish audience all knew. Historian Anita Prażmowska was in conversation with historian Matt Kelly – what they don’t know about the historical background isn’t worth knowing. There was an impromptu appearance from B E Andre reading from With Blood And Scars her epic novel about the Polish post war community of Manchester, which coincidentally includes a poem of mine.

11219558_978092125557952_7562370498954102383_oA group of women from Rochdale had come over specially for the event; five were former deportees. Their families had been forced to leave their homes by Soviet soldiers when the women were small children. I write a lot about that war. Whatever I am writing about it just seeps in. But they lived through it. Some ended up not only in Siberia but in the farthest corners of what was then the British Empire after Stalin had switched sides to join the Allies and a Polish army was formed from among the deportees. I felt very humbled and moved reading to them.11406706_978092095557955_5627653474561375834_o (1)

1506088_978092235557941_5259721179503138287_oBradford is such a vibrant city of very different communities.  How much do we know about one another’s histories and each other’s art? I hope this exciting festival continues to grow, creating more opportunities for new bridges, new connections to be made.11334010_978092162224615_1236927525023049550_o
11357249_978092185557946_376566775016223195_oAll photographs courtesy of Tim Smith and Bradford Literature Festival.

Last year my artist friend Helen got so fed up with everyone posting exotic holiday pictures via social media she started putting up photos of her dirty washing. I thought this was hilarious. Others took it more seriously. Friends wrote in to explain the back story to their photos – it turned out some of the happy pictures weren’t happy after all. A moment after a picture was taken there’d been awful incident or argument …Then her friends seemed to upload fewer pictures altogether. In the end Helen felt terrible – had she killed summer?

IMG_6487Over the many months that I’ve had health problems, I’ve prided myself on not posting about them – why add more misery to a world where most news bring doom and gloom? One blog on it last year (Taboo – In Sickness and in Health) was surely enough. My health issues clearly thought otherwise. But then I wonder is this more cowardice (vanity?)than noblesse on my part? We care – obsess – about image. Even when we profess not to. People always have, long before social media. If you were rich enough you had your portrait painted and made sure the artist showed you in the best light. Now we update our own portraits/profiles, backgrounds. Wstrętny ekshybicjonizm (digusting exhibitionism), my mother would say if she were still alive. An intensely private person who nevertheless cared profoundly about her appearance and like many women of her generation suffered what she perceived as the humiliation of old age – and ill health – the fading of (so called) good looks. IMG_6468Some people manage to tread that fine line where they talk with integrity, openly and publicly about very personal things. Here’s a great blog by fellow poet Clare Best: Touching the core. It’s hugely important to break taboos and silences. Important and difficult when, on the one hand there are still so many silences and, on the other hand, we are so steeped in the cult of the celebrity that sensationalised personal details – what a famous person was wearing or ate for breakfast (let alone who they slept with) – are deemed newsworthy. Meanwhile my potted blueberry is back from the bareness of Winter, first with blossom and now fruit buds. It is almost Summer here and you can hang the washing out… I am off to Bradford Literature Festival to read at an event with Katy Carr & Anita Jean Prażmowska and Bożena Masters, the Commemoration Event for 75th Anniversary of Siberia Deportations 6:30 pm – 8:00 pm on SUNDAY 24 MAY at Delius Arts & Cultural Centre. A topic which deserves a story of its own. After that I set sail across the ocean.IMG_6463   IMG_6460

IMG_6152Writers need a degree of obsessiveness, or should I say passion. Single-mindedness, focus. Or to put it another way they need to be in love. At least with their subject matter, inevitably with life itself. When does a passion become an obsession? There are some fine and not so pretty lines between passion, elation, worry, repetitive thinking and unwanted, intrusive thoughts, delusions.

Translators too of course can’t help but obsess as I’ve said before.  Just as I’m writing this translator, poet, friend Anna Blasiak asks for a ‘second opinion’ on a point of grammar that leads to meaning in a poem she is translating for a Polish/Irish project. Something to do with yellow. I laugh out loud reading her email as she reminds me so much of myself pouring over detail.

So what else it there to be passionate about? What do you think of incessantly? I ask around. There are of course the Cute Things you would expect: babies, bunnies, kittens, puppies, guinea pigs, children, children, children. (I admit to ‘sharing’ about bear cubs recently on social media.) And tarantulas. Yes, they come in the cute category. De gustibus et coloribus non est disputandum. There’s football of course, (though I know some would correct me and say no, there is only Arsenal); there’s Japan. (There’s the art of Shibari too which deserves a category of its own.) There are less happy thoughts, some too painful or embarrassing to admit which no one wants to speak about. Then there’s planning and rehearsing in the mind for meals, outfits, conversations, lectures, lessons, events, political campaigns, parties; guilt about essays not written/marked (depending on which side of that fence you’re on), tasks on the To Do Today list not ticked off, poems unwritten, phone calls never made…ex-lovers, dysfunctional family members, annoying people at work, bullies, will s/he phone me, does X really like me? There are fervent beliefs, new recipes, new stationery, new cop shows on TV, the fresh surfaces of never before used creams or marmite, new kinds of meditation. There is music. And there are things I had no idea people thought about on a daily basis, like where do they belong, were they right to leave their homeland to come here or about a coronal mass ejection from the Sun that travelled at over 900 miles per second and how we are merely a by product of third generation stars.

And now we have left February behind and it’s March here and there are more and more daffodils. And how can you not be passionate about that?

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But just in case you didn’t believe me about the Cute Things, courtesy of my friend Angelika Hell, here’s a tarantula:

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I started writing a tongue-in-cheek blog about New Year resolutions and then on January 7th the satirical weekly Charlie Hebdo in Paris was attacked and 12 people, including a Muslim policeman trying to protect the journalists, were murdered by Islamic fundamentalists. Then there were more attacks and killings, including an assault on a Jewish kosher supermarket where 4 people were murdered.  A young Muslim employee at the shop saved several people by turning off the freezer and hiding them inside it while he got help from police.

Brighton Café Mange Tout, photo courtesy of Joyce Chester


In the days that followed people in Paris and other cities took to the streets to share their grief and their outrage. There was also the predictable hypocrisy – and cynicism – of those who sought to make political, usually racist, capital out what had happened, as well as subtle forms of almost victim-blaming.  Others have written more knowledgeably than I could about the context, for instance :

http://blogs.mediapart.fr/blog/olivier-tonneau/110115/charlie-hebdo-letter-my-british-friends

And of course other news has quickly taken over in the media which moves on at lightning speed.

Reading the papers after these events I read of other atrocities, among them a posting by Islamic State of a small boy shooting – forced to kill I’d say – two Russians, allegedly spying, in Syria. Meanwhile an Israeli paper digitally removed all trace of the female leaders at the Paris march. I could go on.

I want something to hold onto.  So I keep going back to that young man in the supermarket in Paris. His name is Lassana Bathily, he is 24 years old and an immigrant to France from Mali. I’d been thinking cartoonists, artists and journalists are like the cousins of us poets. In an interview with BFM TV, Lassana Bassily said “I helped Jews. We’re all brothers…It’s not a question of Jews, Christians or Muslims, we’re all in the same boat.”

 

I am two different people. But first, let me tell you about my dream. I was being published in a new anthology. The details were hazy except I know awesome poet and friend Vahni Capildeo was in it too. We had to give a reading and – classic performer’s dream – I couldn’t find a copy of my poem, couldn’t remember a single line…except the title: Taboo.

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So here in our everything must be air-brushed, image, success and goal-obsessed Western advanced capitalist society what are the taboos? Not so much kinky sex (whatever that means) more the ordinary stuff. Illness, old age, poverty…?

Take illness. Just for instance, say. Here is the split: when I am well I am in a hurry. Running from A to B. Concerned – like the business man in Saint-Exupéry’s Little Prince – ‘with matters of consequence’. Illness? It’s a switch-off topic. Read a blog about it? Not likely. I don’t even want to be associated with it. I feel sorry for ‘Them’, the poor unfortunates dealing with it. When I’m well I’m busy trying to figure out my rest-play balance, the creativity v other stuff balance etc. I long to have more time. To catch up. To do all those things I haven’t had time to do. Oh to have time! Oh to bask in it!

IMG_5700But when I am ill I am very slow. I even walk slowly if I walk at all. And I have lots of time. But I never get round to catching up with anything. Whatever ‘it’ was is long gone, disappearing over some horizon, out of reach. I’m find I’m drawn to other ill folk. We swap stories of symptoms, latest remedies tried, practitioners who helped or didn’t help. We read up about about illness. The rest-play balance decisions become even harder, scarier because the stakes feel higher. It’s a whole other world – which does nothing for our profiles or careers. Those back in the healthy world don’t always understand…

I wrote a number of poems on illness a while back, here’s one snippet:

(from ‘Fatigue’ in Syrena (Redbeck 2004) )

“People keep asking me/about Fatigue./I say:/it happens to metals after repeated blows…

…Is it like being tired/ all the time…I tell them no.//Tired is a shore I long to reach.”

IMG_5822Of course this is all an over simplification. There aren’t two worlds, sickness and health, (unless you work for the government planning ever more cuts to disability benefits). There are other worlds in between and worlds within worlds. We’re all on some spectrum, some of us live bi-culturally, multi-culturally. But it feels like two distinct worlds sometimes.

Does illness make us more sensitive people or just crabbier? It certainly forces us to be more selfish or self-focussed which is an interesting challenge for women especially.

As a poet I make it my business to enter different worlds – illness is not one I choose. Recently it has claimed me. When I venture back on short-stay visas into the healthy world, I feel like a foreigner. How can I possibly explain where I have been and where I am returning to when the visa runs out?

If you’re a fellow traveller or resident of the ill world and have read this far in the hope of miraculous tips, you may be disappointed.What’s keeping me going? Actually this applies to all my worlds: the amazing – and humbling- kindness, friendship and love of others. Oh and my potted blueberry. I’ve been watching it change close-up.

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Are there pluses for a writer on this journey? Tricky. Do we dream more when we are ill? Perhaps we’re also pushed face to face with the visceral, the body’s minutae, those everyday details which fascinate poets anyhow? We’re used to picking berries from among brambles. Would I swap this journey for a different one? In a heartbeat.

IMG_5842Why do artists get ill? Why do women, or carers, get ill? Working people? Babies, old people? Why does anybody get ill? I don’t know but it’s worth asking. I have some more questions: what would it be like to get ill in a society which revered the ill and the vulnerable? (I don’t just mean comfy seats at bus-stops so you can rest though that would be a start.) I mean a whole attitude change to how we see sickness and health? Where illness was believed to be a vitally significant journey? Where the world waited eagerly for all our dispatches? Where treatment options weren’t dependent on your income or postcode? What if ‘health and safety’ at work meant: how is each employee’s health being preserved – no enhanced! – by working here? Where growing ill – or old – wasn’t something to be scared of?

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