Er, that title is a quote from me, presenting the Poetry Karaoke the other day.
Funny how you just burble things into a microphone and somehow don’t think anyone’s really listening, especially before lunch. But lo and behold! Someone was! This got tweeted by Modern Poetry in Translation magazine and retweeted a few times (including by that one-man tower of Babel, WN Herbert), and now it’s real.
We invented our Poets’ Karaoke (International) kind of on the hoof, working it out among us on stage. I was literally being handed the poems people were going to read as we went up on stage. And we were in possibly the one place in the world where there would be someone in the audience who knows the language/knows the poem/can guess the poem. Great fun, it came together, we drew in lots of audience, we all felt we could have kept going.
So here’s what we had:
John Ashbery in Burmese, musical and crystalline and Ashberyan. A once-in-a-lifetime experience, I’m willing to bet. Zeyar Lynn has translated many poets into Burmese, including Charles Bernstein – pretty much introducing postmodern poetry to Burma.
Adisa Basic in a perfectly lovely red dress with a long peach cardigan, putting my head-to-foot black to shame, reading Wisława Szymborska’s ‘Funeral’ in Bosnian, in homage, and an audience member getting it.
Jan Wagner reading two wonderful German poems – ‘De Profundis’ by Georg Träkl, and ‘This is Bad’ by Gottfried Benn – so beautifully I wanted him to read them again, and just being great to work with.
Damir Šodan singing/chanting a long sort of Buddhist Ginsberg poem in gravelly Croatian, with his ukelele. And deep engagement with the idea of a karaoke and how both oral and written language and music can bring people together. Prepared three ways the audience could get involved!
Me, winging it. Told the story of arriving there, in a lather late and googling what poems I had advance warning of on my iPhone so I could at least familiarise myself with the English. My bag weighed a ton with laptop and food in it, since I was also teaching that night – broiling hot sun, me with a bottle of water and my bag, reading Gottfried Benn on the phone, right. So walking from Waterloo to the Royal Festival Hall, going up the steps there, you know what happened. I missed the stop step and went SPLAT!! holding my iPhone in my hand, so of course it took the full flat brunt of the fall, and my glasses came off, and my knee was bashed, and I’m on the pavement right under the giant head of Nelson Mandela…
This always happens, as soon as I’m trying to do too much at once, I always end up falling over. By a miracle, the iPhone screen is merely scuffed. My best black jeans are fine. Some lovely ladies gave me my glasses back and helped me get up! And when I got in and eventually the poets turned up (see, not really late at all), I told them the story and Jan Wagner said: ‘Gottfried Benn! So – you were reading ‘This is Bad’?!?
Well, after the karaoke I took a few hours and just hung out in the ‘poets’ village’ and ate lunch and did a little laptop stuff. Had lunch with James Byrne of The Wolf, and, I’m very pleased to say, with Zeyar Lynn, who is a wonderful man and one of my favourite people I’ve met. I mean ever. Calmly and aesthetically intellectual in every pore, I feel. And very calm considering he lives in Burma and is over here. Then Chris Beckett came in, looking for the poet he’s ‘buddying’; but Bewketu Seyoum has never even been out of Ethiopia before! ‘Puppy off the lead’, I said, and proved to be right, as Bewketu turned out to be in Covent Garden. While we were sitting there, Jacqueline Saphra came up and joined us with a story about her daughter’s hamster going weird and having to be taken to the vet in the wee hours; the trauma, the insane expense, the subsequent breakfast-time death of the hamster.
Snippets: Yuyutsu Sharma from Nepal, a wonderful, vivid reading at the packed-out Modern Poetry in Translation launch (where Bewketu also read, but at that stage I was the blue-arse fly looking for my four poets, so missed him alas.)
Nguyen Bao Chan. I’d never heard Vietnamese poetry before and you realise – we hear these languages around us all the time, but only the quotidian daytime shopping-list language. I’ve lived in very Vietnamese neighbourhoods and never heard anything like this. She started talking and introduced her poem, in English. It’s about her first visit to London in 2007. When she started reading I thought she was singing! so musical is the poetic language, apparently – all pitch and inflection to the point of pitch being note. Amazing. Wonderful. Colour and possibility. Then she read the English translation and suddenly it was all flat grey pavement again. Take me to Vietnam.
One phrase you hear all over this week is ‘the power of poetry’. Last night someone or other was joking about the power of poetry to make you feel half dead – oh I know, it was a translator! The power of poetry, the music of poetry.
Bill Manhire said his favourite thing about translations is often the little mistakes. Well, even poetry itself is a kind of translation, as this week shows. and the mistakes are where the poetry flies out, maybe.
And there’s a Tragic List of the poets I really wanted to hear this week whom I’ve missed and they include, so far: Christian Campbell, Kei Miller, Valzhyna Mort, Ilya Kaminsky, Kapka Kassabova (though I did arrive at the English PEN panel discussion on nationality and identity just in time to hear her say, ‘There is a point at which patriotism becomes another form of self-loathing’), Kristiina Ehin, Yang Lian (and he only lives across the road from me! but his Scottish translator Brian Holton was here, with WN Herbert – what fun), Alvin Pang, Kate Kilalea, Agnes Lehoszky…
There will be more – I’m a day behind on these posts now because yesterday I was the Roadrunner and the Power of Poetry was the ACME weight.
Right. Today: Poetry Review launch, with George Szirtes introducing AB Jackson, Lorraine Mariner, Geraldine Monk, and Denise Saul. Paul Muldoon giving the Poetry Society annual lecture, ‘Parnassus and tin Pan Alley’ on poetry and songwriting. Then the Poetry London launch and the Shuffle, both at the same time.
And here’s my favourite bit so far out of Damir Šodan’s ‘samizdat chapbook’, Across the Street From Spinoza’s House:
(A life unexamined is not worth living,
as the blogger “Socrates” correctly pointed out)
…………….(‘In any Case’)