Losers’ Club, Jadavpur Convention

Losers Club_ Jadavpur Convention

Things may have seemed quiet on Dubious Saints recently, but in fact losers have been failing to gather across the globe, under-achieving on a scale that scarcely disturbs the register. Here we see Sampurna and Bill at Jadavpur in February 2015,  making the Secret Sign That Must Never Be Revealed to camera, thus flunking the first rule of Losers’ Club. No, wait, that’s ‘No-one who wants to be a member of Losers’ Club can be a member of Losers’ Club’, isn’t it? Or is it?

(Photograph by Francesca, Kolkata, 2015)

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The Gypsy Goddess: three reviews

Meena’s first novel is out and receiving excellent reviews. Here is a particularly thoughtful and informative piece by Sumana Mukherjee which discusses the style as well as the subject.

Here’s the Tuppence review, and here, via the power of photography, is that excellent one from The Times:


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Selected Joy

10153006_10152803265028677_3832140247247151320_n(The publication of Sampurna’s translations of Joy Goswami would seem an ideal time to revive this blog for World Losers. I like to think it could cover all the translation, travel and poetic activities of the original Adishakti Crew, augmented by losers encountered along the Way and in the enveloping passageways of the Great Labyrinth. But then, I like to think…)

I’ve waiting for this book for more than a decade, ever since first encountering hints, descriptions and single poems by this foremost of the Bengali poets. Joy Goswami is one of those writers you dream of encountering in translation, concealed to your eyes within another language, but the common property of every delighted reader of that language; capable of transforming both your imagination, and the way you imagine poetry.

Bangla, in the figure of Tagore, has already proven itself to be one of poetry’s world languages, and Goswami does not disappoint by comparison. In these compulsively rhythmic and readable translations by Sampurna Chattarji, all the melodious, dextrous invention of his language is conveyed, as well as his unique eye, which flashes from the visionary to the slightest, subtlest detail, within a single phrase.

From elegy and love poem to vivid cityscape and the pastoral vistas of Bengal, he is a master of the sustained flight, the recurring symbol, and an effortless opening out of the quotidian to reveal its extraordinary interior.

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In Praise of the Loser

I guess all roads lead to the Losers’ Table.


Which, once in a while, likes to lose its persitent pursuers, as it did at the recent Literature Across Frontiers translation workshop I was part of in Santiniketan, site of much familial joy and Bill’s fabulous poem, where I was delighted to discover that Doris Kareva, the wonderful Estonian poet among us, had written this poem, in praise of losers, which she has given me permission to share, here, in the hallowed halls of dubious saints. Halleluiah.


Kaotaja kiituseks

Doris Kareva


Kaotaja kiituseks laulan,

sest võitjale lauldakse niigi;

kurva ees kummardan,

löödu ees langetan pea.

Maailmast loobuja loob,

leiab unedes eneseriigi;

tõeluse taluja salajõudu

ja –suurust keegi ei tea.


Kaotaja kiituseks laulan

ja ilmaolija iluks;

põlatu pärgan, ta kõrgele

laubale vajutan suu –

sellele, kes suudab selgust

puuduvast kogu eluks

kerge ja sirgena kanda,

olen ma tuumani truu.



In praise of the loser


I sing in praise of the loser

for the winner is well lauded,

I kneel before the forlorn

I bow before the beaten.

The world-quitter creates,

discovers self-state in dreams;

the reality-bearer holds

strength and stature untold.


I sing in praise of the loser

and for the have-not’s joy;

I crown the outcast, pressing

my lips to that high brow –

to those who carry clarity

of absence all their days,

both lightly and upright,

I am true to the core.


Translated from the original Estonian by Miriam McIlfatrick

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Hagia Sophia as Trompe l’Histoire

(I apologise for slipping a little out of sequence for this post – I still have two others in draft, but I’d like to keep some momentum going while I crouch at the dread throne of the Mar King, contemplating the final decisions of the National Poetry Competition.)

On the last morning, before heading for the airport, we made the necessary pilgrimage to Hagia Sophia. A Sunday morning in January, the usual throngs were thinned down to a relaxed horde, and it was possible to visit all the usual corners and perspectives without slow shuffling and weaving.

Each time I go I or my eye seem or seems to want to take the same few photos: the smoothed marble entrance step, the blurry faced seraphim, a tucked away ladder, the odd dolphin-like pattern in the marble, the screen door, the hidden patterns in dark arches.

That morning, as ever, I noticed another something I’d never seen before – at one end of the two surviving mosaics of emperor, Madonna and empress, was a fourth (or seventh) figure. Where there was a little corner, at ninety degrees to the others, and looking very cross at his or her neglect, was an androgynous black-haired figure I didn’t know. The effect was a little like an apparition.

Another Byzantine

A.N. Other Byzantine

The things I photograph ritually are another type of apparition. The Byzantines’ love of trompe l’oeil in Hagia Sophia seems to offer an insight into their modes of thought.

The painted completions of patterns of arches present the idea that the church itself extends infinitely, or rather that it continues to exist in a conceptual dimension we see also in the carving of unliftable handles and unusable keys on the screen door; and the painting of further windows to round out actual apertures in the domes.

Two elements of this intrigue me: the landscapes revealed by those little dull windows don’t appear to be rooftops as we might expect, as though their world tilted or needed no floor; as though Byzantium was multi-dimensional, Escher-like.

And the motive for continuing the spectacle: why such a spectacular, daunting, magnificent space, built with the finest marbles and to the most brilliant design, somehow needs these elements – not as trickery, as the French expression suggests, but as a negation of the distinction between the physical and the imaginary.

Either would seem a wordless  insight worth having across the millennia.


Chatting as we got off the plane, back in Heathrow, I was trying to get at why Istanbul so engages my historical imagination. Something Richard had said earlier put this into focus.

I had been talking about that moment of disillusion when I realised Venice was made magnificent with the plunder from Constantinople, the short-sightedness of that material gain in relation to the weakening of Byzantium as a strategic bulwark against the encroaching Ottomans, so that three hundred years later Suleiman’s armies were besieging Vienna.

He compared this to venture capitalism in its contempt for the social and ecological order, suggesting it was a prototype of this mode of thought.

I thought this went to the heart of the European fixation with Constantinople: it is the place where hegemony was disproved, where ‘our’ dominance was first shown to have limitations, and where the possibility that the Other had powers, rights and values had to be faced.

So it was ignored, and the fall of ‘Rome’ focussed on instead. Because ‘we’ did that.

But as much as Byzantium was repressed, so the Ottomans became a major feature of the Great Game, with all the major powers propping or undermining it right through to Lloyd George’s support for Venizelos’s Megali Idea in the 20s, and the subsequent terrible ethnic cleansings which stripped Greece and Turkey of their ‘non-native’ populations. The ‘wrong’ had to be righted by a catalogue of further wrongs – and still it failed.

Along these lines, Tolkein’s Lord Of The Rings counters the siege in 1453 with denial through fantasy – Gondor, unlike Constantinople, is relieved. The Turk as Orc is made a monster of otherness, the West recast as Rohan, Gondor as Byzantines, and the Elves as their Classical heritage.

In this sense, Yeats’s lovely poems are a return of the repressed in an idealised form, a Byzantine Twilight.

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Constantinople and its Double

‘Couldn’t we have,’ Richard asked, ‘a map of Istanbul with Byzantium as a layer on top?’

I imagined a booklet of transparent pages, each setting out a different period of the City’s history, with perhaps a detached opaque sheet, so you could isolate one or superimpose two periods. It was then I noticed I didn’t have my bag.

I’d already had a ‘Where is it?’ incident coming out of the Hamdi Restaurant – that time with my wallet – where we had been discussing the nature of groups, how their character is formed by the largely unconscious interactions of people who don’t necessarily know each other terribly well; how this corresponds to that strange composite beast, the audience – and indeed, the largely autonomous actions of the individual, who, if neuroscience has it right, acts regardless of the assumed authority of the ego.

We’d just dropped into The North Shields (actually the Port Shield, but don’t let that misreading disturb us too much), which turned out to be an expensive replica of someone’s idea of a bar. Zöe had sheared off in horror, and Richard and I had to agree with her, leaving drinkless to be badgered by taxis half way to the hotel…

…and there I suddenly was, bag-less in Stamboul. We took a taxi back to the restaurant, reasoning that my wallet search was an unconscious sense of loss. It turned out there were many floors of the Hamdi, each with its own little office for manager or security guard or seated waiters (they have to sit somewhere).

A very solicitous and concerned waiter led me patiently up and down stairs, and baffled men in suits showed me bags which were not mine, and umbrellas which were not bags. A security guard even offered to watch footage of my meal in search of clues.

By now I’d reasoned it was either in the Port Shield or long gone, so off we headed in another taxi, discussing our favourite phenomenon of the double. I was trying to remember the actions of a forgetful being, the creature that behaves, rather than the self who decides, as though he were indeed my sabotaging double.

The same waiter, smiling the same smile for a different reason, showed me my cheap canvas bag, purchased on Crete and worn inside out to conceal the touristy images. It contained a pad with a parody written on it, an umbrella, and the selected poems of Edwin Morgan (Richard’s copy).

We followed the same route back, passing the same grumbly drunk as earlier, now contentedly smoking a stub, and remarked on the way the layers of the city were like those of the forgetful person.

Byzantium, according to this analysis, was the body leaving its ruins behind, even as the modern city tried to think what it had done with its own history. Byzantium was, as we all knew all along, Istanbul’s doppelgänger.

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Büyükada v. bustle

Greetings from Büyükada, the largest of the Prinkipoi, or Princes’ Islands, in the Sea of Marmara, where we sit nibbling Armenian biscuits in the white timber-fronted family home of our pal Pelin, while she translates the poems of Zöe.

We all made it somehow to a sunny, mild Istanbul – me rushing as I anticipated through terminals, explaining to every single official about the snow falling outside and how it might contribute to a lack of promptness; Canutic Richard attempting to hold back the plane while I somehow got through by a circuitous route, arriving at the Departures gate before him.

We’ve been working steadily through the first few poets with Efe, discovering as always that by following the kinks in meaning smoothed over by the preceding translator, we get closer to the feel, the actual movement of the poet’s imagination. It always takes more time than we have.

When totally baffled, we consult the wise bearded parrot who lives in the lobby of the Megara Palace Hotel. When totally exhausted, we drink our raki, listen to late night rain drum its several hundred fingers on the awning, and try to resist parodies.

This morning we dashed to Kabatash for the ferry to the islands, then watched Agia Sofia recede while thinking about the link between lighthouses and minarets; and listened to the waiter with long swept back black hair, in his shirt sleeves and a crimson waistcoat, bellowing, ‘Cappucino, Turkish coffee, salep!’ Ah, salep: the unset polyfilla of the Middle East.

The isle, which is supposed to be full of cats, brought there to be abandoned, actually features plenty of dogs, including one poor mangy golden retriever with open wounds on its side who leads the way to Pelin’s house.

She now has a three month year old baby, Idil (as in ‘idyll’), and the house, with its high panelled ceilings, helices of banisters ascending between three floors, and many paintings, is also decorated with toys, including a magnificent fluffy fish.

The Armenian biscuits, which have my full attention, are, variously, macaroons with walnuts, half moon shortbready things, and little folds or rolls filled with marmalade or, magically, lokum.

Soon – too soon – we’ll have to take the ferry home. It’s an interesting rhythm to move from intense focus to the passive business of being carried by the waves; from the somehow urban act of engaging as a team of minds with a succession of texts, to the separate serenity of a quiet room on a car-less island.

Crows call, children squabble in the street, the call to prayer goes up – then silence returns, as though this island, contrary to Caliban but in tune with our creativity, is actually full of silences.

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Translation into french : Zoe Skoulding’s poem in Terre à ciel

(Just made this link active)

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Flying Economy to Byzantium

As we sit, puzzling over how our shoelaces get tied, I’m awaiting the departure of a snow-delayed flight to Heathrow. From thence (after what will now be a mad dash between terminals including retrieving my own luggage and checking in) to Istanbul, where I will meet up with fellow Loser Zöe.

I’m hoping to travel out on the same flight as the Cardiff Daedalus, Richard Gwyn, and also on this outing will be Scottish Poetry Library Director, Robyn Marsack.

The purpose of the exercise is translation – specifically 6 Turkish writers for an anthology to be published by Arc. However, the whole thing has been organised by international jewel thief Francesca (AKA Alexandra) Büchler of the LAF, so socialites of Istanbul are clutching their diamonds nervously.

Richard and I were in Gümüslük, a little arts colony/academy near Bodrum, a while back, on the first leg of this venture, where we worked with Gökçenur C., Efe Duyan, and Pelin Özer. I expect we’ll see them again as well as some of the other writers to be included in the anthology.

Robyn and I were in Helsinki a few years back as part of a project in which 20 Scottish writers were translated into Finnish, though the writers themselves were not involved in that process. But translation, as ever, is the engine bringing us all together.

Among my personal goals for the week ahead, as you might expect of someone with a keen interest in Byzantine and Ottoman history, is locating the Loser’s Club Nia Davies photographed last year, and indeed a pub I passed by on the tram at last year’s Istanbul Poetry Festival, which seemed to be called The North Shield.

As an inhabitant of the holy borough of North Shields, I’m obliged to check it out for perneing, gyring, or indeed gimbling.

At this point, however, I remain seated on a stationary plane, which has been de-iced, thankfully on the outside. I have very little idea when it will leave or whether I’ll make the connection (which Richard tells me is also considerably delayed). I’m drawing stupid pictures in the inflight magazine like a six year old. What a loser!

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The Loser’s Club Is A Real Place And We Didn’t Even Get There

Delighted to post this image retrieved from Istanbul by Nia Davies, which seems a fitting way of recording the almost complete moribundity into which we, the Collected Losers, Losels and Loseurs of Adishakti, have fallen. Though, to be fair, it wasn’t much of a drop.

I met up with Nia while in Istanbul for the Poetry Festival, at which I caught up with several Word Express types including Gökçenur Ç, Efe Duyan, Claudiu Komartin and Katerina Iliopoulou.

We never got to the Loser’s Club, but I didn’t have the heart to tell Claudiu while we sat in the gutter drinking Secret Beer at three in the cool of the morning that we were already there. There was poetry to discuss, especially from his great journal Poesis International, and, besides, the Loser’s Club is always on our tail – if you look round suddenly you’ll see the edge of the Table, just keeking round a corner in the darkened street.

Meetings with the Adishakti 8 have been few and far-flung: Sampurna and I caught up briefly at the London Book Fair; Alexandra met up with me at Poetry Parnassus. Meena read in Switzerland; Sampurna launched her novel in Mumbai; Zoë’s not long back from Paris, though I forgot to ask her why she was there. Correspondence has been slightly more active, in that Raphael, Arjun, Meena and I have found a way to insult each other on Twitter. Other Losers may feel they are maintaining a dignified silence, but we all know there’s precious little dignity involved.

(Roselyne adds, ‘J’ai eu le plaisir de voir Aleksandra cet été au Festival de Lodève en France… Nous avons parlé de chacun.’ – That ‘Alexandra’, or Francesca, as we know her to be, her jewellery heists take her all over the world, but one day Clousseau will catch her up.)

What we all want, and we want it bad, is a way to meet up in this frank establishment (address 13 Deadbeat Close (a cul-de-sac), Underdogville, Flopshire, or so we’re told). Then we can discuss our work in the questioning and adult manner we have come to expect from our fellow Losers. We know that at some point this will involve cramming moths into our mouths as though they were so much cotton wool so you don’t need to rub it in by telling us.

(I should add here that The Losers’ Club (note much better use of the apostrophe) is also a Turkish Film, Kaybedenler Kulübü – ironically, a very successful one.)

So if you, or a rich uncle of yours, feel like sending us to take up a small residency in the Loser’s Club, there to endure the unfeeling heckles of Dr Jekyll and Mr Deride, be warned that most of us won’t turn up, while the others will be late and/or fail to bring the correct translations. Money or indeed monkey in a small brown envelope at the usual drop-off point, please.

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