Interview avant la Adishakti

(Joenna Rebello sent the following questions before I left for Chennai to use in that article for Times of India’s Crest. Don’t know how much if any of it she used – I imagine very little -because I can’t access the article, but thought I might as well post it here as a preamble to what actually happened.)

Q: What do English and Scots individually (and compositely) do for your poetry? What is one language able to convey that the other can’t?

English is the ocean, Scots is the sea: one offers universality, the other intimacy. With Scots I know the coastline — it’s sharp and tender, a poetry of love and satire; I know the seabed — I can reach back to six hundred years of tradition: Burns, Dunbar, Barbour. But the sea is connected to the ocean — with English I can take that sensibility to the world. Another analogy: English is the synthesizer, the orchestra in a box, and Scots the period instrument. I’m interested in both experiment and tradition, but of course we’re post-modern enough to play folk on the synth, and avant-garde on the Stradivarius.

Q: Who does your readership comprise of? Are they fluent in both languages?

I wish! Beyond the literary readership — which always seems to be about a thousand for poetry, no matter how large the country — there are a lot of English readers still reluctant to accept how pluralised ‘their’ language has become. And of course there are still Scots who will cringe about their culture on command. But the primary issue remains that we are not educated to read non-standard Englishes, despite being able to hear and understand them on a daily basis. So I provide double the book, moving through all the types of language I’m capable of: readers are of course at their usual liberty to pick and choose.

Q: Does the lack of knowledge of Scots disable the appreciation of its poetry – Or does its cadence and rhythm, interjected with comprehensible bits in English, elevate the poetry to a new appreciation? Should it come with a glossary?

People can get over the hurdle of sheer unfamiliarity by reviving skills poetry should evoke in any case: read aloud or at least sub-vocalise, sound it out. Don’t worry about how silly you sound, or getting it right or wrong: poetry is an area in which we play with language and musicality and symbol and idea.  With Scots you just have to do what other poetries overlook at their peril.

I’m happy with glossaries, translations, bilingual texts: that’s partly the point. Scots is a part of a greater English than people might ordinarily allow themselves to conceive of, in just the way that poetry is an expression of a larger consciousness than the business-like ego we present to the world. I’m not a Scots poet, or an English poet — I’m trying to write something between and beyond both.

Q: Do you think people today are intimidated by poetry, more so poetry in a strange new language?

I think fear of poetry is a very real phenomena in both writers and readers. Poetry combines two issues that give us pause: our own creativity, and our engagement with the creativity of others, both contemporary culture and literary history. That’s a lot for a few lines on a page to carry. So those lines must be pleasurable, they must engage verbally and intellectually, they must delight before the great shadow of these anxieties falls across the whole process.

And of course poetry doesn’t make sense immediately, it makes truth — a far more problematic category. You apprehend before you comprehend. That’s why it must be beautiful: rhyme, assonance, alliteration, metre — whatever the resources a given culture draws on — are not of course separate from the meaning of a poem, but, just as importantly, they enable reader (and writer) to cope with the process of  engagement.

Q: Translation in literature has always invited debate and scrutiny; but surely the argument rises in pitch when it comes to verse – being more nuanced, visceral and tightly emotive. Can you outline some of these concerns? Would you agree to the translation of your poetry into an Indian regional language? (by an approved translator no doubt)

I think translation is a more fundamental metaphor for how humans get on with each other than is generally admitted: husband, wife, parent, child, boss, worker are all furious translating what each other ‘really’ means on a daily basis within the same language. That means for me that translation is as primary a poetic activity as metaphor itself: it too is about carrying things over from one perception to another, making the strange familiar, and the familiar strange — freshening those senses that must engage with a bewildering world.

Many of my poetic peers are also translating, measuring themselves against the big European masters, translating from a primary language into another primary language. But I come from a small culture within a big culture, so I’m drawn to a different strategy: the linking of the non-primary and, more importantly, the non-European, languages through translation. I’ve been working with Bulgarian, with Somali, with Farsi, with Chinese  — I’ve thought for a long time that the Indian regional languages offer an interesting analogy with Scots’ role in relation to English, and I can’t wait to test the theory.

Q: The Translation workshop you are part of requires you, and the other poets, to produce a certain body of work that will later be presented at a poetry Festival. Can poets be subject to deadlines?

Poets can meet deadlines, which is not at all an answer to your question. I find most of my composition — most of my creative process — takes place in a sense outside time, at the fringes of schedules, in odd corners, while I’m doing something else entirely (ironing is good!). I think of this as productive procrastination, giving room to doodle and dream. You have to cope with the guilt society seeks to induce, and persist in your frittery folly. In that space, when you’re ready, you work very hard and very fast: you really do seem to leave time, everything becomes instantaneous. These sort of workshops are attempts to create those conditions: you have to respond to the spirit of that offer.

Q: Tell us a little about your collaborative project – Book of the North? The old trope of authors and poets writing in solitude is confronted with the new model of globe-trotting, workshopping, networking folk who seem competent as creators of both hybrid as well as ‘mono’ cultures. Comment.

My work has gradually stepped away from the monolingual ego- and Anglo-centric tradition without assuming that means you embrace a theory-based model of generated writing without roots. You are aware of both without necessarily seeking synthesis between them, instead you’re looking for the spectrum of encounters, responses and engagements any cultural unit establishes for itself, including the villages of new technology. You end up being a member of more than one tribe, in fact living on and crossing the borders between many territories. You end up eccentric, nomadic, plural in voice and identity, a sort of a verb rather than a noun, and, as a consequence, generally overlooked!

Book of the North was more prophetic than practical: fifteen poets, novelists and artists producing an interactive CD that couldn’t be future-proofed… It was more a demo for the way I like to work, and I’ve done several such collaborations before and since: with composers Naomi Pinnock and Evangelia Rigaki, with sculptors and artists like David Paton and Bridget Jones, with the film-maker Anton Hecht — even a couple of collaborative volumes with fellow poets — I should be in Moscow looking for a publisher for the book of poems on the Metro there I wrote with Andy Croft and Paul Summers, but I’m coming to India instead.

That’s because I think of translation as the ultimate collaboration, particularly the kind of face to face, poet to poet work I’ve been doing over the last five years. The trio of original writer, professional translator and translating poet produces something quite different from more conventional models. Like a couple in marriage counselling or a menage a trois, it can be a rocky route, but at its best it delivers something surprising and alive in the target language.

That’s what I’m hoping to work on in India.

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About Bill Herbert

Poet and pseudo-scholar W.N. Herbert was born in Dundee in 1961, educated there and at Oxford, where he completed his DPhil thesis on Scottish poet Hugh MacDiarmid, and now lives and works in Newcastle. He is Professor of Poetry and Creative Writing at Newcastle University, and his books are published by, among others, northern publisher Bloodaxe Books. He is also the Dundee Makar, or city laureate.
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