Thursday, May 29, 2014

Philip Larkin Society takes the train to celebrate 50th anniversary of The Whitsun Weddings

at Hull station: Philip Larkin statue by sculptor Martin Jennings

The Philip Larkin Society has organised two special  events to mark the 50th anniversary of the publication of the poet's collection The Whitsun Weddings! (the title poem is read by Larkin himself in this recording at the Poetry Archive).

In the first event, on Friday June 6th, dubbed "the performance train", the Hull-based theatre company Ensemble 52 will bring the poem to life on rail platforms and on a First Hull Trains journey from Hull to London King’s Cross. 'The Whitsun Weddings' has been described as ‘one of the best poems of our time’ (in the Times Literary Supplement) and this unique performance piece will cover 200 miles, eight towns and cities, and 50 years in three hours.

Bill Nighy

At several stations - Hull, Brough, Doncaster, Retford and Grantham - brides and grooms will board the train, waved off by family and friends dressed in the ‘parodies of fashion’ from 1964. Once on board each couple will share stories of life and love, marriages and heartbreak from the last 50 years. The stories will last the period of time between stations and be interspersed with other poems from the collection relayed over the tannoy. The journey will also feature a soundtrack of Larkin’s beloved jazz music. (In addition to being a poet and Hull University librarian, Larkin was jazz critic for the Telegraph newspaper.

Audiences on board two dedicated carriages for the unique journey will also be able to hear exclusive one-off recordings of Larkin poems by British Hollywood star Bill Nighy.

Theatre producer Ensemble 52 has worked with the Larkin Society and Larkin 25 (which created the incredibly successful Toads installation throughout Hull) to create and oversee the project, and also with theatre-makers and companies along the route. People’s stories and memories from five of the rail destinations from the last 50 years will be collected, collated and distilled to produce a powerful look at life’s highs and lows, joys and woes.

Andrew Pearson

E52's Andrew Pearson, who is directing this very mobile production and keeping it on the rails, said: ‘This will be a unique event and is a really rare opportunity to experience theatre on board a train and at the various locations en route. We're delighted that Bill Nighy has got involved. This will be the only opportunity to hear Bill reading these poems as they will not be commercially available. ‘This will be one of those events that will forever stay in the minds of those that join us on board. It will be a very special journey and is a chance to celebrate the anniversary of a truly great collection and a poet whose life and work is intertwined with Hull, the UK City of Culture.”

The Whitsun Weddings – on board First Hull Trains Hull to London Kings Cross service. June 6th, 2014. From 12.30pm from Hull Interchange. Tickets £65, £60 and £55 (includes travel to London King’s Cross) in advance from www.e52.co.uk and eventbrite.co.uk – price depends on station of departure.

For further information and updates visit the website www.e52.co.uk or follow the company on twitter @ensemble52

The second event marking the 50th anniversary of "The Whitsun Weddings', is the unveiling of a Larkin slate ellipse on King’s Cross Station in London, at 12.30 p.m. on Saturday June 7th (Whit Saturday). The unveiling will be carried out by Baroness Virginia Bottomley, High Sheriff of Hull, with other dignitaries present.

The ellipse will be mounted on a wall next to the First Class Lounge on the main station concourse. Carved by the sculptor Martin Jennings, it will display the final lines of the poem and will complete the sequence of installations which began in 2010 with Martin’s famous statue of Larkin and the associated poetry roundels (2011) and the Larkin bench seat (2012) on Hull Paragon Interchange. These all link neatly with the statue and roundels of Larkin’s friend and fellow poet, John Betjeman, also by Martin Jennings, sited on the next door station, St. Pancras.

Philip Larkin poetry roundel by Martin Jennings at Hull station
into which is carved the  first line of "The Whitsun Weddings":
That Whitsun, I was late getting away,

Susannah Tarbush, London

Tuesday, May 27, 2014

This Room is Waiting: a groundbreaking anthology of Iraqi-UK poetry collaborations


report by Susannah Tarbush, London

“'What’s the Arabic for aphrodisiac?’ someone shouted in the conference room of Kurdistan’s Swedish Village, home to the eight poets of Reel Iraq 2013. Cue a twenty minute debate on what gets people going in the Middle East and whether broccoli is as exciting as oysters.”

Thus begins Lauren Pyott's introduction to the ground-breaking anthology This Room is Waiting, newly out from Freight Books of Glasgow. The anthology is the fruit of a remarkable collaboration between four Iraqi poets, and four UK poets with strong Scottish connections. The initiative was part of Reel Iraq 2013, a programme of events marking 10 years since the US and UK-led invasion of Iraq.

Pyott, who has a degree in Arabic from the University of Edinburgh, has since 2010 been Literature Coordinator and Arabic translator for Reel Festivals which collaborates with artists working in areas in conflict. She co-edited This Room is Waiting with the Literature Director of Reel Festivals, American poet Ryan Van Winkle. Reel Festivals was co-founded by Dan Gorman, the coordinator of Reel Festivals and director of UK-based NGO Firefly International. Reel Festivals aims to celebrate diversity, build solidarity and create dialogue with audiences internationally. 

Lauren Pyott 

Ryan Van Winkle
The Iraqi poets in This Room is Waiting are  Baghdad-based poet and English language teacher Zaher Mousa; Ghareeb Iskander, author of the 2009 collection Chariot of Illusion; Kurdish poet and women’s rights activist Awezan Nouri Hakeem, and Baghdad-based poet and journalist Sabreen Kadhim.

Their UK counterparts are John Glenday (shortlisted in 2010 for the international Griffin Prize and for the Ted Hughes Prize for Excellence in New Poetry); Jen Hadfield (youngest-ever winner of the T S Eliot Prize, in 2008, for her collection No-Nigh-Place); William Letford (a roofer by profession, whose first collection is Bevel) and US-raised Edinburgh-dwelling Krystelle Bamford (winner of the Scottish Book Trust New Writers Award 2010).

the poets and others involved in the poetry workshops in Shaqlawa, Kurdistan
Each of the 32 poems in the anthology is displayed in English side by side with the Arabic or Kurdish original or other langauge "version". Though those involved in the collaboration try to avoid using the word "translations". Pyott explains: "As each poet spoke little or none of the other's language, and as they all brought their own style and sensibilities to the verse we consider these 'literary outcomes' as 'versions' rather than pure translations. The new works produced – in Arabic, Kurdish and English – not only share the essence of the original poem, but also convey new cultural resonances in the corresponding language.”

In addition to the poems the anthology contains four striking newly-commissioned pieces of Kufic calligraphy by Samir Sumaida’ie. They incorporate phrases from some of the poems. In Pyott's words they "stand not only as beautiful works of art in themselves, but also as a testament to the link between the visual and the literary in both Iraq and the UK."

one of Samir Sumaida'ie's Kufic calligraphy-inspired works
The four Iraqi and four UK poets were brought together for the first time in the Kurdish village of Shaqlawa in January 2013. As the basis for their workshop collaborations they were first given literal “bridge” translations of the poems. Pyott had prepared the Arabic to English, and English-Arabic bridge translations, while the bridge translations between Kurdish and English were provided by Erbil-based poet and journalist Hoshang Waziri. Actress Dina Mousawi was also involved in Arabic interpretation.

Pyott describes how the poets sat in pairs with an interpreter on hand, and chatted about each other’s work. “Can you swear in Arabic poetry? Should you translate a Scots word into Modern Standard Arabic or a dialect and if so, which one? Which register of speech is more engaging, more poetic? And that golden question which everyone wants to ask but doesn’t really dare: what to you actually mean by that?”

 Sabreen Kadhim in Kurdistan
The poems were first presented at the British Council’s second Erbil Festival of Literature, which took place while the poets were in Shaqlawa. Reel Festivals then toured the poets in the UK in March 2013 as part of Reel Iraq 2013. Sarah Zakzouk wrote for reorientmag.com about their appearance at the Reel Words evening in London. Sabreen Kadhim was unable to be present: Sarah Irving noted in a post on the Arablit blog about the Edinburgh leg of the tour that Sabreen had had her visa denied by the British authorities. Happily, Sabreen was at the Edinburgh International Book Fair and Reel Iraq events in August, as shown in this report with video.

 (L to R): John Glenday, Awezan Nouri Hakeem, Ghareeb Iskander, Jen Hadfield, William Letford, Krystelle Bamford, Zaher Mousa during their March 2013 UK tour 
photo courtesy Michael Brydon / Reel Festivals

Several of the participating poets wrote of their experiences of working with the other poets. William Letford wrote vividly about the poets' collaboration on the blog of his publisher Carcanet. And Krystelle Bamford wrote on the poetry workshops and Erbil Literature festival in an article for The Scotsman newspaper. She begins: "'IRAQ?' friends repeated, eyebrows raised, as if hoping my American accent had mangled the Gaelic name of some lovely Highland town."

Zaher Mousa wrote a detailed article on the poetry workshops for Al Sabah Al Jadid newspaper, which appeared in English translation on the Reel Festivals website under the title “Dialogue through Poetry”. Zaher writes of being paired with the different poets, including working with Krystelle Bamford on versions of her poem “Cancer” and his poem “And You?”

When working with Jen Hadfield, he swapped two of her poems, including “Lichen”, with one of his long poems. “She gathers photographic images of Scotland’s nature to give her an imaginary life and internal motion,” Mousa writes. “Her poems centre around 'Lichen', which listens to an isolated person and gulls which are considered part of the furniture of Scotland’s cities.”

His longer poem translated by Hadfield is the intensely moving "Born to Die",  which  is “about a dead baby who send messages to God.” It includes the lines:

Tell him, Baghdad plucks its people like grey hairs from its streets
and that all of a sudden,

like a family throwing its possessions into a couple of hastily packed bags,
Iraq doesn’t know where it’s going.

Reel Festivals commissioned Alastair Cook and Marc Neys to each make a video of this poem for Reel Iraq 2013, using footage shot in Iraq by Ryan Van Winkle. In the first video Zaher Mousa reads his poem in Arabic; in the second Jen Hadfield reads her English version. The videos are posted at Moving Poems.
Other powerful poems by Zaher Mousa include "The Iraqi Elements" and "The House and the Family".

Ghareeb Iskander
From Ghareeb Iskander we have "Gilgamesh's Snake" and "Three Poems"- both rendered into English by John Glenday - and "On Whitman" in a version by Jen Hadfield. This video shows Iskander and Glenday reading together at the Rich Mix in London in March 2013. Glenday said: "I love the way that he uses the ancient legends, the legend of Gilgamesh, a four-and-a-half-thousand-year-old story, to talk about the way Baghdad is today, it's very moving." The two poets read in Arabic and English "Gilgamesh's Snake", a poem in three acts: Song, Gilgamesh and Conclusion.

Sabreen Kadhim's "Water My Heart with a Jonquil", translated by Krystelle Bamford, is suffused with spirituality, tenderness and everyday details as a woman yearns for her love  amidst uncertainty. the poem ends:

So, has the wick blackened to its end
or was it simply never lit?
Are you with me? Are you with me?
Don't you dare ask me back...I'm here
clutching my match in the darkness.

In a few cases there are footnotes to poems. In her translation of Krystelle Bamford’s “My Mama, Baba Yaga” Sabreen Kadhim transliterates into Arabic, and explains in footnotes, "Baba Yaga" and two words associated with Christmas decorations: “tinsel” and “festoon”.

With their strong links to Scotland, the UK writers sometimes used Scots words in their own poetry or their translations of the Iraqi poet. In his arresting rendering of Awezan Nouri Hakeem’s Kurdish poem “He's not Like Me” John Glenday uses the Scots word “guddle”:

He's hard as a pebble when he hurls himself at me
to guddle meaning from the pool of my dreams
and inspiration from the shingles of the sea.

and also uses the word “swithering":

He's the swithering wave; he wants to flail his arms and swim through Time;
drag me behind him towards whatever fate I've earned;
grant me a fine death.

Jen Hadfield uses Scots words in her poems; "bigging" meaning building, "smoored" meaning smothered in her poem "The Session".

The experience of reading the poems and their renderings in This Room is Waiting will vary from reader to reader, depending on among other things their fluency and depth of knowledge of the three languages  and their particular sensibility and wider cultural background.

It is a testament to the success of this first Reel Festivals experiment in Iraqi-UK poetry collaboration that that a second round of workshops, with a different set of poets, was held recently held in Shaqlawa, as  reported by Nia Davies on Literature across Frontiers. S (Steven) J Fowler also wrote this  blogpost about the event. The four UK poets are Nia Davies, Kei Miller, Vicki Feaver and SJ Fowler. The counterpart Iraqi poets are Ahmad Abdul Hussein, Zhwen Shalai, Ali Wajeeh, and Mariem Maythem Qasem Al-Attar.

Thursday, May 22, 2014

Iraqi writer Hassan Blasim & British translator Jonathan Wright win Independent Foreign Fiction Prize for The Iraqi Christ


Iraqi Hassan Blasim is first Arab winner of the Independent Foreign Fiction Prize

For the first time in its 24-year history, the Independent Foreign Fiction Prize has been won by an Arab writer – Iraqi author Hassan Blasim, for his second short story collection The Iraqi Christ, translated by Jonathan Wright and published by Comma Press. This is also the first time a short story collection has been victorious.

Blasim and Wright share the £10,000 Prize, which they received at Independent Foreign Fiction Prize 2014 ceremony supported by Champagne Taittinger at the Royal Institute of British Architects this evening.

Hassan Blasim  [c) Tomas Whitehouse]

The Iraqi Christ combines reportage, memoir and dark fantasy to present Iraq, post-Saddam and post-invasion, as a surrealist inferno. From legends of the desert to horrors of the forest, Blasim’s stories blend the fantastic with the everyday. The Iraqi Christ offers an unforgettable and often harrowing insight into life in contemporary Iraq.

Blasim, described by Syrian writer, activist and blogger Robin Yassin-Kassab in the Guardian newspaper as ‘perhaps the best writer of Arabic fiction alive’, also won an English PEN translation award for The Iraqi Christ. In December 2012 Hassan Blasim and Jonathan Wright appeared in an event at the Mosaic Rooms, London to discuss The Iraqi Christ with English PEN director Jo Glanville.

He has much from his own life experience to draw from. He originally made films in his native Iraq, having to adopt a pseudonym and leave Baghdad for Kurdistan in northern Iraq to avoid persecution. In 2000 he fled Iraq completely, travelling as an illegal migrant for four years through Iran, Turkey, Bulgaria and Serbia before finally settling in Finland with the help of a friend.

The Iraqi Christ has yet to be published in its original Arabic. Blasim’s previous book, The Madman of Freedom Square, which was longlisted for this Prize in 2010, was published in a censored version in Arabic three years after its original publication in English by Manchester-based independent publisher Comma Press – but even then this was quickly banned in Jordan and many other Arab countries.

Jonthan Wright and Hassan Blasim at the Mosaic Rooms, London, December 2012

Jonathan Wright, translator of The Iraqi Christ, studied Arabic at Oxford University and has spent 18 of the past 32 years in the Arab world, mostly as a journalist with the international news agency Reuters. In 2014 he was co-winner of the Saif Ghobash–Banipal Prize for Arabic Translation for Azazeel by Youssef Ziedan.

Blasim and Wright will be appearing in conversation with Boyd Tonkin, judge and Senior Writer and  Columnist, The Independent at an event at the Hay Festival at 9.00am on Saturday 24 May.

This year the judges also wanted to give a special mention to The Mussel Feast, the debut novel by German writer Birgit Vanderbeke translated by Jamie Bulloch and published by fellow independent pubilsher Peirene Press.

This modern German classic first appeared in 1990 but is now published in English for the first time. Set around a family dinner The Mussel Feast lifts the lid on the trauma and pain that World War II left on ordinary German families and is described by judge Nadifa Mohamed as, ‘a tiny book that leaves a strong impression’.

Judge Boyd Tonkin said of the winner:

‘A decade after the Western invasion and occupation of Iraq, that country’s writers are exploring the brutal and chaotic aftermath of war and tyranny with ever-growing confidence. Among them, Hassan Blasim stands out for his fearless candour and rule-busting artistry.

'The 14 stories of The Iraqi Christ, often surreal in style but always rooted in heart-breaking truth, depict this pitiless era with deep compassion, pitch-black humour and a visionary yearning for another, better life. Jonathan Wright’s translation from the Arabic captures all of their passion, their desperation and their soaring imaginative energy. The Iraqi Christ is not only the first Arabic book to win the Independent Foreign Fiction Prize, but a classic work of post-war witness, mourning and revolt.’

Antonia Byatt
Antonia Byatt, Director, Literature, Arts Council England, added:
The Iraqi Christ is an intriguing collection, with unforgettable images, unexpected narrative perspectives and links between stories which urge you to revisit the previous tale even as you read on. The boldness and energy of Hassan Blasim’s prose is expertly conveyed by Jonathan Wright’s translation. Many congratulations to both the author and the translator and to Comma Press, regularly funded by Arts Council England, for publishing the collection.

'It is exciting to see the range of languages widening with each successive winner of the prize, with an Arabic title winning for the first time. Translation is hugely important to our literary culture – as is short fiction – and Arts Council England is delighted to support the Independent Foreign Fiction Prize, which brings to UK readers the finest fiction from around the world.’

In a year with record entries for the Prize (126 titles from 30 source languages), Blasim fought off challenges from a prestigious shortlist including Karl Ove Knausgaard’s blockbuster A Man In Love, translated from the Norwegian by Don Bartlett (Harvill Secker) and Prix de M├ędicis laureate Hubert Mingarelli’s A Meal in Winter, translated from the French by Sam Taylor (Portobello Books).

The 2014 shortlist also featured two Japanese women writers for the first time: Yoko Ogawa, author of Revenge, translated from the Japanese by Stephen Snyder (Harvill Secker), and Hiromi Kawakami’s Strange Weather in Tokyo, translated from the Japanese by Allison Markin Powell (Portobello Books).

Previous winners of the Prize include Milan Kundera in 1991 for Immortality, translated by Peter Kussi; W G Sebald and translator Anthea Bell in 2002 for Austerlitz; and Per Petterson and translator Anne Born in 2006 for Out Stealing Horses. The 2013 winner was Gerbrand Bakker for The Detour translated from the Dutch by David Colmer.

The judges for this year’s Prize are:
Alev Adil, Artist in Residence, Principal Lecturer and Programme Leader for MA Creative Writing at the University of Greenwich
British writer, broadcaster and former stand-up comedian Natalie Haynes
Nadifa Mohamed, award-winning author
Boyd Tonkin, Senior Writer and Columnist, The Independent
Literary translator Shaun Whiteside

The £10,000 Independent Foreign Fiction Prize is awarded annually to the best work of contemporary fiction in translation. The 2014 Prize celebrates an exceptional work of fiction by a living author which has been translated into English from any other language and published in the United Kingdom in 2013.

Uniquely, the Independent Foreign Fiction Prize acknowledges both the writer and the translator equally – each receives £5,000 – recognising the importance of the translator in their ability to bridge the gap between languages and cultures. The Prize is funded by Arts Council England, managed by Booktrust and supported by The Independent and Champagne Taittinger.

The Independent Foreign Fiction Prize ran initially between 1990 and 1995, and was then  revived with the support of Arts Council England in 2000. The Prize money and associated costs are funded by Arts Council England, and supported by The Independent and Champagne Taittinger.

About the 2014 winners: 


Hassan Blasim is a poet, filmmaker and short story writer. Born in Baghdad in 1973, he grew up in Kirkuk and studied at Baghdad's Academy of Cinematic Arts. In 1998 he left Baghdad for Sulaymaniya (Iraqi Kurdistan) in order to continue to make films that were critical of the Hussein dictatorship, using the Kurdish pseudonym Ouazad Osman (Hussein had government spies even in his university). In 2004, he moved to Finland, where he currently lives. His debut collection The Madman of Freedom Square was published by Comma in 2009 and longlisted for the Independent Foreign Fiction Prize 2010. Next month, a theatre adaptation of Blasim’s short story ‘The Nightmares of Carlos Fuentes’ by Rashid Razaq is being staged at the Arcola Theatre in London.


Jonathan Wright studied Arabic at Oxford University in the 1970s and has spent 18 of the past 32 years in the Arab world, mostly as a journalist with the international news agency Reuters. His first major literary translation was of Khaled el-Khamissi's best-selling book Taxi, published in English by Aflame Books in 2008. In 2014 he was co-winner of the Saif Ghobash–Banipal Prize for Arabic Translation for Azazeel by Youssef Ziedan.

The funder, manager and supporters of the Independent Foreign Fiction Prize:

Booktrust is an independent charity that changes lives through reading. It has  a vision of a society where nobody misses out on the life-changing benefits that reading can bring. Booktrust is responsible for a number of successful national reading promotions, sponsored book prizes and creative reading projects aimed at encouraging readers to discover and enjoy books.

These include the BBC National Short Story Award, the Booktrust Best Book Awards with Amazon Kindle, and Bookstart, the national programme that works through locally based organisations to give a free pack of books to babies and toddlers, with guidance materials for parents and carers. www.booktrust.org.uk

The Independent was launched in 1986 and has since established itself as Britain’s most free-thinking newspaper with a uniquely trustworthy source of information and analysis. Throughout its history it is renowned for its innovation and ground-breaking stories, from being the first national newspaper to make climate change a front-page issue to Robert Fisk’s first interview with Osama Bin Laden in 1996.
In 2004,

The Independent was the first broadsheet newspaper to launch in a tabloid format, and in 2010 it went onto launch i, the UK’s first quality daily produced in a concise format. The Independent has a circulation of 117,084, and 19 million global unique users through its website. www.independent.co.uk

Arts Council England champions, develops and invests in artistic and cultural experiences that enrich people's lives. It supports a range of activities across the arts, museums and libraries - from theatre to digital art, reading to dance, music to literature, and crafts to collections. Great art and culture inspires us, brings us together and teaches us about ourselves and the world around us. In short, it makes life better. Between 2011 and 2015, it will invest £1.4 billion of public money from government and an estimated £1 billion from the National Lottery to help create these experiences for as many people as possible across the country. Government funding is received from the Department for Culture, Media and Sport and requirements are laid out in our funding agreement with them. www.artscouncil.org.uk

Champagne Taittinger is the only top Champagne house to remain owned and managed by the family named on the label and they continue to be a keen supporter of the arts. www.taittinger.com