I have been very excited about the translation of one of my poems into Dutch for the magazine Awater, the largest literary magazine in the Netherlands, alongside three poets featured in the Scottish Poetry Library‘s Best Scottish Poems 2011, Jen Hadfield, JL Williams, and Charlotte Runcie. I’m very flattered to be placed in such intelligent and talented company. The translator is Susan Ridder, who has translated prose, poetry and non-fiction for a range of literary magazines, and has also done translations for the Stedelijk Museum ‘s Hertogenbosch, Monali Meher, Philip Stromberg, and Movies that Matter. A week ago, the magazine dropped through my door, and imagine my delight as Mat and I struggled to puzzle out the surrounding article in our tourist Dutch, to find the featured poets described as “vier jonge, Schotse dichters” – four young Scottish poets! That’s a nice thing to read just after your 40th birthday.
Photo (c) Charlotte Runcie: http://www.toadandfeather.com/
There is nothing like seeing your poem in another language – though the poet in me was of course nervous at the lack of control over words used, for example “kwikzilveren” for mercury. But the whole point of writing is that once you have let the thing out of the door, its meaning and message is the property of its readers, if you are lucky enough to get any. And it is quite something that you will have intelligent readers in another country, who unlike me will have the knowledge of both languages to compare the two versions, if they want to. All I can do is enjoy the music of the sounds of my poem in this language, which certainly seems to evoke the landscape it’s meant to describe. The full poem in Dutch is below. You can read the English version here. The poem was originally published in New Writing Scotland 29.
Rouw in Arduaine
Een koel kwikzilveren licht,
Water dat de hemel naar de zee trekt,
Dat zachte grijze mededogen
Van water en steen.
Shuna, grillig en klein
Weerspiegeld, met variaties,
Seil een vage liefdevolle schaduw
Die alle twee omarmt.
Elk van dezelfde steen
En niet helemaal passend
Als kapotte puzzelstukjes
Elk een eiland
Dat bij zichzelf blijft
Maar onderdeel is van een archipel.
Zelfs wanneer de regen
Je wegtrekt van de horizon
Weet ik dat je er bent:
Ik voel de vorm van je oevers
Door de stromingen die de mijne vinden.
Oorspronkelijke titel: Mourning in Arduaine, gepubliceerd in New Writing Scotland, 29 (2011) Translation: Susan Ridder for Awater.
Below, for anyone who’s really interested, is the English translation of the full article by Susan herself, with the four poems in the original. A lovely article, though the time taken to publish it, plus translation, means there are a few inveracities – for example, I am now one of last year’s Clydebuilt cohort, though we are reading this year at Mirrorball (April 18th at the Art Club). Also, for the record, it was a 1969 VW Campervan we got stuck in the mud in, not a car, and one complete with bed and kettle, so not too much hardship to wait overnight, and of course I felt suitably philosophical in the morning! We got stuck there in the dark, so the view in the morning was a revelation, and the poem came quite easily for once. It can be good to be forced to stay still, when you’re as hectic as me. My 40th birthday was spent with my man and two boys in the beautiful village of Crail on the Fife Coast, and immobilised by flu. Here’s hoping for a similar level of literary output from that!
Rain, Riddles and Metamorphoses (Awater, Winter 2013)
Susan Ridder has lived in Scotland for several years and still visits regularly. She’s translated four fascinating young Scottish poets for Awater. This is the Dutch premiere of their work.
According to Dorothy McMillan, Honorary Senior Research Fellow English Literature of the University of Glasgow and editor of, amongst others, Modern Scottish Women Poets (Canongate, 2003), Scotland is a good place to write poetry, whether you’re Scottish or not, but not such a good place to get it published. There are a number of small independent publishers in Scotland with an impressive poetry list, including diehard publishers, Luath Press and Mariscat Press, but the most important poetry publishers, like Carcanet Press and Bloodaxe, are based in England. The largest Scottish publishing house, Canongate, stopped publishing poetry several years ago. However, a considerable number of pamphlets (comparable to Dutch chapbooks) are published in Scotland, for instance by HappenStance Press, Calder Wood Press and Red Squirrel Press, and there are countless poetry events, readings, poetry slams and poetry competitions.
As there is no obvious source on contemporary Scottish poetry and most books and articles are about the big names, I started my search for contemporary work on the website of the Scottish Poetry Library (www.scottishpoetrylibrary.org.uk), a unique poetry library in Edinburgh, whose staff specialise in the promotion of poetry, particularly Scottish poetry. The SPL’s extensive website is a treasure trove of information about Scottish poets and their work, including a list of the twenty best Scottish poems of 2011, compiled by Scottish poet Roddy Lumsden. (Every year the list is drawn up by a different person.) Based on this list, I chose the following poems for translation: ‘Staying In’ by Charlotte Runcie, ‘Taboo’ by Jen Hadfield, ‘Imago’ by J.L. Williams and ‘Mourning in Aruduaine’ by Ellen McAteer. The first three poems are on the list, Ellen’s work I knew before I went looking for the other poems.
Once I’d chosen my poems, I realised that all four have been written by young women, at different stages in their careers. The youngest poet is Charlotte Runcie, who graduated from the University of Cambridge last year and now lives in Edinburgh. She was the Foyle Young Poet of the Year 2006, a prize awarded by the Poetry Society, and winner of the Christopher Tower Poetry Prize 2007. Her poems have been published in a number of literary magazines, with ‘Staying In’ featuring in the prestigious The Salt Book of Younger Poets (London, Salt, 2011). Right now, Charlotte works for a cultural magazine and she writes about the culture of poetry in performance (which, she says, probably doesn’t leave her enough time to write her own poetry.)
Ellen McAteer is a poet and song writer working for the Glasgow School of Art. She took part in the Clydebuilt Verse Apprenticeship Scheme, where her mentor was poet Alexander Hutchison, and this year she is one of the St Mungo Mirrorball/Glasgow Life ‘Clydebuilt Poets’. She’s been a member of the Scottish poet Donny O’Rourke‘s Poetry Group and a director of the Scottish Writers’ Centre. Her experience is that the poetry scenes in Glasgow and Edinburgh are quite separate, although every once in a while they are united by the Scottish Poetry Library. Ellen’s poems have been published in magazines like New Writing Scotland, Gutter and Aesthetica and in the anthology Tip Tap Flat: A View of Glasgow.
The most well-known of the four poets is Jen Hadfield, who already has two poetry collections to her name, published by Bloodaxe, one of the most important British publishers of poetry today. Like Charlotte Runcie, she has been awarded several prizes, including the TS Eliot Prize 2008 (for her second collection Nigh-No-Place). And, like her colleague JL Williams, she did the MLitt in Creative Writing at the University of Glasgow. Although now based in Shetland, she grew up in Cheshire, England, and has many relatives in Canada. As a result of her international background, her work is often influenced by the contradictions of travelling and being at home, and the importance of place and country.
JL (Jennifer) Williams also isn’t Scottish by birth, she’s from New Jersey, but like Charlotte Runcie, she now lives in Edinburgh. She is Programme Manager for the Scottish Poetry Library and her work has been published in magazines like Poetry Wales, The Wolf, Shearsman, Fulcrum and Stand. In 2009 she travelled to the Eolean Islands with a travel bursary from the Scottish Arts Trust. There she wrote ‘Imago’, which was published as part of her collection Condition of Fire (Shearsman Books, 2011).
What appeals to me in the poems I translated is that all four are very visual, but at the same time have something mysterious. Charlotte Runcie’s poem was written on a rainy afternoon in Cambridge, but the image of a rainy reality has been overlaid with a dream image of Edinburgh in the snow. When Charlotte wrote the poem, she was still a student, working on a dissertation about Romantic sonnets, a form that fascinated her. She discovered that it can be very useful when balancing the concrete and the abstract, and to overlay multiple images. She says the sonnet also reflects her image of Edinburgh on New Year’s Eve – a city with stark architecture that contrast strongly with the fire works, unpredictable weather and somewhat sad drunkenness of many of its citizens on that night. The poem was meant as a window through which you can see Edinburgh in the distance, as she saw the city when she lived in England.
Jen Hadfield’s poem is about hares in the snow, but it was written as a riddle: the reader has to guess the animal referred to. As she herself says, she is currently particularly interested in riddles and the parallels between the old Shetland riddle game called ‘guddicks’ and the reader’s fear of not ‘getting’ a poem. She often doesn’t understand riddles herself, and she still worries about understanding poems, so she doesn’t want her own poems to be ‘difficult’, she’d rather communicate. However, when she attempted to simplify her poem ‘Taboo’, the rhythm became flawed and the life seeped out of it.
What is striking about Ellen McAteer’s poem, I think, is how beautifully she describes a – to me quite familiar – landscape, that of the Scottish west coast, and how the poem conveys her grief at the loss of her father. The poem is about coping with that grief, in which the poet doesn’t believe in life after death, but rather in the idea that her father’s life continues to influence that of her and her family, even though she cannot see him anymore. The poem is also about the fragmentation of families. Ellen’s inspiration for this poem came when she and her partner were stuck in the mud in their car one night, after a picnic. As they had to wait until someone could come and help them the following day, they decided they might as well go to sleep. When they woke, they were treated to the most stunning sea view ever.
JL Williams’ poem conveys something intangible through its title and first stanza, which refer to the last stage in the life of an insect, after its metamorphosis. Williams then links this metamorphosis to the creation of heaven and earth as imagined by Ovid. The poem was written when, during her Masters in Creative Writing, she and writer Elinor Brown made an attempt to write their own version of Ovid’s Metamorphoses. That version never really worked out, but Williams remained interested in Ovid’s stories about transformation, an interest that became the basis for her application for the Edwin Morgan Travel Bursary. With that bursary she travelled to Salina, one of the Eolean Islands near Sicily, where she wrote the poems that were published in Condition of Fire, one of which is ‘Imago’.
With many thanks to Lizzie MacGregor of the Scottish Poetry Library, Dorothy McMillan, Ellen McAteer, Charlotte Runcie, Jen Hadfield and JL Williams.
I watch the city shrug its clothes back on.
An appaloosa spatter gathers scent
that hits the brain the way it hits a lawn:
it quenches, hard as mint. I think it meant
to come inside, but only leaves a note
in droplets on the door; at Hogmanay
it settles in the lungs and in the throat
and whispers too a hush of seaside spray
that sweeps below the ribs and keeps its snow
flakes back from hopeful tongues. I’m breathing when
the rainsmell pours my throat a dram, and so
I open up the window wider, stand again
here in our cloud and wincing, hats and boots,
a pearlish weeping reaching for the roots.
from The Salt Book of Younger Poets, edited by Roddy Lumsden & Eloise Stonborough (London: Salt, 2011)
Mourning in Arduaine
A cool mercury light,
Water pulling sky to sea,
That soft grey sympathy
Of water and stone.
Shuna, small and jagged,
Echoed, with variations,
Seil a faint fond shadow
Embracing them both.
Each made of the same stone
And not quite fitting
Like broken jigsaw pieces
Each an island
Holding to itself
But part of an archipelago.
Even when the rain
Tears you from the horizon
I know you are there:
I can feel the shape of your shores
Through the currents that reach mine.
published in New Writing Scotland, 29 (2011)
You want to look on the lea-side
in winter, the swamp thickening
like the uterine wall,
popping its puffballs
and creaming its butterwort,
folding in the sundew and squill,
putting out the eyebrights.
You ask what they do
for accommodation –
try high pools
in the red hills
hind-paws slapping up flares
of red rain –
look for their niche
of collapsing peat.
Pilgrims of such
an ascetic order
don’t even own
the spectral colours
No, that’s the white flag
at Amen Corner.
That’s your heart going
That’s just the cold water
in the form
of your throat.
published in Edinburgh Review, 133 (2011)
He thought of so many ways to make this
(veined wing, weightless thing),
walked in nothingness dreaming.
Gathered and tossed stars like coins or
The stars weren’t anything.
He decided to separate first
earth sky sea land heaven air
(heavy earth, light heaven),
let them find their places
in and round the world.
How he enjoyed the splashing sound
(azure, periwinkle, emerald, cobalt, violet, cornflower, blue)
that snaked and pooled and froze, in places, rose.
The winds, his children, he banished each to their rooms.
The sea made fish, the air birds, the heavens gods, the land beasts
and man was moulded by Prometheus, who found in mud
flakes of scattered stars, and wetting them in rivers shaped
creatures with eyes looking upwards, who walked dreaming.
from Condition of Fire (Exeter: Shearsman Books, 2011)