Found in Translation

I had an incredible time with Reel Festivals in the Poetry Club last night. This event was part of Reel Iraq, an ongoing festival throughout the UK marking 10 years since the invasion of Iraq. I have always loved to listen to the music and rhythm of Arabic poetry, and last night was a treat in that respect, with readings from Iraqi poets Ghareeb Iskander and Zahir Mousa, Kurdish poet Awezan Nouri, and Palestinian poet and St Mungo’s Mirrorball member Iyad Hayatleh, who translated his own poem. The startling images and powerful words of the Iraqi poets, including Sabreen Khadhim, who sadly could not be there last night due to visa issues, were given vivid new translations from Scottish poets John Glenday and William Letford, English poet and artist Jen Hadfield, and American poet Krystelle Bamford.

Also reading poems on the theme of Iraq, “Crossing Borders”, and “Bearing Witness”, were myself, JL Williams of the Scottish Poetry Library, Mr Mirrorball himself, Jim Carruth, and Professor Alan Riach. It was an honour to take part, and be in such starry company. I especially enjoyed Palestinian poet Iyad Hayatleh’s moving piece, and Jim Carruth’s works, rooted in his own land, were poignant against the background of so many displaced people. He read one which has really stayed with me, about two women taking down the “dry stane dyke” that marks a disputed border while the menfolk are away. But I think the poem which struck me most was Zahir Mousa’s wonderful images of a home without a family, and a family without a home, translated in striking beauty by William Letford, of which fortunately a recording has already been made:

I was amused to note the title of the night, “Found in Translation”, which is the title of a poem of mine written  to a Palestinian friend, and subsequently published in the anthology Tip Tap Flat. I was lucky enough to host the Reel festival crew a couple of years ago at the Scottish Writer’s Centre when I was events organiser there, and I don’t know if I stole the title of my poem from them, or whether it was happy coincidence, but I decided to read it last night, along with a poem about my own experiences of border crossings in Ireland, and a couple of poems inspired by the excellent eyewitness account of the war in Iraq by blogger Jo Wilding, who took a circus to Iraq in 2003, and subsequently put her experiences into a book called Don’t Shoot the Clowns, which was found for me by the excellent team at the Glasgow Women’s Library. As I still hope for publication one day for the other poems, I can’t share them here, so here is the first poem:

Found in Translation

“O! Look at the spider, knitting his net,” you cried,

getting the alliteration, but shaking the cobwebs

out of a language you feared you would never learn.

Oh, never learn! It was as if your eyes were rinsed to childish clarity

by tears you had wept while reading me poems of Palestine;

as if your mouth made pictures, bright in primary colours,

of things I had only seen in shades of Glasgow grey.

I can hear music in your voice though I struggle to understand the words

as you read me “Bitaqat huwiyya”, and the music of your language

leaks into mine, an Afro-Celt dance mix heard on the radio:

weaving webs of words linked not by sense but sound; a mother-tongue

that sounds like a mother, heard by a baby who cannot comprehend,

but feels the voice as blood in its ears, the fury, laughter, rhythm, rhyme,

and my heart strings sing to the call of migration,

and try to fly to a homeland which I have never seen.

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

I was very grateful to Ryan Van Winkle, Reel Festival organiser, and Henry Bell of Fail Better for inviting me to the event, and also for the company of fellow Clydebuilt poet Vicki Husband and Mirrorballer Katherine Sowerby for drinks in the 78 afterwards!

Looking forward to seeing more of the poems from last night on the website: http://www.reelfestivals.org/reel-works/

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About Pedalling Poetry

Writer Ellen McAteer is founder of Tell It Slant poetry bookshop in Glasgow, and a visiting lecturer at the Glasgow School of Art. She was a mentee of the Clydebuilt Verse Apprenticeship Scheme, under Alexander Hutchison, and a singer with the band Stone Tape, as well as a solo singer who won a BBC Radio competition with her song Blue Valentine. She was Director of the Poetry Trust, which ran the Aldeburgh Poetry Festival, a director of the Scottish Writers’ Centre, a visiting lecturer at Oxford University's MSt in creative writing, and a member of the core group of performers at the Hammer and Tongue spoken word collective in Oxford. She is a qualified Librarian.
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