Thursday, 30 August 2018

Present Continuous - poems from Sofia

Having lived in Sofia for close on a year, it seems apposite to put together a little pamphlet of poems that I've written in the city. The majority of these have already been made public in one way or another - the first few are revised versions of poems originally written while I was a translator-in-residence at Sofia Literature and Translation House and published in Raceme magazine thereafter, while quite a few others first saw the light of day on the Colourful Star blog with accompanying paintings by Marina Shiderova. Some were originally written in English, others continue the thread of 'Unknown Translations' (my 2016 book published here by Scalino) and were originally written in Bulgarian. Putting together a little self-published pamphlet is always a dangerous game and so I'd particularly like to thank Peter Robinson for taking the time to offer invaluable editorial advice. Hopefully, you should be able to download the PDF version by clicking here.

Sunday, 19 August 2018

Those seven books


Moderato Cantabile – Marguerite Duras
This was actually a set text for my French A-level back in 1980-2 and I’m eternally grateful to the exam board that put Duras on the curriculum. For that exam board, it can’t have been the most obvious of choices, but it had a big effect on me and meant that I spent many long hours during our visits to France over the course of the next twenty years tracking down other Durassian tomes, many of which haven’t been translated into English or indeed published more than once in small editions. Not everything Duras wrote falls into the ‘genius’ category, by any means, and the films are a bit wobbly, to say the least (although Gerard Depardieu’s turn as a washing machine salesman in one of the early ones is quite something) … but she’s probably taught me more about writing than anyone else and continues to engage and intrigue whatever she happens to be writing about.

The Successor – Ismail Kadare
The first one by Kadare that I came across … The lesser-known ‘The Concert’ is probably my actual favourite novel by him (it includes a particularly amusing incident involving Chairman Mao and a great big field of marijuana) … but this is also great because it breaks all the stupid rules about perspective that creative writing teachers seem obsessed with imposing. It’s essentially a thriller, but every chapter is told from a different point of view. And brilliantly. There’s all kinds of political shit going on which means he won’t probably ever be a Nobel Laureate – but he deserves to be.

Raiders’ Dawn – Alun Lewis
The first poet that I conned myself into thinking that I’d ‘discovered’ – with the help of my extraordinary adopted great aunt Dorothy who used to run a bookshop in pre- and post-war London. Said aunt left me first editions of this and ‘Ha! Ha! Amongst the Trumpets’ when she died and before I’d ever read a word of Lewis’ work. The title poem of this collection still sends shivers down my spine and the last few poems in the second volume are quite astonishing.

A Time of Gifts – Patrick Leigh Fermor
I’m not alone in picking this as being amongst the best travel books ever. To be honest, it’s in a league of its own. Only Norman Lewis’ ‘Naples ‘44’ gets anywhere close – and that’s not really a travel book anyway. PLF just observes everything with a precision and non-judgmental attitude (oh, OK, he is sometimes judgmental – but that’s usually only when he’s encountering drunken Nazis in a 1930s German beer hall), which is so refreshing in an age of opinionated Tripadvisor-style ‘reviews’ and high-concept travel bollocks. The second volume, ‘Between the Woods and the Water’, is arguably even better and the third, posthumous volume, ‘The Broken Road’, works surprisingly well, given that it was pieced together from fragments, diaries and whatever else.

The Complete Poems – Elizabeth Bishop
For a long time, EB was overshadowed by her somewhat self-obsessed friend Robert Lowell … thankfully, that’s been changing for a good while now and her own poems are being read properly and not as some kind of weird adjunct of the so-say ‘confessionals’ (with which she really has very little to do) or the decidedly macho how-big-is-your-novel-as-a-doorstop post-war American literary maleness (Lowell, Mailer, Vidal, blah di blah). Bishop isn’t a wannabe ‘great’ or a fake news panderer. Her every poem just sings in a light and gracious and unexpectedly deep way.

A Fine Balance – Rohinton Mistry
From my ‘epic novel’ phase … when I just wanted to read the longest, biggest novels ever (and yep, that contradicts entirely the previous note re: Elizabeth Bishop and the post-war American cock-centric boys) … This, though, is very different. A great story – and indeed a fine balance. Dickens with an added layer of humanity. The kind of novel that you just want to be immersed in forever. I read numerous other Indian novels after reading this – all of which were never less than engaging – but this is the one which really grabbed me and made me want to read and read and read …

Collected Essays, Letters & Journalism – George Orwell
Yeah, yeah, there’s ‘Animal Farm’ and ‘1984’ … Great though they are, much of Orwell’s best writing is here … in his second wife Sonia’s four-volume collection for Penguin which was still widely available when I was at school. I can remember gathering up these four volumes and reading them one by one and just thinking … Well, I’m not sure what I was thinking, but it probably involved me wanting to try and make my living as a writer and realising that you can write about just about anything if you want to and if you can see beyond the usual bollocks.

Tom Phillips

Saturday, 7 April 2018

Revolution of the Mind

Here's my prefatory note to my latest published translation - Anatoli Gradinarov's 'Revolution of the Mind' - which is now available as an e-book from Amazon and elsewhere.


What is your true potential as a human being? That is the central question running through Revolution of the Mind. Clearly and succinctly challenging orthodox understandings of how the human mind works, the book presents us with the tools to examine our own mental behaviour and recognise the complex of interactions between the conscious, subconscious and unconscious which give rise to, distort and ultimately trap us inside our thoughts, our emotions and what Gradinarov calls ‘the nightmare of the self’. This, though, is not a self-help manual. It certainly doesn’t provide a readymade programme for transforming your life. On the contrary, Gradinarov challenges any kind of programme or dogma and instead encourages an inquisitive form of self-observation which can take us beyond the self-created roles, mental self-images and illusory virtual worlds generated by our territorially motivated egos. Those already familiar with Zen Buddhism, Jungian psychology, phenomenology and even existentialism will recognise some of the strands which feed into Revolution of the Mind, but Gradinarov brings a whole new perspective to questions of identity, perception, understanding and, above all, happiness. In many ways, the answers he indicates are simple – but they are answers which you have to find for yourself.
In translating Revolution of the Mind, what struck me is the precision of Gradinarov’s language. For a translator, of course, this is a challenge – but one which, I hope, with the generous input of the author himself, we have managed to overcome. The precision of language too reflects the precision of the ideas contained in this book which are illustrated with experiences from everyday life that all of us can recognise. This English translation from the original Bulgarian text is a collaborative work and, to me, that also serves as an example of what Gradinarov is talking about: translation is not something which happens according to a programme. You can’t simply feed the original text into one end of a matrix and expect a perfect translation to emerge at the other. It’s about collaboration and calibration, about being prepared to relinquish your own territory in the name of finding common ground. As Revolution of the Mind repeatedly reminds us, the borders which exist between us are entirely of our own construction. All we have to do is recognise them for what they are.

Tom Phillips

Tuesday, 3 April 2018

Beginning with the city



Ah, Sofia,
I want to write you a poem
but where to begin?
With your pocked facades
and unruly pavements?
With your non-stop shops and trolley cars?
The sociology of balcony design
or the semiotics of disconnected electrical wiring?
With the slow progress of pensioners
burdened with bags crammed full
of secondhand clothes and bargains from Billa?
With the kids after school in a сладкарница
laughing with disbelief into their mobile phones
or the pyjama’d men chain-smoking
between satellite dishes and sheets out to dry?
With the chess-players waiting for opponents
among the students with Шуменско bottles
on the benches that line the theatre gardens?
With your pigeons, your magpies, your jays?
With your trees coming into blossom
and newly hung with мартеници?
With the light on the snow of your mountain
or the spit and crackle of a pantograph
as a tram pulls round the corner
outside the Palace of Justice?
With the coffee and cigarette sellers
in their subterranean kiosks
and the customers crouched down
with plastic cups of espresso?
With your dog-walkers walking pert dogs
that trot in circles by the Borisova lily pond
or the crowd of commuters dispersing
through subway labyrinths and emerging into squares
and ad-hoc bazaars with snow-drops in jam-jars
and embroidered tablecloths laid out by piebald furs?
With the bagpipes keening over traffic noise
by a zebra crossing on your Yellow Pavements
or a jaunty trilling accordion by the open door
of a souvenir shop on sun-splashed Vitoshka?
With waiters laying tables outside cafes
on the first good day of spring,
with the smell of rose oil in Serdika metro,
the taste of баница, the burn of ракия
with a lightning storm one humid August,
or with the disc of the moon poised, silver,
above the gold domes of Nevsky?

Ah, Sofia,
I wanted to write you a poem
but even in plain view you’re elusive
and I am only just starting to know you –
so for now there are only beginnings,
but those beginnings, it seems, will be endless.

3/4/2018
Tom Phillips

Friday, 2 March 2018

Balkan Poetry Today returns for 2018


Balkan Poetry Today 2018
Call for submissions

Following the success of Balkan Poetry Today 2017, Red Hand Books and editor Tom Phillips are delighted to announce that submissions are now open for the next edition, Balkan Poetry Today 2018 (due September 2018).

What we are interested in:

1.      Translations of contemporary poetry from SE Europe into English

2.      Reviews and essays in English relating to contemporary poetry from SE Europe, translation, SE European literature and culture generally

What do we mean by SE Europe? We have no fixed definition and welcome translations of work from the languages spoken across the SE European region and by poets who identify themselves with the SE European region and its diasporic populations.

Please send:

1.      A maximum of five poems along with biographical details of both the poet and translator. We are not able to publish bilingual parallel texts, but having the poems in the original language is also helpful during the editorial process. Poems can be of any length, but please be aware that space is limited and longer poems may have to be excerpted.

2.      For prose, it is best to first approach the editor with a short proposal outlining the essay/review you would like to submit together with a brief biographical note. Prose works longer than 2,500 words are unlikely to be accepted.


Please send all submissions to: balkanpoetrytodayeditor@gmail.com by Friday 20 April 2018 at the latest.

Before making a submission, please ensure that you have all the necessary rights/permissions from authors, publishers etc to publish the translations you are submitting. Unfortunately, at this stage, Balkan Poetry Today is not able to pay contributors or cover the cost of translation, translation rights, foreign publication rights etc.

Reviews of Balkan Poetry Today 2017

“This first issue of an exhilarating new journal is sheer delight” Ian Brinton, Tears in the Fence

“As a reader and critic, I warmly recommend Balkan Poetry Today, strongly believing that even the most fastidious readers will find poems that move them” Danijela Trajković, The High Window

Balkan Poetry Today is published by Red Hand Books. Ffi: http://www.redhandbooks.co.uk/

Friday, 21 July 2017

Balkan Poetry Today #1 is here


Now here's a thing ... Red Hand Books has just released the limited first edition print copies of 'Balkan Poetry Today 2017'. It features work by some contemporary 30 poets from a dozen countries across SE Europe translated into English - some of whom are being published in English for the first time. This issue also includes sections focusing on poetry from Bulgaria and Macedonia, as well as an essay about other recent translations of SE European poetry into English.
The idea for this annual publication probably originated about ten years ago when I first became interested in the region and realised that, despite the heroic efforts of a few individual translators and a handful of dedicated anthologists, it's still pretty difficult to track down English translations of contemporary SE European poetry. A decade of contact-making, chance meetings and quite remarkable coincidences and a huge amount of support from the publisher (Richard Eccles), the contributing poets and the translators later - and 'Balkan Poetry Today' has arrived as a 120-page volume with an e-book version to follow shortly. You can find out more - including who's featured in #1 - by following the Facebook page and Twitter @BalkanPoetryTdy A huge thank you from one very relieved editor to everyone who has helped to make it happen.

Saturday, 15 July 2017

Blue pause

The empty geography
of a once crowded street
resembles a gallery
after it’s closed.

Who knows what
is going to happen?
I’m looking for signs
but none appear.
Silence embraces the world.

Absolute illusion!

The lights change.
The traffic returns.
Noisily, angrily,
it rushes by
like ambulances
carrying pregnant women.

And then another pause,
a pause for thought, for breath,
and on the opposite pavement
a boy strokes the face
of his girl –
they’re holding hands
in the shadow of the offices
where they work,
and carry on doing it
even when the skies open
and the rain hits the windscreen
of car after car.

Once again
the lights are changing.

Tom Phillips, July 2017