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

Saturday, 8 April 2017

A snippet of autobiography


I don’t know why I write. My parents weren’t what you’d call ‘arty’. My mother loved the theatre and painting flowers, but aside from the Desert Island Discs pairing of The Bible and Shakespeare, the books in the living room were mostly by Alistair Maclean and Hammond Innes. My father once bought an anthology of “story poems”, but this, it turned out, was because he wanted to learn a stretch of narrative verse to perform at one of the village amateur dramatic society’s music hall evenings. That said, my mother was descended from a family of art dealers and occasionally mentioned a book – a catalogue raisonné of Dutch and Flemish painters – which one of her forebears had published in the nineteenth century. It was simply known as “the book” and every time it was mentioned she’d wonder who had written it or whether any copies remained extant. My father – who was a flight engineer with what was then BOAC and travelled a lot – also began bringing home paintings by an artist in Tehran. Our living room was slightly unusual in having a portrait of an imam over the fireplace and a winter scene from rural Iran in the hall. When my mother felt like it, we would sometimes take out the complete works of Shakespeare and read plays together, she and I alternating lines. For some reason, she also asked me to write a poem to read out at one of the Christmas parties that they held – largely because everyone else in our street held Christmas parties – and that must have been the first poem I ever wrote. Its rather conventional – and presumably borrowed – gist is that Christmas has lost its meaning and become an orgy of materialism – although reading it now, I can’t help but detect the origins of a much later poem about suburban life, ‘Portishead’.
Whatever its satirical intent, the poem seemed to go down well enough and I wrote another, rather similar one about package holidays for one of my parents’ summer parties – also held because everyone else in our street held summer parties. This would have been when I was around 14 or 15 and writing a novel called ‘It could happen here’ in which my secondary school had become a prison camp. I bashed that out on an old manual typewriter that my father picked up at an auction in Leighton Buzzard. Large sections of the manuscript are in red ink because I never fully mastered how to change the ribbon and had to resort to using the red ribbon when the black one ran out. At some point, I also wrote a poem – plagiarised almost entirely from D.H. Lawrence and T.S. Eliot – called ‘Look, weed entwines in the tide’. My aunt – who worked in a pharmacy in Richmond that was frequented by rock stars on methadone scripts – showed it to someone who was the nephew of someone who was possibly quite important in a major publishing house. Whoever it was detected the DHL and TSE traces immediately, but suggested that, with a bit of practice, I might get the odd poem published somewhere (although not by his major publishing house).
Now eighteen, I went to Australia. I didn’t write anything much while I was there – aside from long, overly detailed letters to my father (so over-detailed that he insisted on several occasions that I fly home immediately) – but once I was back in England, the sparse landscapes around Dubbo in New South Wales and the end-of-the-road atmosphere in Cairns in Queensland (not then a go-to holiday destination) started making demands. Somehow I had to make sense of those places and writing about them seemed to be the only way to do it. I’m sure that I didn’t do them justice, but those flat horizons with intermittent trees, the smouldering tail-ends of bush fires and the St Andrew’s Cross spiders clacking their legs like knitting needles above us on a terrace in northern Queensland were probably what started this whole business of thinking that it’s possible to make small corners of sense in the world.

Tom Phillips

Wednesday, 29 March 2017

European Union


At first it might have been coincidence
that we heard so many car horns
shifting through the Doppler effect,
or checked in at hotels where girls
in Sunday best held hands and sang
interminable folk tunes.

Only, the following day, new couples
emerged from a scaffolded church
with candles lit, and family groups
assembled in a park for photographs
where filigree blossom coincidentally
obscured the Stalinist backdrop.

Thirty, forty weddings eased
from municipal ceremonies to pose
beneath late-flowering cherry trees,
anticipated pleasures, and advice
they’d hardly need, being of an age
when all has seemed so changed.

Such innocence again around the square,
these brand new starts, this expectation,
Romanian sunlight on dove-grey dresses. 

Tom Phillips
From Recreation Ground (Two Rivers Press, 2012)

Sunday, 26 March 2017

Some various things

Recent online publications, in short:

Eight poems translated into Bulgarian by Bozhil Hristov and published in Literaturen Vestnik in Sofia: http://www.bsph.org/members/files/pub_pdf_1533.pdf

Confessions of a rooky translator at Versopolis: http://www.versopolis.com/panorama/330/confessions-of-a-rooky-translator

A poem in London Grip: http://londongrip.co.uk/2017/02/london-grip-new-poetry-spring-2017/#phillips

Two poems in Snakeskin: http://www.snakeskinpoetry.co.uk/236leavetaking.html

A paper on writing and place from our conference in Montenegro in June: http://www.folia.ac.me/arhiva15.html

And coming soon ... Balkan Poetry Today #1: https://www.facebook.com/balkanpoetrytoday/?fref=ts


Saturday, 24 December 2016

The year of sharp contrasts


At the end of last year, the aftermath of Sanctum – that extraordinary month of performance in Bristol – and the prospect of regular teaching and subbing work for the first half of 2016 prompted a tentatively optimistic view of the year to come. Twelve months later, it seems that even such tentative optimism was slightly naïve. That’s not to say that 2016 has been relentlessly miserable, but the highs and lows have come in rapid succession. Indeed, I’d be hard-pressed to remember a year of such sharp contrasts.

There was certainly none sharper than going to bed in Montenegro on Thursday 23 June after the first-night dinner of an academic conference I’d co-organised, feeling confident that, despite the hateful rhetoric and flagrant lies of the Leave campaign, there wouldn’t be a majority vote for Brexit, only to be woken at 6am by a text from my wife which told me all I needed – but didn’t want – to hear. It read simply: ‘I can’t speak.’ My happiness at being back in the Balkans for the first time in two years, at having introduced two friends and colleagues from the UK to the region and at meeting again with good friends in Montenegro dissolved into a feeling somewhere between jet-lag and grief, physical disorientation and emotional shock. Curious aftershocks rippled through the remaining two days I was away: gallows humour; abrupt and unprompted tirades; a conviction that the result had been misreported; a conviction that this couldn’t be the result because all three of us on the trip to Montenegro had voted Remain by post or proxy; a particularly horrible stomach bug which poleaxed me on the final evening. It didn’t ruin the rest of the conference or the day out to the seaside which followed, but it certainly made any feelings of satisfaction or happiness seem compensatory, even escapist.

I didn’t have much opportunity to get used to this new version of ‘home’, where, it seemed, it was now socially acceptable to shout at ‘foreigners’ on the bus or daub racist graffiti on community centres. By the beginning of August, I was back in SE Europe, this time as a translator-in-residence at the Sofia Literature and Translation House. This also happened to coincide with the publication of my first book in Bulgaria – Nepoznati Prevodi/Unknown Translations, a collection of poems which I wrote as exercises while I was learning the Bulgarian language. It was a month spent translating poetry and drama, meeting and befriending some of Bulgaria’s finest writers and renewing my acquaintance with one of my favourite cities. It seemed entirely appropriate that the launch of Unknown Translations was hosted by Vasilena, the student who’d asked me three years previously if I’d ever been to Bulgaria and unwittingly set in train the events which led to my publishing a book in Bulgarian, while any semblance of stiff upper lip disappeared when her sister Marina presented me with the original drawing she’d made for the cover. Marina, Vasilena and I had set up the online project Colourful Star in early 2014, but the book launch was the first time that all three of us had been in the same room since we’d originally discussed the project on my first trip to Sofia in 2013. By the end of the month, too, the conversations I was having with my wife on Facebook every night had led to our reaching a decision we’d been considering for some time: we would move to Bulgaria in September 2017.

With this decision made, the idea of returning to Brexit Britain seemed at least bearable because only temporary. Even so it took me even longer to reacclimatize than it did after previous Balkan ventures – and that process was elongated even further by the second blow of 2016’s political double whammy: the election of Trump.

It’s only possible to speculate about what will come of this, but as the year reaches its end, the current triumph of the incompetent, the idiotic and the megalomaniac doesn’t inspire confidence. Perhaps the key hope is that this is the last flailing of the generation whose first step was to bring us Thatcherism, Reaganomics and the whole neo-con shebang and that when all the people who voted for Brexit and Trump discover that they too are going to be locked out of the global elite’s gated community (along with all those they currently choose to despise), perhaps they’ll have a change of heart.

In such circumstances, it seems almost facile to end with anything other than a gloomy outlook, but these are the circumstances too in which all we can really do is find compensation where we can. As Gramsci put it in his Prison Notebooks: “I'm a pessimist because of intelligence, but an optimist because of will.”

Thanks to John Fru Jones for the picture from the launch of 'Unknown Translations'

Thursday, 22 December 2016

Georgi Gospodinov: God of Berlin

In the aftermath of the Berlin attack, WN Herbert's excellent New Boots and Pantisocracies blog is featuring the great Bulgarian poet and novelist Georgi Gospodinov's elegiac poem 'God of Berlin'. You can read this and my translation of it here.