I have so much to be grateful for in 2014.
The year began in one of my temporary fits of Poetry Exhaustion, cured by the discovery one morning of the work of Pedro Serrano on Bill Herbert’s blog. One thing led to another, a link and then a link and then a link, as you do. Before long I had the glorious Peatlands (Arc), supremely translated by Anna Crowe, in my hands.
The doldrums now firmly exited I decided to keep following my nose, resulting in the discovery (and purchase) of the extraordinary & Silk & Love & Flame by Birhan Keskin, translated not so much into English but fire by George Messo. At this point some very slow cogs of memory began to stir. I seemed to remember George Messo translating something else I had put on a ‘to read’ list some two years previously. Sure enough, his version of Ilhan Berk’s The Book of Things was still extant, snapped up in gorgeous hardback with timely birthday money. Could I have been luckier?
I took it away with me over Easter. Reaching a campsite on the very edge of the world I spent a blissful morning reading it in the doorway of my campervan, coffee at my side, sea glinting over the stile in the hedge, the April sun persuading itself that winter had finally vanished. Had the year stopped then, 2014 would already have qualified as special, on the basis that these remarkable books took me to places, sensations, observations and ways of thinking I had not previously imagined. They, and their translators, deepened and enriched my life immeasurably in 2014: thank you.
Somewhere around the middle of the year, and for reasons I cannot remember, I came across the amazing work of Carrie Fountain. This led me to her website, which led me in turn to her marvellous interview with the New Orleans Review. Buried in the middle of this interview, in a list of favourite poets, was a name that was to become vitally significant to me: Adélia Prado. I noted her name down, as I had Ilhan Berk’s, expecting to read her sometime in 2016 ‘when I got round to it’.
A week or two later I met with Naomi Jaffa to prep my blogging for this year’s Aldeburgh Poetry Festival. Top of Naomi’s list of People I Absolutely Had to Read and Blog About was Adélia Prado. Naomi wanted to know, had I heard of her? I said I had, but had read no more than the single poem I had been able to find on the internet. ‘We shall have to send you some!’ she beamed.
To say the arrival of her two, US-published volumes The Alphabet in the Park and Ex-Voto was a revelation is an understatement. As I blogged at the time, the arrival of her poems into English, in one complete volume, is a discovery not only of the year but of the decade. Her poems are spiritual, earthy, erotic, dreamy, excitable and highbrow, often all at once. At the festival itself I learned that Naomi had been trying to bring Adélia Prado to Aldeburgh for several years, each time to be met with polite refusal, citing a fear of flying as the reason not to attend.
Naomi and Prado’s UK publishers, Bloodaxe, are to be congratulated for bringing this vital and essential poet not only to these shores but into the forefront of our poetic culture. Special mention must also be made to her collaborator and friend for 30 years, Ellen Doré Watson, whose translations transmit the excitement of discovery that the poems capture so essentially.
In the jiffy bag of goodies from Naomi were also books of poems by Beverly Rycroft, Finuala Dowling, Bronwyn Lea, Ellen Doré Watson, Dan O’Brien, Jen Hadfield, Thomas Lux and Selima Hill. I pinched myself to have been asked to read them. It is invidious to pick out favourites from such a list, but I do want to mention a personal highlight, which was my encounter with Beverly Rycroft’s book of poems about her experience of cancer, missing.
Having had cancer, and become ever so slightly obsessed with how we use language to describe individuals’ experience of it, I was struck by Bev’s honesty, her clarity, and handling of recurring tropes and metaphors (heat, the sea, prayer) without ever sounding mawkish or self-pitying. Actually getting to meet her at Aldeburgh and discuss these ideas, so deeply personal to both of us, would have lit up any year. But this took some beating.
It is difficult to know where to start to describe the intensity, depth and richness of my experience at Aldeburgh this year. If you want just a flavour of the festival, you can catch up with my blog posts, which I have collected here. Aldeburgh matters because it is a living demonstration of the creation of high-quality cultural impact in straitened times. Even more than that it is a place where conversations between artists and audiences are actively and deliberately cultivated. The culture at large -not just the poetry-culture- flourishes because of it.
My most cherished moments at Aldeburgh were mostly private. Sharing toast and tea each morning with Peter Sansom. Listening to Michael Laskey read to launch his new book. A man handing me an old copy of Smiths Knoll so I ‘could make my collection complete’. Bumping into old friends. A woman showing me the poem she had redrafted since my workshop. (A poem she ‘had had on the go’ for two years). And finally meeting in the flesh several people I had only met virtually, including Kim Moore, Rebecca Goss, Katrina Naomi, Roy Marshall, Maria Taylor, Fiona Moore and Carole Bromley.
Even more than this, I loved watching people as they listened to poets reading their work. I loved Michael Laskey’s stillness, mouth slightly open, body leaning slightly forward, his beret tilted. And Naomi scribbling furiously in the New Voices reading, her Uni-ball Eye poised over her tiny notebook.
It has been an overwhelming year.
I have judged a competition. I have had a contract for a book. I have experienced generosity from friends, acquaintances and complete strangers, including, for the first time, emails and letters of approval from poets about whose poems I have written. Most of all I have delighted in the connections I have made through this blog in still unexpected ways, for example, the recommendation of Naomi Shihab Nye’s poetry. Reader, you know who you are! Thank you.
I have made friends, and reconnected with some very old ones. It has been the best of times.
But when I think of what poetry did to me in 2014, I go back to that morning at the campsite reading Ilhan Berk, the sky a cloudless blue and somewhere in it a skylark, briefly muffling the sea.