Sunday, 31 July 2011

Champagne at the bus stop

Only my second post this month. I returned from a Zen retreat after just three days when a person close to me became ill. He was - still is - in a lot of pain, on morphine at times. We spend most of the time in silence. He seems to like it as much as I do.

Judy Hojin Kimmel
The retreat was led by Hojin Kimmel of the Zen Mountains and Rivers Order. She ran an art workshop on the first day  - something they call journalling; I learnt some useful ways of expressing oneself a la Natalie Goldberg, painting and writing in concert, practical methods of managing.

During the morning before I left, it happened that I looked up towards the altar where she was sitting and had a perception of emptiness, as if no one was there. 

Earlier this month, I enjoyed reading a graphic novel entitled Persepolis, by  Marjane Satrapi (Pantheon, 2007), an autobiography revealing the effect of fundamentalist Islam on a young girl in Iran. Someone had lent me the book, and as soon as I finished it, I bought my own copy, the complete work in two volumes: the first  is better, I think. The illustrations are plain line drawings, black and white, most expressive. The story has been pared down and down, very good.

A recent experience: I was one of the winners in a translation competition with a translation of Rosa Ausalender's Dichten. Rosa Auslaender managed to survive the Holocaust and returned to Germany after the war. She is regarded as an important 20th century poet, a friend of Celan's. Her most famous poem is entitled Motherland:


Mein Vaterland ist tot
sie haben es begraben
im Feuer

Ich lebe
in meinem Mutterland
The local Goethe Institut and the German lecturers at Victoria University organised an exhibition of her poems in German, with wonderful photos, accompanied by translations of varying quality - some were by established translators, some by students, some by Google Translate. A translation workshop was great fun: Lloyd Jones read a translation he'd worked on, and so did Kate Camp, beautiful.

I don't feel that my work is as good as theirs by any means  - but maybe it has the quality of being faithful to Rose Auslaender's words. I am not sure how pleased she would be herself. She may have liked some of the minimalist translations, which allow a lot of air around the words, letting them float.

The four winning entries will be posted in bus-stops around Wellington for two weeks. My friends say, let's party in the bus stop, drink champagne! It will be fun!

Poet Lynn Jenner
On a different scale altogether: Lynn Jenner's book Dear Sweet Harry won  the Best First Book of Poetry Award in the 2011 New Zealand Post Book Awards - congratulations, Lynn!

Sunday, 3 July 2011

Two cultures and CP Snow

Very tired, took to the sofa, much reading and drinking of tea, the gas heater's radiance, winter sun shining bright panels on the floor.

Elizabeth Smithers' short stories The girl who proposed (Cape Catley, 2010): they are somehow unsatisfactory, one knows that the reader is supposed to work, but her characters do not interest me enough to make me want to. Usually I like to puzzle out what is meant, but not in this case.

Something in the local culture escapes me. For instance, in common with a friend of mine who is also an immigrant, I dislike Owen Marshall's work, the greyness and tedium of his short stories, and yet another friend, whose opinion I respect, says that to her they are very meaningful. She is a born and bred Kiwi.

Elizabeth Smithers is a highly regarded poet. I enjoy her poetry more than her short stories.

Coping with the aftermath of a migraine, spent a day or so reading CP Snow's The sleep of reason (McdMillan 1968), one of a series entitled Strangers and brothers. Altogether a different experience: quite wonderful in fact. I don't know what to mention first: the number of new words - I must have looked up about seven, including the use of rake to mean incline and beck to mean gesture, which I vaguely knew, and nepenthe, a drug that drives away grief...His writing is full of ideas, his characters make statements about the world: I paraphrase - 10 000 people run England and X is convinced that if they were all got rid of and        10 000 others installed in their place, England would continue unchanged. Meaning that there are more gifted people than there is opportunity for them to put their talents to good use - one of the themes of his writing, why does one person 'succeed'  and receive society's kudos, and another equally or more talented does not, also how the unsuccessful-but-gifted people cope with this knowledge. Luck is mentioned. He returns to this topic frequently, it troubles him.

I loved the structure of the book - recurring themes such as variations in people's memory, different kinds of memory - someone can quote whole dialogues exactly as they were said years earlier - and the importance of having a good memory - how it affects a person's ability to function.

Two courts of justice in the course of the story, a mirroring - also very good descriptions of personality disorders, of someone vaguely autistic. The importance of children, the forms parenting can take.He notices the many 'coloured faces' in his home town (the novel takes place in the 1960s). The local police superintendant says "Pakistanis - they are no trouble."

He must have been a dangerous man to know - I guess a compulsive note-taker, everything going into his books, everyone a potential character in his stories.

Someone came to dinner last night who knew his lecture Two cultures, about the gap between the arts and the sciences and how most people belong to one camp and fail to appreciate the other's importance. Writers who don't know the definition of acceleration, scientists who have never read Dickens.

I shall get more of his books from a second hand bookstore, I think they may be good company in the future. Read him up on Wikipedia and found that he was a physicist as well as a novelist, and made a peer. He's from Leicester.

* * *

Published a friend's poem in the latest newsletter and added an s to a word, because was sure it was a plural.
She is livid:  'nauseating pedantry', she says in her email, and signs it "Love...". For me, it was just an ordinary adjustment, part of what I do as an editor. Another poem by someone else lacked a title and I phoned to ask for one. The s did not seem to warrant a phone call - I am busy enough as it is - though a bell rang faintly in my mind, in warning, which I ignored.