Poetry

The Science, Nature and Creativity of Slant Light. In Conversation with Sarah Westcott

We caught up with Sarah Westcott to discuss the interplay between science and creative writing and the various aspects of life and culture that enrich her poetry collection Slant Light.

As someone who has studied both biology and creative writing, do you think that scientific methods (e.g. observation and analysis) bear any similarity to poetic composition?

Yes and no in the sense that both involved sustained and careful observation of both the immediately visible and then the less obvious before any conclusions are drawn or ideas expressed.

But no in the sense that when I am writing early drafts of a poem I am drawing on parts of my mind that do not attempt objectivity. Objectivity is of course fundamental to scientific observation and analysis.

Both disciplines are also infused with the kind of curiosity that is unconscious and in-the-moment and then have parallels in the time afterwards when the mind works over and through what it has been looking at.

There is also a sense for me when editing that I must engage my rational, discerning, critical mind to excise and explain and this is very much a mind I recognise from looking down a microscope or under a stone and examining what is there.

In some of your poems, such as Bats and The Mariposa Trees, nature seems to speak for itself. How did you go about developing a voice and consciousness for different aspects of the natural world?

Thank you – that is something I am still working on. I think for me it is a question of immersing myself in the landscape and also spending time in the garden standing quietly as the bats flicker above me. Those immersive times which are wordless give me a taste of the language that might suit that species. So for the bats I went for a lot of consonantal, clicking sounding words which reflects the staccato nature of their flight and the echolocation they emit (which I can sometimes still hear).

So it’s a question of listening to (and feeling, as a fellow animal) what is already there and then trying to capture something of that essence in our language.

You also work as a journalist. Does this feed into your poetry in any way?

I have been a news reporter for almost twenty years now. In terms of writing, a lot of the news we report is quite complicated and has to be condensed into a few hundred words. So clarity is very important and I think the word-by-word editing skills of weighing up whether a word, phrase or even comma should be there is useful in both areas.

Likewise with rhythm – there is a beat or rhythm in the intros (the first paragraph) of most tabloid news stories  – this may sound fanciful but you do hear it in the sentence as you write it. There is also a degree of word-play.

The other parallel is an awareness of an audience which is strong when I’m writing a news story. We were long ago told to consider: “would this article/angle be of interest to Doris in Doncaster?” And when writing poetry, being able to step back and think “does this actually make sense in its own right” helps my poems hopefully become more understandable.

I have found in my job that you become immersed in all human life as a reporter – not only speaking to people but also sitting through the court cases and inquests, the weddings, the funerals and any occasions when there are crowds of people mourning or celebrating. It’s a kind of privilege to be able to be in those crowds and talk to people and understand why they are there. As a journalist people sometimes tell you quite intimate thoughts as well.  You’re also party to terrible cases of abuse and also the fragility of life. I think that can only help feed my poetry with a respect and even love for us “naked apes”.

You have previously cited Alice Oswald as an influence. What do you value most in her work? Do you have any other literary influences?

I love her use of language to describe the non-human – she manages to make us see creatures, and places almost in a heightened reality without in any way sentimentalising them. For example, writing of a rotted swan as “hurrying away from the plane-crash-mess of her wings” communicates the arched structure of the swan’s frame and also the rigidity and stillness of death and also the way swans ‘run up’ and take off into flight.

My literary influences are everywhere. I am a magpie. I like poems that stretch language to its limits and are not afraid to go beyond.

I really enjoy hybrid work at the moment – recent highlights are Max Porter’s Grief is the Thing With Feathers and also Solar Bones by Mick McCormack.

I am also fascinated by the sounds, music and meaning in registers of language we have at our disposal – particularly the specialist vocabulary you might find in science. At their best they give you a new way of seeing the world and also sound beautiful when defamiliarised.

Slant Light features several Anglo-Saxon charms and references to folklore. What is your process for transforming raw material such as this into poetry?

A lot of the charms came about when I was writer-in-residence at a nature reserve and I wanted to write about the properties of the plants growing there – many of them common weeds with medicinal properties.

That lead me into researching the charms which are these rich, song-like poems that seem to operate in the area between early Christianity and paganism. I find that hinterland really exciting. I moved between the old texts and my own new interpretations by translating word-by-word using an online dictionary and a bit of poetic license. A lot of the words are open to interpretation and a lot of them are direct translations. What is exciting is the rhythm of speech is already there in the originals which gave me a powerful sense of reaching into something real. They were, I think, performative and meant to be heard. In that sense, the form of the poems, like line breaks and pauses, fell naturally as breath.

 

About Sarah Westcott

Sarah Westcott’s debut pamphlet Inklings was the Poetry Book Society’s Pamphlet Choice for Winter 2013. Her poems have been published in journals including Poetry ReviewMagma and Poetry Wales and in anthologies including Best British Poetry 2014 (Salt). Sarah grew up in north Devon, on the edge of Exmoor, and has a keen interest in the natural world. She holds a science degree and an MA in poetry from Royal Holloway, University of London. Sarah lives on the London/Kent borders with her family and, after a spell teaching English abroad, works as a news journalist.

For more information on Slant Light and other titles in our Pavilion Poetry series, please visit our website.

 

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Poetry

‘A Handful of Blue Earth’ Marilyn Hacker on her translation of the poems of Vénus Khoury-Ghata

Marilyn Hacker has translated several of the works of Vénus Khoury-Ghata. Here to celebrate her latest translation A Handful of Blue EarthMarilyn discusses the translation process and what inspires her about Vénus Khoury-Ghata. Read on for a poem from A Handful of Blue Earth.

A Handful of Blue Earth

A Handful of Blue Earth is your translation of the poems written by Vénus Khoury-Ghata. When did you first read these poems and what initially drew you to them?

This is the sixth book of Vénus Khoury-Ghata’s that I have translated since 2000. I had read collections of her poetry in French, and been intrigued by how much implied history there was – history in the macro-historical and in the tale-telling sense –informing them. I was asked, back in 2000,  by an editor to give a reader’s report on an anthology of French and Francophone women’s poetry scheduled for publication. There were a couple of poems of Vénus’ that were so full of howlers of mistranslation – which I signalled to the editor – that I was impelled to re-translate them. Some months later, I met Vénus through a mutual writer friend, and knowing her, knowing the person and the personality behind the work, was another impetus to engage with it.

Throughout the collection, there are a range of poetic forms and styles. Is there any particular form that you would say presents a particular challenge as a translator?

There are no actual metrical /rhymed/stanzaic ” fixed poetic forms”  — either coming from the French (or Arabic) literary canon or invented by the poet – in this book, or in any of Vénus Khoury-Ghata’s poetry, though there is a difference between the short-lined verse of the “Lady of Syros” and the more surreal prose-poem-like paragraph-stanzas from the “Book of Petitions” , while the long “Mothers and the Mediterranean” poem partakes of both.   The rhythms and the breath of the short-lined poems are quite different from the marvellously meandering sentences of that border on prose. It’s not hard to keep them apart.

There are not as many formal  – in the sense of metrical/syllabic , etc. forms – virtuosos working currently in French poetry as there are in contemporary poetry in English  — thinking of George Szirtes, Mimi Khalvati, Derek Mahon, Patience Agbabe , for example , though Jacques Roubaud is an exception. I once translated a series of (also surreal ) sequences in decasyllabic dixains  – ten-line stanzas of ten syllables each – by another poet, Marie Etienne, which was surprisingly easy, given how much iambic pentameter I had written myself – and even led me to write something using the same form.

Do you have a particular process when translating poetry? 

No…I often find myself reading a poem in French and “recreating” it in English, and that’s the impulse to translate it. If there’s a book of translations to complete, the process is less meandering than that.

This poetry collection deals with a variety of themes such as exile, warfare and female relationships. Is there any motif in particular that stands out to you as the defining theme of the collection?

Oddly, the only relationship between women I noticed in this collection was that of the daughter who “becomes” the pre-Cycladic statue to her mother. It’s a subject that has been primary in my own work, and an intense ,conflicted mother/ daughter relationship is central to another book of Vénus Khoury-Ghata’s that I translated , Nettles, published by Graywolf Press in the U.S. in 2008.  Exile and expatriation, though, are themes that run through all this poet’s work  – quoting from “The Book of Petitions”:

How can you weep in a language no longer your own

what can you call walls not imbued with your sweat

In both the “Lady of Syros” and “The Book of Petitions,” death itself is seen as a kind of exile or expatriation  – which, paradoxically, makes it seem less final and inexorable: exiles sometimes return.  Whereas the state of war evoked in “The Mothers and the Mediterranean” seems almost more permanent than death – and I think it was the persistent murderous state of war now in Syria, in Iraq, that brought the civil war in Lebanon so urgently back to the poet’s imagination…as well as the city of Beirut, where she grew up, very specifically evoked in that sequence.

Would you say that reading and translating Vénus’ poems has influenced your own poetry? 

I’ve translated extensively from the work of about ten French or Francophone poets in the last going-on-twenty years, and there has been, intentionally or inadvertently, dialogue with several of them in my own work.  Here is a glosa, a Spanish form in which the poet takes 4 lines from a poem by another poet, and composes 4 ten line stanzas, each ending with one of those four lines in turn  — this was written elaborating on four lines of the poem by Vénus Khoury-Ghata that is given in its entirety, following.


GLOSE

 The death of a sparrow has blackened the snow

But  nothing consoled her

Who is the night among all nights ? she asked the owl

But the owl doesn’t think, the owl knows

Vénus Khoury-Ghata : “Borderland”

 

Dumb heat, not snow, sheathes Paris in July

and sheathes suburban Washington.

Planes rip through the fabric of a frayed

afternoon torn open

by words no afterwards will clarify.

Knowing what happened, no one will know.

We had a friend ;  she had a young  son.

There was exile, its weight on a day.

There was the heart’s ice, its insistent glow.

The death of a sparrow has blackened the snow.

 

Trope upon silvered trope, of what might a mirror

remind her : copper, black silk , the eloquence

intelligence gives eyes ?  Reflected terror

that conscripted all intelligence.

I am a great way off and cannot come nearer.

I do not know what the night or the mirror told her

or the sense of the words she wrote when nothing made sense,

or if they made a sense that seemed clearer and clearer.

The child raised his arms to be lifted, to be held, to hold her,

but nothing consoled her.

 

Put the morning away in the murk of myth :

not the unthinkable, but Radha’s dance

breaking her bangles, imploring the dark god with

metered and musical lamentations,

repeated measures meant to distance death

suggest a redemptive spiral for the soul

(child, child bleeding to death, no second chance)

in the containment of despair and wrath

within the peopled descent of the ritual.

 

(Who is the night of all nights she asked the owl.)

 

No dark god was there, and no god of light .

There are women and men, cruel or fallible.

No mild friend picked up the telephone at the right

moment ; some Someone was unavailable.

The morning which paled from an uneventful night

would have been ordinary, except that she chose.

Interrogate the hours, invent some oracle

flying overhead , read fate into its flight.

We think the snow was blackened by dead sparrows,

but the owl doesn’t think; the owl knows.

Vénus Khoury-Ghata

 

From “Nettles”

it should have been beautiful and it was merely sad

gardens departed this life more slowly than men

we would eat our sorrow down to the last drop then

belch it in splinters in the face of the cold

the sun’s spirit kept the sun from warming us

a sun that eventually ran dry        from so much concentration

It was elsewhere

it was a very long time ago

tired of calling us the mother left the earth to enter the earth

seen from above she looked like a pebble

seen from below she looked like a flaking pine-cone

sometimes she wept    in sobs that made the foliage tremble

life, we cried out to her, is a straight line of noises

death an empty circle

outside there is winter

the death of a sparrow has blackened the snow

But     nothing consoled her

who is the night among all nights? she asked the owl

but the owl doesn’t think

the owl knows

Translated by Marilyn Hacker

(from Names, W.W. Norton and Co., 2010)

Marilyn Hacker is the author of thirteen books of poems, including A Stranger’s Mirror (Norton, 2015), Names (Norton, 2010), Essays on Departure (Carcanet, 2006), an essay collection, Unauthorized Voices (Michigan, 2010), and fourteen collections of translations of French and Francophone poets including Emmanuel Moses, Marie Etienne, Vénus Khoury-Ghata, Habib Tengour and Rachida Madani. DiaspoRenga, a collaborative sequence written with the Palestinian-American poet Deema Shehabi, was published by Holland Park Press in 2014. She lives in Paris.

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