Tuesday, May 27, 2014

This Room is Waiting: a groundbreaking anthology of Iraqi-UK poetry collaborations

report by Susannah Tarbush, London

“'What’s the Arabic for aphrodisiac?’ someone shouted in the conference room of Kurdistan’s Swedish Village, home to the eight poets of Reel Iraq 2013. Cue a twenty minute debate on what gets people going in the Middle East and whether broccoli is as exciting as oysters.”

Thus begins Lauren Pyott's introduction to the ground-breaking anthology This Room is Waiting, newly out from Freight Books of Glasgow. The anthology is the fruit of a remarkable collaboration between four Iraqi poets, and four UK poets with strong Scottish connections. The initiative was part of Reel Iraq 2013, a programme of events marking 10 years since the US and UK-led invasion of Iraq.

Pyott, who has a degree in Arabic from the University of Edinburgh, has since 2010 been Literature Coordinator and Arabic translator for Reel Festivals which collaborates with artists working in areas in conflict. She co-edited This Room is Waiting with the Literature Director of Reel Festivals, American poet Ryan Van Winkle. Reel Festivals was co-founded by Dan Gorman, the coordinator of Reel Festivals and director of UK-based NGO Firefly International. Reel Festivals aims to celebrate diversity, build solidarity and create dialogue with audiences internationally. 

Lauren Pyott 

Ryan Van Winkle
The Iraqi poets in This Room is Waiting are  Baghdad-based poet and English language teacher Zaher Mousa; Ghareeb Iskander, author of the 2009 collection Chariot of Illusion; Kurdish poet and women’s rights activist Awezan Nouri Hakeem, and Baghdad-based poet and journalist Sabreen Kadhim.

Their UK counterparts are John Glenday (shortlisted in 2010 for the international Griffin Prize and for the Ted Hughes Prize for Excellence in New Poetry); Jen Hadfield (youngest-ever winner of the T S Eliot Prize, in 2008, for her collection No-Nigh-Place); William Letford (a roofer by profession, whose first collection is Bevel) and US-raised Edinburgh-dwelling Krystelle Bamford (winner of the Scottish Book Trust New Writers Award 2010).

the poets and others involved in the poetry workshops in Shaqlawa, Kurdistan
Each of the 32 poems in the anthology is displayed in English side by side with the Arabic or Kurdish original or other langauge "version". Though those involved in the collaboration try to avoid using the word "translations". Pyott explains: "As each poet spoke little or none of the other's language, and as they all brought their own style and sensibilities to the verse we consider these 'literary outcomes' as 'versions' rather than pure translations. The new works produced – in Arabic, Kurdish and English – not only share the essence of the original poem, but also convey new cultural resonances in the corresponding language.”

In addition to the poems the anthology contains four striking newly-commissioned pieces of Kufic calligraphy by Samir Sumaida’ie. They incorporate phrases from some of the poems. In Pyott's words they "stand not only as beautiful works of art in themselves, but also as a testament to the link between the visual and the literary in both Iraq and the UK."

one of Samir Sumaida'ie's Kufic calligraphy-inspired works
The four Iraqi and four UK poets were brought together for the first time in the Kurdish village of Shaqlawa in January 2013. As the basis for their workshop collaborations they were first given literal “bridge” translations of the poems. Pyott had prepared the Arabic to English, and English-Arabic bridge translations, while the bridge translations between Kurdish and English were provided by Erbil-based poet and journalist Hoshang Waziri. Actress Dina Mousawi was also involved in Arabic interpretation.

Pyott describes how the poets sat in pairs with an interpreter on hand, and chatted about each other’s work. “Can you swear in Arabic poetry? Should you translate a Scots word into Modern Standard Arabic or a dialect and if so, which one? Which register of speech is more engaging, more poetic? And that golden question which everyone wants to ask but doesn’t really dare: what to you actually mean by that?”

 Sabreen Kadhim in Kurdistan
The poems were first presented at the British Council’s second Erbil Festival of Literature, which took place while the poets were in Shaqlawa. Reel Festivals then toured the poets in the UK in March 2013 as part of Reel Iraq 2013. Sarah Zakzouk wrote for reorientmag.com about their appearance at the Reel Words evening in London. Sabreen Kadhim was unable to be present: Sarah Irving noted in a post on the Arablit blog about the Edinburgh leg of the tour that Sabreen had had her visa denied by the British authorities. Happily, Sabreen was at the Edinburgh International Book Fair and Reel Iraq events in August, as shown in this report with video.

 (L to R): John Glenday, Awezan Nouri Hakeem, Ghareeb Iskander, Jen Hadfield, William Letford, Krystelle Bamford, Zaher Mousa during their March 2013 UK tour 
photo courtesy Michael Brydon / Reel Festivals

Several of the participating poets wrote of their experiences of working with the other poets. William Letford wrote vividly about the poets' collaboration on the blog of his publisher Carcanet. And Krystelle Bamford wrote on the poetry workshops and Erbil Literature festival in an article for The Scotsman newspaper. She begins: "'IRAQ?' friends repeated, eyebrows raised, as if hoping my American accent had mangled the Gaelic name of some lovely Highland town."

Zaher Mousa wrote a detailed article on the poetry workshops for Al Sabah Al Jadid newspaper, which appeared in English translation on the Reel Festivals website under the title “Dialogue through Poetry”. Zaher writes of being paired with the different poets, including working with Krystelle Bamford on versions of her poem “Cancer” and his poem “And You?”

When working with Jen Hadfield, he swapped two of her poems, including “Lichen”, with one of his long poems. “She gathers photographic images of Scotland’s nature to give her an imaginary life and internal motion,” Mousa writes. “Her poems centre around 'Lichen', which listens to an isolated person and gulls which are considered part of the furniture of Scotland’s cities.”

His longer poem translated by Hadfield is the intensely moving "Born to Die",  which  is “about a dead baby who send messages to God.” It includes the lines:

Tell him, Baghdad plucks its people like grey hairs from its streets
and that all of a sudden,

like a family throwing its possessions into a couple of hastily packed bags,
Iraq doesn’t know where it’s going.

Reel Festivals commissioned Alastair Cook and Marc Neys to each make a video of this poem for Reel Iraq 2013, using footage shot in Iraq by Ryan Van Winkle. In the first video Zaher Mousa reads his poem in Arabic; in the second Jen Hadfield reads her English version. The videos are posted at Moving Poems.
Other powerful poems by Zaher Mousa include "The Iraqi Elements" and "The House and the Family".

Ghareeb Iskander
From Ghareeb Iskander we have "Gilgamesh's Snake" and "Three Poems"- both rendered into English by John Glenday - and "On Whitman" in a version by Jen Hadfield. This video shows Iskander and Glenday reading together at the Rich Mix in London in March 2013. Glenday said: "I love the way that he uses the ancient legends, the legend of Gilgamesh, a four-and-a-half-thousand-year-old story, to talk about the way Baghdad is today, it's very moving." The two poets read in Arabic and English "Gilgamesh's Snake", a poem in three acts: Song, Gilgamesh and Conclusion.

Sabreen Kadhim's "Water My Heart with a Jonquil", translated by Krystelle Bamford, is suffused with spirituality, tenderness and everyday details as a woman yearns for her love  amidst uncertainty. the poem ends:

So, has the wick blackened to its end
or was it simply never lit?
Are you with me? Are you with me?
Don't you dare ask me back...I'm here
clutching my match in the darkness.

In a few cases there are footnotes to poems. In her translation of Krystelle Bamford’s “My Mama, Baba Yaga” Sabreen Kadhim transliterates into Arabic, and explains in footnotes, "Baba Yaga" and two words associated with Christmas decorations: “tinsel” and “festoon”.

With their strong links to Scotland, the UK writers sometimes used Scots words in their own poetry or their translations of the Iraqi poet. In his arresting rendering of Awezan Nouri Hakeem’s Kurdish poem “He's not Like Me” John Glenday uses the Scots word “guddle”:

He's hard as a pebble when he hurls himself at me
to guddle meaning from the pool of my dreams
and inspiration from the shingles of the sea.

and also uses the word “swithering":

He's the swithering wave; he wants to flail his arms and swim through Time;
drag me behind him towards whatever fate I've earned;
grant me a fine death.

Jen Hadfield uses Scots words in her poems; "bigging" meaning building, "smoored" meaning smothered in her poem "The Session".

The experience of reading the poems and their renderings in This Room is Waiting will vary from reader to reader, depending on among other things their fluency and depth of knowledge of the three languages  and their particular sensibility and wider cultural background.

It is a testament to the success of this first Reel Festivals experiment in Iraqi-UK poetry collaboration that that a second round of workshops, with a different set of poets, was held recently held in Shaqlawa, as  reported by Nia Davies on Literature across Frontiers. S (Steven) J Fowler also wrote this  blogpost about the event. The four UK poets are Nia Davies, Kei Miller, Vicki Feaver and SJ Fowler. The counterpart Iraqi poets are Ahmad Abdul Hussein, Zhwen Shalai, Ali Wajeeh, and Mariem Maythem Qasem Al-Attar.

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