Photo Credit: Karl Hurst
Alistair Noon is a poet and translator currently living in Berlin. He has published a number of poetry pamphlets over the years including Surveyors’ Riddles (Sidekick Books 2015), a collaboration with the poet Giles Goodland.
He has also published two full-length collections with Nine Arches Press – Earth Records in 2012, which was shortlisted for the Michael Murphy Memorial Prize, and a follow-up The Kerosone Singing in 2015.
Hi Alistair. Thanks for taking the time to chat. Congratulations on the publication of your latest full-length collection The Kerosene Singing with Nine Arches Press last year. Can you tell us a bit more about it and how you think it compares with your debut Earth Records?
Both Earth Records and several pamphlets before it were more or less concept albums. With The Kerosene Singing I thought it would be fun to do a “normal” collection (scare quotes because in the big scheme of things the poetry collection is a recent phenomenon of course – publications used to be just individual poems or retrospective poems by Shelley, or whoever).
I’d like to think the poems in The Kerosene Singing are in the right order to not get in the way of each other, but nothing more than that. Inevitably, there are themes that keep cropping up in the book and continuing those of Earth Records (global interconnectedness is probably one). I’m as obsessive as the next poet.
As someone who is multi-lingual and who has worked as a translator, do you think poetry writing is something that started for you because of your interest in language in general or do you regard them as two separate and distinct things?
I had piano lessons as a kid, picked up the guitar as a teenager, and have always loved music of various styles. My first trip abroad was when I was ten to what was still Yugoslavia. My dad had a Serbo-Croat phrasebook, learnt a bit before our holiday, and put it to use as well as he could once there.
So when I started learning French later at school, I immediately saw the point of it. I got good marks and from then on took every opportunity to take up new languages, especially ones that would take me east such as German and Russian then much later, as an adult, Chinese.
For me, music + language = poetry.
You have lived in Germany for a substantial period of time now. I was wondering how you would compare the European poetry scene with the UK poetry scene? Have you noticed any similarities or differences between the two?
I think it would be fair to say in Germany there’s more or less one scene rather than several, as in the UK (slam poetry is a bit separate but there’s some overlap). In Germany quite different styles of poetry tend to inhabit the same literal and discursive space, i.e. reading venues and magazines.
There’s also less of an impetus to circumvent editors and other figures of perceived authority with things like anonymized poetry competitions, which in Germany are few and prestige-poor. It’s a different story with awards, stipends, and residencies, of which there are comparatively more. There’s a lot of funding about – even quite small poetry publishers don’t seem to be worrying too much about how to survive.
This is partly because of Germany’s continued economic strength, but it also relates to a general cultural difference. Education has long had a higher cultural priority in Germany than in the UK, and education, rather than wealth, has in some ways continued to be the real marker of success.
Letting your learning hang out in your poetry (and perhaps being a bit difficult as a result) is far less likely to attract negative reactions in Germany than in the UK – quite the contrary. Whether this learning is apposite and the resulting poetry of any depth is another matter; there is such a thing as what I’d call the “educational gesture” in German poetry.
Oddly perhaps for a country so education-driven, the creative writing industry resembles a bird that keeps trying to take off but doesn’t really make it into the air. There are courses – some even have kudos – but they’re not central.
I think it’s because the expectation of a poet having studied German literature, philosophy and history at Marburg University is so high that this kind of background suffices as poetic credentials (in a high-impact anthology of young German poets a few years ago, this or something very close to it was what nearly all the poets had in their biographies).
I can’t really comment on differences between UK and European poetry scenes as such because comparing them as two discrete phenomena is a bit of a mental literary Brexit – sorry to quibble with your question! The terms presume that the UK is not part of Europe (which may well be the case of course after the referendum) and that the rest of Europe is more or less homogenous.
Each national poetry scene will no doubt have its own idiosyncrasies. My Prague mates, for example, tell me that there’s little tradition of public poetry readings in the Czech Republic, perhaps in part due to the necessity post-1968 (the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia) of keeping your political head down.
I enjoyed reading an article you did a few years ago over at the Longbarrow Press blog where you listed your Top Five Strange Poetry Readings. I was curious if any other gigs have been added to or crept into that list since then?
It wasn’t really a strange reading, but it was a memorable one. In October 2015, me and Giles Goodland launched our collaborative book Surveyors’ Riddles at The Albion Beatnik in Oxford. What the audience lacked in quantity, it certainly made up for in quality. We got some very perceptive and intriguing questions in the Q&A.
Some of the audience had even bought the book before the reading started (I think Giles had brought some of his fan club with him), and they were following along as we read. As we were jumping about a bit in the book, I found myself periodically instructing the audience to turn to page whatever. It ended up being a cross between a church service and the opera.
What does the rest of the year hold for you? Are there any dates in the poetry diary you are looking forward to or are there any specific goals you have set yourself?
I’m working hard again on some translations of the Russian poet Osip Mandelstam that I’ve been slogging away at for some years now. I hope to have this tied up by the end of the year. But I seem to have been saying that for at least a couple of years already. I’m doing a reading in Hamburg in June. It could be my Beatles moment.
Apart from that I’m hoping the odd review of The Kerosene Singing might appear in due course – review copies available if anyone reading this feels so moved.
Finally, can you tell us a little about the poem you’ve submitted to Poetry Spotlight?
It’s commonplace to say that when you start writing poetry you need to read widely to find the poets you really like and then to study them intensively. Nothing surprising in that: the poets you like best are most likely to be your best teachers.
But at some point it can be worth going back to the poets, or an approach or style, that you think you don’t like, or don’t like that much, and seeing if there’s something you can learn from them all the same. I won’t say here who or what I don’t like, or think I don’t like, but the poem below is the result of this kind of thinking.
I never saw the ball
lobbed at my nose. I stood,
back to the backyard wall,
and swayed the lathe-hewn wood,
the weathered weight my dad
had pressed into my grip,
the handle – bandage-clad.
Once, he gangwayed a ship
to join a grinding host,
command an armoured car
to coast the Roman coast,
past Venice and as far
as Graz, without a shot
at or out of his tower,
the only flak he got
an Austrian’s hurtled flower.
Oh unknown hands, Vergelts Gott.
Permit me to announce
your arcing floral shot,
the cricket ball’s quick bounce.
Vergelts Gott: God bless you (Southern German/Austrian phrase, a bit old-fashioned)