Sasha also currently works as editor of acclaimed poetry magazine Modern Poetry in Translation.
Hi Sasha. Thanks for taking the time to chat. Congratulations on the publication of your mpT anthology Centres of Cataclysm with Bloodaxe earlier this year, celebrating fifty years of the magazine. How well do you feel it serves as a snapshot of the publication’s substantial output?
Modern Poetry in Translation was founded in 1965 and so we (David and Helen Constantine and I) read our way through fifty years of published material – and over 7000 poems. The poems we picked for the anthology were certainly ones we felt we couldn’t do without, by writers like Paul Celan, Ingeborg Bachmann, Kim Hyesoon, Marina Tsvetaeva, Vasko Popa, Yehuda Amichai and Ma Ei. However, we could have made up another two or three anthologies of the same size and filled them with excellent work.
In the end we decided to give the anthology a conceptual shape which would give a sense to our choices. The shape came to us as we sat reading in a sunlit conservatory in the Constantines’ Oxford home and it was based on the idea of concentric circles or zones moving outwards like a ripple in water. The central and first zone was ‘cataclysm’: war, genocide, repression. The following zones were concerned with flight and migration, the act of translation, and then at the outer reach, protecting and saying the human. This shape also allowed us to place poems with similar concerns, but from vastly different cultures side by side and I am glad of that: the anthology insisted on a common humanity which is all too often denied.
As a seasoned translator, I’m curious if your working practice tends to be much the same when translating a poem or if it varies depending on the poet you’re working with. For example, did you approach your Tatiana Shcherbina and Elena Shvarts translations in the same way?
I was (and still am) in love with Elena Shvarts’s work, its instability and movement, its streak of purity and its harshness. When I sat down to translate her poems quite often nothing would come of the effort. It required a degree of inspiration, or perhaps just turning the poem over in my mind and waiting until it spoke to me in English words.
I find I follow the same process with all poetry: once that spark has come I work very hard and intensely, but for short bursts of time, and I always try to get a poem furnished out in a first sitting, even if I have to come back and rework it. Having something, some presence on the page, is useful because, even if it is flawed, having it there means that translation has become the art of the possible.
Congratulations too on winning a Forward Prize for your poem ‘Joy‘ this year. Can you tell us a bit more about the genesis and drafting process of the poem and what it was that drew you to adopt Catherine Blake’s voice?
‘Joy’ was a sort of commission. A friend of mine Anna Genina was working on a William Blake exhibition in Russia and she invited me to write something on Blake. I was desperate to read Blake properly so I bought the complete works and the Thames and Hudson complete ‘visual’ works and went through it all.
Originally I had wanted to write about a different situation: William Blake lived in neglect and poverty, but he had great pride. At some point later in his life he held an exhibition of his work in his brother’s haberdashers in Soho. His brother wasn’t too pleased by the canvases – they got in the way of his stockings and gloves. I wrote about that to begin with, because it’s funny and poignant, but Blake is so fiercely unbendingly present in his own work it is hard to give him voice as a fictional character.
Catherine on the other hand attracted me more and more. She was there with him every day, working at his side, and she learnt all the skills needed for the physically exhausting cottage industry of engraving. They were very close, psychically and physically and that alone seemed strange and radical at that point in history.
We will never know what Catherine did, what she coloured, or perhaps even drew. We won’t even know the extent to which she affected his art and poetry, so there is a great deal of space for creating her voice. Once I had found it I wrote ‘Joy’ very quickly, and, in doing so, used a great deal of the research I had done to prepare the piece.
Some of the poems in your last collection – ‘Ten Moons‘, ‘Red House’, ‘Dawn Chorus‘, ‘Moor’ – seem to evoke and stake out new terrains which are as much psychological as they are geographical. Would you agree with this description and what do you feel were the main concerns of the book now that you have some distance from it?
I’m preparing a new collection at the moment and so it is a good time to look back. When I started writing I was very timid, it now seems to me, and I desperately wanted to keep intellectual and sensual lives apart in my writing. I suppose I was uneasy with the idea of a writer’s public voice and perhaps I was also uneasy about the intellectual voice in women’s writing.
I had strange and disparate thoughts, ambitious in their reach, which I would try not to reflect in my writing, because I was fearful of owning them. You can only get a certain way like that without it resulting in a sort of literary schizophrenia.
Red House for me represents the moment when I began to write more freely and to address some of my intellectual concerns in lyric poetry. Because I am a passionate walker and explorer place has always been important to me and I think it carries some of those concerns in my work.
I’m also fascinated by the subjective nature of geography. I wrote a poem more recently called ‘Mappa Mundi’, based on the medieval mappa mundi in Hereford which is peopled by monsters and strange tribes. I applied that subjectivity to my own small area, which I have only ever seen in overlapping static images: my vision of home is not composed of a single rounded steady image but a million tiny mental snapshots, so utterly subjective that they might as well contain one-legged people, or sea monsters.
Are there any dates in the poetry diary you have especially enjoyed this past year or are looking forward to in the future?
Last year we celebrated the fiftieth anniversary of Modern Poetry in Translation with a series of events and readings. Although it was incredibly hard work keeping it all going (and I am forever thankful to MPT’s tiny team for pulling it off) it was an extraordinary and powerful time of celebration: we had readings by Nikola Madzirov, Ulrike Almust Sandig, Wojciech Bonowicz, Golan Haji, George Szirtes, Elaine Feinstein, Shash Trevett, Jack Mapanje, Brecht song sessions, Assyrian refugee poems, Iranian protest speeches and much more.
We launched Centres of Cataclysm on the banks of the Seine with Fergal Keane and David Constantine’s passionate speeches and we read in the Kings College Chapel and in Oxford and Cambridge. We’ll have a last celebratory anthology event at Poetry East on 10th December – more info can be found here.
We have also just digitalised the powerful first issue of Modern Poetry in Translation, edited by Ted Hughes and Daniel Weissbort in 1965. This brilliant poetic snapshot of an era, together with the Modern Poetry in Translation programme, can be viewed across at our website.
Finally, can you tell us a little about the poem you’ve submitted to Poetry Spotlight?
‘Pfingsten in Paterki’ is based on a photograph with the same title taken by a German soldier in Paterki, a village in the Kaluga region of Russia, in 1943 when the Germans occupied that area. The man who took the photo was a German soldier who had been a photographer in peacetime. He took a number of astounding images of village life under occupation which emphasise to me that despite the brutal nature of the occupation and the war, it was still possible to remain human.
The photo was taken on the feast day of Pentecost, ‘Pfingsten’ in German, so it is hard to avoid the religious overtones. Pentecost is a celebration of the moment the Holy Spirit touched the Apostles. There was a wind and a great flame which became many small flames on the Apostles’ heads.
The Apostles spoke in tongues, but they could understand each other perfectly. I am not a religious person, although I was brought up a Catholic, however the spiritual shape of religion still haunts me. Whether you believe or not, Pentecost is a moment of perfect understanding between humans.
Pfingsten in Paterki
Tanned faces, frowning in the sun:
a group of girls filmed in headscarves
by an enemy combatant.
You should hate me, he says,
I could kill your menfolk, your boyfriends
and yet you let me take your photograph.
He took it back to his atelier
and hung it in the developing room.
I like their dresses. I like the red and the composition:
sprigged, floral. I like their sincerity
I like the fact they are alive in Kaluga,
flames of spirit, talking like teenagers
in 1943. I like the fact that there were hot days
when the wind came rushing down the dusty road
and a German soldier, holding a Voigtländer
could still speak in tongues.