Poems are like pop songs – the ones from when we were growing up stay with us and have special resonance.
I grew up between cultures, speaking Polish at home, English at school, found myself excluded, a fish out of water, ‘different’ in a Britain which this current Britain is starting to resemble again…What a gift to find Penguin Modern European Poets, Zbigniew Herbert (who wasn’t available in Polish then), Yevgeny Yevtushenko, Jacques Prévert among many. At school there was Ted Hughes and A.E Housman (whom I queered before I knew about his sexuality). Outside school Brian Patten and the Liverpool poets were deliciously anti-establishment. As you see, back then it was such a man’s world. Thank heavens for finding Sylvia Plath, whom I read over and over.
Things only got more complicated when I began coming out. Only later did I discover Black writers – mainly American – queer writers too (mostly in prose then, thank heavens for James Baldwin, Toni Morrison, Alice Walker). For a good while I looked to America, slowly finding visibly out poets Irena Klefisz, Audre Lorde, Adrienne Rich, Cherrie Moraga, Gloria E Anzaldúa, gradually ‘discovering’ how many other poets e.g Elizabeth Bishop ‘were’. Can you believe once upon a time I didn’t even know Allen Ginsberg was queer!
I have always looked for poems which understand paradox and for a marriage between lyrical and contemporary. Migrant voices over here helped me, lost fish that I was, to find my own place: Mimi Khalvati (what seemingly effortless command of language!) Grace Nichols (what imagery!), Moniza Alvi (what imagination!). The boldness of Anne Carson, Toon Tellegen, Jorie Graham, Eavan Boland, Carolyn Forché and Charles Simic have probably influenced the way I write form-wise and given me confidence to become playful on the cusp of poetry and prose. I found myself especially drawn to the prose poem. Again I was looking elsewhere. Then at last Jane Monson edited the first ever anthology of British prose poetry* including Carrie Etter, Linda Black, Lucy Hamilton. Diverse British poets Jackie Kay, Seni Seneviratne, Imtiaz Dharker, Martina Evans, Mona Arshi, Aviva Dautch, Jude Rosen, Ágnes Lehóczky, George Szirtes among many nourish me as do a myriad Polish poets Wioletta Grzegorzewska, Krystyna Miłobędzka, Adam Zagajewski, Wojciech Bonowicz, Jacek Dehnel, Radek Wiśniewski, Marzanna Kielar, Julia Szychowiak… again among many.
I’m increasingly interested in multi-lingual poetry such as that of Vahni Capildeo or poet-translator Elżbieta Wójcik Leese – I’ve been working multi-lingually in Snow Q, a collaborative project I’m involved with, in English, Polish and some Ponglish!) Which brings me straight to the work of other poet-translators, many of whom need reading in their own right: Sasha Dugdale, Fiona Sampson, Susan Wicks, Stephen Watts, Karen Kovacik, Boris Drayluk, Lawrence Schimel, Anna Błasiak, Marek Kazmierski to name but a few. Of course the recent Polish Nobel prizewinner Olga Tokarczuk is a novelist, but to me ‘Primeval and other times’ translated by the prolific Antonia Lloyd-Jones was pure poetry and a touchstone. I co-translated Iztok Osojnik from Slovene with Ana Jelnikar and have translated Justyna Bargielska from Polish. You have to fall in love with someone’s work to even begin to do them justice, and I have – fallen in love I mean! But I continue to lament the insularity here, in England especially, which is why I really value magazines like Poetry Wales. Modern Poetry in Translation is a lifeline of course. In Slovenia, Brane Mozetič has edited anthologies of lesbian and gay poetry from across Europe – where is the equivalent in English? More than ever before, as the U.K lurches towards increasing racism and xenophobia, translation is vital. We are all lost without it.
Currently there also seems such an emphasis on new and young poets – who are obviously no less important and undoubtedly possess much exciting, new talent – but since society so readily relegates older people to the scrap heap I’ve deliberately focussed in this post mainly on more mature poets. It seems ridiculous to even have to be saying this, but readers looking for innovation, novelty and originality as well as depth and power overlook ‘older’ poets at their peril.
I’m incredibly lucky living in Brighton/Sussex/on the South coast surrounded by so many fantastic poets (too, too numerous to list!) Lee Harwood is much missed by all of us here. Some of those fantastic poets who have very recently published books include: Astrid Alben, Brendan Cleary, Catherine Smith, Clare Best, David Swann, Hugh Dunkerley, Jackie Wills, Janet Sutherland, Jeremy Page, Jess Mookherjee, John McCullough, Kay Syrad, Naomi Foyle, Nick Drake, Robert Hamberger.
I am reading a lot of poets published by small presses – they don’t normally get the media attention or big prizes but it’s often where things are really stirring – interesting fish swim in those waters. I was asked to mentor Jacquline Haskell, a deaf poet and Spotlight winner, in her debut collection and I can recommend it without hesitation. Last but not least in the collaborative work I’m involved in with Snow Q I’ve been thinking about poetry not only on the page but crossing over with spoken word or in completely different settings, with music, art, film – Mark Hewitt, Maggie Sawkins, Bernadette Cremmin and Gus Watchman for instance have created stunning live literature out of their pages.
*This Line Is Not For Turning An anthology of contemporary British prose poetry, edited by Jane Monson (Cinnamon Press, 2011).