the honeymoon stage – Oscar Schwartz PLUS bonus poet interview

HoneymoonStage

Through the process of reading, reviewing and interviewing Australian poets I have come across a range of styles, genres and approaches. Interviews have varied from Bruce Dawe not using computers (and getting his wife to type short replies) through to the in-depth engagement of experimental writer Holly Isemonger.

The poems themselves have taken various forms, including traditional sonnets, street poetry, experimental and digital. I can assure you that there is a vibrant community of young emerging poets in Australia using numerous tools to present their work, not everything is available in a bound paper book!

Giramondo Publishing has recently released Oscar Schwartz’s collection “The Honeymoon Stage” and describes it on the back cover as:

“…a collection of poems written for friends on the internet over a five-year period. These friends were spread across the globe, and most of them the poet had never met, and will never know. Poetry was the method by which the correspondents felt they could authenticate themselves to one another, despite their separation in space, and their friendships being mediated through screens. The poems engage with the flattened syntax of internet language, registering its awkwardness while bringing human qualities to the centre of the exchange.”

Opening with the title poem and then moving into three parts “Us”, “You” and “Me” the poet warns us;

The I, You and We in these pages do not belong to me, but came into being inside the boundless, invisible space in which we now spend much of our time.

These modern, digital, email texts are addressed to the anonymous, but address the anonymity of self in the digital world, through poems that have subjects such as a relationship with clones of yourself, the very nature of relationships is questioned deeply.

How much do we know of ourselves? How much do we know of each other? Does this blur even further with the presentation of self through social media? These poems use language such as; “my thoughts about you”, and “if there is one thing you know without doubt” questioning out real knowledge.

The thirty-four poems are mostly addressed to other people, littered with memories, but through this lens we slowly see the writer coming into shape, his views on love, nights spent clubbing, a nostalgia for a lost youth, ultimately revealing a singular lonely core. A writer in cyberspace, our social profile/image.

god will send you nudes

if you’ve been feeling guilty
about the sinful things
you’ve been enjoying on the internet
try to seek consolation
in the presence of your ancestors

in time, god will send you nudes

A collection atht is full of questions, playing with the immediacy of information, with lines that juxtapose items such as coconut water and climate change, addressing the sheer volume of data, these are poems of immediacy that are littered with pop references such as rihanna, who has diet pepsi for tears, poems about “game of thrones”.

There is a connectedness between the three sections “us”, “you”, and “me”, there is a human relationship, but at the same time the exploration of social media and the immediacy of the poetry gives you that feeling of loneliness, all the connections are in cyber-space.

Another readable and enjoyable experimental work, addressing our current age.

Over to the interview with Oscar Schwartz, who I need to thank for the immediacy of his replies, I read the book on a flight to Sydney, emailed him the questions upon landing, before I was home again the same night there were the replies in my in-box!!! A poet who practices what he preaches!!

As always I appreciate the effort the poets put into talking about their books and I hope yet another interview helps you to understand the art form a little more, if you think poetry is too daunting, I suggest you read through these interviews, they will make it more accessible, maybe you’ll find the time to buy a book or two, poets can certainly do with more sales!

INTERVIEW

I know you open the book with “The I, You and We in these pages do not belong to me, but came into being inside the boundless, invisible space in which we now spend much of our time.”, so hopefully the questions do not miss the mark completely….

Q. Memories play an important role throughout your collection, as in “your new diet” which contains a diet based on memory, are we simply the sum of our own past?

I wouldn’t want to speak about all people, but for me, I’ve always enjoyed the process of reflecting on my life and crafting it into small narratives. It makes life more meaningful, for me. The risk is that I do this about my future, too. That I come up with narratives about what I want my life to be. But I try to avoid doing this because it generally just makes me feel anxious. Small narratives about things that have happened are interesting to me. Grand narratives about the future not so much.

Q. Whilst reading your poems I had a real sense of the future being quite grim, are you plotting “the downfall of the human race” or is it already too late?

The joke about planning the downfall of the human race is really kind of just a stab at a type of writing or discourse that seems to be really popular at the moment where some “genius man” makes a prediction about the future in a really ridiculous time line. For example, in 2019 we will have robots that we can fall in love with; in 2029 we will have a computer that is better than Picasso; in 2039 we will merge into computers. This form of prediction literature strikes me as a really cheap way of getting a lot of attention,. People listen because the future is unknown; it’s a cheap (and very old) trick to pretend to know how to tell it. People who talk with certainty about the future in terms of concrete events are snake oil salesmen in my opinion.

But I don’t think I feel grim about the future.

Q. From where does the thought of sitting on a giant pair of lungs at a gathering of vegetarians spring?

I was just thinking about the breathlessness that sometimes accompanies very intense social situations. And the idea of having my lungs as a type of external companion just emerged from that. Also I saw lungs on display at an exhibition of the human body and they look pretty weird and amazing.

Q. Do you have “a book that allows you to dissociate fully from past conceptions of yourself”? If so what is it?

The book I had in mind was The Power of One by Bryce Courtney. When I was 10 my sister, who is two years older than me, read the book. She really liked it and when I asked to read it she said “you won’t get it. It’s too old for you.” Up until that point I had mostly read “kids books”, which I never really connected with. I found a lot of them kind of silly just for the sake of it, and that annoyed me. Against my sister’s advice I read The Power of One. It was the first book I lost myself in. I felt a sense of separation from my family and from other people. I guess it was like the first moments of identity formation. I remember this one scene vividly when a prison guard puts a baton up another man’s anus, and he haemorrhages to death. The violence of that was visceral for me. I guess my sister was right. I was probably a bit young. I was probably slightly traumatised by that image. But I’m glad I read it, and from that point on I only read “adult” books. At the time of reading it, I became obsessed with boxing (the main character is training to become a boxer). I decided I wanted to be a boxer. I used to make my dad and friends box with me for hours. This kept happening to me with every book I read after that. I wanted to become whatever the main character was. Eventually I realised I wanted to be a writer, because then I could pretend to be anything I wanted to be in my writing.

Q. Is it ironic that you’re being “interviewed by a … small literary blog”?

I don’t think so. I really love small literary blogs. They were how I met lots of the people that inspired me to write The Honeymoon Stage. I felt so excited that people were talking about and sharing my work and my friends’ work. Small literary blogs create community and friendship. For me poetry is all about community and friendship.

Q. The internet is a bottomless resource for your work, can you tell me a little about your research and “the intersection between technology and culture”?

The intersections of technology and culture was the focus of my academic research. I wrote a PhD exploring the question of whether computers can write poetry. When I started my research I thought that this question was a contemporary one, that it spoke to the cutting edge, or the speculative future, where sentient machines would learn to “feel” and then write poetry. What I realised, after around a year, was that people have been using computational methods and mechanisms to create poetic texts for millennia. From the Kabbalistic permutations of God’s name, to Ramon Lull’s combinatory poetics, to Ada Lovelace’s creative programming languages, to Edgar Allan Poe’s formula for generating The Raven, to the avant faddists obsession with algorithmic proceduralism, up to our present moment where programmers are making poetry bots on Twitter. Throughout the history of this practice – what I call computational poetics – I found that boundaries become blurry: boundaries between the sciences and the arts, but also boundaries between the human and the non-human. It is the limits of these boundaries that I am interested in exploring.

Q. I ask all my interviewees this, it is helping to build a great reading list, what are you reading at the moment and why?

I’m reading a book called A Son of the Red Centre. It’s the memoir of Kurt Johannsen, a man born just west of Alice Springs in 1915 who invented the road train, those massive trucks that move stuff all around Australia. The reason I’m reading this is because I’m writing a chapter for a book I’m working on about humans being replaced by machines. Specifically I’m looking at how autonomous trucks will disrupt employment in logistics, but also destroy a way of life, that of the truck. I live in Darwin now. There is a strong sense of our dependance on trucking freight to get our supplies, more so than down south. When autonomous trucks come in, we will lose not only a type of employment, but a way of life up here, just like when the trucks replaced the old bullockies and cameleers.

Q. Finally, another question I ask all interviewees, what’s next? Are you working on anything you can tell us about?

I’m working on the above book for Scribe. It’s about humans being replaced by machines. I’m not just looking at this phenomenon from the perspective of workers, but also as carafes, companions, creators, decision makers, and as a species.

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The Agonist – Shastra Deo PLUS bonus poet interview

Agonist

The Thomas Shapcott Poetry Prize is a literary award for an unpublished poetry manuscript written by a Queensland author. The current winner has their manuscript published by the University of Queensland Press. Last month, at the Queensland Poetry Festival, the 2017 winner was announced, Rae White for the collection “Milk Teeth”. 2016 winner was Shastra Deo for her collection “The Agonist” which was launched at the Festival, and Stuart Barnes won the 2015 version of the award, I reviewed his collection “Glasshouses” and interviewed him here.

I have been fortunate enough to receive an advance copy of “The Agonist” from the publisher as well as talking the poet herself into an interview about her debut collection.

As always I will post my thoughts about the book before presenting the interview, verbatim, at the close of this post.

“The Agonist” is a book that questions the physical world, a collection that opens with an illustration by Henry Vandyke Carter from Gray’s Anatomy and then moves to an epigraph by Emily Dickinson, this is a world where the physical meets the metaphysical

The more I think about your body, the more I know
it is no longer your own: your heart is a house
with the doors left open: your brain is the basement

Filled with smoke. The skeleton hidden under the flesh
of floorboards. A stranger roaming the hallways, a
dappled shadow splashed on the wall, flickering in firelight.

Poetry of meat, sinews, bones and tendons. Rooting itself in the physical world, with water, fishing, drowning sitting alongside familial blood connections

Brother, do you remember the Bering Sea,
where we promised to go home again?

A collection of poems that contain (or are even partially called) lexical gaps, poems that demand reading aloud. The syncopation, the alliteration and simply the rhythm leading you to verbalise the poems you’re reading

/yaad/
My childhood, remembered: mouths unsynced
with sound, words swollen and sworn. Throats
dismantled from the inside out. My tongue turned
plosive, poised at the tip of my teeth,
dubbing out of dialect.

Whilst my description to date may seem very dark, there is also an erotic undertow at play here, dark magik sitting alongside the medical anatomical terms, with a hint of the sexual;

I was never good at being truthful
during daylight:
my lovers left wanting
to find the seam where belief and desire crossed,
to make narratives out of my body within their beds.
my fragile geometry reduced to a tangle of interlocked limbs.

Even though this becomes a ritualistic poem.

There is also use of formal constructs, for example the poem “Anatomy of being” is a fixed 26 line structure each line starting with a different letter of the alphabet, the poem talks of the body’s reaction to prayer, to breathing, to panic, linking these everyday functions to the medical term.

These poems recalled a road trip, where belongings are disposed of prior to travel, the poet always hovering on the edge, moving beyond the current physical world, to an unknown world, beyond something…

A collection that shows astute maturity, it is fascinating to know that this is a debut collection, as the depth of exploration, subject matter and deft word usage suggests a writer who has crafted their work for quite some time. One of the highlights of my poetry reading this year, it is a collection I urge you to explore, and keep your eyes out for more work from Shastra Deo, as I am very confident that we will be coming across her name again, yes I anticipate more awards here.

As always I would like to thank to poet for taking the time to answer my questions, to educate my readers in her art form and for her honesty with her replies.

Q. These are poems that demand reading aloud, and you have touched on a fascination about the brain’s processing of language and sound, where does this interest come from?

A few people have said that to me since The Agonist was released—that the poems work well when read out loud. I wouldn’t say it was a conscious decision, as I’m generally most focused on how the poems look on the page. But, I usually hear the rhythm or tune of a line before I know what the words are. Amy Hempel describes something similar: the act of hearing and humming that tune over and over until it translates into a sentence.

I rarely get a first line though, and typically build around whatever’s come to me. “Haven” started with lines that are now part of the final stanza: “And his back, freckled / with oracular precision”. They’re not the most sonically interesting lines (though I like the repetition of the ck sound in “back”, “freckled”, and “oracular”; and how “freckled” and “oracular” each have an r, ck, and l sound in the same order) but they do feel musical to me. I try to infuse the rest of the poem with that same music.

As for the brain, my interest starts with the gross anatomy. I love that the human body houses so many labyrinths—the brain, ear, belly. And more. I also wonder where we house other things, like memory and emotion. I’m no longer fluent in my native language (Hindi), but that’s not really interesting to me: I want to know where my memory of the language went—where it used to live and how it was expunged from the brain and the tongue.

Q. Another fascination is rituals, religious, magik, tarot, divination, from where did this interest stem?

Haruspicy—the reading of omens in the entrails of animal sacrifices—is my favourite form of divination. It all comes back to my interest in the corporeal body and where the body holds its histories. I want the body—medical, cultural, historical, individual—to be something more than the sum of its parts. Archive, container, repository. If we can read the future in the gut, then why not the past? And the relationship between the medical body and magic is well documented—there’s a lovely quote from Barbara Ehrenreich and Deirdre English’s book, Witches, Midwives, and Nurses – A History of Women Healers:

“It was witches who developed an extensive understanding of bones and muscles, herbs and drugs, while physicians were still deriving their prognoses from astrology and alchemists were trying to turn lead into gold.”

As for ritual, I think we take its quotidian nature for granted. The act of brushing teeth, steeping tea, or turning key in lock become symbolic when enacted within a poem, but these rituals are part of the reality of everyday living. I’m reminded of Bronwyn Lea’s “Routine Love Poem”: “they make & remake coffee / they make & remake the bed”. Ritual isn’t limited to hallowed spaces or the shedding of blood. You may not be lighting candles, but what a many-splendoured thing it is to pass through your doorway after dark, turn on your lights, and remake house into home.

Q. There’s a sense of displacement in a number of poems, can you talk a bit about your sense of a “homeland”/“homecoming”?

I’m interested in texts that treat place or setting as a character in and of itself. Jane Harper’s The Dry and Evie Wyld’s All the Birds, Singing come to mind: the Australian landscape, in both texts, feels like a maw waiting to scrape teeth against the ankles of the unvigilant. While I’m happy to research as needed to create a convincing setting, homeland, for me, is a tricky thing.

The Agonist is written almost entirely in persona. When dealing with a new speaker, or one that does not easily fit within an existing mythos, I think about the physical place they inhabit and where it is they want to go. These settings don’t always appear in the poems: more often than not, I catch speakers during moments of travel, or trapped within some sort of liminal space. There’s a sense of wanting to move forward but remaining tethered to the past, or wanting to hold on to a moment while knowing what’s ahead is unavoidable.

Memory, I think, is homeland, and I believe that so much of memory is embodied. I’ve actively tried to problematise that relationship by writing about bodies in crisis. All you can do then is wait to see what emerges.

Q. You are studying for your PhD, you are to become a “doctor” of what? If I had to guess I’d say medicine or something to do with teeth!!

If only! It would be better for everyone if I remain a hobbyist when it comes to medicine and teeth. I’m doing a creative writing PhD: my dissertation will be made up of a poetry collection and a critical essay. The critical essay is focused on body phantoms—that uncanny sensation of an arm, leg, or organ where no such body part remains. I’ll be examining body phantoms as they appear in medical and literary canons up until the First World War, paying particular attention to the moments when they disappear from history. The poetry, so far, has again found its roots in ritual: medical rituals, burial rituals, and séance. But there’s also the issue of creating a corpus or body of work for the phantom to inhabit—how to write both the haunting and the house.

Q. Your tarot readings? Anything you can reveal?

Sadly, I’m not adept at reading tarot. I like the iconography and symbolism of the cards, and how meanings can change depending on the card’s position, the spread used, and the other cards drawn. It’s not a static form of divination. I have drawn cards to carry with me when I know I’m going to be under stress—I had The Chariot in my pocket during the launch of The Agonist! My friend, Madeleine Dale—a fantastic poet—is the real talent, having used tarot to accurately predict our fickle Brisbane bus times. I’m not as gifted.

I think there’s an odd sort of… metonymy at play when invoking the tarot as potential (and uncertain) characters and speakers. A layering, really, of what the name of the card instantly evokes, what the card represents, and whatever else the reader brings in their reading of both card and poem.

Q. I ask all of my interviewees this, I’m building a nice reading list based on the replies, what are you reading at the moment and why?

I’m currently reading Mary Borden’s The Forbidden Zone—a poetic memoir about her years as a nurse during the First World War—for my dissertation. It’s a marvellous book, weaved of fragmentary moments—figures reduced to fragment. And the noise of war. I’m also slowly rereading parts of Catherine Malabou’s The Ontology of the Accident, Elaine Scarry’s The Body in Pain, and Felicity Plunkett’s Vanishing Point. But I recently had a dream that I met and embarrassed myself in front of Anne Carson, so something of hers should probably be next.

To be honest, I haven’t been reading or watching TV as much as I’d like, mostly because of my gaming habit. I hope Marvel’s The Defenders will inspire some poems, as the first season of Marvel’s Daredevil did. But I’m still happily entrenched in Final Fantasy XV; that’s where the majority of my free time goes.

Q.  You end this collection with walking away, so what is next?

Strolling towards something, hopefully! As mentioned, I’ve just started my creative writing PhD, so another poetry collection is in the works. Since reading Stuart Barnes’s Glasshouses, I’ve been trying to make more of a conscious effort to work within form. Not only sonnets and the like, but recipes, instruction manuals, how-to guides. I’ve been playing with the idea of weaponised domesticity—something that unconsciously worked its way into a number of poems in The Agonist. Household tricks are small acts of witchcraft, I think: coffee, cloves, and baking soda to eliminate unpleasant odors; a little lemon juice and sunlight to draw out the bloodstains.

Constitution – Amelia Dale, poet interview

Constitution

In late August Mascara Literary Review ran an article by myself where I reviewed Amelia Dale’s latest book “Constitution” and that piece contained a few comments from the poet herself. I interviewed Amelia Dale about her latest book, and naturally only used a portion of what she had to say in the review itself. As I am building a collection of Australian poet interviews here at Messenger’s Booker, I thought it prudent to publish the full interview with Amelia Dale here.

If you are interested in the review at Mascara you can access it here:

As always I would like to thank the poet for giving me their time, being open and honest in their replies and for their contribution to my “archive” of interviews. Amelia Dale and I conversed, via email, in early July and the unedited version of our “discussion” is below.

Her book “Constitution” can be purchased at the following locations, Melbourne: Collected Works, and Readings (Lygon), Sydney: Gleebooks, Hobart: The Hobart Bookshop or you can email the publisher, details at their website

Again, thanks to Amelia Dale for her time, and of course her book….

Q. Is the unrelenting rhetoric of your text taken from actual interview snippets from the ‘7.30 Report’? Who are the speakers?

Yes the text is edited transcriptions of interviews with Malcolm Turnbull from the 7:30 report. There are no other speakers. It is all Turnbull. I’ve deleted some words but all the text, the weird phrases, the odd metaphors are all his.

Q. The demeaning condescending talk to “Leigh” appears as an “interlude” throughout the text, did you purposely use this as a buffer to the “confusion”?

Again, this is Turnbull’s work, not mine. We can all speculate on his own reasons for needing the buffer, for needing an interlude. I just wanted to make the convolutions of his speech visible.

Q. “The truth is that all of us are a bit liberal and a bit conservative in differing degrees”, the right side of politics may think so, do you think so?

Claims for a sensible or objective “centre,” the idea that the grown-up place to start is compromise makes me nauseous. Turnbull of course markets himself as a kind of socially “progressive” left-of-right figure. We’re supposed to be happy that he doesn’t commit Abbott-level macroaggressions and not be angry that his policies kill people. Before I “wrote” the book I experimented with a twitterbot @democraticteddy, a markov chain bot that used as its data source the party documents from major Australian political parties. The idea was that it would end up being the tweets of an ideologically confused teddy bear politician, determined to claim the pragmatic, sensible middle ground #sensiblesolutions You don’t have to write a bot to get this language though. It’s everywhere in Australia you’re too bored to listen, its the language of cold neoliberal power.

Q Given you match the format and flow of the actual Constitution I need to ask where did this interest come from?

Being an “Australian poet” with all that entails it seems to me that the starting point has to be to try, as much as you can, to undo and damage “Australia” the nation state. This is not to say that I have any delusions that my book will enact in real terms political change. But I turned to the Constitution because to vandalise the Constitution seems like the sensible, the only thing to do.

Q. As you know I ask all my interviewees this, and in your case I hope it isn’t the “Tax Act” but what are you reading at the moment and why?

While I am typing up these answers I have been enjoying Buzzfeed’s Harry Potter anniversary content. I just did the quiz “Tell Us Seven Of Your Literary Preferences And We’ll Reveal Which “Harry Potter” Character You Are” (Luna Lovegood). Off screen, I’m reading the brilliant Rabbit 21 “Indigenous” edited by Alison Whittaker, love it all, especially Natalie Harkin’s interview, by Corey Wakeling and Damien Shen’s artwork throughout the issue, including his pictures of Abbott and Brandis. I’m also reading Melody Paloma’s In Some Ways Dingo (again Rabbit) which I’m excited about launching in Sydney in late July. Also looking forward to getting into Dave Drayton’s book of P(oe)Ms.

Q. And finally as I ask all my subjects “what’s next” is there something you are working on that you can tell us about?

I’ve determined that all my poetry for the rest of my life will be inspired by, about and against white male politicians. I’m about to move to Shanghai, so Kevin Rudd might be an appropriate muse.

Flights – Olga Tokarczuk (translated by Jennifer Croft)

Flights

“Caelum non animum qui trans mare currunt” Horace Epistles I. II. 27

If you Google Horace’s quote you will end up with various interpretations, Wikipedia telling you “Those who hurry across the sea change the sky [upon them], not their souls or state of mind”, the Irish Times (and Goodreads) “They change their sky but not their soul who cross the ocean” and a lose interpretation by Robert Demaria Jr, in the introduction of Jonathan Swift’s “Gulliver’s Travels” as “no matter how far away you travel you are always stuck with yourself”, however intpreted I think it is an apt quote to use when talking about Olga Tokarczuk’s latest release “Flights”.

Whilst not strictly “epistles” per se, Olga Tokarczuk’s latest book is a collection of short stories, fragments or jottings, about the narrator’s travels, a seemingly random collection of vignettes, short pilgrimages, all related to journeys, some Biblical;

Standing there on the embankment, staring into the current, I realized that – in spite of all the risks involved – a thing in motion will always be better than a thing at rest; that change will always be a nobler thing than permanence; that that which is static will degenerate and decay, turn to ask, while that which is in motion is able to last for all eternity.

Using an engaging journal style, a raft of “travelling” subjects are addressed, transience:

Enormous airports assemble us together on the promise of connection with our next flight; it is an order of transferal and of timetables in the service of motion. But even if we had nowhere else to go in the coming couple of days, it would still be worth getting to know these spaces.
Once they were in outskirts, supplementing cities, like train stations. But now airports have emancipated themselves, so that today they a whole identity of their own. Soon we may well say that it’s the cities that supplement the airports, as workplaces and places to sleep. It is widely known, after all, that real life takes place in movement.

Time;

Every traveller’s time is a lot of times in one, quite a wide array. It is island time, archipelagos of order in an ocean of chaos; it is the time produced by the clocks in train stations, everywhere varying; conventional time, mean time, which no one ought to take too seriously. Hours disappear on an airplane aloft, dawn issues fast with afternoon and evening already on its heels. The hectic time of big cities you’re in for just a bit, wanting to fall into the clutches of its evening, and the lazy time of uninhabited prairies seen from the air.

Always the journey itself hovering, shimmering in the background;

Straight lines – how humiliating they were. How they destroyed the mind. What perfidious geometry, how it makes us into idiots – there and back, a parody of travel. Going forth merely in order to return again. Speeding up just to put on the brakes.

Our narrator has a fascination with the macabre, freaks, the inner workings of the human body, as a result her journeys include visits to museums, places where stuffed bodies are on display, remembrances of public autopsies, limbs, foetus’ contained in jars, there is a sense of our seeker wanting to understand the human body, if she can understand such, she can understand God, creation – “There is no other access to other people or to the world other than by way of the body.”

This is an ephemeral collection, with the very nature of transience forming part of the narrative, which is a collection of diverse voices, styles, blending fiction and essay, and tales across a multitude of locations, all questioning the sense of “home”.

‘In reality, movement doesn’t exist. Like the turtle in Zeno’s paradox, we’re heading nowhere, if anything we’re simply wandering into the interior of a moment, and there is no end, nor any destination. And the same might apply to space – since we are all identically removed from infinity, there can also be no somewhere – nothing is truly anchored on any day, nor in any place.’

Interestingly the original Polish title for this book is “Bieguni” and as Kapka Kassabova has explained in her review of this book in “The Guardian”, ”The bieguni, or wanderers, are an obscure and possibly fictional Slavic sect who have rejected settled life for an existence of constant movement, in the tradition of the travelling yogi, wandering dervishes or itinerant Buddhist monks who survive on the kindness of strangers.” The section titled “Flights” explores a ‘bieguni’ woman, living outside of a railway station.

With numerous references to ancient writers, travellers, Gods (for example Kairos) the threads of a seemingly disconnected collection of fragments slowly weave into a holistic rumination on human frailty, transience, home and time. A book that lingers, one that you could dip into and out of, although I was very comfortable reading it from cover to cover, like poetic works it is one that could be revisited ad-hoc – a travel “thought for the day”? Having been a follower of Olga Tokarczuk’s works in English, “House of Day, House of Night”, and “Primeval and Other Times”, two other titles I have read, I am very much looking forward to Jennifer Croft’s translation of the controversial epic “The Books of Jacob”, a book that won the Nike Award in 2015 (Poland’s pre-eminent literary award), just like this novel that took out the same award in 2008.

 

August – Christa Wolf (translated by Katy Derbyshire)

August

My second review of a book titled “August” for Women In Translation month, this one from Germany and Christa Wolf, beautifully and eloquently translated by Katy Derbyshire, whose translation work I have come across before when reading the 2017 Man Booker International Prize longlisted “Bricks and Mortar” by Clemens Meyer.

As the publisher, Seagull Books tells us:

August is Christa Wolf’s last piece of fiction, written in a single sitting as an anniversary gift to her husband. In it, she revisits her stay at a tuberculosis hospital in the winter of 1946, a real life event that was the inspiration for the closing scenes of her 1976 novel Patterns of Childhood. This time, however, her fictional perspective is very different. The story unfolds through the eyes of August, a young patient who has lost both his parents to the war. He adores an older girl, Lilo, a rebellious teenager who controls the wards. Sixty years later, August reflects on his life and the things that she taught him.

This is a beautifully presented book, as are all of the Seagull Books titles, as Tristan Foster pointed out in a recent review of Georg Trakl’s “Sebastian Dreaming” at Asymptote Journal.

It is not possible to discuss a Seagull book without discussing Seagull Books. Since 1982, this Kolkata publishing house has been salvaging literature which time may have otherwise cast aside. Not only do they pluck from obscurity, they also present literature with a seriousness and gravitas befitting an era preceding our sales-obsessed one. Their books are less consumer goods than they are artefacts: house designer Sunandini Banerjee’s sensitivity and skill result in hardbacks with covers that bloom like rainforest flowers.

“August” is no exception to this observation. The only criticism I have is that it is a very (very) short book, a short story of 74 pages, and the text populating only half of each page, and once you are immersed in Christa Wolf’s work you feel like reading more. Maybe the book could have contained a few short stories.

Stunningly stark, the haunting loneliness of being hospitalised and ostracised from such a young age, is conveyed through the simple prose, you feel as though each word was perfectly chosen;

August doesn’t like the outskirts of cities. The huge, ugly shopping centres with their oversized carparks. The car showrooms outbidding each other’s advertising claims. The fast-food restaurants that August never sets foot inside. He usually brings his own sandwiches along, although they’re not as lovingly made when Trude was alive. He’s not hungry yet. He has to concentrate on the motorway near the city, which gets more and more crowded with every year, on the building sites that never end, only change position. On the traffic jams they cause, which makes the journey longer. August keeps his cool. He never gets impatient. You have the patience of an angel, Trude used to tell him. He never loses his temper. His workmates appreciate that. Sometimes, he knows, they think he’s a bit boring. Come on, say something for a change, they used to nudge him in the beginning when they sat together in their lunch break. But what did he have to say? He had no reason to complain about his wife. No separation to report on. No arguments with the children to moan about. They didn’t have any children. It has simply turned out that way. There’s been no need to talk to Trude about it first. They wanted for nothing. And when Trude died two years ago he certainly couldn’t talk to anyone about it.

A simple life told through a simple tale, I am (yet again) reminded of the 2016 Man Booker International Prize Shortlisted “A Whole Life” by Robert Seethaler (translated by Charlotte Collins), however in this case the simplicity of a simple life is barer.

Dipping into familiar territory of an unreliable memory, the ageing process and the march of time, the simplicity of August’s life still shows through as emotionally complex, and fraught with ignorance:

…there was a good reason why God gave us the power to forget.

Simple, a work that can be read in a single sitting, and given it was written in a single sitting it is probably the preferred way to approach this book, but also very moving and touching, it makes a great introductory work into Christa Wolf’s oeuvre, even if it contains her only male protagonist, and it is her last written piece!!!

Kudos to Seagull Books for bringing this work to the attention of English language readers, a “women in translation” writer we should be discussing more often.

August – Romina Paula (translated by Jennifer Croft)

August

Since 2014 I have actively participated in “Women In Translation Month” an event set up and pursued in earnest by Meytal Radzinski at http://biblibio.blogspot.co.uk – since 2014 I have seen a massive increase in interest in the month, an understanding of the limited amount of translated fiction by female writers but interestingly enough there hasn’t been a shift in the number of books being published, it still hovers around the poor 30% of all translated fiction.

Given August is “Women In Translation Month” I thought it was a good idea to read and review two translated books titled “August” written by women.

First up today is Romina Paula’s book, from Argentina, originally titled “Agusto”, translated by Jennifer Croft and published by Feminist Press.

This is a first person narrative primarily addressed to a dead girl, our narrator in her early twenties leaving Buenos Aires and returning to rural Patagonia, to meet the family of her childhood friend and plan the scattering of her ashes, her friend having committed suicide a number of years beforehand.

The opening is haunting and deeply personal as our neurotic protagonist, Emilia, questions her return, explores her relationships and reflects on the events that have led to this “homecoming”;

Before leaving town the bus makes a stop in Liniers. The seat I chose isn’t bad, all things considered. It has a number of pros: it’s upstairs, more or less in the middle. There’s no one next to me. The only little con, which I do detect immediately, is that right exactly where my part of the window is there’s a divider – I mean, the window, the glass, is bisected smack-dab where my face is. This is bad because the view will not be optimal, although I still think I did okay, in terms of safety it’s a good thing because it’s a divider that could absorb a blow, you know, if it ever came to that. It’s a divider that isn’t glass at least. So I reconcile myself to that metal/rubber strip standing between me and the landscape.

Romina Paula uses the dairy like style to explore the inner machinations of our protagonist’s fears, and her “coming of age” as she both physically and mentally lets go of Buenos Aires and all that the city contains. Whilst the art of writing itself is also explored the presented book is more aligned to the narcissism of our narrator as she begins to question her relationship with her current boyfriend (who has remained in Buenos Aires) and her past relationships in Patagonia.

During my teenage years Buenos Aires symbolized both everything I wanted most and everything I detested. On the one hand I pictured it as ugly, jammed full of people all in a rush all the time. A clusterfuck of cars and taxis and buses and noises and people, and people, and people. In fact that wasn’t altogether unfounded: we had gone on a trip there, just once, with Dad, to do some paperwork, some paperwork he had to go and do in Buenos Aires, and we stayed at our aunt’s place, his sister’s, who was living there. Here. No, now it’s there. And the memory I have of that trip, I don’t know, I must have been about five years old, is of crossing Libertador in Retiro (now I know where it is, in my memory it was just a big avenue), and trying to get to the other side around everybody’s legs, through all those legs, hundreds coming towards us, ready to trample me, like a stampede; it was get across of die trying, and at the same time not lose Dad’s hand, not let yourself get tricked by some other hand and end up who knew where. That crossing generated an extreme mixture of terror and adrenaline in me; the terror, the adrenaline, sufficient for me to insist to my father that we go again, more than once, cross that forest of legs in motion, all furious, all enormous, all going in the opposite direction. You might say that image illustrated quite well the configuration of Buenos Aires, in my head: that excitement, that fear of losing, of being lost, of dying, literally trampled/crushed, and, nonetheless, the challenge, the challenge of avoiding it, of surviving all those knees wrapped up in suits, in stockings, of beating those heels. Those soles, those purses and briefcases, and making it – unscathed and holding on to someone’s hand – to the other side. Not that I think about it, my perception of Buenos Aires hasn’t changed all that much, it’s just that in this version my knees are at the same level as the rest of them, and my head is much higher, and some part, some little part, of the city, meanwhile, now belongs to me, as little as it is.

As Emilia goes through various stages of grief, excessive sleeping an example, she also presents, in her “journal” the plight of a mouse which has invade her home in the city as well as details of various horrific mass murderers, as a reader you begin to question her attitude to death, her genuine concern for her childhood friend’s demise, this juxtaposition forcing you to shift your views. We learn of her mother’s leaving, abandonment, when she was young, the childhood imaginings of where she had disappeared to, kidnapped, trapped behind the Iron Curtain?

And as the story progresses further, the novel becomes a “road movie” of sorts (there are a number of references to movies throughout, “Reality Bites” an example), when Emilia finds a novel way of getting back to Buenos Aires without using the bus.

The internal, rather than the external, journey of our protagonist becomes the main focus as she slowly unravels.

It would seem to be more mixed up than that: it would appear that no one knows exactly who loves whom, if indeed anybody loves anyone, if indeed anyone understands, knows, or has a clear idea of what it is to love, or of what love is. Which is horrific…

As Emilia begins her journey home even the format, presentation, of the tale changes, dialogue begins to contain quotation marks and follows the expected rules, the internalisation begins to broaden and contains existentialist discussions, our narrator is starting to conform.

Although entertaining, and starting with a great premise that leads the reader right into the life of Emilia, I did find this book to be a somewhat shallow work, a hollow piece, where the internal voice of the narrator became too obsessive and overbearing. Similar, only slightly, to the Chilean “Camanchaca” by Diego Zúñiga (translated in Megan McDowell) a coming of age story, linked to a road trip, a work I reviewed back in April, or a teenage immature version of Clarice Lispector’s “Near to the Wild Heart”, without the ingenuity,  grace, method or the style. Whilst “August” throws out a range of existentialist ideas, it fails to deliver any real punch on any of them, however that may be the point!!!

Our Dead World – Liliana Colanzi (translated by Jessica Sequeira)

Our-Dead-World-COVERLatin American fiction has always had a connection to the bizarre, from numerous countries you can find dark horror tales, bleak speculative narratives containing the stuff of nightmares, bodies, zombies, all blended with the everyday. Julio Cortázar, Jorge Luis Borges, César Aira a few names that spring to mind, however it is not only the male writers who explore these dark depths, as Bolivian writer Liliana Colanzi has proven with her short story collection “Our Dead World”.

This is the first Bolivian fiction I have encountered and even my massive reference guide “Latin American Women Writers: An Encyclopaedia” has no entries for Bolivia, therefore it was a revelation when reading a number of the stories, the ones that contained cultural references, but more on that later. According to census data quoted at Wikipedia, “There are approximately three dozen native groups totalling approximately half of the Bolivian population – the largest proportion of indigenous people in Latin America.”, and this melting-pot and indigenous theme runs throughout Liliana Colanzi’s book. Although the nuances and slight references would obviously be lost on most readers, myself included, where our understanding of Bolivian culture is virtually non-existent.

A collection that contains eight short stories, we have the mystical, the metaphysical, a collection of dark tales blended with local folklore, references to Aztec human sacrifice, the afterlife…

I remembered the story my nana Elsa told me once, about an uncle the devil possessed in body and soul. Elsa’s uncle sold his soul to the devil in exchange for a house for his mother, an old lady. The devil gave him powers. He could wake up anywhere in the world just by wishing it, and also knew how to do tricks. Want to eat? he would ask my nana, and put a stone in an empty burlap bag. When Elsa opened the bad, she’d find it bursting with white or sweet potatoes. Want to see a viper? he’d ask, and throw his belt on the ground. As soon as it touched the earth it turned into a snake that fled slithering from the room. One day he died from a sudden illness. When his relatives lifted the casket to take it away, the realized it was light as a husk. They opened it and found only a few small black stones inside. The story gave me nightmares, and Mama threatened to throw Elsa out of the house if she kept making up nonsense.

This story, “Alfredito”, blends the spiritual (the visitation of ghosts), the human (“beginning to decompose and feed the worms”) and the everyday mundane (childhood recollections).

As with numerous adult stories of despair we also have the rational correlation back to childhood images, in one case a pig being slaughtered, in another a mother burning the family history, these events are bleak and “do permanent harm”. As a reader you feel as though our narrator, our writer, is exploring her own inner demons and is revealing them along with her depressive, angst ridden, nihilist views;

But how could I tell the others about the Wave/ At Cornell nobody believes in anything. Many hours are wasted discussing ideas, theorizing ethics and aesthetics, speedwalking to avoid the flash of others’ looks, organizing symposiums and colloquiums, but people wouldn’t recognize and angel if it blew in their faces. That’s how things are. The Wave arrives on campus at night on tiptoe and sweeps away seven students, and all the doctors can think to do is fill your pockets with Trazodone or give you a lamp with ultraviolet light.

As mentioned local folklore is woven through the fabric of these stories; “The Collas even had a name for the bearer of bad omens: Q’encha.” One of the short narratives, “Story with Bird” uses the stories of the indigenous Ayoreos collected testimonies taken from anthropologist Lucas Bessire’s “Behold the Black Caiman: A Chronicle of Ayoreo Life”;

I don’t know what story to tell. I don’t know what I’ll say, I don’t know. I don’t know my story.

the plight of the natives relayed to us, as their past is enveloped by progress and their lives fall apart, so does our story, it disintegrates in front of your eyes.

There was a water tank. Full. A white man. So fat, wearing a red shirt. We waited. Trembling. Blood in the water. Lots of blood. We didn’t sleep. We ran. Crying, we ran. Tick tack tick tack tick tack tick tack tick tack tick tack tick tack tick tack tick tack tick tack tick tack tick tack tick tack tick tack tick tack tick tack tick tack tick tack tick tack

A modern day Latin American Edgar Allen Poe, these are creepy tales, the stuff of nightmares, for example, the tale “Cannibal”, the opening line reading “The day we arrive in Paris the police confirm the cannibal is hiding in the city.”, will their paths cross? A tense story where the undercurrent of evil is lurking forever in the background.

I would be interested to know if the stories in this collection are arranged in sequential order, as they were written, as the further you read the more experimental and quirky the works become,. Is this effect simply the progression and development of Liliana Colanzi as a writer or is the arrangement part of the overall effect of disintegration, decay, a descent into chaos? Graffiti from the back of toilet doors is quoted, including the striking though and even the passing of time, everything is reduced to noise…

At times this did feel like an uneven collection, however the experimental form can lend itself to this type of criticism, some of the stories less accessible than others. I am glad I have discovered a work from Bolivia, and for it to be via a female writer is an extra joy, a worthy inclusion to my long list of “Women In Translation” reads.