Monday, October 22, 2012

The myths of time

Arc Poets, Friday 19th October, 6pm, International Anthony Burgess Foundation

Words by R.J. Owens.

Having arrived early for what is to be my final event of this year’s festival, I make my way over to the seating area. I am greeted by an immediately calming atmosphere into which a small, intimate crowd assembles slowly, the perfect ambiance for a poetry reading. 

Sarah Hymas from Arc Publications commences by introducing the third day of the Arc Ventures Tour, which sees 10 world poets perform readings of their work in translation. This evening forms part of the Manchester leg of the tour and the two poets here tonight are Gerður Kristný and Bejan Matur. Kristný is a prolific Icelandic writer, having written a grand total of 18 books of fiction and non-fiction as well as children’s books and poetry. Matur is a Kurdish prose and poetry writer. Her first book, Rüzgar Dolu Konaklar, was published in 1996 and won several literary prizes. We are told that these two writers are particularly suited to reading together, because for both poets, the established myths within their respective cultures form central aspects of their writing.

Gerður Kristný (above) brightly greets the crowd and offers a bit of background on her latest work of poetry Bloodhoof (or Blóðhófnir in Icelandic), which was born out of her childhood fascination with Nordic myth. It is a re-casting of the traditionally romantic myth about Freyr the fertility God and his love for a woman named Gerður Gymisdóttir. Freyr is so overcome by love for Gerður that he cannot sleep or eat. Restless, he orders his servant Skírnir to fetch her from her home in the land of the giants. Skírnir accepts, but demands Freyr’s horse Bloodhoof and his sword in payment. Kristný’s poem is written in sparse verse, from what she feels is the overlooked perspective of Gerður Gymisdóttir, who does not wish to leave her homeland. Kristný reads an excerpt, her voice transcending the everyday surroundings as she slips into her native Icelandic tongue. I find myself drifting and dreaming, forming images of ancient realms, harsh and icy, that somehow seem to fit the words. Suddenly she switches seamlessly into the English translation by Rory McTurk and a veil is pulled back. Bloodhoof stands “dark of hue as if hewn from darkness / His mane a sunlit field / His tail a sheaf of corn” in a landscape “cast in steel-cold ice”. The audience is hushed and transported like a child transfixed by a fairy tale, as Kristný’s use of language beautifully evokes these bleak places and their dark anti-heroes.

In stark contrast to the bitter-cold Nordic world, we next journey to a sun-baked climate. Bejan Matur (below) follows with a selection of poems from her collection How Abraham Abandoned Me, which relates a philosophical journey in the Anatolian desert. Matur reads first in Turkish; the soft multi-syllabic language chants the rhythms of the poems and is harmonious with their profound spiritual wanderings. Islamic references are embedded in every poem, searching for deeper understanding between man and the elements, his place in the cosmos and the “story of the tribe and the sorrow” in a historically war-torn country. Every couple of verses comes the corresponding translation so we can grasp the poetry as it unfolds.

To round off, the audience is invited to put questions to the poets. The most intriguing for me is: “How does it feel to hear your poems translated – do they lose something?” Having often thought about this problem in relation to translated literature myself, I am keen to hear the answer. Kristný praises the quality of Rory McTurk’s translation but, joking that he wouldn’t have written it on his own, is confident that it is still very much her poem. Matur says that she works closely with her translator to find appropriate words while retaining the “poetic feeling”. She says that perhaps it might lose something but that it is worthwhile because it is the only way of allowing poetry to travel across borders.

As I look back on the evening I consider that this is a point very well made. These translated works allowed us to experience other cultures from a privileged perspective not possible by any other means. For me, tonight has been an excellent conclusion to an exciting few weeks and I would fully implore you to go out and discover these works for yourself - masterfully translated, they open doors to new and wonderfully strange worlds.

R. J. Owens is a Manchester-based writer and editor. She has written reviews for All About Audiences and worked as a features editor for blankpages.