Mimi Lipson’s new book: The Cloud of Unknowing

mimilipson_cloud

Contrappasso contributor Mimi Lipson has just published a new book of stories – her first. It’s called The Cloud of Unknowing and comes via our friends at Yeti Publishing.

We were delighted to publish two of these stories in early issues of our journal: The Smockey Bar and Safe, Reliable, Courteous.

Here’s the publisher’s blurb:

Funny, tough, and heartbreaking — often all at once — Mimi Lipson’s debut collection is a grand tour of bars, diners, bus stations, dog parks, hardcore clubs, vacant lots, and other places that draw people whose inner lives are richer than their wallets. Lipson’s alter ego, the sharp-tongued and sharp-eyed Kitty, appears in a variety of guises: as a seven-year-old on a Florida vacation scammed by her roguish father, as a college student who receives a stunningly crucial education outside the classroom, as a passenger whose life changes on a cross-country bus. After meeting her parents, her brother, her friends and coworkers, we are introduced to Isaac, the sui generis man-child who becomes both her lover and her charge, a human roller-coaster who swings her between delight, exasperation, and mortal peril. Like a dinner composed of appetizers, Lipson’s book is very nearly a novel, in mosaic form, without all the boring parts. Her wit is as sharp as a serpent’s tooth, her sentences as percussively satisfying as billiard balls clicking into the pocket.

You can buy the book in paperback or kindle formats. You should!

Stet! Theodore Ell speaks at Gleebooks

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On Tuesday 27 May, Contrappasso’s poetry editor Theodore Ell took part in a panel discussion on new Australian literary journals, at independent bookseller Gleebooks in Sydney. Also on the panel were editors from new Australian writers’ launchpad Seizure, formal poetry journal New Trad and journal of sexual diversity Archer. As well as comparing notes on the labour (and love!) involved in starting and sustaining a journal, the panellists took questions from the audience and played ‘Would you rather…’ – which revealed that most editors would prefer one outrageous error on the cover of their journal to one on every page inside. An important question that each of the panellists addressed was how their journals defined their roles in the Australian publishing industry, which has been changing rapidly, unpredictably and not always for the better. How do you know who and where your audience is? How do you do the same job as publishers who have more resources than you, but aren’t concerned with the material you want to expose? Here is how Theo approached these and similar questions.

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‘The industry.’ I’ve always been unsure about that word. It adds too many illusions of glamour and careful planning to work that is usually messy. It also creates the idea of a club that you need permission to join. Two guys preparing a journal issue in an Ashfield living-room, with Bob Dylan on the turntable, last week’s coffee cups stacked dangerously in the kitchen, and utility bills buried deep under sheets and sheets of proofs – does that count for the industry?

It depends what kind of industry you mean. Industry can mean work, effort, dedication, passion, or it can mean business, money, trade, profit. The trouble with publishing is that these meanings get confused, and the business meaning of ‘industry’ starts to eat away at the other meaning. The industry-as-business is so huge and so involved with itself that to a new writer it can seem overwhelmingly daunting. Incredibly hard work goes into writing, but then the writer is faced with the even harder job of selling the book’s way into print. In the culture of spin and hype, there is often little evidence that the material itself will matter. With journals it’s different. Journals are closer to the realities that writers face: they deal with more writers more often, and offer more space for more kinds of writing. As the first testing-grounds for new writers and editors, journals also offer essential experience in learning how to get on with each other, how to listen, how to be patient, how to negotiate artistic habits and effects.

I think what we are talking about here tonight, and what we’re calling by the name ‘industry’, is really a third thing: community. All of the journals we represent, and many others you will find on the shelves, were created in recent years because there was a feeling that the business-meaning of industry was eclipsing its other meaning, the effort-meaning. There was a sad run of journals closing: Australian Literary Review, HEAT, Wet Ink. Australia seems to be a remarkably hard place for writers to have their work published and introduced to a readership, but with the loss of these outlets, it was getting even harder. There was a real sense of dismay, but the reactions that followed revealed a great deal else about ‘the industry’ that I think should give us cause for optimism. That dismay, that outcry, was so widely shared, in such similar ways by all kinds of people, that it proved something very important, and very inspiring. It proved how big the audience is for new writing and how prepared that audience is to seek out its forums. The situation now is, I think, far more positive and encouraging than anything we could have imagined only a few years ago. We lost three publications, but on the strength of people’s objections and new efforts, we have gained dozens. Aside from the four here tonight – Seizure, New Trad, Archer and Contrappasso – there are The Lifted Brow, Ampersand, Cuttings, The Saturday Paper and Verity La, to name only a few. In every city in every state, whatever you are looking for, you will find it.

When we founded Contrappasso, it was out of just this mixed feeling of objection and hopefulness. The name is weird, I know, but that is half the point with a title. You hope that it will sound different and make a reader curious, and over time it grows to mean something. But Contrappasso does have a specific meaning: it means counter-punch or counter-step in Italian, and it is the word for the ironic punishments in Dante’s hell and purgatory, the equal and opposite punishments that fit the crime. In 2011 when we decided to do it, the ‘equal and opposite’ reversal in the trend of journals closing was well underway. A number of the other journals I just mentioned already existed. But we wanted to challenge rhetoric as well as trends.

Opening a journal seemed like the exact opposite of what a sane, business-minded person would do – which was fine, because we weren’t. Questions of money and profit were exactly what were causing stress for journals and writing at the time, and the idea of publishing and promoting good writing for its own sake, thanks to the good will of the writers involved, seemed a fitting slap back to an assumption that people only properly value what they pay for. (Now, the journal has grown to the point that we do offer payment, a little, for all that we print; one day we hope finally to pay those writers who donated their work to the first couple of issues.) We wanted to test another ‘industry’ assumption as well, which is what exactly constitutes ‘new writing.’ ‘Previously unpublished,’ yes; the only things we publish that have appeared before are the works in translation, but while they have appeared in their original language, they have not in English. Most writers we have published so far would be called ‘emerging writers’. But ‘new writing’ isn’t restricted to ‘emerging writers’ – established writers are constantly producing new work too, and many go through the same struggle to find outlets for it. Our approach was to open the journal to writers at any stage of their careers and to place their works on an even footing. This creates dialogue and exchanges, on and off the page. But what loomed largest in our minds was the fact that our industry – the community of writers and readers in Australia – felt rather isolated from its counterparts elsewhere in the world, and that it tended to filter out the sound and experience of languages other than English. Writers from elsewhere appear in many Australian journals from time to time, of course, but there did not seem to be one with a consistently international outlook, or an interest in projecting itself overseas. With all the opportunities that the internet offers for this kind of contact, it seemed right at least to try and create a magazine that, while based here and ready to consider Australian work of any kind, was nominally borderless and open to considering new writing by anyone, from anywhere. Wherever possible, English translations would appear opposite the original language. In our five issues to date, we have published writers from twelve countries in five languages (English, Chinese, Spanish, Italian and Russian, with French to come in our next issue). We did not know if the experiment would work and nobody could be more surprised than us by the way in which it has. The unlikely turned out to be quite possible.

In part this has had to do with new publishing methods. The saddest phrase in the book trade is “Out of print.” An author’s effort, a publisher’s faith, a reader’s interest, a bookshop’s sale, who knows what potential social results – all these are defeated when the book itself is made unavailable. Out of print, out of mind. Sometimes a writer or their estate revokes publishing rights, but the saddest thing is that the permission for a book to go out of print is an integral part of the publisher’s own production line. To print and store books in warehouses costs money, and where a book is judged not to be selling enough, not to be earning its keep, it is cut from the list, not printed any more, and often the remaining copies are pulped – to make room for another book, which will run the same risk. For decades the production line has had this in-built loop for disposing of its own products. Careful management of waste and risk, you might think, but the decisions of what to allow to go out of print have often been dismaying. To name only two examples, Patrick White was out of print for most of the 1990s and early 2000s, while Patrick Leigh Fermor’s European journey trilogy has only just come back in. Poetry collections, if they are lucky, often go through only a couple of print-runs before being left aside. So often it is the writing that offers unusual and perspective-altering rewards that suffers most. It does not sustain enough sales to survive macro-economic rationalism. Except that for some years now there has been an alternative, which more and more publishers are taking up: print-on-demand. Books are stored as digital files – cover, text and all – and printed in response to specific orders. The costs of storage and large print-runs are greatly reduced and most importantly the work is available for interested readers. As a production model, it is ideally suited to new, small, start-up publishers who want to make work available but who only have a low budget. It becomes possible to order a first ‘bulk’ print run of a title – say, fifty copies – to sell and spread the word, then to keep that title on a permanent digital back-burner, ready for anyone coming later who would like to read it. It is a way of “hastening slowly” in growing a small publishing business. Your product can always be produced, you avoid the risk of getting too big too quickly, of having too much stock and overreaching yourself financially. You can get into this for the long haul. And that is what at Contrappasso we hope to do.

Contrappasso Ebooks! 99 cents! Get ‘em here!

Many readers picked up handsome print copies of our December 2013 double-header: issue #4 and the special Contrappasso Noir Issue. Now both issues are available for purchase as ebooks in multiple formats – Kindle at Amazon.com, and EPUB, MOBI, PDF, etc., at Smashwords.com.

And for a limited time we are running a special ebook promotion. We are selling all five issues of Contrappasso for the staggeringly reasonable price of US$0.99 each. Yep. Ninety-nine cents.

So if you’ve been curious about Contrappasso, the exciting new journal of international writing, there’s never been a better time to grab an issue – or all five.




Stet! Four Small Magazine Editors Speak Up

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If you’re in Sydney today – ie. Tuesday, May 27 – come along to Gleebooks (49 Glebe Point Road, Glebe) to see and hear Contrappasso co-editor Theodore Ell  on a panel with Alice Grundy (editor of Seizure), Amy Middleton (editor of Archer) and Sam Cooney (editor of The Lifted Brow).

What will be under discussion? “The state of the industry they find themselves in.” Gleebooks continues:

They have been called ‘nimble innovators’ but who exactly are these people and more importantly, what do they think they are doing? Let’s give them one hour and some wine and try to find out.

These brave people edit four rather different journals, which also have some interesting points of similarity and overlap. Each of their journals seems to have found its own niche and style and perhaps arose to fill a different perceived need in the first place. It is pretty hard to know what will happen when we put the four of them in a room together but some of the things we might get to the bottom of (or at least to the point where we can say the glass is half full) are: what the role of a journal editor is in the contemporary sense – does it involve proof reading text and commissioning articles or is it something a lot larger and more complex than that?; what they love about magazine editing, what frustrates them and why they do it; how they decide what format their journal should take and if this something they are flexible about; how important they think community is in the literary world; where they get the dosh – how have they utilised traditional and more innovative forms of funding?; how they straddle print and digital realms; and what they see as the importance of live events and launches to their work (yes, that bit will be a bit meta).

We’ll talk a bit about poetry and a bit about sex, a bit about fonts and a bit about perfect binding, we will be a bit serious and a bit tongue-in-cheek, we will look back at history of magazine editing but also look into the future. We will use a lot of analogies and metaphors and maybe hint towards something that suggests something else, which will in turn perhaps maybe make you feel like you are about to have an ephiphanic moment or witness someone else’s. We will make you so excited about small magazines that you will want to run out and buy one or contribute to one or edit one. If you don’t think that is worth the $10 ticket then I think there is something wrong with you. No, really, you are weird and lacking in a pretty fundamental way. But come along to Gleebooks and we will be nice to you and make you feel alright and maybe stimulate your intellect a bit as well.

You can also buy copies of our back issues on the night….

Event: Tuesday May 27, 6 for 6:30pm $10/$7 concession/gleeclub free. Book HERE or phone 02 9660 2333

Contrappasso Extra: Interview with Richard Misek (Rohmer in Paris)

An Interview with Richard Misek

Richard Misek is film-maker, media theorist, and educator. He has a professional background as a video editor and motion graphics designer, and is a former Knox Fellow at Harvard University. His teaching focuses on digital film-making, and encompasses fiction, documentary, and experimental forms. His current research explores the interstices between cinema and digital media, and extends across traditional scholarship and practice-based research/film-making. He is the author of the book Chromatic Cinema (Wiley-Blackwell, 2010) and of numerous articles on moving image aesthetics and technologies.

Misek is also the director of the feature-length documentary Rohmer in Paris (2013), which has screened in five continents and received widespread critical acclaim.

I recently caught Rohmer in Paris at the BAFICI film festival in Buenos Aires. Richard and I swapped some emails on the new documentary.

MATTHEW ASPREY: What was the process of making this film?

RICHARD MISEK: I’d just come out of a very happy four years in which I’d been working on a film PhD in Melbourne, and I was now starting a job teaching film history at Bristol University. It was a miserable wet autumn, and I was in temporary accommodation in a new city, bored and depressed, with just a laptop for company and the university library two minutes’ walk away. Over the course of three months, I watched almost the entirety of the library’s video collection. They didn’t have much, but they did have a complete set of Rohmer’s films, so I watched them night after night, voraciously, and gradually found myself drawn into his weirdly unchanging world.

What most interested me about the films, beyond the fact that they transported me somewhere more interesting than Bristol, was the spatial fidelity that Rohmer displayed towards Paris. He was so loyal to the city’s topography that he couldn’t allow himself to do what most film-makers do, which is to cheat physical space to fit the narrative requirements of their film. So, for example, Rohmer would film a scene that involved someone walking down Rue de Lévis with strict physical continuity. Like his characters, his actors and his camera crew would move step-by-step down the street. It’s such a ridiculous but also admirable constraint for a film-maker to impose on himself, and the result is a kind of spatial ‘truthfulness’ very rare in cinema. I don’t think it necessarily makes the films any better, but it provides an extra layer of interest.

So Rohmer in Paris initially took the form of a straightforward academic project about Rohmer’s relation to the topography of Paris – I presented seminars, and gave conference talks on the subject, and started to draft a book chapter about it (it’s now in a book called Mapping Cultures edited by Les Roberts). At the same time, for a long while I’d been interested in the idea of using film to interrogate film. Given the technology that’s now available, why should film critics and historians still restrict themselves to using only text? So I began to work on a short video essay on Rohmer’s Paris. Within a few months, I’d made a 15-minute work called ‘Mapping Rohmer’ but it felt too short to do justice to the complexity of Rohmer’s relationship with the city, so I just kept on going. Three years later, I finished the film!

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MA: Your film isn’t a traditional documentary but rather an essay film on Rohmer, on his vision of Paris, on your obsession with his work, and on the ultimate futility of cinephilia. And it’s also a love letter to the late director; at one moment you stop to confess to him, ‘I love you’. How do you define Rohmer in Paris and did you ever consider a more traditional documentary?

RM: I like that it’s a difficult film to define, so I don’t define it. In fact, for a long time, I didn’t even consider it to be a film, never mind a documentary. But then at some point, I’d spent so long with Rohmer’s footage that my own life as a viewer began to be reflected in it, and what had been a research project turned into something else. I don’t quite know when it happened – maybe after a year or so – that I realised there was a narrative there too, and that what I was actually doing was making a film. But by that point it was already such a hybrid, that it was too late to make it a traditional documentary. I remember there was a moment, after I’d first showed the film to friends and many of them really didn’t like it, that I thought ‘Screw it, maybe I’ll just make a straight doc on Rohmer and try to sell it to a couple of TV stations’. But that would have been a terrible mistake – a compromise that nobody had even asked me to make.

The whole experience does, however, strengthen my belief that we are in a period in which traditional categories (‘fiction’, ‘documentary’, even ‘film’) count ever less. Yes, the old institutional divisions between types of film, and between film and other media, still exist; but speaking as a viewer, I increasingly feel that the most exciting work occupies the liminal spaces between forms, and the most interesting films somehow try to renegotiate what film is. I think that’s what I was trying to do with my film, in my own small way.

MA: What other non-fiction films do you see as antecedents?

RM: Now I look at the film, it seems to fit quite clearly into the ‘essay film’ category, and sometimes even feels like a conventional documentary. But for most of the time I was making it, I really didn’t know where I was going with it, and I certainly didn’t have any models for what I was trying to achieve. I looked at many films – like Godard’s Histoire(s) du cinéma (1988-98), but they typically didn’t help me solve my specific problems. I would say, though, that two works that very much inspire me are Sans Soleil (1983) and Los Angeles Plays Itself (2003). Again, I didn’t draw any specific lessons from them, but indirectly I think Rohmer in Paris owes a lot to both. Without Sans Soleil, I don’t think I’d have had the nerve to include the personal elements of the film, and without the inspiration of Los Angeles Plays Itself I don’t think I’d have had the self-discipline to make a film (almost) entirely out of appropriated footage.

MA: Did you meet the frustration film essayists often encounter when legally or financially prohibited from quoting other films for the purpose of criticism? Los Angeles Plays Itself  – Thom Anderson’s now-classic essay on cinema and a city – was also playing at the BAFICI festival, although its legal status remains dubious, effectively underground, because it was produced without permissions. These are not problems literary critics normally face because of ‘fair use’ provisions of copyright law. Was it difficult or expensive to acquire the rights to use such extensive clips from Rohmer’s films?

RM: If you work with no money and expect to earn no money, there are no constraints to what footage you can use. It would have been impossible to acquire rights to use all the clips that I used – the going rate is about €80 a second, not to mention the many hours for which you’d have to employ a legal expert to negotiate it all. I’d have needed a budget of over half a million Euros! Instead, I took the only option faced by almost all artists who draw on the media landscape – I just ripped DVDs and prepared myself to invoke fair dealing if anyone questioned the critical integrity of my project. As a result of making Rohmer in Paris, I now know so much about Intellectual Property, I’ve actually started writing about it as an academic. In fact, funny you should mention the ambiguous legal status of Los Angeles Plays Itself, as I’ve just finished writing a 10,000 article on just that subject! In short: yes, LAPI has never had a full commercial release, and there are certainly economic reasons for that, but the landscape is rapidly changing. Mark Cousins’ The Story of Film was made almost entirely from ripped DVDs, and sold to over fifty broadcasters without any major problems. I started this project feeling quite pessimistic about artists being able to use their moral right to work with found footage. I was also very pessimistic about my own chances of finding anyone who’d even want to screen it. But the last half year of exhibiting the film, and seeing how many other people are ‘getting away with’ using media in their work, has made me much more optimistic. The cultural ground is shifting, and intellectual property holders only have so much power to resist it.

MA: You explore the notion of Rohmer as a psychogeographical filmmaker. Can you elaborate on that? Did Rohmer have any connection to the Guy Debord and the Situationist International?

RM: No, he had no direct connection to them. I don’t know if he even read Baudelaire or Benjamin. Maybe he did, but he never mentioned them. Rather, my sense is that Rohmer’s spatial/urban project was far more intuitive than intellectual. There’s a great article he wrote for the 50th anniversary of Positif in which Rohmer registers his mild frustration with the fact that the train in Buster Keaton’s The General once travels screen left to screen right, and then travels screen right to screen left. He can’t say why – it just bothers him. Rohmer didn’t analyse psychogeography, he embodied it.

MA: Gene Hackman delivers a famous line in Arthur Penn’s Night Moves (1975) that watching a Rohmer film is ‘kind of like watching paint dry’. Do you think that is still the general attitude to his work?

RM: Personally, I find watching Night Moves to be like watching paint dry, so to each his own! I’m certainly not trying to champion Rohmer. I’m not even sure that he’s one of my favourite directors. I never made a rational decision that I liked his work, I just fell in love with him. Trying to be objective, though, I think there’s a so much Rohmer’s films to be interested in, and I look forward to future writers and film-makers seizing on aspects of his work that I haven’t even touched. There’s plenty more to explore.

MA: And finally, could you tell us which of Rohmer’s films is your favourite?

RM: L’amour l’après-midi (1972). Or maybe La Collectioneuse (1967). Or Le Rayon Vert (1986). Or La boulangère de Monceau (1963)… or…

 

‘Nimble Innovators’ by Alice Grundy

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Alice Grundy at the Sydney Review of Books writes about the spate of new Australian literary journals including Contrappasso:

Contrappasso, edited by Matthew Asprey and Theodore Ell, released their first issue without external funding. They did so by taking advantage of short-run digital printing, controlling their costs by starting with a small print run. They organised their own distribution and held their first launch at Sappho bookshop in Glebe, Sydney. Their ‘Noir’ themed issue is a testament to the ability of literary journals to cater to niche subject matter and to establish personal networks. Their events in Sydney, which have had a particular focus on poetry, have been well patronised and their flexible publishing model – using print-on-demand systems, they can produce a single copy which bypasses the prohibitive expenses of shipping and warehousing – means that they can guarantee international distribution for each issue, which is particularly important in this case, given Contrapasso’s emphasis on publishing work in translation, as well as international poets and writers.

Read the rest of the article HERE.

from Issue #4: Writings in Memory of Seamus Heaney – Marco Sonzogni

Photo (CC) Andy Rogers @ Flickr

Photo (CC) Andy Rogers @ Flickr

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Bye Bye Blackbird

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……………………………………I know noble accents
……………………………………And lucid, inescapable rhythms;
……………………………………But I know, too,
……………………………………That the blackbird is involved
……………………………………In what I know.

……………………………………—Wallace Stevens, ‘Thirteen Ways to
……………………………………Look at a Blackbird’ (VIII)

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……………………………………I’ve seen the waterdipper
……………………………………rise from the lightning rod:
……………………………………I knew him from his pride in flight,
……………………………………by his flutelike trill.

……………………………………—Eugenio Montale, ‘From a Tower’

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…………………………………..Pack up all my care and woe
…………………………………..Here I go, singing low
…………………………………..Bye bye blackbird

…………………………………..—Mort Dixon, ‘Bye Bye Blackbird’

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SINCE HIS DEATH on August 30, 2013, tributes, memories, readings, poems and translations in memory of Seamus Heaney have been continual and rightfully so. Yet, one wonders what the man himself would have made of such attention. His “mixed feelings” about the celebrations for his 70th birthday—the sense of “elevation” and “obligation” weighed upon him—suggest he would shun this appreciation, distancing himself from the attention, reminding himself and others that the Antaeus in him could be outsmarted any time by Hercules.

Now, among the sincere praise and grateful remembrance, off-key notes have also been heard—the echo of a karaoke rather than a keening.

So here I remember Heaney as a gifted literary translator from Irish. The original text is a “weird little scrap of Irish syllabic verse” (Ian Sanson) probably from the IXth century. Consisting of just three syllables for each of the eight short lines—Heaney referred to its “staying power”—it epitomizes the challenges of writing and translating poetry:

……………………………………Int én bec
……………………………………ro léc feit
……………………………………do rind guip
……………………………………………glanbuidi

……………………………………fo-ceird faíd
…………………………………..ós Loch Laíg,
…………………………………..lon do chraíb
…………………………………………..charnbuidi
 

There are many modern interpretations of this poem by Seamus Heaney, John Hewitt, Thomas Kinsella, John Montague and more recently Ciaran Carson (who chose ‘The Blackbird of Belfast Lough’ as the emblem for the Seamus Heaney Centre for Poetry at Queens University of Belfast). This is Heaney’s version, with my literal—but longer (five syllables per line)—translation into Italian:

……………………The small bird…………..Un uccellino
……………………chirp-chirruped:……….trilla e ritrilla:              
……………………yellow neb,……………….dal giallo becco
……………………………a note-spurt.……………..fiottano note.

…………………..Blackbird over…………..Eccolo il merlo
…………………..Lagan water.…………….
sul lago Lagan
…………………..Clumps of yellow……….Spruzzi di giallo

……………………………whin-burst!………………..della ginestra!

The blackbird features regularly in Heaney’s poetry. In Field Work (1979: 52), for example, the title-poem opens with a landscape snapshot where we find both “the small bird” and the “whin”:

…………….Where the sally tree went pale in every breeze,
…………….where the perfect eye of the nesting blackbird watched,
…………….where one fern was always green

…………….I was standing watching you
…………….take the pad from the gatehouse at the crossing
…………….and reach to lift a white wash off the whins.

The blackbird appears several times in Sweeney Astray (1983: 37, 43, 82), where the maddened king-turned-bird describes “green watercress in thatch on wells / where the drinking blackbird goes” and admits to preferring “the elusive / rhapsody of blackbirds / to the garrulous blather / of men and women”; and “the blackbird singing on the hill / and the stag loud against the storm / to the clinking tongue of this bell”.

Also, the ghost of Terry Keenan—the young missionary priest whom Heaney had met in his youth and whom he reencounters on his purgatorial stations in Station Island (1984: 69)—is likened to the shining black livery of the blackbird:

……………….I saw a young priest, glossy as a blackbird,
……………….as if he had stepped from his anointing
……………….a moment ago.

Heaney was clearly very familiar with the blackbird and its behaviour, taking notice of both its “composure” (‘Drifting Off’, Station Island, 1984: 104) and its “dart and dab” (‘Alphabets’, The Haw Lantern, 1987: 2).

It is thus no surprise that the blackbird is the protagonist of two of Heaney’s key-poems: ‘St Kevin and the Blackbird’ (The Spirit Level, 1996: 20-21) and ‘The Blackbird of Glanmore’ (District and Circle, 2006: 75-76). Heaney describes the extraordinary, miraculous story behind ‘St Kevin and the Blackbird’ in his Nobel Lecture, Crediting Poetry (1995: 20-21):

“Anyhow, as Kevin knelt and prayed, a blackbird mistook his outstretched hand for some kind of roost and swooped down upon it, laid a clutch of eggs in it and proceeded to nest in it as if it were the branch of a tree. Then, overcome with pity and constrained by his faith to love the life in all creatures great and small, Kevin stayed immobile for hours and days and nights and weeks, holding out his hand until the eggs hatched and the fledglings grew wings, true to life if subversive of common sense, at the intersection of natural process and the glimpsed ideal, at one and the same time a signpost and a reminder. Manifesting that order of poetry which is true to all that is appetitive in the intelligence and prehensile in the affections. An order where we can at last grow up to that which we stored up as we grew.
………..St Kevin’s story is, as I say, a story out of Ireland. But it strikes me that it could equally well come out of India or Africa or the Arctic or the Americas.” 

The ordinary, autobiographical genesis of ‘The Blackbird of Glanmore’—set in his home at Glanmore Cottage, where he “found a blackbird nest in the hedge at our gable”—is described in an interview with Dennis O’Driscoll collected in Stepping Stones (2008: 198, 408):

“The last poem in the book, ‘The Blackbird of Glanmore’, contains a memory of my young brother Christopher. The first time I came home from St Columb’s College, when he was just about two or three, he actually frolicked and rolled around the yard for pleasure. That stayed with me forever and came up more than fifty years later in the poem.”

When translating Heaney’s translation of ‘The Blackbird of Belfast Lough’ I was mindful of all these associations and especially of Heaney’s definition of himself as “something of an earth man”, “somebody with his poetic feet very much on local ground”. So when the multisyllabic nature of standard Italian made it plain obvious that it would be impossible to match the three syllables per line of the Irish original and of Heaney’s translation, I went back to my home ground—to its landscape and its language.

The water of the Lagan—river-water as well as lake-water (Belfast Lough or Lagan: Loch Laoigh in Irish; Bilfawst Loch in Ulster-Scots)—thus became the water of the Cavone, the stream that winds its way across Cergnago, the small village in North-western Italy where I grew up. The curt clusters of syllables of both the Irish and the English texts matched the staccato of my dialect (cergnaghese). And the sight and sound of the blackbird, black feathers and yellow beak, gold-yellow like the flowers of the whin (or gorse or furze or broom) are familiar presences in Cergnago—and in the Italian literary turf too.

This little exercise in literary translation exemplifies what translation is expected to do: to shift words and meanings from one place to another.

So here is my version in dialect, in grateful and loving memory of the Bellaghy Bard:

…………………………………Cip-cip-cip
…………………………………fa l’uślìn:
…………………………………spüda nòt.
…………………………………………..’l bèch giald.

…………………………………’n mèral
…………………………………sül Cavón.
…………………………………Sprüss d’or dla
……………………………………………ginestra!

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ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Marco Sonzogni (born in 1971) lives in Wellington, New Zealand. He holds degrees from the University of Pavia (Almo Collegio Borromeo), University College Dublin, Trinity College Dublin, Victoria University of Wellington and the University of Auckland. He is a widely published and award-winning editor, poet and literary translator, now Senior Lecturer in Italian with the School of Languages and Cultures at Victoria University of Wellington, where is also the Director of the New Zealand Centre for Literary Translation. His literary translation projects include Swiss-Italian poets (Oliver Scharpf, Alberto Nessi, Pietro De Marchi, Fabiano Alborghetti, Giorgio Orelli), New Zealand poets, and the collected poems of Seamus Heaney (Meridiano). 

from Issue #4: Writings in Memory of Seamus Heaney – John Dennison

Photo (CC) Rebecca Cox @ Flickr

Photo (CC) Rebecca Cox @ Flickr

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I’VE SPENT THE BETTER PART of the last six years devoted to Seamus Heaney’s work and thought. I say devoted, but, as for many, Seamus was first an object of study, a lofty mouth who moved and shook us with his persuasive eloquence, who stood on the mountain of his own saying. Perhaps because of that loftiness and because I was striving to master his prose writings in some measure, the name Seamus Heaney made me fluctuate, sometimes wildly, between praise and het-up, over-emphatic critique; it was the occasion for a measure of self-knowledge of my prevarication and academic disingenuity.

            But in our brief meetings, mostly to talk over small matters about his history and past reading, the object of my study became a subject proper, a person to whom I found myself answerable, even as, taking him at his word, I weighed and criticised his prose writings. More than once I came away moved by his largesse, and resolved to ensure the act of criticism was more fundamentally an acknowledgement and honouring of the poet’s integrity.

            June this year found me in Dublin to look at manuscripts, and Seamus very graciously invited me down to Strand Road. I can’t gloss my afternoon there a great deal more than I have already tried to in ‘Grace note’, except to say that I found myself subject to my subject, and in that, was appeased. Most profoundly, Seamus addressed me as a poet, an address that I now can’t shake off. I left all teared up, and wandered home rather aimlessly in the high summer light, pausing for a breather with Kavanagh by the Grand Canal.

            I meant to write in thanks, and delayed too long. The postcard I meant to send, a reproduction of one of impressionist James Nairn’s paintings of Wellington Harbour, for me came to frame Seamus’s absence after his death. Surprised by grief on the 30th of August, I found myself a day or so after out at the line, getting in the washing under a dusk of high-blown, underlit cloud. The blackbird spoke up. Delighted, and remembering Seamus’s love of the bird, I waited for its regular benediction to come again. It didn’t, and that absence keeps on going through.

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Triptych

Grace note

17 June 2013

……………………………………The walls stepping back apace;
……………………………………the late, high, western sun
……………………………………declining any impulse to grace

……………………………………ourselves, be otherwise than
……………………………………our falling shadows, our homing faces
……………………………………reveal we are. And then:

……………………………………a drink? A whiskey? The capacious
……………………………………front room, quiet talk, the telly
……………………………………cutting to Obama in Belfast,

……………………………………while the critic in me
……………………………………is weaned. Dublin Bay
……………………………………takes up the slack—the

……………………………………incarnation sets us free for play
……………………………………(sure, no truer word spoken);
……………………………………I’m suitably censered, you might say.

……………………………………Poet, bless me three times, even!

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Postcard

James Nairn, Wellington Harbour, 1894

………………………..Dear S, meant to send this some time back.
………………………..Thought you’d recognise the scene well enough:
………………………..in the foreground, a woman walks with a stick,
………………………..set in her own shadow as in her love,
………………………..the face a heavy dab of grief, a desire
………………………..to be elsewhere. Lately the waters rise,
………………………..and in brightness the sheds and the wharf lower
………………………..as the man, darkling, is held. What remains
………………………..is that a gulf exists; and the true poem,
………………………..our boat beyond all making, floats adjacent,
………………………..its shocking mast crossing the horizon
………………………..so that we might see, in this moment,
………………………..how truly the water gives us back the light.
………………………..Hope all well; not sure if you’ll get this alright.

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Touch and go

i.m. Seamus Heaney

……………………The day remembers itself to a sky-blown dusk,
……………………light still coming off the small cloths which ride
……………………the sagging line. Inside, the family play hide and seek,

……………………all our early numbers mounting so confident
……………………to the coming ready or not, while everybody scatters,
……………………loses themselves so easily. And with this: blackbird,

……………………his brief wise-o exile song, a smatter
……………………of grace notes struck out at the gable-end.
……………………So: we’re held, heart-pegged, hung in the matter

……………………of things counted out, and hid, and found—
……………………appeasing knowledge of song, and of our folly.
……………………Wait here over-long for what doesn’t come again,

……………………translates away, across, and up the gully.

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ABOUT THE AUTHOR

John Dennison is a poet and literary critic, and a chaplain at Victoria University in Wellington, New Zealand, where he lives with his wife and young family. He holds a PhD in literature from the University of St Andrews, research which forms the basis for a forthcoming monograph on Seamus Heaney’s prose poetics. Recent poetry by John Dennison has appeared in PN Review, New Walk, Poetry Proper and Broadsheet (NZ). His poems also featured in New Poetries V (Carcanet, 2011).

from Issue #4: Writings in Memory of Seamus Heaney – Iggy McGovern

Photo (CC) Sean @ Flickr

Photo (CC) Sean @ Flickr

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I WAS MIDWAY in a letter to Seamus Heaney when I learned that he had died. I was writing to invite him to the launch of a new book, a sonnet sequence based on the life of the 19th century mathematician and poet, William Rowan Hamilton. I was aware that it was one of the hundreds, maybe thousands, of letters that pled for Seamus’s presence, an endorsement of this or that event. I had some hopes of a ‘yes’ for he had come to a related event of mine the previous year. This was a seminar called “Science Meets Poetry”, part of the European Science Open Forum, the centrepiece of Dublin City of Science 2012. Seamus had contributed to the seminar discussion and had read his poem ‘St Kevin and the Blackbird’ (see Marco’s piece, a few pages ahead). I had talked about the Two Williams, Hamilton and Wordsworth, and when I had finished, I was cheered by Seamus’s “Bravo!” from the front row.

My first contact with Seamus was in 1997, when I was, in his phrase, “newly cubbed in language”. I wanted to obtain a Visiting Fellowship in Physics and Poetry at Magdalen College, Oxford. Mutual friends had advised that my chances would greatly increase if Seamus, an Honorary Fellow of the college, would provide a reference. Although we had not met, Seamus obliged; he also added some generous comments on the poems I had enclosed with that first letter to him; the last will have to be sent in a different way.

Seamus had been billed to give the opening address of the “On Home Ground” poetry festival, part of the Derry~Londonderry City of Culture 2013 celebrations. After his untimely death the organisers converted this event into a tribute, in which a dozen or so Irish poets read their favourite Heaney poem. I chose to read ‘The Haw Lantern’, the title poem of his seventh collection published in 1987. This beautiful sonnet begins memorably –

The wintry haw is burning out of season,
crab of the thorn, a small light for small people

– but the small light then morphs into the classical image of the lantern of Diogenes, who is seeking one just man. It is a poem about being tested and Seamus was himself tested and not found wanting. I was pleased to find that this is the Heaney poem on the official website of the Nobel Prize (http://www.nobelprize.org). It seems so appropriate given Seamus’s complete lack of hubris, his dignified bearing of the heavy load of fame.

The organisers had also asked for a second choice, to avoid possible duplication. I had nominated ‘Fosterage’, the penultimate poem in the sequence ‘Singing School’ from the collection North (1975). This poem is the bridge between four hard-hitting pieces (‘The Ministry of Fear’, ‘A Constable Calls’, ‘Orange Drums, Tyrone, 1966’ and ‘Summer, 1969’) about his (and my) sectarian home place and the more contemplative poem ‘Exposure’, his magnificent hymn to his refuge south of the border. ‘Fosterage’ recounts a meeting with his mentor (and former employer) the teacher and writer, Michael McLaverty. Seamus is offered the timeless advice “Don’t have the veins bulging in your Biro” before being sent out “with words / Imposing on my tongue like obols”. It is also the source of the phrase “newly cubbed in language”.

Which brings me back to the beginning. An act of kindness and the start of an unequal friendship. Where we might have found the balance, a chance to centre the bubble in the spirit level, was in the swapping of jokes. And I was all set to sweeten the latest request with such, one that I was sure he would have loved. So I put that in the poem, as well.

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To Seamus Heaney in Heaven

When word came I was midway
in a letter to yourself…
“What’s he after now?” you ask.
I had begun like Kavanagh’s swan,
“head low with many apologies”,
As Hamilton once wrote to Wordsworth
Occiditque legendo!
And keeping to the last
The joke I knew you would enjoy,
The one about the Greek tailor:
Euripides? Eumenides?
But you were already beyant, like Gunnar
Sharing poems with The Greats
Miłosz, Brodsky, Lowell, Auden, Yeats.

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ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Iggy McGovern was born in Coleraine and lives in Dublin, where he was Professor of Physics at Trinity College until retiring recently. He has published three collections of poetry, The King of Suburbia (Dedalus Press 2005), Safe House (Dedalus Press 2010) and the new sonnet sequence A Mystic Dream of 4, based on the life of the mathematician William Rowan Hamilton (Quaternia Press, autumn 2013). Awards include the Hennessy Literary Award for Poetry and the Glen Dimplex New Writers Award for Poetry. Iggy edited the anthology 2012: Twenty Irish Poets Respond to Science in Twelve Lines