StAnza International Poetry Festival
The Undercroft, St John’s House, St Andrews
9th March 2019
The Undercroft is an intimate, arched, windowed cellar room belonging to the School of History at the University of St Andrews. It is almost too intimate for a mic’dpresentation, but being long and narrow it is not intimate enough to do without. Thereon hangs a problem: microphone technique is not something that everyone has, and a simple operational slip can cause something unwanted to obtrude.
So I’m sorry to start on a negative note – please bear with me. As Laura Accerboni recited her work purely in Italian, she was partnered by a man who alternated with translations into English of each poem. He sat while she recited, and vice versa; the lack of space meant that they had to shuffle round each other to get to the lectern, and whilst Laura recited from memory, her English reader referred to a script, spoke with his head down, approached the microphone too closely, and treated us to a series of plosive, overdriven consonants. Added to that, his script was organised in such a way that on several occasions he had to turn over his corner-stapled A4 sheets in the middle of a poem. Interruption of speech. Rustle, rustle. All this could have been avoided with a tiny bit more planning. He and Laura could have both stood, either side of the lectern, approaching and retreating as necessary; he could have had a better-organised, less unwieldy script. That would have added the little bit of polish that had worn off Laura’s half of the event.
Did it matter much? Well, to be honest, not when one considers the poetry. Laura’s wont is to stand immobile, arms by her side, and almost declaim her work, the listener, to whom it is xenoglossy, being made aware of the aural qualities of the Italian language. Each line of poetry seemed to take a single breath, and there was a rise-and-fall there, regardless of enjambment. As I listened, I recalled how Swiss French has this kind of rise-and-fall, and wondered if what I heard was some characteristic of the spoken Italian in the same country. As my own knowledge of Italian is very sketchy, I found myself listening as though to Baroque music – Scarlatti or Pergolesi – and reflecting how much Basil Bunting would have approved of that! The lack of movement of limb or feature in Laura’s presentation meant that every syllable was crystalline, and that aspect of her half of the event was utterly captivating.
One thing the English translations certainly did do was reveal the sometimes startling imagery behind the musicality. Otherwise who would have guessed, for instance, that “Yesterday all the tallest boys / made their enemies starve / and quickly gathered up their toys. / They showed their mothers / the order / and discipline of the dead.”
The matter of translation is something both poets at this event shared. Katherine Sowerby – we learned from the chairman’s introduction – had recently taken part in poetry translation projects in Pakistan and Latvia. Katherine, right at the beginning of her half, signaled her intention to read twelve poems. It was that structured. There was to be no looking across at the chairman to check how long there was to go, no fitting in a couple of short ones at the end. Twelve were scheduled and twelve is what we got. The result was that this session of ‘Border Crossings’ had a ‘short-and-sharp’ feel to it, the whole event lasting little more than half an hour. Although her delivery was not as straight-ahead as Laura Accerboni’s, although there was animation in her face and voice, there was a non-nonsense feel to the presentation. Title, poem. Title, poem. Title, poem…
House However, her most recent collection, from which she selected part of her presentation, consists of sixty-two prose poems. If, as another contemporary Scottish poet said, poetry is whatever prose wouldn’t dare say, where does that leave ‘prose poetry’? in Katherine’s case it leaves it in a place where (yes!) short-and-sharp images can be strung together, teasing us with their apparent lack of relevance to each other but, true to the concept of gestalt, making up a whole that is other than the sum of their parts. Sometimes, despite this, there is deliberate repetition (“You want to reach us. You want to reach us. You want to reach us. You want us. You want us. You want.”), often there isn’t (“The creak of a chair. Our lit-up faces,” or “Mountains cut in half. I wear a shirt from that day. You told me the cost. You asked me questions about my microwave.”). The answer is, therefore, is that prose poetry can indeed fulfill the same function as any other kind of poetry, move us out of our comfort zone in which we expect step and step, cause and effect, day and night.
All of which leaves me wanting to read Katherine’s three-novellas-in-one-cover, The Spit, the Sound and the Nest, to find out what in her poetics feeds into her fiction. Poets can make the most startling storytellers, and a story would add yet another dimension to what I was able to experience today.