Thursday, November 26, 2009

From Velingrad to Sozopol

News from Kristin on the translations so diligently done from English to Bulgarian at the spa hotel at Velingrad in January:

'We - VBV, Nadia and Georgi - will gather on Dec.4 to read the whole En-Bg book once again and make some final touches and go to the next step. (Things with the publisher seem to be fine.)'

So the next stage of exchange goes on. The publisher remains Altera, and the goal remains a launch at the Sozopol Festival, now, perhaps in 2010.

I can feel the anoxic waters of the Black Sea caress my sauna-starved toes even as we dream of Apollo: dream forwards, fellow Northeasters! Never dream sideways -- where has that ever got us?

Sunday, October 18, 2009

Night Market Q&A

This second instalment is from July this year. Here's the poem:

Night Market

These fish have crossed the desert to be here –
belly-up, eyes still eager – and so have we;
so press among the Uigur breaking fast
on long kebabs dry-spiced with smatterings
of paprika and push towards the pile
of pomegranates like a mud-brick wall
translated into juice carbuncles, ask
the man to turn his crushing wheel for glasses
that look like lamb’s blood, taste of rust-edged roses.
The market glows with coal-flares, TVs show
Imams and kung fu, skull-caps pass for skulls
clapped on the tops of turning heads like wheel hubs
as we disturb naan sellers, chicken choppers,
with our un-native faces’ late-night shopping.
Myself and Yang Lian, both alien,
are equally remote from West Xinjiang
while Emran’s instantly relaxing – here
as in Tehran, the Muslim night adheres
to gentler pulses we recover strolling
beneath dry balconies they will soon fell
in favour of the corporate eclipse
of concrete that surrounds this slow collapse
of strollers and their hopes to a midnight bulb,
the one teashop left open in the globe
where Abdul knows to rouse the owner from
his double hajj-earned slumbers. Empty room,
low-roofed, where we can be loquacious on
long-tabled platforms, thin cream cushions;
beneath the dusty beams and over tea –
black, hot – as endless as we’d like to be
ourselves, but we must break this moment up
like bread, not knowing as we drain our cups
how soon this quartet of our well-warmed breaths
will be abbreviated by a death.

Here's the dialogue:

It starts with "These fish have crossed the desert to be here –...". But I found another version online: "These fish have crossed the Gobi to be here". So?

It's actually the Taklamakan Desert, tho people tended to refer to it as the Gobi. 'Taklamakan' doesn't really scan, of course -- this is in iambic pentameter with couplet half-rhyme, and Gobi came to seem misleading. So I changed it to 'desert'.

"so press among the Uigur breaking fast // on long kebabs...". Press? There are 3 verbs - press, push and ask. But the first one sounds strange to me "press among...on..." - I am not sure I am getting the meaning. Can you help me with some clarification - what is pressed?

'Press among' is the verb unit, it's specific to being in a crowd (we also have 'press' as a noun, meaning crowd, though it's rare); it means the same as 'push through'.

"breaking fast" - It's just the phrase 'breaking the fast', yes?

Well, it's specific to Ramadan, where you fast from dawn to dusk, then are allowed to eat when the evening call is sounded from the muezzin. So it has to sound different from 'breakfast' with its morning associations.

The market glows with all these: coal-flares, TVs show Imams and kung fu

The imams and the kung fu are on the TVs (it's a reference to the mixed Turkic and Chinese society -- very polarised now, of course with the problems in Urumqi, but then seeming a blur of influences), so the glows are confined to the fires and the TVs.

"skull-caps pass for skulls" - You mean that we think of skull-caps as skulls? Or I am completely on the wrong track?

Yes, in the dimness, these little white caps look very like skulls, hence 'pass for'.

skull-caps... A synonym would be kippah, am i right?

I've just checked the Uighur term on Wikipedia:

'Many Muslims wear a kippah equivalent called a "kufi" or topi. Until more recent times, men in most Muslim societies were rarely seen without headdress of some sort. A taqiyah covers most of the head. Finally, the modern taqiyahs worn by Muslims are analogous to the kippot worn by observant Jews whether in the Middle East or elsewhere.
The doppa, a square or round skullcap originating in the Caucasus and worn by Kazan Tatars, Uzbeks and Uyghurs is another example of a Muslim skullcap. The doppa is derived from a Turkic, more pointed ancestral cap, which can be seen in some of the portraits of Jalaleddin Mingburnu.
Conservative Muslims in Indonesia and Malaysia , especially in the rural areas, are often seen wearing a thin kopiah, which looks almost exactly like the kippah in outward appearance.'

Who is Emran?

Emran Salahi is the Iranian poet the entire sequence is dedicated to. He died shortly after this trip to Xinjiang. There were four of us on this occasion: Yang Lian, myself, Emran, and our Uighur guide, Abdul. Here's the little note I wrote to head off the published version:

"...of strollers and their hopes to a midnight bulb". I am not sure about this... Hopes to? You mean "hopes towards" or something else... Here I am really puzzled...

The pertinent part is:

'this slow collapse
of strollers and their hopes to a midnight bulb'

'Collapse' would perhaps be better understood as 'contraction' in relation to their hopes. The strollers are tired, and it's like they're shifting from walking to reclining as they approach the bulb and enter the teashop.

"long-tabled platforms" - what are these platforms? Why they are not just tables?

The teahouse consisted of a ground-level walkway between slightly raised areas on which there were long short-legged tables. These came to around the same height as the conventional table and chair arrangements in any cafe, but the raised 'platforms' were so people could sit cross-legged or recline on cushions, rather than sit upright on individual chairs.

Wednesday, October 07, 2009

Chinataur Dialogue

I promised I'd start posting the dialogues that took place over chatrooms or by email in relation to the Velingrad stage of this project. It's taken me a long time to get going on this, but here's a first go.

This is the exchange between Kristin and myself between 28th January and 2nd February 09 over my poem 'The Chinataur'. More -- and hopefully more about someone else's work -- when I next get a mo.

Here's the poem:

The Chinataur

soon after this debacle found himself
in tunnels lined with crockery, shelf
after shelf of chipped and half-remembered sets
of saucers, fruit bowls, dinner plates:

a coffee cup that, once in childhood, held
to the now-occluded sun, revealed
a brittle geisha haloed by its base –
where had he drunk in that drowned face?

a soup bowl landscaped with grey cherry trees,
the bridge that wished to be Chinese
from which all cuckolds, lovers, cooing birds
were washed away like once-loved words;

the wineglass asterisked in gold as though
at dawn the stars refused to go;
the sea-deep jug on which some rip-tide hand
sketched ‘crayfish’, leaving ‘shore’ unpenned.

He wandered for the only hours between
ghost rows that should be smithereens,
groaned as his skeleton by sharp degrees
transmuted into cutlery;

smiled at the cellars’ sentimental clack,
his salt-and-peppered scrotal sac,
and wept as one obliged to be reborn
to feel his new-grown porcelain horns.

And here's the dialogue:


Night Market and The Chinataur (The China Minotaur?) are your last two untranslated poems. Is that correct? Vasil and I will take them. Do you have any preferances, like who takes what?


As for the remaining two, I have no preferences, and am ready to answer all queries, so do please select between yourselves and ask me anything (except that, as Meatloaf explains, you can't ask me that).


I'll take the Chinataur. I have lots of questions. Please, tell me what there is to know about it beforehand.
As Schwarzenegger says, I'll be back.


I'm supposed to be writing a review, but I have to build up my courage to say all those things about poetry you don't write down in case it alarms the livestock. So I'd much rather talk about the Chinataur...

Yes, it's a portmanteau term, 'china' and 'minotaur', and the image is derived from the old cliche 'like a bull in a china shop' or, as I just wrote by mistake, 'like a bill in a china shop', meaning a clumsy person creating a terrible mess. In this scenario, the labyrinth is lined with china, and we realise that it all has significance for the central character, ie it's symbolic of a smashed-up life, reassembled as a type of punishment as he undergoes a metamorphosis into the chinataur.


1. How should I imagine the "He" of the poem - a middle age man walking among the shelves of a chance shop, trying to gather his thoughts?
2. "this debacle" is he himself or something that happened to him? Perhaps both?
3. The bridge that wished to be Chinese (I really love this one) - is it painted by the grey cherry trees or is it a china figurine itself (I find this less likely)?
4. "sketched "crayfish", leaving "shore" unpenned" - is there some "Crayfish shore" you are refering to? I couldn't find any. Do we need a set phrase? A phrase that once you mention the first word, the second one comes to mind?
5. "His salt and peppered scrotal sac" - is it just the colour? Are you implying something I cannot get?
6. "To feel his new-grown porcelain horns" - what do these horns mean? He is turning into a porcelain figurine, a useless, dusty and fragile ornament for the rest of his life because he cannot find a place for himself the way he is in this one? Or somebody had cheated on him (a cornuto)? Or the connection to the Minotaur suggests some strong out-of-the-way masculinity which he finds regretfully improper/useless/misplaced/unfeasible as it is, but which is strong enough to make him feel reborn as a horned beast, albeit a pocelain one.

I hope I am not too much out of track.

The rhyme scheme is AABB, alternating five iambic feet with four.


1. He is already in the Labyrinth, but it isn't at all the place he/we imagined it to be.
2. Both, but the idea is something embarrassing/shambolic/terrible has just happened to him, which we don't learn anything more about -- in a sense this is his default mode, something like this has always just happened to this character.
3. The whole image is depicted on a plate, actually a soup bowl.
4. The idea is the image on the jar is at once a sketchy crayfish, and like a pictogram standing for 'crayfish' -- no equivalent pictogram/sketch is visible for 'shore' -- it's an elaborate way of saying 'all at sea,' lost.
5. He is turning physically into tableware -- instead of testicles he now has a salt cellar and a pepperpot, hence the clack -- there is also a suggestion of greying pubic hair -- we call it 'salt and pepper' when grey appears on a dark-haired person.
6. These are the same assumptions I came up with -- I suppose which is dominant depends on what you think the 'debacle' was.

Yes, that's the structure, with the proviso that it's nearly but not insistently full rhyme.

Sunday, October 04, 2009

Bluba Lu on soundcloud

There are a couple of sets here by the band Fadia, Mark and I worked with the first time we visited Bulgaria, including World Nostalgia. We still await the release of our much-vaunted spoken word album, Air Pants, a turbulent performance.

Tuesday, February 03, 2009

Mark Smith in Blogaria

I found this on The Fall's labyrin-thine fora (yes, that is a map of Bulgaria), where they claimed MOJO had said the following: 'Bizarro sketches both acoustic and experimental from Fall autocrat and pal, possibly themed around holidaying in Bulgaria.'

It seems highly likely to me that the song 'The Train' concerns a journey made on that narrow gauge track which followed us through the limestone outcrops to Velingrad, and is about a small steam engine containing Burt Lancaster, various works of art stolen by the Nazis, Peter Cushing, and a large bloodsucking neanderthal with a lovely singing voice.

Saturday, January 31, 2009

More photos of sheep, wolves and steam

I've added some images from the Hotel Velina and The Sheep, Sofia to my blog here.
Some are even populated by real people.

Thursday, January 29, 2009