The Next Big Thing

I’ve been tagged by Graham Burchell to answer set questions relating to my work towards my next collection. The next collection is a book of translations, not poems of my own like Counting Eggs.

Where did the idea come from for the book?

I have been translating Vladislav Khodasevich for over three years now, beginning with a Hawthornden Fellowship in November 2009. Thanks to the Stephen Spender Foundation and Graham Fawcett putting my name forward, I was at Hawthornden with a few other poets working on translations, and the plan was to put my A level Russian to work, but I didn’t have one poet in mind. I’d brought some Pushkin, the old Penguin anthology (Dimitri Obolensky) and the more recent Garnett Book of Russian Verse (Donald Rayfield). I’d already been reading Michael Wachtel’s The Development of Russian Verse, which used examples by Khodasevich. In the first few days there I reached one of the later chapters, about Russian use of classical metres, where he quotes half of the poem “Daktili”. It’s about Khodasevich’s father, and it immediately spoke to me as a poem I would like to have written about my father, so it made me want to find out more about the poet. There were other poems of his in the anthologies, which only have prose translations, and I borrowed another from the Scottish Poetry Library, Modern Russian Poetry selected by Vladimir Markov, with verse translations by Merrill Sparks which I carefully didn’t read before my own efforts. Looking at Markov & Sparks now they don’t seem all that bad, considering the strain of doing about 400 pages of translations almost all in rhyme. Most of my Khodasevich poems are rhyming too, which wasn’t what I expected to be doing at first: Khodasevich wrote seven substantial poems in blank verse, which feels like a gift to an English poet, but one of his most extraordinary poems is in ballad metre and definitely needed a rhyming version. I began to feel how basic that is to Russian poetry, and not always impossible to bring across to English, though I have had to abandon some that I’ve tried. It worries me that while I can speak them well enough, rhyming poems can seem much flatter on the page where the reader has to pick up the rhythm and read in the right intonation  and emphasis, but I feel reasonably satisfied with what I’ve done.

What genre does your book fall under?

Poetry in translation.

What actors would you choose to play the part of your characters in a movie rendition?

I wonder who would play Khodasevich – I’m not very good at faces and names of actors. It would need someone tall, thin and pale. He compared himself to a snake. His partner Nina Berberova would be small and bouncy.

What is the one sentence synopsis of your book?

Russian poet gets through the Revolution, develops his own style out of the chaos, can’t live in Russia any more, can’t write in Paris any more where the only Russian audience is either philistine or just the other poets, dies just before the Second World War and gets forgotten.

How long did it take you to write the first draft of the manuscript?

In two and a half years I had translated all the poems that are included. One in particular, “Sorrento Photographs”, took some time – it’s about 200 lines.

Who or what inspired you to write this book?

Vladislav Khodasevich (1886-1939). He must have been an impossible character to be with but something about him appeals to me very much. His main poetic principle is that form and content are inseparable, which I go by too. He developed a sardonic tone, once he’d grown up a bit (his early poems are rather soppy) but he could still call on what he’d learnt from Symbolism – like Yeats in that respect. His poem “Gold” is about being dug up in the future, and at the risk of self-importance it feels as if I’m the one that’s been given the job of digging him up.

What else about your book might pique the reader’s interest?

A significant Russian poet they haven’t heard of. He knew and was friendly with Tsvetaeva but they couldn’t be more different. He said himself that they were both unclassifiable as poets. Nabokov considered him the finest Russian poet of the 20th century.

Will your book be self-published or represented by an agency?

It’s published by Angel Classics, run by Antony Wood who is a Russian specialist within walking distance of where I live, so I’m not dealing with some monolithic office and editors who may not have that background and probably get made redundant in the middle of the job. He’s got a deal with a US publisher too, but I don’t think that’s ready to publicise yet. Michael Wachtel, the Princeton professor whose book introduced me to Khodasevich, has written an introduction.

I should now be tagging four other people to do “The Next Big Thing”…

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Time to get blogging

I’ve been Facebooking for more than three years now. I have a website already but it feels like time to do something that bridges the two. I’ll see what kind of thing this turns into, but I’d like to put up some archive material to begin with so at least there’s something to look at.