Tuesday, 30 June 2009

The Bird Artists by Laurie Byro

The Bird Artists is Laurie Byro's first chapbook, and I urge you to buy it. She received both 2nd and 3rd place for the 2008-9 IBPC Poems of the Year. She lives in New Jersey and I first encountered her work when I judged the IBPC competition for three consecutive months and she won (anonymously) twice, with 'Wolf Dreams' and then the title poem 'The Bird Artists'. You can order it online at: http://lauriebyro.com

"In this spellbinding debut, Laurie Byro creates a magical world of rituals against harm. Precisely textured, transformative and feral, The Bird Artists has the force of myth and folklore but is firmly anchored in the quotidian. These richly wrought poems linger on and draw me back to marvel at their compact power."

That's what I wrote on the back cover. Mark Doty wrote of 'Wolf Dreams' when it won a prize he judged: "Appealing sexy and strange, it's a pleasure to read these images of transformation, which create a vivid physical sense of an animal body."

Wolf Dreams

I wasn’t sure what he wanted of me; the ice

in winter birches had made the forest slouch

into spring. All that winter I peeled

and sucked papery bark for the sweet taste.
I recognized him from his red tongue,

the furtive runs when I entered his dream

and we crawled along the forest floor, repenting
the dark. I had nothing to bargain with,

no deal to make him human. The night

was filled with briars and salt. In the summer
the air became thick with honeysuckle, slick

with mating. Beetles droned in messy beds

of clover. We slunk along, weeds stroking
my belly. I hadn’t yet decided which life

was better. Grass combed the plume of my tail.

The nights were crystal sharp. I waggled
my slit high, what was left of my breasts pushed

into a pile of decaying leaves. Who cared

how many and how often, I was not entirely his.
Eyes of owls glittered in the sleep of trees, tree frogs
sang in a green-robed choir. The moon clamped

its yellow tooth into my shoulder. I took the whole
night inside. What was to become of us? I had

packed away my white Juliet cap and veil for just

such an occasion. I held him like a warm
peach in my palm, longed for his juice to run

down my chin. Most nights I didn’t care about

the names they gave me. I held my fingers
out to him, felt the tug as my ring fell off, carried

my limbs down to the entrance of his den,

planted a birch just outside his home
as a token of my loyalty. I was free

of the chains of consequence. I gave birth

to his amber-eyed bastard who without hesitation
he devoured. When he becomes old and says

he always dreams of me, I shall make myself

a meal of him, savor his voluptuous tongue,
and suck all the bitterness from his bones.

He will not make such promises again.

Tuesday, 23 June 2009

Translating Yang Lian's 'The Valley and the End: A Story'

Yang Lian is an internationally acclaimed Chinese poet who was born in Switzerland and grew up in Beijing. He was one of the group of ‘misty’ or ‘obscure’ poets who published the literary magazine Jintian (Today). His poem ‘Norlang’ was criticised by the Chinese government during the Anti-Spiritual Pollution campaign. He became an exile after the Tiananmen massacre, first lived in New Zealand, and now in London.

He has a new extraordinary collection coming out from Bloodaxe
this October, Lee Valley Poems, about the Lee Valley where he has made his home. The poems have been translated by W N Herbert, Arthur Sze, Polly Clark, Antony Dunn, Jacob Edmond, Brian Holton, Fiona Sampson, and I have translated five. In 2007-8 Lian devised and organised the first Yellow Mountain Chinese/English Poetry Festival, in China and the UK, and I was fortunate to take part, in particular to climb Huangshan (Yellow Mountain), with Tang Xiaodu, Wang Xiaoni, W N Herbert, Robert Minhinnick, Kate Griffin and others.

Lian is reading at the Lemon Monkey Cafe on Monday 29 June with Katy Evans-Bush, Rob Mackenzie and Andrew Philip, 7pm at 188 Stoke Newington High Street, London. Do come. I will be reading my translation of another of his fabulous Lee Valley poems 'The Journey'.

Here is my article about translating 'The Valley and the End: A Story' followed by his poem. This article was commissioned by Patricia McCarthy and appears in Agendathe Welsh Issue Vol 44 Nos 2-3, May 2009, accompanied by the poem:

Translating Yang Lian’s ‘The Valley and the End: A Story’

“You close the book then close the riverbanks”

The history of Chinese poetry is rooted in the Chinese landscape. This is why we’ve come to the legendary Yellow Mountain to translate each other’s poems, a whole group of us, including W.N. Herbert, Robert Minhinnick, Wang Xiaoni, Yang Lian and myself. This is where the Yellow Emperor sought the elixir of immortality from an islet in one of the misty ‘seas’ that form in the valleys between peaks.

To the ‘deep-reality’ poet Yang Lian, the Tang Dynasty tradition cannot be ignored. His images are loaded with it. It’s as if Yellow Mountain, this mist-enshrouded idyll so familiar from scroll paintings, lies as a wash on each blank page as he starts to write. And from each page, fog swirls to form ghost-valleys, rivers of exile. Peaks rise with names such as Bookcase Peak and Writing Brush Bursts into Bloom. In the ‘seas’, images flower then fade. The fog is thick as cocoon silk – opaque enough to hold memories of London in its weave. On a bank of cumulus Walthamstow Marshes floats. I glimpse dragon-boats, an iron bridge, a marina café where a couple confront one another. No sooner do they appear than their faces melt like sugar lumps in tea. There are photos on the wall, faded sepia shots. Outside, a swan slices the water and it starts to rain. The café vapourises with a furnace-hiss.

The long raindrops are chopsticks stabbing the surface, breaking it up. A bath floats between the fish-rings. The woman’s six-year-old self lies inside the white enamel, and as the sun sets, its rays tint her bathwater red. A flock of birds are nailed to the sky by the clock’s hour hand, which in Mandarin is a needle not a hand.

So while I wait on the mountain steps, wedged in the crowd, I mull over how to make this image work in English. There’s plenty of time, the queue waiting to climb Celestial Peak is packed with Chinese tourists. My task is to render the original poem as naturalistically as possible, as if it had originally been written in English, yet preserve those images, now stone, now mist, that merge into one another. A small white moth lands on the twisted lower branch of Welcoming Guests Pine. He has a tiny black-and-gold striped mountain range painted across his wings, and as I wait for the queue to move, he soars back up to the sky, taking his miniature Huangshan with him.

And now I’ve climbed the crag of the highest peak, and it’s time to descend the too-narrow stone steps carved into black rock with buff stripes, this sky-tiger I’m riding through the haze, and I have to concentrate on each step so as not to fall off the unfenced razor drop on my right. I chant the names to myself to fight off vertigo – Lotus Pistil Peak, Cloud-Dispelling Pavilion, Echo Wall. I reach the rock where a monk once drew the character for lightning and made it crack, and I have to pass right through this slit towards Jade Screen Peak. At times the striated rock sways like the banks of comfrey and chamomile I’ve squeezed through on the Marshes, the scent of meadowsweet making me giddy. Over the Carp’s Backbone to the Gold Cock Crowing at Heaven’s Gate and I’m pushing harder now as it’s getting late and the telpher shuts at dusk. The mountain will close and press me flat as a flower in a book.

Flat as Walthamstow Marshes, my neck of the woods, now Lian’s locale, only he lives on the Hackney side and I in Walthamstow. We might as well be on Yellow Mountain in this desolate poem where mouths hang from walls, where light flashes off the river Lee like a tiger’s pelt, one stripe in London, one in China.

Imagine my surprise as he sits in my tiny study, the mournful cries of geese crossing the window’s sky, while he conjures the marshes in faltering Yanglish, and I search the clouds for the right words to translate his lines. Geese, which have flown over my house all these years, suddenly are the wild geese of exile, their calls evoking homesickness as potently as they did in the time of Li Bai writing poems on Celestial Peak.

I’ve lived in North East London for over twenty years now and would have moved away long ago except for that nearby sanctuary, with its head-high wildflowers and the Springfield Marina where ‘The Valley and the End: A Story’ takes place. I’ve often stopped at the small riverside café for a cup of tea and a cake to warm me during walks. Last time I passed it was closed, which was a shame because I wanted to check out those old photos in his poem.

Lian’s images are collages of strangely juxtaposed objects, but he considers his surrealism to be ‘deep reality’ – imagery with roots, rather than a surrealism that might just be obscure or playful ornament. As a former sculptor I am interested in image-making in my own poems. The pictorial aspect of the Chinese characters fascinates me. Yang Lian’s poetry is a new kind of image-making for British poetry, which tends to stick to straightforward narrative. He isn’t just conjuring the world but remaking it into a system of concentric symbols, an organic collage of deep reality. I question him about every phrase, its sound and sense, until it starts to root in my imagination and re-grow.

In his essay ‘A Wild Goose Speaks To Me’ (Poetry Review, Spring 2006) he wrote: “Give me a single breath, and I will grow roots, penetrate the soil, probe shingle and magma, and hear the sea through every artery and vein of groundwater”. He went on to say, “ ‘local’ doesn’t at all signify a specific site, but must point to all sites, as being the ability of the poet to excavate his own self”.

In writing his new collection Lee Valley Poems (Bloodaxe, 2009), Yang Lian makes Lee Valley’s waters turn twelve hundred years upstream to their source, which for him is the Tang Dynasty. The further they flow, the nearer he accesses his innermost self. This poem ‘The Valley and the End: A Story’ occurs in a non-time implied by the tenselessness of the Chinese verb, which is a challenge to translate into English. That couple waiting for the end are always on the marshes, sitting in the café, which is simultaneously a Huangshan path. To Lian’s eyes, the café walls are banded Mesozoic rock where Li Bai and Du Fu’s shadows pass, each drunk on their own solitudes. But however heavy the theme and weighted the history, the lines must fly. Like that Huangshan moth bearing a mountain on its wings.

Yang Lian

The Valley and the End: A Story

The days blend into each other – we keep saying the same old things.

The sky is a raincoat with a dripping hem.

Rain taps on white tables in old photos

and on two cups of half-drunk tea. All afternoon we counted the upturned chairs.

Our mouths have hung from the wall for fifty years.


Everywhere is ending. When you stop reading

light leaps from the water’s pelt. When you pull back your hand,

no longer touching the beast’s gorgeous stripes,
your name is the same but sealed off by the weather,

like that loud green on the far bank gradually departing.


A pear tree blocks the balcony

and its spring bedroom full of naked flowers.

On the grass, birds hatch opalescent light.
Our bodies accept the coldness of a past life
by the way they touch and this still makes you wet.

A sugar lump melts an old woman’s squeaking bones –

we can watch her machinery, drop by drop,

leaking tea, swathing her groans

in vapour. Time begins at the next table,

passes the sweetness of the end through our guts.

Fish-rings wait for us outside the window.

We walked over that pale gravel path

to where a million fish eye-socket circles
are pierced by chopsticks of rain – the circles’ centres
choked by the softest diameter.

You close the book then close the riverbanks.

Swan-stares carve this view –
the house, the iron bridge, that silently emerge –
their paddling feet are russet leaves under the water’s surface

where our presence secretly shatters a cloud.


Dive back into the six-year-old’s bathtub.

Just six years old, the body, already smashed open

by a blood-red torrent, has become a dirty word,

the air made even thinner the further back time reels.

What dives back into the girl’s eyes is raw poetry


but it’s not love poetry. Why waste time

by talking about time? We are the valley’s delicacies.

We listen to the weightless horseshoe of the crescent moon

splashing mud on our faces – so cold a reunion

forces us to sink even deeper.


History gradually darkens, replicating our organs.

An old filament secretes a film of twilight.

That gas ring pierces thin fingers,

the flames spurt, hissing five o’clock with a furnace roar –
the entire sky of homing birds, each one nailed to the clock’s hour hand.


Two ends – either yes or no.

Two ends like two people face to face, holding up the same cup

to keep warm – a present tense you spill from your clothes.

Two memories glide between stars at the speed of light,

a black umbrella lifted by a disembodied hand orbits


all sorrow and joy – just to be alive.

While we sit at the table against the blankness of water,

water flows away unnoticed.

The end is never like the sea, rain snuffs out one second

then we forget our past.


Naked sex converges on one point in the sky,

licks the emerald breasts of wild ducks.

Trees in fog are truly beautiful. That old photo

bathed in moonlight is the park inviting you for a stroll.
The night sky is so close, hiding at your back, inviting you to moan fiercely.

Translated from the Chinese by Pascale Petit and the author

Sunday, 21 June 2009

Interview by Oana-Teodora Ionescu

Pascale Petit interviewed by Oana-Teodora Ionescu about writing The Treekeeper's Tale

Oana-Teodora Ionesco is an MA student on Professor Lidia Vianu's MA course at Bucharest University. She has just translated my latest collection The Treekeeper's Tale into Romanian for her MA and here is a transcript of the interview to accompany her translation.

Oana-Teodora Ionescu: Your poetry is very modern and keeps pace with the present times. The first part of your book is dedicated to nature and to the people who have fought to preserve it. Do you believe poetry is powerful enough to raise awareness on ecological matters such as global warming or the unsustainable exploitation of natural resources?

Pascale Petit: Thank you for seeing it as modern and for translating my book! Whether it raises awareness on ecological matters I’m not sure. I suspect that people who read poetry are already aware of the plight of the world’s forests. Although it would be gratifying to think that poetry is read by a wider readership and therefore changes some minds in the UK at least the readership is quite small.

I don’t think of my poems as having messages. I write them because I am compelled to. What I was after was to describe the feeling of listening and attending, of being in the coast redwood forest in the presence of these vast 2,000-year-old beings, which was hard to capture because of the clichés associated with these trees, the outworn media eco-speak. I do have some faith in poetry having the power to advance language and perceptions, having the potential to not follow media awareness but to lead it, through linguistic and imagistic freshness.

OTI: You dedicated the poem 'Treesitter' to “eco-warrior” Julia Butterfly Hill, who treesat Luna, a giant redwood for two years without coming down, in order to save it, but you also wrote a similar poem, 'The Treekeeper’s Tale', where you use the word “guardian”. Why did you feel the need to use two words that practically stand for the same reality?

PP: A treesitter is a contemporary term for someone who lives up a tree to save it from loggers whereas a guardian is a broader term. These poems were two different takes on the double themes of saving the forest and of loneliness. I wrote ‘The Treekeeper’s Tale’ in the voice of a hermit, as hermits used to live inside lightning-struck hollow redwoods. Hermits intrigue me and when I was a child I was going to be one when I grew up. I lived with my grandmother in mid-Wales then and spent most of my days hiding up trees or inside hedges; they were my secret huts. When I was a teenager and had to live with my mother I thought I would become a reclusive hermit in a hut with a lot of books (probably to get away from her!). I’m also very interested in the hermits of Tang Dynasty China, who were usually poets. When my first marriage ended I spent thirteen years alone. That solitude was both bad and good and in that time my writing improved. As for the word "guardian" it has special connotations for me. I remember my grandmother having to write that she was my guardian on school forms and how I gradually became aware that this was different from ‘parent’. The hermit who lives in the giant tree is its guardian spirit as she was mine.

I wrote ‘Treesitter’ after reading Julia Butterfly Hill’s book
Luna, her account of her treesit. Her descriptions of being right at the top (2,000 feet up!) in all weathers – gales, blizzards, a spring dawn – are enthralling. I was also moved by her tenacity and loneliness during that time.

OTI: I noticed that in some of your poems ('The Treekeeper’s Tale', 'Portrait of a Coast Redwood Forest with Mandolin', 'Nature Singer', 'Creation of the Trees') music goes hand in hand with nature and art. Do you use music as a catalyst for creation?

I usually write in silence. I love the quiet and when neighbours are noisy I wear earplugs. I am not a very musical person and know little about it, but I like the idea of music and of the correspondences between the arts and all living things. My favourite sound is birdsong. The ‘Nature Singer’ was Charles Kellogg who learned how to use his larynx like a bird’s syrinx and spent all his time in the woods, acquiring powers with his voice such as how to control a flame. ‘Portrait of a Coast Redwood’ is loosely based on Braque’s late studio paintings, especially the ones that feature a semi-abstract mandolin. ‘Creation of the Trees’ is after the painting 'Harmony' by Remedios Varo where she is in the studio creating natural objects such as gems and leaves from musical notes on her stave. I liked her synthesis of music and art.

When I wrote these poems I was influenced by the musicologist Joscelyn Godwin’s books such as
Harmony of the Spheres: Source Book of Pythagorean Tradition in Music and Harmonies of Heaven and Earth: Mysticism in Music from Antiquity to the Avant-Garde (Inner Traditions Bear and Company, 1993, 1995).

OTI: 'Exiled Elm' is the shortest poem in your book, however, it has a very strong message. Personally, I read it as a metaphor of the search for new beginnings. Could the uprooted tree be a metaphor of everyman?

PP: What a lovely idea and thank you for suggesting it. I hope so. I have always been uprooted and when I was young felt that I must be from another planet, so that sensation is behind this poem. I wrote it very quickly, in response to a commission by the sculptor Jilly Sutton, who asked for a poem which had to be exactly twenty-five words, to be engraved in a spiral around a young elm tree she was carving for an exhibition. The elm tree had died of Dutch elm disease. The sculpture has beetles (and other insects) around its trunk, as beetles are the source of the disease. The sculpture sold for a lot of money and it’s strange to think of my poem around its trunk in some mansion. I hadn’t thought of the poem being a search for new beginnings, I just visualized it flying through space searching for a new home.

OTI: In an interview given to Professor Vianu in 2003, you say that one of the reasons you started writing poetry was to escape from your mother. However, the mother figure is a recurrent image especially in the second part, 'Afterlives'. Is poetry a way of facing your rival-mother on your own territory?

PP: Yes I started writing to escape from her into my own world. One of the things poetry may be for me is a way to face her on my territory rather than in her home or in hospital where I felt in her power. When I bring her into my created world I can change her into images I can control. So in ‘The Bee Mother’ she is a queen bee and I’m a worker bee (I had to do all the housework when I was lived with her as a teenager). We can enact bee-sized battles and I can stand up to her and for myself in this form.

OTI: The entire book stands under the sign of surrealism; you take your inspiration not only from Remedios Varo, but also from René Magritte, whose constant shift between reality and illusion was attributed by psychoanalysts to his mother’s early death . Do you believe the relationship with your parents had an influence on your style?

That’s an interesting thought. Perhaps I rebelled against realism because the so-called ‘real’ world was not habitable for me as a child. I don’t believe there is such a thing as common realism and that when people write in that style they are making a mistaken assumption that I share their perception of reality. Surrealism or magical realism, or as the exiled Chinese poet Yang Lian would call it, ‘deep-reality’, are closer to my perception of the world. In my childhood everything always shifted: I moved from country to country, from home to home, from carer to carer (or guardian), from school to school. Life was surreal! My mother had a severe mental illness and I didn’t realize this until later, so at the time it seemed that it was normal to shift seamlessly from an apparent reality to an illusion. She was also domineering and insisted I felt what she felt all the time, so all this empathy made my own identity weak except when I made art.

The issue of art and empathy is an interesting one, and perhaps, although I have a strong sense of self when I start writing a poem, hopefully Keats’ ‘negative capability’ kicks in once I get going and lose myself, but in a voluntary and pleasurable way, not enforced.

OTI: You wrote three poems inspired by Varo that you named 'Creation of…'. In 'Creation of the Himalayas' there is a verse that draws my attention: “We weigh nothing, and our cloth when it’s new weighs less than us before it sets in its stone cage.” How should the unsubstantial be read here?

I love Remedios Varo’s paintings and first came across them in Mexico City. The gold liquid cloth the embroiderers are creating becomes stone when it falls to earth. While still inside the earth it is molten then it sets into earth’s rock crust. In Varo’s painting ‘Embroidering Earth’s Mantle’, which the poem is based on, the embroidering nuns are working in a turret in the sky and the mantle is pouring out like waterfalls. I like the idea that stone might originate from ether and be originally weightless (that is, not bound by the force of gravity). And perhaps it does, if we think of the earth being made from stardust. But when I wrote that line I didn’t think it through like this; the line came and it felt right. What I did feel though is that the earth, beautiful as it is, is a kind of cage for our bodies and I was writing about a yearning for other origins.

Recently someone asked to use this poem ‘Creation of the Himalayas’ as a eulogy at a funeral for a friend who had set out to vanish on Everest. I’m pleased they found the poem useful at this laying-to-rest ceremony.

OTI: If you were to summarize each part of your book in one word or idea, what would those words or ideas be and why?

PP: I titled the four sections of my book ‘The Treekeeper’s Tale’, ‘Afterlives’, ‘War Horse’ and ‘The Chrysanthemum Lantern’. These phrases for me sum up each part. ‘The Treekeeper’s Tale’ because it’s a series of stories by various treekeepers (as in zookeeper) – a treesitter, a nature singer, a canopy explorer, a hermit, and one or two of the tales are told by the trees themselves.

The second and longest section, ‘Afterlives’, contains poems which one way or another deal with afterlives: excavated horses, warriors, a shaman girl retrieved from permafrost, an excavated boat in Galilee, a second marriage, places and parents revisited, and so on. I have always been fascinated by how life unfolds and how unpredictable it is, how miraculous reprises and afterlives are offered, how utterly strange it all is, the tricks and turns of fate.

With ‘War Horse’ I liked the phrase, and it marries life force (the horse) with death force (war). Franz Marc’s blue horse paintings with their luminous colours and portrayal of innocence are a sharp contrast to his experience of World War One. The poems draw phrases from his letters sent to his wife from the front where he was a dispatch rider. He did not describe the horror, not wishing to upset her, but only the quiet moments when he observed horses and he was riding through the forest. He also wrote about his theories on painting and music. She wrote back to him with intricate details of their country idyll and the deer and horses there. I wanted to superimpose this tenderness over the violent reality he was dealing with, to counter violence with art and nature.

I called the last section ‘The Chrysanthemum Lantern’ to conjure the difference of Chinese culture, and the otherworldliness of that particular poem. Translating these four poets, Du Fu, Yang Lian, Zhou Zan and Zhai Yongming was a privilege, allowing me insights into new imaginations and traditions.

OTI: You teach creative writing, so I assume you get in contact with young poets who want to improve their skills. What should a young poet always bear in mind?

PP: I think imagination can be taught as well as craft. Imaginations can be excited, expanded, enriched. I suggest to beginning poets that they write about what they really want to write about rather than what they think they should write about. I encourage them to engage in serious play, keep it enjoyable, and not to bore themselves in any part of their poems or they will bore the reader. To outpace the inner censor so as to open the channels. To research if it helps them to discover and develop ideas and language, keep notebooks and collect words and lines. I advise them to use all the senses fully and be particular and precise, to use language freshly and surprise themselves. To be free in first drafts but ruthless in editing. Not to be content with partial achievement in a poem, to recast, rewrite and pay attention to detail in the editing so the poem looks cared for. Most of all to read, read, read – classical and contemporary poetry, in their own language and in translation, and other books, whatever feeds their imaginations. I also say these things to myself when I’m trying to write!

OTI: In the same interview (Lidia Vianu, 2003) you said that the Amazonian indigenous cultures had a big influence on your work. What made you choose the Amazon?

PP: The Amazon chose me. I saw a photo of Angel Falls in the remote Lost World of the Venezuelan Amazon and fell in love with the photo. The book it was in was called Waterfalls of the World and Angel Falls was like a wondrous and remotest friend in a book of friends. I went into a travel agent’s to ask if there was a way of getting there and went on my own, twice. The table mountains that surround it felt like home.

I became obsessed with the cloud forest and rainforest and the people who live there – the Pemon tribe, their myths and beliefs about the waterfalls and plateaus. I researched all the Amazonian tribes, especially their rituals and chants. Not long after my second trip to the Lost World I dreamt I was at the base of Angel Falls and my father’s face appeared in the swirling mists. I hadn’t thought about him for years and had not seen or heard from him since he’d vanished when I was eight. A few days after this dream I received a letter from him telling me he was dying and wanted to make contact. So the Amazon is inextricably linked with him in my mind. I think I am also drawn to it because it evokes my Welsh grandmother’s huge garden where I was happy as a child.

OTI: You took part in the Poet to Poet translation project and also in the first Chinese/English Yellow Mountain Poetry Festival. You translated a number of Chinese poets into English. Did you have to make any cultural concessions while translating the poems?

PP: In Zhou Zan’s poem ‘Jay’ I inserted an extra line “who understood the language of birds’ because I thought few UK readers would know who Gong Ye-chang was while a Chinese reader would know what she was referring to. I also cut a couple of her lines from the end of ‘Scapecat’, which in English didn’t add anything extra to the poem.

In Yang Lian’s poems I decided to use conventional punctuation instead of the space gaps which a lot of Chinese poets use in lieu of commas, dashes and full stops. His poems can be quite inaccessible in parts (“Make the reader work!” he urged me) but I did attempt to make more transitions between his (wonderfully) juxtaposed images to render the meaning clearer, hopefully without compromising the original.

OTI: You said that the “Sanctuary word aeries” in ‘Osprey Nests’ could be interpreted as a metaphor for writing. Have you ever felt the need to write your own ars poetica in which to concentrate the essential aspects of your poetry?

PP: My ars poetica is always in flux and so is my poetry so I haven’t done that.

What I said about that line “sanctuary word aeries” was that the osprey’s nest in this poem is a sanctuary. This refuge is made of words and is also a nest. This aerie/ nest is a sanctuary made of words, so here I’m broadening the poem out to be a metaphor for writing. My writing is a sanctuary, not in its subject matter, but in its art-making. Making art is my way of transforming the mess of experience into nest-like shapes of words. I’m thinking of Keats’ letter in which he suggested that a person can create airy citadels, his “two-and-thirty Pallaces” in his mind. “Any Man may like the spider spin from his own inwards his own airy Citadel with the fine web of his soul, full of Symbols for his spiritual eye”. Writing started out as taking refuge in art from a scary home but hopefully might offer refuge to others now.

Of course in this poem these airy citadels against harm might have new implications, such as the threatened ospreys and biosphere.

OTI: Besides writing, what other projects are you involved in at the moment?

PP: Just teaching. I tutor at Tate Modern, teaching poetry writing courses in the galleries in the evening when it’s quiet and the gallery is closed to the general public, which is a wonderful privilege. We use the artworks as starting points for poems. But I suppose this is writing too, it’s my whole world. I love travelling but that again is usually explorations for writing or translation projects.

OTI: Do you feel you have to thank someone for helping you become what you are today?

PP: I am grateful to my maternal grandmother for her love and love of nature.

Thursday, 18 June 2009

The Lost World Part Two

I've now scanned in some photos from my trips to Venezuela's Lost World in 1993 & 1995, and will try to load them here. The first is of Angel Falls from Ratoncito (Little Rat) island near the base where I camped for three nights, mainly in torrential rain all afternoons and nights as it was the rainy season. I had a fever and looking at the falls made me feel dizzier. They are one kilometre high which does give you vertigo, the way a channel falls then pauses, spirals then seems to rise back up before plunging down to become cloud long before hitting the plunge pool. When we hiked to the base the spray was like shrapnel or needle thin bullets. The cliff is sandstone and is translucent quartz in parts. It changes colour depending on the time of day and weather, from purple to rose-red to umber.

This is Angel Falls from the river. The first view was so exhilarating that we all stood up and the canoe almost tipped us in.

View of Devil's Canyon in the massif Auyantepuy from river. Can you spot the gnat sized monoplane just under the clouds? Just to give a sense of the scale.

Eimasensen the Pemon canoe navigator, amazing knowledge of each rapid and rock. This river was steep like a staircase. The Pemon live near the tepuyes but are afraid of them and would hardly even look up at the jagged tesselated summit as we rounded each butte. Their gods live up there and on this particular one, Devil's Mountain, are the evil spirits the mawari and they believe the quartz panes in the sandstone are their windows.

The sacred torrent in Kavac Caves inside Auyantepuy. The only way into the cave is to swim through a long winding narrow gully. When I did this a green vine snake swam alongside me. The next day we trekked to the hole at the top of the cave where the waterfall's thundering lip is.

This is Sapo (Frog) Falls in Canaima Camp the other side of the tepui, where we first set out in the powered canoes up the Caroni then into Auyan (Devil) river in the canyon. I walked behind these falls. I was so relieved to reach the other side, only to be told I had to walk back.

Wednesday, 17 June 2009

The Lost World revisited

Recently I've been researching Venezuela's Lost World again after a long break. Perhaps this prompted me to start a blog. I can't believe I climbed Mount Roraima, though it was fourteen years ago and I got up there by sheer willpower. I just had to stand on top of one of those 'islands in the sky' because I'd dreamt I had, just as I had dreamt of being at the foot of Angel Falls. The physical sensation in my dream was so strong.

The 'Lost World', immortalised by Conan Doyle (I love the film because they show footage of Mt Roraima in it), is in South East Venezuela in the Amazonas area of the Guiana Highlands. Angel Falls, the highest waterfall in the world, is situated in the largest 'tepui' (Pemon for table mountain) Auyan Tepuy, and plunges one kilometre down a sheer rosy red cliff into Devil's Canyon. Roraima is further south, on the border of Guyana and Brazil. The way up is via the 'ramp' on the other side of the plateau, which looked do-able in the photos but wasn't really, not for me. I'm not fit and I wasn't young then, and the group I joined to do it were all younger and huge. What had I let myself in for? The trek to base camp alone took three days up and down foothills of the Gran Sabana and across fastflowing steep rivers, but I did spot a giant anteater on the way and at night there were fireflies, electric storms, frog choruses from the ditches around the tents we had to hurriedly erect in swamp.

The plateau was as otherworldly as I anticipated but I hadn't expected to be too knackered to appreciate it. I forced myself to dangle my legs over the edge as I had in my dream and tried to focus on the experience. The view was immense – a line of tepuyes on the horizon. The first thing we all noticed was the quiet...

Well, this is an experiment and I'll end this blog here for now as I still haven't got the hang of it all.