News and views
Announcing the 2014 Norfolk and Norwich Festival City of Literature Events
The Norfolk and Norwich Festival is back, and this year it’s bigger and better than ever. We’ve programmed a series of extra special events, including an evening with *Ray Davies of The Kinks,our second Harriet Martineau Lecture, given by celebrated novelist Kate Mosse, and a day long literary festival celebrating great women writers. For the first time, our events have been inspired and dedicated to Norwich, City of Literature, bringing the best local and international writers to our fine city.
With 14 events in the City of Literature line up, I barely know where to begin – but I’ll start with Literary Death Match, the first event of the Norfolk & Norwich Festival to take place in the stunning Spiegeltent. AL Kennedy has already been confirmed as one of our judges, and the night promises raucous wordplay and spirited merriment.
If you like your literary events lively, our Live Literature events at Norwich Arts Centre are sure to be up your street. Ross Sutherland will be previewing his new show Stand By For Tape Back-Up
and Molly Naylor will be exploring the teenage experience with her show If Destroyed Still True
, with a musical accompaniment from Iain Ross- tickets for both of these shows can be bought for £14 through our joint ticket offer
. Our third event, The Shroud
, is a two man miniature epic, and is part of the [LIVE] Art Club.
After the success of our inaugural Harriet Martineau Lecture
, we’ve invited Kate Mosse (author of Labyrinth
and The Taxidermist’s Daughter
) to give the second lecture celebrating the life and legacy of radical thinker Harriet Martineau
. We’d also like to welcome you to our Norwich City of Literature Salon
, where you can get involved in your City of Literature.
I’ve been humming hits from The Kinks back catalogue as I’ve been typing, thanks to our event with lead singer Ray Davies
. Davies will talk about his new biography, Americana
, giving you an intimate glimpse into what music and fame really meant to him.
Like your writing bloodthirsty? Masters of horror, Darren Shan and Alexander Gordon Smith will be discussing writing and reading in an edge of your seat event
, which is destined to be a hit with the younger readers.
Our final Playhouse event is with Norwegian writer Karl Ove Knausgaard
, whose series of My Struggle novels was a controversial bestseller in his home country and is causing a buzz over here too. Having just read this Guardian article
, I’m already looking forward to this event (with a dollop of healthy trepidation)!
Last, but certainly not least, is our day long literary festival The Lives of Great Women Writers
. For only £20 you can buy a ticket for the full day of events, or get an individual ticket for £6. We’ll be kicking off with an event celebrating the life of Penelope Fitzgerald
, with biographer Hermione Lee, which is sure to shed a new light on the life of this intriguing novelist. Next, we’ll be joined by Samantha Ellis
who will discuss her memoir How to Be a Heroine
, and how her literary heroines (from Cathy Earnshaw to the Little Mermaid) shaped her life and writing.
Writing team Mary and Bryan Talbot created the first graphic novel to win the Costa Biography Award (Dotter of Her Father’s Eyes
). With their second graphic novel they’ve turned their focus to women’s emancipation in Sally Heathcote: Suffragette
and they’ll be discussing the challenges and delights of tackling such a tough topic in the third of our festival events
I’m eagerly awaiting our event with Diane Setterfield, having adored her novel The Thirteenth Tale (which was recently adapted for BBC). You’ll hear all about her new novel Bellman & Black, its writing process, and how her reading affects her writing. Rounding off the day will be local writer Raffaella Barker, whose latest novel From a Distance captures the secret and flaws which shape family life across generations. I’m hoping to discover how Norfolk and her writing family have influenced Raffaella’s own craft.
As I’ve been writing, tickets are already flying off the (imaginary) shelves, so I would urge you to book quickly! You can view the whole City of Literature Festival Programme here
, and individual tickets are available for all our of events.
In the meantime, I’m off to have a proper hunt through the entire Norfolk & Norwich festival line-up
– I’d hate to miss anything!
*Suggested musical accompaniment for this blog:
Here be Dragons- a Tour of Norwich
There are dragons hiding in Norwich. And they’ve been hiding for years.
But from the 10th-23rd February Norwich’s dragons are coming out to play and you’re invited to join them at the Norwich Dragon Festival. Over the three weeks there’ll be exhibitions, displays, performances, talks and quests, all focussed around the scaly fire-breathers themselves.
Whilst we’ve managed to coax most of the dragons out from their lairs, some are too busy guarding their piles of treasure. Luckily, through our special tour of the city and with some canny wordplay, you’ll be able to track down all of the city’s dragons, and discover their hidden secret. If you’re brave enough to face the dragons’ flame, that is.
The Dragon’s Spell City Trail
The Dragon’s Spell city trail will have you peering round corners cautiously and puzzling through poetic clues. George Szirtes
, award-winning poet, has written a specially commissioned poem which hides a secret code – crack the code and you can enter a competition to win your very own dragon.
Pop into the Forum, the Tourist Information Centre or intu Chapelfield to pick up a map and an entry form, and explore the city centre in a whole new way. Once you’ve finished the tour (singe-free, we hope), drop off your entry form at intu Chapelfield Information Desk to pick up your limited edition poem postcard and to enter the prize draw.
You can also enjoy a free live reading of The Dragon’s Spell
with George Szirtes, Robyn-Astrid, Meghan Purvis and Keiron Pim, at the stunning Assembly House on the 18th Feb. The evening promises to be an extravaganza of music, monsters and poetry, and if you’d like to join the performers there are also open mic spots available.
Find out more about the Norwich Dragon Festival
Book your free ticket to The Dragon’s Spell reading event
Norwich Dragon Festival is organised by Norwich’s Heritage Economic and Regeneration Trust (HEART), with support from Norwich Business Improvement District (BID), The Forum and the Norwich Town Close Estate Charity.
The Opportunity of SPACE- A Guest Blog from Jen Morgan
Jen Morgan, Specialist Creative Reading Mentor for the SPACE project, blogs about her experience of SPACE.
Although it is the beginning of the second phase of SPACE it is the start of my involvement with the project. I have taught creative writing to adults for a number of years which I have loved and continue to love, but my background is in teaching young adults and that was what made me so excited about SPACE – the opportunity to explore creative writing/creative reading with 12-18 year olds. I am particularly pleased to have been given the role of specialist mentor as it means that I will have the opportunity to visit each of the project venues and meet lots of the young people involved.
My main role is to work with the young people and suggest books that they might like, based on their interests and reading preferences. I have already visited the project based in Thetford and think I have some challenging times ahead with coaxing some of the young people into giving things a try! But that is what this project is all about for me – opening young eyes up to new experiences.
My other role is to work with the other mentors in terms of helping to create a positive reading space in the venue but I’m also on hand if they want any help with devising the creative writing sessions. I got to meet all of the other mentors at the training sessions run by Roxanne Matthews. Many of the mentors are undergraduates from UEA, still young people themselves, who are all passionate about literature and about the SPACE project. I certainly wasn’t that passionate about anything when I was an undergraduate and their dedication to the project, many of whom have been involved for a year already, has really impressed me. Getting to work with all the mentors has been an unexpected highlight for me. As an adult education tutor I have always worked on my own in terms of planning and delivering my sessions. When I attend training events run by the County Council I am always the lone creative writing teacher among the groups of fitness instructors, literacy tutors and so on. Now I am suddenly part of a team of hard-working and talented people who share my enthusiasm for literature. I am very much looking forward to the coming months to see how my role develops based on the needs of the young people and the other mentors. Watch this space!
Find out more about SPACE.
About Jen Morgan
Jen Morgan is the Specialist Creative Reading Mentor for the SPACE project. Her early career was in secondary education teaching Philosophy and Ethics, having studied Theology at Cambridge. She has always loved reading children’s stories and whilst teaching, she realised that what she really wanted to do was write them as well. She took the opportunity to pursue this whilst on maternity leave and completed an MA in Writing for Children at Winchester University, for which she achieved Distinction. Since then she has taught many creative writing courses to adults and has recently completed the YA novel she began during her MA. She also works in the children’s department at Heffers Bookshop and is Assistant Editor for the academic e-journal Write4Children. She is based in Cambridge with her two young children and loves dressing-up. Especially pirates and Tudor costumes.
Visit Jen's blog.
You can follow Jen on Twitter @JenDrakeMorgan
We are currently looking for enthusiastic volunteers to get involved in the SPACE project. Are you interested in developing your skills and experience working with young people? Do you have a love for creative writing and reading that you want to share? Please send an email with your CV and a covering letter to Melanie Kidd, Project Coordinator: email@example.com
Deadline for applications is Monday 25th November. Please note interviews are likely to take place on Monday 2nd December. For more information about the volunteer role and the SPACE project, call Melanie on 01603 877177 for an informal chat (Monday-Wednesday).
Welcome to the Fine City of Norwich.
In 2012 Norwich became England’s first UNESCO City of Literature, and the sixth in the world. This elite international network now includes six other cities around the world; Edinburgh, Melbourne, Iowa City, Dublin, Reykjavik and recently Kraków.
Today, Norwich’s new city signs have been unveiled, proudly declaring to all visitors (and, of course residents) that this fine city is a UNESCO City of Literature.
The UNESCO City of Literature award is much more than a recognition of Norwich’s literary heritage and contemporary strengths
– it is a promise of what will come.
In the year since Norwich became a City of Literature Writers’ Centre Norwich has already established many projects, events and even a publication, which celebrates and builds upon our literary strengths.
26 for Norwich
celebrated Norwich’s literary heritage, present strengths, and future potential by pairing professional writers from writers’ group 26
with students from the UEA Creative Writing courses. The pairs were then asked to produce a piece of work in response to a historic Norwich writing. You can explore the work of Norwich’s historical writers and the pieces produced by our contemporary writers on the 26 for Norwich website
Into the Light: The Medieval Hebrew Poetry of Meir of Norwich
is a collection of poems written by Meir ben Elijah, England’s only medieval Hebrew poet, and our first UNESCO City of Literature publication. Find out more about Meir ben Elijah and purchase a copy of the collection
UEA UNESCO City of Literature Visiting Professorships
was established in early 2012, and brings leading writers to teach at the University of East Anglia
. The inaugural professors in 2013-13 were playwright Timberlake Wertenbaker and novelist Ali Smith
Ali Smith gave the inaugural Harriet Martineau Lecture
at the Norfolk & Norwich Festival 2013
. The lecture celebrated Harriet Martineau, an unjustly oft-forgot Norwich writer. Read a report on the event and listen to a recording
Our plans for the future are even more exciting. Future plans are designed to make literature accessible for residents of the city and county, as well as to visitors to the region.
The National Centre for Writing
(NCW) will be a unique building based in the heart of Norwich. Never before seen in England, NCW will be regional beacon and a national draw for the city, offering a home for those passionate about the power of words, whether they be readers, writers or translators. Writers’ Centre Norwich is leading the bid to develop the National Centre for Writing, which will open in 2016. View plans on architect Ash Sakula’s website
A £360K partnership bid to Heritage Lottery Fund
has been developed, with the proposed funding being used to explore, celebrate and open up Norwich and Norfolk’s literary history for everyone who lives in and visits Norwich. (More news soon)
A £300k Cultural Tourism bid led by the New Anglian Local Enterprise Partnership
is underway, which is designed to attract more visitors and tourists to Norwich.
A series of workshops for young people and schools
is being planned to bring creative reading and writing in to the heart of their lives, and broaden the opportunities available to them.
Margaret Atwood will be the third UEA UNESCO City of Literature Visiting Professor
. We’re delighted to welcome Margaret to Norwich for two months in 2014.
SPACE, a volunteer-led reading and writing programme
, is running in libraries and venues across Norfolk. A collaborative project with Norfolk Library Service
and University of East Anglia
. SPACE works with young people and communities to remove barriers to creative writing and reading.
New work will be commissioned
which will celebrate our sister UNESCO Cities of Literature, and includes a commission to make a film of one of the stories from Finnegan’s Wake
by James Joyce.
If you’d like to know more about Norwich UNESCO City of Literature, you can read our successful bid online
or visit our webpage devoted to the subject
To keep up to date with all Writers’ Centre Norwich’s news sign up to our enews
A Poet Must Seduce the Air- Live Literature with Jean 'Binta' Breeze
Programme Manager Laura Stimson blogs about our free Performance Poetry Masterclass with Jean 'Binta' Breeze. Jean will also be performing with John Agard tomorrow evening at Cafe Bar Marzano, for which you can buy tickets online.
What a treat to host Jean ‘Binta’ Breeze for her first official visit to Norwich.
Jean’s workshop focussed on music; how musical elements live within poems. She started off with physical and vocal warm ups; using vocal chorus exercises to get the group thinking about how consonants and vowels affect your body. The group were tasked with creating vocal tongue-twisters using guttural vowels and consonants, using sound rather than word or meaning. With this, she explored the musicality of poetry; how rhyme, repetition, repeat can be woven into both your written work and live performance.
There was a lot of sharing; first poem, worst poem, poem generation and process, audience anecdotes, swearing, dialect. Jean talked about the importance of mic technique, of endings, of ‘breaking the silence’. The audience hush before a poet speaks is beautiful and the poet must ‘seduce the air’, Jean says; how the silence is broken is very important. She talked about selecting your set and ‘being kind’ to your poems; poetry is a conversation with your audience and your audience must be considered. She talked about the beauty of simplicity, about performer etiquette, about how poetry’s first love is music.
This was a special, intimate afternoon, in which the participants had a chance to really get to know Jean. A wonderful session with one of the world’s warmest. Don’t miss your chance to see her and John Agard
at a special Black History Month event this Friday.
Translating the Poetry of the Holocaust - The Project So Far
Translating the Poetry of the Holocaust is a new research project led by Professor Jean Boase-Beier of the University of East Anglia. Supported by Writers' Centre Norwich, Translating the Poetry of the Holocaust includes a public exhibition, workshops and a book display at The Forum on Monday the 4th and Tuesday the 5th of November. Read this blog by Research Assistant, Marian De Vooght, to find out more about the project:
Poetry about the horrors and traumas of the Holocaust is perhaps an unlikely topic for an ‘event’. The question about what it means to translate such poetry—from numerous languages into English—is probably even less expected as the starting point for a exhibition. If you are curious and would like to know more about what will be happening in the Forum, please read further for our plans for the event.
Visitors to the exhibition will get an idea about the scope of the languages used by victims, survivors and others for writing their poems. From the 1930s to 1945 the Nazi regime persecuted people from all over Europe and deported them to concentration camps. Women, children, men of many different backgrounds and cultures. We’ll draw attention to as many different groups as possible, show places they came from, display examples of the poetry that represents them, and show how it can be translated into English.
A book display organised by the Millennium Library will support the exhibition. You will have a chance to leaf through memoirs, poetry, fiction and information books, all relating to the Holocaust.
We would like to give people an idea about why Holocaust poems have been written. Who are the poets, where did they come from and what was their fate? We want to raise awareness that Holocaust poems continue to be written. How are poets of today still reacting to the Holocaust? Why, indeed, couldn’t any of us respond to the past in a poem? Thinking about this may help you relate to the problems translators face when dealing with Holocaust poetry. What motivates translators and how do they create new versions of these poems that do justice to the original? We want to get across why it is important to keep reading, writing and translating Holocaust poems.
What happens to readers when they read a Holocaust poem depends to a large extent on their knowledge of the original language and/or on the way the poem has been translated. By reading different translations of the same poem, you can get an idea of what are the most important words or key images and emotions in the original. The two workshops organised during the exhibition days will further explore what is happening during translation—but more on this will follow in October.
Besides the workshops, there will be poetry reading in the library. In January 2014, more of these readings will take place in The Bookhive in Norwich, as well as in The European Bookshop in London. This Autumn, Professor Boase-Beier will also give talks about her research on translating the poetry of the Holocaust at the universities of Edinburgh (15 November) and Newcastle (28 November).
Jean Boase-Beier is also teaching two free workshops on Translating the Poetry of the Holocaust.
On the 4th of December, 5pm, Jean will give a workshop at the University of East Anglia. Contact J.Boasefirstname.lastname@example.org if you want to come.
Find out more about the project
Best of British and Novelists’ Fears
The third day of Worlds Literature Festival brought muggy sunshine and an evening event with two of Granta’s Best of Young British Novelists; David Szalay and Evie Wyld, hosted by Ted Hodgkinson of Granta. Both David and Evie read from their extracts featured in Granta’s Best of Young British Novelists 4.
David read first, from his novel in progress, Europa, a novel which will take the form of a number of 10-15 thousand word novellas, linked by ideas of transnationality:
Evie followed with a reading from her just-published novel All the Birds, Singing
Best of Young British Novelists 4
is an anthology that collects work from young writers who show potential and skill and, as such, the writing isn’t linked by theme or style. Instead it aims to showcase the best sample of writing, which is representative of the chosen author’s style. Consequently, David and Evie’s writing is very different, yet their discussion of writing had several common threads.
As the title suggests, the recurring motif of the evening was one of fear. (Not that the audience was scared, mind you- although Evie’s reading was very creepy.) Evie explained that she’d grown up reading horror, from the Point Horror books, to Stephen King, to Silence of the Lambs
, and that as a child she’d always thought she’d write horror books. And, in a way, she does.
The fear in Evie’s novels is an oblique suppressed horror- it is a fear created by the self, and all the more terrifying because of the illogical indefinableness of it. Evie commented that she liked ghost stories, especially family ghost stories, saying that she didn’t believe in ghosts, but she did believe in people seeing ghosts.
Evie followed this by talking about her preoccupation and fear of sharks, and laughed that she’s always having to take sharks out of her book- so there are far more sharks lurking in the first draft than the final draft!
David has a knack for picking out the grotesque in ordinary people, creating fear and repulsion in the hidden shadows of humanity. He said that he found it amusing how often he found something in his book funny, and when somebody else read the same section they would find it depressing or horrifying. David then commented that “to the writer, the characters in the story are less real than to the reader” and as the creator, the author will not fear the demons and horrors in their own work. (Unlike their readers!)
Of course, the fear that both David and Evie have to confront is the worry of not living up to the expectations placed upon them by being chosen as two of the best writers of their generation. Previous Best of Young British Novelists include Martin Amis, Iain Banks, Pat Barker and Jeanette Winterson- proving that the mantel is an impressive but intimidating prospect. But we don’t think they have anything to worry about at all.
Listen to a podcast of the event below:
Take a look at some of the photos from Worlds Literature Festival.
Join us at the Worlds Literature Festival this week
The Worlds Literature Festival started on Monday evening, with a lovely event; 26 for Norwich, celebrating the work of 26 eminent Norwich writers in style.
Worlds has both a public and private side; each day the international visiting writers are taking part in a roundtable session called the Salon, and the theme is Way’s of Writing: Ways of Reading; covering how contemporary circumstances are being affected by economic and digital changes.
Across the week seven provocateurs will read papers, and yesterday afternoon Sjon and Ruth Ozeki started off the debate with aplomb in the beautiful Norwich Cathedral Hostry.
These provocations are being filmed and podcast and will be available soon, alongside blogs covering the main themes discussed at the Salon. In the meantime do follow the #worlds13 hashtag on twitter between 12.30-3.30 all week in order to join in with what is a fascinating conversation pertinent to all writers.
Last night, the long awaited Moomins event took place, more online about that very soon.
There’s still plenty to come, including free afternoon reads with our international writers, the Granta event tonight and the launch of the Meir ben Elijah book on Thursday.
We look forward to seeing you soon.
A Writer's Dilemma: Tove Jansson, More than the Moomins.
I have a dim memory of being read the Moomins as a child, poking at the chubby creatures with my equally chubby fingers. I also have a copy of The Summer Book
sitting on my ever increasing ‘To Be Read’ pile at home. Still, before the Tove Jansson: Between Light and Dark event, Tove Jansson was nothing but a shadowy figure. Now, post event, The Summer Book
has been moved to the top of the pile. I’m determined to re-read the Moomins back catalogue, and I’m desperate to find out more about the elusive figure of Tove Jansson.
On the panel was Rebecca Swift (of The Literary Consultancy), poet and Jansson fan, Esther Freud (author of Hideous Kinky
), who wrote the foreword to The Summer Book
; actor Samuel West (Howard’s End), voice of the Moomin app and Icelandic writer Sjón, who recently collaborated with Björk on her Moomins and the Comet Chase soundtrack. The event began by Rebecca inviting the panel to talk about what Tove’s work meant to them. Fascinatingly, our panellists’ child selves seemed to be drawn to the Moomins because of the thin edge between light and dark in her work, and her truthfulness as a writer. As adults, they love Tove’s work for similar reasons, but are also drawn to her wry observations on humanity (or Moominity?!).
Throughout the discussion it became clear to me that the Moomins held a very special place in the hearts of not only our panellists but in our audience’s too. The centre of the discussion seemed to be on Tove’s artful way of combining conflicting emotions, and the subsequent creation of bittersweet tableaus. Indeed, our panellists seemed to agree that bittersweet was the best word to describe Tove’s writing.
For me, what stood out the most from the event was the image of Tove as a determined artist and a writer who was absolutely dedicated to her craft. She went to extraordinary lengths to be able to create, going as far to living on a tiny island (think the size of a large living room). On the miniscule windswept island there was a small house, which you’d assume would be the living space – yet Tove lived in a tent to preserve the house as a workspace, and to resist the bleeding over of relaxation into work. I find that both extraordinary, and inspiring.
She was an artist who wanted to pursue her craft first and foremost, and came to almost abhor the Moomins, because drawing the Moomins left her no time to experiment and try new things. Of course, the popularity of the Moomins also came to mean that she was first and foremost known as the creator of the Moomins and her other artistic pursuits were all but ignored.
Eventually, Tove handed on the work of drawing the cartoon to her brother Lars, giving her the freedom to pursue her other creative urges. It was lucky that she did, as it gave her the time to write her adult fiction, including The Summer Book
(which both Esther and Sjon raved about as being one of the best books they've ever read.).
I think anyone who fancies themselves as an artist, or a writer, could do a lot worse then using Tove Jansson as an icon. Hugely successful, Tove was always striving to achieve and create, never resting on her laurels, and always focussing on her art- what more could you want in a hero?
Take a look at the story of the evening on Storify
Listen to podcasts of the event on Soundcloud.
Watch Esther read from Comet in Moominland
Watch Sam and Sjón discuss Tove Jansson and read from her work:
Take a look at photos from Worlds 13:
Dipping and Soaring: Ideas of Flight from The Voice Project
Ideas of Flight, The Voice Project's latest creation, set beautiful poetry to haunting music. The original songs were performed in the Norwich Cathedral on the 11th May as part of the Norfolk & Norfolk Festival.
Themed around flight and birds, the poems set to music included work by Wendy Cope, Maura Dooley, Jane Draycott, Martin Figura, John Fuller, Andrew Motion, Ruth Padel, Don Paterson and George Szirtes. The composers who set the poems to music were Jonathan Baker, Orlando Gough, Barbara Thompson and Karen Wimhurst.
And, with no further ado, below is a short documentary of the performance, including snippets of the music:
Ideas of Flight was inspired by an RSPB poetry project, and commissioned by Writers' Centre Norwich and the Norfolk & Norwich Festival.
Find out more about The Voice Project.
Book Review: The Polish Boxer by Eduardo Halfon
WCN Programme Manager Sam Ruddock reviews Summer Reads pick, The Polish Boxer by Eduardo Halfon:
There is a passage in The Polish Boxer in which the narrator, a Guatemalan literature professor and writer named Eduardo Halfon, tells a musician he has just met about his take on revolutions. I am, he says, ‘fascinated by internal rather than external revolutions…how and why someone is pushed toward a revolution of the spirit, whether it be artistic or social or whatever, strikes me as a far more honest search than all of the spectacle that follows. Because everything after that…is pure spectacle. Everything. Painting a canvas? Spectacle. Writing a novel? Spectacle.’
The Polish Boxer traces the lines of internal revolutions and the journeys of mind and body that inspire, ferment, and resolve them. Part novel, part collection of linked stories, Halfon takes the reader from his homeland of Guatemala, through a Mark Twain conference in the US, and onto an impossible search in snowy Serbia.
At its heart lies a game of hide-and-seek as to whether the narrator and author – each named Eduardo Halfon – are one and the same. There’s also a grandfather who claims the numbers tattooed on his forearm are to ensure he never forgets his telephone number, and a classical pianist who disappears in search of the gypsy music he loves. How do our origins shape who we are? And what about our desire to construct identities: the stories we tell that can become more real than the truth? The Polish Boxer plays an elaborate and enjoyable game with all these ideas and remains fun and readable throughout.
Jazz music suffuses the prose. Eduardo is a big fan of the improvisations of Thelonious Monk and the narration works hard to create an impression of improvisation. You can here echoes of other writers throughout, dropped in here and there like indiscernible illusions. A considerable amount of action takes place in dark jazz bars, where smoke billows and twists in the air and conversations are had over lots of drinks. In some ways, the book is best summed up by the image on the jacket: wispy white smoke drifting against a black background, like bones on an x-ray. Unpindownable. Transient. Enigmatic. Descriptions are thrown out then modulated, everything is fluid, seemingly spontaneous. The ‘molasses eyes’ that Eduardo observes in a student one page become something else upon further viewing: ‘the only thing molasses about them was a mistaken memory.’
The Polish Boxer is a fun book to review. Halfon plays games with the reader, poses big questions about the relationship between fiction and reality, manages to be witty, profound, literarily aware, and accessible all at the same time, and then changes his mind on everything. I have a sense as I write that ‘there is something very important to be said about reality, that we have this something within reach, just there, so close, on the tip of our tongue, and that we mustn’t forget it. But always, without fail, we do.’
What’s more, its overall narrative is somewhat unreliable. This English translation takes a format that exists nowhere else in the world. It is a combination of several works by Eduardo Halfon that are brought together into one new book; its plot and themes are therefore as much a creation of translation as of authorship. Indeed translation is the quiet miracle of this book: five translators worked together on bringing it to English, yet it doesn’t feel in the least disjointed. I am yet to encounter a reader who can discern a seam in the writing. And the translation is elegant as well as thought provoking, though one wonders why – despite four of the translators being English – they opted for Americanised spelling.
The Polish Boxer is a veritable feast of discussion points and thought provoking ideas, none answered, all which leave me with a smile on my face, feeling inspired and enthused. But then I love this sort of unspecific atmosphere. The Polish Boxer reminds me of Alexandar Hemon and Jonathan Safran Foer, not just in the experiences of immigration and journeys to eastern Europe, but in the mundanity of them, the drifting, the internal revolutions and the lack of focus. And like Everything is Illuminated, there is a sense that humour is used both as a way to effectively tell a sad story, and to shrink from truths too terrible to mention.
Dichotomies. Grey areas. Nothing is certain. Internal revolutions are quiet and frequently reversed. ‘There’s always more than one truth to everything’ says Halfon at one point. Or often, there is no truth at all. Merely memory and perspective. This is metafiction about the necessity of fiction to describe and interpret reality. But can we trust narratives? Can we trust stories? Can we trust literature? Halfon is drawn to the idea that stories are tools through which reality is made bearable and intelligible. Yet he is equally aware that this romantic notion is incomplete and that coherence and narrative are inventions of literature that have little in common with everyday life. ‘Literature is no more than a good trick a magician or a witch might perform, making reality appear whole, creating the illusion that reality is a single unified thing.’
The Polish Boxer is both self parody and a serious discussion of these issues. It begins in a classroom where students debate the merits of classic literature, particularly works where ‘nothing happens’ or the characters are dislikeable. Implicit comparisons are made with Mark Twain – that twisting, unpindownable clown - and they are somehow worthwhile. I’m not sure how Halfon manages not to make all this sound incredibly pretentious. Perhaps it is because he is far more overt in his humour and one doesn’t fully believe he is serious about anything. This isn’t a J.M. Coetzee play on fiction and biography where the wit hides in between words. At times it drifts into being slightly too self-referential, and Eduardo’s girlfriend Lia – a scientist who draws graphs of her own orgasms – is one of the few dud notes of the novel.
However, overall, The Polish Boxer is a thrilling experience. If you like it, try The Theory of Clouds by Stephane Audeguy, for they share many similar themes. Just don’t take anything Halfon writes too seriously. Despite what the narrator argues in chapter one, there is no ‘correct way to read a story.’ However, his advice might be worth heeding in reading this book: ‘[let] yourself be dragged along in the author’s wake. It matters not whether the waters are calm or stormy. What counts is having the courage and confidence to dive in headfirst…A story is nothing but a lie. An illusion. And that illusion only works if we trust in it…Plato wrote that literature is a deceit in which he who deceives is more honest than he who does not deceive, and he who allows himself to be deceived is wiser than he who does not.’
Dive in! Enjoy the experience. The Polish Boxer is the first introduction English readers have had to a major South American novelist. I distinctly hope there is more to come soon.
If you've read The Polish Boxer, or any of the other Summer Reads books, or even if you haven't, please join in the chat on Facebook and Twitter @WCNBookClub.
The Polish Boxer is published by Pushkin Press.
The book's journey into English began at The British Centre for Literary Translation summer school. Find out more about this journey at the WCN 'Where Books Begin...' event on the 24th July 2013.
For an extract from The Polish Boxer click here
For audio visual content of Eduardo Halfon discussing his work, click here
A Modern Poet- from Twitter to Television.
Organised in collaboration with The Rialto, our first Norfolk & Norwich Festival event brought Sophie Hannah, Hannah Lowe, and Don Paterson to the Norwich Playhouse for an evening of poetry.
The clichéd image of a poet is often of an ethereal being who plucks rhymes from the air, and cultivates an unworldly muse, writing art for arts sake. This event proved that, if anything, inspiration tended towards the mundane; from writing about a dead dog, to writing a letter to an ex-boyfriend explaining how much better you are now.
Sophie Hannah began by confessing her addiction to Twitter (you can follow her @sophiehannahcb1) and reading a poem on the Dalai Lama not following her back on Twitter; showing that a poem really can be formed out of anything. Throughout her reading Sophie was accompanied by knowing giggles and smirks, as her poems recalled familiar feelings within the audience.
Listen to Sophie read:
Hannah Lowe was next on stage and started by reading 'Fist', which she described as a bleak poem. She explained that she writes a lot about her hometown of Ilford, and her father, for whom her first collection of poetry, Chick, is named. Hannah’s reading was a bitter-tender experience. (You can get a taster of Hannah’s poetry, and watch her read at the Norwich Showcase on Youtube.)
Don Paterson began by announcing:
He followed this statement by recounting a recent occasion when he went to see a famous (and un-named poet) at a reading, and ended up wishing the poems would end so he could hear the introductions to the poems, because the writer was far better at introducing his work then reading it.
And, actually, a lot of the joy at a poetry reading, or any literary reading, is the writer’s introduction to the piece they will be reading. It is the introduction which gives the audience an insight into the process of writing, and a clue about where the magic bean of inspiration originated. It is the introduction, and the Q&A’s at the literary event which reveal the writer.
Don’s introductions supported this, reading a poem based on the television series, House, and explaining that he believes soaps have taken the place of religion. He followed this with a found poem created via a google search- it was composed of insults, with each line beginning ‘What Paterson fails to realise...’
It was this self-awareness which seemed to become the theme of the evening- Sophie, Hannah and Don unpicked their motivations and explained their writing to us.
Michael Mackmin, the editor of The Rialto
opened the Q&A by describing Hannah’s poetry as a way of recovering memories. WCN Programme Director Jonathan Morley followed this by suggesting that Sophie’s writing was public poetry, and Don’s was poetry as philosophy (Don guffawed slightly at this...). Michael then asked, ‘Does poetry come out of form, or form out of poetry?’
This question inspired a discussion about what writing meant to the poets, and why they found themselves writing:
Hannah said that there was so much secrecy around her father that she began recreating him through her poetry- reforming his existence into a narrative which she could control and understand.
The Q&A finished with a question about the role of the internet in the modern writers life:
Sophie countered this with:
If this has inspired you to join Twitter, you can follow us @WritersCentre
, Sophie Hannah @SophiehannahCB1
and Hannah Lowe @Hannahlowepoet
The real joy of literary events, as I hope I’ve shown in this blog, is discovering the stories and the people behind the writing. Events with writers bring a new dimension to the stories that you love, as well as giving you an intriguing glimpse into the authors’ lives.
We hope to see you at one of our events soon- coming up for the Words & Ideas strand of the Festival is the Inaugural Harriet Martineau Lecture with Ali Smith
, a Live Literature double bill
with Luke Wright and Nathan Penlington, the debut performance of I Wish I Was Lonely
from Hannah Walker and Chris Thorpe and the Electronic Voice Phenomena
You can take a look at the other events coming up on our What’s On Page
A Special Evening of Poetry for an Extra Special Price
On the 13th May, Writers’ Centre Norwich will be host to a trio of poets at Norwich Playhouse. Organised in collaboration with The Rialto Magazine, poets Don Paterson, Sophie Hannah and Hannah Lowe will be opening Words & Ideas at the Norfolk & Norwich Festival. And, even if we do say so ourselves, this is one event you won’t want to miss. Especially as you can buy tickets half price.
The evening promises to be a delightful exploration of contemporary poetry- I can’t wait to hear all of the poets, but I am particularly looking forward to hearing Sophie Hannah read again.
I was lucky enough to hear her read at the EDP Book Awards last year, and felt connected with the text in a way which I hadn’t experienced when reading her poetry at home. (It also persuaded me to dig out her collection of Selected Poems when I got home, and to re-imagine the slants and emphasis of the writing.)
Sophie Hannah’s poetry is clever, witty, and undeniably wicked. Her writing has a vicious, razor sharp edge. Sophie takes everyday incidents, and spins them into bittersweet poems, writing with grace and intelligence. It’s little wonder that she has been shortlisted for the TS Eliot Prize, while her bestselling psychological thrillers continue to receive critical acclaim.
For a taster of Sophie’s poetry, you can watch her read If People Disapprove on YouTube.
While Sophie Hannah is sure to make you laugh, Don Paterson
will make you shift forward in your seat, alert and straight-backed.
Paterson has won most of the poetry prizes around; from the Forward Prize to the TS Eliot Prize (twice). His accolades speak for themselves, but don’t capture the scope and quality of his work. Don Paterson writes lyrically on fable and charm, creating an intimate exploration of the moments that unite us all.
Don Paterson’s reading is sure to be both thought provoking and moving, and a perfect foil for Sophie Hannah and Hannah Lowe’s readings.
Don Paterson reads Rain:
Last, but certainly not least, Hannah Lowe
will also be reading at the event. Hannah published her first full-length collection, Chick
, earlier this year. Described as an “extraordinary debut”, the publication heralds a fresh and outstanding voice into the world of contemporary poetry.
Hannah joined us last year to read at The Norwich Showcase
and you can watch her reading on YouTube:
Lowe’s sensory poetry is deeply personal. Chick
is named after her father, and it tells the story of his extraordinary character, a Chinese-black Jamaican migrant who gambled professionally. Hannah’s poems capture an emotional truth, but always resist sentimentality with peculiar beauty.
This Rialto event promises to introduce you to a world of brilliant poetry, bringing established and emerging poets together for an evening of immersive entertainment. And, I for one, can’t wait.
Get your tickets now.
The Readers' Circle Decides
WCN Programme Assistant Lara Narkiewicz blogs about the Readers’ Circle, a unique programme which encourages readers to get involved with each stage of our Summer Reads book selection process.
Last summer WCN Programme Manager Sam Ruddock, poet and Summer Reads friend Julia Webb and myself visited a number of libraries across Norfolk. We were there to promote Summer Reads and to meet keen readers. These events were a real success and we got to know a lot of enthusiastic readers along the way.
This made us wonder why we hadn’t involved readers earlier on in the programme. So, for 2013 we formed the Readers’ Circle and invited some of the brilliant readers we’d already met to join us in choosing the books that would make up Summer Reads 2013.
The Readers’ Circle was made up keen readers, librarians, booksellers and several WCN staff. Our readers all had different jobs and backgrounds- some were employed full-time, others were retired, some were writers and poets and others had careers in the literary sector. Each of them brought a unique and valuable viewpoint about the process and the books. We started meeting in September 2012 with a longlist of 116 prospective titles and a need to whittle them down to 6. We really had a task on our hands!
For the next four months, the dedicated members of the Circle popped in to the office to pick up books, and sent us reviews of the books they had read- 20 or so each and every week! To follow up on this and to reduce the longlist to a shortlist, we had a meeting every month where readers debated long and hard about each contender.
When we started, we asked everyone to commit to reading at least 6 books. Everyone did this, and many read and reviewed between twenty and thirty titles; an extraordinary effort.
By January, we had worked our way down to just 20 titles, and came together for an epic meeting to cut the list down to the final six. It was at that meeting where the effort, the opinions about the books, and the enjoyment that the Readers’ Circle had had from the experience became really clear.
When we reached the final six, there was a real feeling of satisfaction, teamwork and excitement about Summer Reads (accompanied by celebratory cake and bubbly)!
The Readers’ Circle was a unique and fantastic experience for me, and one which I have thoroughly enjoyed. It was great to be part of a group that was truly passionate about choosing books that would encourage others to go outside their literary comfort zone and try something new. With a mix of poetry, non-fiction, short stories, fiction and books in translation, we have a first-class selection of titles that Sam and I are delighted to be promoting across Norfolk on behalf of WCN. And for that we have the Readers’ Circle to thank.
If you would like to take part in the Readers’ Circle in 2014, Writers’ Centre Norwich will have more information available at our “Get Involved!” events in 8 libraries across Norfolk in May and August.
Details of dates and times will be available on our website soon. Alternatively, contact Writers’ Centre Norwich at email@example.com
I look forward to meeting you!
This years’ Summer Reads will be launched on the 1st of May.
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Find out more about last year’s Summer Reads campaign at www.summerreads.org.uk
Guest Blog Post: The Inner Melody of Julian of Norwich's Writing
In advance of Julian Week (6th-10th May), Louise Øhrstrøm, co-ordinator of Julian Week, blogs about the upcoming event with Mikael R Andreasen and Edwin Kelly.
Two international guests will be visiting Norwich for the upcoming Julian Week (6th-10th of May). Danish Mikael R Andreasen will be playing songs he has composed on Julian's lyrics. Irish Edwin Kelly will be reading from his experimental translation of Julian's writings. Louise Øhrstrøm has asked the two artists what they find fascinating about Julian of Norwich as a writer.
In 2010 Mikael R Andreasen's Danish band Kloster released their critical acclaimed fourth album, The Winds and Waves Still Know His Voice, which holds songs based on Julian of Norwich’s Middle English lyrics. Kloster was booked for Roskilde Festival (the biggest music festival in Northern Europe) in 2011 because of that album and has played at a number of venues in Europe.
Mikael R Andreasen heard about Julian from a friend and soon learned that Julian's words somehow seemed really easy to put into melody:
“It was as if the passages contained some sort of inner melody themselves. Later, when I started reading Julian's complete work in English, I noticed, that also just by reading, the text seemed very rhythmic and had an almost melodic ease or flow to it”, Mikael explains.
Edwin Kelly became interested in Julian when he did an MA in Poetry at University of East Anglia. He currently works on an experimental translation of her texts, inspired by an ancient tradition of editing manuscripts:
“I work with Julian's texts in a way I feel it has been worked with throughout the last 600 years or so - simply as an engaged reader who wants to know more. In medieval times this engagement may have been mainly looking for devotional and spiritual guidance. In an academic context, this engagement may look at the production of the text itself. Personally, I'm most interested in the emotional power of the text and how this has been maintained through the centuries. I work with the text as a document of the experience and as a physical object”, Edwin says.
Both artists find that there is something about Julian's voice that makes her writings relevant even for a modern reader.
Edwin explains: “The texts themselves are consistently surprising. Just when I feel I have categorised them, something in their style will lead me to question my assumptions. I think Julian's texts are, to some extent, taken a little for granted. Often, interest is in relation who she is rather than what she wrote. I think people will be pleasantly surprised if they take the time to read and respond to what she wrote. It will deepen their appreciation of a fascinating and surprising figure”.
Mikael R Andreasen particularly likes the way in which Julian talks about suffering and love:
“Today it seems like whenever love hurts a tiny bit, people tend to throw it away in search for any kind of new 'suffer-absent-love.' It is as if we have created a culture where we are trying to avoid suffering at all cost. In such a culture, I find it both interesting and provoking to read how Julian almost asked for an experience of suffering in order to understand what love is all about.”
Meet Mikael R Andreasen and Edwin Kelly at Julian Week at the Comforting Words event.
For more info, please visit the Julian Week website.
Other Julian Week events include:
Julian of Norwich: Poetry Writing and Critical Reading Workshop by poet Edwin Kelly and PhD student Louise Øhrstrøm
Julian of Norwich as a Poet: Language and the Search for Meaning in A Showing of Love