THE BRITISH LIBRARY

English and Drama blog

62 posts categorized "Literature"

10 December 2018

‘Some little language of their own’: English and Scottish dialects, and the desire for a private language

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by Rahul Bery, Translator in Residence at the British Library for 2018-19. The British Library’s Translator in Residence scheme, supported by the Arts and Humanities Research Council (AHRC), offers a translator the opportunity to become part of the British Library’s multilingual community of staff, readers and visitors for one year.

Earlier this year, I found myself vigorously agreeing with a Guardian Long Read article which effectively argued that the English language was not so much a liberating lingua franca as a highly successful virus, an invasive species; the linguistic equivalent of a grey squirrel or cane toad. Around the same time, I was reading Olga Tocarczuk’s Booker-winning Flights, and reacted even more strongly to this passage:

“There are countries out there where people speak English…It’s hard to imagine, but English is their real language. Oftentimes, their only language…How lost they must feel in the world, where all instructions…all the menus, all the excruciating pamphlets and brochures ­– even the buttons in the lift! – are in their private language. They may be understood by anyone at any moment, whenever they open their mouths. They must have to write things down in special codes. Wherever they are, people have unlimited access to them…I heard there are plans in the works to get them some little language of their own…so that for once they can have something just for themselves.”

This is something I’d been feeling for a while, but I’d never seen it expressed so clearly before.  It encompassed so many of my frustrations: the experience (probably shared by many first language English speakers who speak another language) of being spoken back to in English when abroad, even when you’ve clearly demonstrated your competency or fluency; having to convince writers whose work you’re translating that, however good their English is, your choice of words *is* the best one; even my occasional sense of doubt that literary translation into English is something I should be doing. After all, does the world really need more English?

And yet, I’ve spent the vast majority of life in the UK, speaking English. I love the way the language looks and sounds, its idiosyncrasies, the way it sounds in Cardiff, Derbyshire, Birmingham, not to mention the wider Anglophone world. Given its status as an international language, as Tocarczuk suggests, it is easy to forget that English is just another West Germanic language, and the (only) private language of hundreds of millions of people. As translator-in-residence here at the BL, I’m interested in exploring not only linguistic diversity in general, but diversity within languages, especially as spoken in different areas of modern Britain. Additionally, my selfish desire to have a truly private language has got me wondering about forms of English that cannot be easily understood by non-natives, or even other English speakers.

So I was delighted to read first line in Liz Berry’s poem ‘Birmingham Roller’, written in Black Country dialect - ‘Wench, yorwm the colour of ower town’ – or a line in another of her poems simply listing words: ‘bibble, fettle, tay, wum’. I had a similar feeling looking at the first line of Hugh McDiarmid’s Braid Scots epic A drunk man looks at the thistle: ‘I amna fou' sae muckle as tired - deid dune.’

 

Bery Translation Blog Photo

Before I start getting complaints, I’m aware that Scots is not so much a version of English as a sister West Germanic language, which evolved alongside, rather than from, its southern neighbour. All the same, it comes as a relief to know that there are utterances that look and sound like English, but which the Polish narrator of Flights—with their privileged access into the private lives of hundreds of millions of Anglophones—would struggle to comprehend. In fact, many native speakers may struggle to comprehend them; think of initial reactions to Trainspotting or the Gallagher brothers having to be subtitled on US TV. The BL’s Head of Contemporary British Collections and Scottish Poet, Richard Price, recommended another great example of this kind of writing to me. Ian Hamilton Finlay’s Glasgow Beasts an a Burd, as well as being a beautiful artefact, with papercut images by John Picking and Pete McGinn (due to its small print run I also had to make my first trip into the Rare Books Reading Room to see it), is a gloriously irreverent journey written in a tongue that is certainly not the international language of airports and lift instructions. It documents the poet’s transmogrification into various animal forms, all the while retaining a strong grasp of Glaswegian:

syne

ah wis a midgie

neist a stank

foon that kin o

thankless

I love not only the sounds, but also the spellings he uses, like ‘Didjye’, which could be Somali word, or ‘hail simmer’, which could be so many things (in this instance, it’s ‘whole summer’).

English has become dominant partly due to its incredible ability to evolve over time, and absorb the syntax and vocabulary of the languages it supplants, from Welsh to Urdu. Maybe those of us who wish to regain some sense of ‘privacy’ in our speech will have to harness this power and create new Englishes, at least until some other language replaces it on the international stage, and we can go back to merely being speakers of an obscure West Germanic tongue.

07 November 2018

Celebrating Poetry Pamphlets

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By Imogen Durant, PhD Placement Student working on the Library’s Contemporary British collection of poetry pamphlets and artists’ books. More information about the upcoming event,  Poetry Pamphlets Celebration, can be found here

Pamphlets are a crucial site for poetic innovation, allowing writers to experiment and offering readers cheap access to new work. Often small enough to fit into your pocket, pamphlets are the ideal way to sample new poetry from an unfamiliar writer. This frequently overlooked form has provided a platform for almost all of our established poets, from Ted Hughes to Carol Ann Duffy, at different stages in their career.

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A selection of poetry pamphlets from the British Library’s collections.

To celebrate the poetry pamphlet and the important role that it plays in the UK poetry scene, The Michael Marks Award is hosted annually by The British Library, in partnership with the Michael Marks Charitable Trust, The Wordsworth Trust, the TLS and Harvard University’s Center for Hellenic Studies (CHS). Since it was founded in 2009, the awards have grown to include prizes for publishers and illustrators as well as for poetry. Despite the ease with which poetry can now be accessed online, the pamphlet form has flourished over the last decade, and the quality of the submissions to the awards each year attest to this. To mark the 10 year anniversary of the Michael Marks Awards, we will be hosting a poetry reading on the 10th December, featuring shortlisted poets from previous years. Join us in hearing poems and reflections by Charlotte Gann, Christine De Luca, Richard Scott, Phoebe Stuckes, and Omikemi Natacha Bryan.  

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Charlotte Gann is a writer and editor from Sussex. Poems have appeared in The Rialto, The North and Magma, among many others, and her pamphlet, The Long Woman (Pighog Press), was shortlisted for the Michael Marks Award in 2012. Since then, she published a full collection, Noir, with HappenStance – in 2016. This book – which grew from the seed of the pamphlet – asks: what are we to do with the darkness? The things, and people, often left silent and invisible. Originally, Charlotte studied English at UCL; much later, an MA in Creative Writing and Personal Development at the University of Sussex. By day, she works as an editor – currently, editing a monthly magazine based in her hometown, where she lives with her husband and two teenage sons.


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Christine De Luca lives in Edinburgh where her working life was spent in education.  She writes in English and Shetlandic, her mother tongue.  She was appointed Edinburgh's Makar (laureate) for 2014-2017.  Besides several children’s stories and one novel, she has had seven poetry collections and four bi-lingual volumes published (French, Italian, Icelandic and Norwegian).  She’s participated in many festivals here and abroad.  Her poems have been selected four times for the Best Scottish Poems of the Year (2006, 2010, 2013 and 2015) for the Scottish Poetry Library online anthologies.  She has been a member of Edinburgh’s Shore Poets for 25 years. Christine is a linguistic activist, visiting schools, writing articles and taking part in conferences on mother tongue issues.  She is a member of Hansel Cooperative Press which publishes poetry and other literary writings in Shetland and Orkney.  She also enjoys translating children’s classics from Roald Dahl and Julia Donaldson into Shetlandic. 

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Richard Scott was born in London in 1981. His poems have appeared widely in magazines and anthologies including Poetry Review, Poetry London, PN Review, Swimmers, The Poetry of Sex (Penguin) and Butt Magazine. He has been a winner of the Wasafiri New Writing Prize, a Jerwood/Arvon Poetry Mentee and a member of the Aldeburgh 8. His pamphlet 'Wound' (Rialto) won the Michael Marks Poetry Award 2016 and his poem 'crocodile' won the 2017 Poetry London Competition. Soho (Faber & Faber) is his first book. 

 
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Phoebe Stuckes is a writer and performer from West Somerset. She has been a winner of the Foyle Young Poets award four times and is a Barbican Young Poet. She has performed at the Southbank Centre, Wenlock Poetry Festival and was the Ledbury Festival young poet in residence in 2015. Her writing has appeared in the Morning Star, The Rialto, The North and Ambit. Her debut pamphlet, Gin & Tonic is available from Smith|Doorstop books and was shortlisted for The Michael Marks Award 2017.

 

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Omikemi Natacha Bryan is a writer, poet based in London. Her work has been published in numerous magazines including Ambit and Rialto and featured in Bloodaxe's Ten: poets of the New Generation. Her debut pamphlet poetry collection, If I talked everything my eyes saw, was shortlisted for the 2017 Michael Marks Award. She currently works as an associate writer for Vital Xposure theatre. 

 

24 October 2018

The Cambridge Love Letters from Ted Hughes to Liz Hicklin

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by guest blogger Di Beddow, PhD student at Queen Mary, University of London, researching Ted Hughes and Sylvia Plath in Cambridge. Recently acquired by the library, letters and cards from poet Ted Hughes to Elizabeth Hicklin (née Grattidge) have  been catalogued  (Add MS 89198) and are available to consult in the Manuscripts Reading Room via our online catalogue, Explore Archives and Manuscripts. Read more  on our Ted Hughes Discovering Literature page. Reach Di on Twitter at @DiBeddow, and read more about her work here.

Hughes stock image
Ted Hughes by Fay Godwin, Copyright British Library Board
 

Recently acquired by the library, letters and cards from poet Ted Hughes to Elizabeth Hicklin (née Grattidge) have been catalogued (Add MS 89198) and are available for reading in the Manuscripts Reading Room. Hicklin, a nurse at Addenbrookes Hospital in Cambridge met Hughes when he was an undergraduate at Pembroke College in the early 1950s. The couple were in a relationship for several years with Liz meeting the Hughes family in Yorkshire and joining the students in The Anchor public house where according to Daniel Huws, a friend of Ted’s at Cambridge ‘She smiled indulgently at the proceedings’ (Memories of Ted Hughes 2010 p.16) The letters shed light on a period which is not as well documented as most of Hughes’s life and work; it gives insight into his views on Cambridge; his friendship groups; his family and his writing, travel and career plans.

Liz, the recipient of the letters, was from Manchester originally, but left both her home and Cambridge eventually to emigrate to Australia where she lives today.  At one point the couple thought they would both emigrate and join Gerald, Hughes’s  brother, but Liz left for America first and whilst the relationship did not survive her departure, the correspondence is warm and tender from Hughes. He calls her, ‘My darlingest bunnyown’ and ‘My darling Bunpussington.’When he considers the end of their relationship with the distance between them, he is totally candid - ‘I dare say you’d have shown more faith in me if I’d shown you more honesty.’  He appreciates that she may well meet someone else abroad, but he insists, ‘I love you Bun, don’t ever doubt that.’ The letters and postcards were sent over a two year period and shed light on the time when as he says in ‘Fidelity’ from Birthday Letters that he graduated, but remained part of the culture in which he had studied – ‘Free of University I dangled/ In its liberties’.

In one letter he writes of his plan for an autobiographical novel about Cambridge and a book of fairy tales for children.  This is significant in that traditionally it is given that Hughes wrote little whilst at Cambridge; he tells Liz though that he has ‘…an idea for a book.  Two books in fact. One is about Cambridge. An autobiography of a student written from I’m not quite sure what angle, during three years, and to sell as a soft back popular thing.’

Just six months later he was to meet Sylvia Plath in Cambridge and she was to start a book called Falcon Yard which was to tell the story of her meeting and relationship with Hughes in Cambridge.  He goes on to say that - ‘The book about Cambridge would be very cynicial (sic), I feel, very cruel to everyone I knew - but the interesting things about everyone I knew, now I look back, seem to have been their absurdities.  I don’t think that I remember it with much affection’.

This is a popular view of Hughes at Cambridge, as an outsider and a critic, for example, of the Cambridge teaching of English Literature; one recalls Hughes’s dream of a burnt fox which considered his latest essay and warned him “Stop this. You are destroying us.” ‘(Letter to Keith Sagar 16 July 1979) However, Hughes made strong and lasting relationships with several of his Cambridge contemporaries and he finishes his letter to Liz reassuringly, telling her that she is not incorporated in his slight of the Cambridge circle -  ‘You’re just no part of it, you’re nothing but a good memory, my very best. Ever’.

The postcards are all sent from Europe when Hughes was on holiday with his Uncle Walt. In one from Spain, showing the cathedral in Tarragona he says, ‘Nothing but tombs of gold and lapis lazuli…’ which resonates with one of Liz Hicklin’s anecdotes of their relationship written up in an article included in the folder; she tells that Hughes would recite his favourite poem, Yeats’  ‘Oil and Blood’ in the pub.  The poem begins, ‘In tombs of gold and lapis lazuli’ and it accentuates the mysterious phenomenon of decaying corpses in tombs, with heavenly or supernatural scents and oils.  Indeed, Hughes continues on the card - ‘…what a melancholy choosing faculty I have.’

Six poems and literary fragments are also included. The majority of the drafts are untitled with the exception of ‘Sheep’ and ‘Nessie’. Two of the drafts are written in another hand and not Hughes's. ‘Sheep’ is a typewritten copy of the poem which appeared in Season Songs published in 1976, whilst ‘Nessie’ has some skilled sketches for which Hughes became known whenever he was writing for children; signing publications for those dear to him, or simply when doodling.

Finally there are two photographs, one of Hughes fishing at the age of 22, taken by his brother Gerald and another, more interesting perhaps, of the couple at a May Ball in Pembroke.  Liz has written on the back that it was taken at 3 a.m. and Liz has sunk into an armchair with Hughes standing beside her. Linking this photo back to a letter Hughes sent home in May 1954, reveals that the similar profiles of the two were noted by several peers.  Hughes writes in a letter home - ‘There is a girl here that I shall take with me (to Australia) if I still feel like it, and probably marry her before I go…She is a nurse and from some angles looks very like me, everyone says.’ (Selected Letters p.25)

Liz’s article on her memories of the relationship is added to the material and proves to be a useful commentary on the folder.  Hughes’s courtship of Liz bears strong resemblances to the way he courted Plath, using pet-names, reading poetry and what he calls in Birthday Letters (‘The Owl’) his ‘masterpiece’, aping the sound of a hurt rabbit in order to attract owls.  Liz describes this in terms similar to that of Plath’s amazement - ‘Ted made a whining sound with moistened lips and a cupped hand.  Creatures appeared from nowhere - rabbits from their burrows, a stoat at his feet.  Birds swooped overhead. “They think it’s an animal in distress,” he said.  A trick learnt as a small boy, trailing his big brother over the moors, trapping rabbits and delivering newspapers for the family business.’

The wit of both Hicklin and Hughes brings their mutual attraction alive; she recalls receiving a written invitation from Hughes, ‘Would you like to come to tea? I have a ghost in my room.’  When she does attend his room she is taken aback by the drawings of birds with clawed feet and hooked beaks over the walls.  When Hughes tells her he intends to be a writer of children’s stories, she notes the murals and induces, ‘You’ll scare them to death.’

This folio of material enchants with its anecdotes and proves to be a rich resource for the lesser-known Cambridge period of Ted Hughes.

 

 

 

 

 
 
 
 

18 October 2018

Shiva Naipaul: An Unfinished Journey

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In our final Windrush blog before the exhibition closes on Sunday, I would like to focus on Shiva Naipaul, the award-winning novelist and travel writer whose archive is held here at the British Library.

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Shiva Naipaul photographed by Fay Godwin in 1974. Detail from Godwin Photo 5/229(1).

Shivadhar Srinivasa Naipaul (Shiva for short) was born in Trinidad in 1945, part of a family descended from the indentured workers who came to the Caribbean from India in the 19th century. He was one of seven children born to his journalist father Seepersad and his mother, Droapatie Capildeo. Five of his siblings were girls; the only other boy in the family being his elder brother Vidiadhar, later to become better known as the Nobel Prize-winning novelist V S Naipaul.

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Shiva Naipaul's maternal grandmother, Sogee Capildeo Maharaj (centre of middle row), matriarch of the Capildeo family of The Lion House, Chauganas, Trinidad, 1935. Pictured with her two sons and nine daughters including Shiva's mother Droapatie. University of Tulsa VS Naipaul Archive.

The male members of the family vanished early from Shiva’s childhood: his father died when he was only seven, by which time his elder brother had already left for England to study at Oxford University. Other members of Shiva’s wider family were also leaving for England in this period in order to pursue higher education or professional careers. The ritual of the dockside farewell – ‘the familiar Trinidad ritual of “going away”’ - became ingrained in Shiva’s memory, as did the fantasy of what England would be like:

‘England’ was in the air virtually for as long as I can remember. But it was a diffused presence; part of a texture of feeling and imagination, particularly the latter. The element of fantasy and daydream was very strong indeed.

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Essay on impressions of England, from the Shiva Naipaul Archive Add MS 89154/8/8. Image © The Estate of Shiva Naipaul. You may not use the material for commercial purposes. Please credit the copyright holder when reusing this work.

These are the formative experiences he writes about in the essay pictured above which is currently on display in the Windrush exhibition (and available in full on our new Windrush Stories website). This untitled piece of prose was written sometime after Shiva’s arrival in Britain in 1964, by which time England had become a concrete reality for him though he could still recollect the days when his idea of the ‘mother country’ was fuelled by his escapades in English literature. The prime ‘source of fantasy’ in the Naipaul household was his father’s bookcase. Although he only read a few pages from the ‘dusty volumes’ by British authors, ‘I returned to that bookcase again and again. It was a corner under the steps in which to dream in a vague, ill-defined way about England – the place from which those blue air-letters were posted; the place to which my brother – whom I hardly remembered – had gone.’

Shiva followed in his brother’s footsteps in more ways than one, studying at Oxford before embarking on a literary career. In an autobiographical essay ‘My Brother and I’ (published in An Unfinished Journey in 1986), Shiva acknowledges that having always ‘suffered by comparison’ with his brother ‘my choice of career must seem like an exercise in masochism’. But writing came to him unconsciously, ‘It happened. Or rather, it began to happen slowly and haltingly, fed by despair’ at his lack of academic success during his last year at Oxford. What would turn out to be his first novel, Fireflies (1970), was initiated then, as described in An Unfinished Journey, p28:

It began as I was sitting at my desk, staring at a page of Chinese characters (I was doing a degree in Chinese), which danced meaningfully across the frail paper… it began when, for no reason I can fathom, a sentence came into my head. ‘The Lutchmans lived in a part of the city, where the houses, tall and narrow…’

I pushed away the books and papers in front of me, wrote down the sentence and started to follow it.

After a further two years’ work on the manuscript, the tragicomic family saga Fireflies was published to great acclaim, winning the Royal Society of Literature’s Winifred Holtby Memorial Prize as well as the John Llewellyn Rhys Prize and the Jock Campbell New Statesman Award. It was followed in 1973 by the Whitbread award-winning novel The Chip-Chip Gatherers, which like Fireflies was set in the Indian Trinidadian community. The next decade saw Shiva change tack to write in new genres, publishing short fiction, non-fiction, journalism and travel writing, no less excellent for the change in form. North of South (1978), Black and White (1980), and Beyond the Dragon’s Mouth (1984) were followed by one more novel, A Hot Country (1983), before Shiva’s early death from a heart attack in 1985 at the age of forty. A posthumous collection of prose, An Unfinished Journey, was published the following year.

Though Shiva was rightly at pains to point out that writing was, for him, an act of independence and autonomy, a ‘breaking loose of the doppelgänger absolutism’ that had bound him to his brother in others’ eyes, there were aspects of the brothers’ lives that paralleled each other. Both men struggled to fit in in England, not ‘being straightforwardly Indian or straightforwardly West Indian’ as Shiva put it in his 1973 essay ‘Living in Earl’s Court’.

This is a sentiment that V S Naipaul expands upon in another exhibit in the Windrush exhibition. In a letter to Shiva from 1969 he remarks upon the sense of alienation he feels as a Caribbean author writing for an English literary market that will never really understand him.

The same letter also contains a note of hearty congratulations to Shiva for finishing his first novel together with advice on handling publishers and agents. It is one of a number of family letters that can be found in the Shiva Naipaul Archive alongside the working drafts of his books, notebooks, travel diaries, business correspondence and other papers. The Archive was generously donated to the Library in 2015 by Shiva’s widow, Jenny Naipaul. The collection is fully catalogued and we hope that it stands as a staging post in Shiva’s ‘unfinished journey’ for all those interested in researching the work of this important writer.

05 September 2018

'I into history, now': Andrew Salkey's Jamaican epic

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Andrew Salkey in the mid 1960s. Photo courtesy of Jason Salkey.

This is a poem about Jamaica, about the experience of the slave trade and of colonisation and about a struggle for freedom and for identity which still rages today among Caribbean peoples. It deals with political issues, but is not simply a political poem. Rather it conjures up the swirling colours, the music, the moods, the atmosphere of a bustling, suffering, vital island community.

So says the blurb for the first edition of Andrew Salkey’s epic poem published in 1973, a typescript of which is currently on display in Windrush: Songs In a Strange Land. The poem had been 20 years in the writing. Its seed lay, presumably, in the poem of the same name that won Salkey the Thomas Helmore Poetry Prize in 1955, though nothing remains of this earlier effort in his archive here at the British Library. There are, however, records of the poem’s publication and reception among the fifty cartons of papers (and sound recordings) that make up the Salkey Archive. These boxes have been extensively mined for the Windrush exhibition: the number of items on display from this one archive is testament to Salkey’s importance as a central figure in the Caribbean arts scene and his tendency to act as its unofficial archivist.  He was jokingly labelled ‘Chief Recorder of Caribbean authors and their whereabouts’ by close friend Sam Selvon in recognition of his meticulous collecting and documentation activities. But more than that, Salkey played a crucial role in connecting and encouraging writers, influencing the decisions of British publishers and asserting the worth of Caribbean arts and cultures internationally.

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'Jamaica' poem by Andrew Salkey, from the Andrew Salkey Archive, Deposit 10310.

As a novelist, poet, broadcaster with the seminal BBC programme Caribbean Voices, activist, academic and co-founder of the Caribbean Artists Movement, Salkey’s importance is difficult to overstate. Born in Panama in 1928, brought up in Jamaica, resident in Britain from 1952 and later the US, Salkey was a truly diasporic figure. His political interests in revolutionary Cuba, newly-independent Guyana and Chile’s fight against the Pinochet regime are all evident in the archive, as is his stellar network of correspondents which include CLR James, Chinua Achebe and even a fan-letter from Maya Angelou. His own writing is well represented too, with manuscripts and correspondence pertaining to many (though not all) of his novels, poetry, children’s stories and non-fiction books.

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Salkey interviewing Ray Charles for the BBC, 1966. Photo courtesy of Jason Salkey.

When it came to deciding which example of Salkey’s own work to include in the Windrush exhibition, the decision was not easy and I wish we could have included more items. Whereas his novels exploring the Caribbean immigrant experience in Britain had previously been displayed in exhibitions at the Library, we felt that this time the poem Jamaica deserved a showing. For myself and my co-curator Elizabeth Cooper, Jamaica stands out for the power and directness of its language, and also because it was representative of many Caribbean writers and artists’ desire to possess their own understanding of Caribbean history and culture. Salkey explained this desire for greater knowledge to Anne Walmsley (quoted in her book The Caribbean Artists Movement):

I got a British Museum reading card, and I went to the Public Record Office nearby. And I really started learning about me and home and the history, because I damn’ well wanted to talk to Jamaicans about Jamaica in the long poem that I was hoping to write. And therefore for the first time I began to realise myself as a colonial and us as a colony, and our history, and the way that we were forever at somebody else’s beck and call. Our economy wasn’t ours. Even our language wasn’t really ours. We had to, at least I had to, relearn a great deal.

Present in the archive is the original (anonymous) reader’s report that was submitted to Salkey’s publishers, Hutchinson. The reader judged the poem to be ‘a work of imagination and originality’ - ‘always interesting, and often moving – nowhere more so than in the descriptions of what "freedom" means, when it consists only in abolishing licensed slavery.’ They noted some reservations about the symphonic structure (which Salkey removed prior to publication), but praised Salkey’s use of dialect:

The many dialect sections seem outstandingly successful to me: they capture a very rich human feeling and present no difficulty to someone unfamiliar with Caribbean speech, like myself. Within their terse and repetitive rhythms, there is a great deal of unforced poetry. This is the real language of ritual and as such it has a greater lyricism and power than the well-contrived but slightly stale formality of the other sections.

On publication Jamaica received a mixed response, both from critics and friends. The TLS (25 Jan 1974) described the poem as ‘a loud cry for the island to reclaim its identity from the wrongs and sorrows of imperialism, ancient and present, and reassert Caribbea in myth, history and current blood’, but did not find its execution entirely successful.  One friend, Judy Ruggles, wrote to say she had initially regarded it as ‘Andrew’s indulgence’ but had since changed her mind on visiting Jamaica for the first time. The Jamaican Daily News lauded the poem for telling the island’s pre-Columbian history, whereas the sharpest criticism came from the UK version of the Jamaican Weekly Gleaner (21 August 1974) which opened its review by quoting Samuel Johnson’s line: ‘Sir (it) is like a dog’s wailing on its hind legs. It is not done well but you are surprised to find it done at all’. Despite first impressions, the reviewer is not, actually, questioning the quality of the writing so much as the reason for publishing a 100-page poem that it says hardly anyone will read since Salkey ‘antagonises’ his middle-class readers with the inclusion of ‘four-letter words’, and ‘The masses who may approve of that sort of thing do not buy books, neither prose nor poetry’. But I will give the last word to Christopher Laird, publisher of the Trinidadian arts journal Kairi, who declared ‘Again I must tell you how successful your “Into History Now” has been and how much we all dig it. Hardly a statement can be made these days without fitting in a line from “Into History”’.

That influence has lived on, as demonstrated by Raymond Antrobus who read from the poem at Monday’s event on the sound of the Caribbean voice. He spoke about his appreciation of Salkey’s poetry and the importance of seeing a copy of Jamaica on each of his parent’s bookshelves – his English mother and Jamaican father - as he was growing up.

Part of the power of Jamaica lies in its refrain ‘I into history, now’ with its radical sense of embodying history in order to reclaim it. Salkey returns to this idea in the final movement of the poem. Starting with an invocation to ‘grab weself like we know weself’, it concludes with these lines:

Culture come when you buck up
on you’self.
It start when you’ body make shadow
on the lan’,
an’ you know say
that you standin’ up into mirror
underneat’ you.

I say to meself,
“Is how the mento music go?”

You say,

“Is how the river flow?”
or, “How the sea does lay down so?”

I done wit’ you.
I into history, now.
Is the lan’ I want
an’ is the lan’
I out to get.

The twenty years’ journey of self-discovery that Salkey embarked upon with this poem was a long one, but a necessary one given the gaps and silences that have dogged our understanding of Caribbean history, culture and identity. Elsewhere in the exhibition we feature the work of other cultural figures who embarked on a similar learning process, from poet James Berry who wrote about coming to terms with his Caribbean background only after witnessing racism in the southern states of the US, to novelist Andrea Levy who has written about her own revelation that she was part of the ‘black experience’ despite growing up in a light-skinned, middle-class family who had distanced themselves from the black community due to the legacy of colonial-era shadism. This flourishing of Caribbean literature is in evidence throughout the exhibition, so if you haven’t seen it yet there is still time as the display runs until 21 October.

As for Andrew Salkey’s archive - without which the exhibition would be considerably poorer - we are pleased to announce that cataloguing of the collection will begin early next year and will lead to a conference to be held here at the British Library in 2020, thanks to the support of the Eccles Centre for American Studies.

30 August 2018

Mary Shelley in Italy: ‘…tragedy with a scene both affecting and sublime’

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By Stephen Noble, Modern Archives and Manuscripts. You can read more about Mary Shelley on our Discovering Literature website. Material relating to Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein is now on display in our Treasures Gallery.

In 1818 Mary Shelley and her husband Percy Bysshe Shelley travelled to Italy on the advice of Percy’s doctors, but also to avoid their creditors. Over the next few years they travelled all over the country and it was a time of great creative output for them both. Mary completed the novels Matilda and Valperga, as well as the plays Proserpine and Midas, while Percy wrote his lyrical drama Prometheus Unbound.

These years were also marred by tragedy. In September 1818 their daughter Clara contracted dysentery and died in Venice, where they had gone to find medical attention. Nine months later whilst staying in Rome, their son William died after catching malaria.

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Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley by Richard Rothwell, oil on canvas, NPG 1235 ©
Reproduced with the kind permission of National Portrait Gallery, London

 

Despite the traumas the couple endured, they continued to travel and were able to enjoy their experiences in Italy. In January 1821 Mary Shelley wrote to her stepsister Claire Clairmont (Ashley MS 4020), giving her ‘some account of my adventures’. She had been to Lucca to see a performance of Tommaso Sgricci, a famous improvisational poet. She wrote ‘Sgricci acquitted himself to admiration in the conduct and passion & poetry of his piece. As he went on he altered the argument as it had been delivered to him and wound up the tragedy with a scene both affecting and sublime’.

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Mary Shelley, letter to Claire Clairmont, [14] January 1821 (Ashley MS 4020, f2v)

Mary was moved by the performance, and by how ‘truly and passionately did his words depict the scene’. Others in the party were not so impressed, describing it as ‘una cosa mediocra’, a mediocre thing, but to Mary ‘it appeared a miracle’.

In July 1822 tragedy struck again. When returning from a trip to Livorno, where he had visited their friends Leigh Hunt and Lord Byron, Percy Bysshe Shelley drowned when his boat sank during a heavy storm in the Gulf of La Spezia. A few weeks later Mary Shelley wrote to her friend Maria Gisborne describing the last months she and Percy had spent together, the events of his death and her immense grief (Ashley MS 5022). ‘I said in a letter to Peacock, my dear Mrs. Gisborne, that I would send you some account of the last miserable months of my disastrous life’…‘The scene of my existence is closed’.

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Mary Shelley, letter to Maria Gisborne, 15 August 1822 (Ashley MS 5022, f1)

On Monday 8 July, ‘it was stormy all day, and we did not at all suppose that they could put to sea’. By Wednesday the weather had improved enough for boats to arrive, which ‘brought word that they sailed on Monday, but we did not believe them’. On Friday 12 July, a letter arrived for Percy from Leigh Hunt in which Hunt wrote ‘Pray write to tell us how you got home, for they say that you had bad weather after you sailed Monday, and we are anxious’.

Now she knew something had gone wrong, ‘The paper fell from my hands. I trembled all over’, but she still had hope that the worst had not happened. In Lerici, the nearest town, she was told there had been no reports of any accidents. In Livorno she learned that Percy had been warned about the storm, but set sail anyway.

It was while returning home on Saturday 13 July that Mary learned that part of his boat had been found, washed ashore a few miles away from Lerici. It was not until 19 July, almost two weeks after his death, that Percy Bysshe Shelley’s body was recovered.

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Mary Shelley, letter to Maria Gisborne, 15 August 1822 (Ashley MS 5022, f5)

Mary closes the letter: ‘Well, here is my story – the last story I shall have to tell. All that might have been bright in my life is now despoiled’.

Mary Shelley did go on to tell other stories, writing and publishing many novels, short stories, travel books, biographies, articles, and poems. Published in 1930 with the title Absence, Mary Shelley wrote of her grief for her husband (Ashley MS A4023):

‘Ah! he is gone — and I alone;

How dark and dreary seems the time!

‘Tis Thus, when the glad sun is flown,

Night rushes o’er the Indian clime’.

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Autograph, fair copy of a poem ‘Ah! he is gone — and I alone’ by Mary Shelley, undated (Ashley MS A4023)

 

03 August 2018

From the strange to the enchanting: the hidden surprises of poetry pamphlets

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by Gemma Meek, PhD student at Manchester Metropolitan University working in collaboration with the British Library, funded by the AHRC NWCDTP.  If you want to discover more about poetry pamphlets, you can search the library’s extensive collections. Or, you can support independent press through purchasing pamphlets on individual publisher’s websites. They are often very modest in price – ranging from £4-10. For a list of independent presses that publish poetry pamphlets visit: The National Poetry Library or Sphinx Review for a list maintained by Helena Nelson at HappenStance Press.

 

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Exploring a doll’s house, beheading a saint and the collapse of an urban café. These are just some of the themes of the pamphlets shortlisted for the Michael Marks Award.

As the 10th Michael Marks Award approaches, it might be a good time to reflect on the current poetry pamphlet scene. As a PhD placement student at the British Library, this involves rummaging through the Michael Marks shortlisted pamphlets. As well as speaking to the various individuals within and around pamphlet publishing – from academics, to poets, publishers and librarians. This post is a reflection on these explorations, and a brief tour of some of the surprises in the pamphlet field.

Reading the Michael Marks shortlisted pamphlets evokes a range of different experiences. Sometimes it can feel like entering another’s dream, walking across a landscape or noticing overlooked aspects of the everyday. Although it is hard to choose a favourite, there are some pamphlets I am particularly drawn to: Sarah Jackson’s Milk (2008, Pighog Press), which includes a strange and uncomfortable exploration of a doll’s house. Richard Scott’s Wound (2016, The Rialto), which contains some violent (and occasionally erotic) poetry – with one written from a witness perspective of a saint’s beheading. And David Hart’s rather long titled: The Titanic Café closes its doors and hits the rocks or: Knife, fork and bulldozer ultra modern retail outlet complex development scenario with flowers. (2009, Nine Arches Press) as a politicised ‘documentary’ style pamphlet, using photography and poetry to explore a Birmingham café closure.  

Traditionally, a poetry pamphlet is a small collection of poems printed and bound with staples (saddle-stitch), glue or thread in a slim publication (normally A5, but not always). Although pamphlets can vary in the number of pages, it is generally much thinner than a book – with the Michael Marks Award only accepting pamphlets up to 36 pages long. This bite-sized format emphasises a cohesive collection of poems, with their selection, arrangement and editing often developed through discussions between publisher and poet (unless, of course, they are self-published).

Many pamphlets are published by independent press, a term used to define small enterprises which produce a limited amount of publications annually, and are often considered an ‘alternative space’ to the mainstream or more established institutions (although there are always exceptions to the rule).

In the case of poetry pamphlets, the publishers are normally involved in the selection of work, its editing, design and marketing. Most presses have some form of selection criteria, whether that is based around the personal preferences of the publisher, or certain thematic/stylistic concerns. These can range from publishing a particular genre of poetry, to a focus on certain identities, dialects or works from particular regional areas.

Some presses have ‘house styles’, in which their pamphlets have uniform cover designs, size, font choices and branding – seen in some of the Smith/Doorstop or Tall Lighthouse Press pamphlets. Whereas others, such as Longbarrow Press or Pighog Press, produce more individualised, or unique pamphlets in accordance with the content and style of the work being published.

Presses also like to push the boundaries of what is possible with the pamphlet form. This is visible in David Hart’s The Titanic Café Closes Its Doors and Hits The Rocks (2009, Nine Arches Press), and in Devorgilla Bridge by poet Hugh McMillan and artist Hugh Bryden (2009, Roncadora Press) – an artist book turned pamphlet. Like This Press have been making ‘books-in-a-box’, with Rupert Loydell’s Tower of Babel (2013) containing a poetry pamphlet, an essay and various postcards of vibrant abstract paintings. There are also free, digital pamphlets which can be downloaded from Platypus Press and Neon Books, challenging a focus on tactility. And it is worth checking out the poetry pamphlets in University of Sheffield Special Collections by CURVD H&z, where spontaneous poetry is stamped on food labels and used envelopes. These various experiments might encourage poetry pamphlets to be seen as a ‘zone of activity’ rather than a fixed definition.[1]

There are also presses working to be more inclusive of the various voices, identities and performances occurring in the poetry scene – although much more work needs to be done in this area. As a recent report by David Coates from Ledbury Emerging Poetry Critics shows, not only is there is a lack of BAME writers being published, but there is also little critical review of the work. Chantelle Lewis also raised this concern when she ran an event at the library ‘Bringing Voices Together’, which aimed to highlight independent publishers committed to writers of colour.  

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Rachel McCrum, The Glassblower Dances. Stewed Rhubarb Press. 

Some presses are also breaking tradition by exploring the relations and differences in written and spoken word. For example, Stewed Rhubarb Press shows a penchant for queer, feminist or minority voices– often publishing work that starts off as spoken word. Their pamphlets attempt to convey the poet’s performance through dialectical and formal experiments, to encourage the reader to perform the work.

Test Centre have also been working with spoken word and performance, publishing vinyl and cassettes with pamphlets, scores and books to highlight fiction, poetry and sound works. These multi-sensory publications are slamming, singing, humming and pacing words, whilst still giving the pamphlet form some exposure.  

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Ian Sinclair. Westering. Test Centre.

As I come to the end of my placement, I hope to pull together these reflections on pamphlet experimentation alongside discussions with publishers on running an independent press. These reflections will be collated into a report, which will consider some of the following themes: definitions, working models, budgets, pamphlet quality and the place/benefit of pamphlet awards.

This report will be a collection of different voices – as I draw together the conversations and information individuals have shared. Although it is difficult to provide a cohesive account of the poetry pamphlet ‘scene’ in three months – I hope this report will generate further discussions about the future of pamphlet production.

 

[1] The idea of a ‘zone of activity’ was used by Johanna Drucker to explain the different experiments and forms within artists’ books. Drucker, Johanna. (2004) The Century of Artists’ Books. New York: Granary Books

 

 

 

30 July 2018

Fine lines between fiction and reality: Emily Brontë’s Gondal poems

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By Catherine Angerson, Curator of Modern Archives and Manuscripts , on the bicentenary of Emily Brontë’s birth. Brontë’s ‘Gondal Poems’ notebook is currently on display in the British Library’s Treasures Gallery in London. You can read more about Emily Brontë, her manuscripts and works on our Discovering Literature website.

As children, Charlotte, Branwell, Emily and Anne Brontë created imaginary countries and kingdoms for their toy soldiers. Their games and plays evolved into epic tales which they recorded in writing and charted on maps. While the two eldest surviving Brontë siblings, Charlotte and Branwell, created the kingdom of Angria, Emily and her younger sister Anne, invented their own world called Gondal. None of Emily and Anne’s ‘Gondal Chronicles’ in prose have survived, but a remarkable notebook of ‘Gondal Poems’, copied out by Emily from earlier drafts between 1844 and 1848, has been used as a source for reconstructing the saga. The poems are not just remnants of the fictional world of Gondal; they are also expressions of lived experience. Nature, love, loss, death, and desire are some of the themes of the Gondal poems.

Emily began copying her poems into the ‘Gondal Poems’ notebook, and a second untitled notebook, in February 1844. Many of the poems were composed several years earlier. The first poem is dated 6 March 1837 when Emily was 18. Her novel, Wuthering Heights, was published in 1847 and she carried on writing in the Gondal notebook until 13 May 1848, just a few months before her death from tuberculosis at the age of 30.

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Emily Brontë’s ‘Gondal Poems’ notebook, Add MS 43483, ff. 24v-25

Known as the shyest of the Brontë siblings, Emily did not accompany her sisters Charlotte and Anne to meet the publisher of their poems in London in July 1848. She had, however, agreed to the publication of 21 of her poems, pseudonymously in Poems by Currer, Ellis and Acton Bell (1846). Six of the 44 poems in the Gondal notebook were included in this volume. Emily judiciously removed references to the private world of Gondal and its inhabitants before the poems were published.

In Emily and Anne’s mythical world, Gondal is an island in the North Pacific. The Gondals have recently discovered the island of Gaaldine in the South Pacific. Gaaldine has a tropical climate, palm trees and bright blue skies, while the windswept and snowy landscape of Gondal is reminiscent of the Yorkshire moors. The saga can be interpreted as a fictional reimagining of British colonialism represented by the Gondals, or as Christopher Heywood has argued, an allegory of Anglo-Irish conflicts throughout the ages. The sisters had access to a wide range of books and periodicals in their Irish father’s library at the Parsonage in Haworth. 2

Top Withens: the landscape which inspired Emily Brontë’s fictional locations. Photograph: author’s own.

Emily’s poems share the emotional intensity of Wuthering Heights, her more famous creation. The Gondal Poems notebook is currently on display in the British Library’s Treasures Gallery alongside one of Charlotte Brontë’s notebooks of Angria tales. Emily’s notebook is open to display folios 3 (verso) and 4. Although the manuscript poems have been called ‘fair copies’, many contain crossings-out and changes, as Emily edited her poems during the process of transcribing them.

The poems ‘A. G. A. to A. S.’ and ‘To the bluebell’ can be seen in full on these two pages. ‘A. G. A.’ are the initials of Augusta Geraldine Almeda, the heroine of the Gondal saga who becomes the Queen of Gondal and has several love affairs. Here she mourns the departure, or death, of a loved one:

    "O wander not so far away!

    O love, forgive this selfish tear.

    It may be sad for thee to stay

    But how can I live lonely here?"

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‘Gondal Poems’, Add MS 43483, f. 3v-4v

Today we celebrate Emily Jane Brontë’s short, passionate and creative life, and the works and traces that she left behind. ‘To the bluebell’ (pictured above) describes the short blooming life of a blue bell. The poet, having experienced so much death and loss in her own life, is consoled by the ‘soothing words’ of the woodland flower:

    “Glad I bloom - and calm I fade

      Weeping twilight dews my bed

      Mourner, mourner dry thy tears.

      Sorrow comes with lengthened years!"