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Six of us British Poets, along with luggage, squash into the airport taxi and the driver delivers us to the plush Golden Tulip Hotel. I’m so pleased that my room on the eighth floor has a view across the rooftops. As I look out I notice an old mansion type house directly opposite that looks deserted. Over the next few days I will come across many such buildings in this intriguing city.
After freshening up, we meet in the hotel restaurant for an evening meal. I’m a fussy eater but the menu looks more than appetising. I order beetroot salad in horseradish sauce while the others order something heartier. We wash it down with a bottle of red Romanian wine. Tomorrow we will be delivering the first of our masterclasses at the Romanian Cultural Institute. Anne tells us that the students will be eager to get going. I’m not sure what to expect so I’m preparing to ‘play it by ear’. Fellow poet, Joan Michelson, is worried about having to sit in one place for too long and announces she is going to take her hot water bottle. I’m worried about not being able to sleep and have another glass of red wine. Wendy French has promised to ring me at 7 am—if she survives her night in ‘Room 101’. I go to sleep comforted by the sharing of human frailties with my fellow poets.
I wake while it’s still dark and look at my watch. It’s 5.30, which means (as Romania is two hours ahead) it’s really 3.30 am. I close my eyes, cross my fingers, and wait to drop off. A short while later the phone rings. It’s Wendy French with my wake-up call. I go down to the restaurant where a breakfast feast awaits: mozzarella cheese, grapes, ham, scrambled eggs, olives, rolls, tomatoes, and cucumber. I join the other five poets who are already there tucking in. Alongside Graham Mummery’s teacup I notice three large pills and a map of Bucharest.
We enjoy a meander through this new city, searching for the place where we are to meet our students for the first time. Wendy remarks that we must look a motley crew. After a while, trying to follow the map and searching for short cuts, we realise we are lost. We ask a passer-by for help. Eventually we arrive at the Romanian Cultural Institute where Prof. Lidia Vianu introduces us to a sea of student faces. We are then led to our allotted table.
My first translation workshop is about to begin and I’m worried that I won’t remember anyone’s name. The first text to be read aloud by the first student is an extract from a memoir written in the form of letters. The text’s title has been translated as ‘The Trader of Beginnings’ and the subject of the letters is Kafka, one of my favourite writers. The first thing I notice is that Romanian sentences tend to be longer than the English equivalent. However, I am impressed with this student’s translation.
An interesting part of the process is the unravelling of nuances, especially when it comes to figurative language. For example, in another of the prose pieces, I discover that what had been described as ‘a brown penny’ turns out to be a tobacco stain on the ceiling. This is the character in the text speaking:
‘And if I read, I smoke. Someone before me had the same habit, because otherwise there wouldn’t be a brown penny on the ceiling.’
Mmm. After this first session, us six British Poets are escorted to the impeccably swish Restaurant Doina by Bogdan, our brilliant student guide. On the way I ask him if he has ever seen a bear—I had been reading about Romanian wild life in my Lonely Planet Guide. Unfortunately, he tells me, he has only seen a bear once, and that was in a zoo.
In the evening another student, Stefan, escorts us to the restaurant of the national hero poet, Mircea Dinescu. When we arrive, the food is laid out on the table: a bean dip and a kind of ratatouille made with spinach, and olives and bread, and it is all delicious. The meal, which we discover, was only the starter, is accompanied by wine from Mircea’s vineyard, plus three musicians on accordion, fiddle and something else, who play American tunes, such as Sinatra’s ‘I Did it My Way’. Our Romanian host asks them if they can play more traditional music, which they do—but with much less gusto. When the main course arrives (lamb meatballs and salad) Wendy and myself wish we hadn’t gorged ourselves so much on the first course. There is little room for anything else.
After the meal we climb into a bright yellow taxi and meet up for a nightcap in the Golden Tulip restaurant. Discovering we had to get up in the morning to deliver workshops, the waiter does his best to discourage us from ordering a round of plum brandies. ‘You will need a clear head,’ he says. ‘You’re better off having orange juice.’ However, we are not deterred. Anne gets her plum brandy, Graham an ouzo, Peter an Irish Whisky. My Courvoisier, arrives in a brandy glass balanced over a glass of hot water, on top of which is a serviette containing coffee beans. Wendy, who is being virtuous, ends up drinking the hot water. Joan has wisely gone to bed. The waiter tells me that he has been to my home city of Portsmouth. He remarks on the number of people he’d seen there with tattoos, including a pregnant woman. Come to think of it, I haven’t noticed any Romanian people with tattoos since I’ve been here. It’s quite refreshing to see people’s skin ‘in the nude’.
At breakfast the restaurant is full of young professional types attending a conference in the hotel. We arrive at the Romanian Cultural Institute 15 minutes early just as the staff are laying the tables with snacks for lunch. Some of the students tell me that their texts are ‘difficult’ to understand even in the original Romanian language. One extract, written from the viewpoint of a dog, for example, has us all baffled. I was glad I had taken it back to the hotel yesterday so I could become more acquainted with it. A paragraph, which describes the dog drifting in and out of a dream, reminds me of James Joyce’s stream of consciousness prose in Ulysses.
In the evening Ştefan and Bogdan escort us to the National Theatre. Along the way I ask Bogdan about the earthquake of 1977. I notice that many of the older, deserted buildings have a large red spot declaring them unfit for habitation. I try to imagine what it must be like to live with the threat of the earth disappearing from under your feet.
Ionuţ Mihai Corpaci, the artistic consultant of the National Theatre, is waiting to give us a guided tour. We learn much about the theatre’s history and about the architecture during the Ceausescu era. It’s refreshing to hear that the Romanian government supports the theatre so well. Seats, we are told, are a lot cheaper than in the UK. In the basement gallery, there is a statue of Toma Caragiu, one of Romania’s greatest actors, whose life was cut short in the 1977 earthquake.
After dinner at the University we return to The Golden Tulip for a nightcap. The waiter tells us that he is going to the Isle of Wight Pop Festival in the summer. I tell him that I was there when Jimi Hendrix played. I think he’s impressed.
Today it’s cold and the students arrive in dribs and drabs for our workshop. Translation in some ways is not so unlike the process of workshopping poems in one’s own language. Entering the mindset of the writer is a slow and intimate process. Sometimes it seems there are endless possibilities, endless interpretations. The students ask me about poems that rhyme. They are interested to know whether, as a poet, I would prefer to lose the rhyme or the meaning.
On the way back to the Golden Tulip, we pass Revolutionary Square and the monument of Heroes and Martyrs that has been nicknamed ‘the baked potato’. I think how in English we would probably call it ‘the jacket potato’.
Fourth and Fifth Days (rolled into one)
Sunshine. Hurrah! At last I can wear the summer dress and flip flops I bought for the journey. During these last two sessions, I introduce the group to some creative writing exercises, including automatic writing and riddles. It is great to see the students so inspired and equally wonderful to hear them read their own creations. The imaginative quality and verve of their writing is impressive. We finish our last session with the writing of a group riddle poem.
Here it is:
What Am I?
I come in all shapes and sizes. I can open the door. I have more than one eye but I can’t see. I slip through holes but not in the ground. Sometimes I’m told to be quiet. I can be made of chocolate. I can be made of bone. I spend most of my life tied down but if you eat too much I might fly away. I’m there at the beginning. I am the last resort.
In the afternoon, we take a yellow taxi to Elena Nistor’s home, where her mother has cooked us a traditional Romanian dinner. It’s a privilege to see where and how real people live. On the way, we come across a beggar dodging in and out of moving traffic. He is wearing hardly any clothes, his body is covered in burns, and his arm is a stump. The taxi driver dismisses my exclamation. I wonder about the plight of people who have lost everything and who have very little left to lose.
We return to the National Theatre that evening to see ‘The Fever’, a powerful one woman dramatic monologue and commentary on the divisions between affluence and poverty. During the performance, I find myself dreaming about bringing my own one woman play, ‘Zones of Avoidance’, to this beautiful theatre in Bucharest. In one of my sessions the students told me that issues like mental illness and addiction are not spoken about openly in Romania.
During the reception, the artistic consultant gives me his card and invites me to send him details of my play. Afterwards I speak to the English Ambassador. ‘What does an Ambassador do?’ I ask. He tells me that this morning he attended the funeral of a Romanian tourist who recently died after jumping from a bridge during the recent terrorist attack in London. Tomorrow we will be going home.
I’m back in Portsmouth—the city of tattoos—and for the past two days I have been reading Ioana Ieronim’s, anthology, ‘House of the People’. Her words, written in poetry alongside the testimonies of others, are a truly powerful way of sharing history. I realise how little I know, and feel inspired to learn more about Romania. I hope to return.
ANALYSING THE DISTINCTIVE VOICE
Before my voice disappeared
like a rabbit up a sleeve
I wanted to be a singer
in the Folies Bergère.
The doctor is a kind man
he keeps me warm,
he feeds me seed cake
and Assam tea.
But sometimes he makes me crawl.
Pick up the crumbs
my little goose.
At night I lie beside him
more silent than a blade of grass.
I allow his cold fingertips
to circle my heart.
Tomorrow, he says,
I must rehearse for the show
in the auditorium of the Saltpêtrière.
The doctors will love me.
He has made me a hat
of peacock feathers.
He has taught me to bark.
When he stares into my eyes
he can make me do anything
But he can’t make me sing.
That poem, written while studying for an MA in Creative Writing in Chichester, was an early attempt to write in another person’s voice. It became the title for my first small published collection.
The person in question was Blanche Wittman, a patient of Jean-Martin Charcot, the first of the great European theorists of hysteria. Blanche was among the main attractions at Charcot’s frequently staged events for members of his neurological service at the Saltpetriere Hospital.
A reviewer in Magma observed: ‘[Charcot’s] domineering personality is vividly evoked in the poem. Although I find it hard to square the poem’s purely submissive image of Blanche with other accounts – of a bossy, capricious woman who was nicknamed the queen of the hysterics – the poem, like the collection, succeeds beautifully on its own terms’.
However, perhaps the reviewer had missed the nuances contained in the last lines ‘he can make me do anything, but he can’t make me sing.’ Blanche Wittman, even under the hypnotic spell of the doctor, possesses the ultimate power.
Other reviewers described my voice as ‘beguiling’, ‘distinctive’, ‘brave and new’, although the voice that spoke to me, my own voice, had rarely felt that way. Meanwhile, I came to realise that the voice in the poem was not really that of Blanche Wittman, but my own. I had unwittingly tapped into my own psyche. Poetry had helped me to create a voice from the tension which hovered between between desire and fear.
In contrast then, here’s a relatively new poem which taps into the more defiant scale of my spectrum Continue reading
Zones of Avoidance – A reading followed by Q & A
Thursday 24 September 2015
Dimbola Museum and Galleries
Freshwater, Isle of Wight, PO40 9QE
Maggie Sawkins will be launching her new collection, Zones of Avoidance, based on the live literature production that won last year’s Ted Hughes award, in Portsmouth on Saturday 28 March.
Ted Hughes award judge Denise Riley described Zones of Avoidance, which was directed by Mark C Hewitt, as “a challenging, painfully open account of a daughter’s addiction, yet it’s an account which also offers graceful good humour. Beautifully written and uncompromising, it’s a modern story that we felt the writer was compelled to tell; it acts as a vivid witness of harsh experiences which aren’t often described in poetry, and Maggie Sawkins’s illuminating descriptions will prove helpful for others to hear.”
In an interview with Write Out Loud last year, Maggie
said: “The story is very personal. I’d been gathering draft material on the subject over a period of 20 years. Much of it was in the form of diary entries and some was in the form of unsent letters to my grandson, who’s been estranged from my daughter since the age of three. My motivation was to keep a record for him – when someone close to you is gripped by addiction you’re always expecting the knock on the door. I could have written the story as a memoir and perhaps made a lot of money. However, reading back through the drafts, I realised that the ‘truth’ could be told in relatively few words. I think all of us have the one tale to tell and there are different ways of telling it. Writing in poetry enabled me to tease out the terrible beauty from what, in reality, has been a much darker story.”
Music with Bernard MacDonagh and Claire Ward
‘Multimedia live literature production Zones of Avoidance was written and performed by poet Maggie Sawkins and directed by Mark C Hewitt with film sequences from Abigail Norris. Colin Hambrook reviews a performance at the All Saints Centre, Lewes on 29 October.
Winner of the 2014 Ted Hughes Award for New Work in Poetry, Zones of Avoidance is haunting, creating a resonance with my own life struggles. The words within Zones of Avoidance speak to the largely buried, impossible plight of thousands of families from all walks of life, up and down the country.’
Read the rest of the review here: