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This item is taken from PN Review 272, Volume 49 Number 6, July - August 2023.

News & Notes
Georg-Büchner-Prize awarded to Lutz Seiler  •  Evelyn Schlag writes: The most prestigious prize in German literature has been awarded to a magician of poetic language. Lutz Seiler, born in Gera in the former GDR in 1963, grew up in a little village in Eastern Thuriniga which had to give way to uranium mining when he was five years old. Those industrial landscapes have fed his imagination, both in his poetry and in his two much acclaimed novels about the decline of the GDR. In one of them he described the workings of a poem: ‘The good poem must be one big cascade, a glittering streaming in that magic light which it keeps itself reproducing.’

Seiler divides his time between Stockholm and the Peter Huchel House in Wilhelmshort near Berlin, whose keeper he is. In a short essay in 2020 he writes about his forays into the pine tree woods surrounding the house. He is standing under the ‘fairy-tale like asymmetries’ of their branches, talking and listening to them. He reads in heavy rain (outdoors due to Covid) and the audience orders him to keep reading until everything and everyone is wet to the bone, even the book is dissolving.

A true conjuror, he has rightly joined the company of his great countryman Wolfgang Hilbig, that other bulwark of German poetry and prose.

Gioconda Belli wins Reina Sofia Poetry Prize  •  The exiled Nicaraguan poet and novelist Gioconda Belli has received this year’s Queen Sofia Ibero-American Poetry Prize (the twenty-third). Belli is much loved and widely translated (into twenty languages). She has published novels, essays, children’s books and, most notably, fifteen collections of poetry, the first in 1972. The award is the most significant for Spanish and Portuguese poetry. She responded on Twitter, saying ‘I dedicate it to my Nicaragua, mother of my inspiration, sorrowful country of my hope’.

Belli was stripped of her Nicaraguan citizenship by the government of President Ortega. She lives in Spain. Like other Ortega critics, her properties in Nicaragua were seized by the government in February. The jury selected her for ‘su expresividad creativa, su libertad y valentía poéticas’ and also for her significance in contemporary Nicaraguan culture. She prevailed in a field of fifty candidates and is the third Nicaraguan to be thus recognised, after Ernesto Cardenal (2012) and Claribel Alegria (2017).

Joan Margarit Prize for Poetry  •  Sharon Olds has already won a National Book Critics’ Circle Award and a Pulitzer Prize, and the T.S. Eliot Prize in the UK. This award confirms her international following. The prize is administered by the Instituto Cervantes and La Cama Sol publishing house, supported by the family of the poet Joan Margarit (1938–2021).

Catherine Vidler  •  Bill Manhire writes: The Australian poet Catherine Vidler died suddenly on the last day of April, just a few months after her fiftieth birthday. She began writing seriously at the beginning of the century; her first substantial book, Furious Triangle, appeared from Puncher & Wattmann in 2011. There was already a procedural element in her work, and this developed in conventional ways (a preoccupation with sestinas, for example) and more adventurously through constraints and collaborations, as well as through lists and digital pattern-making. In recent years she turned more and more to visual work with such projects as her Chaingrass poems, Lost Sonnets, and Wings, these mostly appearing from a range of small publishers, among them SOd Press, Hesterglock Press, Timglaset Editions, Penteract Press, Cordite Books and zimZalla. Most recently, she was making charmingly lyrical images from matchstick arrangements.  She often published samples of her wares on Twitter and Instagram, and one way to get a sense of her variousness would be to check Cath also founded and edited the trans-Tasman journal Snorkel. Her hope was to reduce the vast awareness gap between Australian and New Zealand writers, a gap that sometimes looks like a bizarre form of sibling rivalry. She herself was an entirely generous writer. She read widely and avidly, and wrote always without rivalry.

Leonard McDermid (1933–2023)  •  Robyn Marsack writes: The death of Len McDermid, after he had enjoyed ‘some ninety years of looking at things, and over seventy years of commenting on them in various forms’ (as the Scottish Poetry Library has it), marks the passing of a singular life in Scottish poetry, printing and publishing.  The esteem and affection with which he was regarded was evident in the shows of ‘Fair Wind and Following Seas’, curated by Barbara Morton at the Edinburgh College of Art in 2021, and in the expanded version at the SPL in 2022, where his own work was included alongside the tributes from other book artists. For me, it was always a great pleasure to encounter him at the Library, and at the poetry market at StAnza, where he and Jean were regular, benign presences; I am sure I was not the only person who would have liked to buy the entire contents of his Stichill Marigold Press displays.

Born in Kent, Len grew up on Thameside, his father and grandfather having worked in the shipyards at Greenock. He was evacuated to his grandparents’ home during the war for a formative year that turned out to include the Clydeside Blitz.  An exceptional trio of poets are thus connected: W.S. Graham, born in Greenock in 1918, and Thomas A. Clark, born there in 1944, the sea running through all their work. Len left school at fifteen, and didn’t go back to formal education for ten years, when he studied at Medway College of Art, Brighton College of Art, Newbattle in Edinburgh and the University of Edinburgh. He taught art briefly at Aberdeen, then in Edinburgh, and for many years in the Scottish Borders. He went to live in Kelso in 1969, where he had the good fortune to meet and marry Jean; they had two children, Catriona and Finlay.  Their home was the appropriately, sunnily named ‘Eden Cottage’.

His wasn’t a landlocked existence, however. His website recounts that ‘In 1984 Len was invited by the Marine Society to work as an art tutor for three months aboard a troopship in the South Atlantic. In 1988 he undertook a further commission at sea, travelling over fifty thousand sea miles to areas including the Americas, Scandinavia, Africa, the Far East, and the Arabian Gulf during the “Tanker War”.’ One of my favourite pieces is A Pocket Guide to the Sea, which I gave to my cousin’s son in New Zealand. He is a fisherman and hunter: it gave him joy. He kept it in a special envelope in his pocket, and produced it when men from NZ Fisheries came to bother him with paperwork, to show them what simplicity looked like: ‘sail’ written in blue on a white page sliced in half diagonally, for example. It is as laconic as the kiwi sense of humour. Greg Thomas, reviewing the SPL show, describes the pleasure of seeing ‘an upturned steamer sink[ing] into a blue fabric sea (the front cover of a copy of Henry Newbolt’s 1925 text The Tide of Time). Its deck, funnel, and hull are embossed with gnomic phrases about to be carried down to Davy Jones’s Locker. Then there is the marvellous Hot Water Tender T42, an old aluminium kettle decked out with winches, rails, a life-ring and ship’s wheel.’

The ship/kettle is the Earl Grey, accompanied by a label with a fanciful description of its working life: ‘Visual and sculptural symbols are often coaxed into a state of comic or lyrical clarity by annotative notes or poems’, Thomas remarks. He is also alert to the context in which Len was working: ‘a loosely post-objectivist tradition of minimal nature writing: spartan, speech-paced verse containing traces of folk doggerel and regional demotic. In the 1960s this approach united a group of poets and artists spread between Britain – particularly Scotland – and North America, dubbed “avant-folk” by the critic Ross Hair.’

Of course Ian Hamilton Finlay’s work comes to mind as part of this context, but its temper and his temperament are different from what Thomas characterises as the ‘generous and ludic assortment’ of McDermid’s rustic themes: ‘seas and rivers, boats and tugs, cornfields and valleys, coal-powered trains, tickets and dockets for the voyage’. Despite their predominance, there is room, too, for a certain sharp wit, as in his late work Window (2020), a response to the letterpress project Posted / Unposted British Isles: go to the Stichill Marigold Press’s website to see ‘A Window on the Political History of Ireland’.

‘Marigold’ came from the flowers Len and his mother loved, planted from her Gravesend seeds. His pamphlets, prints and cards were all produced using two vintage Adana eight-by-five hand presses and two ten-by-eight Ayers Jardine (Adana) flatbed presses, traditional metal and wooden type, printing blocks and unique hand-cut lino and wood blocks. With typical modesty, he described himself as ‘a jobbing artist’. You can see Len’s work in the collections of the SPL, the Edinburgh College of Art, the National Poetry Library, Tate Britain and the National Library of Scotland. He won the Callum Macdonald Memorial Award in 2010 (jointly, as publisher for And For That Minute.) and in 2018 for his own Landway. Part of that award was an appointment as a poet in residence at the Harvard Center for Hellenic Studies Summer School in Nafplio, where he spent an ‘amazing’ fortnight in 2018. There he found a deep affinity with the Greek poet Stratis Haviaras, his contemporary, who translated some of Len’s poems.

I treasure his work for its human scale, its acceptance of imperfections in the hand-making process, its playfulness; for his attentiveness to landscape, seascape and seasonal change, to things that comfort us in this world, from childhood stories to cornfields in the sun. Hardy’s ‘Afterwards’ comes to mind:
When the Present has latched its postern behind my
                tremulous stay,
             And the May month flaps its glad green leaves
                like wings,
Delicate-filmed as new-spun silk, will the neighbours
             ‘He was a man who used to notice such things?’
I think they will, and many will miss his gentle, cheerful and perceptive presence. Yet the work remains.

A true homme de lettres  •  Raymond Bach writes: The poet, translator and scholar, David Mus (pen name of David Kuhn) died on 28 May at the age of eighty-seven.  His doctoral dissertation for the Sorbonne, ‘La poétique de François Villon’, was published in 1967 and awarded the Prix Guizot from the Académie Française. Leaving behind a promising academic career in the United States, Mus settled in the small French village of Jailly-les-Moulins, where he devoted himself almost exclusively to the writing and study of poetry. Deeply influenced by his friend and mentor, André du Bouchet, Mus adopted a style in which a complex, often elusive, syntax and inventive typography are counterbalanced by a down-to-earth semantic connection to the daily life of the Burgundian countryside.  His works offer us an innovative way of conceiving and representing the intertwining of our physical bodies, our sense of self, the language we use, and the world we inhabit.  His earliest publications were in English (e.g., Wall to Wall Speaks [Princeton]), but he soon turned to writing bi-lingual French/English collections – Passion/Passion (1981) and D’un accord/Double-stopping (1991) – in which the two languages dialogue with one another in surprising ways, as well as several remarkable book-length poems in French, including, Trait sur trait tiré (1999), Dehors plutôt qu’ailleurs (2016) and Saillie (2019). A passion for Rome and the ancient world also led him to write on occasion in Italian (Pagine de giorni senza esito/Choix de jours sans suite) and on Italian art (Tableaux romains). A complete bibliography can be found in the 2023 issue of la revue* (julien nègre, éditeur), which is devoted to Mus’s prose and poetry.  David Mus was a true homme de lettres, whose work deserves more than the confidential readership it has received until now.

Kickshaws, in memoriam John Crombie  •  

Peter McCarey writes:
The moustache said ‘I’m grumpy’ (which he was)
though the grey eyes couldn’t hide dismay, amusement or delight.
He set up shop in Charité, among funereal florists,
His printed books – the petals on a lead chrysanthemum;
Slept in the back shop – something out of Whitmarsh – God knows how.
Retreated to his pill-box flat in noisy Montparnasse.
Last time he ventured out on his own, just him and his stick,
A plastic bag for a bottle of J&B,
A beggar at the bottle shop harassed a man on crutches;
John tried to intervene; the codgers landed in a heap,
More Metamorphosis than his old pal Sam. Which made him laugh.
Happy Birthday Ilkley  •  The Ilkley Literature Festival is celebrating its Jubilee alongside PN Review. Only Cheltenham has been going longer. Ilkley runs for seventeen days (6 to 22 October) and has a roster of big-name contributors, though perhaps fewer poets than hitherto. It published some engaging historical facts.

In 1973 J.B. Priestley praised the organisers, noting the difficulty of a literary festival in that, Authors have little to show and are no treat as a spectacle.’

In 1975 his observation was tested. Ted Hughes read Cave Birds. The Yorkshire Post reported: ‘A blood curdling scream pierced the heart of Ted Hughes’ new poem sequence at its world premiere in Ilkley… It came from a member of the audience. Shortly afterwards a woman vomited and was led out.’

The national media were excited in 1977 when a huge bronze Minotaur by Michael Ayrton was unveiled for the festival. It sported, as was only proper, commensurately large genitalia’, resulting in petitions to protect the young and the elderly, and a headline in the Daily Express, Beefing over 7 foot of Bull’.

An apology  •  Michael Schmidt writes: PNR’s long-standing Subscription Managers and Website Administrators were disappointed and offended by Bill Manhire’s ‘somewhat flippant’ observations regarding the contributors’ notes in PNR.

His comments were not addressed to the website notes (for which our valued colleagues are consistently responsible, a dedication we value) but to editorial inconsistencies issue by issue – inconsistencies which, alas, go back (on and off) to the earliest days of the magazine and are part of what a generous critic once called its ‘settled culture of informality’. Subscribers are urged to visit the website for contributors’ notes. Meanwhile, I apologise unreservedly to our digital colleagues, who write: ‘The contributor section on the website has been there since its inception.  I take a lot of time and effort to keep this up to date, it is a shame that Bill has not taken the time to look.’

This item is taken from PN Review 272, Volume 49 Number 6, July - August 2023.

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