Wednesday, 13 January 2016

From Aylesbury to Bowie

Strange when someone like Bowie dies. It takes a while for it to sink in – not just the news, the raw fact of his death, but the significance of his work to the culture as a whole and indeed personally. I mean I always considered him to be a major figure, but the coverage of his death around the world has shown that his cultural significance extended way beyond whatever importance I might have attached to him as a musical innovator, writer/performer/producer, unwitting soundtracker to significant parts of my life. And maybe that was one of his great skills – despite the theatricality and the make-up sheen, whatever he was up to seemed to be directed at you (or at least the narcissistic bit of you that could believe that).
Or maybe that’s just me. I was nowt but a nipper, after all, when I saw what we’d now call the video for ‘Space Oddity’ on the telly and, drenched in the enthusiasm for the Apollo space missions, the line ‘Ground Control to Major Tom’ couldn’t help but grab the attention of a kid who’d stayed up to watch the moon landing and who also happened to be called Tom. 
Cut to teenage years and, already hooked up to Bowie by the older kids with glam-trews and copies of ‘Ziggy Stardust ...’ and the even older kids with proto-beards and copies of ‘Hunky Dory’, there’s the rumour that the market square in the opening line of ‘Five Years’ is the very one I’ve been studiously hanging around in an ex-BOAC official issue mac. Bowie, no less, has written a song about Aylesbury Market Square. OK, it’s about the imminent death of the planet, but it’s still Aylesbury Market Square. The people crying/dying are, like, my parents and stuff. What’s more, he’s been a regular at Friars, the club we’ve been sneaking into for the last few years, borrowing other people’s birth dates so we can answer the ‘Are you 16?’ question with impunity or, at least, sheer gall. Our generation was too late for him, though. He was off in Berlin by that stage – though he probably turned up for some of the Iggy Pop gigs we got into (or so we’d like to believe – who was that bloke in the long overcoat and the bleached hair?). Not surprising, perhaps, that Friars is leading the charge to have a statue of him put up in that very market square.
Near-misses aside, two other things have come to mind since Monday morning. That I probably wouldn’t have read William S Burroughs without having heard ‘Life on Mars’ (because of the cut-ups) and I probably wouldn’t have spent the last 10 years writing about eastern Europe without having heard ‘Low’, ‘Heroes’ and ‘The Lodger’ (or known about all that the ‘Berlin trilogy’ entailed). 
And I just thought he was a bloke whose records I bought.

Saturday, 9 January 2016

Winter afternoon

Today my brain weighs
heavy in my skull.
Thunder and lightning
disturb the sky
like children playing
by a war memorial.

The cranes of a new town
survey the squares

which they will destroy.

Thursday, 24 December 2015

It being the end of another year

It being the end of another year of ups, downs and sideways shunts, here’s something by way of an overview. A perilous one, in some ways, 2015. The great summer of dearth wasn’t much fun, without work or prospects thereof, but then the twelve months as a whole weren’t so bad – at least in terms of having stuff to do and feeling like some of that might have been useful. Teaching settled in as part of the routine and there was just enough other paid stuff to keep the wolf from the proverbial. That said, the Tories getting back in and the racist hysteria over the refugee ‘crisis’ confirmed worst fears and the daily march to the newsagent to pick up fags wasn’t made any brighter by having to read the easy malice in the red-top headlines.
Personally, perhaps one of the highlights was starting to feel that banging on about getting more writing from SE Europe translated was bearing fruit. Both Modern Poetry in Translation and Raceme published translations of the Bulgarian poet Iliyan Lyubomirov this year and other irons are certainly warming up in other fires. In the autumn I joined the editorial team of the international poetry website Iris News – again mostly translating poetry from Bulgarian - while our online Anglo-Bulgarian art/poetry collaboration Colourful Star notched up its 100th post and has been featured in both Iris News and Ink Sweat and Tears. It was also quite something to make my own publishing debut in Bulgaria, with the poem ‘Everything You Need for a Poem’ translated into Bulgarian by Yuliyana Todorova.
Elsewhere, it was also great to have some work published by Blackbox Manifold, Antiphon, Message in a Bottle and Black Sheep Journal – not to mention some psychogeographical rambling in Bristol 24/7 and Star & Crescent.
The best thing, though, was having been part of Theaster Gates’ project Sanctum. To be honest, when I first heard of it, I was deeply cynical (‘Yeah, yeah, American artist gets paid loads just to have an idea and we’ll get bugger all for providing the “content” – typical of the bleedin’ “content provision” mentality” ... etc etc), but as it turned out I couldn’t have been more wrong. As a space, it was great to perform in (despite the carefully deployed buckets to catch the rainwater) and I soon got to learn that whenever I turned up it was going to be different. Finishing a 20-minute set at 10am and finding that our neighbours across the street were in the audience – not having known that I’d be on or even knowing that I wrote stuff and read it out loud – was quite something – though not quite so much of a ‘something’ as meeting them a few days later on the street and discovering that they’d become ‘addicted’ to the strange unfurling endlessness of this ongoing project. I was lucky enough to be in on Sanctum’s last 30 minutes – the ensuing silence after so many days of non-stop performance was quite something as well.
Next year, then, there will be stuff. There will be translations and collaborations, there will be arguments and advocacy. There may well be books and anthologies. There will almost certainly be conferences, meetings and Skype calls. There may even be cricket in the Balkans.

Friday, 13 November 2015

Everything you need for a poem is 'Everything you need for a Poem'

Absolutely delighted to be making my publishing debut in Bulgaria (in Bulgarian) today ... Exactly two weeks after it got its passing mention in the Guardian after an outing at Sanctum, the poem 'Everything you need for a Poem' has been translated by Yuliyana Todorova and published in the newspaper Kambana along with a piece about how I came to write it in the first place. Huge thanks to Yuliyana and Emilia Mirazchiyska - also my colleagues now that I've been asked to join the editorial team at Iris News international poetry magazine - for making this happen. Also to Rosen Karamfilov who a) let me loose on translating his own poems and b) put me in touch with Iris News in the first place - and above all to Margarita and Vasilena Shiderova who took me to Koprivshtitsa on the train that day, appear in the poem and, in Vassi's case, even supplied the title. The poem is, of course, for them.
The Bulgarian version is published here while the English version, which was published by Message in a Bottle a couple of weeks ago is here.
I've also been reading 'Everything you need for a Poem' whenever I've appeared at Sanctum - Theaster Gates' marathon durational performance art project here in Bristol - which is how it got its mention in the Guardian.

Saturday, 5 September 2015

Watching Keleti

Straight off the overnight train from Brasov,
we were negotiating in the left-luggage office
over notes we’d got from the cashpoint –
simply too big a denomination.
Destinations casually flick-flacked down
the announcement boards. Underground,
there were arguments at the ticket windows
and a gathering of new arrivals, about
to be addressed by their seasonal hosts.
We ordered bacon and eggs in the canteen,
under high ceilings painted with cupids
by Austro-Hungarian imperial regimes.

Tonight, on TV, where day-glo wristbands
of festival-goers were just so much background,
tired teenagers hanging their heads in the aftermath,
squatting on the steps of Keleti Station,
a reporter’s grasping at the drama of the situation.
It depends which passport you have in your pocket.
It didn’t seem to matter at the time. It does now.

 Tom Phillips 2015

Friday, 19 June 2015

SE European connections

Colourful Star - the blog I also run with the Bulgarian artist Marina Shiderova and her sister Vasilena - has been online now for close on 18 months. Every Friday we publish a new painting and poem in a sort of ongoing conversation between a young Bulgarian painter and a not-quite-so-young English poet which, from time to time at least, unearths unexpected connections and common ground. This week's post - our 77th - combines a kitchen still life with a poem about learning the Bulgarian word for aubergine and you can click through to it here. There are many other collaborative pieces on the site - on subjects ranging from monasteries to Shakespeare, the Cyrillic alphabet to pumpkin soup - so do feel free to have a look around.
There have been some other developments with projects connecting with SE Europe. The summer issue of Modern Poetry in Translation will include translations of poems by Iliyan Lyubomirov which I've been working on with Iliyana Mircheva and Tsvetomira Peykova. Iliyan published his debut collection Нощта Е Действие in Bulgaria last autumn - a collection which has seen him win one of Bulgaria's most prestigious literary prizes, 'Southern Spring', and attract what to a poet in the UK can only seem an unimaginably huge readership. Our translations will be the first to appear in a UK-based journal and hopefully we will be able to find a publisher for the English version of the full collection in the near future.
Further translations of contemporary poetry from Kosova, Albania, Bulgaria and Serbia will also be appearing later in the year in a feature for Jacket 2 which will look at the work of some of the many poets I've encountered in SE Europe in the last few years.
It's very heartening to see an interest in the region's diverse cultures emerging again. It isn't impossible, of course, to find translations of contemporary writing from SE Europe, but even in the internet age they can sometimes be difficult to track down and the work of the latest generation to start publishing in the region is certainly all but invisible to the English-speaking world. In the interim, of the books recently come across, I'd certainly recommend these:
At the End of the World: Contemporary Poetry from Bulgaria, ed. Tsvetanka Elenkova, trans. Jonathan Dunne (Shearsman, 2012) 
A Balkan Exchange: Eight Poets from Bulgaria and Britain, ed. W. N. Herbert (Arc Publications, 2007)
Lightning from the Depths: An Anthology of Albanian Poetry, ed. & trans. Robert Elsie and Janice Mathie-Heck (Northwestern University Press, Evanston, Illinois, 2008)
Under the Banners of Melancholythe collected literary works of 1930s Albanian poet Migjeni, trans. Robert Elsie (Centre for Albanian Studies, London, 2015)
The Horse has Six Legs: An Anthology of Serbian Poetry, ed. & trans. Charles Simic (Graywolf Press, St Paul, 1992).

The collage at the top of this post is by the Bulgarian artist Marina Shiderova: you can see more of her work here.

Sunday, 31 May 2015


An old UHER tape recorder with grille front,
gear-stick controls, red stripe on the monitor
warning of distortion and unusable testimony:
we trained on these, lugged them out to gauge
public opinion about the morning headlines,
asked interviewees to switch off fridges
while we tested levels with a question
about what they had for breakfast.
Banks of them charged in a cabinet
and you’d know which one was reliable,
which one might snarl no matter how
carefully you threaded the sprockets.
Dun tape fed through at seven and a half inches
per second: fifteen minutes to the spool.
In that time you had to get the story.
And now, behind glass, it squats there –
analogue dinosaur beyond its sell-by date.
This one was found in the House of Leaves,
chosen by the regime in Tirana to record
interrogations. Every week or so,
someone must have done what I did
and wiped accumulations of dirt
from the playback and recording heads.

Tom Phillips