POETRY LIVE H WORKING THE BELLOWS
‘Poetry’ quoth the irascible 0r Angus Calder a lew yester-nights ago, ‘is an international language’. And so, trom the Poetry Live readings in Scotland, it would seem. That is, as long as it has been translted into English. eroslav Bolub himsell observed that what slight rhyme there was in his Czechoslovakian original was even slighter in the English translation. And since the exiled poet’s work is only published in batches at 4000 in Czechoslovakia, it is quite important that his poems are translated it his readership is to be increased.
Holub was reading alongside English poet David Constantine and Romanian poet Marin Sorescu. The latter, clearly disappointed that there were no Romanian speakers in the audience, read in last-lorward Romanian, accompanied by English translations lrom Constantine. Whether or not poems lose ol gain something in translation, there is always the disquieting leeling that one is receiving hand-me-downs. Hearing the poems in their original languages is an enlightening experience, it only to see the lacial expressions ol the poet amongst his or her own words. Sorescu’s witty and perspective-changing verse was written all over his lace as he read, and the English versions conlirmed its iaunty cheek.
The Queen’s Hall in Edinburgh was the large host-venue lorthe much-celebrated poet Irina Ratushinskaya. Her recent release trom Soviet imprisonment (charged with crimes against the State ie writing ‘subversive’ poetry) ensured that she was well-received. Indeed, lsuspect that it is the courage and content at her prison-poetry that is admired, rather than its actual quality. But again, something may be lost in translation.
Ratushinskaya was preceded by a slightly sombre Norman Macaig. Sombre Perhaps because ol his noticeable absence on the programme. He read briskily, interspersing only a tew wry remarks ‘men are sucked into pubs’ and ‘l have grown less young‘.
And so, brietly, the glowing embers ol poetry llamed a little, egged on by the breath at many poets. Holub, lmmunologist extraordinaire, expressed doubts about poetry readings: ‘I leel that people don’t get their money's worth.’ Equally, his trutblul but sacrilegious remarks about the medium were relreshing: ‘I have been so busy working on nude mice, that I haven’t written poetry tor a year. But I like poetry because it's short, so lt’stime-saving.’
Audiences did get their money’s worth, as they hunched round tables sipping drinks and smoking, savouring the new wine-bar chic ol poetry and blinking with surprise in the candlelight at the shock at modernity. Joss-sticks and Alghans (except lor Craig Raine’s) must go.
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Alan Taylor finds one Edinburgh publisher enthusiastic about the cast of their new classic serial.
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’Publishing.‘ said an unusually frank and honest Edinburgh publisher ‘is like gambling. But gamblers at least have a chance of making money.‘ He had hidden potential as a fortune-teller; a few months later he went bust.
In such a fickle business it‘s easily done. particularly in a country like Scotland where readers are not exactly voracious. The market-place here is small and flooded with new titles (some 50.000 are published annually in the UK alone) most of which come from multi-national companies with massive financial clout. Multi-nationals. however, are not interested in servicing minorities: they think big. print in tens of thousands and hawk their wares like cans ofbeans. Occasionally. they dip their toes into the backwaters but not with much conviction. They prefer to play safe, leaving the minnows at the table shooting dice and hoping that someone up there likes them.
But ifCanongate. the Edinburgh-based publishers of Alasdair Gray and The New
Testament In Scots have done their homework right. their new series of neglected and familiar Scottish novels and other diverse works. ‘Canongate Classics‘ ought to be a winner.
The idea for such a library. says Stephanie Wolfe-Murray. Canongate‘s Managing Director. came originally from the Scottish Arts Council‘s Literature Committee. ’they sent out a press release to all British publishers inviting them to submit proposals for the series. We were interested but we were starting the Keplies — books for children — at that time and felt that we were too small to commit ourselves to two new series. so we backed out. Other deals fell through and nobody got the contract. The thing faded temporarily into
oblivion. After we‘d been doing the Kelpies for a few years we realised it was good to publish series and by then we thought we could cope with another series ofScottish adult fiction and non-fiction. We approached the SAC and they said
they were interested and they're now subsidising it.‘
In the meantime. however. other publishers were alerted to the potential of reprinting out-of—print books and since the smoke went up from Charlotte Square some five years ago many books Canongate would like to have. have been snapped up. This does not alarm the series General Editor. Roderick Watson. a Stirling University Scot Lit expert and author ofthe Penguin Book ofthe Bicycle. Though he admits. ‘there‘s not a bottomless pit ofgreat Scottish books‘ he feels that competition from other publishers made him and his advisers think ’more creatively‘ about the kind of texts that they would publish. Consequently. they were amazed at what hadn‘t been taken.
But what is special about the Canongate Classics? With no assumed modesty. Roderick Watson says. ‘they‘re beautiful and they raise the standard ofthe paperback.‘ Unlike Virago. Canongate have reset the type from the originals and redesigned each book but. most significantly. they aim to keep each title in print. This is a move which Canongate hope will encourage schools. colleges and universities to add the books to their set reading lists. Capturing these markets is important from a commercial point ofview but Stephanie Wolfe-Murray is at pains to point out that her target is the browsing book-buyer who would normally p-p-p-pick up a Penguin.
Price-wise they fare well; the cheapest is £2.95 and the most expensive is £4.95 per six hundred pages. ’The price says Stephanie Wolfe-Murray. ‘reﬂects the length of the books.‘ Six titles have been published in the first batch and another four are promised for the autumn. Number one is Willa Muir‘s Imagined Corners and looks destined to become a collectors‘ item. The others are [an Crichton Smith‘s Consider The Lilies. Island Lan falls: Reﬂections from the South Seas by Robert Louis Stevenson. the autobiography ofthe Dunbar-born ’father of American conservation‘ John Muir. The Story ofmy Boyhood and Youth. James Barke‘s chunky novel Land ofthe Lea! and a book that Canongate can barely contain their excitement about. and which draws a blank stare even when mentioned among the cognicenti. Nan Shepherd‘s The Quarry Wood.
Soon they‘ll be cutting a dash in the bookshops with their elegantly- designed and striking arty covers. Canongate also announced this week that they are linking up with the distinguished art book publishers Phaidon.-The arrangement will remove the financial insecurity that has held back their development for so long. It is now nearly fifteen years since the first Canongate book appeared. With their ’Classics‘ leading the way. their prospects for the next fifteen years are looking rosy.
The List 15 — 28 May 49