A few months ago, I got very pumped after a workshop with W N Herbert on translating Chinese Poetry. I had always found translation fascinating, but had never applied the technique to my own work. So I did. I started to look at my own writing as a kind of code that needed breaking. The question then turned to whether I was trying to get at some absolute truth, say clearly what I needed to say, or find something completely new and unexpected. I tended towards the latter.
More recently, I have been applying the idea to some new pieces. I knew that I wanted to play around with what it might have been like to be a Moorish soldier in Britain, but I had zero interest in approaching it historically, finding out anything about Moorish soldiers or being remotely accurate. (Sometimes it happens that way.) What I really wanted to do was unpick the ideas we have now about what it means to be from Britain. And I wanted to make it strange. Here’s the first section of the poem:
do you know what is burning
in the square
its head tilts to its chest
in quiet reflection
how different the flame is to air
how differently it comments
on the shortness of life
I quite enjoyed the word ‘comment’. I randomly translated my first draft until something interesting came up – from English to Spanish to Japanese to Yoruba, with no compunction – and then ‘comment’ arrived, and it struck me as the best way I could come up with of describing the way a mystery feels. How it analyses and describes itself as you experience it. When something odd happens, and all heads come together and are equally confounded by it. It’s like you’ve collectively stepped into a bowl of soup. Gets all over you. Feels warm and immediate.
And this is how the poem ends (for now):
what you learned there
a child is his smell
and the ice will often say
remember me to summer
It’s unusually bare for me. My poems tend to be blocky and/or sprawling, they come as zig-zags or doric columns. What I enjoyed most was the voice. The next phase, I imagine, will be working out who the speaker is. If this poem was a film, I imagine it would be shot so that the camera took on the perspective of the protagonist. That level of subjectivity makes the whole world very mysterious, only being able, as a director, to see what the protagonist sees. Or like the first person. Except this is different, because the voice is asking someone else, and they don’t reply.
OR DO THEY.
I have a brilliant book called Vicious Circles and Infinity: An anthology of Paradoxes. Since the final project is going to be visual, I was struck by this page, which says “Visual self-reference without contradiction is as banal as verbal-self reference without contradiction. A pencil drawing of a pencil may be compared to the sentence ‘This sentence is in the English language.’” So the next stage is working out what the response to this first bit of the poem is, and how to begin representing that visually. And this really is the hardest part, working out what a relevant contradiction that gives the puzzle its grit.
Jay Bernard is the Poetry School’s 4th Digital Poet in Residence. You can follow ‘An Untitled Text Adventure’ here.