By ADRIAN TAHOURDIN
Almost certainly a first: three Dutch poets reading in Brighton. On the opening weekend of the three-week-long Brighton Festival, the Frisian threesome were joined by one French poet for an event organized by Modern Poetry in Translation. It was easy to tell the French poet: she was the one wearing the beret. The four - Menno Wigman, Ester Naomi Perquin, Valérie Rouzeau and Toon Tellegen - were eloquently introduced by the editor of MPT, Sasha Dugdale.
The Brighton Festival traditionally has a Guest Director and this year it’s the turn of Michael “We’re Going on a Bear Hunt” Rosen, whose enthusiasm for Erich Kästner’s Emil and the Detectives is evident in the programming. But as is usually the case, the choice of events is nicely varied. A couple of years ago, the organizers cheekily (I thought) invited Aung San Suu Kyi to be their guest director. I don’t imagine she had much of a hand in organizing it, but she obliged with a gracious introduction to the programme; there were a number of performances relating to The Lady, of, er, varying quality. Last year the guest director Vanessa Redgrave saw the invitation as an opportunity for a mini season of her own films. Brian Eno, a few years back, gave things a strongly musical flavour.
The MPT poetry reading was a success, partly because (in my case at least) three of the poets were unfamiliar. First up was Menno Wigman, who is currently city poet of Amsterdam, in which role, he explained, he is occasionally asked to write elegies for people who have died alone or on the street (he read one of these). Wigman has been described as the “dandy of disillusion” and he writes melancholy poems of urban solitude and despair, eloquently conveyed by his translator David Colmer.
Ester Naomi Perquin, meanwhile, has drawn on her experience working as a guard in a prison in her home city, Rotterdam. Her poems, on the evidence here, are quirky, occasionally confessional, with arresting lines: “Strange tracks lead down to the drink”. Her work has been Englished by the eminent Dutch translator Paul Vincent (who wasn’t able to attend). Rather charmingly Perquin chose to read one of her poems in English, claiming that Vincent’s version was better than the original.
Tellegen’s expressive reading of a long sequence in Dutch made demands on the audience that Judith Wilkinson’s translations (read by David Constantine) didn’t quite meet: something profound and metaphysical but . . . . I found more nourishment in some of Tellegen’s poems in the MPT volume: “If you were to ask me: how old would you like to be, / I would say: 2420 years. / For then, as a boy in Athens, / I would have seen / Aristophanes’ plays”, . . .
Valérie Rouzeau has published twelve collections. Her work has been superbly translated into English by Susan Wicks as Cold Spring in Winter (2009), which was described by the TLS reviewer Patrick McGuinness as a “book of rare cumulative power”; indeed Wicks won the Scott Moncrieff Prize for translation for her rendition of Rouzeau’s lament for her dead father, Pas Revoir. As Rouzeau exclaimed at one point as Wicks was reading her translations of new work, “She’s such a fucking good translator!” Wicks writes that “preserving the essence of Rouzeau’s work in English isn’t easy”, and that “the boldness of the poetic procedures in French was asking an equivalent boldness of me as their translator”. She describes her language as “contemporary, slangy, playful, childlike . . . “.
The opening of Pas Revoir illustrates the challenges for the translator: “Toi mourant man au téléphone pernoctera pas voir papa. / Le train foncé sous la pluie dure pas mourir mon père oh steu plaît tends moi me dépêche d’arriver". Wicks renders it: “You dying on the phone my mum he will not last the night see dad. / The train a dark rush under rain not last not die my father please oh please give me the get there soon”. Elsewhere Wicks ingeniously opts for “by the why dopen doors” for “près des portes béates”.
Rouzeau’s most recent collection, Vrouz (how, one wonders, will Wicks translate that?) won the Prix Apollinaire in 2012. Rouzeau has that slightly baffling French habit of reading fast, almost like a hangover from the classroom. But the new work, more upbeat perhaps, had her inimitable stamp: “Don’t rent a lorry I can move your stuff / I’ve got a little van your things will fit in fine / Smile you’re just moving house you’re off to better days . . . “.