Review: Blanca Castellón and Carlos Martínez Rivas, Two Nicaraguan Poets

Water for Days of Thirst
Blanca Castellón

Threnody for Joaquín Pasos
Carlos Martínez Rivas

In translation, I seek another country, another world. I long to not only read translation to be translated, which in Latin means carried across. A great translation does this, simultaneously carrying the poet to the reader’s world and carrying the reader into the poet’s world. It’s rare but there’s nothing I love more. Roger Hickin accomplishes this, not once but twice, in his masterful versions of Carlos Martínez Rivas’ Threnody for Joaquín Pasos and Blanca Castellón’s Water for Days of Thirst from Cold Hub Press. These books bring two stunning poets into English for the first time and give voice to the vital and under-represented Nicaraguan literary tradition.

Threnody for Joaquín Pasos is an overview of Carlos Martínez Rivas’ career in twenty-five pieces. Rivas’ style brings to mind Lorca, Rimbaud, and Verlaine in its worldly innocence and brave experimentation. I found my head nodding as I read as if he were a jazz trumpeter and I was following the rise and fall of his improvisations which swirled and eddied around a central theme without losing it. He moves deftly between themes personal, sexual, national, and religious without losing the progression and bringing his reader along for the ride.

I was particularly transported read “Paradise Regained,” “a poem in three steps with a prolog.” He begins with a wide view of the continent and zooms into the particular, meeting a girl and falling in love at the airport.

And I, at a loss what to do
with my love, turned it
into a song.

A good one I thought. And to amuse myself
and perform it for a bunch of friends,
who on occasion asked me to recite,
I committed it to memory.

It goes like this…

And so, it begins. A quote from Paradise Lost sets up the first awareness of fallenness to wide-eyed innocents as they leave the shelter of Eden. In lieu of Eden, love becomes the promised land, a transport to unreal realms of air and eventual paradise. Rivas mixes the mundane and ineffable, the sacred and secular in lines like, “the fountain where lichen dreams its cathedrals” and “this girl who plays ping pong, who smiles, / and at age fifteen becomes an apple.” The narrator leads the girl on his journey of love, “from comet to comet, and beyond.” And I followed breathlessly in the lovers’ wake to that paradise of poetry, “where our hearts ripen / when, on this brand new air, / we hang once more the branch, / the bird, the apple, the star.”

Both Castellón and Rivas share a rich literary tradition, life experiences which included oppressive dictatorships and violent national strife. Born thirty-four years after Rivas, Castellón carries the torch of the previous generation of Nicaraguan poets (including Rivas) with a spartan and spare modern style. Sometimes this take the form of short poems, like “Bad Management:”
“I’m squandering the silence / left to me by the dead.” In longer poems, there is still a sense that only the absolutely necessary words have been cut, as in the sixth part of “Outside Times Ten and One Within.”

Outside

there’s no cozy bed
no sheets without stains

no eye pure in its seeing
no easy distances

no mother
no father

outside is a landscape
of forgotten letters

Castellón’s lines have a level of independence within the poem that I’ve rarely witnessed. Her long poems “Flotations” and “Genuflection” are collations of relatedly independent lines. Even in more traditionally arranged poems, lines are unusually excerptable, poems within poems. I kept writing lines down in my notebook; each seemed its own poem. Here are some.

As you devour me spare a thought for your teeth

*

We go through summer with autumn on our shoulders.

*

Angelina Jolie recently had her breasts removed
a preventative measure.

*

Tonight I want to try out the laugh
I gave you on your birthday

*

wake up in time for
Google’s garglings

you
uyo
oyu
yes, you

These lines then, which read like koans, like haiku, are in imagistic synecdoche maps to a world of an archipelago. This theme is set up in “Map,” the book’s first poem,” Castellón writes,

A turbulent sea
of humans
circling the desert
island
that is me.

Lonely as the world may be, it is a beautiful one.

Both books are well worth a read, not only for the exquisite poetry but also the skilled translation. Even a reader with my limited Spanish can see (aided by the parallel text of the poems) the faithfulness of Hickin’s translations. He has balanced rendering the voices two very different authors with conveying a sense of Nicaraguan literary tradition. He writes with a strong poetic that feels native while still carrying the cultural weight of the original context.

Hickin has done a service to the English-speaking world by making these two poets available in translation. From the knife blade edge of Blanca Castellón’s verse to the lush garden of opulence in Carlos Martínez Rivas, these are books to read and reread. You can find them here and here and explore the rest of Cold Hub’s excellent catalog here.

— Matthew

Matthew Landrum lives in Detroit where he teaches, writes, and translates. You can find him on Twitter @MatthewLandrum and read his occasional blog musings at matthewlandrum.com.

Jeff Noon and 2084

Our friends at Unsung Stories have just entered the final week of the Kickstarter campaign for 2084. The project is currently sitting at 502% funded, which is not particularly surprising when you consider that a) 2084 is a rather timely science-fiction anthology inspired by Orwell’s iconic novel Nineteen Eighty-Four, and b) the collection features a remarkable group of writers, including the likes of Jeff Noon, Christopher Priest, James Smythe, Lavie Tidhar and Aliya Whiteley.

We took the opportunity to chat to the aforementioned Mr Noon—author of the Clarke Award-winning Vurt series amongst other books and fictions—about 2084, his Twitter micronovels and ‘avant-pulp’.

How did you approach the 2084 brief?

I have very little interest in political art, or propaganda, or any kind of story with a message, or with a fixed belief system in place, left or right. As a writer I’m interested more in human drama: why do human beings do what they do, whether for good or for ill: rather than outside forces, I’m obsessed with what drives them from the inside. So I started to think of a way of writing a story influenced by Orwell’s 1984 that didn’t have an overt political content. Quite a task! But the thing I loved most about the book was the love story, so a little bit of that creeps into my story on the final page: a reuniting. I thought about events that might happen after a regime has fallen, and a new one has taken over. How would this new regime deal with the after-effects of the old? That seemed to me an interesting question. And then I thought of Winston Smith’s job in 1984: he changes documents and photographs in order to take account of the constant changes in the official history, as people are killed off, or made to disappear. He slips documents into a “memory hole”, his version of our paper shredder.  And then I imagined a civil liberties campaign that forced the authorities to store these facts and images, rather than simply destroying them, to actually keep them in memory, somewhere. From there the idea of an orbiting space station took hold, a giant archive in the sky, where all the forgotten “ghosts” could reside. The story more or less wrote itself from that point. Over the last few years, I’ve become fascinated with the concept of the subtle body, the ghostly figure, the tulpa, as they call it in Buddhism, but strictly in science fictional, or post-technical terms. I think this is my reaction against the extreme digitalisation of human thought and behaviour: a return to the spectral. So that idea fused with the 2084 theme, to produce a series of ghosts in storage; and the human operatives who look after them on the station, and who attempt to restore the ghosts to their Earthly life. read more…

Review: ‘Seven Sins’ by Karen Runge

The prospective reader may be forgiven for expecting Seven Sins, Karen Runge’s debut short fiction collection, to touch upon the religious. However, the tales she weaves are not connected with the famous set of misdemeanours. They are instead a septet of stories dealing with sin generally and, more specifically, how ordinary people can end up doing extraordinarily awful things.

The collection begins with ‘Sweet Old Men’, one of the shorter pieces and the most formulaic, loyal to the short story standard of introducing three elements and gathering them together for a shock ending. However, it does set the tone for the rest of the book in terms of vivid bodily imagery: “He’d grab your hand […] pulling your plump, pink fist toward that gaping black hole of pale white gums and cracked red tongue; that open maw lined with long, yellow teeth.” It also introduces the gently building sense of foreboding that Runge is so adept at injecting into any scenario.

This quiet but ever-present feeling of doom is really allowed room to blossom in the second tale, ‘The Philosopher’, which is considerably longer and freer from convention than its predecessor. It is perhaps the best of the seven when it comes to subtle horror, as from the third story onwards the proceedings become considerably more graphic and violent. ‘The Philosopher’ also contains the collection’s most thorough examination of human relationships. The other stories feel a tad shallow in comparison to this one, and its couple with many layers and problems so simple yet so unsolvable.

The setting of a cramped caravan in the middle of nowhere is used to its full potential: “I sometimes think life in a caravan is like living in a centipede. Everything segmented, everything squeezed into the same narrow space, compartment linked to compartment leading on; moving through it is like being digested, or maybe like being spat out.” The use of light is also impressive: the caravan’s red tarpaulin awning creates an ambience that becomes progressively more suffocating, for the reader as much as for the protagonist. The ending, however, is rather unsatisfactory: Runge leaves us with a striking image, but without any real explanation or resolution.

The third and fourth stories are slightly weaker. ‘My Son, My Son’ has an interesting premise – how do incestuous feelings develop? – but dips into kitchen-sink territory and drags on longer than necessary. The final few sentences are clearly designed to make the reader recoil, and they do. However, they also nullify much of the previous action, and turn what could have been something insightful, though disturbing, into something that feels slightly lazy and sensationalist. The reader is left unsure as to how seriously the writer takes the topic of incest, which is one well worth exploring in fiction.

“the gently building sense of foreboding that Runge is so adept at injecting into any scenario”

‘The Orphanage’ is another tale of unhappy motherhood, and incorporates the somewhat tired trope of a woman who has lost her own children going insane and doing unspeakable things to other people’s. Not only is this trope old and potentially harmful, but the story also feels less believable than its neighbours. Most of the others could conceivably take place in the real world, which is part of their power. ‘The Orphanage’, on the other hand, delves into gothic melodrama, which distances the reader. Nevertheless, it does contain perhaps the most horrible and memorable images of the lot, and these flashes of horror refuse to leave the mind for some time – it is up to the reader to judge whether that is an achievement or exploitative.

The fifth and six tales blur together: both involve rather tedious doomed relationships between teenagers. Both also suffer from their late position in the collection – read in isolation, either would no doubt provide a shock, but after four accounts of equally intense pain and suffering the reader starts to become desensitised. ‘Lake Seasons’ is the stronger of the two; here foreshadowing is handled particularly well: a mouth smeared with berries gives a soft but sinister hint as to what may come. ‘Faces’, to its credit, deals with a very different narrator to the previous tales; instead of another unhappy mother we meet Joe, a troubled young man. His relationship with pornography and its effect on his actions are interesting. Unfortunately, instead of pursuing this angle, ‘Faces’ ultimately morphs into a darker and less developed version of ‘Lake Seasons’. Perhaps by combining the two stories Runge could create something more thorough and potent.

Then there is the seventh and final Sin of the collection, ‘The Killing Machine.’ This is a very different kind of story, and is possibly the book’s finest. Short and sour, it gives a brief insight into a dystopian prison: dystopian, but scarily believable. It is told principally through announcements, with the emotionless instructions hitting hard against the sadness of the situation. ‘The Killing Machine’ is clean, cold and clinical. There is no blood or guts until the very end, and its inclusion is somewhat of a shame; without the mention of a “fine mist of blood” the story would have been almost unbearably powerful.

Seven Sins is a very promising collection. The author certainly has something unique and, if she can go on to rely less on shock value and gore, she will really be a force to be reckoned with, not only in the arena of dark literature but in the wider world of short fiction. Seven Sins will affect you – maybe for good, maybe for bad (and there can never be enough trigger warnings for this in terms of violence and harm to children). But it certainly cuts deep.

Elizabeth Gibson is a Masters student in languages at the University of Manchester. She is also a Digital Reporter for Manchester Literature Festival and a member of The Writing Squad. Her writing/translation has appeared in Far Off Places, London Journal of Fiction, Severine, Octavius, Ink, Sweat & Tears, and Gigantic Sequins, among other journals. She edits Foxglove Journal and the Word Life section of Now Then Manchester, and is a writer for The Mancunion. She tweets @Grizonne and blogs at http://elizabethgibsonwriter.blogspot.co.uk.

Seven Sins
Author: Karen Runge
Publication date: 1 June 2016
Published by: Concord ePress

(Reasons for) Moving

Our latest chapbook, David Russomano’s (Reasons for) Moving, is now available.

This is a remarkable debut. Of course we would say that, and while you might not trust us to be objective, you might believe the poet Wendy Cope when she calls it an “impressive and enjoyable collection”, or Eyewear Books’ Todd Swift when he describes David’s poetry as “at once exotic, historical, melancholy, and well-made”.

Convinced? You can order the chapbook here. It is available in print as well as in digital formats. All profits from chapbooks sales go to the author.

Want to hear more? See a short interview David about (Reasons for) Moving below.

How long did it take for you to bring this collection together?

I’ve been working on this collection off and on since about 2013. That was the first time that I submitted a manuscript focusing on ideas of place and travel. Eight of the poems in that early version of the chapbook survived in one form or another and made it into (Reasons for) Moving, but countless others were cut and the whole thing changed shape several times along the way.

How was the selection process?

As I mentioned above, the selection process was difficult and took years. The organising principles—place, travel, motion, stagnation—were pretty much there all along, but pieces that seemed central to the whole thing at first eventually fell by the wayside and/or were replaced by what I think are stronger or more relevant poems. Also, a lot of my poems take place abroad and I wanted to balance that out with some more domestic poems, but that slowed the process down.

Do you have a ‘typical’ writing process?

My writing is often very ‘reactionary’, by which I mean that it’s a direct reaction to some external stimuli. I always carry a pocket journal so that I can capture my reactions to things that I experience. Sometimes, one experience turns into a single poem. At other times, I pull various bits together after the fact and assemble them into something that’s considerably different from its constituent parts. Eventually, I type up bits from these pocket notebooks and then refine them through a series of drafts in a single word document. Whenever I’m about to make a significant edit, I copy what I’ve got, paste it below, and carry on. That way, I’m able to trace my work to some extent.

Can you say a little about the cover?

The cover artwork for (Reasons for) Moving is part of my ongoing exploration of the mathematical constant, pi (3.1415, etc.). In these pieces, I use the decimal places of pi as a generative constraint and let them determine the shape, colour, or pattern of the artwork. I’ve been trying to approach this process from different angles for nearly five years now. This particular piece recently appeared in Surbiton’s Museum of Futures as part of an exhibition put on by The Enemies Project.

Review: ‘In the Country’ by Mia Alvar

The debut collection of short stories by New York-based Filipina writer Mia Alvar is a thing of quiet wonder. While other first collections might attempt to grandstand, or buttonhole the reader with noisy, sensationalist tales full of purple prose and ultra-violence (often in the fashionable second person, told from the POV of inanimate objects), Alvar throws unobtrusive light on a series of marginalised lives in nine superbly polished stories. Her characters, almost without exception, are members of the Philippine diaspora – economic migrants who have travelled to the Middle East or the United States to work as maids, chauffeurs or nurses. One of the world’s largest ex-pat communities (12 million Filipinos live and work abroad) it’s a sub-culture that provides rich fictional rewards. Alvar is a perceptive, moral, confident storyteller, and In the Country shows her to be the diaspora’s perfect chronicler.

In the first story, ‘The Kontrabida’, a son returns home from the US after ten years away to visit his ailing parents in a Manila suburb. There’s a Chekhovian simplicity and humanity in the description of his mother: “Every feature I remembered had settled in her and been more deeply confirmed”. Meditating on his alcoholic brute of a father who is dying of liver cancer, he realises he has trained himself to be “his opposite: competent, restrained”; though he fears he will die like him, with his “worst impulses petrified on my face”. By the end of the story the son realises that it is fact his mother who held the balance of power between his parents. It’s a sensitive, mature piece of writing worthy of William Trevor or Alice Munro.

From this point onwards in the collection, the female perspective takes over. In ‘The Miracle Worker’, a Filipina special-needs teacher in Bahrain looks after a severely disabled little girl, although it’s the child’s feckless mother who fascinates the protagonist. “What kind of mother thinks her daughter is punishment?” A poignant and politically engaged tale, the narrator is forced to revaluate her own liberalism, while throwing light on the diaspora’s lack of social mobility. The teacher’s friend comments mournfully: “I’m forty now. I’ve never done much besides clean rich Arabs’ houses […]  I’ll probably die in uniform”.

Indeed, servitude is a theme of many of Alvar’s stories. ‘Shadow Families’ focuses on the social division between the rich Filipina wives and the katulong, or ‘helpers’, who come “to clean floors or mind rich people’s children […] often younger than we were but always ageing faster […] their spines hunching over brooms and basins, their lungs fried by bleach and petroleum vapours”.

Alvar is a perceptive, moral, confident storyteller

Throughout the collection, the cruel contrast between rich and poor, and between the fortunate and the forsaken, is explored in depth. ‘Old Girl’ is set among the ex-pat political community in Boston – the ‘Manilachussets’ wives. In ‘Legends of the White Lady’, an affluent American model is shocked by a “sad-looking tub of pale shredded lettuce” in a Manila restaurant. In another story, narrated by a severely disabled boy, the class distinctions in the squatters’ shacks of Manila are shown to be based on gradations of colour and perceived respectability. Here, the retreat of myth and suspicion is examined in the Philippines’ predominantly Catholic society. The boy comes to see “defects of our bodies were caused and cured by science, nothing more […] everyone was struggling in the body he or she’d been given”.

Throughout the collection, Alvar’s finely wrought, considered images echo and repeat or contradict each other. A praying figure is mirrored by the whore who “earns her living on her knees”, suggesting a touching parity. Equally impressive elsewhere are the experiments in form.  ‘Esmeralda’ is written in the first-person plural, with ‘we’ reinforcing the diaspora’s sense of solidarity.

But it is the title story, the longest in the collection – almost a novella at 80 pages – which impresses the most. It is a tour de force of sophisticated storytelling. ‘In the Country’ is an exploration of class, family, and the colonial legacy. The narrative spans fifteen years, the action switching between the Marcos government’s slide into corruption and martial law in 1971, and the fixed election of 1986 in which the Philippines’ dictator lost power in a velvet revolution. It tells the story of Milagros and her husband Jim, a former anarchist and journalist, a wrenching tale of love against a backdrop of political corruption and civil unrest. Along the way, the reader learns much about the country’s history. But it’s the visceral details that linger. After marital law is imposed, the radio news ominously “turns to static”, while “Congress closed […] phones were dead”. When Jim is imprisoned, Milagros secretly transcribes her husband’s articles by sign language, meanwhile bringing up their children single-handed. Eventually, the state exacts its terrible revenge. It is a fine, if sombre, finish to a dazzling collection, and one that confirms “you can leave a place, but places have a way of not leaving you”.

Jude Cook lives in London and studied English literature at UCL. His first novel, BYRON EASY, was published by William Heinemann of Random House in February of 2013. He has written for the Guardian, the Spectator, Literary Review, New Statesman, TLS, Review 31 and 3AM Magazine.His essays and short fiction have appeared in Litro, Structo, Storgy, Long Story Short and Staple magazine. Jude can be found at www.judecook.com and on Twitter @judecook_

In the Country
by Mia Alvar
ISBN: 9781780749792
Publication date: 23 June 2016
Published by: Oneworld Publications

Forward Prize nominations for 2017

Choosing the poems we nominate for the annual Forward Prize for Poetry is tricky. The poems that make it into the magazine are already the cream of the crop, and we have come to know them very well over the course of the submission call discussions, as well as though editing and typesetting. We understand the way they ebb and flow. It’s hard to be objective, and we’re really not.

This year’s nominations all come from Issue 17. In no particular order, they are:

  • ‘Kindnesses’ by Daniel Bennett
  • ‘Black Sears’ by Christine Nguyen
  • ‘Burning the Clocks’ by Robert Selby

Those who made it out to the Issue 17 launch were lucky enough to hear ‘Kindnesses’ and ‘Burning the Clocks’ in person.

Good luck to each!

Lenten psalms translation contest 2017

Lent is here and Structo is holding its fourth Lenten psalms translation contest. We’re looking for free translations from the biblical psalms.

Lent. Translations. Biblical. Psalms. These words might bring up some questions.

What’s Lent got to do with poetry in translation?

Nothing and lots. Lent is a traditionally time set aside for reflection. We think poetry is a great way to reflect. Delving into the psalms is one way to reflect on the self and on the world.

Do I have to be religious?

No. And half of the team running this aren’t. But we view this as a chance to interact with, and create poetry in conjunction with, some great ancient texts. We’ve had a variety of submissions over the years from people with creeds from Catholic to agnostic, atheist to Hmong traditionalist, and all sorts in-between.

What if I don’t know Hebrew?

Free translation means what you want it to mean. None of the past winners have had an ancient languages background. Instead, they riffed off the original, turned it on its head, reversed it, used key phrases, sussed out a single idea, or wrote in a psalm mode and mood.

Examples?

You can read last year’s winning psalm winning psalm ‘Kestrels’ by Cristina Baptista and psalms by Christine Darragh and Abigail Carroll online in Issue 16.

How do I enter?

Head over here. Submissions are open until Easter Sunday (that’s Sunday 16th of April, at midnight UK time). All entries will be considered for publication in the magazine. The winning psalmist will receive $150 and a two-year subscription to Structo. Entries will be judged by panel on originality, musicality, accuracy (to the psalm’s spirit), and aesthetic.

Austrian Cultural Forum Prizes

As you will know if you have picked up a copy of the magazine over the last few years, we’re big fans of works in translation. And so we were delighted when the Austrian Cultural Forum in London got in touch to ask whether we’d like to help judge their new writing prizes: the ACF Writing Prize and the ACF Translation Prize. Here’s the spiel:

The Austrian Cultural Forum London is thrilled to invite submissions of translations into English of Austrian poetry, short fiction and book extracts, and original short fiction and poetry in English inspired by Austrian arts and culture, up to 2000 words in length. This is the first time these prizes have been offered, and have been organised by the ACF Translator in Residence.

A winner and two commended runners-up will be selected for each prize. The winning translator and winning writer will have their pieces published in the print issue of literary journal Structo, and the winning and commended translators will also be invited to attend a translation workshop with the Translator in Residence. Both winning and selected commended translators and writers will be invited to read their work at an evening reception at the Austrian Cultural Forum on Wednesday 29th March.

Submissions to the Writing Prize should take “Austrian art, literature, culture and/or history, or Austria itself, as their starting point or subject”, while the Translation Prize covers not only poetry and short fiction, but also book extracts. The deadline is Monday the 13th of March [Edit: Deadline extended until Mach 20th!], and it’s free to submit work. Head over here for full details.

Introducing issue 17

This is Structo 17. It features 104 pages of outstanding fiction and and poetry, an essay on the unknown side of Jerome K. Jerome and two interviews, one with Vera Chok and the other with Oscar Schwartz.

You can order your copy here, or find out more at the issue page. I hope you enjoy it.

—Euan

Llama Sutra

Melanie Whipman’s story ‘After Ever After’ appeared in Structo 11. We talked to her about her new story collection, Llama Sutra.

Is there a common thread linking the stories in Llama Sutra?

Yes, the title of the book was chosen for a reason. It’s not just the title of the story that was broadcast on Radio 4, ‘Sutra’ literally means a thread or line that holds things together, and more metaphorically refers to an aphorism or a collection of such aphorisms in the form of a manual. I thought it was apt for a collection of short stories. There are threads – themes that run through the collection – the ‘the outsider’, acts of transgression, the natural world, liminality and borderlands. Landscape’s important to me – how it impacts on my characters. It works to reflect or represent them. Metaphorically. Water is present in most of the stories. Whether in the form of rivers or seas, to me water suggests borderlands. The space and light on the coast has an impact on the tone of the stories. I’m from Brighton, and I love the way the sea creates a perpetual sense of movement and change. It’s the opposite of stasis. There’s a sense of freedom and possibilities. And there are the animals, of course: lions, llamas, storks, parrots, birds, elephants, a deer, a singing fish, and a bull. And sexuality – hence the play on Karma Sutra.

Your Issue 11 story ‘After Ever After’, included in Llama Sutra, is a nice example of some of those threads. Have you always been interested in the fairy tale form?

Yes, I’m fascinated by the fairy tale or magic realism form. We’re exposed to different kinds of magic realism almost from the moment we’re born. Nursery rhymes, fairy tales, legends, bible stories. These are stories that are part of our collective heritage. I love tapping into these communal narratives, taking myths and fairy tales and giving them a contemporary twist. I think that yoking a modern woman’s views with ancient myths creates a sense of universality and emphasizes our narrative heritage. There are several of these stories in my collection. The idea of the surreal erupting into everyday life works well with my themes of transgression and borderlands. It seems to enhance that sense of dislocation that I’m intrigued by. I want the reader to be as unsettled as my protagonists; magic realism can facilitate this.

You teach creative writing. Do you find it useful for your own work?

Teaching is really important to me. It’s amazing how much you learn through examining other writers’ work. It helps me to gain an objective perspective on my own writing. I did an English degree a long time ago, and then more recently a Masters in Creative Writing at Chichester University. Exposure to different authors and different styles and genres really help you hone and edit your own work.

Llama Sutra is available now from Ink Tears.