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

Saturday, 16 May 2015

Words of walking

For the last few months I've been writing a regular column for Bristol 24/7 magazine. They're all (sometimes rather tangentially) connected to walking in one way or another - things I've seen walking through the city, unexpected places I've ended up etc. There are links to a few of them here:
A short, sharp stab in the sole
At the pointy end of Spike Island
The art of walking
A load of dead men peeing
The ideology of our zebra crossings

Saturday, 9 May 2015

Another 'Unknown Translation'

Another 'Unknown Translation', one of these poems originally written in Bulgarian and then translated into English emerged unexpectedly ...

The day after

The men continue to gather
in the squares and streets of the town.
Why are they here? They say they’re waiting
but they don’t know what for. The women
have decided to leave them and look for
a different name for contentment.
The children have gone with them,
they've accepted their fate.

The dark sky descends from the mountains
to warn those who will listen
that there has been a mistake. The sea
promises to build castles of sand
and to destroy them again every night.
Outside the doors of offices,
we grow frightened for no reason
and write silent letters in smoke.

Nobody remembers when this began.
The airport’s full. We want our things,
the things we need, but there is
nobody we can ask.
If only some definite disaster
had appeared, if only we could
foresee when it would happen
or where it would end.

Everything we’ve lost
returns to the squares and streets
where we have to wait
while the men decide to apologise
and ask the women to come home.
Under the clouds the children play
with new friends on the beach
where the sea no longer sings.

9 May 2015
Tom Phillips

Tuesday, 28 April 2015

New poem and artwork at Colourful Star

Just a reminder that there's a new post on our Anglo-Bulgarian poetry-and-art project Colourful Star ...

Monday, 20 April 2015

Unknown Translations

Having experimented with writing in rather hazy Bulgarian and then translating the poems back into English, I've put a few together in a little e-pamphlet ... and you can download it here

Saturday, 18 April 2015

From 'Unknown Translations'

For the last couple of weeks, I've been dallying with an experiment. Rather than writing in English, I've been writing in Bulgarian (which I'm learning in a DIY kind of way) and translating the results back into English. Being far from fluent in Bulgarian, I've had to work with a very limited vocabulary and very limited knowledge of idiom and grammar. In many ways, the results have been fairly hit and miss, but one or two of these efforts (which almost certainly read very badly in Bulgarian) seem OK - perhaps because, to me, they seem to be wholly different to what I would 'normally' write and perhaps because trying to think in another language results in connections which I wouldn't have otherwise made. 

Weather forecast

Today it will rain butter,
a bookish wind will blow,
the sun will wash dishes
and the clouds will play
the bagpipes. Don’t worry.
This is normal when
love is allowed to write
the weather forecast.
It’s best to walk barefoot
and carry a big coat.

Tom Phillips, 2015

Friday, 10 April 2015

Everything looks good tonight

Everything looks good tonight
because children emerged from the dark,
laughing and singing in Queen Square,
because, beyond them, two terriers
snuffled at a wooden post,
because a conversation had only just ended,
because by the zebra crossing
someone automatically took
someone else’s hand,
because the city lights
opened out around the docks
and, beneath the Balmoral, the boat’s reflection
hung, almost perfect, upside down,
because on the last few hundred yards home
I heard people speaking Russian, Spanish, Italian,
because I had been talking with friends
from somewhere I’d been last summer,
because I was wearing the shoes I’d worn
in that place and for a moment
I could feel again the contours
of the pavements as if they’d been
imprinted on cheap plastic and canvas.

And so, yes, crossing the footbridge
everything looks good. By the old gaol gate,
someone pissed against a stone bulwark.
A cyclist went past. And I remembered
deliberately making another footbridge
pulse and shake by walking in step –
and Mike plunging into the river
from a pub terrace in Shrewsbury,
and reading ‘They flee from me ...’
for a practical criticism assignment
months after driving up the east coast
of Australia in bush-fire season
and being in love with people
I’d never see again, because
that was how it was back then,
because even flying home
was an opportunity and we sat
outside a house in Buckinghamshire,
with me jet-lagged and still smelling
of the chemicals they’d sprayed us with
in Sydney, and we were talking
at the night as it came down
and I would sleep on the sofa
when the cat brought in a dead pigeon.

Cars pass. The passengers look out.
I’m in amongst the bins and recycling boxes.
Across the valley, the city lights articulate
a kind of semaphore and I am nearly home.

Thursday, 9 April 2015

Some films

It's been a while, to be honest, but, if it came to it, I'd probably say these:
Moderato Cantabile: piano lessons and gender politics in rural France (OK, I know that doesn't sound very attractive, but great nonetheless)
Tales from the Golden Age: nails the myths of totalitarianism in five short pieces
And, somewhat more obviously ...
Withnail & I, Spinal Tap, Salvador, Apocalypse Now and Lawrence of Arabia.

Saturday, 21 February 2015

Shopping in February

Today it felt like spring
so I walked through town:
the amplified evangelists
were in full swing.
In the franchised mall,
I thought about
smoking a cigarette
but that is now against the law.
Up a reinvented street
I went into a shop,
talked Madara and Shumen,
bought red peppers, feta cheese.

Tom Phillips