Slipping Under the Wire: an Interview with Sasha Dugdale
Slipping Under the Wire:
An Interview with Sasha Dugdale
Sasha Dugdale appeared in Issue 4 of The Compass, with a poem sequence that drew on Svetlana Aleksievich’s book on women’s experiences in WWII: ‘War Doesn’t have a Female Face’. As editors we admire and are intrigued by Sasha’s truly international outlook, which is evident in her own poetry, work as editor of Modern Poetry in Translation, and through the literary events she organises.
The following interview was conducted via email. Sasha provided all of the accompanying images, many of which are scans of photographs from her first trip to Russia. We’re very grateful to her for her thoughtful, enthusiastic communications.
Firstly let’s talk about MPT. You’ve recently announced your decision to stand down after five years as editor (with Clare Pollard soon to take the reigns). Under your editorship the magazine has gone through some significant changes: you increased the number of issues per year and the design is much more accessible. Would you like to say a little bit about your time on the magazine?
I took on the editorship over five years ago from David and Helen Constantine, who worked incredibly hard to get the magazine on a sustainable footing and advocated for it passionately. It was a great point to take it on because it was enjoying a distinct surge in popularity and it had administrative and financial structures in place which allowed me time and freedom. I had a lot of excitement and enthusiasm for the magazine and this converted well into long hours with a designer whilst we redesigned it, taking it back to its original and rather delicately functional look in the 1960s, choosing features like the airmail paper and typefaces that reminded readers of the magazine’s utopian and outward-looking beginnings. We also wanted the magazine to return to its ‘magazine’ roots, to feel short and urgent and a pocket read, but in order to publish the same quantities of poetry over a year that meant adding in an extra issue. The politics of the time have helped us make MPT feel more urgent. In many ways we are living through a period like the 1960s and the Cold War, a time of extreme unease and international engagement, and it’s clear to me that readers want access to poetry from all over the planet to enhance their understanding of different cultures and to inform their own writing.
I’ve followed my nose as an editor. I believe in serendipity and I like MPT’s smallness, its ability to ‘slip under the wire’. That has meant that we could do an issue like the refugee issue in 2016 in very little time and respond to world events through poetry. Our most recent issue was linked to the Shubbak festival in London so I asked poet Mona Kareem to write about her activism on behalf of Ashraf Fayadh. We can react quickly, being a small boat and not a poetry cruise liner, and that is sometimes thrilling and sometimes exhausting!
‘The Blossom Shroud’, a picture by Walid El Masri that was used for the current cover of ‘MPT’. A charity poster of it will be sold on behalf of the Refugee Council.
We’d like to pick up on what you say about the unease in the politics of the time. As someone who has been dedicated to internationalism within poetry, what are your feelings about this in the current Brexit climate?
Brexit is a disaster for Britain, but in many ways it codifies and makes visible what has happened over a long period, in Britain and in other countries, and it allows us to face up to it. Progressive, liberal thinking has appeared to be gaining ground in my lifetime, but in fact it has not won the hearts of a considerable section of the population, whose votes were cast against immigrants, ‘newfangled’ knowledge and internationalism, and in favour of a false vision of British history and national standing. The gains we have made over the last decades can now easily be reversed: fundamental rights can easily be slid back to the position of ‘luxuries for a better time’.
I was in mourning after the vote, my sadness was also for my father who was a profound European and internationalist, and whose death last year after Brexit and the election of Trump seemed part of the ending of an era of rationalist ‘enlightenment’. I also raged for a long time last summer, and now philosophy has crept into the scorched hollow left in me by rage.
But in this sadder and wiser time we can do things, we can build things, we can start again and we can be humble. In September we are holding an event at which Polish and British poets are reading poems dedicated to the ‘other’ culture. We conceived of this event in the wake of attacks on Poles in the UK. It’s a small action, but changes are built on many small actions.
From Sasha’s first trip to Russia
You’ve brought a number of poets from other countries to Britain on reading tours, such as the Brazilian poet Anjelica Freitas; in ways like this, MPT is more than a print magazine. Do you have any similar things planned for your final year?
I’ve always thought of MPT as a community and events are a good way to bring poets together and allow the sort of mutual inspiration poetry thrives on. We will be at Poetry International’s fiftieth anniversary this year with an event at the Poetry Library on Saturday 14 October celebrating MPT and Poetry International, Ted Hughes’s twin creations. Then in November the Russian poet Maria Stepanova returns to the UK to read for MPT and to launch the last issue I will edit: a Russian/Ukrainian issue. There are details of all our events online and we use Twitter and Facebook to let people know about them. We also always have readings in the original language as people are keen to hear the music of the original as well as the translation and there is plenty of discussion around the readings to illuminate the work and its context.
Monochrome film scans from Sasha’s first trip to Russia
Editing is only a small part of what you do. You are a translator, from Russian, you direct the Winchester Poetry Festival, and you’re a poet in your own right. How do you see the different strands of your work fitting together? Is it a case of them all fighting for time or do they feed into each other?
At present I am mostly involved with MPT. My writing has been eclipsed and that is precisely the reason why I am leaving MPT. I love the magazine too much to do it by halves and at the same time I can feel something withering away in me with every month that passes without any creative work: poetry or translation. It’s been my passion to introduce work from around the world to English-language culture and I’ve been immeasurably enriched by reading this work carefully and preparing it for print. I’ve experienced many different poetic approaches, poetics, voices and intellectual structures, and felt part of them by dint of the fact that I was collaborating with the author in some way. I hope that this stimulus will help me write in the future, it certainly feels important now, but if I leave things too long I worry I will simply allow this experience to drift through my fingers.
Children in Russia, from Sasha’s first trip there
When translating poetry, it often seems that a translator often has to make choices between sound and meaning. How do you approach this when translating?
I try to start from the poem in front of me on the page and let it take the lead. Russian poetry is extremely sonorous and I am always in its thrall – the siren song of Russian! I do feel poetry is an oral medium and sound is very important, but sound structures are always held in balance with meaning in poetry, and so what I am translating is not ‘sound’ or ‘meaning’ but the enmeshing of both into an poem. For me poetry translation requires flashes of inspiration, or whatever you want to call it. I simply mean that I can’t sit down for hours and translate serially… Lines go round in my head and I play with words and shapes for ages when I am translating. I can’t honestly say I have a theoretical approach, just a gut feeling that this poem could live in English as well as Russian.
A film scan, from Sasha’s first trip to Russia
Your own poetry is often written in sequences. Do you find this a useful device for composition?
I don’t know any more what a useful device for composition might be. Time. Time would be a useful device, and that idleness that Keats described, and a fire to sit by. I haven’t written for a while and whenever I write now I have the editor-bird sitting on my shoulder. In recent poems I’ve used more intellectual structures, for better or worse, to shape the lyrical content. A recent poem called ‘The Canoe’, for example, is principally about time passing and how we interpret history and turn it into myth. I consciously wrote that poem in twelve stanzas of twelve lines to reflect the idea of time passing. In the past I might have eschewed something so deliberately and conceptually formed, but now I feel there is nothing innately shameful about allowing the intellect to shape a poem.
William Blake’s painting ‘Our Lady with the Infant Jesus Riding on a Lamb with Saint John’. Sasha’s forthcoming collection Joy is a play about Catherine, Blake’s wife
With MTP hopefully releasing more of your time next year, tell us a little about what you hope to work on?
I’m hoping to write quite intensely next year. I feel I have to make a proper go of it. I’ve got a collection coming out in November called Joy (Carcanet), but I want to be writing forward at the same time. I have a plan for a prose book which will be concerned with the Russian poet Pushkin, but equally with the genesis of poetry and the myth of poetry, and a plan for a long poem based on the hills in the part of Sussex where I live and work. I’ll also be translating Maria Stepanova’s poetry.
The cover of ‘Joy’, Sasha’s forthcoming collection (Carcanet 2017)
Next year I’m going to think about ways to organise poetry ‘happenings’ outside funding structures and organisations: walks with readings, wild camps, night readings… We need a return to things that happen because people believe in them and work collectively to make them exist. Most of all we need some vitamins to get us through the bad times!
Sasha Dugdale‘s forthcoming collection Joy will be out in November 2017, from Carcanet. The long title poem ‘Joy’ won the Forward Prize 2016 for Best Single Poem. She has published three previous collections of poetry; the most recent is Red House (Carcanet, 2011). She is a translator of Russian poetry and plays, and her collection of Elena Shvarts’s poetry Birdsong on the Seabed was published by Bloodaxe and was a PBS Recommended Translation and shortlisted for the Popescu Prize. She is the outgoing editor of Modern Poetry in Translation (MPT) and co-edited the recent anthology of MPT poetry Centres of Cataclysm with David and Helen Constantine, also published by Bloodaxe.