Archives for October 2012

Crossing borders

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Hamid Ismailov Hamid Ismailov | 16:08 UK time, Wednesday, 31 October 2012

Those of my readers who follow me on my BBC Twitter or Facebook accounts might know that I have been busy launching my book A Poet and Bin-Laden, about an Uzbek poet who ended his life among the Taliban.

As some people have remarked, the novel brings together many voices, strands and genres. In a way it's a cross-border narrative experiment, involving poetry, journalism and prose. So I have decided to give you a glimpse of it here with a small chapter about crossing borders - though not figurative, but real ones.

Do you know what it's like crossing the border between two states? Not borders like those between European countries, when you drive along in a car and suddenly find yourself in a different country, but the Tajik-Afghan border, which is guarded by Russian border guards. Where they shoot without warning, and not into the air, but to bring you down.

Buildings close to the Afghanistan - Tajikistan border

Close to the Afghanistan - Tajikistan border

I have been told of so many ways to cross, from bribing the border guards, especially those of Tajik nationality - the method that the "commanders" mostly used when they didn't cross by air in a state helicopter - to an armed skirmish, when a group of marksmen draws the border guards' fire and the spies take advantage of the shooting to crawl or swim across while the darkness is split by the bright tracery work of flying bullets.

But Yosir and his experienced partner Jafar made their way to Afghanistan entirely at their own risk. First they were taken as far as Tavildara, then they travelled on donkeys through gorges as far as the border zone, and early in the night they dressed warmly and set off into the mountains, which Jafar knew like the back of his own hand, a hand that had only four fingers, since the index finger had been shot off in one of the fire fights there. And although he always regarded the novices whom he had to get across to the other side as a burden, the process of crossing the border and exercising his professional skill gave him a measure of enjoyment and satisfaction that actually meant more to him than the hundred or two hundred dollars that he was paid for this operation. He usually trained his wards briefly, and after that relied on unquestioning obedience and blind imitation of what he did himself.

And indeed, what else could they do? They might be strong and healthy, but they were soft, and they pressed their clumsy bodies down hard into every tussock of grass, constantly expecting to be riddled with bullets, or to be swept away by the clear, icy water of a stream.

Now here he was, supposedly on his way to Afghanistan, but actually in search of his own death. And so, in the cold, thickening darkness of the night, while they waited for the most difficult time for the border guards, which is not around midnight, but in the small hours just before dawn, the motionless outline of his body jutted far out from the recess in the cliff, annoying Jafar and yet at the same time reassuring him. He had seen all kinds of "mujahedin": some quite shamelessly messed their pants, or broke out in such a sweat in the cold mountain night that the snow around them started to melt, threatening a landslip, while others tried to drag him back, promising twice as much money as he had been paid for the crossing. But this one just sat there as if he was frozen to the rock and didn't say a word ...

In the mountains time flows across the sky: the candle-end of the moon is suddenly exposed and slips through the wet cotton wool of a dirty cloud, and then the clouds themselves start to stir, and engulf the moon so that it barely visible: the sky is the only thing here that is occasionally restless and fidgety, if you don't count ordinary people, that is. People only rarely appear here at night, but those who do can notice how, at such rare moments, time leaps down to the earth - into the water that is suddenly lit up, into the ice that reflects the moon in a harsh glint, into the eyes gaping around in fright ...

There is every sort of animal in a man: a snake, creeping noiselessly towards a rustling river; a cat, gently stealing along after it; a muskrat, swimming with only its head exposed, but above all inside a man there is the man himself - fearful of every murmur of the earth and, above all, of another man who has sharpened a knife for him, or aimed a sniper's rifle at him. And yet there is a state in which you call this danger down on yourself: you stop and you wait. And at that moment you realise that the feeling of every danger is connected with a movement: the movement of a snake, a cat, a muskrat ...

And that was the way Yosir stood upright there on the bank of the Pyanja, like a ground squirrel readying himself to give a sudden whistle, but instead of getting a knife in the back or a bullet from behind, he was felled bodily by Jafar. Jafar hissed something as he did it, but no louder than the water streaming off his clothes, and he dragged the senseless Yosir across the rough, sharp earth ...



Picassos found in Tashkent

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Hamid Ismailov Hamid Ismailov | 11:26 UK time, Friday, 26 October 2012

People say that God moves in mysterious ways. I often apply this saying to the phenomenon of artworks living their independent and sometimes incredible lives quite separately from their creators.

If you were told that the Tashkent State Museum of Arts was running its own exhibition of Picasso ceramics, you wouldn't believe it, would you?

But this is indeed the case. Twelve world-class pieces from the famous artist have been released from the vaults of the museum for the first time in 40 years.

Twelve works from Picasso on display in Tashkent

Until now nobody was aware of the existence of these masterpieces in the cellars of the museum, apart from one or two museum workers.

During and after World War II, Tashkent was somewhere the Russian and the Soviet cultural elite took refuge. Celebrities like the great poet Anna Akhmatova, writer Aleksey Tolstoy, artists and composers, countless counts and barons, coming back from the Stalinist camps or from abroad, were gathered in Tashkent - a safe, warm and prosperous oriental city.

They brought their collections and artefacts along with them too. When I was living in Tashkent I used to hear from time to time that someone was selling a Stradivarius violin, or the ivory chess set which had been used in a famous pre-war film about the lives of emperors, and so on...

But the story of Picasso's ceramics in Tashkent State Museum of Arts is a different one.

A Picasso plate in Tashkent

One of Picasso's closest friends, Fernand Léger, was married to a Ukrainian lady, whose name was Nadia.

Fernand and Nadia had a good collection of Picassos. When Fernand Léger died in 1955 this collection was inherited by Nadia, who decided to pass it onto the Soviet Museums.

By a Soviet system of dividends, or by some other historical accident, 12 pieces of ceramic art by Picasso found themselves in Uzbekistan - a country famous for its own ceramics.

Apparently the works were exhibited in the early sixties in Tashkent, but after exhibition everything was tucked away, and everyone somehow forgot about their existence.

A Picasso plate in Tashkent


Until one of the museum workers rediscovered them in 2004, by which time the Soviet Union was not around to claim the pieces back...

Uzbekistan is famous for its collections of avant-garde art. I wrote recently about the Savitsky Museum in Nukus, Karakalpakstan.

This week, 12 families of Italian tourists made their way from Italy to Nukus in their campervans to see that rare collection.

I'm sure that if they come to hear about the Picassos of Tashkent they will continue their journey along the new Silk Road...

Should poetry be forced onto the curriculum?

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Hamid Ismailov Hamid Ismailov | 16:44 UK time, Wednesday, 17 October 2012

Let's continue our literary discussion.

After the week when the biggest award in the literary world - the Nobel Prize for literature - was given to the Chinese writer Mo Yan, it's more than appropriate to talk about some problems in literature.

Last week I took part in the Liege Biennale of poets, which this year ran under the title: Should poetry be always modern?

Mo Yan

Mo Yan's career spans thirty years and takes in dozens of works

Two round-tables in particular drew my attention: How to Transmit Poetry? and Problems of Publishing Poetry.

As regards the first round-table, there is a near-universal concern among poets that poetry is disappearing from the school curriculum, that nobody - but especially the younger generation - is interested in poetry anymore, and that one should act immediately to save poetry from its death.
There must be serious reasons for these concerns.

But at the same time I'm sure that people were saying this 10, 20, 30 years or even - dare I say - centuries ago.

Those hundred-plus poets who were discussing the miserable state of poetry today were in fact denying that premise by their very own existence.

They came from different generations, including the youngest - the generation of poetry slams and rap.

Over the years I have noticed a tendency for previous generations to set up their own standard and vision for poetry. Anything beyond that vision is simply disregarded as "non-poetry" or "rubbish-poetry".

Beat poetry of the fifties and sixties was at odds with the generation of wartime poets, slam doesn't chime well with representatives of beat poetry, etc...

You want my opinion? I think that poetry finds its own way - all we can do is to make it widely available to anyone in any form, however people might need it.

In that way people who are interested in classic sonnets won't be fighting the rappers, the purveyors of slam-poetry won't be despising the vers-librists for the absence of rhymes, etc...

I have also noticed that Western poets (French, English, American, etc..) are sometimes envious of the fame of poets from traditional societies, where they are seen as semi-prophets and have a great following.

Very often this fact is taken as proof of the miserable state of poetry in the West.

In my last entry I discussed the opposition between information-based societies and emotion-based ones.
But even if we leave this argument to one side, those jealous poets don't see that, in proportion to its population, France has more poets or people who consider themselves poets than any of those poetry-driven traditional societies.

It's true though that while almost everyone writes poetry, almost no-one reads it. As that famous joke goes, 'I'm not a reader, I'm a writer!'

One of the poets at the Liege Biennale, John Glenday from Scotland, read a poem called Tin about the fact that the can-opener was invented forty-eight years after the tin can.

Let's hope that poetry works in a similarly mysterious way.

When you asked me for a love poem,
(another love poem) my thoughts
were immediately drawn to the early days
of the food canning industry -
all those strangely familiar trade-names from childhood:
Del Monte, Green Giant, Fray Bentos, Heinz.
I thought of Franklin and his poisoned men
drifting quietly northwest by north
towards the scooped shale of their graves
and I thought of the first tin of cling peaches
glowing on a dusty pantry shelf
like yet-to-be-discovered radium -
the very first tin of cling peaches
in the world, and for half a century
my fingers reaching out to it.

Poetry and the Media

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Hamid Ismailov Hamid Ismailov | 15:26 UK time, Tuesday, 9 October 2012

I decided to take as a title the most neutral view of the relationship between poetry and the media.

One can imagine all kinds of relationship between these two modes of creative expression: poetry versus the media, poetry as the media, poetry in the media, poetry without the media, poetry of the media, poetry on the media, poetry is the media, poetry outside the media, etc...

One can write volumes and volumes on the interactions between the two. But let us just touch on some of them, starting with the basics - the aims of poetry and the media (understood here as news-oriented media).

There's a well-known theory in the field of psychology about the inversely proportional relationship between information and emotions. The more information is available, the less the emotions are aroused and the other way around.

Smartphones and tablets

Does new technology have the potential to transform poetry?

This theory could explain the fundamental opposition between poetry and journalism or the media, since the latter is predominantly about information and the former is mainly about emotions.

This apparent opposition makes the appearance of poetry in newspapers, news bulletins or other traditional media seem incongruous, although not quite an impossibility.

Both sides could potentially lean towards each other: poetry could be newsy or topical, and the media could use the fruits of poetry for its own benefit. Think of the jingles used in corporate advertising, creative magazines or newspaper headlines, but also of the much more representative treatment of subjects that you see in movies (such as 'Shakespeare in Love' or the films of Andrei Tarkovsky).

I do recall once reading a discussion examining which was more truthful during the conflict in Northern Ireland - media articles or the poetry of Seamus Heaney.

But all in all, one must admit that conventional media and poetry are not the best of friends and so to answer the question "Should there be room for poetry in the media and why?" I think we had better turn our attention to so-called new media.

The explosion of new media and especially of social media has given a new life to the rather strained relationship between poetry and the media.

If the relationship between poetry and the media in the traditional sense was characterised as poetry versus the media, the rise of the internet and social media has allowed it to rise to all the other forms like poetry as the media, poetry in the media, poetry without the media, poetry of the media, poetry on the media, poetry is the media, poetry outside the media, etc...

Leaving aside web publishing, which has made poetry instant and ubiquitous - sometimes to a painful and harmful extent - new media has also created new forms of poetry based on technologies which explore a new syntax of linear and non-linear animation, hyperlinking, interactivity, real-time text generation, spatiotemporal discontinuities, self-similarity, synthetic spaces, immateriality, diagrammatic relations, visual tempo, biological growth and mutation, multiple simultaneities and many other innovative procedures.

The latest developments in what I've seen in this area are the Poems for Excitable Mobile Media - a series of poems written and designed to be read on touchscreen devices, from large-scale exhibition surfaces to mobile screens. New terms and poetic concepts like holo-poetry, digital poetry, biopoetry and space poetry have also recently emerged.

In the words of their creators, "This media poetry, although defined within the field of experimental poetics, departs radically from the avant-garde movements of the first half of the twentieth century, and the print-based approaches of the second half. Through an embrace of the vast possibilities made available through contemporary media, the artists in this anthology have become the poetic pioneers for the next millennium."

Some of them have even claimed that "social media is poetry in motion. It is a symphony of various content and platforms all working together. Each platform with a different pace, tone and frequency that resonates a message of harmony."

Poetry has always been about the ultimate creativity of mankind. Maybe now, as it moves from the enchained physical world of the pen, ink and paper to the virtual world of digits and electronics it may find itself moving in a more natural way from the status of Object to Event.

Does a short story stand for a micro-novel?

Hamid Ismailov Hamid Ismailov | 13:53 UK time, Friday, 5 October 2012


Clive Anderson and Miroslav Penko

Radio presenter Clive Anderson (L) and author Miroslav Penko (R), winner of the BBC Radio 4 International Short Story Award 2012. (Photo courtesy of Issa Pilton)

In previous blogs I have discussed several times that the span of the news, of our attention and of other phenomena in our social life is becoming shoter and shorter.

There's something in literature too which displays this tendency.

Short stories and novellas which could be read 'in one gulp' seem to be in demand again.

Recently I went to a book launch at award-winning Peirene Press, which publishes only novellas and one of the lines of their mission statement says: 'We only publish books of less than 200 pages that can be read in the same time it takes to watch a DVD'.

So when I was invited to the ceremony of the BBC Radio 4 International Short Story Award I was not just happy, but also curious as to what kind of short stories made the shortlist and which particular one would win.

In preparation for the event I listened to all shortlisted stories here; It was pure delight.

From  1990s Belfast in Lucy Caldwell's Escape Routes, told from the point of view of a child, whose friend and babysitter mysteriously goes missing in a besieged city, through Miroslav Penkov's East of the West, set in Bulgaria during and after the Cold War and explores the difficulties of love, relationships and identity, to Henrietta Rose-Innes' Sanctuary - a powerful story which traces an encounter with another family in the South African bush and explores the experience of domestic violence and its consequences - I have travelled the world ridden with conflicts and violence.

Though there is a playful piece by Julian Gough called The iHole which depicts the launch of the latest must-have gadget: a portable black hole with its relevant media hype, marketing, industry competition and consumer mania, satirically taking on technology and consumerism in the 21st century - the majority of the shortlisted stories are about the complicity of inter-human relationships and how family comes first.

In M J Hyland's Even Pretty Eyes Commit Crimes the adult narrator, who many years down the line still sees his father as somehow culpable for his mother's departure, and tires of his father's dependence on him, is forced to reassess his relationships as it becomes apparent that his wife is leaving him too.

Carrie Tiffany in Before he Left the Family examines the jagged relationship of two brothers and their parents following a painfully wrought divorce; while one brother's loyalty lies with the jilted mother, the narrator finds affinity with his father.

Krys Lee also explores the family relationship in The Goose Father: a man sends his wife and children to America for a better life, while he stays behind in South Korea making a living as an accountant. Concerned with respectability and success, the man's life is set awry when he takes in an endearing young tenant - along with his pet goose.

The other three shortlisted stories are also about human interaction, but they go beyond the protagonist's families.

In the Basement by Adam Ross - is a story perfectly fit for a play script. Two couples meet for dinner and wind up discussing an old friend called Lisa. But their disparaging attitude towards Lisa's lifestyle, choice of husband and treatment of their pet dog, unconsciously reveals more about their own relationships, insecurities, envy and brutality, than it does about Lisa.

Chris Womersley's  A Lovely and Terrible Thing tells a story of a man, who encounters a stranger on the road when his car breaks down. Invited to the stranger's house, he is further enticed by the promise of being let in on the family's secret - a daughter with a miraculous ability. It's an offer the man, who struggles to cope with his own daughter's disability, can't refuse.

And finally Deborah Levy in her short story Black Vodka explores the issue which we put in the centre of our short story written with the contribution from the five continents. In Black Vodka a hunchbacked man goes on a date with the girl of his dreams. A subtle battle between shame and prurience ensues, as the man is crippled by thoughts of his own repugnance, and the girl is only intrigued by his appearance.

After the preparatory work I headed to the award ceremony, where the judges under the chairmanship of Clive Anderson, announced the winner of the competition as Miroslav Penkov with his short story East of the West.

This short story which you can listen to here, like other stories in the competition, is in fact a micro-novel, rather than a short story in the Chekhovian tradition. It's not a single anecdote or a single event around which the narration develops.

Two villages, once united, are now divided by the river and by the state borders after the war, and people on both banks, many of whom are relatives, gather once a year for a sbor - or overnight gathering. Multi-layered relationship not just within families, but also among relatives and now citizens of two states make this short story an epic.

Love and childhood, hatred and old age, traditions and globalisation, identity and loss - all of that finds its own place in the space of eight thousand words.

Yes, the life span of many things around us is getting shorter and shorter, and BBC Radio 4 which not only manages to put into those ever shortening spans the best of literature, but extends the formerly national competition to the international level is worthy of credit. Otherwise the end of that spiralling tendency to ever increasing brevity is oblivion, isn’t it?...

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