3 July, 2017Issue 34.9PoetryTranslation

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Ode to Joy

Nicola Thomas










Around 2005, Jason Kottke of the link-sharing website kottke.org suggested in passing that “most modern sports” involve a kind of mania for tidying up. This applies not just to sports like football or snooker, which involve tidying balls into goals or pockets, but also to games such as chess, where the aim is to tidy the pieces off the board one by one, or Scrabble, in which one tidies letters into words. As Kottke points out, plenty of classic video games conform to this pattern, too: PacMan, Space Invaders, Katamari Damacy, and all sorts of arcade games of the coin-collecting old-school.

Given their reputation for punctiliousness, it’s not surprising that German football teams (of all types) appear to be better at tidying up than their English counterparts. Specifically, they can tidy the ball into the net from a distance of eleven metres with an accuracy which might justly be described as uncanny – something they demonstrated once again against the English U21 men’s team last week. The trouble is, in the context of a fraught beginning to the Brexit negotiations, this German proclivity for tidying up could end up getting us in a bit of a mess. (The German ambassador to the UK, hauled onto the Today programme to talk about Brexit and the future of language learning, was called upon to apologise for his team’s successful performance, and declined.) With tensions running high, one might argue that it was churlish of the Germans to insist on winning at football when they are already winning so comprehensively at being a mature and resilient democracy.

Play can bring us together, or it can divide us. Anyone who has watched children playing knows this, of course – the agreement about whether there will or won’t be rules, what the rules might be, whether they have been kept to. The parameters of the game. In that sense, all play which includes others is a kind of negotiation. But not all negotiations are playful: despite Boris Johnson’s evident instinct to turn any situation into farce, all the better to deflect serious scrutiny, his clownish persona has long since given way and left him with all the charm of the violent off-duty children’s entertainer bested by a gaggle of brats. And despite the tendency of recent Conservative prime ministers to indulge in high-stakes gambles, it’s clear that national and global government is more than ‘just’ a game. Nation states can’t play with one another – how would they? In huge teams made up of economists and policemen, soldiers and officials? No: the rules of engagement would be far too complex. Benign forms of to-and-fro which foster real, human relationships are desperately needed.

In this spirit, one might want to propose reading Stephen Fowler’s long-running Enemies project (2012-present) as set of shadow Brexit negotiations. The format is simple: Fowler orchestrates the bringing together of two writers who perform a collaborative piece lasting 8-10 minutes. Often, there is an international dynamic, with the two writers coming from different national backgrounds, not necessarily European. Ten or more collaborations make an evening’s performance. Thus: European Poetry Night at Rich Mix, London in May 2017; “Beyond Words: South Korean & British poets in collaboration” in June 2017; and (forthcoming) Camarade at the Ledbury Poetry Festival on 10th July 2017. A full list of past and future events, quite remarkable in scope and volume, is at http://www.theenemiesproject.com. Of the 1000+ works the project has commissioned thus far, a good number are available in recorded versions online.

In practice, the experience of an evening watching Enemies bounce off one another involves detailed investigation of the space where contemporary (sometimes experimental, although the organisers avoid this term) poetry and stand-up comedy meet. The audience laugh regularly – often at quite the wrong moments. Some collaborations I’ve seen have involved post-apocalyptic homophonic translations (Max Höfler & Robert Herbert), ‘live’ translations divorced from linguistic competence (S. J. Fowler & Alessandro Burbank), envelopes stuffed with text messages from 2003 (Livia Franchini & Georgia Rodger), and exchanges of satirical self-aggrandising letters (Jen Calleja & Bas Kwakman). It is anarchic, unpredictable and undeniably playful; it’s both a parody of other forms of negotiation, and a genuine social interaction happening in real time as each poet bends to accommodate their counterpart, styles blend and shared interests emerge.

The iterative and collaborative format throws up some interesting patterns. In light of the need to make sure everyone gets a fair say, poets will often alternate their spoken contributions, each taking turns to read or respond, translate or develop, accept or refute what has come before. This turns the performance into a kind of verbal ping-pong, and the visceral delight which comes from watching it is akin to that which one feels when watching professional table tennis players develop a rhythm and gain pace as they play. It’s the back and forth of a conversation, elevated to a higher plane – showing that, as Fowler notes, “poetry lends itself to collaboration as language does conversation”. Another fascinating consequence of the flexibility of the format is the difficulty of deciding where the parameters of the performance lie: are the notes passed across from speaker to speaker part of the game? What about the adjusting of the microphone, the awkward embrace, the comically profuse – or abrupt – exchange of mutual thanks? Should I laugh now, or incline my head as if deep in thought? Heightened sensitivity to the circumstances of performance is accompanied by heightened awareness of the physical presence of the two participants, and the audience often giggle in sheer awkwardness as the performers enter the stage-space, only for this tension to collapse into open delight or silent exhilaration as the collaboration unfolds.

Introducing extracts from the project which made it into a collected volume in 2013, Fowler described it as “a testament to my refusing to be alone in the creative act, as I would not want to be alone in the world, and to my decision to mediate sociality through the artistic impulse of other human beings”. The Enemies game offers access to something quite different to that which one can read in the written works of many of the writers who perform at these events: something freer, looser, more playful. Performances can be loud or quiet, interactive or rhythmic, mobile or static, reflective or bombastic, but there invariably great joy in this coming together, and it is a joy which is almost entirely divorced from any ideas about literary or artistic ‘value’. Given the huge number of collaborations, it’s inevitable that some will be duds: blind dates where there’s no spark, or dutiful plods through an impossibly narrow strip of shared ground. For the most part, though, the game is a pleasure to watch. It’s subversive, creative, and powerfully establishes the territory which can be shaped by poetic language across linguistic and cultural boundaries.

Poetry isn’t going to solve Europe’s problems. Even apart from the obvious philosophical objections, and despite some admirable efforts to the contrary, it remains a very white and socially exclusive sport. That’s not to say that there’s no overlap between the Ledbury Poetry Festival crowd and the audience for an England U21’s match: all kinds of play can remind us how contingent and wonderful our modes of living together are (although one might note that football in particular occupies a very difficult space, being both a game played by people and a corporate contest hopelessly implicated in intractable, masculine problems of ‘national identity’). For numerous reasons, the current negotiations between the UK government and European Union are no game – not even a football game, already so much more important than life or death – and nor should they be. But our play with one another, as individuals and as social beings who do not want to be alone in the world, can and should undercut the joyless charade of trade negotiations; it should transgress, subvert and satirise; in short, it should make a mess.


Nicola Thomas is Stipendiary Lecturer in German at St Hilda’s College, Oxford. She researches twentieth-century poetry.