The Ofi Press Magazine

International Poetry and Literature from Mexico City

Interview with Alistair Noon

 Alistair Noon was born in 1970 and grew up in Aylesbury. Besides time spent in Russia and China, he has lived in Berlin since the early nineties, where he works as a professional translator. His poetry and translations from German and Russian have appeared in nine chapbooks from small presses. Earth Records (Nine Arches Press, 2012) is his first full-length collection.

Interview carried out by email between Alistair Noon and Jack Little. Published in The Ofi Press Issue 34. Read more of his poetry in this issue here.

Photo by Clare Jephcott.




 1. Do you believe that globalisation is having a dislocating effect on poets?

When I published the essay Translocal Underground: Anglophone Poetry and Globalization in 2007, globalization was much more on everyone’s lips than it is now. That probably shows how much of the globalization discourse has since been absorbed and has ceased to be the subject of widespread debate. For any suckers for punishment, that essay and its update provide the background to just about everything I say in answer to questions 1, 3 and 4 here.

Dislocation is a loaded term of course. I wouldn’t doubt for a nanosecond that there are specific circumstances, or combinations of circumstances, in which poets – or of course anyone for that matter – is going to feel “dislocated” upon moving to a new setting. But that sense may equally be a phase that passes, or may not even occur at all.

Short of some reliable quantitative studies, it’s not hard to guess that globalization is having – if not a dislocating effect – then at least a relocating effect on some poets. Two phenomena spring to mind in this respect (there may well be others I’m not aware of). The first is the South-to-North brain drain, whereby people from the Global South do their first or higher degrees in the North and sometimes go on to obtain academic or other posts there (this is a pretty simplified view of course, given the emergence of the Gulf States as a teaching destination for Western academics, for example).

The second is the concentration of financial capital in particular centres such as London and New York, making these places harder to survive in for anybody a) not on a corporate salary and/or b) trying to make a bit of space to do something artistic. This is why Brooklyn moves to Berlin, London to Kreuzberg etc. (be warned, Berlin is catching up here in terms of living costs). Both of these groups, the Southern Academics and the Rent Refugees, will include poets.

One way in which globalization might indeed be having a specifically dislocating effect – not so much on poets as on poetry, and probably without the practitioners of that poetry being aware of it – is the fact that highly nationally oriented literatures may look really rather inept at dealing with the world as many people now perceive it, as a highly interdependent structure. Some people have always known this of course, but I think the trend now is towards more and not less understanding of the world in this way.

Don’t get me wrong – local particulars are always going to be a great way to get strong, vivid, physical, visual, stimulating sensations into a poem. But any poetry that can’t elevate those local particulars to something genuinely wider in scope is going to start looking very provincial in the big scheme of things (I don’t mean that every poem has to be “universal”, I think that at least in poetry that term is touted about with far too little empirical data to back it up). In their different ways, some parts of the two poetry scenes with which I’m most familiar, those in the UK and Germany, are characterized by this narrowness.

At this point I should emphasize (and again refer the reader to my essay) that it’s not the specific experience of travel that counts here. Particularly with the way that social media, the rest of the internet, and easily transportable hardware now offer a chance to switch off at virtually any time from the immediate environment, it’s quite possible to go globetrotting and come back barely altered by the experience. What makes some poetry translocal I think is its openness to and interest in the wider world and the forces that determine it. At least, that’s what I’m interested in. For me, the central question of our time, or at least the question I’m trying to answer for myself, is: what the hell is going on?

2. Is translation itself an act of creation?

In WS Graham’s must-read poem “Johann Joachim Quantz’s Five Lessons”, a flute teacher tells his pupil

                             What we have to do
Today is think of you as a little creator
After the big creator.

I think the composer/musician relationship is a good metaphor for the relationship between the (original) author and the translator. Though it could equally apply to the author/reader relationship of course – interpretation requires creativity.

Literary translation is an extremely complex process and though I think it is justifiable and useful to think and argue about it, the results of such contemplations can seldom be more than rules of thumb, precisely because of that complexity. The complexity derives, among other things, from the number of potential “stakeholders” involved in any literary translation – the original author, the work’s original target audience, the translator, the translation’s target audience, publishers, reviewers, previous translators who may have established traditions in translating that text etc.

There are degrees of creativity in translation in general. Poetry translation is simply at one end of the spectrum that starts with washing machine instructions (for most languages, I would assume that the options for translating “Open the door” are likely to be limited). But even within poetry translation there will be times where more or less creativity is called for. I recently heard the Irish poet Matthew Sweeney say that writing poetry involves lying your way to the truth, and there’s a parallel in poetry translation, where you sometimes – but not always – have to leave the formal and semantic properties of the original a long way behind in order to arrive at them.

A slight digression and a gripe, but one which relates to the idea of translation as creation: there is a big move on at the moment, and has been for several years now, for literary translators to come out of the closet and to emphasize that they too are engaged in creative work. Certainly in the case of translators of prose, where monetary remuneration, however inadequate, is much more likely to be at stake than with poetry, there are very real and understandable grounds for this. Paradoxically, or perhaps not so paradoxically at all, in poetry translation, where shekels are less likely, there is more of a tradition of acknowledging the translator as a creator in their own right.

Given the long period in which (prose) translators were often quite literally forgotten, improved visibility of the translator is a good thing, but now and again it gets mixed up with other problems. I’ve noticed that translation mags increasingly now require statements on the translation process as part of the initial submission. Personally, I am quite irritated by this – it’s a form of unremunerated work that, if the submission is rejected, will not even reap the reward of unpaid publication. Poets and many other artists are often outside the monetary economy, and that’s not always a bad thing, but there’s no need to go making the whole thing even more like an unpaid internship than it already has to be. Once the translation has been accepted, that’s different; then I don’t mind writing a little piece if that’s what’s wanted.

3. You have said in a previous interview that you believe “translocality is a useful concept against nationalism”. Could you explain this for us?

One of the problems with nationalism is that the idea of the nation is intimately bound up with the state (they’re not called nation-states for nothing), and with the exception of the Vatican City, the state has got guns, and in some cases thermo-nuclear warheads. Clearly, there are a whole load of other issues, problems and difficulties at stake too, and as my dad is continually fond of telling me, there ain’t no easy answers.

Even as someone not particularly interested in the minutiae of world soccer, every four years I nevertheless find myself jumping up and shouting things like “Go on Shearer/Rooney/Whoever”. Many people, for quite understandable but very historically contingent reasons, have quite strong senses of national identity. But though I certainly think there is such a thing as a healthy sense of belonging to a group, I don’t think there’s some kind of healthy nationalism, patriotism or whatever you want to call it in contrast to jingoism. The potential for nationalism’s manipulation by extremely partisan interests is always there.

There's also a kind of left realpolitik version of “positive” nationalism, which views the nation(-state) as being at least an acceptable evil, if not a necessity, en route to the international utopia. Two possible origins or reinforcements of this idea are the following. Firstly, the nationalist tinge of some 19th century social and revolutionary movements, in which just who the nation was – the people or the crown and its cronies – was being contested. This was all taking place in the context of full-blooded imperialism, so I doubt the progressive and the reactionary parts of nationalism could really have been kept apart. (Or were they? 19th century historians help me please.)

A second point of reference for some of the left’s accommodation with nationalism is the post-WW2 anticolonial struggles across what would become known as the Tricontinent. In and of themselves, those struggles aren't hard to justify as acts of defence against the colonial aggressor. But we're in a different period now, in which the previously anticolonial elites frequently, if not generally team up with neocolonial corporate interests. This means that an appeal to the unity of the nation in these countries would seem destined to be appropriated by those elites to negate opposition.

Perhaps countries like Bolivia and Uruguay, with down-to-earth presidents, show it can be done otherwise. I'm willing to be shouted down here by people who know more of the details than I do. But I think the least you can say with some certainty is that the nation is usually a great way of getting people to go to war. (As ever, it’s always more complicated than that: “successful” nation-states reduce internal fighting – that’s one reason why Western states are significantly less violent places than they were in the 19th, or even the early and mid-20th century – while often ratcheting up the violence outside their borders).

How all that can be changed is still a moot point of course and some of the alternatives proposed (and in some cases tried out) are not appealing or have yet to convincingly overcome what currently look like inherent flaws. You want to make meaningful changes by parliamentary means? How are you going to stop your radical party being sucked back into the corporate game once it’s elected? You want a revolution but to keep the state for the time being? How are you going to stop that state from inevitably and very rapidly developing its own interests, separate from those of the people it will claim to represent, employing some rather unpleasant state power to preserve them and showing no sign whatsoever of withering away any time soon? You want a revolution and then to dismantle the state immediately? What are you going to do with the people – and there may be quite a lot of them – who don’t want to play ball? Give them a good kicking? Well you’d better come up with a good way to stop that becoming the general method of conflict resolution in the absence of judiciaries.

But as a provisional step, talking and writing about the way people make connections outside of the discourse of the nation-state seems to me to be at least a step in the right direction. There is a great danger that, like everything else, the idea of translocality can be put to work as a justification for the totally mobile and totally disposable workforce at corporate service. Which is why it needs to be filled now with a non-hegemonic meaning.

My view of the nation is no doubt tinged by the milieu of the German left I've been on the fringes of for the last 20 years. For fairly obvious reasons, even for the right (with the exception of the very nastiest ones), German nationalism couldn't carry on unaltered following WW2. But oddly enough, there's a strain of antinationalism within Germany which sort of flips back on itself to then become a kind of inverse nationalism. To my mind there's something peculiarly nationalistic about saying "We're not nationalistic! We’re not nationalistic!". In different forms, you can find this a long way across the political spectrum in Germany, all the way into anarchism. Whoops, there go my friends.

Which, again, is reason to come up with a positive way of describing social relations involving different locations where possible.

4. Where is “home” for you and what impact does this have upon your writing?

To a large degree, Berlin is definitely home to me. I’ve spent most of my adult life there. But in spite of being out of the loop of UK current affairs and the telly, Britain also still feels like home to some extent. And although I was only there for two years and have a less than perfect command of the language, there’s a bit of me that thinks of China as home too.

Going back to the local particularities I mentioned above, it won’t be controversial to suggest that familiarity is not a bad pre-condition for writing. A couple of years ago I wrote a poem relating to a highly controversial part of the Near East, which I visited for the sum total of three weeks. That’s hardly long enough to get to grips with a very complex political situation but I was visiting with a very good friend from that country, such that again, even if in a highly mediated way, I felt I had some familiarity that I could write from or through.


5. What does the future hold for Alistair Noon?

I have quite a few projects on the go at the moment, all in parallel. I think I am now in the home straight of working on my translations of Osip Mandelstam, which I hope to bring out as a book within the foreseeable. I have a couple of book-length manuscripts of my own poetry which will be submitted to publishers in the not too distant future as well. I recently did a fairly lengthy collaboration with the London poet Giles Goodland which will also go publisher-chasing. I am reading Heinrich Heine’s Deutschland Ein Wintermärchen (Germany A Winter’s Fairy Tale) very intensively at the moment as it will serve as a model for something of my own I’m writing. I’ve been striking out into what for me is new terrain with some poems based around Google searches. And there are some other things that will have to stay on the backburner for the time being.