An interview with Peter Hughes
Litmus magazine interviews Peter Hughes author of Radioactive Relicts. Peter Hughes is a poet & painter who also runs Oystercatcher Press. Shearsman published his Selected Poems in 2013, alongside a volume of responses to his work, An Intuition of the Particular, edited by Ian Brinton. His latest collection, Allotment Architecture, is published by Reality Street.
DLIn your poems we find concepts of memory, conscious perception, the bio-medical body, quantum physics, and astronomy. Was science a conscious backdrop for this pamphlet?
PHI like the notion that a poem can use the fullest possible range of linguistic resources & not just pace up & down in a paddock with Literary written on the gate. What we think about the world, & what we think about thinking, is always overlapping with the scientific. Science is just our evolving sense of the universe with reference to the latest information & most plausible hypotheses. So a bit of that should surely make its way into the odd artwork. Or even into artwork that is not odd.
One of the great things about doing versions of poems that are about six centuries old is that the world view in those works is so clearly past its sell-by date - well, unless you’re a religious fundamentalist or Tory backbencher. So versions (not perhaps translations) created today have the opportunity to foreground issues of contemporary significance as part of their evolving poetics. So I’d say science was part of the backdrop for this pamphlet. But I wanted to echo Petrarch’s fierce interest in all aspects of how we feel, think & act in our unstable, damaged & mysterious contexts.
DLYou’ve been a teacher for a large part of your life. What do you think are the biggest challenges facing educators under our current (UK) education system, when teaching poetry?
PHPrescriptive systems, standardisation, writing measured according to hidebound grammatical prejudices. Experiences of poetry mapped onto fossilised ’learning outcomes’ & ’assessment criteria’ which have nothing to do with poetry. Tedious models. Reliance on mainstream exemplars as stimuli.
I think meaningful experiences of poetry have to mesh with the quirks of individuals & need to be part of an exploratory process. I used to encourage children to work collaboratively & see where the ideas took them. Doesn’t ’educate’ come from ’educare’, to draw out? If kids get the chance to generate a load of language then play collage games with it they can surprise & delight themselves with the language they already have. But the stimuli have to be many, varied, & mainly from outside the classroom. If they are encouraged to develop two or three versions of a piece, they can learn vast amounts by then assessing their own work. Which version of their own work do they like best? Can they begin to say why? But the poems have to be allowed to exist as significant creations, as intellectually & emotionally complex experiences, not as grammatically correct outcomes. I mean, a poem isn’t a job application. Kids love performing & celebrating poems, building up their own collections, designing covers. They can write in character, write as a tree, a trumpet, a tyrant. Develop empathy. Feel their way into an ever-widening world.
The challenge really comes from the fact that governments want schools to be microcosms of this failed society. Successes & failures. Learning outcomes must be welded to notions of economic growth (itself an idea which is philosophically bankrupt, economically impossible, politically repugnant, & environmentally fatal). But the poetry of truth & beauty, of justice, of disrespectful laughter, of wonder in the face of the microscopic & astronomical, of the individualistic & the social - where is that in our education system? Actually, the best teachers do a great job of smuggling it in - in spite of the system, however, not because of it.
You can read Peter's poem “EDUCATION POLICY” by clicking here.
DLYour authorial presence is undeniable in your translations. Venuti writes that translation is a ’complex cultural artifact that never survives intact the move to another language and culture where it comes to signify, to be valued, and to function differently.’ Were there any parallels you were keen to preserve, and were you in any way hoping to produce a similar perceptual response in your readers as you yourself experienced with your first readings of Petrarch’s sonnets?
PHI think the voices in my versions are multi-layered & partly derive from all those poets I’ve valued most over the years. These translucent layers are applied over a residual stump of Petrarch, who relishes the rather theatrical role of love-lorn solitary. Actually, he’s spending time with the mother, or mothers, of his two children, whizzing around the centres of power, angling for preferment & giving vent to his irritation & indignation at some of the more outrageous political & ecclesiastical goings-on around him. He’s also genuinely pushing for change.
I don’t like the process of writing to be subordinate to an over-arching plan, or a rigid set of procedures. I want unexpectedness to erupt into the work at any point. But I suppose I did want to pick up on the way Petrarch transmutes tradition, dissatisfaction, desire & hunger for change into those very beautiful formal constructs. That’s why I retained the sonnet shape, some of the rhythmic flow & the very regular line length. I wouldn’t have wanted to produce a similar perceptual response in a reader as I experienced with my first reading of Petrarch’s sonnets however, partly because the various distances are too great, & partly because when I first read Petrarch I didn’t understand a single word. It was in L’Aquila in 1983 & I could just about buy a packet of cigarettes & a bottle of wine in Italian.
DLAs well as making your own aesthetic and verbal choices, your translations are founded in the historical and the geographical. Do you feel it is important for a translator to be fluent in the language they are translating from?
PHThere are all kinds of translations, or versions, aren’t there? I can remember wanting to make versions of a couple of poems by Ritsos, although I didn’t speak Greek. The impulse came from reading several versions in English, & wondering if a couple of infelicities could be dropped & a sort of improved composite created. I ’translated’ a couple of poems by Paul Klee once. But I read them in a bilingual German - Italian edition & kept scanning back & forth between the two languages.
The truth is that my ’Petrarch poems’ are not really translations at all. They just use the originals as stimuli for new creations - & there is a playfulness that would undermine & invalidate proper translation (that is to say, a translation which was intended to give as clear an idea as possible of the original text to a reader who didn’t understand Italian). But I have been keen to retain significant links between each of my versions & the original texts.
Radioactive Relictsfrom our online shop along with Litmus Magazine issue #1.
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