Sarah Maguire Prize 2022 Judges Essay

Rosalind Harvey, Kit Fan and Kyoo Lee discuss their reading of the Sarah Maguire Prize 2022 shortlist, the process of translation, and much more.


  • Pandemic Paradox: how reading poetry during the pandemic drew us closer together

  • Translation as Dialogue

  • Resurrection: The Loss and Gain of Translating Poetry

  • Sensual Poetry: On reading about the body and the erotic

  • Parameters: Connecting Literal and Metaphorical Borders through Translation

Pandemic Paradox: how reading poetry during the pandemic drew us closer together

Rosalind: Whenever we read anything, it is a process not just of absorption, of interpretation, but of construction. We construct a text in our minds, and the resulting edifice comes out of the words on the page - filtered through our own particular frame of mind. The books we have read, whether throughout our lives or more recently, still hover in our consciousness, and of course, the times we are in.

The times we are in are always different, of course - different for each of us, and different for each individual across the span of her life (just as you can never step in the same river twice, you can never quite step into the same book of poetry twice - the flow of time has moved on, you have moved on, and so the flow of words will wash over you differently) - but as we read all the submissions to this prize, the strange times we were in connected us all, to a degree: the times of the pandemic, of this utterly awful, frightening, life-altering (and still ongoing) global tragedy, sitting like a dome over everyone’s experience.

I felt the presence of this dome powerfully as I read this paradox: how awful that we are all connected in this way, due to this disease rippling around the world; and yet, how astonishing, and perhaps rare, to feel connected to the rest of the world like this. Of course, not all of the collections we read were written or published during the pandemic, but it felt inevitable, to me, to read them inside of this context, and that our responses to them would somehow be marked by our experiences of it - that the poems, no matter how separate from the covid era, would at times speak to it and to our place within it, allowing us to see it differently and to examine our feelings around it.

Kyoo: “The pandemic paradox today that keeps us apart together,” as I put it last year, thinking of Sarah and the prize, is still keeping us apart together, perhaps not unlike this life in death and vice versa, and poetry, too, is still integral part of this ongoing live theatre. Indeed in the last two years the “dome” you speak of, Rosalind, that shelters and saves our lives, also allegorised by Plato in his own cave, quickly turned into a virtual global library where captive whispers became part of our lifelines. Poetry, written and read, and translated and transported, has always been growing on poetrees, yet its telepresence in times of pandemic crisis remains ever so palpable. Those pages presented in 2020-2021 and perused together in 2022 are still pulsating with the spirit of the age suddenly facing an urgent need to articulate its own epochal epochē, a partial pause.

Kit: Paradox is a beautiful word, as in Greek, para means ‘alongside’ and ‘beyond’ and dox means ‘opinion’, ‘idea’, or ‘belief’. It seems we need to hold more than one thing in our mind in order to be perplexed. I often misread paradox as pandora, as if what’s inside the box of chaos is also a paradox. For months, during pre-lockdown, lockdown, and post-lockdown, I felt like poetry, like the planet itself, has become a box. ‘What’s the point?’ I kept asking myself. Here is a poem about the self, there is another poem about another self. Yes, grief and identity are twins who walk hand-in-hand everywhere. But after reading over fifty poetry collections, and dipping in and out for the shortlisted books week after week, something in me has changed, as if my tilted axis, instead of being corrected, is tilted more, and most perplexingly, I’m happy with the radical tilting. As a poet, I never believe in the usefulness of poetry. It is almost impossible to explain why one finds a poem memorable or manages to remember a line or a phrase in a poem. Also, what’s memorable for A can be completely forgettable for B. ‘Poetry makes nothing happen’, Auden wrote in ‘In Memory of W.B. Yeats’ and we can read Auden’s line with or without irony. I don’t think poetry needs to bring solace. However it should capture the paradox of languages and our times, just like Pandora’s box.

Translation as Dialogue

Kyoo: I do ‘find’ translation constantly fascinating, a form of trading traditions and much more. Consider its metamorphic phenomenology as well as its psychographic dramaturgy, in which hints of treason are constantly lurking in the form of ineluctable “reason(s),” and such reason(s), when rendered rigorously graphically unruly, can in fact – and this is my transHermès whispering – unlock the gate of the prison-house of languages in ways that can be un-heard-of, literally. Torturous yes yet totally worth the wait is this fantastic meta-mélange of lucidly “exhaustive” opacity and “vanilla” playful vitality, which we could literally translingually sense and savour while reading through all the collections that move not only from one language to another but across various internal “logocentric” borders and checkpoints of their own, historical or otherwise. A few years ago, in a semi-private epistolary response to Jacques Derrida’s ‘What is a “Relevant” Translation?’ (2001), his reading of The Merchant of Venice by William Shakespeare as a sort of allegory on the insoluble issues and tissues of translation, I happened to come up with a concept, “translogopoeia,” desiring to linger longer with such generative challenges in acts of translation as durational poetic inter-actions, not just transactions (cf. Kyoo Lee, “Dear Jackie, Thank you for your Letter; or IOU a Letter, a Translogopoethic Note”). It has been an exhilarating experience to make these translogopoethic excursions with not only the authors and translators but both of you, Kit and Rosalind.

Kit: The reader of a poetry collection is the witness of a metamorphosis. Reading not only invents the world, but also transforms it, and translation is the one of most ancient forms of recreation. Even before written languages emerged from our tongues, our ancestors found ways to crawl into deep caves and left hand-prints and drawings to record, report, and translate their experiences onto stonewalls. For me, reading a book of translated poetry feels like discovering cave paintings. We know the tradition, convention and canon of the art, but our feelings go beyond knowledge. Like pigments, different languages of the books I read in the last few months inherit their own slant of light. But through the metamorphosis of translation, they become a new form of radiance. Kyoo, I’m very taken by what you said about the whisperings of transHermès, partly because as the conductor of souls into the afterworld, Hermès, I can well imagine, prefers to whisper, as darkness brings us fear and tenderness. Partly also because Hermès is one of my favourite gods. I always find his winged sandals irresistible. So, now whenever I read a book of translated poems, I will imagine myself wearing Hermès’s sandals, flying into the dimly-lit cave to read the musical and pictorial world that seems completely foreign and yet utterly homely.

Rosalind: Kyoo, when I read your mention above of the concept you came up with, translogopoeia, I cannot help but think of Greek, which I am trying (struggling!) to learn at the moment, and which is making me feel both enjoyably and frustratingly like a child - that return to pre-speech, to wanting-to-say-and-not-being-able-to-say, to seeing shapes on a page and straining to know what sound they might represent.

And it strikes me that, in part, this is what reading a new poem is like - not in the frustrating sense, necessarily, but in the sense that it asks us (a good poem will ask us) to return to a stage where language is new, where it doesn’t give itself up easily, or boringly. As I read many of the poems we read for the prize, I often had to stop, to ask myself what this word or sentence or sound or punctuation mark was doing (I was ‘desiring to linger longer,’ as you say, Kyoo), and this asking is part of what the experience of reading a poem is, part of how it is so different to reading (say) a novel. It is an asking that takes place between the poem and the reader and which constructs the poem anew in our minds (the poetic inter-actions, not trans-actions, as you put it); perhaps when we read in translation there is a further layer of asking in there, and the way these poems continually asked me to ask I found immensely valuable and rewarding throughout this process.

Resurrection: The Loss and Gain of Translating Poetry

Kit: Orpheus, the god of songs and poetry, lost his limbs in the end. ‘All the new thinking is about loss’, wrote Robert Hass in ‘Meditation at Lagunitas’. Loss is a form of inheritance in poetry, and translating poetry involves letting go of the original while replicating - or rather - regenerating the sense of loss in a different tongue. Reading a host of brilliant books in the process of judging, I kept asking myself: can loss take place without time? Instead of answers, I found questions everywhere in the poems I encountered. ‘What has time produced?’ Najwan Darwish asked in ‘To Abdel Amir Jaras’. ‘Produced’ suggests industry, the manufacturing of raw materials. There are moments when I felt many translators tap into the inner source of a poem and convert the words, lines and music into raw materials to produce new songs in English, giving the original a second life. It’s a resurrection, or where I come from, a reincarnation, both of which are a form of translation of loss.

Rosalind: I love this response so much, Kit - this idea that translators resurrect or reincarnate through their process, that a translation can be at once a ‘translation of loss’ while also, of course a gain - you gain a new poem via the translation of loss. This seems to me to be a beautifully nuanced counterbalance to the cliché that ‘poetry is what gets lost in translation,’ or to the boring old question that often gets asked of translators - ‘what has been lost?’ - It’s never that simple, that dull: yes, something gets lost (and I think, while translators can at times be wary of acknowledging loss - it can feel de-stabilising to an already precarious, undervalued profession to admit to something that might call even further into question their oblique & often misunderstood practice. It’s important to recognise that of course this loss takes place in order to have a conversation about the process, but of course, things are always gained too. Questions are re-asked, re-framed; cultural allusions are reinvigorated, adapted; and lyricism, sonic effects, the music, are all absorbed into the body and then pushed out again via the consonants and vowels of the new language and the translator’s sensibility. A healthy regurgitation!

Sensual Poetry: On reading about the body and the erotic

Rosalind: One of the things I enjoy the most about translating is its sensuality - the feel of the words in my mouth, rolling phrases around my tongue until I have ‘ingested’ them and can reproduce what I have absorbed through the particular contours of English. And this sensual, intuitive - erotic, even! - aspect of all writing is also enjoyably un-intellectual, by which I don’t mean basic, or not thought through, but rather, thought through via the mouth, the throat, the ear, rather than solely the mind. You can feel the pleasure felt while writing this kind of work when you come to read it, too - I felt genuine pleasure when reading Lee Hyemi’s work, a pleasure I’m sure was heightened by my being very alone during the pandemic, more unable than ever before to actually touch another human being. Gervitz’s work has an eroticism pulsing through it, too, which I often experienced as more urgent than in Lee’s poetry, which has a slow, easy sensuality to it - I think this is partly to do with the structure in Gervitz, the repeated lines frequently linked by ‘ands’, a sort of breathless list, although I also wonder whether it has to do with the relatively greater distance (in time) between the poet writing and the experiences she was writing about, compared to the younger Lee - an urgency borne of memory’s intensifying lens?

Kit: I find a poem sexy when it’s not afraid to be itself. Sexiness means more to me in poetry than eroticism, as my gut instinct is that subjectivity rules. Sexiness seems an intuition or in the eye of the beholder, while eroticism involves some implicit conventions or criteria. There are many cliches in describing our body in relation to sex, and without these cliches, I don’t think the language of love is worth its trouble. What’s unsettlingly sexy in Lee Hyemi’s poems is her ability to summon unembarrassment as a source of inspiration, focussing on human connection through intense and often puzzling body language of intimacy. One needs to have experienced embarrassment to grow out of it, if ever. What makes a poem sexy, for me, is the tension between knowing what is embarrassing and undoing that itchy feeling of shyness. It may be perverse of me to describe some of Salim Barakat’s highly-strung, deeply intellectual poems in Come, Take a Gentle Stab as sexy, but I do think they contain a similar tension between recognition and self-abandonment.

Kyoo: Yes, a sort of (con)sensual synergy between sexuality and textuality seems as subtle as the rhyme there, braingasmic, so to speak. I get what you both are saying, Kit and Rosalind, totally, about, for instance, Barakat’s Come, Take a Gentle Stab as “sexy,” yes quite “perversely” spot-on, and yes so true, the swerving sensuality of Gervitz’s “ands,” her “fleeting geometry. Frontal and dorsal, both, as well as angular and singplural, poetic attention is a wireless surround sound system on the move. Again with the Gervitzian traveler in all of us readers and writers, and thinkers especially, in these strange times we are living through, as you pointed out at the start of our conversation, Rosalind, we open the window and learn to lean to meet those otherworldly folks arriving in their winged sandals also so loved by Kit, meeting and greeting ourselves “together in a sudden strangeness” as Alice Quinn puts it, the title of a moving anthology she promptly put together in November 2020 (summoning “America’s poets” in response to the pandemic crisis we’re still in). This art of remaining a stranger and non-stranger in a sudden reciprocal strangeness, to be “completely foreign and yet utterly homely” as Kit puts it, is intertemporal and translocal. We need and need to find our own vehicles, our own transcending voice(s) speaking of and to bodies in love. The solitary pregnant narrator in The River in the Belly by Fiston Mwanza Mujila chants: “I make love to the sky. I’m expecting a child with the sky. The child who comes out of my belly or the river born from my loins or the river-child my misbegotten body spits out will fill long nights of insomnia with its flesh.” Children, wherever they spring from, are being transgenerated, and ‘poetree’ tries to be there, wherever they go or become.

Parameters: Connecting Literal and Metaphorical Borders through Translation

Kit: We are told that the Garden of Eden has clear borders. ‘Good fences make good neighbors’, wrote Robert Frost in ‘Mending Wall’. As a species, we are obsessed with boundaries and borders. It probably started when we lived in the caves, the earliest form of a roof and shelter, a sense of home and belonging, and most powerful of all, the idea of ownership and trespassing. What’s wonderful about reading translated poetry is that in order to recast the original into English, something has to be disowned, whether it is a certain word, syntax, or rhyme. Translation is an act of trespassing. It crosses borders in order to create a new movement. What’s striking about the books I read during the judging process is that so many of them put human movement at the heart of reshaping emotional, political and geographical boundaries, as if the act of writing itself is an act and testament of migration, for example, the Congo River reimagined in Fiston Mwanza Mujila’s The River in the Belly or bodily fluids crossing borders in Lee Hyemi’s Unexpected Vanilla.

Rosalind: Yes, the question - and questioning - of borders is central to what translation does, in my view. There is the immediately obvious - any translation from one language to another involves some ‘movement’, from Arabic to English, say, both of which have connections to various national borders (which of course are artificial, ever-shifting, highly political), and that movement will or ideally should involve a careful consideration of how the new language was heard and then will be heard within its new borders. But also (and this might sound obvious at first), since translation involves language, and language is porous and joyfully promiscuous and doesn’t respect borders, any translation worth its salt makes clear that borders are meaningless, often harmful, and cannot stop language’s playfulness from happening. The multilingual poetics of Khal Torabully’s work, the pot-pourri of languages in Gervitz and Mwanza Mujila, and the stretching of Arabic performed by Barakat, remind us that although languages can be co-opted to shore up national borders and harden the identities of nations, it is people (and poets) who own language.

Kyoo: Greetings from Venice, Italy, where I have come to learn the subtle art of bridging, careful bridging. Reading your brilliantly milky notes, I’ve been mulling over this image-concept, say, liquid borders, also realising how oceanic, quite literally, the experience of reading and reflecting on all the submissions has been. From Fiston Mwanza Mujila’s River to Khal Torabully’s Cargo, Lee Hyemi’s Vanilla to Salim Barakat’s Blood, among many others in this beautifully self-transcending cluster of texts we have been so fortunate to have had a chance to encounter this time around, our “liquid modernity” (Zygmunt Bauman) and contemporaneity continues to rhyme with the persistent, no, persisting fragility of “the udders of/ this black goat you name despair” (Najwan Darwish, Exhausted on the Cross), despairing hope.