A windswept view of poetryworld
The memoir exists and it is an important book - an act of testimony by a writer who was jailed after a Kafkaesque
Long road from the backroom to London
October 5th, 2023
So many poets are ‘award-winning’ now, or ‘multi-award-winning,’ that it can be refreshing to read a biog in which those words do not appear. And with so many poets preoccupied with pursuing awards – as if writing should amount to a sandwich board of plaudits – it’s tempting to be dismissive. But there are plenty of exceptions. Poets who are overdue recognition.
Alistair Lawrie – winner of the McLellan Scots Poetry Prize 2023 – comes to mind. Although I would say that, wouldn’t I, as Drunk Muse Press has just published Alistair’s debut book, Caal Cries.
Then there is Dareen Tatour, the Palestinian poet for whom the word ‘dissident’ could’ve been recreated out of its Cold War-era associations. Yes, Dareen is also a Drunk Muse Press poet, so you could dismiss my singling her out as publisher’s bias. Rather, I’d say it is a publisher’s appreciation and knowledge of what it has taken to get Dareen’s writing into print – first in her book, ‘My Threatening Poem – the Memoir of a Poet in Occupation Prisons’, and then her poetry volume, ‘I Sing From the Window of Exile’. I am currently making arrangements for a trip to London in early November for the Palestine Book Awards, for which Dareen’s poetry collection is shortlisted, and thereby hangs a tale – one that amplifies the ways in which the best of culture so often happens in its undercurrents, beyond the obvious, or where the bigger publishers, who stuff the shelves of Waterstones, don’t think to look.
A few years ago I was only vaguely aware of Dareen’s poetry as something dotted around the internet. And then the unlikely and remarkable happened. Hugh McMillan’s pandemic blog, ‘Poems from the Backroom’ – or ‘Plague Poems’ – introduced poets and readers worldwide to one another as he showcased poems they had recorded at home. I don’t know the ultimate tally of poets – from Scotland to New Zealand, Ireland to the USA and mainland Europe – but the Backroom’s internationalism and the democratising scope of the talent it connected, from the near unknown to the renowned, was one of the rare cultural bright lights of lockdown. For many of us, it was educational too – a quickfire introduction to poets including a hatful of laureates – we might not otherwise encounter. Typically, Hugh was prompted to do this out of love for what poetry can do, without formal or cultural agency support. Not a penny from the funding agencies (although the Makar would later lead a well-subsidised project featuring a few favoured poets).
Amidst the plethora of poets to feature in Poems from the Backroom was Dareen, reading in Arabic, and that is where my – and Drunk Muse Press’s – association with her began. In an ensuing conversation with Shug, I mentioned that I had never seen an English language volume of Dareen’s poetry – which is no mystery, as such a book did not exist.
So, at Hugh’s suggestion, and as a longshot – I didn’t know if Dareen spoke English – I sent her an enquiry.
Dareen’s response was unexpected. She did not have a poetry volume in English translation, but she did have a translation of her prison memoir, in which she chronicled the traumatising effects of her arrest and violent imprisonment by the Israeli authorities for the ‘crime’ of writing and publishing a poem called ‘Resist My People, Resist Them’, on the internet.
This memoir needed a publisher, and that is the moment that Drunk Muse Press came into being. Dareen’s book was our first publication in 2021, edited by myself and our Ireland editor Jessamine O’Connor.
To say it was a challenge to get this memoir into shape for publication would be an understatement. We had never done anything like this before – for my part, it required concentrated hours each day for several months in between the regular eight-hour sub-editing shifts I do for a living. The translator lived in the Occupied Territories and functioned under a nom-de-plume; communications were intermittent and slow. How would we publicise and disseminate the book? We weren’t Faber, Penguin, Carcanet, Bloodaxe, or any of the other publishers who could’ve snapped up this book if they’d been looking in the right direction.
But the important thing is we did it; the memoir exists and it is an important book – an act of testimony by a writer who was jailed after a Kafkaesque show-trial and subjected to violent, degrading treatment by the Israeli authorities because she refused to self-censor or recant.
There’s no lack of books about the torture and violence meted out to male Palestinian prisoners, but Dareen’s book, from a feminist’s perspective, is different. As a work of personal, political and historical record, it is one of the only memoirs about a Palestinian woman’s – and women’s – experience as a prisoner of the Israeli regime.
When we talk of writers speaking out, and when we talk of poetry and memoir as a necessary first-hand account of what it means to live through the extremities of our times, then we should acknowledge people such as Dareen. She lives her resistance. She is a writer for whom writing as a protest against injustice is not theoretical or even a choice, but a compulsion, a necessity, a means to communicate the realities of her existence.
When we speak of freedom of speech and censorship, look in her direction too. Free speech is often used so incontinently or denigrated so casually – not least in the feeding frenzies that occur on social media – that we need reminders of its worth in describing the unvarnished realities of the world we inhabit.
After publishing Dareen’s memoir, Drunk Muse Press would go on to publish her first volume of poems from the short time she lived in Sweden following her prison release, ‘I Sing From the Window of Exile’. It is this book for which she is shortlisted at the Palestine Book Awards.
As I make my arrangements for London, I’m reminded of the circuitous route and the contacts by which these publications came about. In part because you’d be hard pushed to find someone more attuned to the vital undercurrents of poetry than Hugh McMillan, who first contacted her to record a poem for the Backroom. In part because Drunk Muse is not constrained by the fuss and financial imperatives of office-based publishers. We don’t inhabit the same orbits, physically, intellectually, or – in many cases – in terms of class, sensibilities or outlook.
The lack of resources, networks and promotional clout that comes with that can be frustrating; but it is liberating too.
I have yet to meet Dareen Tatour, although I am hoping she will be able to make the journey from the Occupied Territories for the awards ceremony in London.
She has yet to see and hold her own book of poems. Copies sent to her via Jerusalem do not arrive, which, ironically, may be an endorsement of the relevance of her writing – the Israeli state still fears it enough to censor it.
So I cannot wait to present her with a copy.
And I cannot think of anyone I’d rather see described as ‘award-winner’.
– Neil Young
Waiting for the man in a van
September 22, 2023
I can see Stuart’s giant discombobulated torso manoeuvring south from the next town towards me. He is outsized compared to his wee van, though maybe that is in proportion to his importance. Stuart is my main man. He’s bringing boxes of Drunk Muse books; and I am keenly following the progress of his icon via the Parcelforce online tracker. There’s no need to surveil him, really, as I get an abrupt alarm when he’s coming through the main door downstairs and making his way up the steps to our flat. The dug goes mental – barking at first before she catapults herself from six feet to headbutt the letterbox. When I open the door, she’s more inclined to half lick him to death but Stuart’s briskly away as I thank him, lug the boxes inside then reach for the scissors. I’ve calmed down a bit about opening these boxes to reveal the hot-off-the-press contents – new books – but still feel a buzz of nervous anticipation. No matter how fastidious or thorough the editing process before and during printing, I just never trust the books to be right until I can feel them, flick through the pages, see the type. I’m almost reluctant to read the text for fear of a rogue typo but there aren’t any – these books have had several sets of eyes on them repeatedly before going to press, although first print runs are notorious for tripping up the most meticulous proof-readers and sub-editors. And they are no respecters of reputation.
Take as a notorious for instance the story of the first print run of Mark Twain’s The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, which reportedly was so festooned with typos and misnumbered pages that it became a collector’s item not only for its status as a literary masterpiece but because of its volume of errors. We might say now that that only added to its retrospective value – all blemishes are beauty spots, a mark of uniqueness and the hand-craft of their creator. Aye, sure. Thankfully, there are no such dints on our newly-arrived gems. So, to these, the last two of eight books to be published by Drunk Muse Press in 2023 – Caal Cries by Alistair Lawrie, and The Magician’s House by Andy Murray. I am always pleased, as a publisher, to feel slightly in awe of the poets we publish, and these two are no exception.
Debut collections are usually associated with poets in their 20s or 30s, but these two fellers have some vintage between them. There’s a real intellectual heft to Alistair’s work, whether written in English or Scots, but he writes with such wit and fluency that his work is irresistibly entertaining. He’s seventy-five and Caal Cries is his first solo volume, which begs the question – why? Publishers, where have you been? Alistair, to my mind, is one of the most significant poets writing in Scotland. His neglect by other publishers is Drunk Muse’s gain.
Similar could be said for Andy and the Magician’s House. He too is a late arrival to the fray of Scottish poetry but, reflecting the title, is not short of magicianship himself. Andy’s work has a density of historical and cultural references that I find particularly appealing – there’s so much going on there that invites repeat visits and exploration, but it’s conjured with a verve that makes it compelling reading.
But why believe me, the publishing editor? You can catch Andy and Alistair alongside two of our other poets, Julie McNeill and Mark Vernon Thomas, at the Wigtown Festival, where they’ll be reading at a Poetry for Breakfast with Drunk Muse event on September 27 (https://tickets.wigtownbookfestival.com/sales/whats-on/genres/poetry), hosted by our gadfly editor Hugh McMillan (is there is any corner or broom cupboard of these islands where Hugh has not taken the Muse, or muse?). – Neil Young