#CrashawPrize The shortlist in profile: Vesna Goldsworthy
Vesna Goldsworthy’s shortlisted title The Angel of Salonika is very much a book about place, both in the physical sense of environment, memory, locus — but also about our sense of the self displaced and migratory, as well as history’s elsewhere … This is a well-travelled book packed with memory and incantation conjuring landscapes and people, beautifully written and like all great poetry it forms an ideal, entertaining companion.
Vesna Goldsworthy was born in 1961, in Belgrade (the capital of what used to be Yugoslavia). She was a well known poet and a radio presenter when she came to live in England in the mid-1980s. The move wasn’t entirely planned, or appeared immediately wise, particularly as English was her third language. “I graduated from Belgrade University in 1984, and I had some time to kill that summer before I took up a postgraduate scholarship waiting for me in France”, she explains, “so I went to Sofia, in Bulgaria, because in those communist days one could spend a month there free of charge so long as one pretended to study Bulgarian in the mornings”. There she met her future English husband, then a recent Balkan history graduate. They argued, mostly about history and literature, and she decided it was an argument worth pursuing northwards. They still argue about the same things, but now have a ten-year old son who joins in, usually on his father’s side. Vesna has worked in British publishing, for the BBC, and as a university teacher. Her first book, Inventing Ruritania: The Imperialism of the Imagination (Yale, 1998) has been translated into Bulgarian, Greek, Romanian, and Serbian. Her second, a memoir entitled Chernobyl Strawberries, was published in March 2005 to broad critical acclaim. It was serialized in The Times, read by Vesna herself as Book of the Week on BBC Radio Four, and it became a bestseller in a number of European countries. The Angel of Salonika is her first poetry collection.
“Hello Vesna. I found your book marvellously evocative of both people and place, I’m delighted to shortlist it for this year’s Crashaw Prize. I thought I’d begin by asking about beginnings: you’ve written very successfully in other genres and I wondered how did this particular book come to be written?”
“The Angel of Salonika came together very gradually over the past five or six years. I am in a rather unusual position of being both a complete novice to the poetry business in English and an experienced poet. In Yugoslavia, a now vanished country, and in Serbian, my mother tongue, I was much anthologised and widely read. I was twenty three when I performed my poetry to an audience of 30,000. It was one of those big socialist events, which was broadcast from a football stadium into millions of homes — a celebration of President Tito’s birthday (not an easy invitation to refuse, in any sense). After I came to Britain in the mid-1980s, I continued writing verse in Serbian, but, in those days of greater linguistic isolation before the internet, it gradually withered, and I’ve never had a book of poetry in my mother tongue. While I’m an experienced writer of English prose, those lines which can only be the beginnings of poems started coming to me in English only after two decades of living in this country. This was also the time when I became aware of dreaming in English: the language must have finally seeped right through me.”
“One feels a sense of travelogue reading the poems, they’re on the move, historically and personally. I wondered what was happening in your life while you were writing the book?”
“Many of the poems were written in hotels and at airports where I’ve spent a lot of time while touring with my memoir, Chernobyl Strawberries, which came out in 2005. I gave over two hundred readings across Europe with it. There were all those strange moments of silence when you are on your own in a room in a completely unknown town and about to spend an evening talking about your life to a bunch of people you’ve never met. After I came to live in Britain I did not think I’d be a writer again – I mean a “creative” writer, for lack of a better word. I did write academic stuff and journalism all along. Then I had cancer in 2003 and was at one point told that I had six months left to live, and I thought, to hell with it. I wrote the story of my life because it was asking to be written. The Angel of Salonika followed in a similar way. Although everyone said I must write a novel and I sometimes sat at my desk thinking I was doing it, what kept coming to me was poetry. It’s like taking up skiing or bicycling after a pause of twenty years — every muscle in your body carries the imprint of an old skill, but it seems a miracle nonetheless.”
“What do you think were the central themes in the book — did you find yourself returning to some core ideas and preoccupations?”
“At the beginning, they were just individual poems, but gradually it became clear that they clustered around particular themes, and that acquired its own momentum. They are intimate and personal themes, but the book is also topical and suffused with the politics of the wider world: the experience of movement and migration, war and the disappearance of a homeland, the pain of lost languages and cultures felt by a generation scattered in exile. It is a very personal collection, not in the sense of being autobiographical – although some of it inevitably is. “The Angel of Salonika” is an omen of war (like the Angel of Mons, or Merciful Angel, the name given to NATO’s bombing campaign of my native city of Belgrade) and an angel of history (flying into the future with his eyes turned back on the past, as painted by Paul Klee), but he is also the angel of family and love which followed me on my journey north. Salonika was both the springboard for one of the greatest campaigns which decided Serbia’s destiny in World War One and the stage on which an intimate family event took place. But this is also a very English book: so many poems in it are about London, about learning to speak, and love, in English. I now miss England when I am away from it, and there is that muted ache of double homesickness, an impossible thirst.”
“Tell me a little about your writing life. Are there key influences, some presences behind the text?”
“Mine is a very bookish life, although one crowded in every other possible way. This may sound crazy but one of the first things I did when I was ill and thought that time was running out was to calculate how many books I can read before I go – for pure pleasure, of course, not because I thought St Peter was going to give me a quick test. So, if I say Rilke, Seferis and Cavafy in answer to this question, it is because they inhabit my head in a very real way. Many Serbian names should have been mentioned first. Great names from a small nation, they are exotic influences which may lack recognition, but are important to me: writers like Laza Kostic, Milos Crnjanski, Vasko Popa, Isidora Sekulic. Often, in individual poems, there are echoes of conversations I have with long-dead British and Serbian writers (Browning and Kostic’s Venetian verse in “Venice Intermezzo” for example), but you don’t need to know that to enjoy them. I believe, like Akhmatova and Tsvetaeva in poetry, or Chekhov and Babel in prose, that to gain insight into depths of emotion requires writing as clear as spring water. Akhmatova was hugely important to me when I was a teenager. I loved the way she looked. I wished I could have a face like hers, a distinguished face with a long, elegant, broken nose, a real poet’s nose.”
“Ah, yes, a beautiful nose! So where to next in the writing life? Are you working on something new?”
“To be on this shortlist means much more to me than I can begin to express, in terms of encouragement, not so much to write poetry, as I can’t not write, but to keep trying to do something with it once it is written down. None of The Angel, except for one very short sequence which a friend practically stole from me to put on a poetry website, had seen the light of day. I did not send my poetry to magazines, to test individual poems, not because I was worrying about rejection, but because I did not have the energy for it. There was illness, then there was this stunning comet-flight of Chernobyl Strawberries, and — whether bald and sick from chemotherapy or doing crazy things like a photo-shoot for the Romanian Vogue or reading in a disused power-station in Munich — I am also a mother of a young child with a full time job. I take on so much work all the time, yet somewhere inside I am also this lazy Oblomov-like Slav figure. I write, but a “Vesna-year” of writing is probably equivalent to a month in some full time writer’s quiet study. I am not sure which book will be finished next. I’ve learned by trial and error, and a lot of wasted effort, that I can’t write against myself, just because I think something is a great idea. I can only finish a project if it keeps wanting to be written, if it makes something in me catch fire.”
“Thanks very much for talking to me.”
Belgrade, Serbia 2010
The caper shrubs alone will outlive this August,
Yet for the moment
The air is heavy with laurel and camphor;
Distilled – almost – to particles of salt,
It scalds and scars the lungs.
Each passing hour adds two degrees of heat.
Behind the shutters a woman waits
For the sleepless siesta to pass.
The room is full of drying lavender,
But dreams now hunger for stronger herbs.
This day, she whispers, has gone on too long.
You are as dead to me, Yugoslavia,
When the night finally drops, drunken, like ripe fruit
Fermenting even before it touches the yellow grass,
Scattering pollen and sun-dust into the lifeless sails,
A swift screams and plummets towards the city walls.
Children’s laughter and echoes of church bells
Ricochet through stone passages into the dead ends
Where they come to rest in Virgin shrines,
Which open like a dark stone womb
Filled with wax tears and resin roses.
Our mother, our abandoner,
Pray for us sinners now –
The woman writes on a scrap of ruled paper
Torn out of a yellowing exercise book.
She folds the note carefully
And tucks it into the chalk.
It’s over at long last, she says, over once more.
The scene is repeated again and again that summer,
But in retrospect there is always silence
Somewhere at the heart of it all
Where she sits, wordless, at a table laid for two
Until someone she knew in a life long-gone returns to dine.
He takes his place in the light of the waning crescent
And spreads a linen napkin carefully across his lap;
His uniform is far too heavy for the weather
Yet there is no sign, not a bead of perspiration,
On that moon-lit aspect of his brow.
He never offers the other profile.
He guards it tightly, a breech in the wall.
I am old, she thinks, and he is still a boy.
I don’t remember anything, he whispers,
Why must I eat, and drink,
And return always to this table.
You stayed behind,
You tell me what happened inside the city.
He lifts a silver fork and breaks the membrane of a yolk.
There is music somewhere, the beginning of a tune.
It is too late to ask, too late to know, my dear,
She thinks, but never says a word.
Sometimes she leans towards him
To touch the five-pointed star
Stitched on his forage cap by her hand long ago.
She stops, half-way, when she sees him flinch.
It shone so brightly when he departed,
Yet it might, almost, be an exit wound.
Discover more about Vesna Goldsworthy
An interview in the Daily Telegraph:
An interview in the Hunger Mountain, with a chapter from Chernobyl Strawberries:
A Guardian Review of Chernobyl Strawberries:
A sequence of poems published on the Writer’s Hub:
A lecture on writing and censorship on Youtube: