The theme for this year’s National Poetry Day was water. An audience of thirty in Edinburgh’s Scottish Poetry Library were given a thorough soaking in the verse of C.K. Stead and Kapka Kassabova. Both writers have connections with New Zealand. Kassabova was born in Bulgaria, studied in New Zealand, and now lives in the Scottish Highlands. Her first poetry collection was entitled All Roads Lead to the Sea (Auckland University Press, 1997). Her latest collection, Geography for the Lost (Bloodaxe and AUP), was released in 2007. Stead, eighty-two years strong, is emeritus professor of English at Auckland University. He has published academic criticism, most notably on modernism, and has written copious novels and poetry. His new collection The Yellow Buoy (Arc Publications, 2013) refers to a marker off the coast of Auckland. Stead found himself in the habit of swimming out to this buoy regularly, and for him it marked a return to the shore. Kassabova and Stead have often met whilst swimming in these same waters. The pair read for an hour, each speaker alternating every fifteen minutes.
Kassabova’s poetry was transfixed on the experience of humans in alien environments. If at times her work was slightly too mercurial and vague, her captivating accent smoothed over these cracks. She read from her immigrant cycle, concerning Balkan migrants living in the Pacific. ‘Coming to Paradise’ contrasted the hopes invested in an imagined place with the reality of finding out that not only is that place ‘never enough’ but it is impossible to leave it. Her best poems demonstrated how travel, both inward and outward, is mediated through the marketplace. ‘I Want to be a Tourist’ was an ‘anti-travel manifesto’ and an attempt to explore the heritage of the self as a modern tourist would a city: ‘give me signs in a funny language that I never have to learn, then take my money and let me go’. In the ‘The Travel Guide to the Country of Your Birth’ Kassabova parodied the jargon and vocal tone of tourist boards. By reducing a geographical area to a statistical roll-call – ‘The Black Sea is closed and non-tidal, and has 90% anoxic water’ – it showed how natives of a country can become alienated from it. Through self-absorption a nation can live in the same realm as a solipsistic individual: a ‘place where in dark, empty apartments the people you love live inside mirrors’.
Stead began with an apology: he had ‘nothing to offer about [Robert] Burns’. Instead, he insisted, we should simply ‘name Burns, bow our heads and move on’. His poetry was rich in classical allusion and humour. ‘Ego One’ and ‘Ego Two’ saw a pitched battle between the pros and cons of selfishness. The ego can ‘embarrass you in public, bore you at home’ but is often the driving force behind achievement. His poem ‘Why Poetry?’ seemed unnecessary and the crowd clearly did not need convincing of the validity of verse. This was followed, however, by ‘The Death of Odysseus’, an excellent rendering of the Greek hero’s last days. Odysseus, ‘abandoned by fame and popularity’, sings like a madman into his twilight years: ‘faltering on high notes/whistling like wind in the rigging’. He then falls ‘silent forever’ upon remembering the ‘song of the Sirens’.
When Stead concentrated on the tragic comedy of ageing he really showed his prowess. ‘Have you noticed how sanguine the old are about the deaths of friends?’ began ‘The Old’. The narrator’s companions are dying off like soldiers ‘in the line of fire…:there goes another one…and it wasn’t me! Well done corporal!’ Near the end of the reading Stead had raised enough merriment to try out a new coy poem about undergoing a medical examination by a female doctor. The narrator resists the impulse to make inappropriate comments in the surgery and realises his senescence will be lived only in the ‘hands’ and never ‘the arms’ of these ‘angels of science and compassion’. The same human instincts remain from youth but age has reduced them to nothing more than possibilities.