The Losers’ Club

I came back from India so close to Christmas it was a hairpin bend adjustment to get everything done for our now highly-ritualised family celebrations. Since then I’ve been setting up the inevitable yet-another-blog to document the process over here. This is because I know as soon as I return to university there will again be no time and very little perspective. So I wanted to post a little tribute to how creatively productive I found the trip.

I must confess as I travelled to Chennai, teaching till the last possible moment, marking on the late night train to the airport, posting work through the hairsbreadth thin postbox slot in Departures, I was worrying about how I could accommodate the whole idea of India again. Wasn’t I desperately trying to finish the Chinese anthology? My still title-less book? Those egregiously-overdue essays? I literally didn’t know any of these people, not even Zoe Skoulding, the fellow-UK poet, who I spoke to pretty non-stop on the flight, poor thing, or Alexandra Buchler, who had set up the UK end through Literature Across Frontiers.

But within minutes of arriving in Adishakti, bumping into Arjun Bali as the newspapers arrived in the red earth compound between the high peak of the thatched dining hall and the shining lacquered leather look of the mud-brick residence, glimpsing DW head off for a swim (there was a pool?), and admitting I just had to get my head down for 4 hours to catch up, another rhythm had established itself.

By that evening, finding the Swiss-German poet Raphael Urweider was right on my wavelength of morbid self-deprecation, that the magnificent Rane from the resident theatre company (there was a theatre!) described himself as a ‘drummer-fucker’ and that everyone was quite prepared to get wired into the bottles of malt I’d brought (as a precaution), I was beginning to think this whole thing could click.

The following morning, working through versions of poems in French and Bangla and Tamil with Sampurna Chattarji and Meena Kandasamy and Roselyne Sibille, and hearing a line from Robin Ngangam’s ‘Father on Earth’ that would work in Scots, I saw a body of work was possible, and that one of my dearest secret wishes was actually happening, for ‘Santiniketan’ — the poem written about my trip with Debanjan Chakrabarti ten years before to Visva-Bharati, the Tagore university — to be translated into Bengali.

And so it unfolded: translation in the morning, followed by actorly exercises to develop a show led by Akshay Pathak, daft drinking sessions in the evening. Despite raging cold and cough from the plane, I was very happy. Why? This was a light-hearted community, serious about our art, who had set their heavy duties and other emotional burdens aside to be together, without too much ego or indeed too much irresponsibility. It was, for two weeks at any rate, pretty ideal. (Any more and the livers, absent lovers, administrators and poetry-haters would have got to us.)

I’d experienced this before on other translation projects and at other festivals: a small subset of writers will band together, drink a little too much, entertain themselves with anything from witty to deeply stupid wordplay, and, for the week or so they are together, bond. This doesn’t depend on who is ‘important’ or ‘unimportant’ on the bill — though some ‘stars’ become rather isolated by their treatment — it depends on a shared attitude toward the irrelevance of status and a capacity to build the real festival, the inner festival, from language.

Yes, it all fades once we’ve gone home, but there are still half a dozen writers at least I think of as dear friends, and would hope this is reciprocated, and that some aspect of that community will be rekindled when we meet again.

At the time this made me think about that other community I’d be returning to — the mutually-supportive unit of writers and artists and relatives and spouses and kids we’d be hosting and visiting over Christmas and New Year — and how much work it does to underpin us in our less pleasant responsibilities, and those harder-to-see-as-rewarding duties.

There is a balance every writer has to establish between what appears to be responsible and what appears to be its opposite. There is an amount of disorder and procrastination (as it is seen by some) that is necessary food for the creative process. There is also an excess, and writers in particular are often bad at establishing such balances, perceiving the support of those colleagues as checks rather than a necessary counterweight.

In short, there is a positive aspect to losing it that the idea of ‘festival’ implicitly recognises, and it is good to go out of bounds for a while. The academy, being a self-complete world, eager to tuck the ends of all discourses back into the corner of its mouth, doesn’t quite grasp this.

Writers are fundamentally losers, for all our desperation for acknowledgement. We are imperfectionists, for all our attempts at perfection. For those of us who spend most of their inner life paradoxically ‘outside’, it is vital to know there are other losers out there: that we can recognise and be recognised by them. It can be help to be Doofus of the Week.

It came over in performance in Chennai and Pune, I think, that this was a group of poets who liked and respected each other and each other’s work. We’re all Facebooking sentimentally at present. That will inevitably slow down, but hopefully the next set of festivals and publications will bring us all back together again.

About Bill Herbert

Poet and pseudo-scholar W.N. Herbert was born in Dundee in 1961, educated there and at Oxford, where he completed his DPhil thesis on Scottish poet Hugh MacDiarmid, and now lives and works in Newcastle. He is Professor of Poetry and Creative Writing at Newcastle University, and his books are published by, among others, northern publisher Bloodaxe Books. He is also the Dundee Makar, or city laureate.
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3 Responses to The Losers’ Club

  1. Sampurna Chattarji says:

    Lovely post, Bill! Thank you. Just one thing – it’s Rane, not Rani 🙂 Rani would make him female 🙂

  2. Bill Herbert says:

    Oops: duly corrected. I expect he wouldn’t like that much. Or perhaps he would? Any other auditory (and other) faux pas across my postings, do say.

  3. Pingback: ‘Ghost’ in Novi Sad | gairnet provides: press of blll

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