Interview of Georgi Grozdev, writer and publisher, with Fiona Sampson -"The Distance Between Us" from the "Words and People" series, translated by Tsvetanka Elenkova
1. What is the most interesting thing you know about Bulgaria and the Balkans that you have learned so far from personal experience?
I’ve been to Sofia once, one rainy Spring: I loved seeing the Vitosha at the end of every street. It reminded me of my small home town of Aberystwyth in Wales, where you see the Cambrian mountains at the end of every street. I have some literary friends, met at festivals in the Balkans: Alex Popov, whose Mission London I find hilarious and telling, and Georgi Gospodinov and Biliana Kourtasheva. I published some Bulgarian writers – as well as the above, some younger post-modern poets, and the late Nicolai Kantchev, as well as a beautiful memoir by Konstantin Iliev, in Orient Express, a magazine of contemporary writing from Central and S-Eastern Europe which I founded and edited for a while between 2002-5. I am writing this on the train home from a session of the European Academy of Poets in Luxembourg, where I’d the pleasure of meeting Lyubomir Levchev, whose work I had long admired. Also during the session, we awarded Toma Markov our first Pegasus Medal for a young poet. His work seems to me more and more serious in its playfulness – he has developed a great deal since I first published him.
2. Is your poetic book "The Distance Between Us" from the "Words and People" series, translated by Tsvetanka Elenkova, your first work translated into Bulgarian?
Yes. It’s not the only book of mine to be translated but it is the most-translated, with Romanian, Macedonian and Albanian editions already published – and Croatian and Serbian under discussion. It has also formed a “spine” for my Selected Poems published in Hebrew and German (Austrian). In previous editions, I have been lucky to be translated by fine poets: Ioana Ieronim in Romania, the fine young poet Magdalena Horvat in Macedonia, the poet-publisher Arjan Leka in Albania and Amir Or in Israel. It makes an enormous difference to the book that emerges. A poorly- or unsympathetically-translated book does so much harm to a writer’s reputation. I don’t understand why people undertake to translate books which, perhaps through laziness or arrogance, they then destroy. If it’s to earn the money, there are better ways than through spoiling a colleague’s work.
3. Do you feel a part of England's spiritual elite and literature and which people would you include in it?
I think that “elitism” is a very difficult term for the British. It has pejorative connotations of privilege: of the ivory tower. If you were to ask instead about the community of people working for literature, or hoping to keep something other than brute market forces alive in the country, then I would agree. There are writers and editors trying to keep a serious culture alive, and my current post as Editor-in-Chief of Poetry Review (see below) makes me part of this group.
Again, in Britain we tend to make a separation between cultural and spiritual life. But we do see it as a struggle over values. The market and also celebrity culture are infiltrating the arts and literary culture in the UK. Sometimes it feels as though we’re fighting the “enemy within”, with poetry lite and middle-brow fiction taking over the literary outlets – the lists, the prizes, the review pages.
4. Which is the most significant unfulfilled debt of the elite towards readers?
There are well-known writers in all genres who are simply churning out middle-brow work to their own unchanging formulae. Morally and intellectually, this is no different from the project of genre fiction.
5. How do enlightened spiritual minorities survive and are they easily surviving in your country?
Already an undervalued genre in our at worst philistine and at best narrative culture, poetry is under threat from all sides. There is “performance poetry”, largely comic cabaret and certainly work which doesn’t work as simple text, yet is often grant-subsidized because it increases “participation”. There is the shift of grant support from poets and their publishers to “participation” in the form of creative writing classes for amateur and emerging writers, producing a huge disproportion between those who write and those who read. For example, Poetry Review, the UK’s oldest and most widely-read magazine, which is a hundred years old this year, receives 60,000 poetry submissions a year; yet sells only 5,000 per quarterly issue (of course, these copies have multiple readers, but still). Festivals and events are not writer-centred, as they are in the Balkans and the rest of Europe. You do not meet other writers, but leave the morning after your solo reading. Increasingly, these are book festivals, with literary resources being directed towards the mass-market books – gardening and recipe books and footballers’ ghost-written memoirs- and away from literature. Publishers are under threat from the web. Broadsheet newspapers are sacking their literary editors and in any case facing extinction because bright young people now read their news on the web. Independent booksellers are being replaced by multinational chains like Borders, with centralized and mass-market buying practices – the mass-market fiction promotions table, the 3 for 2 offers – and poetry is barely represented. If it’s stocked at all, it’s probably an anthology of coffee-table poems; and maybe some Shakespeare or Wordsworth.
6. How does post-communist Bulgaria on Europe's periphery seem to you as seen from London? What is the most provincial thing about London that you have personally noticed?
The Distance Between Us is, of course, an attempt to explore precisely what is distant and what close between two small countries on “the periphery”: Bulgaria, and Wales where I grew up and where I lived for some years as an adult. European-ness may be modulated where it shades towards something else – the Atlantic and America, Russia, the Levant, the Caucuses. But I have a hard time thinking of these places as non-central. They seem to me to be at the centre of their own cultural perspective and experience. They can drive changes, for good and ill, which affect the whole of Europe.
London, for example, is on the way to America from the “centre” of Europe, whether that’s Nuremberg or the Austro-Hungarian heartland. But it is not provincial. It is probably the most cosmopolitan city in the world. In the streets, in any carriage in the Underground, on any bus, English (and especially English with one of the British accents) will probably be spoken by a minority. The city is full of Central Europeans, Russians, Turks, Kurds, Arabs from North Africa and the Middle East, Scandinavians, Chinese, Pakistanis and Indians, people from the Philippines and Thailand, the Pacific Rim, South America, US… I know I’ve left out lots of groups. One particularly significant fact, and something to be proud of, is that every war or disaster produces a refugee community in the UK. Those of us who care about these things bemoan the state’s treatment of refugees; but still, we act better than some parts of “fortress Europe”: and that, while not enough, is something to be proud of. Thus, we have had recent influxes of Somalis and Afghans and Iraqis. A few years ago London was chock-full of young Yugoslavs. Then there are our indigenous minorities, the Roma and Jewish, Irish, Scottish, Welsh and of course the Caribbean British communities. London is a fabulous, and rapidly-changing melting pot, as scary and exciting by now as New York… Whenever I come back from the Balkans, I feel relieved when I get back to Vienna and see the first black faces. That a city should be cosmopolitan seems to me essential. Otherwise, it atrophies.
7. What gives you faith in yourself?
Not much! But just working with high goals and with integrity – wanting more for and from poetry in Britain, seems a start.
8. Why do you think so many English have come to live in Bulgaria?
It’s cheap. Temperamentally (a relatively phlegmatic style) and culturally (the way young people dress in typical American idiom for example) it’s probably the least removed of the cultures of S-East Europe. It also has a sea-coast, sun and great fresh food.
But primarily it’s the cheapness. Although the UK pays high wages and has a high standard of living in terms of consumer goods, it’s also a way of life with high costs of different kinds. We have the longest working hours in Western Europe – a sixty-hour week is average. A high proportion of the income most people spend that time earning is gobbled-up in the ridiculously high housing costs, because the rich long ago introduced the profit motive to “property” (housing) too, and the “market” means housing costs are kept at the very outer limit of what two people working full time can earn. We have high crime rates, high rates of mental illness, high rates of childhood depression, among the highest divorce and the highest teenage pregnancy rates in Europe. We have little culture of neighborliness or even of the extended family; and a creaking infrastructure (the “national wealth” in fact does not belong to the nation, but stays in a tiny number of private hands), which means that we simply expect our trains, drains and postal services to fail much of the time. Most of us feel we are on a treadmill. Even though, obviously, I realize that this is nothing compared to the recent experiences of people living in the Balkans, it is still a sorry state of affairs. It’s no surprise that so many of the young talented people from post-communist Europe who came to Britain in such numbers upon EU accession have returned home. The British society I remember from my childhood in the 70s was incomparably freer and happier. (It was also more cultured!)
Of course, the great irony – or tragedy – is that British who “escape” to Bulgaria simply bring the problem with them. Like people trying to escape a plague by which they’re already infected. Once you’re inside globalization, you can’t escape, you take it with you wherever you go. Of course they make housing in Bulgaria into a “market”; of course they pay higher prices with their higher British income. This happened first within the UK, which is probably no consolation. Rich Londoners bought holiday cottages, or moved to the countryside. Whole regions within two hours of London are now ghost towns; and in most of England ordinary young people cannot afford to live in the communities where they grew up. So a society has disappeared. Then the British with money to spare – largely the “baby boomers’ who profited from the welfare state but dismantled it behind them – did the same in France, Italy, Spain, and now Bulgaria.
9. Isn't the global financial crisis a crisis of lost cultural insight especially in the richest countries?
Yes, see above. But you have to remember that there is a) no longer a social democratic alternative for voters to pick – it’s a choice between hard-right (globalisers) and centre-right (free marketeers) – and that b) our “first past the post” or winner-takes-all voting system means that government in the UK in particular may well not represent the actual distribution of votes. The West has had a privileged class – robber barons – for centuries. In the UK they haven’t been interrupted since 1066 (apart from a brief inter-regnum under Oliver Cromwell). So “financial interests” have had plenty of time to become established.
Also, remember our ruling classes invented exploitation when they created the Industrial Revolution. Whenever I travel abroad I’m lectured on the evils of the British Empire. Entirely true. But what seems to be taught less often is that they enslaved (literally, through the indenture system) their own working classes too. Conditions for ordinary people in C19th Britain were desperate. Only a tiny minority were sipping tea in drawing rooms with Jane Austen. Most of us were working naked and chained in mines, or starving in slums between 14-hour shifts in sweatshops. Read Charles Dickens if you want to know how far back the tyranny of free capital goes.
It’s true that the result of the last twenty years has been a loss of internationalism, and understanding of the Other: as well as of any kind of culture beyond lowest common denominator entertainment. But you have to understand that most Britons, of every educational background, are simply struggling to survive. It’s bread and circuses.
10. I've interviewed dozens of Balkan writers, and for the first time in our cultural history, our "Balkan Library" series consists of 50 works, despite prejudice and hatred. What do Balkan and Bulgarian writers lack to be accepted on the English book market?
They don’t lack anything other international writing has. All international writing simply costs more (buying rights and paying for a translation) and is seen as more serious than the home-grown product, and so is at a double disadvantage. It’s simply that this is, more and more, a “book market”, with nothing literary about it. I was one of the judges of this year’s Independent Foreign Fiction Prize, which is our big national prize for literary fiction in translation. 126 books were submitted (roughly 50% more than the average in previous years, and including pretty much the whole of the fiction published in translation in the UK in 2008). A disappointingly high proportion of submissions were not literary but genre fiction. Purchases at the big Book Fairs are made on the grounds of perceived commercial success: which big German and French publishers have already risked the book, and how well it’s done for them. These are therefore the markets that Balkan literature, just like the wonderful writing coming out of Latin America or Scandanavia for example, needs to crack first.
11. Do you believe that creative work is the only means by which time and space can be outlived?
Well, it can if we’re lucky.
12. Why the one who loves always loses? (as we can read in one of your verses)…
Because to love is to have something the world can take away from you: through time and space or simply through illness, accident or war. It’s to give the world (or life, if you prefer) a hostage.
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Fiona Sampson has published fourteen books – including poetry, philosophy of language and books on writing process – of which the most recent are Writing Poetry (2009), Common Prayer (2007, shortlisted for the T.S.Eliot Prize) and On Listening (essays, 2007. and Writing: Self and Reflexivity (with Celia Hunt, Macmillan, 2005). Earlier books include Writing: Self and Reflexivity (2005) and The Self on the Page (1999), with Celia Hunt, and Creative Writing in Health and Social Care (2005); The Distance Between Us (2005), Folding the Real (2001) and The Healing Word (1999). Her awards include the Newdigate Prize and 2009 Cholmondely Award for poetry; ‘Trumpeldor Beach’ was short-listed for the 2006 Forward Prize; and she has been widely translated, with eight books in translation, including Patuvachki Dnevnik (Travel Diary), awarded the 2003 Zlaten Prsten (Macedonia) and, most recently, Zweimal Sieben Gedichte (Wieser Verlag, Austria, 2009). Other prizes include writers’ awards from the Arts Councils of England and Wales and the Society of Authors, and, in the US, the Literary Review’s Charles Angoff Award. After a first life as a violinist, she was educated at the Universities of Oxford and Nijmegen. She has a PhD in the philosophy of language and was AHRC Research Fellow at Oxford Brookes University in 2002-5 and Fellow in Creativity at the University of Warwick 2007-8. She consults internationally on writing in health care, a field she pioneered in the UK, and contributes to The Guardian, The Irish Times, The Liberal and BBC Radio 3’s ‘The Verb’. Her many translations include volumes of Jaan Kaplinski and of Amir Or, an anthology of younger Central European poets, and the periodical Orient Express, of which she was the founding editor. She is a Member of the European Academy of Poets, and the Editor-in-Chief of Poetry Review, Britain’s poetry journal of record.