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New Poetry Season / The Museum in the Park

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Carrying the World

A chisel, a hammer, a lyre; reportage, intimate feelings, quips and criticisms. Maria Stadnicka’s poems are clusters of consciousness, graphic, material images of our world. Her language assaults, bends, cajoles, thrusts a saber into the darkness of the very language she employs to explore death, degradation, the non-recognition of the human individual, war, urban violence, in short, the all-too-present context of our daily lives. Is there an element of grace, a lyrical thread, an invocation of human beauty? Yes, if one can continue to believe in this beauty while contemplating the profound alienation and marginalization that characterizes contemporary Western societies.

Although Stadnicka writes in English, her native language, Romanian, is always close to the surface of the words, forging and sculpting the associations that create the poems’ presence. Her language mirrors the human mind, elliptical at times, obsessional from time to time, fragile and reflective when the moments present themselves. ‘A moon of salt unravels / the shadow between years, / unfolding a passage / grey chapter about mortality’ offers a lyrical entrance to the book. The reader moves swiftly into the core of Stadnicka’s vision, ‘the wounds of freedom’.

One of the most beautiful poems in the book is ‘Restituto’. Transformation of thought and body occurs as the voice of the poem articulates the ars poetica, an incendiary gesture born out of an already-condemned historical contex:

I covered my face with black ink
rounded all my possessions up
set fire to everything.

The gods hid in a poem
with a fresh loaf.

Just us now slicing away
to the end of my days.

What concerns Maria Stadnicka? How do these strangely forced collages that are hermetic and yet entirely exposed allow the reader entrance to her world? She is speaking about the discontinuity of personal space and the intrusion of economic and political forces in an individual’s life that leads to fragmentation and, ultimately, to the dissolution of one’s reality. The chance for the existence of a future or even the future is removed. Literature becomes the communication and solidarity that permit the step towards wholeness. In Stadnicka’s poems social, personal, and literary landscapes are fused and at times must be forcibly dislocated, both repositioned and torn apart, so that one can continue. The reader is drawn to the quote from Czeslaw Milosz that frames the book: ‘So much guilt behind them and such beauty!’

The title poem, ‘The Unmoving’, dislocates the predictability of images and pulls together the motifs of Stadnicka’s poetry. A book slips, the world is seen as ‘a time-capsule sent flying into space’, a missile wakes the ‘half-dreaming’ narrator, someone is walking down the motorway, people materialize with a dog for sale, ‘The music absorbed what was left of Rana Plaza’ and the reader is once again confronted with the Savor Building collapse that killed 1,134 people in Bangladesh. The narrator is displaced and ‘The ground settled between reference points.’

In a sense, The Unmoving is a defense of the marginalized, the poor, the displaced and disabled. The poems create a sense of urgency and mystery. The only escape from the imposed absolute of non-being is resolution to go forward illogically and irrationally free. ‘For the first time, I / walked. Blind, absent. / I became tomorrow.’

@Andrea Moorhead, 2018

Review published in ‘Stride Magazine’.

‘The Unmoving’ is available here.

The Trophic Chain and Other Animals

 

‘Man has continued to evolve by acts of disobedience […] daring to say no in the name of his conscience. His intellectual development was dependent on the capacity for being disobedient to authorities who tried to muzzle new thoughts and to the authority of long-established opinions which declared a change to be nonsense.’

– Erich Fromm, On Disobedience

 

The recent Twixter development with reference to the Eyewear Publishing’s abrupt fall from grace looks like a time-bomb waiting to go off for a few years now. (If you use social media, you can easily find out what I am talking about, so I am not going to revive it, for ethical reasons. It has already taken too much of my headspace, plus it is not the focus of what I am about to say.) Regardless of what is going to happen next, I cannot but bring up a wider issue – the present symptomatic state of the literary space, and, particularly, the publishing industry.

At a time when competition is supposed to promote quality and integrity, a well-oiled trophic chain keeps on growing; and the institutions building this up seem unable to ‘snap out of it’ as the pressure to ‘make it, and make it big’ has become a scope in itself. (I use the concept ‘institution’ in the sociological sense.)

The general turmoil is now backfiring on writers trapped between their need to get work published and the pressure to accept arrogance, humiliation and to conform, ad literam, to the publisher’s demand (in some cases). But if the book sells, all is forgotten and forgiven. Before you know it, it slowly becomes common practice. Then it is widely spread across, used as a functional business model and, finally, adopted as a cultural value. What for? Just to prove that neoliberalism works well.

There are many brilliant independent publishers too, with a natural propensity towards quality and excellence. Some are young, some are struggling to survive, and others are actually doing really well. I have admiration for all of them and I support their journey. The beauty in their work (and, ultimately, their success) comes from their ability to reject the established cultural food chain. But to break a system, one needs to create another. And why shouldn’t this system be about more agents which say no, which disobey, which continue to change?

As a writer, I can only keep my side of the bargain through writing and saying no in my own way.

I say no to submission windows, for instance. As I don’t write between nine and four with a lunch break and a bit of time for elevenses, I prefer publishers with ‘open windows’. I prefer to work with people rather than with systems. One has to recognise there is some scope in accepting submissions only at certain times. One must consider the publisher’s high volume of manuscripts, the financial constraints, staff availability and so on. However, there are two further considerations to make here:

a). some publishers recognise their struggle to manage two hundred submissions over a period of four months, whilst others, with less staff, manage over four hundred in two months. Is it a matter of grit, determination, passion, or just management?

and

b). secondly, rather more important to me, the problem of equality and diversity. The idea of preferential treatment to subscribers and their own protégées. And you can also jump the queue if you are Carolan Fluffy. What happens then with the young, the very young or the struggling writers unable to afford subscriptions, or talented writers at the very beginning of their career? They need to join the queue and wait longer to have their manuscript read. (And, in some cases, it takes months, if not years to get a response.) One would have thought that in such a competitive market things could have been more efficient, and more honest.

I say no to submission fees. This is simply based on arithmetic. Browsing through the writing competitions promoted via official channels, and adding up, the monthly sum for submissions is higher than some writers’ food bill. A high percentage of great writing and talent gets overlooked. And if this is not the publishers’ loss, it is certainly our cultural loss.

In a society where cultural losses are neglected, the freedom of expression has no meaning and obedience is identified as a virtue.

Maria Stadnicka, 21st July 2018

Out next month

The Unmoving is a dark and delicious exploration of post war landscape.

 Maria Stadnicka’s beautifully crafted lines cut like a knife,

her poems come to the page like water from a deep well, only the well has been poisoned. Masterfully succinct and shrouded in Stadnicka’s trademark sense of mystery,

The Unmoving is as vivid a poetry chapbook as you’re ever likely to read.’ (Broken Sleep Books, 2018)

The Politics of Inevitability and the Art Education

Photograph: ©JStadnicki, 2018

There is no way one can observe the social transformations within a community and society without resorting to strong political clues in order to understand the sources of those transformations. And clearly, when things go wrong, we blame the politics, the legislators, the government. But when the political sphere moves away from the reality of the working and the middle classes, the laws and the policies have no real impact on the wide majority. The decision-making groups have little will to support change and the economic downturn Britain has been experiencing for over a decade seems to move towards a silent collapse. And nobody appears to take responsibility. The blame placed on the government rules like a shadow, hiding underneath the roots of bad financial decisions, personal greed and managerial incompetence.

Let’s consider the situation the art sector is in at the moment.  The issue came into focus with the news of the devastating fire which, this second time, damaged the Glasgow School of Art beyond repair. There you have £35m down the drain, or rather turned to ashes, and everybody is powerlessly looking at the building asking, with disbelief, ‘how could this be possible’. The fate of the Glasgow School of Art seems, for now at least, sealed by confusion and uncertainty. Who is to blame this time?

Extrapolating the Glasgow tragedy, who is to blame for the uncertain fate of hundreds of art schools across the country slowly but surely decapitated by unachievable targets and percentages? We are looking at another type of devastating fire slowly cooking to ashes the art sector, in general, and the art education, in particular. The drive to achieve the funding targets, the attendance and the achievement rates, the literacy and the numeracy benchmarks. What do they all mean? Certainly, they mean nothing to those involved in the art sector (students, artists, writers, musicians, teachers) but mean everything to those in charge to justify the bureaucracy which supports their livelihoods and to satisfy the pleiades of regulators and inspectors. The focus of this type of education is not the youth’s creativity but to produce a nation of self-absorbed adults ready to slot into whatever social square has been allocated to them as soon as they joined the education system.

And here we face again another type of politics. The ‘politics of inevitability’ as Snyder eloquently describes it, which makes the art education vulnerable and a victim of the constantly expanding globalisation. Since the mid ‘80s, the way we talk about art has fundamentally changed as well as the way the education system works to serve the economy, under the bright colours of neoliberalism.  And, one would say, what is the problem with that? The education and the arts remain the essential social institutions within a healthy society and preserve what we call our ‘decency’. They remain our ‘sane barometer’ if you like, which support the configuration of our future and the values this future will act upon.

I remember a recent conversation I had with a head of school who recognised that things have taken a turn for the worse, with the Brexit uncertainty looming, but, as he said, ‘what can one do against a whole government, with a mortgage to pay?’ And here we are again in the blaming game equation. The well-suited head back in his leather chair, the young artist back revising for another maths test. New financial cuts are drowning the hope of an economic recovery and the silence of those suffering its effects sounds more and more like a resigned agreement. Not once we feel that the history allows us to see patterns and to understand that action is a possibility. History permits us, ‘to be responsible; not for everything, but for something’ as the poet Czeslaw Milosz said. This responsibility has always worked against loneliness and indifference.

©Maria Stadnicka, June 2018, Gloucestershire, UK