Gerda Stevenson is a Scottish poet, playwright, actor, theatre director and singer-songwriter. In Italy, her first collection of poems, Se questo fosse vero, was translated by Laura Maniero for Ensemble Edizioni in 2018 (here the article by Ugo Fracassa). The translation of her second poetry collection, Quines. Poems in Tribute to Women of Scotland (Luath, 2018), will be published shortly.
Your poetry, since your first collection (If This Were Real, 2013), shows great attention to minor languages, at risk of extinction, like Gaelic and Scots. Do you think that in this era of globalization, the protection of biodiversity and cultural differences are parts of the same battle for a sustainable development?
Yes, of course – we are all part of everything on this planet, and, toxic as it is, globalisation paradoxically makes us aware of our intrinsic inter-connectedness. I’ve always thought of languages as a kind of biodiversity. Extinction of any species is a profound loss. Loss of language is a human rights issue.
Together with a meticulous attention for the landscape, a central element in your poetic writing is the female, intended in its double polarity of power and grace. Which part falls on women in the peremptory challenges that the planet has been facing since the beginning of the third millennium?
The women I celebrate in my poetry collection QUINES: Poems in Tribute to Women of Scotland certainly had grace. But very few of them had any power. Yet, against the odds, they made significant contributions to Scotland and the wider world. Historically, women have been excluded from so many walks of life, to the detriment of society – how can it be right to discriminate against half the human race? – and in my book QUINES, I’m attempting to restore the balance, to bring 62 extraordinary women of Scotland to the readers’ attention– among them scientists, politicians, artists, sportswomen – most of whom have been entirely forgotten.
I wouldn’t wish to fall into the trap of suggesting that women are uniquely blessed with grace and would therefore make better leaders – after all, Britain was afflicted by Margaret Thatcher, who had power, but no grace. Her legacy was devastating to our health service, education, culture, and also to our environment.
But it is true, I believe, that women experience life differently from men, and it is important that this diversity is represented at all levels of society. Better decisions will be made if the decision-making processes are representative of that diversity. Women are usually the carers of the young, the vulnerable, the sick, and the elderly in most societies. These essential skills are hugely undervalued. During the Covid-19 pandemic, female leaders in New Zealand, Germany, Taiwan, Finland, Iceland and Denmark have been performing well, proving that women can be highly competent in a crisis, and their decision-making may be predicated upon valuable, gender-specific experience. Women have also provided leading voices in the demand for action on climate change – Great Thunberg and Luisa Neubauer. It is unacceptable to exclude women from participating in decision-making. Women and men must be equally involved in the process of change, and must have equal participation and responsibility as custodians of our planet and its eco-systems.
In an article by the American poet David Yezzi entitled ‘Poetry & Truth’, the author writes, “Poets, like journalists, historians, are after the truth. But what kind of truth exactly do we find in poetry?” What answer would you suggest?
I would question this assertion that historians and journalists are after the truth. History has often been written by the victors, and many journalists are not interested in the truth – they want to sell stories, whether they are true or not. Of course, there are exceptions – honourable, brilliant journalists and historians exist. But truth is a difficult word. It shouldn’t be, but has become so, in this ‘post-truth’ era. Firstly, any writer can only write about what she/he knows. So their truth has to be based on their experience, or on meticulous, tireless, unprejudiced research. It might be that the poet’s truth has to be rigorous in a different way, in the sense that poetry is always a distillation – an intensifying of an experience. But also, ambiguity is often at the heart of fine poetry, so the question of divining the poem’s ‘truth’ requires the reader’s active engagement, and the truth emerges from a meeting of two experiences – the poet’s and the reader’s.
In a recent article, Indian novelist Arundhati Roy has written “Coronavirus has made the mighty kneel and brought the world to a halt like nothing else could”. Do you think that people and governments will come out more sensitive towards the environmental and social problems after this tragic experience of Coronavirus pandemic?
That is a big question. I’m not sure how optimistic I am. History has shown that the powerful only relinquish their power reluctantly, and rarely without a fight. Capitalism – the obscene wealth of a tiny proportion of humanity at the expense of the majority who have created that wealth – has brought the planet, its wildlife, eco-systems and habitats to the brink of climate change catastrophe. But humans are drugged by consumerism. They can’t wait to ‘get back to normal’, to their cars, their shopping, and all the plastic they don’t need. But ‘normal’ was not viable before Covid-19. Governments must legislate to prevent big business and industry from creating and promoting products that are toxic. But political parties and governments are funded by private business, so it seems unlikely that this will happen without massive public pressure. One possible window of optimism is that populations have shown that they will comply with necessary draconian measures introduced by governments during coronavirus. So, perhaps this could give governments the confidence to do the same for climate change. Drastic action has to be taken, and governments have now seen that this can work. But conservative governments, as we’ve seen with Trump in the USA and Boris Johnson here in the UK, are motivated by profit margins more than by any other considerations.
In your most recent collection, Quines, you dedicate a poem to Nan Shepherd, a poet, novelist and writer of non-fiction, whose works reveal all her love for the mountainous landscape of the North of Scotland, though framed in its historical mutability. Landscape and time are central in her writings. What role do landscape and time play in your poems? How do you think time will affect the landscape in Scotland?
Of course, the landscape of Scotland has changed since time began. For example, Scotland and England were once divided by an ocean. And thousands of years ago, the Scottish Borders, where I live, was covered in ancient native woodland. I was born and brought up in a rural community, with hills, rivers, woods and lochs. I have lived in cities all over the UK, including Glasgow, Edinburgh, Manchester and London, and have returned to live two miles from where I was born. Edinburgh is about half an hour from my home, and it is one of the most beautiful cities in the world, built on seven hills, with many wild places within its environs. But my imagination inhabits mainly my rural native landscape. I’m deeply interested in time, in how history has a way of repeating itself – do we ever learn? – and in how our common humanity connects us through centuries. But for centuries, profit has affected landscape in Scotland more than time. Indigenous people (Gaels) were cleared from the Highlands of Scotland by landowners, in order to make profit: first from sheep farming, and then from sport, specifically deer-shooting – the Highlands became the playground of the rich. Then oil was discovered in the North Sea, and huge commercial American operations were set up to bleed the environment yet again, throwing local economies out of balance. One of Scotland’s most influential theatre companies, 7:84 (its name deriving from the fact that in the 1970s, 7 per cent of the population owned 84 per cent of the nation’s wealth – I understand the statistic is even worse now), produced a famous play about this, entitled ‘The Cheviot, the Stag, and the Black, Black Oil’.
For a decade, from 1979, wealthy London-based TV celebrities were given tax breaks by Margaret Thatcher’s UK government to plant trees all across Scotland’s Flow Country in the far North, seriously damaging one of the largest areas of blanket bog and most important wild places in the world. However, pressure on government from environmental activists was eventually successful: the trees were cut down, and left to rot back into the landscape, restoring its unique biodiversity, and the area is now being proposed as a World Heritage Site.
The trail of environmental wreckage due to profit continues: last year, Scottish Natural Heritage (SNH – a government conservation agency), recommended that the unique sand dunes in Aberdeenshire, at the golf course recently built by Donald Trump, should lose their designation as a site of special scientific interest (SSSI) because they have been “partially destroyed” by the course.
Landscape is frequently the backdrop and sometimes the actual subject of my poetry. I have written several poems in the voice of specific landscapes, including my poem in tribute to Nan Shepherd, another in the voice of a river inspired by the Scottish film maker and writer Margaret Tait, and one in the voice of a local reservoir, which has a fascinating history, here in the Pentland Hills of Scotland.
I have also written a play in Scots, entitled ‘ Skeleton Wumman , a kind of magic-realistic dramatic poem, based on an Inuit tale, which plays with time and landscape. It is set under the sea in the future – within post climate-change catastrophe, and the central character is a skeleton, who was once a disabled teenager. We flit back and forwards between the coastal setting of her home in contemporary Scotland, and her present situation (i.e. in the future) under the sea where she witnesses the oceanic eco-system in collapse. In this play, I’m asking a question something like the one posed by T.S. Eliot in his poem Journey of the Magi: “…were we led all that way for Birth or Death?’
What role do nature and the environment play in the poet’s experience?
It depends on the poet, and her or his individual experience. Some poets don’t write about nature and the environment at all. But others write about it extensively: the Irish poet, Michael Longley, for example, whose work I love, with its intensely detailed observation of the landscape and wildlife surrounding his home in Carrigskeewaun, County Mayo, is breathtaking; also the much neglected Scottish poet/novelist/short story writer, the late Violet Jacob – all her powerful, vivid writing – in Scots as well as English – is rooted in her native county of Angus; and from his home in rural Kentucky, the great American poet, Wendell Berry, writes so eloquently about nature and the environment. Berry’s collection ‘The Peace of Wild Things’ is essential reading for everyone, in my opinion, urgently relevant, as well as his essays and short stories. I first came across his work many moons ago, when I was training as an actor in London, missing my hills of home – a poem entitled ‘To a Siberian Woodsman – after looking at some pictures in a magazine’, written during the Vietnam War. It is a seminal poem for me, and, more than half a century after it was written, remains starkly relevant. I come back to it again and again.
Does the social mandate of the poet, today scarcely recognized, include a commitment for a shared environmental consciousness?
I think the social mandate of every human being should include a commitment to a shared environmental consciousness. Not just poets. But that depends on education. Poets don’t necessarily change the world, and nor should they feel they have the responsibility to do so. But they can interpret our world with insight.
Throughout the ages, poets have spoken out against the establishment, and have championed the dispossessed. And planet Earth is now dispossessed. The artist’s skill is to make connections – to enable us to see aspects of our world and our lives in a new light. There has never been a time when we so urgently needed to understand how everything is connected.
The economist Yanis Varoufakis attempts to do this in his thought-provoking, excellent book ‘Talking to My Daughter – a brief history of Capitalism’. The coronavirus has demonstrated to devastating effect how profoundly everything on our planet is connected. And poets have been responding vigorously.
Here are some examples of sites where this is happening, and to which I have contributed:
- Laura Maniero È traduttrice (EN>IT) e docente di lingua e cultura inglese e di italiano L2. A luglio 2010 consegue la Laurea Specialistica in Lingue e Letterature Straniere, Università Ca’ Foscari di Venezia, ottenendo il massimo dei voti e la Lode. Nel 2015 ottiene il Master in Traduzione di testi postcoloniali in lingua inglese, Università di Pisa. Ha tradotto una selezione di poesie postcoloniali e canzoni in lingua inglese e scozzese degli autori Roger Lucey (Sudafrica) e Gerda Stevenson (Scozia) in occasione di Poetry Vicenza 2016, festival di poesia contemporanea e musica, e Incroci di Civiltà 2016, Università Ca’ Foscari di Venezia. Ha poi tradotto alcuni testi di Sandeep Parmar, James Byrne, Steven Fowler, Brian Johnstone per Poetry Vicenza 2018. Alcune sue traduzioni sono state pubblicate nei testo “Poetry Vicenza, rassegna di poesia contemporanea e musica”, a cura di Marco Fazzini, Diagosfera, Edizioni ETS, 2016 e 2018, e sulle riviste letterarie online L’Ombra delle Parole, Patria Letteratura, El Ghibli, Insula Europea. Nel 2017 viene selezionata per una translation residency a Cove Park, Scozia, finanziata da Creative Scotland e Publishing Scotland. Nel 2018 pubblica la sua traduzione integrale in italiano della prima raccolta di poesie dell’autrice scozzese Gerda Stevenson, If This Were Real, Smokestack Books, 2013, Se questo fosse vero, Edizioni Ensemble, Roma, 2018. Nel 2019 vince la prestigiosa borsa di studio Edwin Morgan Translation Fellowship che seleziona soltanto due traduttori a livello internazionale dando loro la possibilità di frequentare in un ricchissimo contesto multiculturale, corsi di Letteratura Moderna, Contemporanea e Scozzese, SUISS, Università di Edimburgo. Sta ora lavorando alla traduzione di Quines: Poems in Tribute to Women of Scotland, Gerda Stevenson, Luath Press, 2018 che verrà pubblicata nell’autunno 2020 da Edizioni Ensemble, Roma.