Interview | Chris McCabe: Poems from the Edge of Extinction

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Poems from the Edge of Extinction will be launched at Southbank Centre’s Poetry International festival on 19 October. Click here for more information.

Jack Solloway


Chris McCabe: Poems
from the Edge of Extinction


Chris McCabe is the National Poetry Librarian. In 2013 he won the Ted Hughes Award and his works include numerous poetry collections, including Speculatrix (2014) and The Triumph of Cancer (2018). His new poetry anthology Poems from the Edge of Extinction, published by Chambers this year, collects poems from endangered languages.

The anthology began as a project initiated by The National Poetry Library in 2017 called ‘The Endangered Poetry Project’. I met Chris at the Poetry Library to discuss the book ahead of the its launch at the Southbank Centre’s Poetry International festival.

How did the project come about? What was your interest in the poetry of endangered languages?

It came about in 2017, we launched a project at The National Poetry Library called ‘The Endangered Poetry Project’ in response to the situation that we’re in with languages around the world. Linguists tell us that half of the world’s 7000 languages will fall silent by the end of the century. And that got me and other colleagues here thinking about what that means for poetry.

When a language disappears, along with that goes poetic tradition, technique – there’s ways of making verbal art that might be completely unknown to us in the West. So it was an attempt to reach out to people to send us the poems they knew in endangered languages – it could be an oral version or an audio file, it could be a written version, but we were interested in the poems that they knew existed in their culture. And we got a really good response to that.

Were you surprised by the response?

I was surprised by the reach – I wasn’t surprised that people would send in those poems, in one sense, because people are really passionate about languages and their own language, often, but the reach was surprising. We had a poem from Malaysia sent in, a poem from the Rotuman Islands in Oceania, so it was the extent to which that callout went which was uplifting and really enriching for the project because these languages started to unfold before us, and we could start to make some connections between them.

And the book is an extension of that project? How did you go about selecting what would feature in the book?

It’s been the most epic and challenging project I’ve ever worked on – and I’ve worked on a few epic and challenging projects, here at the library and beyond. But this was a real challenge, because you can only find what has been documented. It’s a little bit like when oceanographers tell us that a huge percentage of the earth’s seas are undocumented. We don’t know what’s down there. I think we make a mistake thinking that the Internet tells us everything and it doesn’t. It’s only the work that SOAS do, for example, where they commission linguists to go off and document a language: ‘Here’s some documentation from a linguist who’s actually gone to a place and communicated with the last speakers of a language.’ That was one route; sometimes just through sheer luck and perseverance as well.

For example, I was really excited to include a poet from Macau (just off of Hong Kong), who writes in the Patuá language. I was told by somebody who published numerous books of Macanese poetry that there were no poets writing in that language, but he said he’d seen carol services, things like that. I’d just met him through an academic who’d invited me to Macau a few years ago who had been to this place and who had some links to this community as well. He gave me a name: this poet called Miguel S Fernandes, and he said, ‘I’ve asked around, and he’s the person you should ask’. And this message came back on Facebook that said ‘Hello Chris, thanks for reaching out, I believe I’m the last person writing in this language. How can I help you?’

It was wonderful, because when you set off to edit a book, you hope you can bring something new to readers, and I genuinely think with poets like him, he’s not been read, certainly in the UK before. There are many examples of poets in the book who are known in their community but haven’t been translated before, certainly in a volume that will have a wide readership.

We’re talking about extinction, but it’s as much about keeping these sort of things alive, isn’t it? They’re poems from the edge of extinction, but a lot of them are about that as well. One struck me in particular, which was this poem here:

I am beginning to write in our language,
but it is difficult.

Only the elders speak our words,
and they are forgetting.

There are not many words anyhow.
They are scattered like clouds

Dahwdezeldiin’ koht’aene kenaege’
ukesdezt’aet.

Yaane’ koht’aene yaen’,
nekenaege’ nadahdelna.

Koht’aene kenaege’ k’os nadestaan

[From ‘C’etsesen’ (‘The Poet’) by John Elvis Smelcer]

Oh, this is amazing, yeah. It’s in the Ahtna language (an Alaskan language), and the poet here, John Smelcer, he said himself: he will be the last speaker of this language, because the elders in this community are so much older than him – talking like twenty/thirty years age gap between him and the elders, who are the last speakers. He has made it a mission of his to document the language – created a dictionary, a grammar, he even uses YouTube to teach Ahtna words.

But he uses poetry as a way of communicating what is important in this language, and I think this poem really captures it, because he’s talking about the process of writing in this language that he’s learning. What’s also wonderful, there’s a myth in that: the language is brought in by a raven. Poems become a nexus where world belief, mythology, language, and the environment kind of all switch up against each other.

What are the conditions for a language to create poetry and for it thrive? Poetry’s obviously a mark of a healthy language, but maybe that’s an assumption. What do you think are the bare essentials for poetry to come about?

That’s a really good question, and linguists would have different views on this. In one sense, in a really matter of fact way, you could say that when a language is declining, then poetry might be seen as a luxury. However, that’s not the case, and I really like the argument that Nicholas Evans, who’s a linguist, makes: that it’s in poetry that the younger generation attempts to engage in a language; because there’s performance, audience, there’s self-expression – all these wonderful things.

He also describes poetry as being like a cookie-cutter that can cut out a certain metrical technique or way of making imagery, and that cutter shape can then pass on to the rest of the language. So, it allows everyday speakers to do something in the language that they didn’t know was possible before. Evans encourages all linguists to study poetry as an essential part of their process. Roman Jakobson did the same before; he was friends with Mayakovski and he made the case that if you’re serious about language, you need to understand poetry to understand language and take it seriously.

The next question is your own, but I wonder if you came to a conclusion after posing it in your book. What does it mean for a language to have an active poet? Are there other strains of activism you’re referring to here?

I suppose the conclusion I’ve come to is that the ratio of poets to speakers as a language, as the number of speakers decline, is on balance compared to the rest of society. Poets step up to the plate, basically, when a language is in decline.

We’ve seen this time and time again with Miguel Fernandes who I mentioned – he’s one of the last speakers and he sees the importance and value of poetry. John Smelcer, the other one that comes to mind is the amazing Livonian poet (a Latvian language); Valts Ernstreits, he’s been to speak here at The Library and has a wonderful book about the digital world, about technology and how tempting it is, but his instinct is to retreat [from it]. But I wouldn’t know about his work if it wasn’t through the dissemination of the Internet!

There’s a wonderful tension, in terms of what digital brings: the information there and what a poet might feel in terms of what is inflicted on him.

Yes, the technology that has made this book a possibility is also one of many driving forces in, I suppose, a standardisation of communication – or a promoting of one language over another – that might muscle minority languages out. There’s a strange kind of paradox about it.

There really is. Another paradox is there, as well, of course, that the introductions are in English – all these endangered languages being communicated through the medium of English. Many of these languages are oral languages and you’re often reading a transcription of what is meant to be performed in the live moment. But you know, the way I see it ultimately is that it’s a launchpad for engagement, for discussion.

Many people just aren’t aware of what’s happening with languages. It’s similar to how we find ourselves ecologically in the world: biodiversity being under threat, certain species of wildlife, flora disappearing. The rate of acceleration in languages [disappearing] is actually quicker than those instances, which is really important as well. People have made the links between what’s happening with biodiversity and what’s happening with languages. So, as capitalism continues to do what it does with singular outlook, in places where languages were many, we see languages becoming dominated by the few.

Extinction is a word on everyone’s lips at the moment. What do you make of Extinction Rebellion?

The crisis that we’re facing in the world – language, ecology – we need to raise awareness quickly. There’s no time to slowly wait things out and hope things get better. There’s an urgency which is driving this book. Just in the speed with which this book’s come out, I think that’s manifested. We launched the book in 2017, only two years ago. We’ve done a callout in that time, an exhibition here, then got a publisher involved, edited fifty poems around the world, which is a big undertaking.

Extinction Rebellion closed down Waterloo Bridge. We had conversations about bringing poetry to the stage, and they did have poetry to the stage. Again, this comes back to the point I was making about poetry being a wonderful opportunity to take strong ideas – anger, quite abstract thoughts – and to turn them into a medium and a live moment in which it can be opened to an audience. The police came around and moved them along.

But I like what Extinction Rebellion is. The attempt to capture the popular imagination – there’s deep and important thought behind what to do. Even looking yesterday at the pink octopus [float] closing off part of London, it’s a perfect poetic image in a way. There’s you thinking in imagery, as many poets do: that’s something I won’t forget for a while.

How do you see poetry as having an urgent, everyday impact? Something that will have not only popular appeal, but also popular use, for want of a better word.

Depends whereabouts in the world you’re living.

I’m thinking in the context of Extinction Rebellion.

We have to accept that not just in the UK, in the West generally, poetry has a major place in the large of a minority of people. And it has a minor place in the vaster majority of people. In terms of everyday engagement, that’s roughly correct, although people do turn to poetry time and time again in crisis.

We found that The National Poetry Library had 25,000 inquiries a year and many of those are people asking for a poem for a funeral or a birth or a wedding, so I think that at the same time that people might think that poetry has a minor place in their lives, in moments of heightened experience, it’s a go-to place. And the fact that we have in this country a number of poetry libraries – this just is not the case around the world.

I know from researching it, the States has poetry organizations, but it doesn’t have a poetry library. Most countries in Europe don’t either. Here there’s the Scottish Poetry Library, there’s a Northern Poetry Library, there’s a new Poetry Library opening in Manchester, and we have The National Poetry Library, quite small, in Ireland – that’s pretty significant. And you also have to look at what’s happening at this really explosive moment for poetry. Instagram is one example of that, where poetry is being embraced as a medium of expression and connection by a young generation. Massive numbers, just incredible numbers.

In that instance, the gatekeepers are being removed. And I think that’s what Extinction Rebellion is really pushing at: removing the gatekeepers. Some are not keeping the gate as well as they should be.

You’ve expressed hesitancy at these translations being rendered into English. How do you prevent something like this from being an anthropological project in the colonial sense? You almost point the finger, in the book’s introduction, at the British Museum and say, ‘We’re different from that.’ But how is it different?

I did very much want to acknowledge that in the introduction – about the difficulty, really, of reaching out as an editor from England, from the UK, to places around the world that are still recovering actually from British colonial past in one way or the other.

It’s very much in terms of lived experience: like the Rotuman Islands poet in the book, her grandfather was kidnapped as part of the ‘blackbirding’ era [1860s-1920], where British colonialists would basically kidnap adults from one island and take them to another to work, and that would go on for three years, and then they’d release them. This is a young poet who is telling that story, trying to work out what it means for her to have come from a family in which this has happened. I think that what makes it different from the butterfly-catching history that is prevalent in this country of how we collect and take and got used to taking.

It’s about awareness, I think, and the willingness to not make any assumptions on how you touch other people’s languages. And that means that the poets are always in the driving seat. If I’m making suggestions as an editor around a particular translation or if I write any accompanying texts to go with the poem, it’s back to them to be signed off. And any moment a work is like this, I think it’s fatal for the fingerprints to be getting too much across somebody else’s work. It’s not right. It means a lot of sensitivity is needed.

With poetry being a fluid medium, poetic language is very unstable in its essence, but you’ve still got to treat it like an object. It’s easy to think, ‘It’s a poem and nobody will notice’ and it’s not the right way of thinking. It’s somebody else’s work. Just be conscious of it.

How do you think the project has influenced your own writing, particularly as a poet?

In terms of writing, it’s too early to say. Like most poets, developing as a poet, in the first few years, it’s mass imitation of everything else that you read until you kind of work it out – influence is a really difficult process to unpick, how that exactly happens. Hopefully you end up at a place where the poem you write sounds like your poem.

I think there’s so many interesting ways of making poetry that come into my creative world, when you start to write and feel like the presence of a poem begins to cross over from the spectral world into something that will be on the page. But you know, also just forms which pervade.

In the Middle East – Pakistan, Tajikistan, Afghanistan – the form of the couplets (which we use a lot and have used a lot historically in Western poetry) are used very interestingly. They share a live performance which begins with couplets and they leave a moment for improvisation. So you’ve got a really standard, fixed form and then you’ve got space for collaboration, performance, invention. You’ve often got music as well.

So that punctuation is aural rather than graphic? Which is not how you’d conventionally conceive of it, I suppose.

But it’s also the psychology of a form like that – it shows how having something fixed can give people the confidence to present something as art – but always leave space for something unknown to happen as well. Again, there’s where interesting work emerges, where space is left.

And you do have an interest in the unknown – an impulse to seek out archive work, recordings. I wonder how your twin interests as an archiver and librarian go hand in hand with your writing.

Absolutely. I see everything I write as a documentation of my life. It’s manifest in different mediums and artistic forms, but I don’t see it as separate. My number one identifying marker, if you like, is as a poet, because I’ve been doing it for a long time, and it informs what I see and what interests me and what I’m working on. It gets me out of bed in the morning.

I am obsessive about archives. I would love archives to be more visible in poetry culture because archives are the hinge between what is often seen as quite an abstract medium (a form that exists in poets’ heads and can be complicated on the page) and the other side of it, which is visual art, which can often be immediately accessible. In an archive – Emily Dickinson’s envelope poems, for example – you’ve got the wonderful moment of conception and creation. People really engage with those because it’s so interesting to look at those visually and historically. They show the working mind – the poet as a person, as a creator.

I never get tired of burrowing into this place, thousands of books going back to 1912. I’ve been here for seventeen years and I’m still working my way through that labyrinth – you do collections in which one thing takes you to something else and you make discoveries. But I’m going beyond that as well, writing several books on London cemeteries with the aim of finding a great lost poet. I’m not sure if the National Poetry Library collection forgives me for this, but the provocation is, maybe we’ve got everything and we’ve got it wrong, and there’s other great work out here.

Is it a morbid interest you have? Reading your collection Speculatrix, with its ‘worms’ and ‘rehearsals’ – punning on hearses, coffins and repetition – your interest seems to be in life after death, in an archival sense perhaps.

I don’t find speaking to dead poets morbid, actually, it’s what poetry is for. Poets don’t propose to give us answers but they ask questions in really brilliant ways. And those questions are there to be responded to – to dialogue. Like the great luminary William Blake: it’s the way he saw Dante and Milton and Chaucer. These artists exist to get into conversation with, to create new work in response to – artists feel unfulfilled. Especially artists like Blake, you can never fully make sense of it.

Conversing with dead poets, what questions have been raised through your delving into the archive? What future projects have you got your eye on?

My new cemetery book is just about to come out. It’s called The East Edge, a documentation of walking over Tower Hamlets Cemetery in the night – talking to dead poets, asking these questions, and delving into loads of archives as well to tell these stories, narratives of these poets.

I’m trying to finish a novel about Liverpool. My focus is in two cities, and I’m writing a novel documenting the life of Frederick Fleet, who was the lookout on The Titanic, the person who rang the bell. He also went to a seamen’s orphanage; its derelict buildings are in my local park. I’m fascinated by his life because he was abandoned by his parents. He went to the seamen’s orphanage, he went to sea, he was seen as ‘bad luck’ after being on The Titanic, even though he did everything right. He committed suicide in 1963, when The Beatles were number one in the charts.

I was interested in his outlook on the century as someone who lived through quite a span of the 20th century. And that’s involved going to the archives in Richmond, finding the records and photos of him and the different places he lived.

The image of The Titanic ploughing straight into the iceberg seems ironically prophetic. Hopefully not…

Awesome and kind of morbid at the same time.

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Interview by Jack Solloway.

Poems from the Edge of Extinction edited by Chris McCabe is available from all good booksellers. For more information, visit Chambers’s website.


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