A Bird is not a Stone is a project I have been very much enjoying being part of, a collection of poems by contemporary Palestinian writers, selected by the House of Poetry in al-Bireh, Palestine, and translated into Scots, Gaelic and English via a bridge translation by a selection of poets in Scotland. Other poets collaborating include Liz Lochhead, John Glenday, Kathleen Jamie, Billy Letford, Jim Ferguson, Magi Gibson, and Ryan van Winkle, among others. The Arabic poems I have been working on have included works by Zuhair Abu Shaib, Majid Abu Ghosh, Taher Riyadh, Abd al-Nasser Saleh, Rania Irshaid, Samih Faraj and Bisan Abu Khaled. The title is from a sculpture by George Wyllie.
I have always enjoyed hearing Arabic poetry read by friends from the Middle East, the rhythm and music of it was clear to me even while my understanding of the language faltered. This project has showed me just how intricate the wordplay in Arabic can be, with one word having many meanings. Wonderful titles and lines appeared in the bridge translation, challenging to improve upon, such as “Woman in a Garden/Thing That is Stared At” and “this insanity is full of olives” (Abd al-Nasser Saleh and Bisan Abu Khaled respectively). I envied some of the other Scottish poets, who could use all varieties of Scots, Glaswegian or Gaelic language to take ownership of the poems. It raised interesting questions for me, as to what my own voice is, poetically and personally. Born in London, and raised in Glasgow from the age of seven, with an Irish, Scottish, English and Welsh heritage, I am a true confused child of the British Isles. But so many of the poems I was working on covered, as good poems should, the universal themes of love, loneliness, identity, and altered consciousness, that there was always something I could find to identify with, in a voice that grew more confident with each poem. The narrators in these poems get drunk, angry, fall in love, and challenge their own sense of homelessness, like poets and people everywhere. It was not just in the political, but in the personal, that I found a common language, and through translation of other poets’ work, a confidence in my own writing.
I am very grateful to Henry Bell and Lorna MacBean for involving me in this wonderful opportunity. As my friend, the poet Gerry Loose says, “Translation, of anything, expands universes and verses of one’s own alike.”