Much, though not all, in this issue has to do with what we think the hallmark of our age: exile, the search for asylum, the speaking of native languages abroad. But poems by Brecht – leaving Germany for Scandinavia, the Soviet Union and America in 1933 – and by Ovid – leaving Rome for the Black Sea in AD 8 – should site our topic in a long tradition. The abundance and variety of material we received for Diaspora was astonishing, heartening and alarming in equal measure. What are you to feel when an Iraqi poet sends you his latest volume – in English – from New Zealand? It seemed we put out a receiver and signals came in urgently from round the globe. We took all we could of the best and most characteristic writing, so assembling a very mixed company, from Sarajevo via Toronto, from Sofia via Baltimore, from Algiers via Swansea. Tom Cheesman contributes a note on Hafan Books. They publish, in Swansea, work by asylum seekers from Somalia, Cameroon, Chile, Sudan… They might be set alongside the Mother Tongues issue of MPT as testimony of the packed plethora of voices in the British Isles today. We had no wish to exhaust the topic, which is literally inexhaustible, only to establish it as a fact and a constant presence. This magazine will always be listening for and will try to be a staging post for the world’s diaspora.
The original application of the word ‘diaspora’, in the Septuagint, was to the threatened dispersal of the Jewish people: that they should be ‘a diaspora in all kingdoms of the earth’. In the New Testament, the dispersal, still grievous, has a hopeful colouring too, in that those going abroad will be the carriers of a new faith. The word itself, in its roots, means ‘a sowing abroad’. The two senses – exile and seeding – will be obvious in much of the work collected here.
Translation itself is an act of beneficent diaspora. It seeds the countries of the world with words from elsewhere. Poetry, even in its native country, is a more or less foreign language, a language of elsewhere. Translation sends it down the tradewinds, lands it anywhere and everywhere, as vital contraband. The translation and dispersal of poetry throughout the world sustains an old ideal of internationalism. It makes for a global solidarity against all the ideologies and globalizations that reduce humanity. Poetry is an act of truthful speech, and as such, by nature and context, is intrinsically an act of opposition to the ruling packs of lies. It is subversive because essentially intractable and irreducible. Poetry can’t be ordered into place. If it tried to obey, it would lose its soul. It would continue an existence like that of the living dead, whose souls go below at the very moment of betrayal, leaving their bodies to shift on earth a while longer. The Republic of Letters is, in Louis MacNeice’s phrase, ‘incorrigibly plural’. In its plurality it faces and opposes all fundamentalisms. And it is a republic: it concerns itself with the res publica, with what we have in common and need for our common good. Translators extend the writ of the Republic of Humane Letters.
There have been some changes at MPT . After more than a decade, the administration of it has had to move from King’s College London. The transition has not been easy. We have proved the truth of the old refrain ‘you don’t know what you’ve got till it’s gone’, and realise – and gladly acknowledge – the magazine’s debt to many people in King’s, chief among them Norma Rinsler and Wendy Pank. Norma is strictly irreplaceable, at least by one person: we continue to learn how many and how various her tasks were. But now we have a new typesetter, a new website, a new designer, and, for the first time, a reviews editor. And we hope to appoint a new administrator early in the New Year. These are necessary changes, of a practical and creative kind. The new composition of the magazine – its mix of translations, original poetry and essays, and some reviews – is on display in this present issue.
So much for change. Change is necessary, metamorphosis (which will be the chief concern of our next issue) is proof of life. But tradition and continuity are vital too. With the backing of the Arts Council (without it there would be no MPT) we can continue, in our particular way, in a tradition reaching back nearly forty years. That is a long survival in the world of literary magazines, and the outlook is excellent. But if anyone looks back to the beginnings, to those first issues in the mid-1960s, they will see that we have a vital origin to live up to, whose premise was simple: Poetry matters. Its translation and dispersal over all the frontiers are an urgent responsibility.
David and Helen Constantine