Appropriately enough, Tessa and I meet in her brainchild, the Scottish poetry library. We arrive at exactly the same time, both slightly hurried and perfectly punctual. We’re here for the launch of her latest book ‘Rug of a thousand colours’, published by Luath press. The book is a creative and bilingual reflection on the five pillars of Islam by Tessa and Glasgow-based poet Iyad Hayatleh. Tessa and Iyad independently wrote poems on the theme and subsequently translated each other’s work into English and Arabic respectively, with Tessa working with Iyad from a rough English translation of his texts. The project, Tessa tells me, has taken nearly four years due to ups and downs in both their lives, not least of course the unrest in Iyad’s native Syria, where many of his family remain.
The idea grew out of a wider collaboration with immigrant writers in Scotland, as Tessa explains. ‘I was on a committee of the Scottish centre of PEN (a worldwide association of writers – ed). There were a number of poets among the immigrant and asylum population in Glasgow particularly and we realised we needed to do something to help them be translated. An organisation was set up called artists in exile Glasgow. That was writers, painters, theatre people, musicians, any artist and it was very thriving, vibrant organisation.’ She smiles (Tessa seems too genteel to grin). ‘Through that we set up translation workshops where volunteers from Scottish PEN worked with Albanians, Iraqis, Iranians…’ For a moment Tessa pauses, thinking back, and then adds, ‘I felt we should respect these writers as our equals and therefore it was not just their needing to be translated into our language, we should ask them to translate our poetry as well.’
Tessa frequently worked with Iyad, a Palestinian poet from Syria. She explains that he started being asked to perform and to read his work, but was always expected to be reading as an immigrant poet. ‘I thought it was a pity that he seemed to always be put in this slot,’ she admits, quickly adding that she isn’t trying to criticise him. ‘So, I suggested to him that he and I both wrote poems inspired by the five pillars of Islam. He, from his point of view as a Palestinian in Glasgow, and I from mine as a kind of,’ she pauses to find the right phrase, ‘a Christian untouched by church.’ She laughs.
Even before starting on the project, Tessa had a better grasp of Islam than many of us, having lived and worked in Pakistan as the wife of a missionary for a number of years in the 1960s. She also has her own understanding of what it is to be an immigrant, having been born in India to British parents who had lived in India all their lives. She moved back to the UK as a child. ‘It was a massive culture shock.’
'In Scotland we tend towards understatement'
Translating poetry is always a thorny issue. Should you translate the sense or the sound? Is it possible to be faithful to both? And is the translated poem actually a creative work in its own right? Tessa, who also translates from German, agrees that the ‘perfect translation’ is impossible but is wary about straying too far from the original. ‘You’re trying to reproduce the essence, the essentials. Certainly, when I’ve had my own poems translated into other languages, I haven’t wanted the meaning to be changed. You don’t want your meaning changed, quite frankly.’ She laughs quickly, as though worried she’s been too forward. She tells me that with Iyad’s poems, if she has done anything it has been to tone down his emotional and elaborate style, explaining that ‘especially in Scotland we tend to towards understatement. I didn’t want to tone them down too much, so you would probably still think that they are a bit over the top. But that’s because,’ she pauses to emphasise her next words, ‘they’re his poems.’
The concept of writing about the five pillars of Islam offered a structure to work around while also linking the collection to an aspect of life, with Tessa explaining, ‘I think that books of individual poems nowadays are a bit a thing of the past.’ She continues passionately, ‘People are more interested if poetry’s linked in some way to an aspect of life. My whole idea in founding this place was to lock poetry to life and into the life of the country. And not have it put on a shelf for very clever or special elite people.’
Tessa and Iyad will be presenting ‘Rug of a thousand colours’ at: Inverness literary salon - 7pm, 16 October; Poem and a piece, Dundee University – 12 noon, 25 October; Radical book fair, Edinburgh – 26 October.
Images: Tessa and Iyad at book launch © Mike Knowles; 'Rug of a thousand colours' cover