In November, Queen Mary University of London will host the inaugural Globe Road Poetry Festival, a celebration of world poetry in the East End of London. The festival’s themes are translation and technology, two categories that might seem to sit uneasily alongside each other. Anyone who has attempted to translate a ‘simple’ sentence using Google or other software knows the sometimes poetic, sometimes hilarious responses the computer can generate. Translation feels like an irrevocably human activity.
And yet Google’s translation technology, which builds a model of meaningful probability by comparing millions of documents from the world’s infinite archive – the internet – does have more bearing on the work of poetry. It’s a system of meaning determined not by dictionary definitions and rules, but by our common uses of it. A computing scientist explained to me that no one really knows what goes on inside the black box which is Google, but it’s likely that translations are represented spatially: words which have more proximate meanings are closer together, in a kind of shimmering linguistic map, something like the Thinkmap thesaurus or a living tag cloud. Well, that’s how I pictured it anyway – I’m just a poet.
That words gather their meanings from relatedness is nothing new, of course – Saussure’s course on general linguistics fed this perception through all the humanities and social sciences. But thinking of language as a set of spatial relations, of intimacies and chasms, is a powerful insight into poetry, whose presence on the space of the page is essential to its game of communication. Particularly in the 20th century, but in fact long before that, poets have made use of the page space as an architectural zone where the poem’s peculiar meanings can be built and demolished.
Print, another world-shattering technology, made exquisite refinements in poetic space possible. Charles Olson lauded the typewriter as a device which could ‘indicate exactly the breath, the pause, the suspensions even of syllables, the juxtapositions even of parts of phrases, which [the poet] intends. For the first time the poet has the stave and the bar a musician has had. For the first time he can, without the convention of rime and meter, record the listening he has done to his own speech and by that one act indicate how he would want any reader, silently or otherwise, to voice his work.’
Space, according to this formula, is a record of listening, of speaking and of bodies. Technology reconstitutes these and disperses them across the universe of readers. But this idealism needs of course to be countered by the recognition that space can be a gulf: a digital divide, a razorwire-topped boundary, a sea which keeps people and languages apart. Words may approach each other in that flirtatious dance of synonymity, but they are never exactly the same. As in Zeno’s paradox, part of the art of poetry is to keep that infinitesimally small space between word and meaning, hearing and knowing, from collapsing.
Globe Road is committed to exploring the spaces of poetry, and to use poetry to think about other spaces: the spaces we need in order to be creative; the spaces we inhabit when we speak to each other across cultures and languages; the space of the East End of London, and the university within that community. The presence on the programme of writers who have been thinking about migration, exile, and translingualism – deeply important poets from a wide range of backgrounds and places, including M. NourbeSe Philip, Caroline Bergvall, Myung Mi Kim, Caasha Lul Mohamad Yusuf, Daljit Nagra, Agnès Agboton and Linton Kwesi Johnson – also brings poetry into a larger conversation, about how political and cultural space is organised and policed. There will be poets phoning in from Bangladesh. There will be workshops in which the audience can experiment with poetry and technology, and even a poetic version of the Deep Blue / Kasparov duel, in which poets who use technology as a generative tool face off against poetry bots. But part of the festival’s meaningfulness will come from the untranslatable experience of occupying a common space, audiences and performers together, in the living situation of relatedness where poetry happens.
The Globe Road Poetry Festival will take place 12-16 November 2015 at Queen Mary University of London and in community spaces.