Transport Tales: A Date with Inspiration

It was clear. The woman on the train who sat in the row opposite me had long passed the honeymoon stage in her relationship with inspiration. I could tell by the furious look she gave anyone who passed her, making her move her position, tearing her away from the laptop screen where her one true love resided.

She had set up a makeshift studio inside the packed train carriage. She’d tucked herself in among her suitcases, each rivaling her own tiny build, and propped her laptop on her knees, grinding her teeth at anyone who looked like they might want to distract her. She’d come through several bumps in her relationship with inspiration and was now facing another.

While flying to Heathrow back from a photo shoot, she’d arranged a date with inspiration. They agreed to meet on the train from London Paddington to Bristol to look at the photos together. But inspiration liked to mix things up, to keep their relationship exciting. She hadn’t told the little, strong woman that the train would be too packed for them to have any quiet time together. Now she had to make it romantic any way she could.

She moved her feet forwards and back, making sure her love was comfortable, sat on her knees. She ran her fingers through her greasy hair, cocked her head to one side and tensed, a haunted look in her eye every time someone squeezed past her, separating her from her work.

She’d find a new position to be closer to her love – head cocked to the other side now, she looked through the photos, slashing away a line here, or cropping a corner there, inch by inch, her full attention on those pictures, pleading inspiration: ‘Talk to me, baby, please…’

She’d already seen the perfect version in her head – inspiration had already whispered to her what each photograph was designed to look like, from the beginning of time. Inspiration saw the final result even before she’d looked at each photo; before she’d met the model; before she’d conceived the idea of setting the photo shoot in Sweden.

I stole glances of their date while pretending to read a book, one hand holding it up, the other holding onto my own suitcases while the train swayed. I recognised her madness. The woman’s face was worn like she didn’t care for sleep or food, or anything that sustained her, other than her one true love. I saw her getting off the train, wheeling her two suitcases, like an army cadet with ‘guns’ or a mother with twins, each screaming and pulling her hand in the opposite direction.

Perhaps before they got married, she didn’t know what it would be like – what sacrifices she’d have to carry out and how she’d lose her identity and merge with her lover whenever it called. The desires of her love always became those of her own. And she loved it. She lived for those moments.

In her world, there was only her and her inspiration, bound forever, and that mad look in her eyes – like the world contained only her and her laptop, which contained her work. She wanted them to be bound like that forever, but she could never be quite sure when inspiration would act like a whore and leave her to go off and play her games with someone else.

All ideas, already conceived, already executed, floated in the air between us, at the grasp of our fingertips. I saw this tale unravel before my eyes while I caught glimpses of the woman, and, like her, I too begged my inspiration to stop.

I didn’t have the means to write it all down. Surely, she couldn’t ask this of me now!

There were no empty seats on the train, my phone battery was dead and I couldn’t write in my notebook with the train swaying as it did – I’d fall on that nice American couple who sat on their suitcases next to me. And even if I survived the fall, the scribbles would be illegible, they’d make no sense… no sense at all…

But inspiration didn’t stop. It kept demanding. It reminded me that we were bound forever, of the promise I’d made on the day I chose to pursue it. If I wanted to stay near it, I was afraid of losing it, so I always reciprocated its madness. She asked much of me. She demanded that I look like a fool in other people’s eyes. But they were the fools because they had no idea how thrilling, how exhilarating a date with inspiration could be.

And so the ideas kept coming.

The story I relate now, several days later, is not the same story I saw in that hour, in the train cart that had no more seats available.

It’s silly – I know that there are bigger tragedies in life – but I weep for that.

5 things I learned at the #BCLT2018 summer school (apart from translations)

BCLT’s International Literary Translation & Creative Writing Summer School at the University of East Anglia was so full of positive emotions that it will keep me buzzing for weeks to come. My heartfelt thanks to Latvian Literature who sponsored my attendance, because, within a single week, I learned more than I have learned in the past year. And not all of these lessons were to do with translations. Here are the top 5 things I learned at the Summer School, translations aside.

  1. How to let go of my ego

I thought that having an MA in Creative Writing from Bath Spa University, and a budding career as a freelance writer, qualified me to be a good translator. I arrived at the Baltic languages workshop, led by former Bloomsbury commissioning editor Bill Swainson, and joined my Latvian group (translators Terēze Svilane and Christopher Moseley, and our wonderful author Inga Ābele), absolutely convinced that I held in my hands the best possible translation of Inga’s short story “Nātres” or “Nettles”. Within just five minutes of workshopping, I was safely brought back down on earth. In fact, I think that each of us held a similar belief about the version of her story that we had been asked to translate at home in preparation for the Summer School.

Through our friendly disagreements over the text, spanning from metaphors to sentence structures, to punctuation, I was able to really open my mind, expand my vocabulary and explore the possibilities of translations. I learned to surrender my ego, for the greater purpose of introducing an English reader to the beautiful language and imagery of Nettles. Inga’s story was full of complex metaphors and complicated sentence structures, so it was a challenging text to work with. But the reward for us as a group was to hear others say how much they loved the story and the imagery that it conveyed after the readings at Norwich Cathedral on the final day of the Summer School. I felt the same way about the translations produced by the other groups, and I’m sure that many of us will stick to the rewarding, albeit challenging path of literary translations.


2. It’s all about the network

Here I was, thinking that, in order to become a successfully published author or to get a commission as a literary translator, all you need to do is read lots of books and write. Alone, in your room. It seems like one of the expert translators who participated in the plenary session ‘My Life as a Translator’ had a similar idea, stating that he went into this field so that he wouldn’t have to meet anyone new, ever.

Of course, there’s time and place to develop your craft, and you won’t get far in this field without doing plenty of reading. But, until coming to the Summer School, I didn’t appreciate just how important connections are – and how willing people are to make those connections, thanks to a shared passion for literature. And these connections actually keep you going when the writing and reading come to a halt – because it’s very hard to keep yourself motivated if you’re doing all this alone, in your room, without sharing what you’re doing or having someone who gets it put their hand on your shoulder, and tell you to keep going. It’s actually great to feel part of a field that relies so much on human connections.


3. The best kind of networking is making friends

That word ‘networking’ used to terrify me. That’s because I assumed that networking meant coming up to a complete stranger and, somewhat out of context, launching a sales pitch of my work-in-progress at them while they’re eyeing a selection of canapes which they’d much rather be enjoying. What a relief to learn that it’s simply not true. As the great Persian poet Rumi once said…


I made so many friends at the BCLT Summer School from all over the world, and I hope that these friendships will remain and prosper.  A huge and heartfelt ‘thank you’ should go out to the wonderful organisers who created so many opportunities for us to chat over coffee or have casual conversations over dinner, even leading to a spontaneous music jam on campus!

4. There are lots of opportunities out there

From grants for translators to various associations you can join to networking events, conferences and residencies, there’s a big world of opportunity out there. And it’s a supportive and welcoming world. I’ve already applied to be a member of The Translators Association as part of the Society of Authors and I plan to dedicate a portion of my next paycheck towards becoming a member of English PEN. Partly because they host an annual summer party for members and promote translations from under-represented languages in English and partly because their mission to “work to defend and promote freedom of expression, and to remove barriers to literature” is just what the world needs right now. Words Without Borders is another wonderful organization, which I came across at Canan Marasligil’s talk “Translating Comics: It’s Not Just in the Bubble” at the beautiful and historic Dragon Hall, home of The National Centre for Writing.


5. International literature is an international brotherhood

I was deeply moved by the story of the Iranian writer Hossein Mortezaeian Abkenar whose work was being translated by a group of talented and incredibly passionate translators at the Persian workshop. He currently resides in the U.S. and his books have been banned from sale and publication in Iran. This presents a very real possibility that his future work may have to be published in English only, rather than his mother tongue. Among other things, his story highlights the role of the translator (and perhaps the responsibility) to share important literary works and powerful stories with the rest of the world. Abkenar’s novel A Scorpion on the Steps of Andimeshk Railroad Station would be the next thing I read, except it’s only been translated into French, German and Kurdish. Maybe the success of the Persian workshop at the Summer School and the new connections made will lead to more of his work becoming available in English.

Final thoughts…

I feel humbled and privileged to belong to a community where genuine friendships and different cultures are embraced, and very much celebrated. From the organisers to the speakers, to the participants, it felt like these values resonated in everyone’s heart.


Smells Like Tarmac, Smells Like Home


Two months in

that’s when
your smell changed

You stayed over at mine
that night
after another shift
at the shit restaurant
where you had to work
until you figured things out

It had been
an unremarkable day
and you complained
of your customers
and managers
who never seemed to understand
then hugged me in
your arms wrapped tight around my legs
you fell asleep
as though I were your shelter

That’s when it happened
your smell changed

as you tossed and turned
in my bed
suffering the heat wave
I heard the noises
of trolleybusses
saw the lights
from the street lamps
that crept through
that window
on the ground floor
I used to stare out of

I thought how strange
it was
to find a home
in a stranger
from another part of the world

to smell the tarmac of my childhood home
on your skin
feel the car and petrol fumes
in your breath

Don’t Listen to Beautiful Fiction

don’t listen
to beautiful fiction

to those who said they’ll love you forever
because forever is a long time
and no one can make
that kind of commitment

listen instead
to the drumming
inside your head
red flags
the early warning signs
they’re there for a reason
so don’t turn them into
works of fiction

no matter how thrilling
those first few paragraphs are
no matter how poetic
the metaphors sound
no matter how drawn
you are
to read on
close the cover
– I promise –
you won’t like
the twist at the end

forget what was said
and whispered
in those early morning hours
when everything is filled
with magic
it’s nothing to do
with the plot
cigarettes and moon-lit skies
all just ‘bells and whistles’
that’s all

do yourself a favour
and stop reading
that cheap thriller stuff
find a new genre
you can love

The poem I found under Russian snow

When I travel to a new city, it will speak to me, if only I let it. It will tell me stories in its own language – the church bells, the car horns, the swear words, the grins and frowns of people. It will also tell me things that I didn’t know about myself.

I will take out my recorder and listen out for what it has to say, then run back to my hotel room and put it all down, before it’s gone. Inspiration isn’t a 9-5 job. It comes when it pleases and leaves when it’s done. It doesn’t care about what’s going on around you – it only ever wants to play.

For me, poetry is not about writing a poem – it’s about creating that mental space where the poem can find you, and then listening. This is the poem that found me in St Petersburg.