Interview _ Emma Lee

Emma Lee
Emma Lee co-edited Over Land, Over Sea: Poems for those seeking refuge (Five Leaves Publications, 2015) and is one of the coordinators of Journeys in Translation. She also co-edited Welcome to Leicester (Dahlia Publishing, 2016) and has three poetry collections, Ghosts in the Desert (Indigo Dreams Publishing, 2015), Mimicking a Snowdrop (Thynks, 2014) and Yellow Torchlight and the Blues (Original Plus, 2004).

She reviews for The High Window Journal, The Journal, London Grip and Sabotage Reviews and is currently Vice-President of Leicester Writers' Club. Her poems have been published in the UK, USA, Mexico and South Africa, broadcast on radio and she has performed them at venues such as Leicester City Football Club, Leicester's Guildhall and the Poetry Cafe in London.

In this interview Emma Lee talks about her writing and about Journeys in Translation.

How would you describe the writing you are currently doing?

In between poetry reviews and blog articles, there are poems. I'm currently taking part in NaPoWriMo (National Poetry Writing Month, April 2017) where the aim is to draft or make notes towards 30 poems during April, averaging a poem a day. Outside of NaPoWriMo, I'll still be writing poems, blog articles and reviews, going to poetry and spoken word events and Leicester Writers' Club, but without the pressure of averaging a poem a day.

In that, who or what has had the most influence on you?

I usually avoid naming contemporary poets for fear of leaving someone out, but it's fair to say many of them are my Indigo Dreams Publishing stable mates. Other influences include Sylvia Plath, Charlotte Mew, Rosemary Tonks, Maya Angelou, Marcia Douglas, Anna Akhmatova, Elizabeth Bishop, Robert Lowell.

How have your personal experiences influenced the writing?

Not all my poems are semi-autobiographical. I love that poems give me the chance to try and imagine what someone else's experiences feel like and explore how others might tell their stories if they were given a chance.

What has been your most significant achievement as a writer so far?

In terms of being noteworthy, probably co-editing Over Land, Over Sea: Poems for those seeking refuge (Five Leaves Publications, 2015), not only in the interest it generated in readings in Leicester, Nottingham, St Andrews, the Poetry Cafe in London and interviews in The Morning Star and on Iraqi TV, but also in fundraising for refugee charities and subsequent projects such as the Journeys Poems Pop-Up Library, Journeys in Translation and the "Poetry and 'The Jungle'" paper I presented at the Jungle Factory Symposium organised by the University of Leicester in 2017.

On a more personal level, it has to be the publication of my third collection Ghosts in the Desert (IDP, 2015).

How did you get involved with Journeys in Translation?

Ambrose Musiyiwa and I were chatting over coffee about the Journeys Poem Pop-up Library, where we gave out postcards featuring eight poems from Over Land, Over Sea at Leicester Railway Station during the Everybody's Reading Festival, and how we could build on that.

At the time of putting together Over Land, Over Sea we only took poems in English, a language common to all three co-editors, because our priority was to raise funds, however we were aware that the publication being monolingual was a potential issue because it raised barriers to reading and sharing poems about a universal experience. So the idea came about to translate some of the poems into other languages and break down some of those barriers.

We picked the eight poems used in the postcards and added a further five, using local poets so that we could work towards an event where the original poems would be read and displayed alongside readings and displays of some of the translations.

I suspect if I hadn't stopped for that coffee, I'd still be involved somehow.

"[We] were chatting over coffee about the Journeys Poem Pop-up Library, where we gave out postcards featuring eight poems from Over Land, Over Sea at Leicester Railway Station during the Everybody's Reading Festival, and how we could build on that."

Which were the easiest aspects of the work you put or are putting into the project?

Coming up with the design for the posters. We're using the cover image of Over Land, Over Sea and each poster features the original poem alongside one translation.

Where more than one translation in a specific language has been done, these are being featured with the original poem on one poster, where possible. For example, there are three German translations of "The Man Who Ran Through the Tunnel" and these are featured with the original English version on one poster. The idea is not to directly compare the translations, but discuss how the differences occurred and difficulties in translating phrases or idioms which don't have a direct translation into another language.

One of your poems, "Stories from 'The Jungle'" is also being used as part of Journeys in Translation. How did the poem come about?

One frequently asked question is along the lines of: "Why don't refugees apply for asylum in the first European country they arrive in?" or "Why do refugees camped in France want to come to the UK?"

I wanted to explore some answers to that.

Sometimes it's because the refugees already have family here and want to join their family. Sometimes it's because the only European language they speak is English (usually because they were from a former colony and English was and in some cases still is one of the official languages). Sometimes it's a combination of reasons.

"Stories from the Jungle" takes seven stories from newspaper interviews and explores them not only through the question of why try to get to England but also why leave home and country in the first place.

Primarily I was trying to show that refugees are people with stories too. Not only that but they also have the right to tell those stories in their own words and on their own terms. There are a lot of negative connotations attached to the word migrant. But there is also a tendency to imply refugees are victims with no agency. Neither is accurate.

We won't solve the problems that large migrations cause without understanding why they are happening. People don't choose to leave their homeland and embark upon long, perilous journeys unless they have good reason for doing so. In an age of austerity, it's easy to fall into the trap of seeing migration as an economic problem but it's not that simple. I wanted "Stories from 'The Jungle'" to re-humanise de-humanised people.

Emma Lee's poem "Stories from 'The Jungle'" on the pavement at the Leicester Against War / Leicester for Peace vigil. The vigil started in December 2015 and is held at the Clock Tower in Leicester, every Friday,  in solidarity with people everywhere who are bearing the brunt of war as well as those who are seeking refuge.

How has the poem been received?

One of the translators in the Journeys in Translation project commented:
I found that when focusing on the words and stories within the poems I started to really focus on the human aspect of the refugee crisis, which I had not perhaps really appreciated until this point. Suddenly all those news images and statistics took on a more personal meaning. When I read through the experiences of Abdel, Sayid and Ziad in “Stories from ‘The Jungle’” and the lives they left behind, which seemed very normal and comparable to my own, I couldn’t help thinking, "It could have been me!"
So far, which were the most challenging aspects of the work you put into the initiative? 

The most challenging was translating some of the poems myself. I do have a basic understanding of German but hadn't spoken or written in German recently. I started with my own poem because I knew the intention behind the words I'd chosen so wouldn't be so daunted by there not being a direct translation.

I used several online dictionaries (not just Google Translate) so I could be more confident I was picking the right German words for the poem. I also re-translated my German back into English using online dictionaries so I could be sure that the selected German words would be interpreted in the right way. It was very reassuring when others translated the same original poem into German and I could see their approach was very similar to mine, although still with small differences.

I had tried to reproduce the original rhyme scheme (at least by sight) in my translation, but the other translators had gone for a more literal translation without the rhymes.

What would you say is the value of initiatives like Journeys in Translation?

It's great to see the enthusiasm and involvement of both poets and translators.

Translating the poems isn't just about widening the audience for the original poems, it's about breaking down barriers to the poems being read and enabling the stories behind the poems to be shared. It also gives others the opportunity to share their stories and experiences.

Editor's Note:

Journeys in Translation aims to facilitate cross- and inter-cultural conversations around the themes of home, belonging and refuge.

The project encourages people who are bilingual or multilingual to have a go at translating 13 of the 101 poems from Over Land: Over Sea: Poems for those seeking refuge (Five Leaves Publications, 2015) from English into other languages and to share the translations, and reflections on the exercise on blogs, in letters and emails to family and friends, and on social media.

So far, the 13 poems that are being used as part of the project have been translated into languages that include Italian, German, Shona, Spanish, Bengali, British Sign Language, Farsi, Finnish, French, Turkish and Welsh. Currently, over 20 people from all over the world are working on the translations. More translations and more languages are on the way.

In Leicester, Journeys in Translation will culminate in an event that is going to be held on September 30 as part of Everybody's Reading 2017. During the event the original poems and translations will be read, discussed and displayed.

Over Land, Over Sea: Poems for Those Seeking Refuge (Five Leaves Publications, 2015) was edited by Kathleen Bell, Emma Lee and Siobhan Logan and is being sold to raise funds for Doctors Without Borders/ Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF)Leicester City of Sanctuary and the Nottingham and Nottinghamshire Refugee Forum.

Copies of the anthology are available from Five Leaves Bookshop (Nottingham).

More information on how Over Land, Over Sea came about is available here.


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