In Other Words article

The Constantines’ belief that poetry, in its autonomy, its sympathies ‘acts against’, simply because it exists and it is irreducible, will also inform my choices as editor.

I’m excited and more than a little daunted by the prospect of taking on Modern Poetry in Translation. It has, to this point, enjoyed an exceptionally strong and consistent editorial line. Founded by Ted Hughes and Danny Weissbort in 1965 (the first issue appeared in 1966), and handed on to David and Helen Constantine in 2003, the magazine has had relatively few editors, and they have all shared a belief in the power of translation and of poetry to improve the world and bring its peoples to a closer understanding of each other.

MPT sprang into being during the Cold War, between Hungarian uprising and Prague Spring, and one of its early imperatives was to publish the poetry of the Eastern European poets, poets who were in some cases suffering exile and prison for their writing. Danny Weissbort, a scholar and an outstanding translator of Russian poetry was well placed to fulfill this imperative, and Modern Poetry in Translation was the official publication of Poetry International in 1970 and 1971, featuring guest poets from Yugoslavia, Czechoslovakia, Poland, as well as Israel. (The glorious gold card of the 1971 programme was donated by Benson and Hedges, the poems presumably housed in the card from cigarette boxes…)

In MPT’s second series Danny Weissbort shifted the emphasis a little, producing book-length surveys of cultures, some of which were edited by guest editors. David and Helen Constantine’s third series retained the anthology-style, whilst moving to editions which were devoted not to a single culture, but to a theme – ‘Poetry and the State’, ‘The Big Green Issue’, ‘Dialect of the Tribe’ and this October’s ‘Transitions’. The majority of the poems worked loosely around the theme and the editorial, one of the many strengths of the third series, provided and provides a new impetus to the ‘imperative’, the understanding of poetry as a means of both withstanding and transcending the horrors of our times.

As I write, sentence is about to be pronounced on the three girls from Pussy Riot who dared to sing of the Russian church elite: ‘the KGB’s Head is their big saint man – leads protesters to cells in a prison van’. Many Russian commentators are comparing their trial to Brodsky’s trial, and there is an overwhelming sense, at least in Russia, that the old Soviet ways are alive and kicking. The original imperative seems as important as it ever was: to publish as far as possible all the variety of poetic voices from across the world whose silencing would be a tragedy for all of us, and with this in mind MPT published online the highly passionate and poetic court testimonies of the three girls. But the Constantines’ belief that poetry, in its autonomy, its sympathies ‘acts against’, simply because it exists and it is irreducible, will also inform my choices as editor.

Another enormous strength of MPT has been its glorious design. The iconic first and second series were designed by Richard Hollis, the third series has been illustrated by Lucy Wilkinson, with bold and memorable collage work on the covers. From Spring 2013 different artists will provide cover illustrations for each MPT issue, and there will be a new design and layout. Spring 2013 is already being prepared and it looks wonderful.

From next year Modern Poetry in Translation will appear three times a year, but in a slightly slimmer format, and it will return to a more magazine-like aspect. We will publish in Spring, Summer and Autumn until we find the funds to publish a fourth winter issue.

Anyone who wishes to submit poetry to MPT should note that there will no longer be a theme to each issue and as a result poems may be sent at any point in the year. The issues will be shaped around poems that work well together, or that cast light on each other, or poems from similar cultures. In an effort to make the submission process simpler for translators abroad we will move to email submission. Details will be posted on the MPT website and in the final issue of the third series, Transitions.

I wish to pay tribute to the Constantines for their generosity of spirit during the transition, and for their inspiring editorial presence over the best part of a decade. I would also like to thank the MPT board – a formidable and rather extraordinary group of experts and poets. You may have met some of them during Poetry Parnassus – 2012’s answer to the Poetry International, and a week in which MPT came into its own, and found its home – amongst the poets of the world.

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Essential reading, MPT, with its sustained intelligence about how poetries work across cultures, has transformed the British landscape since its inception in 1966.Fiona Sampson

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Spring 2017

Spring 2017

No 4 / 2014

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