There's something in me that insists it sings / Freely, for nothing, the lovely, lonely art / Called poetry, an art you understand. (from 'Venezuela' by Douglas Dunn)
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About Anna Crowe
Anna Crowe is a poet and translator based in St Andrews, Fife. Born in Plymouth, which in interview she says is “as far from Scotland as one can get in the UK,” Crowe moved to St Andrews to study and settled in 1986. Three decades later, blogging for the Scottish Poetry Library, she writes that she “became rooted in the Scottish landscape.” Scotland pervades her work, but always with a nod toward her cross-cultural experiences.
Crowe grew up in France and Sussex, and then studied French and Spanish at the University of St Andrews. Across her three pamphlets and three full length collections, readers will discover poems which fold cultures together into tight, eloquent lyrics. Her first book with Peterloo Poets, Skating out of the House (1997), garnered praise for poems “full of truth” (Colin Walter). Alan Freeman, writing for the Scottish Literary Journal, noted Crowe’s ability to capture natural surroundings and encounters, calling the collection “a veritable nature watch.”
The poems in Punk with Dulcimer (Peterloo Poets, 2005) supply images of a Tibetan prayer-roll from India, an Italian chapel in Orkney and German prisoners of war in Scotland. The ‘punk’ of the title poem is a threatening looking Ulster man, clad in leather, who sits down on the train next to the poem’s speaker. We learn he is on his way to a folk music gig in Newcastle, where he intends to play his dulcimer. He proceeds to hold sway for an hour about botany, using language “as way above my head as, say, a sequoia” and leaves the speaker thinking “how we fear what we don’t know.” The ending broadens its scope to reflect on the troubles in Ireland and the morality of fearing people who look different to us.
Her most celebrated work, Figure in a Landscape (Mariscat, 2011), is an elegy for her sister, who had been based in Mallorca at the time of her death. In interview Crowe explains the context for the sequence: “I had always planned to give my sister a fig tree, but between my ordering it from the nursery and its arrival in Pollença she died.”
The ‘figure’ of the English title plays on the Catalan word for fig tree, figuera. In the poems the ‘figure’ represents both her sister and the sculptures of fig trees by Catalan artist Andreu Maim?. The titles of Maim’’s ceramics and paintings serve for the poems, and his engravings grace the Catalan translation of the pamphlet, Paisatge amb figura (Ensiola, 2011).
Selecting ‘Doves, fig tree and walls’ for the Scottish Poetry Library’s Best Scottish Poems of the Year 2010, Jen Hadfield writes, “when Crowe marks some quotidian familial encounter it’s to try and measure loss.” The poem takes that measure and then rises out of grief in the last few lines, turning her sister’s memory into art:
But now you have thrown your stone
far beyond these walls
and I imagine it flying
like one of Andreu’s doves
into that blue
(‘Doves, fig tree and walls’)
The sequence works through sadness toward release, gifting the poems with a beautiful sense of overcoming. The pamphlet won the Callum MacDonald Memorial Award, 2011, and was a Poetry Book Society Pamphlet Choice in Spring 2010. The PBS selectors celebrated the poetry’s emotional control: “Crowe knows just how much to give and how much to hold back, offering fleeting glances and sometimes strange images … These are sinewy, questing poems, alive with memory and attentive to the interior landscape.”
Her most recent pamphlet is Finding My Grandparents in the Peloponnese (Mariscat, 2013). In her author’s note to the collection, Crowe again shows her investment in crossing cultures: “This poem sequence is a meditation on my grandparents, Will and Violet Kane, suggested by the grave-goods I saw while staying in the Peloponnese, especially at the Archaeological Museum at Nafplio. Many of the grave-goods are not so very different from the ordinary, everyday objects I saw in my grandparents’ house in Cornwall.”
The sequence leaps between Tregonhawke and Asine, between the containers for grave-goods in Greece – kraters and amphorae – and the clay she and her grandmother scooped from a spring in Happy Valley in Cornwall to make eggcups with. Throughout, Crowe “carefully stitches together that distant past and her own memories of childhood in a delicate but unshowy meditation on history, domesticity, and parental – and grandparental – love” (David Robinson).
Crowe is an established translator of poetry, primarily from Catalan. She has contributed to a number of anthologies of Catalan poets and has translated for Bloodaxe three collections by Joan Margarit, one of the foremost Catalan poets alive today. The first of these, Tugs in the Fog: Selected Poems (2006) was a PBS Recommended Translation. She has translated José Luis Rodríguez Aguilar and Pedro Serrano (a Mexican poet, writing in Spanish) for Arc Publications. Her own poetry has also been published in Catalan.
In 1998 Crowe co-founded the StAnza Poetry Festival, Scotland’s only poetry-dedicated literary festival. She was the festival’s artistic director for seven years and in that time StAnza established its reputation as one of the most important poetry events in the UK, and a major international beacon, drawing poets from across the world. The annual lecture series is a particular highlight, having hosted editors from major UK poetry publishers, as well as poets and writers from across the UK and US.
For the Poetry Archive, Crowe has recorded a selection of unpublished treats, translations and rare commissions, including a poem produced during a cultural exchange with Innu poet Natasha Kanap Fontaine organised by the Edinburgh Book Festival. Alongside these occasional pieces, listeners will encounter the dulcimer-bearing punk and a high street butcher named Gollop, elegiac lyrics woven with fairytales, and figures from history whose real lives become as strange as fiction in Crowe’s delicate retellings. In her own words, Crowe sees her poetry as driven by a desire to “rescue obscure stories and give a voice to things that might otherwise have no voice and be forgotten or overlooked.
Some of Anna Crowe’s Favourite Lines of Poetry
I would like to speak in front
Of myself with all my ears alive
And find out what it is I want.
(‘What is the language using us for?’ by W.S. Graham)
Out of us all
That make rhymes,
Will you choose
As the winds use
A crack in a wall
Or a drain,
Their joy or their pain
To whistle through
You English words
(‘Words’ by Edward Thomas)
… to surface and greet them,
mouth young, and full again
of dirt, and spit, and poetry.
(‘Meadowsweet’, by Kathleen Jamie)
Anna Crowe’s recording was made on 20th September 2016 at The Soundhouse and was produced by Richard Carrington.
Poems by Anna Crowe
Featured in the Archive
Books by Anna Crowe