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Latest news and features from theguardian.com, the world's leading liberal voice

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    Mohammad Bashir al-Aani and son had been captured after family funeral and held for several months accused of apostasy

    Islamic State has killed a Syrian poet and his adult son, whom they captured after a funeral and accused of apostasy, rights groups said.

    Mohammad Bashir al-Aani had published three volumes of poems and was known for his lyrical style and opposition to the government of President Bashar al-Assad, the writers’ group PEN International said.

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    Poetry will become the new currency in coffee outlets around the world for a day as World Poetry Day campaign spreads to 34 countries

    Annoyed at the rising price of your coffee, and a hipsterisation so extreme that it’s apparently become a symbol of gentrification? Offended at your barista for not rewarding your loyalty with a free latte? You can forget it all on Monday and put your literary talent to use instead, by exchanging a handwritten poem for coffee in 1,280 outlets around the world.

    To mark World Poetry Day on 21 March, an Austrian coffee roasting company is offering a shot of caffeine to customers who hand in a poem. More than 100,000 people gobbled up the offer last year according to coffee company Julius Meinl. The firm has now have expanded it from 23 into 34 countries, mostly in central and eastern Europe, but also including locations in London, Edinburgh, the US, Canada and Australia. You can find a map of this year’s participating establishments here.

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    ‘Gaun yersel!’ writes the new makar in previously unpublished poem In the Long Run

    Poetry is part of Scotland’s culture and history. The role of the makar is to celebrate our literary past, promote the poetry of today and produce new pieces of work that relate to significant national events. Scotland has been lucky to have two poets of the calibre of Edwin Morgan and Liz Lochhead to have held the post, and in Jackie Kay we have someone who will carry on their legacy.

    Related: Sign up to our Bookmarks newsletter

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    An author’s relationship with a transgender artist and a memoir of growing up in an African-American community in Chicago among subjects of books honoured

    The winners of the National Books Critics Circle awards for the publishing year 2015 were announced on Thursday evening at the New School in Manhattan.

    For fiction, the prize went to Paul Beatty’s Sellout, published by Farrar, Straus and Giroux. Beatty’s book follows an unnamed narrator – referred to in the book only as Me – as he attempts to take a segregation case to the supreme court. The novel received thundering applause from critics when it was published last year, with particular praise given to Beatty’s wit. In the Guardian, Seth Colter Walls called the book“caustic-but-heartfelt work of satire”.

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    A classical translation and a moving new collection make for a double achievement

    Never short of an opinion on these matters, Vladimir Nabokov ended his 1941 article “The Art of Translation” with a series of “requirements” for the production of an effective translation. According to the first of these, the translator “must have as much talent, or at least the same kind of talent, as the author he chooses”. This leaves the  field open for British Council-sponsored versions of promising young Bulgarians or Finns, but puts translators from the classics in an awkward position. Admiring Gavin Douglas’s 16th-century translation of Virgil’s Aeneid, Ezra Pound solved this problem by pronouncing the translation better than the original. George Chapman’s Jacobean translation of The Iliad is a wonderful thing, and one of the great unread texts of the English canon, but as good as, better than Homer? That’s a tall order.

    Most modern translators of Homer never get to test Nabokov’s suggestion against the Homeric Hymns for the good reason that they have tended to ignore these poems. Pendants to The Iliad and Odyssey, the Homeric Hymns are a series of 33 addresses to the gods, ranging from a few short lines to more than 500 lines in length. The Oxford Book of Classical Verse in Translation includes translations of the hymns by Chapman, Congreve, Shelley and Richard Hole, but a short extract by John D Niles is the sole 20th-century example. The publication of a new version of these poems by Peter McDonald is thus an important addition to the canon of ancient Greek poetry available in English.

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  • 03/19/16--00:02: The Saturday poem: The Elms
  • By Alison Brackenbury

    We may know the trees but rarely wood.
    Elm was the workhorse, daily tree,
    pale handle, for your fork and spade,
    a chair as low as a bent knee
    cut down for each uneven floor.
    Women leaned into its curved back
    as the milk pulsed, as birds once pressed
    its crowded leaf, before storm’s black.

    The elms died fast, of one disease.
    Is that a sapling, in the hedge?
    No, hazel with its rose-flushed buds
    then young lime with its heart-shaped edge.
    Its step-grandchild must be the ash,
    sprung on street corners, on stone hills,
    until the lightning cracks the wind,
    the crest is split, the fine twig spills.

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    Last week, the Glaswegian was named as her country’s new poet laureate. Fans point to her rare combination of literary merit with great accessibility, making her a popular choice to reframe Scottishness

    To say there was a national outpouring of joy at the appointment of Jackie Kay as Scotland’s makar last week might be overdoing it, but not by much. In previous decades, perhaps, not many beyond bearded and ponytailed literary circles might even have known the identity of a new makar or even the purpose of the post. The profile and efforts of the two previous incumbents, Edwin Morgan and Liz Lochhead, though, have helped to raise awareness of the position so that it has begun to insinuate itself into our national life.

    Following the appointment of Kay as Scotland’s national poet last Tuesday, a press colleague who had interviewed her was simply thrilled. “She’s just wonderful; she’ll make people read poetry and write poetry who have never done so before.” The words were spoken in a tone that suggested he had touched the great woman’s hem.

    You don’t need to live in Scotland to be Scottish, to have the language, to have a Scottish heart

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    From empty swimming pools to old vans, Robert Montgomery takes the written word to the most physical of spaces. People like it so much, they’ve taken to getting tattoos of his work

    He has been called a vandal, a street artist, a post-Situationist, a punk artist and the text-art Banksy. Scottish poet Robert Montgomery has consciously made an “awkward space” for himself in between artistic categories – and he thoroughly enjoys it. His work puts poetry in front of people in eye-catching visual formats: from advertising billboards he has covered with poems, to words he has set on fire or lit with recycled sunlight in public spaces – including the Sussex seafront and a Berlin airport. Recently, he has been working on tomorrow’s World Poetry Day “Pay with a poem” campaign, through which customers can get coffee in exchange for poetry in cafes across the globe. Montgomery will then collect the public’s poems to create an installation in a secret location.

    Londoners might remember his striking white type and black background from poems he installed on Shoreditch billboards in the days of the anti-Iraq war protests. The frustration around the war going ahead despite millions-strong protests is what prompted him to “go outside at night alone” to adorn his first billboard with a poem that started: “When we are sleeping,/ aeroplanes / carry memories / of the horrors / we have given / our silent consent to ...”

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    This week’s poem has a Christian resurrection theme as it brings to life William Blake’s painting of angels rolling away the stone from Christ’s tomb

    The white glow from the wakened corpse
    brightens the faces of the two
    staring angels, one left one right,
    and the back of the third, who lifts
    lightly the jagged square stone slab
    from the tomb’s round-arched opening.

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    To mark World Poetry Day, we are publishing the Palestinian poet’s first work since he was jailed in Saudi Arabia, in which he explores grief and imprisonment. Read it here in both English and Arabic

    Tense times for me,
    and sleep’s acting like a newly love-struck teen.
    I shall disregard the state my heart’s in
    and my mind’s upheavals like water bubbling
    past the boiling point.


    I am a part of the universe with which the universe is angry,
    a part of the earth of which the earth feels utterly ashamed,
    a wretched human towards whom
    other humans cannot maintain neutrality.

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    Ashraf Fayadh, whose father died after hearing his son was to be beheaded, has written his first poem since he was imprisoned two years ago in Saudi Arabia for renouncing Islam

    Tense Times, a poem by Ashraf Fayadh

    A Palestinian poet imprisoned in Saudi Arabia for renouncing Islam has written his first poem since he was incarcerated two years ago, provoked by the loss of his father who died after hearing his son was to be beheaded.

    The poem, entitled Tense Times, explores Ashraf Fayadh’s grief and the isolation of his imprisonment in the city of Abha in the south west of the ultraconservative kingdom.

    Related: Palestinian poet Ashraf Fayadh's death sentence quashed by Saudi court

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    An ‘astounding array’ of work by six young writers, including Sunjeev Sahota and the Guardian first book award winner Andrew McMillan, will compete for the £30,000 prize in May

    Guardian first book award winner Andrew McMillan’s poetry collection Physical is competing with Sunjeev Sahota’s Booker-shortlisted novel The Year of the Runaways for the £30,000 International Dylan Thomas prize.

    Awarded for the best work of English-language fiction – poetry, novels, short stories or drama – by an author aged 39 or under, the prize is named after the Welsh poet who died at the age of 39 in 1953. Chair of judges professor Dai Smith from Swansea University said this year’s shortlist showed “an astounding array of form, genre and achievement from such young writers”.

    Related: Guardian first book award 2015 goes to poet Andrew McMillan

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    Your space to discuss the books you are reading and what you think of them

    Welcome to this week’s blog. Here’s a roundup of your comments and photos from last week, including Tolstoy, Zadie Smith, Murakami – and not one single happy marriage.

    coburg just finished Haruki Murakami’s Colourless Tsukuru Tazaki and his Years of Pilgrimage:

    ...and I loved it! I know his books have been very popular for some time but seem to have passed me by, but then I read Patti Smith’s M Train and she kept referring to Murakami so then I read his first books Wind/Pinball, which were great but weird, and then got my hands on this book and it absorbed me cover to cover. Quite profound at times, simple yet deep – it leaves a lot space for the reader to ponder upon and fill in the gaps. I’m just so pleased he’s written so many other books which I can now indulge in.

    Over the weekend I re-visited two, fine, black and white films of the 1930s based on novels by Dashiell HammettThe Thin Man and The Maltese Falcon. Watching The Thin Man again reminded me of a question I asked here a couple of years ago... Can anyone name me a novel that begins with a happily married couple and whatever travails they endure, ends with that same couple still happily married?

    I don’t think the unequivocal absence of even one happy marriage in all of literature is an accident

    Despite having a reputation as a crank who hates all things fun this is plainly a love letter by Alan Moore to the golden age and silver age of comments. With some gentle self mocking at the “dark age” of comics Moore was involved in ushering in. It’s also Moore just having fun in writing Superman mythos stories without having to work for DC who shamefully ripped him and Dave Gibbons off along with a bunch of writers and artists before them.

    Like Tom Strong it’s not his best work or in the same league as Watchmen/V For Vendetta but a fun, humourous read for anyone who loves the medium and its great history. Alan Moore just having fun also tends to be better than most writers attempting a serious story.

    The central displays provided two candidates: Tightrope by Simon Mawer and The Long Viewby Elizabeth Jane Howard. I ditched the Mawer after a little consideration. I remembered that Swimming to Ithacawas perfectly okay but not distinctive in any way. The Howard on the other hand did give me pause. It’s been donkey’s years since I read the first four Cazalet books and she seemed due for a revisit so I hurried off to the library (stressed and poor last week) and emerged with an armful.

    I’m just not sure. I like all sorts of books written by women and consider “domestic” writing an important part of literary output. I’m not overly put off by all the upper-middle-class stuff and her books are certainly page-turning to a degree. And yet I’m still hesitating, unable to decide if the ease with which they can be read is due to exceptional and lightly-worn writing talent or because actually there’s nothing much there after all.

    I found all three novels to be utterly wonderful – psychological studies focussed on one adolescent, following his (often confused, always self-conscious) experiences, feelings and opinions as he grows from a child in his family’s countryside home to a young man attending a Moscow university.

    Childhood, Boyhood, and Youth are, all three, intellectual, rich, deeply perceptive, highly emotional, and often – something I feel is usually overlooked, or just not talked about much with Tolstoy – very funny. The protagonist, Nikolai, and thus Tolstoy himself as this is to whatever extent an autobiographical exercise, is so self-conscious, so self-(un)knowing, it can be completely embarrassing and brutal but it can also be really comical. (BBC documentary The Trouble with Tolstoy was particularly good when touching on this aspect of the writer: at one point Alan Yentob refers to his youthful diaries as being “Adrian Moleish”, and other contributors discuss how much of an absolute narcissist Tolstoy was, how completely self-obsessed – how he liked nothing better than writing about what he was most interested in: himself!)

    Related: Sign up to our Bookmarks newsletter

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    Striking, obscure or plain unintelligible, idioms are so much more than just the shiny ornaments on our everyday language

    Perhaps I need to get out more, but it gratifies me to find out that Robert Gascoyne-Cecil, Conservative prime minister, made his nephew Arthur Balfour chief secretary for Ireland. Such nepotism on the part of Uncle Robert, apart from raising eyebrows, also gave rise to the well-known saying.

    We can only speculate whether Balfour’s succeeding him as prime minister in 1902 was seen as confirmation that things are indeed easy if “Bob’s your uncle”.

    Related: Frankenwords: they're alive! But for how long?

    I am told that I have a mind like a hoarder’s attic, full of useless clutter

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  • 03/25/16--03:00: The new Greek poetry
  • In poverty stricken Greece, poetry is getting richer. Karen Van Dyck, editor of a new anthology, looks at an artform in revolution

    When there is less to go around, people fight, grab, get tough. Lately, Greece and the Balkans have been living with more than their share of less. Hunger, unemployment, slashed pensions and ruined businesses are rife in Athens. Electricity and water shortages reach levels associated with countries at war. More than 27% of Greeks are unemployed. Fifty-five per cent of young people, particularly those in the areas of technology and education, have left Greece to find work elsewhere. Forty per cent of children were living in poverty in 2014, and the number is now approaching 50%. Public debt is the highest in Europe, over 180% of GDP, while austerity measures make staying in the eurozone as difficult as a Grexit. The need for fast answers pushes voters to political extremes. Broken promises and corruption on all sides breed unfounded accusations and fatalism. Hardly anyone keeps money in the bank any more. News of murders and robberies shares equal airtime with ads for hi-tech security systems. Meanwhile, refugees fleeing Syria, Afghanistan, and Iraq arrive on islands such as Lesbos in their hundreds, and at times in their thousands, not wanting to be in Greece, but unable to get to countries with better social services. And where the refugee boats go, local fishermen follow, lining up on shore to jockey for their engines, hoping to resell them at a profit. More people, less to go around.

    Poetry, though, is one thing there is more of. Much more. Poets writing graffiti on walls, poets reading in public squares, theatres and empty lots, poets performing in slams, chanting slogans, and singing songs at rallies, poets blogging and posting on the internet, poets teaming up with artists and musicians, teaching workshops to school children and migrants. In all of the misery and mess, new poetry is everywhere, too large and various a body of writing to fit neatly on either side of any ideological rift. Even with bookshops closing and publishers unsure of paper supplies, poets are getting their poems out there. Established literary magazines are flourishing; small presses and new periodicals abound. And if poetry production is defying economic recession, it is also overleaping the divisions of nation, class and gender. Not since the Greek military junta, known as the Colonels’ Dictatorship, in the early 1970s, when poets such as Katerina Anghelaki-Rooke, Jenny Mastoraki and Pavlina Pampoudi first appeared, has there been such an abundance of poetry being written. Indeed, the historical affinity does not stop there: it is those same poets who are doing the lion’s share of mentoring in the new generation.

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    We put politics, performance and poetry under the lens with spoken-word stars Luke Wright and Hollie McNish

    This week we listen in to two performance poets as they examine the personal and the political.

    Luke Wright takes a pause from the nationwide tour of his award-winning show What I Learned from Johnny Bevan to tell us why he wanted to explore the fallout from Blair’s Cool Britannia through a poem charting the ups and downs of a friendship begun at university. Hollie McNish explains what drove her to expose the intimacies of childbirth and early motherhood in verse.

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  • 03/26/16--03:59: The Saturday poem: Portrait
  • by Heidi Williamson

    (for Lorna and Peter)

    You recognise her stance first: upright and calm,
    behind a weathered wooden table. Her hand rests
    lightly on a book. Her head is dipped; her eyes
    draw the full midday light of the picture window.
    Behind her is a large silk hanging. So much detail
    in the fall of silk. You admire this depiction
    of resilience, intellect, modesty, joy, delicacy.
    Her dress is simply cut, fine linen, her sole
    adornment a filigree silver cross. Nestled
    at her elbow, a smooth white china bowl holds
    hazelnuts for longevity. On the sill: how strange,
    a bird is peeking in. A song thrush? And what
    a sturdy handkerchief on the chair! An ample gift
    for taking in the troubles of friends? Look
    intently in her pupils: a figure’s mirrored there.
    A tradesman, lean, neatly dressed, smiling
    with a husband’s tender glance. But that bird.
    It nags at you. Symbols here are deep and caring.
    It must mean a love of nature or, closer,
    kindness to all creatures. There’s friendship here,
    clear in the living lines of the artist’s gift. It makes
    you want to stand beside this woman. You know
    she’d take your hand and press it warmly. Lean in
    to read the lilting script along the lintel: And all manner
    of things shall be well. It’s time to leave her side now.
    Her story has been told, and rests inside you as you go.

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    In this ‘spoken word sestina’ with sexual, racial and social overtones, Agbabi plays with shifts of meaning as the speaker bears himself in a monologue

    It’s not like you don’t turn me on.
    Every time you walked past
    I thought, She’s fit.
    Come-to-bed eyes.
    We both want to
    feel my skin

    'It’s not like you don’t turn me on,' he protests in answer to an unheard accusation, maybe an uneasy self accusation.

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    The author explains how a theatre director helped him take What I Learned from Johnny Bevan – an epic poem about a middle-class journalist who falls under the spell of a working-class poet – all the way to Edinburgh

    I consider What I Learned from Johnny Bevan an epic poem. I can say that here, this newspaper being the refuge of broad-minded, artistic types who won’t balk at such grandiloquence. But for the last year I’ve been describing it to most people as a “play” to save the frayed nerves of Britain’s regional theatre managers. “An epic poem, eh? That sounds really … long.”

    Related: Edinburgh festival review: What I Learned from Johnny Bevan – powerfully poetic storytelling

    Related: Political poetry with Luke Wright and Hollie McNish – books podcast

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    Writer and poet whose work was anchored in the American outdoors, the traditional proving ground of the US male

    In his fiction, poetry and essays, Jim Harrison, who has died aged 78 after a heart attack, displayed a unique voice, drawn from the hardness born of isolation within the vast perplexity of the US, especially its outdoors. One reviewer said he had “few equals as a writer on outdoor life, the traditional heritage and proving ground of the American male”. Harrison is best known for Legends of the Fall (1979), a collection of three connected novellas whose title story became the 1994 film with Brad Pitt and Anthony Hopkins.

    Because his work seemed anchored in American masculinity, many critics either praised or dismissed him in terms of Ernest Hemingway. The comparison was easy. Harrison looked the part: a burly, bearded one-eyed man with a husky voice ravaged by drinking and smoking. His work, like Hemingway’s early stories, was often set outdoors in northern Michigan, where he lived much of his life. When he first moved from poetry to prose, Harrison’s writing had some of Hemingway’s tautness, but he wrote in a freer, Beat-like prose with more relaxed humour.

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