In collaboration with StAnza Poetry Festival, which takes place 9–12 March, the Edwin Morgan Trust is funding residencies for two poets to attend and respond to this year’s festival and its theme WILD: forms of resistance. We caught up with Gabriela Milkova Robins, who has been selected for the StAnza Poet in Residence Translation Award.

Can you tell us a little bit about yourself and your work as a poet?
I grew up for the most part in Macedonia, but also spent my primary school years in Oxford. Macedonian was a language I learned colloquially, while English was the language I had learned to write in. I was set on studying English Literature at university, which is what I went on to do at St Andrews in 2016, after having released my first collection of poems in Macedonia, “The Peak of Tonight / Врвот на ноќта”. This was a bilingual collection, where the English poems were translated by my father, who is a Macedonian author and poet, and published by through our family publishing house, METANOJA, of which my mother is the director. I come from a literary family, and I largely owe my curiosity to write to my parents. For twenty years, they have run a literary café, publishing house, art gallery, and cultural centre in Macedonia where I encountered poets, artists, academics, and intellectuals on the daily. I was allowed to freely experiment with my writing and gain guidance and feedback from prized Macedonian poets and poet laureates.  

I began to write poetry ten years ago and began to write in Macedonian alongside English five years ago. Though my practice has deepened and altered over those years, I can say that the principle of my creative process has stayed the same. I tend to hear poems before I see them written and place their performance before their textual form. This is most pronounced in my second collection, Do You Know the Sea? (2020), which has been released in audible form. 

What inspires you to write? How do you hope to engage with or respond to ideas of wildness and resistance in the work you develop for this year’s festival? 
What inspires me to write is the notion of repetition and adaptation – repetitive patterns in nature, cyclical occurrences, prophecy, generational curse and blessing. My poetry is repetitive, it can evoke a chant, incantation, or prayer at points. I also love to play around with homonyms, homophones, alliterative verse, and nonsense words that sound analogous – there is so much in language itself that is seemingly repetitive yet divergent. With this repetition, I find I can unsettle the words in slight ways, and begin to have them say something familiar, but new. This is where adaptation comes in, I enjoy taking old and endlessly repeated stories – myth, folktale, biblical narrative – and telling them again in newly imagined adaptations. 

The work I’ve created for this residency in many ways follows this same creative pattern. The collaborative exhibition with Jonathan Koetsier and Sarah Koetsier is an exploration of what happens to repeated or adapted words, homonyms, and letters, when they exist in different alphabets and languages. Jonathan Koetsier’s creative response through experimentally cut and bound books has been an exploration of how a poem can be written again, but be given a texture, dimension, and multi-sided form. Sarah Koetsier’s ceramic Ж and engraved Turkish coffee mugs are a further response as part of the exhibition of the contours letters can gain in sculptural forms. My performance for the Poetry Cafe, moreover, is a retelling, or “re-singing” of four Macedonian folksongs, adapting the original lyrics into newly imagined parables. 

Photo credit: Jonathan Koetsier (imgs 1–3); Sarah Koetsier (imgs 4–5)

As a bilingual poet, in what ways does working in two languages enhance your creative practice?
I enjoy the fact that Macedonian and English are so starkly different. Macedonian is a Slavic language with a Cyrillic alphabet. Its intonation is different, and very melodic. I find that when I write in Macedonian, I do not feel the need to apply meter or rhyme consciously because the language itself allows for this. I love unpicking the ways in which languages work, reducing words to their roots, and then reapplying them. I have double the fun doing this in both Macedonian and English, as well as having them come into conversation to create hybrid forms, as I have done in Tongue-Twister (2018), and in Маска Жена/Wax Woman that is part of what I produced for this residency. 

Are there particular aspects of Edwin Morgan’s work that you’re excited about exploring as part of your residency?
The collaborative exhibit we are putting on has been inspired by Edwin Morgan’s later work in concrete poetry. The Siesta of a Hungarian Snake and French Persian Cats Are Having a Ball left a particular impression on me as poems in which different languages can play together, and ways in which letters can have vibrant lives of their own apart from their words. It is Morgan’s playfulness with language, letters, and sounds that I find especially delightful and what inspired me to create Маска Жена/Wax Woman alongside other shorter pieces of concrete poetry that will be exhibited. In Маска Жена/Wax Woman, for instance,I’ve imagined the Cyrillic letter Ж as an arachnid form that feeds on words and weaves a poem together as she moves down the page. Then, I wondered whether the letter Ж could have a Latin counterpart. If I were to imagine Ж’s cousin, it would be X, a fellow arachnid that belongs to the same genus, but exists in a different habitat. I then created two poems that I would imagine belong to the same genus, but differ slightly, to adjust to the respective habits and habitations of the Ж and X.

Image credit: Gabriela Milkova

When I went to visit the Edwin Morgan Archive in the Special Collections and Archives of the University of Glasgow Library, I had such fun going over Morgan’s early scrapbooks spanning from 1933-1955. In these scrapbooks, I noticed Morgan’s keen interest in magnified versus microscopic analogous patterns, magnificent natural phenomena alongside manmade artefacts, constellation patterns, humanity’s relation to the natural world, myth, and iconography.  I find his scrapbooks a very effective tool for forging connections across mediums. Often, in both his early poems and scrapbooks, we see the natural world anthropomorphized, or set very closely alongside the human. I wrote my performance pieces with this in mind – natural powers answering the human, the human calling out to the natural world, taut between harmfulness and comradery. Macedonian folksongs are replete with this imagery as well, and part of my translation work will be to freely translate, or re-tell, these folksongs by applying this tension between the natural world and human intervention that Morgan so perceptively and carefully exhibits in his scrapbooks. 

Finally, as a Poet in Residence you’ll get access to all the wild and wonderful events at StAnza this year – who are you most looking forward to seeing perform?
I used to volunteer for StAnza during my time as an undergraduate at St Andrews, and it has always been the highlight of my year. I am excited for all things StAnza – from the masterclasses, to poetry centre stage, the StAnza slam, round tables, past and present, and the exhibitions. I look forward to seeing some familiar faces perform again that I have enjoyed listening to immensely in previous years such as Anthony Anaxagorou, Stephanie Sy-Quia, Don Paterson, and Peter Mackay. Equally, I look forward to discovering other world-class poets and attending as many events as I possibly can, because StAnza offers one of the best opportunities to do so. 

Gabriela will be performing with JJ Fadaka in the Byre Theatre on Sunday 12 March at 1pm – book your tickets here!

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