Here at the Scottish Writers’ Centre, we are very excited for our first event of 2018, ‘Slavonic Dances’ with the fantastic Tom Hubbard. Come along to the Club Room in the CCA tomorrow at 7pm for the first of many events celebrating ten years of the Scottish Writers’ Centre. Everyone is welcome! But in the meantime, we have an interview with Tom ahead of tomorrow’s event – here he talks about his fascination with Central and Eastern European culture, his love of props, and why everyone should be reading more Polish literature.
What first attracted you to Central and Eastern European culture?
I was drawn to Dvorak’s music in the early 1970s when I was a student at Aberdeen Uni. At the same time I was trying to understand the 1968 Prague Spring and its tragic aftermath. I also got the opportunity to visit Czechoslovakia in August 1972; though I was pretty naive at the time, I didn’t expect to gain spectacular insights in the course of a short trip behind the Iron Curtain. Memories of my bumblings and blunderings at the time fed into the central story of Slavonic Dances though the main character is only very partially based on myself; imagination, as always, has to be uppermost.
Do you have a favourite Central and Eastern European writer or novel? Any hidden gems that you’ve unearthed in your explorations of the culture?
The literature, music, visual and performing arts of Poland have been a revelation to me. Here’s a story I like to tell against myself: in November 1990 I was giving a guest lecture on Scottish literature at the University of Mainz in Germany, and afterwards this guy in the audience comes up to me and he looks vaguely familiar. It turned out that he was part of a theatre company which I’d seen performing in Lublin, Poland, the previous year. Anyway we got talking and he astounded me with his knowledge of the work of Alasdair Gray. I have to say it was better than my knowledge of the work of Alasdair Gray. I thought: how, in 1990, just a year after the fall of the Berlin Wall, was this guy so clued up on a Scottish writer? What did I know about contemporary Polish writers? A learning curve had to get underway. I’m giving a paper at a ‘Scotland and Europe’ conference at Warsaw University in September and hope to focus on ‘big city’ novels such as Alasdair Gray’s Lanark and for purposes of comparison I’ve been reading two great Polish examples of the genre – Boleslaw Prus’s The Doll and Wladyslaw Reymont’s The Promised Land. I can only wish I had a better command of Polish in order to read them in the original. There’s no available English translation of the second one but there is a French one which has helpemI‘ novels by the likes of Balzac, Dickens, Dostoevsky and so forth. Not to mention Alasdair Gray!
How do you feel Central and Eastern European culture has impacted upon your work?
I’ve been translating – with help from native speakers – a number of Hungarian poems recently. My friend Dr Zsuzsa Varga, who lectures in Hungarian at the University of Glasgow, commissioned me to make versions of Hungarian poetry quoted in the memoir of a writer who lived through the fascist period of the 1940s, and I’ve also made Scots versions of the poetry of Gyozo Ferencz. That has appeared from Tapsalteerie Press with the title Minoritie Status. Generally speaking, I’d say that the various engagements with these European cultures have got me out of all sorts of comfort zones, and imaginatively exploring possible meeting places with Scottish writing gives me a rich field – you have both the absurdities and the epiphanies of cultural exchange as your material. I’d add that I was delighted, last year, to take part in the celebrations of 100 years of Russian at the University of Glasgow.
The title of your latest work, Slavonic Dances, references a famous piece of classical music. Has music been a strong influence upon your writing?
Russian music in particular features in the third story of Slavonic Dances. The working-class Glaswegian character has ambitions to perform the atmospheric songs of Mussorgsky and he becomes aware of their roots in folklore, and also of the folkloric elements in Scottish culture. The title of the book is nicked from one of Dvorak’s most popular works. I think fiction can aspire to the condition of music. There’s more to fiction than a story, there’s also patterns of imagery, symbols, echoed phrases, such as you’d get in a complex piece of music. I’m talking here of a work of fiction as a composition, almost in an abstract sense, although words inevitably mean something. We accept all that as a feature of a poem, so it makes sense surely to have that in a piece of prose fiction as well. There’s nothing new in all this – think, for example, of James Joyce.
You’re an advocate for incorporating props into your live readings. How do you advise a first experimentation with props?
Props – again I’ve learned a lot on my travels about bringing a bit of theatre into poetry performance. You don’t need a big stage! Props are great for comic and satiric purposes but they don’t have to be limited to that. I’ve been making some grotesque papier-maché heads and will use them on 16th January for my version of a bizarre Czech poem about an astronomy lesson for frogs. Back in 1992 I got involved in poetry theatre with Larry Butler, Gerry Loose, Graham Hartill and other luminaries of their ilk and we had great fun with masks. I’d love to revive that sort of thing.
Interview by Rachel Walker