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The Spanish Connection

25 Apr 2018
A collection of Spanish poetry edited by New Zealander Charles Olsen

Written by

Charles Olsen
May 14, 2023

What would you write if I gave you five words? The presentation of the sixth book in the collection 'Palabras Prestadas' (Given Words) will take place in Madrid, Spain, at 12:30 midday on Saturday 5 May, at the headquarters of the publisher Huerga & Fierro, c/ Sebastián Herrera, 9. This book celebrates the final year of this online poetry project, initiated in 2011 by the Nelson-born artist and poet Charles Olsen with the Colombian writer Lilián Pallares, and with the support of the Spanish writer and publisher Miguel Ángel Arcas, in which poets from around the Spanish-speaking world have created poems inspired by words donated by invited guests.

A number of New Zealand poets were invited to choose their five words for the project. These included the words: flings, caterwauls, violin, trumpet and bagpipes from David Eggleton; horizon, ink, bone, salt and drum from Serie Barford; cat, tree, water, rock and balcony from Jack Ross; and Pat White's tang, reflection, riddle, shared and rippling. Although most words were translated into Spanish, poets had the added challenge of including two words in Māori—waita and arohanui—together with islands, eyes and basketball, chosen by Robert Sullivan. The twenty best poems, one with each selection of words, are included in the book 'Palabras Prestadas 6' which closes with translations of the winning poems from the Given Words poetry competition* for New Zealand's National Poetry Day 2017: 'All this' by Elizabeth Brooke-Carr and 'A Magical Visit' by Hannah Earl.

The book is only available in Spanish, but to give a taste of the collection here is a selection of three of the poems translated by Charles Olsen. The first two are inspired by the words of Jack Ross and Serie Barford respectively. You may notice words have shifted in translation: rock becomes flint and bone becomes stone (hueso or 'bone' is the Spanish word for the stone of a fruit).  First 'Verano' ('Summer') by Jöel López Astorkiza followed by 'Un Silbato' ('A Whistle') by Carmen Hernández Montalbán.



I’ve just put up a swing in the tree out the back. It has no name.
I don’t even know if anyone will ever use it. I had the materials and just did it.
I notice, however, the hopeful joy on the faces of passersby who see it over the fence.

I place the jar in water to remove the label. If only it were so easy.
I try it in the shower everyday. A few seconds under the jet of water and away labels.
But no, it’s never that easy. On the contrary, I start thinking in the shower. It doesn’t do me much good.

The cat drinks from the labelless jar. I’m sure he’s not bothered.
My father collected them. With care and patience he’d soften the paper without tearing it.
He only allowed himself to be delicate with this everyday handicraft. For the rest he was as he should be, I suppose.

The flint is old but it gives off a small flame as though it were its last.
I put the lighter away once the candle is lit. I place it carefully on the balcony rail.
I sit on a stool. A draft coming in the window blows out the flame. Soon it will be night.


A Whistle

With a peach stone you can make a whistle.
As kids we made them in the summer
when the sun kissed the horizon
and sweat left the trace of salt and battles.

Back then the sun was the skin of a war drum
that beat the retreat.
We stretched the days following it across the walls.

But the implacable night
bit at our heals with its remnants,
like an ink stain spreading,
as black as the hole in that whistle beneath the pillow.


To end, this unsettling poem by Víctor Letán Olavide, which was inspired by the words sun, light, bread, salt and sea chosen by the Spanish writer Julio Llamazares. It is untitled and you can read the original here.


The slight fridge light
shines on an open
tin of sardines
lone planet of a timid sun
whose system only exists
with the door ajar

Hardly any sound teeth
for the chunk of stale bread
always found
behind the plates

The bath is a cracked dirty ocean
of waters warmed in pots

There is someone

He submerges his eyes
denies his body
voyages in the water

to the course scar from
a hereditary flight across another sea

to the memory that stayed
of salt in the wound
of the wound in the bullet
of the bullet in the executioner's mouth

Further information: 

* If you are interested in participating in this year's Given Words poetry competition for National Poetry Day 2018 you can put your name on the mailing list here or keep an eye on the Phantom Billstickers National Poetry Day web.