Tomas Mika - a Pilgrim's Progress from lyric poetry to hip-hop

Tomas Mika is a man of many talents - poet, translator and hip-hop performer. Today we talk to him about his most recent work and his history as a poet, but I'd like to start with his work as a translator. The books he's translated include Bunyan's "Pilgrim's Progress", James Hogg's "Memoirs and Confessions of a Justified Sinner" and most recently Samuel Beckett's "Watt".

I don't want to spend too much time talking about these translations, although it's such an interesting constellation of authors, but I was wondering if you could say something about why you chose Bunyan, the seventeenth century writer, who for centuries was the most read English author: if people had two books in their house, one would be the Bible, the other Pilgrim's Progress.

"First of all I chose him as the topic for my thesis back in the 80s, and I chose him because he was a kind of dissident of the day. It was my way of rebelling against the then regime. I think he was an honest guy. In the sea of post-modern vagueness and multiple meanings and multiple ends, he was the one who always said what he considered to be the truth. He really believed what he said, and he had no options, actually, for ending a book."

I'd like to turn from your translations, and look at your work as a poet, and ask you about how you began and how you developed as a poet.

"I think I have always been writing something, but I never dared to show it to other people, but I actually started to 'go public' in 1999, I think, with my first poetry. At that time I didn't read the poetry, but I projected it using an overhead project, using all kinds of transparencies that accompanied the text. I was also accompanied by a musician, a guitarist."

Could I ask you to say just a little bit more about these performances, because I actually witnessed one, which was fantastic, as part of the final extravaganza of the Poetry Day celebrations that we had, and there were very interesting things that you projected, including a fish? Could you say something about the interaction between the visual imagery and your words?

"I simply do not believe very much in poetry readings as they are generally understood. I think, or I thought in those days, that people should read the poetry themselves, because some of the poetry is meant to be read in privacy, which can't be really imitated in a club or public place. So I tried to make it more interesting, so I didn't use just plain text. If there was a poem that mentioned fish, I used an aquarium with fish, which I put on the overhead projector above the transparency with the text, so that people could read the text with fish floating around, or I had a poem which was about love which was as hot as fire. I eventually burned that transparency in the club, so it really burned in front of the spectators and they could either watch the real smoke on the overhead projector, or see how the transparency crumbles and is devoured by the fire on the screen. Since then I changed my view a little bit. I still think that normal readings - I do not particularly like them, as even very good poets with very good poetry get very boring after just a couple of minutes of plain reading. I still prefer poetry being accompanied by music, as it used to be in the ancient past, or at least something like I did with the visual."

This sounds like a perfect point at which to ask you to read one of your own poems. I'm afraid I haven't got any music to accompany you, but I'd like you to read one of your poems, partly for personal reasons, because it was inspired by a visit to Newcastle, my home town, partly because I think it's a lovely poem. I'd like you to read this poem, which you've translated yourself, which is called "Hrad" or A Castle.

A Castle

A castle inhabited by spirits

weather-worn openings where windows used to be

stones half eaten

by salt and winds

only veins protrude

under the cliff on which I tower

waves are gnawing

working on me

to turn again into dust

on the walls

to turn again into a heap of stones

where limpets live and black weeds

a natural shape

not something marked with a human hand

and the memories of stones

no-one can see

only the memories

of stones

keep the remembrance

of a touch of a human hand

and they quiver with delight

a palm

a back of the hand

a palm

delicacy which the stone

is longing for

which it does not have and never can

and waves

You have written a number of very lyrical, personal poems, even though your poetry has developed away from that. Could you say something about that transformation from the intensely personal and lyrical poetry that you were writing a few years ago to the poetry that you're performing today?

"I don't know how it happened, but somehow the lyrical potential or love poetry somehow exhausted itself and I've always been of course interested in other subjects, and these subjects became more predominant recently. And in connection with some inspiration from the Czech hip-hop scene, which seems to be very political and pinpointing the items that are very important today for everybody here. It somehow inspired me to write a long poem called "The Diary of a Fast Man". The birth of the poem is really three years ago, and it wasn't originally supposed to be a hip-hop poem, but during those three years, when I wrote literally dozens of pages of it, it got reduced to a ten-page document, which I now perform with my friends, musicians."

Nuceny vysek
I'd like to talk a little about a book you had published called "Nuceny vysek", which translates as "destruction of animals for slaughter". Could you explain a bit more about its title?

"There used to be shops in the Czech Republic, in the past, with this name, and these shops sold meat of animals that had to be slaughtered because they were about to die anyway. So it was cheap meat. That's one allusion. The literal translation would be something like "forced destruction". There is something in it that gives an idea of somebody being forced to cut something out of a hole."

I'd like to ask you about the presentation of this book, because it wasn't simply a book with the poems presented on boring white pages.

"The book has very special illustrations. There is not a single piece of white page in it. It's all covered with illustrations, and the poems are printed on the illustrations, and the illustrations are what the illustrator called 'active scans'. Parts of the human body were scanned, both male and female, and then he played a little bit with the scans in the computer, and that's what the illustrations are all about."

I'd like to ask you briefly, before you read again, to say something about your most recent longer poem called "Journey to Rome".

"It's similar to 'The Journey of a Fast Man'. It's again a long, epic poem, so it's in this completely different vein, and again I'm accompanied by musicians when presenting it. I think it is quite a political poem. It is also about very current topics that are present in the Czech Republic, like joining the EU for example, attitudes to foreigners and attitudes of foreigners towards us and so on."

To end I'd like you to read a poem that you've written, called "Sen o cizi zemi" or "A Dream of a Foreign Land".

A Dream of a Foreign Land

In a dream I found myself

In a foreign land

Somebody was about to leave Somebody stayed

I understood foreigners

Better than my own kind

And women

Better than men

But who is going to read my palm

My cards

Write my horoscope

Draw my genealogical tree

Explain the dream

Put together my image

Tell me who I am

Now that something is coming to an end

And nothing begins

Books for this programme supplied by Shakespeare and Sons.