This blog covered the 41st Poetry International Festival. For the 2011 PIW blog about the 42nd Poetry International Festival, go to www.poetryinternationalblog.org/2011.
Each year as the festival draws to a close, there’s talk amongst staff about the ‘black hole’ that will inevitably follow in the days after the festival: the post-adrenaline dip when sleeplessness and overwork finally take their toll; when we emerge, utterly drained after a week of running around the labyrinthine otherworld of the City Theatre, blink confusedly at the sunlight and try to refind our place amongst real-world people busy with their lives, lives that have nothing to do with poetry. When we realise how much we miss our colleagues, who we’ve spent nearly every waking moment with in the past week; when we wonder whether we will meet any of the poets again, and if so, who, and where and when. The desire to prolong the festival, despite our tiredness, means that Poetry International staff and freelancers, along with just a few hard-core poets, tend to stay up as late as possible on Friday night – this year, several colleagues winding their way home after a long night met poets who had already gone to bed, slept and woken up, ready to take their early taxi to the airport. On Saturday, after so little sleep and a heavy morning of moving boxes back from the theatre to the office, it was no wonder that after the staff sat down in Café Floor to eat lunch, and started to say goodbye to each other and leave, that, like exhausted children at the end of a party, we became melancholy, and there were tears.
On the way home, I thought about the accumulations of our lives: the people we meet, the places we see, the possessions we acquire, the books we read, the experiences we gather. The joy but also the burden of having so much, and gathering more and more; the realisation that we can’t hold all of this in our hands, in our memories – that some good things have to be allowed to slip away into absence. Tiny, bittersweet scars.
The door of my train carriage came to a halt right in front of a poster advertising the festival: 11-18 June. It was over.
Later, back at home, I drank tea and leafed through the New York Review of Books that had been delivered in my absence. There was an essay by Charles Simic (who wrote an essay on prose poetry for Poetry International this year), a review of a novel translated by David Colmer, who translated Nyk de Vries’ poems for the festival, and a piece about festival poet C.K. Williams’ autobiography of Walt Whitman. This wasn’t reassuring simply in terms of coincidence, or of having had ‘big names’ associated with the festival; it was a reminder that texts, unlike human encounters, aren’t contained by geography or time – a poet’s non-presence doesn’t prevent us from experiencing their work. Perhaps the black hole could be mitigated a little – after a lot of sleep – through reading.
Tell me a little about the Digital Poetry Lab.
The Digital Poetry Lab is a joint interdisciplinary project initiated by the Dutch Foundation for Literature and The Netherlands Foundation for Visual Arts, Design and Architecture. The underlying idea is to bring the two disciplines, the visual arts and poetry, together. Through the use of new media, poetry and design are combined in such a way that it adds more value to the visual arts as well as to the poetry. The artists were given the freedom to experiment with sound, language and video and further explore in what ways these can enhance their work. It was a challenge, since at least two of the ten poet-artist duos that participated in the project made a computer application based on a poem. In other words, the poem wasn’t written with the application in mind. It was only after the poem was written that it was changed for computer application.
This year, there is an interactive digital poetry project called ‘Poetry Feeder’ by Leonieke Rammelt and Cheryl Gallaway. Through the website www.poetryfeeder.com, those active on Twitter can send a direct message to the website. This message, in the form of words, phrases, and entire poems, will directly form part of a later text posted by other visitors resulting in a extended collective poem.
The digital poems can also be viewed on www.digidicht.nl which is a Dutch platform for digital poems. The Digital Poetry Lab is in the small auditorium of the Rotterdam City Theatre.
What are the differences between reading a poem on a page, seeing a poet performing their poem at the festival, and digital poetry?
If you make good use of new media, the poem actually needs the screen and requires the digital techniques to achieve a full effect. Through the use of new media, you can attain an enhanced poetic experience. If you display poetry on a screen the way digital poetry does, time plays a vital role. When a poet recites a poem or when you read poetry from the page, of course you’re also dealing with time as a listener/reader. But what it boils down to is that the poem when it’s read aloud (or read from the page) develops within a certain period of time, a fixed time frame. The poet, by reciting his/her poetry, orders the time for the audience/reader, so you have to listen carefully.
With digital poetry, the poem also develops in a particular time span. The main difference between digital poetry and reading poetry from the page is that you have more graphic and sound options and the poem is enriched by sound and visual media. Like a film, digital poetry makes use of images, sound, typography and time as a form of presentation. The poem can also evolve during the presentation. Digital poetry gives you more space to do something special with a poetic text. But this is a complex process. The result of this process, as shown on this year’s Poetry on the Screen project, is that the poem is either a more graphic presentation of a classical poem, or it tends to be something like a video clip.
Do the visual and sound components detract from the poem?
That depends on how you define poetry. Depending on your definition of poetry, digital forms of poetry can add something to a classical / textual poem. I think digital poetry also leads to a new definition of what a poem is. Digital poetry leads to something that cannot be delivered in the same quality in a printed book.
The audio aspect of digital poetry makes it more absorbing than if it were merely visual. It’s a lot easier to move away from image on a screen than it is to ignore sound. Nick Swarth’s images were very strong, for instance, but while listening to the audio, but it was difficult to understand the piece as a poem.
On Tuesday there was an event about the English poems of Fernando Pessoa. In the second half of the evening there was a reading and a small discussion about bilingualism. Katia Kapovich discussed her use of Russian as well as English, having lived first in Moldavia, and then later in the US. I talked about my use of Frisian as well as Dutch.
Before the event I was thinking about bilingualism and what it means to my work. At first sight not terribly much. I muddle up the two languages and sometimes in an early stage of the writing process my text is a funny mixture of both Frisian and Dutch. On closer inspection, though, I notice that sections in Frisian sometimes seem to be a little juicier, probably because I am more aware of Frisian slang. When I use too many baroque words in Dutch I have the feeling I’m lying. On the other hand, precisely because of this, I’m very fond of the Dutch language. Perhaps it’s even a better vehicle for my prose poems. There’s a strangeness slipping into the words that underline the content of the stories. Sometimes I have the feeling when a Frisian is using Dutch language that he or she more or less imitates it, being a little bit formal. It makes me think of the way the late great Dutch writer Gerard Reve used his language, also formal and a little old-fashioned, with multiple layers of humour.
And now to end with something completely different: yesterday we had dinner with Katia in Café Elévé and at some point the situation in the US was discussed. She was asked if the future did look a little better with Obama as opposed to Bush. Katia’s answer: The future? At least he looks better.
For the v/h Van Gennep bookshop, the Poetry International festival doesn’t begin on 11th June but a few months earlier. Ever since the bookshop’s first days in 1978 we’ve had a book table at the festival, but we still experience each festival as vibrant, new and exciting.
We discuss the year’s themes with Liesbeth Huijer: the poets, their collections. After that we start the Big Collection. We get in touch with dozens of publishers around the world, we call and email, make arrangements, discuss quantities, delivery dates, we negotiate, call again, and again and then wait. Sometimes the publishing house turns out to be defunct.
Then the shop slowly begins to fill up with parcels and boxes full of poetry. Some of the collections arrive in the Netherlands for the first time, others are familiar to our shelves. From 10th June onwards we walk back and forwards to the City Theatre with our trolley. The first boxes are unpacked and neatly laid out on the table. And, just as their books have done, the poets begin to gather in Rotterdam. The festival can begin for us!
And so we stand behind a table of poetry collections with poetry fans leafing through them. From time to time they’ll be distracted by a curious robotic plant, but they are chiefly there to see the poetry. Poets drop by and discretely check out where their books are. Fans are made happy with that one small book, imported from Peru. Presenters are surprised to see their books here too. And we cherish one customer who has a charming ritual: each year, every day of the festival, he buys two books.
We change our stock every day, but there are a few highlights already:
The Spoon River Anthology, thanks to the poetry theatre set up by students of Artez academy. Collections by Antonio Gamoneda and Thomas McCarthy, thanks to their impressive readings. De dieren in mij (now being reprinted) by the cheerful Flemish poet, Delphine Lecompte, winner of the C. Buddingh’ prize; and Eugenijus Ališanka has won fans too.
We are able to quickly reorder some of these fastsellers. Contact with P. publishing house in Flanders has been particularly intense. On Friday we’ll get more boxes from Belgium. As far as we are concerned, Van Gennep has made a new friend!
The festival atmosphere carries over into the daytime. We chat with tourists from South Korea, who would like to be photographed next to the poster in the bookshop window on the Eendrachtsplein because they have recognised their alphabet, and are amazed at the interest Dutch people are taking in their poetry. But the statue of the giant gnome on the square, dressed since Saturday in a knitted yellow jersey, looks on contentedly. He knows that Poetry International festival has always been curious about other countries.
Carlien, John, Monique
Poetry International staff Sarah Ream and Rosa van Ederen working in one of the dressing rooms backstage at the Rotterdam City Theatre.
Today at the Tomas Lieske translation workshop we were joined by C.K. Williams. Working from Willim Groenewegen’s generous, poetically unworked, but lexicographically exhaustive translations into English, Williams’ probing interrogations of Lieske’s ambiguities took on the character of a high consistory. All week myself and Thomas McCarthy had conducted inquiries in a typical slant Irish way designed to extract information in a society far less straight forward in its communication than urban America or Paris of the Fourth Republic.
Williams was unafraid to consider using the locutions of the street. McCarthy searched for equivalents integral to his own picturesque evocative voice. I questioned the etymology of particular Dutch words to check whether they retained nuances of their shared roots with German which I know moderately better.
One of the engaging revelations of the workshop was to discover in Lieske a logomaniac like myself, determined to resurrect almost obsolete words, dialectical variations and even combine them in neologisms; who sees part of a poet’s duty to be someone who strives to keep the individual word alive.
For instance Lieske used spalling – a dialectical word of Frisian origin. Groenewegen had to search a dictionary of medieval Dutch to discover it denoted a suckling pig. Two possibilities presented themselves to me: the American dialectical shoat which my youthful self had discovered in a rhyming dictionary decades ago and banmh, an Irish word in common currency in Hiberno-English. Williams recognised shoat and it fitted neatly and alliteratively with the rest of the line so I decided to leave banmh as an option for Seamus Heaney should he ever decide to translate Tomas Lieske.
At my invitation Lieske will travel to Ireland for the Cork Spring Literary Festival in 2011. I always like it when multiple productivities result from my participation in festivals abroad.
A review of the international poetry programme on 16 June.
Poets: Hasso Krull (Estonia), Nyk de Vries (Friesland, The Netherlands), and Kim Hyesoon (South Korea)
First up is Hasso Krull, a poet from Estonia who looks a lot younger than his 45 years. His poems appear fresh and accessible, but after each poem he reads, I’m left wondering for a few seconds what has just happened. Krull just showed me how holes are everywhere, that they in fact make up everything we see or do: is the whole of our existence actually build on holes? And when, in another poem, he just described that there’s always something alive in the water, little seeds or bugs, or some pollen, even if it’s water from the purest source, I end up unsure about whether that’s a good or a bad thing. It’s the calm, seemingly sincere way he reads his work, even when his thoughts have gone astray for a few lines already, that keeps creeping around in my own head long after he’s finished. The cosmic and the comic are blended to reveal how life is – as Eels put it – ‘funny, but not ha ha funny’.
After some twenty minutes, it’s Nyk de Vries’s turn. The Frisian/Dutch poet and musician, born in 1971, is introduced as a master of ‘the unexpected twist’, and that’s exactly right. His short prose poems, mostly consisting of less than 120 words (De Vries: ‘Well, none of them ever reaches 170. Unless it really is a damn good one’), aren’t nonsensical at all, but they do plunge you into the weirdest situations, uncertain of how you just got there, and how you’ll ever get out again.
I really liked De Vries’s Dutch debut collection Motorman, which appeared three years ago, but had never got the chance to see him read before now, even though he has performed on some major Dutch stages over the last couple of years. After tonight, I’ll be sure to try harder next time, because his show – accompanied by his high school friend Fokke van der Veen on guitar and a number of samples – really rocks. The short tales are buoyed by the music, the sounds adding an extra tension to De Vries’s already unsettling little universes, without messing with any of the words. The best example is the poem ‘Carnaval’ (Carnival): a young woman’s recorded voice reads in Dutch, while the poet reads them in Frisian, leading to a bilingual duet, of which the English translation can be read on the screen above the stage.
No additional instruments or samples with the last poet for tonight, Kim Hyesoon (1955) from South Korea. But there’s a strong musicality in her words, at least in how they sound to me, because of course I don’t understand a word of what she says in her own language. Simultaneously reading the Dutch and English translations on the big screen, it’s funny to watch some of the differences between the two. In ‘Another Titanic’ for example, one line in Dutch translation reads: ‘ik zou als een slang rijst eten en mijn mond afvegen,/ antwoordde ik’ (literally: I’d eat rice like a snake and wipe my mouth,/ I answered’), while the English states: ‘I’d eat, wipe my mouth, and slip out like a snake,/ I answered’.
In both languages though, these hallucinating poems seem to focus on identity and physical coherence, and the the loss of both. Hyesoon shows us how things and bodies could fit together, how they can fall apart, how they’re able to end up as other things or bodies, in new and yet again unstable forms. When Hyesoon has stopped reading, I leave the auditorium pondering on ‘How painful the light must be for the night’.
After over an hour with these three magnificent poets, it’s definitely time for some small talk and a beer at the bar. I’ll just try not to think about the amount of pollen, seeds and little bugs in it . . .