Rotterdam loves The Itinerant Poetry Library

After five days at the festival, The Itinerant Poetry Library (aka Sara Wingate Gray and her suitcase) now has a total of 113 Rotterdam members (aka Valued Patrons), putting Rotterdam in the number 2 TIPL membership spot, ahead of Leipzig (with 99 Valued Patrons). San Francisco is still beating us, but that’s a good reason for TIPL to return to Rotterdam next year. Vive la bibliothèque!

TIPL in the theatre foyer © Sarah Ream

PIW Japan editor Yasuhiro Yotsumoto at TIPL © Sarah Ream

TIPL © Sarah Ream

© Sarah Ream


19 June

The old lady asked me about my crows after my reading: do they have any political meaning? I say no.

I mean yes.

How can I practise my politics if I don’t say no to her? Like a crow: how can it sing without breaking the silence?

I open the window of hotel room for . . . anything . . . something out of my knowledge. Can’t be expected. Ordinary as usual. Gone with perception. No value.

There is a black crow sitting on a roof. A heavy spot. A substantiality I can touch by staring at it. I have been touched by its shining black and breathless heaviness many times. I know it acknowldeges my touching by being still.

My teacher: it only sing when it can breaks silence. This is the art of timing. But also axe through air: the art of sounding space.

Crows don’t move at all when they aren’t moving. And I wrote: crows have no eyes.

Something many people don’t know: the crow is the sun itself. It has three legs. It is one of our gods from not that long ago.

But in my memories they were just a group of black birds flying above, singing to make everything quiet. Sometimes I heard their wings moving. That means it was really quiet: nothing happening around and me doing nothing as well: still life.

This is better than god.

When I was a little kid I knew only three kind of birds: crow, eagle and sparrow. And I was always sitting behind the window, staring and waiting for something.

Sometimes an eagle passed high above. I looked at it as today I look at a plane. It makes the whole world slow down.

Peace for the world: we need an eagle flying above.

Politics for the Netherlands: I heard there are no more Smart shops. And soon the coffee shops will say no to foreigners.

On the first evening of the festival a poet raised his hand on stage: Free Tibet!

Free the crow!

Or, how about this? Smart people, break the system!

Does that sound sharp enough? Shall we put it on a flag? A tattoo?

I don’t really need a Smart shop. It’s better to keep it far away from tourists. Sometimes headless people also make the right decisions. Just as idiots also need human rights.

© Yan Jun

The Ukrainian poet [Serhiy Zhadan] read a poem about mushrooms. I know it’s not about mushrooms. Nor about politics. The one from Kazakhstan [Bakhyt Kenzjejev] said he hates China as he hates Russia. I know it’s not about poetry, Chinese or Russian.

The Austrian one who lives in Berlin [Ann Cotten] told the audience that she and her friends became communists. This reminded me of Godard’s Film Socialism. He said: this is nothing to do with socialism.

Sixteen years ago a friend and I ran a music store called Crow. Something funny: the logo designer forgot to draw enough legs for it. It’s a one-legged crow!

Poetry International Festival videos and audio recordings

The festival ended last night, but you can relive (or discover) the five days of international poetry in Rotterdam via our Poetry International Vimeo channel, where we’ve uploaded subtitled recordings of poetry readings as well as interviews, and on Poetry International Web, which has audio recordings of the poets reading. We’ll be uploading more audio and videos from the festival in the coming weeks.

Jacob Groot translation workshop

Jacob Groot

To complement my earlier post about translating Jacob Groot’s poetry, I’d like to give you a short introduction to his work. Reading reviews of his work through the years – he’s written 12 volumes of poetry to date, besides collections of essays on poetry and music and a couple of novels – I found reviewers have had a similar reading experience to mine: his poems do not open up to you on first reading: mixed-up syntax, protagonists identified by seemingly generic personal pronouns and imagery that appears to stand on its own, all make for a confusing first read-through. Groot does not make any concessions to the reader. While all this may frustrate your understanding of the poem’s content, the poems do force you to keep reading through their intricate rhythms, internal rhyme, word association and assonance combined, even onomatopoeia, sound-words. In his first volumes Jacob Groot wanted to capture ‘an emotion’, not ‘one’s own emotion’, but as concrete a representation of ‘an’ emotion as possible.

“Abstract reflection only gets in the way if you want to achieve this”, as he said in an interview back in 1978 – a credo he appears to have maintained to this day, as the first poem in his latest volume Divina Noir reads: “There is no need for a mirror-image.”

There is a recurring motif in his work: ‘an end’ meaning a goal or purpose and ‘the means’. Is poetry a means to an end, or is a poem just meant to result in itself? There are a few poems within the festival selection that mention this: ‘Local Universe’ and ‘Her Legs’.

to me the task
(an end) of sticking it to the wall like a ring
around the fleshy finger of the means.

(from: ‘Local Universe’)

The poem may be more about the journey – through language – than its conclusions. Groot doesn’t provide any solutions in his poetry, on the contrary, he reveals, displays. In the end, it all comes down to what you read into what he portrays. His poetry has been called metaphysical or religious by critics. Certainly, the celestial spheres sometimes drift into his poems and he knows how to play with biblical phrases. Mostly, though, I feel his work is experiential. His poetry wishes to incorporate as much of reality and precisely formulated experience as it can and all of life’s contradictions, be it in colloquial speech, expletives, quotations, pop lyrics, etc. As he said in an interview: “discovering and incorporating contradictions and paradoxes is something you discover naturally during the writing process” (paraphrased). Once you understand these contradictions are a natural part of his work, you may relax into them.

Aside from the more philosophical nature of his work, many critics have noted his poems’ lyrical quality. ‘Release me, the time has come’ is a good example of the driving rhythms in his work, accompanied by profoundly disturbing imagery from Artaud, whom the protagonist is reading quietly upstairs while his parents are downstairs watching television:

and takes the lid off the hell
you then get to see and he passes
it on: my hole as arse, my sour hollow
arse, in which the red lice cycle

splatters to pieces

The italicised latter part is taken from ‘La culture indienne’ (Indian Culture) by Antonin Artaud, the surrealist playwright and poet who wished to lay bare man’s baser nature, his impulsive desires. Which is another theme in Groot’s poetry. He can be as direct as Artaud in phrasing the sexual preferences of his protagonists, and he can be equally passionate about the act of screwing (as opposed to making love) or more onanistic sexual fulfilment. Many of the selected poems bear witness to this. In fact, all but two of the festival selection poems contain some form of fleshly gratification or the desire to achieve this.

The above was part of my introduction to the festival translation workshop, where one (Dutch) poet, in this case Jacob Groot, is translated into as many languages as there are poets voluntarily taking part in the workshop. This year’s participants: Erin Moure, Eduardo Espina, Truong Tran, Daljit Nagra and Draga Rinkema. The workshop is primarily aimed at the festival poets and translators, but is also open to the public. Would you like to know how the festival poets translated Jacob Groot into American, Canadian and British English, Spanish, Slovene and German? The presentation is today, Sunday 19 June at 16.00 in the afternoon, in Café Floor’s garden (next to the theatre).


Jacob Groot: ‘WIMPLED ONE’ from Poetry International on Vimeo.

Interview with Øyvind Rimbereid

Interview with Øyvind Rimbereid from Poetry International on Vimeo.

Robert Hass and Serhiy Zhadan

Last night, the second reading in the main hall was rife with moral questions. American poet Robert Hass’s poems and his comments touched on the aftermath of Word War II in Amsterdam; the rape of German women in Berlin by Soviet soldiers; sex traffic in young girls in Bangkok; and the alcoholism of a mother. They almost seemed to be interrogating issues raised more vaguely by Serhiy Zhadan’s poems, which opened the reading. I say vaguely because Zhadan uses elliptical streams of associations rather than precise statements. Zhadan, from the Ukraine – (personal disclosure, my father’s parents left Tchernogov in 1905) – read energetically, with the enthusiasm, it seemed, of the young and morally righteous – and touched on Russian oligarchs stealing eastern European resources “with dispensation from Jerusalem,” about Islam, about Chinese drug smugglers, gypsies (with “lazy movements”) and so on.

In Poetry and Ethics, Natasha Saje writes that “In one sense, poetry itself is an exercise in othering, in trying to understand something or someone foreign from oneself.

“Transactions between writer and reader are like transactions with real people, and that is why they matter,” she says. “Moreover, because of poetry’s intimacy – the readers of a poem are simultaneously addressee and speaker – I believe that some poems create an ethical disjunction for their readers.”

She discusses her discomfort when “the poet is making art out of others’ suffering without any risk or consequence to himself or herself”. She quotes Susan Sontag’s comment that “No ‘we’ should be taken for granted when the subject is looking at other people’s pain”; “what matters precisely is who is killed and by whom”.

And she notes that Sontag suggests “a narrative seems likely to be more effective [in conveying pain] than an image. Partly it is a question of the length of time one is obliged to look, to feel”.

For me, listening to selected poems by Hass and Zhadan on Friday evening, it seemed that Hass had a clearer narrative, or at least one clearer to me. After the reading I asked him why he, not Jewish, was so sensitive to the fact of the Holocaust: “I was born in 1941,” was his answer. I didn’t get a chance to speak to Zhadan, with his careful attention to ethnicities (Chinese, Polish, Islamic) and interest in, as one of his titles reveals, ‘The History of Culture at the Turn of this Century’.

Is there a new narrative in this new world? Perhaps because I have not experienced the aftermath of the end of the Soviet Union (thanks to my ancestors, who went to America from the Ukraine and Romania), I don’t quite understand exactly which culture Zhadan refers to when he writes about it unpleasantly entering his bloodstream:

this is how the era began,
this is how it turned – awkward, heavy like a munitions truck,
leaving behind dead planets and burnt-out transmitters,
scattering wild ducks in the pond

[ . . . ]

When choosing your course of studies you should find out
among other things –
if the culture at the turn of this century
has already pressed itself into the veins of your slow arm [ . . . ]

(translated by Virlana Tkacz and Wanda Phipps)

Perhaps readers of this blog have suggestions?

Daljit Nagra at the festival: Interview and reading


Interview with Daljit Nagra from Poetry International on Vimeo.


Daljit Nagra: ‘SINGH SONG!’ from Poetry International on Vimeo.

Bakhyt Kenzjejev: ‘That summer having lost my job . . .’

Bakhyt Kenzjejev: ‘that summer having lost my job’ from Poetry International on Vimeo.

Poetry afterparty 17 June . . .

Poetry International volunteer Jeroen dancing at the afterparty in the theatre bar last night.

Hotels and balloons

9 a.m., Thursday, June 16.  It’s raining warmly in Rotterdam.  I’m sitting in tranquil Dudok, the café two blocks from Hotel Atlanta where poets and PIW editors are housed. Some years back, Israeli poet Nurit Zarchi wrote of her desire to remain at the Atlanta, apparently for its tranquility and and in order to experience the eternal promise involved in travel:

Let’s say that I have chosen to live in this hotel,
to be reflected in the mirrors trapped in front of me,
the sun shining on green apples that might be made of wax
and a platoon of coffee mugs
in this quiet-filled space,
chosen to pass door after door with sinking steps
in the hallway of  other people’s sleep on the other side of the wall.
A faucet or a clock speaks its own language,
so I prefer to live in this hotel.
A toothbrush and a water kettle pretend to be family,
letting me read
until the windows whiten behind the screen,
and cars waken earlier than seagulls.
It’s clear that it’s me
who insists taking me home to my room
where the solitary daughters of the deep
sit on suitcases tattooed with all the world’s promises.

A still from the short film Nach grauen Tagen

Speaking of tranquility, I loved the film Nach grauen Tagen by Ralf Schmerberg which played at the festival’s international opening. Based on (translated into film from, it may be said), an Ingeborg Bachmann poem, it is a vision of family life taken to the nth degree of chaos (a theme of the festival). At its center is a harassed mother (in shirt and underpants), who finds respite only when her head is encased in a balloon in which, if I am not mistaken, a few lines of poetry are recited. Outside the balloon is a living room filled with noise, complaints, demands of husband, another mother (in-law?), babies, rabbits, trash, etc.

Perhaps it may be said that attending the PIW poetry festival in Rotterdam is a bit like being inside a balloon.