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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

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?

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.

Interview with The Itinerant Poetry Librarian

TIPL closing for the day in Romania, with a small VPL looking on! July 2010 © TIPL

PIW editor Sarah Ream interviews Sara Wingate Gray, aka The Itinerant Poetry Librarian.

What is The Itinerant Poetry Library?

The Itinerant Poetry Library (TIPL) is a non static, special collections public library of poetry. For free, for everyone, and for everywhere, or at least, everywhere we can get to. From May 2006 until September 2009 the library operated continuously and was, quite literally, carried by myself, The Itinerant Poetry Librarian, which involved hoicking the collection of physical books through 11 countries and 23 towns and cities, providing a free public poetry library service in each spot I got to.

Operating without the confines of a building of its own, but within parameters of typical library systems, including free membership for all, circulation procedures, library regulation and the overseeing of the library’s collection by a librarian in situ, the project fundamentally explores, and encourages users to explore, our perceptions of what a library might be. It’s part public library, part life-experiment and part live art, and by September 2009 The Itinerant Poetry Library had signed up over 1000 members, and collected and acquisitioned new poetry titles in each place the library had operated in, so the collection now has more than 12 languages represented and has been open in more than 200 locations worldwide.

For me, personally, the project is about facilitating people to examine and enrich their lives, their communities, their cultures, in the context of the wider world, by accessing both the library as a live art performance experience, and as a real public library experience – that is, joining the library and sitting down and reading one of the poetry items in the collection. The act of reading, and specifically the act of reading poetry, and even more specifically the act of reading poetry in translation or indeed reading any other of the library’s “lost & forgotten” poetry items facilitates this very process. And it’s this very process which enables us to grow as individuals, and to understand our shared future . . . Because, as the poet Louise Glück has written: “contact, of the most intimate sort, is what poetry can accomplish. Poems do not endure as objects but as presences. When you read anything worth remembering, you liberate a human voice; you release into the world again a companion spirit.”

TIPL lying on top of the grave of e.e. cummings, before opening the library in a Boston cemetery, September 2010 © TIPL

Running The Itinerant Poetry Library was a full-time occupation from 2006 through 2009, and as it provided little or no income (by virtue of the project’s ethos of free open access) this was sustainable only by performing radically new ways of living, such as eating out of the food-bins at the back of supermarkets, sleeping on stranger’s couches, and learning how to heft more than my own body weight in paper-based items (and all my meagre life-belongings) on my back, using public transport along the way to move me from one library location to the next. Since September 2009, the project has continued to operate on a part-time basis, as otherwise I would have wasted away and become too fragile to woman-handle the library around, and this has enabled me to spend more time reflecting on the undercurrents at play in my project, and specifically, to work towards uncovering a philosophy of the public library.

TIPL in her back garden during San Francisco operations, 2008 © TIPL

Fundamentally, my project is here to issue a clarion call, or, indeed, going back to the Doric Greek, a ‘paean’. Or if you’re not so much into that war stuff: a hymn to public libraries, in fact. Its modus operandi has been all about exploring ways of being, sustainable ways. Ways that address some of the core issues of our time: the limits of our world resources, the limits of a capitalist, market-driven, consumer-led philosophy. I think that poetry, and in particular, the public library have a very important part to play in helping us address these issues and that the public library philosophy, if it can be truly uncovered, will shine a light on how we should proceed.

This is an extract from an interview about The Itinerant Poetry Library. Read the full interview with Sara Wingate Gray, The Itinerant Poetry Librarian, on PIW.

Poets’ boat trip

Yesterday, the festival poets and staff of Poetry International eased into the festival with a boat trip along the Maas, followed by a reception with the mayor at the Rotterdam town hall, where Rotterdam translators and festival poets read together. After that we all ate dinner outside in a beautiful garden at the home of former Poetry International board member Jan Hendrik van Dorp. Many thanks for Jan Hendrik and his wife Elisabeth for their wonderful hospitality.

Michelle Tjoe, Eduardo Espina, Robert Hass and Correen Dekker © Sarah Ream

© Sarah Ream

Yan Jun © Sarah Ream

Correen Dekker, Erín Moure, Øyvind Rimbereid © Sarah Ream

Eduardo Espina reading at the town hall © Sarah Ream

 

 

 

© Sarah Ream

Interview with Doina Ioanid

© Doina Ioanid

Your PIW biographer, Jan H. Mysjkin, writes that in your poems “autobiographical data are interspersed with surreal images”. How do you see the role of memory in your poems? Are there distinctions for you, poetically and personally, between imagined or embellished memories and ‘true’ memories?

Memory plays a major part in my poetry, but then again it plays a major part in all literature. Even ‘pure’ fiction draws on memory in order to structure an imaginary world. Memory stores data which the writer retrieves unawares whenever he/she needs to create a character or to describe a situation or to provide a background for them. In my case, memory feeds my poems, but in a way that transcends personal experience. In my poetry, memory data are processed and integrated into a poetic order that aims at understanding the particular from a wider perspective. Moreover, these data are passed through the filter of words and images, thus being reshaped into a concrete sensitive material that hopefully becomes relevant for the others as they read my poems.

Personally, I don’t believe in ‘true’ memories. All memories are emotionally or affectively marked, which doesn’t make them necessarily untrue. But what we remember is an emotional association of facts and images that sometimes distorts what is commonly called ‘objective reality’. There is no such thing. Reality is a matter of subjective perception, and as such it cannot be objectively defined. Paradoxically, poetic subjectivity reshuffles memorized experience, imbuing it with a sense of higher objectivity, the objectivity of poetic order. Surreal images are a natural product of poetic order, seizing points of convergence between random occurrences and interpreting them transcendentally.

Has your knowledge of French language and literature (and of other languages) influenced your own writing? If so, are you able to say in what ways?

Each language one learns opens a wider field of knowledge, not only to literature, but to the whole culture of the linguistic space in question. Consequently, influences are unavoidable, even though they sometimes go undetected. These influences, however, should be assimilated well enough not to transpire in one’s writing. I know I’ve been influenced by my knowledge of French and English, but I can’t put my finger on it and that is a good thing. The influences should stay subtle.  Let me give you an example: I was utterly unimpressed by Baudelaire in the Romanian translation, but when I read him in the original, something clicked. I started writing somehow differently.

How do you combine your life as a poet with your work as editor at The Cultural Observer? Are they distinct or intertwined?

My writing and my work as an editor are worlds apart. The only way they are related is that they both compete for my time.

Have you attended other poetry festivals as a guest reader? What have you most and least enjoyed about these experiences? Is there anything in particular you’re looking forward to about the Rotterdam festival?

Over the years, I’ve attended several poetry festivals, both in Romania and abroad. What I enjoy most about the ones in Romania, apart from interacting with new readerships, is getting together with fellow poets I appreciate and don’t see very often. Reading abroad is a totally different experience of course, since my poems have to be transmuted into another language. It’s like putting on a new dress. At the Istanbul Poetry Festival, for instance, I liked the occasional unconventional setting – at one point, I read on a boat sailing the Bosporus. But most of all, I like the reactions of a responsive audience. And that’s what I’m looking forward to in Rotterdam.

Read more about Doina Ioanid on PIW.

Read some of the poems from Doina Ioanid’s latest collection translated into English and published by Singapore literary magazine Asymptote.

Interview with Erín Moure

You’re from Calgary, but you’ve adopted Montréal as your home – what is it about the city that appeals to you as a poet?

© Erín Moure

What interests me is the mixture of languages here, that French is the public language but other languages traverse it. My childhood and education were spent in the English language only, with a bit of the western Ukrainian village language (a kind of Ukrainian and Polish co-existence) in the background. I thrive in the teeming rush of multiple languages that is Montréal.

As well as English, you speak and translate from Galician, Spanish, French and Portuguese. How did you come to learn these languages?

French is a Canadian language and we all learn a bit of it in school. I learned it more completely when I moved to Montreal 27 years ago. In 1998 I started to learn Galician because it is a small language, and small languages to survive must admit new speakers. I wanted to join that language and exist in it too. Galician, galego, is close to Portuguese by its roots and close to Spanish by the history of colonization of the periphery by the centre in Spain. So I can read in Portuguese, and taught myself to read in Spanish too, more slowly.

Your festival biographer, Melissa Jacques, writes that all these languages inform your work in English. Do you see your writing being affected in different ways by each different languages? Do you feel your knowledge of other languages influences your writing in terms of syntax, vocabulary, subject matter or form – or all of these (and more)?

All of these, and more, yes! It’s that I think in English, French and Galician, in all three of these languages, I dream in them, I write and read in them every day (and most days in Spanish, and Portuguese . . . I at least read them, or hear them spoken around me in Montréal). Because of the differing structures of the languages and the differing relationships between words and in the multiple meanings within any single word in any language, I think differently, different thoughts are made possible in each different language. And because I translate, I can translate them back into English. Even though translation as equivalence is impossible, translation as valence (i.e. relative capacity to unite or react or interact) is possible. And I like writing and being in Montreal, where my friends are multilingual and we talk in all our languages. Without always having to translate ourselves.

Of the poems from your festival selection, you write: “[they are] purporting to be translations by Elisa Sampedrín – who doesn’t exist – and who translates from a language she does not even know: simply because she sees the poems and wants to read them, and can’t, in their original language.” I’m interested in the distancing effect created – you write, then, as another writer, who is writing poems based on other poems written in another language. Is this a metaphor for the writing of your original poetry in general? Do you see all poetry as a form of translation?

It could be such a metaphor, except that it is euphoric not metaphoric . . . the transport is rooted in the sight and taste of a language, of textuality, whether or not one knows the language, and is provoked by the search of the eye over the curve of letters to “make sense”, to increase and deepen the eye’s relation with the text itself. Our eyes caress the surface of text, and we urgently need to know. This is Elisa Sampedrín’s dilemma.

As for me, Je suis un autre. Rimbaud said that. Thus: I am always another writer . . .

Can one be a translator without speaking a second language?

There is a sense in which every reading of a text by an individual is ALWAYS a translation, because it is read through an individual body, a body impossible to replicate in terms of its cells and experiences and the ways that experience have affected its neurons and neural maps and capacities. We always already speak a second language: we call it our mother tongue. Our first language is silence, the silence before speaking, and we retain this language in our body, in our ability to feel fear, or arousal upon presentation of something or someone in our visual or tactile field. And in our ability to engage with flowers and trees and smells and the taste of coffee on the tongue, or papaya, or our lover’s shoulder.

So, yes. it is impossible to be a translator without a second language, but we all already have at least two languages. We need to learn to access our language of birth all over, for our mother tongue can shut it down . . . knowing a third and fourth language helps us know how to access that first one. Which is, in another sense, never a first one. There is always language that precedes us.

When writing these pieces, did you first envisage (or perhaps actually depart from) the original poems that Elisa was translating?

With the eyes of Elisa (who is a Galician me with a different history, who disturbs my bodily relation with text), I caressed the text and read it as if it were a strangeness in Galician . . . my mother was dying at that time, and I could not write, and I could scarcely see, and this caress of the surface of Stănescu’s texts was all I was capable of. Quickly, other texts emerged, from non understanding and non knowing, from not writing and not translating . . . and these are Elisa’s translations. She translates because she can read in the general sense, even though she cannot read Romanian. She needs urgently to put the strange language into her mouth, so as to alter the course of time (as our body knows time in the mouth, in the cells of the mouth, and in the non-seeing cells of the retina) . . .

It’s sort of like the filmmaker Werner Herzog walking from Munich to Paris in the fall of 1974 to keep his dying friend, the film historian Lotte Eisner, alive . . . he must go see her before she dies (in Of Walking In Ice) and he knows if he prolongs the trip by walking, she will stay alive longer. Writing, and translation, reverse or slow time.

What are the parallels in the way you approach the writing of an original poem and the translation of an existing poem?

Simply that in both cases (and I might add that there are many many ways of translating, from ways that seem very normative to ways that seem to extend that normativity in shocking ways), I respond to language with all my cells. I answer language’s insistence with language. I try to listen to what the language and poem bid me to do, in, through and alongside texts that have flared up before me or in me. Writing is a response to language, it’s not just an act performed upon it by a subject separate from it.

Read more about Erín Moure on PIW.

Interview with Yan Jun

Most of the poems in your festival selection have dates as their title. What is the appeal of the diary poem for you? How autobiographical are these poems?

Once I thought: oh, I’m not a great poet and maybe I can’t be a great one in my life. I felt happy, as though I had been liberated from something. These diary poems are something I write for myself.

Yan Jun © Qiao Qiao

I enjoy the process of writing as I enjoy all the quiet but energetic moments I have in this mediocre life. Sometimes my writing is autobiographical, but mostly it’s autobiographical in terms of my daily perceptions.

To what extent is your work influenced by classical Chinese poetry? And who are your contemporary influences? To what extent do you see yourself as a Chinese poet?

Sometimes people see me as a Chinese poet, or musician. But I can’t see anything special in the mirror. I’ve almost forgotten all of the few classical Chinese poems I have read. And I haven’t read much contemporary poetry for years either. I’m trying to be a contemporary person. I guess ancient Chinese poets also enjoyed being in their time.

Does a reader of your poetry need to have knowledge of Chinese literary and cultural allusions to fully appreciate your work?

No, not at all. Every poet has his or her secrets, whether personal or cultural. It’s fine if we keep them. A reader is not a lawyer. But I agree that a translator has to know as much as possible. Maybe I’m wrong, but I learn from reading, rather than needing knowledge to read.

You mention on your own blog, www.yanjun.org, that “writing poetry is a political act in itself”. Do you think this is even more true for poets writing in a country with censorship? (If a Dutch poet writes a poem, for instance, is that as political an act as a Chinese poet writing a poem?)

I don’t think there is any difference. Censorship is everywhere: mentally. Everybody knows censorship in China is terrible. But how? And why? And what should we do with it? Play the role of a hero and lead people to a Hollywood movie? I don’t think this is politics. When I say politics is something beyond black and white, I realise that there is a strong censorship in the West in that nobody would dare to doubt this movie. And as you know, both Dutch poets and Chinese poets eat McDonald’s sometimes.

You are a musician as well as a poet – did music or poetry come first for you? Could you tell us a bit about your musical background and training?

I started to write poems in middle school. After university I started to write music reviews. About 7 years ago I started to make music without any skill of it. I don’t read music and I don’t play instruments in a ‘musical’ way. And I don’t deal with tones or rhythms. My first instrument was a MD recorder and a small microphone. All my training is in listening to noises and following them. My electronics and computer skills are both very basic.

How does your music influence your poetry, and how does your poetry influence your music?

Ten years ago, I wrote and read poems in an intensive way and full of groove. They sounded like free jazz and I read very loudly. Just like a rock critic  which I was. Now I don’t work on rock music any more. Both my music and poetry have changed. I don’t know how they influence each other but I believe they all come from me and build myself. My eye and ear changed and my works followed.

Will you be playing any music at the Poetry International Festival?

I guess not. Reading is musical enough. But I will work with WORM artists to perform an experimental sound piece based on my poem. I will read and play some sound in this project.

Read more about Yan Jun on PIW.

Welcome!

Welcome to  the English-language 42nd Poetry International Festival blog, edited by the team of Poetry International Web. This year’s festival will take place in the Rotterdam City Theatre from 14 until 19 June 2011. In the run-up to the festival, festival poets and translators will be posting on this blog, and we’ll also be publishing interviews and introducing some of the upcoming festival events. During the festival itself, the blog will be home to photographs, reviews, interviews and festival recordings.

This year’s festival poets are:

Nazih Abou Afach (Syria)
Armando (The Netherlands)
Ann Cotten (United States / Austria / Germany)
Eduardo Espina (Uruguay / USA)
Jacob Groot (The Netherlands)
Robert Hass (USA)
Doina Ioanid (Romania)
Yan Jun (China)
Bachyt Kenzjejev (Kazakhstan / Russia / Canada)
Admiel Kosman (Israel / Germany)
Erín Moure (Canada)
Ion Mureşan (Romania)
Les Murray (Australia)
Daljit Nagra (UK)
Gampiero Neri (Italy)
Øyvind Rimbereid (Norway)
Amina Saïd (Tunisia / France)
Eugène Savitzkaya (Belgium)
Truong Tran (Vietnam / USA)
Serhiy Zhadan (Ukraine)

Read more in English on PIW’s festival page or in Dutch at www.poetry.nl.