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Impressions of the festival by Kate Coles

by Katharine Coles on June 17th, 2010

On Tuesday, I sat in the garden café and listened to conversation about Afghan poetry.  I learned there is no such thing.

Why should this surprise me? People keep asking me about U.S. poetry—to describe it or say something about its state, which I’m reminded here is also a political word, though they mean its condition, as if it were about to be admitted to the poetry intensive care unit, or discharged with a tag on its toe. In the U.S. we’ve been announcing the death of poetry for decades.

It’s hard to believe in the death of poetry here. All these poets from everywhere are quick and curious. About the plants scooting around on little robot wheels, edging flirtatiously next to our shoes. About the town, the theater, the cheese. About each other and what poetry is like where we all come from.

If there is, for good reasons, no such thing as Afghan poetry, there is this poetry of Karman Mir Hazar’s, which comes out of place, tribe, experience, and language. Persian. The moderator, who shares in an intimate literary culture, wonders that Karman and his publisher Sam Vaseghi haven’t met before this week. I find a point of kinship.  I never met the publisher of my first book, who died this year. We corresponded by letter. The roads are good in the U.S. Still, it is 3000 miles long and 2000 miles wide and holds 300 million people.

After the session, I talk with the Dutch painter sitting across the table. I am curious, so she shows me notebooks full of whimsical, abstract drawings. At dinner, American poet Christian Hawkey—whom I had to travel to Rotterdam to meet—tells me he was a student of a dear friend, Agha Shahid Ali, who died in 2001. Of the four American poets I will sit down with on Thursday, I’ve met one before this week. But we share friends. Curiosity.  The work. A small culture in a big country.

Here we are all at once strangers and familiars. We find poetry in many languages, inspired by work from other languages, even those of painting or roving plants. And there are people to receive this poetry, all over the world.  Tonight, I’ve returned early to my hotel to see the last event with those others, on my computer on the live stream. I’m curious. In my room, waiting for things to start, I feel (almost) as much in company as I did earlier in the garden. I hear a voice talking Dutch, a harp being tuned. I see fingers on strings, graceful and disembodied in the dark, poised to speak.

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