German flag on my wall by Gooch Chuang, under a Creative Commons licence
I spent the Jubilee weekend at the Poesiefestival in Berlin, where festival directors and representatives of poetry organisations annually get together to compare notes and talent-spot at the international poetry readings. I admired the calm demeanour of Bas Kwakman, about a week away from the opening of the 43rd Poetry International in Rotterdam, and even more the ebullient Anna Selby, who had stepped away from the frenzy of preparations at the Southbank for Poetry Parnassus: programming 200+ poets and maintaining her enthusiasm is some feat.
The Poesiefestival had a fascinating project: renshi.eu, a linked poem composed by poets from each of the EU nations. GB was represented by Jen Hadfield, and when the renshi was delivered by all 28 poets in their own languages (with German and English translations projected behind), it was a delight to hear Jen’s voice and the word ‘peeriewise’, bracketed by Croatian and Maltese. The poets had been asked to brood on Europe, its myths and dilemmas. In an afternoon discussion session, Jen spoke about the mention of ‘flour’ in the preceding poem, which coincided with her reading Mantel’s A Place of Greater Safety with its recurrent mention of the price of bread, and a visit to a flour mill on Shetland, forming the local basis of her vivid European meditation.
Talking to one of the Berliners later, I found that we had both been struck by the circumstances in which most of these young poets had grown up: a Eurozone, 50 years of peace between the European nations who were traditional enemies, open borders… while we – not very ancient – could easily recall the pre-Euro, passport-stamped years. Janis from Latvia astonished me by mentioning the 1970s-80s print-runs of books in his country. There were only 3 standard sizes: 2,000 or 8,000 for a debut; 16,000 for a mid-run, and for the most popular poets – 33,000! Mind you, he did also say that poetry books tended to be cheaper than blank notebooks…
It was great to catch up with several poets who had been on SPL/LAF translation workshops over the last few years: Marko Pogačar from Croatia, one of the brave poet-swimmers of 2010, looking like a priest or perhaps a bandit in full beard; Gregor Podlogar, who has kindly donated to the SPL a new bilingual anthology of Slovenian poetry, In Unfriendly Weather (print run boldly stated: 300) – he was at Crear in 2006; and Fatima Naoot, who marvelled over the rabbits at Crear in 2007. Fatima generously agreed that we could use her poem ‘Socks’, translated at the workshop by Valerie Gillies, as our Egyptian poem for The Written World. I’ll go to any European city to get a poet’s signature!