El Tercer Lugar in Buenos Aires / The Enemies project: Argentina - February 3rd to 10th 2016
An incredible literary adventure in Buenos Aires, one emanating from the fortune of meeting Flavia Pitella, journalist and literary advocate in Buenos Aires, and supported by the International Literature Showcase Legacy Fund, generously given via Writer's Centre Norwich and the British Council. I got to spend a week in the extraordinary Argentine capital, curating and participating in brand new collaborations with Argentine poets Julián López, Anahí Mallol, Camilo Sanchez, German poet Leonce Lupette and fellow Brit Patrick Coyle. Performances, workshops, city explorations and some of the most gracious hospitality I have ever experienced punctuated a sweltering and beautiful week in Argentina. Below you'll find performances from the final collaborative event, detailed diaries of every day of the project and pictures by Sofia Bianco.
The final performance - February 9th: El Tercer Lugar, Buenos Aires.
After just three days workshopping together, the six core poets of Enemigos: Argentina presented 15 brand new collaborations in revolving pairs and two group collaborations to a busy and enthusiastic audience. Below is a selection of my collaborations with Julián López, Anahí Mallol, Camilo Sanchez, Patrick Coyle & Leonce Lupette. All the videos can be found www.theenemiesproject.com/argentina
Diary #1: February 4th 2016
It is easy to be complacent before an ocean crossing, and how absurd it is to look down a darkened aisle and see hundreds of heads, lolled, asleep, knowing we are all many thousand feet in the air. I never cease being gently afraid at the start of such a journey, one that is of course safe and assured, but is none the less, into the unknown. My first trip to South America, let alone Argentina. Rugby teams on the plane, for the 13 hour journey. But I managed to vaguely sleep and awake to blistering 30 degree heat in Buenos Aires. Right from the moment I clear disgruntled customs and meet my first wild queue, Flavia Daniela Pitella is there waiting for me. The last time we met, in Norwich, nearly a year before, planning this project, feels suddenly very close, as though it were the week previous. Such is her keen attentiveness to making me feel immediately comfortable. An educator, an influential literary journalist with a national radio show, an anglophile and a champion of literature, she is also incredibly warm spirited and engaging. She has thought of everything, from meeting me and my fellow British poet Patrick Coyle at the airport, to arranging an amazing old world Buenos Aires apartment for us to stay in all week, to a two day workshop at her house in the countryside surrounding the city, to the multiple Argentine poets involved in the project, to a series of events that take place in her own literary venue, El Tercer Lugar, situated in the St. Telmo district of the city.
Patrick and I reunite and slightly mad from the sleep deprivation, take to the city, just walking. I have spent the last month reading to prepare for this trip, from Borges, Cortazar, Bioy Casares to Fogwill, Hudson, Conti. I have heard so much about this place, this city - it's relationship to it's past, it's roots in Europe, it's conflict with the countryside, it's self-awareness and reflexiveness, and it's friendliness to the walker. To me, immediately, it feels comfortable. People move quickly, immediately, but are more friendly in their recognition than in London. They are respectful of distance, busy, but gentler in their manner. The architecture is startling and the heat is not oppressive, though it is the height of Argentine summer. We stretch down the Avenue de Julio and Florida, down to the Plaza de Mayo, and lap ourselves. I can feel the sting of sunburn on my forehead. We see political gatherings, the ubiquitous cafes and bookshops and get a first sense of how huge, and wonderful, the city is.
Diary #2: February 5th 2016
Patrick and I join Flavia at her venue, and meet the brilliant Julián López and Camilo Sanchez. As I've said so often, the collaborations I'm so happy to bring to different communities of poets around the world are so rooted in the poets enthusiasm and generosity of their character, rather than their work. And in Julian and Camilo it is immediately apparent how generous and welcoming they are. We talk in the car driving out of the city, following the River Plate out towards the ocean, to Flavia's beautiful house in the countryside. She has given up her home to us, to six poets, a musician, German Frers, and a host of fellow organisers, all helping to make this project so unique. An act of really humbling hospitality, we have everything we need, lavish meals, our own rooms, beautiful environs, a pool and hours upon hours to discuss how we'll work together and what our work is concerned with. We meet Anahi Mallol too, and Leonce Lupette, the final two poets of the six who will present new collaborations just a few days later. Leonce I met in Berlin the previous summer and by chance we shared a walk, and I discovered he was moving to Buenos Aires. By amazing fortune he finds himself here and a brilliant addition to the project, removing the binary focus of Argentina and English, and doing far more than that with his multi-lingual sound and modernist poetry. The Argentines are stunned by the quality and cadence of his Spanish. I am powerfully aware of my monolingualism, embarrassed by it, and rightfully so. Touched and embarrassed describes my overall feeling, to be treated with such care and respect by everyone. We talk the whole day, discussing collaboration as an idea but inevitably veering deeper into the ideas behind writing, and literature, and language and beyond. It is a uniformly insightful and unpretentious day, we are becoming friends. We share our work too, reading examples. Then a feast, then conversation, not so much about our work or literature, long into the night, surrounded by amazing wine that I don't drink and even more amazing dulce de leche ice cream, with which I compensate.
The homely workshop continues into the next day, all around the auspices of an Argentine barbecue, with huge cuts of cow on the grill. It is beautiful warm outside and we sit, talking for hours more. We begin to plan, in the margins of conversation, our various collaborations. We'll open and end with new works involving all six of us, and in the middle of that, each of us will work with the other, 15 collaborations in all. Some will cross languages, some be purely literary, some performance, some conceptual, some constraint based. We also have another layer of collaboration, thanks to Flavia, with further responses to what we do by the artist Fernanda Piamonti (her portrait of me and bears above), the photographer and artist Sofia Bianco and the musician German Frers, all amazing, enthusiastic presences. Such an achievement, thanks to Flavia, to create such a close knit, generative, intimate creative atmosphere, so quickly. One of the most generous experiences I've ever had visiting a place with poetry, or travelling at all.
Diary #3: February 7th 2016
My first full day to explore the city by myself, something I have longed to do since arriving. A chance to get lost. I walk from downtown, where we are staying, east, to Palermo, where Borges lived. I am writing a new poem with Julian Lopez about Borges. I write about him, and Julian about Shakespeare, but with the condition that we never mention their names or works. Much of our discussion in the workshops had been about the shadow these writers cast across our respective nation’s literatures. I follow Avenue Santa Fe and realise how big the city is, what was a mere inch on the map takes hours to cover. It a relaxed city, people never stare, never notice, one can be anonymous. It’s 32 degrees, my shirt is wet. I stop to get an ice cream in a heladeria. The owner, the machinery, the signs, they must be fifty years old. It is more Italian than Italy, more old world Europe than South America. The city is more Europe than Europe at times.
I visit the zoo, as I always do when travelling. Obviously sites of pain and sadness, but also, for that fact, strangely open, telling and generative places. Normally it’s working class people visiting zoos, and their attitude towards the animals speaks to something. The zoo is Victorian era, statues of its founders everywhere. I head straight to the bears, my animal. There are flamingos, beavers and small guinea pig like creatures, coypu’s I think, loose in the grounds. A black bear paddles water and gently swims over the glass where I am standing. The water is lime green and his expression is impossibly soft. I spend nearly thirty minutes watching him swim. Leaving the zoo I visit the botanical gardens and take a new route back to the flat. I’ve stopped noticing the heat, my clothes completely damp.
The festival begins. Three nights of events curated by Flavia, and it begins, appropriately, with local Porteno poets sharing their work. Flavia has arranged for Magdalena, an amazing translator, to live translate the panel discussions to Patrick and I, but I try to listen to the original language, to catch the general meaning through my awful Spanish, but also to just focus on the sound of them speaking, the language itself. Julian and Anahi give readings, and though the venue is intimate, and these events are scheduled during a national holiday, the attendance is excellent. More than that it is already immediately apparent that the atmosphere is open, generous and inquisitive.
Diary #4: February 8th 2016
A day of writing, to finish the collaborations which will be read the day following. Camilo and I create two small, subtle, half-faithful phonetic translations. He is an extraordinary presence, so careful, warm spirited. Ours is the most pronounced language barrier, not a word of Spanish from me really, nor English in him. But we get on famously from the first moment we met, his smile and welcome indelibly enthusiastic. He tells me through Leonce about the writing done during the dictatorship, how dangerous it was, how underground. Hard to imagine he’s lived through this, he seems untouched.
And Leonce, perhaps the revelation of the project. Such chance that he’s involved, that we happened to be in the same space in Berlin, leaving a building at the same time. The Argentines love him, his humanity and intelligence, his dynamic work. He gives permission to others to use multiple languages in one piece, to take responsibility for their theories and ideas in their works. I admire him in every respect. And often he is my translator, from English to Spanish, and vice versa - the German poet is my translator in Buenos Aires. He and I have written a sound piece triptych, first in curtailed two letter words, then in neologisms, then in a new language, somewhere between all of those being used.
Anahi and I take one poem from each other, translated, and then write in between the stanzas in our language. Then we return the original language, so the poem is a collaboration, a longer poem, but authentically in two languages. Her work is powerful, intimate, intense. It’s moving to write around her words and images, they are so personal without a hint of sentiment. It feels like an invitation into someone’s home. I am very careful in my poetry here, as with Julian, these are very literary works, and I’m most proud of them.
Patrick and I have written together many times, old collaborators from years past. We decide to play on our language lack and create a conversation in Spanish that appears as a scene from a Spanish Language course, in its most wooden archetype. The only small twist being that the conversation, once past the name and place banalities then swings into heavy surrealism.
This is also the night we’ll be giving solo readings to the audience. I decide to do something in between performance and reading, and something that embodies my gratefulness for the hospitality everyone has taken such pains to show me. I also wanted to echo the performance that caused Flavia and I to bound so quickly in Norwich a year before, when I hacksawed my book in a pub and handed it out to the audience to read. Here in Buenos Aires, down in the basement of El Tercer Lugar, following a grand bi-lingual performance by Patrick, about fish, I began by reading six poems from six books of mine I have brought with me. For each book I wrote a dedication and gave to a member of the audience who had been especially kind to me. To Patricio, Camilo, Julian, Anahi, Flavia, Leonce, each given the book after I read from it. Then, the final book, I asked the brilliant German Frers to play the piano, as I tore it up by hand and handed it to the audience, person by person. I then asked them to read with me, creating a collective cacophony. The response was wonderful and warm, they took it as I intended it. After the reading, listening to four more local poets, Flavia had us to dinner in her family’s restaurant. It was our last full night all together as a group.
Diary #5: February 9th 2016
I realise how little I’ve seen, never making it to Little Horse, or La Boca. But I am insistent I visit a few more things before we prepare for the final performance. The Cementerio de Recoleta, a baroque maze of epic and obnoxious tombs. Some are artworks in themselves. This, below, of Cristiani Crociati de Szasza, a lank rendition of how she must have appeared (to herself), with her dog, stopped me in my tracks. I walk out further past the Recoleta parks but the heat is getting to me and I turn back, seeking the famous El Ateneo bookshop. Domed with a massive mural, a bookshop that looks like a opera house.
At the venue we have a short panel on the project, Flavia and I, joined by Magdalena and Omara Barra, another vital ingredient to what we've done, along with the brilliant Patricio Zunini, then the collaborations begin. We start and end with group works, Chinese Whispers at first, that cracks Anahi up, and that Julian and Camilo, who are the literary authors, excel at, performing so naturally and gracefully. Then fifteen new works, as we sit and stand in a pre-arranged order, faces and styles and pairings changing every two, three, four minutes. It is one collective whole, a theatre show, a play as poetry. The audience seems entranced, the atmosphere intimate, the profound (hopefully) and the playful complimenting each other, side by side. We finish with a six part poem, a polyphonic poem, that features us reading down the line, voice by voice, until all of us read the sixth line of each poem.
A perfect way to end one of the most remarkable weeks. A lull, as we can stop for air for the first time. A sure sense of satisfaction, and an immediate enthusiasm to do it again. Lots of people in the audience are very kind, intent on telling me and the others face to face how pleasing they found it. The word necessary comes up a lot. It’s a very tight knit group, after just a few days and the goodbyes are touching. All has gone as well as it possibly could of, thanks to Flavia and all the team who came together to look after every detail, and the five other poets, who could not have given more of themselves.
Pictures by Sofia Bianco.