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Day Three: December 9th 2016
I have an event to begin the day, the festival now officially in full swing. It is part of the Hay Joven programme, where the festival presents its authors to local school children and universities. I am bussed to Universidad San Pablo, accompanied by the poet Javier Manuel Rivera, who quickly becomes a friend, as we laugh through our broken English / Spanish.
This event proves to be a magnificent experience, one of the very best workshop type events I’ve ever had the pleasure to partake. You are always somewhat blind to know what students will make of you, especially with my work being a little strange, but the enthusiasm and warmth I was greeted with will live long in the memory. The university staff, including Kevin Rodriguez Siu, who will be my host for a Q&A, can’t do more for me, and for 10am on a Friday morning, there are plenty of people in the audience, though the hall is immense. I begin reading a few poems, but the live translator keeps interrupting, telling me to speak slower so she can translate my poems as I speak them! I begin to just turn my conversation with her into the performance, checking with her before each poem and line. The ruse is landing, the students laughing. Then I decide it’s time to interact, to meet each person who has been so kind to attend one to one. I take my book and tear pages from it, walking into the seats to give each person a poem of mine. Then I ask them to switch places with me and step onto the stage. Sheepishly they do, clumping together. Soon there are 60 or 70 of them on the stage, and I am beneath them, in the audience. I ask them to read the torn poems in their hands. The Q&A that follows is so generous, we talk seriously and jokingly, it’s suddenly a close group. When the session ends, inexplicably the students queue to have their torn pages signed. First time for everything.
Back in the old city I have lunch with Nell, and meet Ryan Gattis, immediately struck by his intelligence and open character, he will become a friend over the next few days. Humble, dry, perceptive, he gently educates me on the history of Los Angeles, where he lives, though he studied in England for sometime, and it takes time to tease out the remarkable, brave work he has done with inner city gangs in the city. The kind of person you hope to meet, to speak and listen to, at such a gathering. We are fed beautifully, the cuisine of Peru, and of Arequipa specifically, more than living up to its repute. I then spend the rest of the afternoon preparing for my main event, the big performance commissioned by Hay Festival, a new live work celebrating and responding to one of my poetry heroes Cesar Vallejo. Suffice to say, as I discovered the entire world tradition of poetry at one time, not so many years ago, Vallejo’s achievement was a genuine influence on my development as a writer. His ability to write of community, of collective action and culture, of people, and of pain and injustice, of death and dying, in a way that is not representational or didactic, but immensely complex, inventive and equal to life and language’s own adversarial, confusing character is something I aspire to. Up there with Mayakovsky, Ekelof, Rozewicz, he is one of the greats for me, so to be able to celebrate him, to align myself with him, it is such a magical, if intimidating, prospect. I spend the afternoon collecting materials with Nancy and finalising my texts.
The performance takes place at the gorgeous Teatro Arequipa right in the old city square again, just adjacent to my hotel. I am pleasantly surprised at how many people file in, young and old. I spend time with my volunteers, strategically placing them in the audience. To begin I explain my process, as a false lead of sorts, writing through and with a translation of Vallejo’s Spain, let this cup pass from me I have had for some time which was a gift from a dear friend. I have spent weeks writing these poems in fact, for this moment, pages of them. So begins the performance, like a reading. I then pull a table to the centre of the stage and dissect this book, this precious article, with a scalpel. I then descend again to the audience, and see they are slightly perturbed by my movement toward them, giving out pages. I read further and lift my hand, the pre arranged signal for the volunteers to stand and begin reading themselves, planted, each with their new pages of Vallejo, so they, Peruvians, may read his original Spanish text to the audience, in the audience. I lift my hand. Nothing happens. I do so again. Nothing. The audience claps. I’m a bit excruciated, it looks like I’ve signalled them to clap, like a Caesar. I literally say please stop clapping. Finally one of the volunteers just stands up and reads. The effect has been somewhat diminished! But it is funny, an accidentally brilliant set piece of a very British kind of comedy. On they go, each reading their pages. Such is the task of a last minute collaboration across languages and nations! I follow this with more poetry before, to finish, I build a collage of the book’s pages on a canvas, live, with glue and ink. Then they come to join, helping, collectively, patching together a new artwork made of Vallejo. It’s a joyous experience, not perfect, but never designed to be, and all those kind enough to help me, not one older than 21, seem high and happy. I've made friends, and we donate the artwork, priceless as it is, to our Hay hosts.