A Bangladesh diary: Part One - in Chittagong with the British Council

For the full diary of the trip please visit www.stevenjfowler.com/bangladesh

November 15th

Bookended by two of the longest days of travel in my entire life, this was an amazing week, so full of intense experience and deeply resonant meetings with people in both Dhaka and Chittagong. I spent over twenty hours travelling, trying to sleep, drooling when I did, before arriving in Dhaka. This included 6 hours in Doha, the Qatari airport that resembles some futuristic vision of purgatory but has excellent wifi, so swings and roundabouts. Immediately off the plane, the light quality, the warmth of the air, the body language of the people so markedly new and energising, I was met by Mr.Hakim, a fixer for the Dhaka fest, and the academic and writer Nayanika Mookherjee, who was in Bangladesh for maybe the 20th time, and so just followed them, dumb. Mr.Hakim just washed past security, gently parting seas of people and leading us down a VIP exit, adorned with plastic reliefs of what looked like mythological Bangladeshi scenes. He washed over the visa office queue too, somehow erasing lines of people, leading me by the tricep to get things sorted quickly. I was then introduced to my British Council contact, Abrar Hossain, and Mr.Hakim and Nayanika disappeared.

Abrar set the tone for my entire time in Bangladesh. He was faultlessly hospitable, kind, energetic and had a brilliantly dry sense of humour. He couldn’t have done more for me, and feeling a second wind of slightly muddy enthusiasm I was able to pepper him with questions about Bangladesh and his extraordinary life throughout the day, as we sailed through the airport for my third flight in a row, this time across the country, to Chittagong. I was told the drive would take eight hours, the flight thirty minutes. Naturally the plane was a flimsy thing, but there were apparently famous (sleazy looking) cricketers and Chinese businessman on board too, so I felt somehow reassured (?) Abrar told me all about his life, being educated away from his family, working in business, there being no such thing as an arts professional in Bangladesh and his unbridled joy at working for the British Council. He wouldn’t go five minutes without asking me if I was okay, insisting I must be tired. He was right, but I tried to force that down. A huge part of his job, and all of the British Council staffers dealing with me, was security. I had to have their company and most often a specially assigned security guard during the trip because of the terror attack in Bangladesh that had happened in July of this year. It had stunned the country, and been so brutal, and targeted westerners, that it did mean that unless I wanted recuse myself of council support, I had to stay in the hotel at all times when not doing the activities they had lined up. Abrar made it so that I didn’t mind too much, and we chatted all the way to the hotel, the van slowly ebbing through stacked traffic, famous Bangladeshi congestion, with no lanes and near death at every junction. I took in what I could, literally removed from the people on the packed streets as we veered away from the Bay of Bengal and tropical trees lining the water into the dense urban space. It feels cloy to write about it with emotion but some of the physical suffering that was evident, even from the absurd remove of a van with a guard and a minder and a driver, was difficult to witness without holding my face in my hands. I was quietly feeling sorry for myself, travelling so long, being reminded through travel how fragile, how vulnerable one can feel, half way around the world from those I love, and then I saw people in genuine, permanent physical hardship and I felt emptied out. Abrar kept lifting me with his insistent goodness. I arrived at the hotel, five stars and again beyond what I could expect, said my hellos, my face cracking, and slept for as long as I possibly could.

November 16th

To work, or some vague version of that where I get to do something I would’ve paid to do. I was being taken now by Nahin Idris at the British Council who was Abrar’s equal in being faultlessly generous, assured and with a grand sense of humour. I was being escorted to the International Islamic University of Chittagong to give a talk to students there, on an all male campus, just outside of the city, and then a seminar with lecturers at the Uni. I was a little intimidated, but really keen to do this of course. On our way I had the intense sensation that this was the kind of experience that I simply could not have fashioned myself had I wanted to, and for that fact, was remarkable and to be appreciated. I was told upon arrival, students staring at me, pleasantly, and surrounded by armed campus security, that there would be 250 students. By the time of the talk, in an enormous theatre, it was more like 500, I was told. I have no idea how many young Bangladeshi students were in the room by the end.

I was introduced generously by Nahin, by the associated chancellor of the University and then by a short recitation from the Quran. Then a microphone was in my hand and I had an hour. A banner was hung behind me, filling the stage, entitled Adventures in Modern Poetry. I spoke freely, knowing notes would be the death of rapport, and told the audience how I ended up in poetry, randomly, later in life, after a car crash and the demise of my martial arts career, and then, without theory, leaving behind the normal stuff I blather about which positions my poetry as an act of refraction and reflection rather than a theological origination (which dominates most poetry), I talked about sound poetry, asemic writing, Oulipo and constraint. I just talked about method. And I took the mick out of myself. And I talked about the Bengali poets friends in London had given me years ago, Rabindranath Tagore of course, but Kazi Nazrul Islam too, whom I’d been reading a little for awhile. And I talked about the Bangla language’s modern moment, movement and poets, and the gorgeous script of the language itself. I honestly thought they were bored, but once we opened up for questions it appeared the opposite. I was met with some amazing, progressive, funny exchanges, everything from why people don’t like poetry anymore to whether I support Donald Trump. Suffice to say my answers endeared myself to them even more. When Nahin then, perhaps naively, said to wrap up how about we join Steven on stage for a picture, the rush caused a small security scare. I was leg bumped, jostled and crowded like Rod Stewart or Burt Reynolds. I must have taken 50 selfies before the crowd was yelled back and lined up for the group photo you can see below. They crowd, so full of warm enthusiasm followed me all the way to the chancellor’s office, being pushed back constantly by security. A new experience for me, rare does that happen on the streets of London for a poet.

After a lunch with Uni bigwigs I then had the equally unenviable task of leading a seminar with lecturers and professors at the institution. We were in a green room, like an empty swimming pool and when I asked them what they taught, they said a range of things, some professors of sharia law, some lecturing in physics. Once again it felt prudent to shift the onus a little and we just ended up having a brilliant, funny, lively chat for a few hours. We talked poetry and a few of my thoughts but I also got them to educate me in the Bangladeshi tradition of recitation, of poetry competitions, of poetry and song in the Bangla style and about their own disciplines. They were so generous, it was joyous and eminently friendly, casual even, and I’ve stayed in touch with many of them via email. Even they lined up for selfies, with the head of the law department having particular good selfie technique.

On the way back Nahin, in his beautifully understated way, said he thought we had made a real difference. The positive reception, the warmth, its level and depth, had even surprised him. I felt slightly giddy, having met so many people so quickly, having spoken so much, but I felt like it was a day I’d not soon forget. And what an extraordinary job the British Council has done here in Bangladesh, Nahin, Abrar, and Kendall Robbins, who had in fact been integral in convincing me to go to Chittagong at all and who corresponded with me eloquently before my journey about life in Bangladesh, Daisy Leitch, who helped suggest me for the actual act of going to the university - all of them and their colleagues, often unsung heroes of building, behind the scenes, genuine transformation in people’s opinions and even lives. Opening people to possibility. This is the work that doesn’t get press, because it’s benign in its decency and constancy. Nahin told me even later that some from the University had contacted him after we had left to say my buffoonery had changed their entire opinion of British people. While I’m sure that was overstated, the work the BC did in introducing me to that place, those wonderful people, by allowing me access, by sharing with me their subtle expertise and thorough enthusiasm, well we did something valuable, in real space, with real people. I owe them all a debt of gratitude at the British Council in Bangladesh, and not the first time people from the BC have helped me in this way it must be said.

A note on: a Georgian travelogue & the 2nd Tbilisi Literature Festival

Visit www.stevenjfowler.com/georgia for all images & videos, and www.theenemiesproject.com/georgia for more details on that project

An extraordinary week in Georgia - I had the chance to read at the second international literature festival in Tbilisi alongside some brilliant poets from around the world, organise an Enemies project in Georgia, collaborating with Georgian poets, explore the city of Tbilisi, visit the Caucasian countryside, enjoy the remarkable hospitality of the Writer’s House and the Georgian people in general. An unforgettable trip, an immense privilege. Gratitude to the International Literature Showcase Fund, the British Council and the Georgian Writer’s House for their support. http://writershouse.ge/eng/new/573


Day One – May 16th

A trip I have long looked forward to, ever since meeting the Georgian playwright and organiser Davit Gabunia at the International Literature Showcase in early 2015 in the UK, and we began plotting. To Georgia, for the sake of poetry, absurd from the off - somewhere I’ve always wanted to visit, having avidly read about the place, following history, from early christianity, to the mongols, to timur, to the soviet occupation, to the present, looking west while further east than most British people travel. I had the pleasure too to travel with fellow poets Eley Williams and Luke Kennard, both friends, and as apt a representation of the Enemies project unofficial dictum for those who participate as there could be – good people / good poets, the sweet middle of that Venn diagram for those I love to write and travel alongside.

We travelled into Tbilisi via Istanbul and were met by Sandro Jandrieri, as dry as a desert, as hospitable as can be. We had a hilarious potted history of Tbilisi, and at midnight, the city feeling very much alive, the equivalent energy of early evening in London – friendly, familiar – Sandro took us for food and drink, skirting the tourist places in the old town, where we were staying.

Day Two – May 17th

A strange insomnia is affecting most of the writers visiting, we’re in the same hotel. Maybe it is the hotel itself, or the travel. We meet up, meet the others invited to the festival, some friends, some new friends – DBC Pierre, Yuri Andrukovych, Tadeusz Dabrowski, Sergio Badillo Castillo, and have a chance to explore Freedom Sq before we’re on our first bus trip, led by unfailingly bright and brilliant student volunteers. They take us to a few of the dozens of near ancient churches, a waterfall in the middle of the city then up in the famous funicular where we have our first experience of being stuffed by Georgian food. The view is extraordinary, over the whole city – it is strikingly beautiful, the golden domed cathedral, the hills ringing the city, the iron woman looking down upon the terraces, the cable cars, the modernist architecture recently shocked into place alongside crumbling flats. It’s a powerfully romantic vision, Tbilisi. Eley and I, and the Swedish poet Kristian Carlsson clamber into an art installation on the hill – a massive steel storage container, with a tiny hole, so when you are closed inside, in the dark, a camera obscura shows the city vista within. They lock us in the darkness and we wait. The image never arrives but the utter darkness makes the light of the city all the more palpable when we emerge, sweating.

Our first meeting as a group too, for the Enemies project I’ll be curating. We meet the Georgian poets and Davit, co-curating, is there too as we exchange ideas. My assumption had been that with the Georgian tradition only 25 years out of Soviet rule, that the mode of poetry would be classical, and so maintain the trace of the cult of personality which has dominated poetry for so long, with such ill effect, and so collaboration would feel unnatural to our new friends. Not so, Davit has chosen some radical writers, Lia Liqokeli, Zaza Koshkadze … All of them are making a new tradition for Georgia, looking west, but not being western, like the city itself, daring, idiosyncratic but ever hospitable to collaboration or conversation. We eat with new friends at the Writer’s House, which is the host of the festival and us for our whole time. We have nothing like this in the UK – a locus for writers, epic like a country home in the heart of the city, with amazing food (a theme) and many rooms for the readings and conversations which are scheduled every night for the next week.

Day Three – May 18th

Our ‘work’ day, we have to write and present 11 new works for the Enemies project performance the next night, two as a group and 9 as pairs, short bursts of poetry and performance. This means frantic emails between the six of us participating, ideas shifting, performances forming. We have time to walk further, our own time to explore. People are so friendly, everything is so easy and safe to navigate. It is impossible to imagine we are beyond Turkey. It feels so European. I find, by pure accident, following a giant painting of a Kiwi on a bicycle, Georgia’s only vegan restaurant, and am greeted in English, then fed with the refusal of my money (another theme – this even happened to me in a tourist shop, I was given a postcard), then taken to see the patrons (quite excellent) artwork. We end up talking for over an hour and I meet his family. Hard to not feel embarrassed by how warm everyone is. People hold their stares at me, being tall (er) and pale, but they finish this with a smile, even on the highstreet. I take the chance to have a run, not wanting to bloat out from all the Khachapuri and Khpali I’m shovelling. I have the hill with the funicular in my mind, steep as it is, I want to try it. I run some, walk some and crawl the last. I see the city in blue, my burning thighs and oxygen depleted brain showing Tbilisi in new light again.

Day Four – May 19th

The day of our performance. We need our further time to write, I have another hill run and seek out some exquisite coffee places. Eley, Luke and I have lunch together, they are beautiful company – erudite, kind, engaging. I have known them both for a number of years now, but such is the nature of readings, you often don’t get to cross paths without ‘business’ and for no longer than an hour or two. We are becoming friends, I am richer for that.

We head over to the Writer’s House early to begin rehearsing. Usually, at this stage, in the other 20 or so international Enemies project’s I’ve curated, most of the writing is done and we do a cue to cue, line up the reading order to be complimentary, get the works printed out in order and then practise things out, tweek words and gestures – I’m always emphasising context, to control one’s body and voice, to understand space. I stress this a lot. Tbilisi though, and it’s poets, are enviably laid back, and though Lia is there early and Davit too, there are some delays which make the process quite rushed and a bit hampered. We persevere, make adaptations and bring everything together. 

The performances themselves are really fun. There’s a good audience, a palpable enthusiasm from poets and watchers alike, and a playful spirit. I always seek a balance between intense, quality poetry collaboration between more conceptual, performative works. The balance here is tipped to the latter, and with humour perhaps overriding, as perhaps the nature of the collaborative mode doesn’t quite land for the Georgians, and they have a touch that ends up too light. But this is the energy of the night and we go with that. Some really great moments emerge. Luke and Eley are brilliant and we share some special exchanges, it all feels a great beginning, a fine showcase. All the videos are herewww.theenemiesproject.com/georgia

Day Five – May 20th

We get snatches of the city in the mornings, walking down the river, and I veer out into the suburbs. The city is undoubtedly growing, older buildings propped up with girders, some rotting away, but being developed. What a time to visit – everything is here, everyone wants to talk, yet it is indelibly unique, I’ve never been to a place like it – it feels powerfully authentic. We have a huge late afternoon meal at a restaurant none of us could ever have found without the brilliant people behind the festival – Natasha Lomouri guides the festival beautifully, Nana Jandrieri. the matriarch of our daily lives and Davit, always spinning 20 plates. There are rounds of Georgian toasts, more writers join us, Edgar Karet, Dato Turashvili, Susan Shillinglaw. We eat until we’re immobile. 

Back at the Writer’s House for the evening, every poet attending the festival will read one poem, everyone has had one poem translated into Georgian. The audience is large, but with the reading outside many are eating their dinner, still talking. I like this background noise, this diffused attention. I declare my allegiance to walnuts and drop to my knees as Davit reads my poem about a ‘newly deaf dolphin.’ I like to send this work to translators, proves a challenge, makes a new work in the new language. Great too to see Yasuhiro Yotsumoto, Sergio Badilla Castillo, Tadeusz Dabrowski, Kristian Carlsson, Yurii Andrukoych and others read. Eley, Luke and I have our farewell dinner, again in the Writer’s House. We talk intensely, as we have all week, hard to believe how quickly it has passed, but as always with these strange, bracketed, intense travelling weeks at festivals – the bonds are made strong.

Day Six – May 21st

With many poets departed, I have booked a few more nights in Tbilisi, staying on. This day I get to join an excursion out of Tbilisi and out into eastern Georgia, to Karkheti, through hills, to the brink of mountains, looking south and north as we go. It’s a bus of us, with Nana and more amazing volunteers. I am seated next to an irrepressible and charming woman called Salome, just 19, speaking perfect English, amongst many languages, and she talks to me all day. She is full of life, so enthusiastic and humble. So wonderful to meet Georgians of this generation. We visit a new Chateau made to look old, an ancient church, then the most ancient church. It is interesting, but not deeply absorbing for me, I’m more taken with the general history, the people on the bus and the stray dogs in the countryside, melancholy, friendly creatures, and the views, which are stunning. I’ve always wanted to visit the Caucasus, from reading Hadji Murat on, from wrestling with Caucasians in London. It is everything I hoped. The women on the bus burst into song, three generations. They have beautiful voices and all know the same songs, and frequently halt into laughter between numbers.

We visit Tsinandali, where Alexander Chavchavadze lived, a famous Georgian aristocratic poet, and Lermontov visited, amongst others, and walk the grounds. Free wine tasting leaves me and driver the only sober ones. The songs go up in volume. I am only a little scared. Then onto another huge dinner. They always accommodate my not drinking alcohol and my being vegan, with curiosity. The food is amazing. The 19 year old women and the 60 year old women all smoke around the table, in the restaurant. More toasts. The drive back to Tbilisi is sleepy but doesn’t make a dent in Salome’s energy. She is practising her English with great verve. It’s dark when we rejoin the city.

Day Seven – May 22nd

My last day in Tbilisi. I’ve acclimatised, have my favourite spots and can finally sleep a bit. I know what I want to do, the only day I’ve been alone, and that’s to walk for hours on end. I head down to the famous art market, beneath a bridge, next to the river and spend all morning talking to young artists, who exhibit each Sunday, and antique sellers. I walk up to join Rustiveli street and walk its length for over an hour. Thousands of faces pass by, a mass of human movement, catching eyes with many, music in my ears. I walk to the zoo, made infamous last year as animals escaped after a flood, most famously, the hippo. I formed this story into my collaboration with Luke a few days before, much to students delight. The zoo is half empty of animals, but those there have space and it seems for children more than adults, as it should be. Again people talk to me randomly, freely, with a real kindness. I come closer to a rhino than I should be allowed to me, and pet its horn. Beautiful to be alone here.

I walk back into the city, trying to get partially lost. I discover a disused water park and then climb back to Rustiveli street before visiting the Modern Art Museum, with a retrospective of Tsereveli. I cross Freedom Sq and begin to climb the hills east of the city, wanting to be high above, at the feet of the giant statue of an iron woman. wine and a sword in her hands. I sweat to reach her but the views are stunning. I sit and watch the city for a long time. 

My last hours in Tbilisi are spent over dinner with the Swedish poet Kristian Carlsson. A Swedish project looms. He tells me about his publishing house, his work with refugee writers in Malmo as we try and decipher some abstract translations on the menu. The last page of the menu is for cigarettes. Both of us are marked by the city, by Georgia itself, by its people. Kristian orders a ‘sweet barbecue’ and gets roasted sunflower seeds and eats them while smoking. We say farewell and I have to jog back to the apartment I’ve rented in a torrential downpour. In between sprints I hide in doorways, and under bus stops, and under the lip of a soviet era train station. In more than half, someone asks me where I’m from and says how much they love London when I answer. Me too, but Tbilisi is something London will never be.


A note on: The Iskele Poetry Festival

An amazing week in Northern Cyprus visiting for the Iskele Poetry Festival with a great group of poets from all over the world. I've created a page with a detailed travelogue, with reading videos and many pictures www.stevenjfowler.com/iskele

"From the moment the festival organisers optimistically interpreted my middle initial J as standing for Joy, and popped that on the event poster that was dotted around the island, I knew this was going to be a memorable festival. As if often the case, the generosity of my hosts in Cyprus made this beautiful few days the beginning of many relationships and the catalyst for unique experiences. Thanks to Emel Kaya, Ruhsan İskifoğlu, Nurduran Duman and all who made it happen."

A note on: The Enemies project: Croatia - Zagreb, Grožnjan & the Wood Poets

The purpose of the Enemies project is to not only create the collaborations and the readings which accompany them across countries and generations and so on, but to also always acknowledge the context of how these things actually happen. That is they are created by people, and they really only work when generously founded. And this generosity tends to come from, or lead to, friendships. This is why I continue to do the Enemies project at such a pace, because, fundamentally, it is a way for me to know people from around the world, far beyond my own country, and for those people to become friends. This project in Croatia was so resonant because it was so personable, the character of the travel and the readings resembled the character of those Croatian poets who are so generous and open and enthusiastic – Tomica Bajsic, Damir Sodan and Maja Klaric. The Enemies project Croatia began, in friendship, in 2012, and since we have exchanged events and ideas, culminating in readings in London in July 2014, followed by this mini-tour of Croatia in August 2014. I was joined by Sandeep Parmar and James Byrne in Croatia, greater friends for it, and together, we were completely indebted to the Croats for an extraordinary week in Zagreb and Istria..

Day One: An eye bleed flight into Zagreb to discover a heatwave in the normally hot Croatian August, passing 35 degrees. Some time to explore the city again. A brutal run in the heat to Maksimovic park. Damir arrived and we all met together for the first time, James, Sandeep, Tomica, Damir and I, and we visited a gallery in Zagreb, run by an artist collective, in order to begin a discussion about collaborating with three young Croatian artists towards the publication of an innovative book that might lie somewhere between abstract art and poetry. Certainly a way for the collaborations between this brilliant generation of Croatian poets and those of us based in the UK to continue on in years to come. An evening in Zagreb, as ever, warm spirited and funny, the hospitality of Tomica, his family, Damir and the Croatian poets that keeps me coming back to this city.

Day Two: A massive bus ride, Zagreb to Rijeka on the coast with a quick stop over, and then on windier roads to Buje. 36 degrees outside. The time flew by when we were all in conversation. Then a minibus to Groznjan itself. An incredible place, mesmerising. High atop the seemingly endless forests of Istria. A walled town, tiny really, but a 1000 years old, and recently famous for its music, classical piano and drums can be heard from upstairs windows as you walk the cobbled sloping streets, yet it's quiet even in August, in the peak tourist month, as its hard to find, or reach, it seems. We have a few hours to relax and then again we are travelling, to the excuse we have to come here, to the Wood Poets reading, organised by Maja Klaric and her partner, the Forest Festival of Groznjan. We park up and follow candles through a small wood into a clearing where perhaps a hundred people congregate around a bonfire, with small torches littered around the landscape. It is lovingly put together, and immediately friendly. We meet poets from Hungary and Italy, and lots of local writers. There is music from Italy, percussion on something that looks like a barbecue. Readings follow that. I read some poems from my book {Enthusiasm}, maybe a bit harsh for the hippy vibe, but people are nice about them. James, Sandeep, Damir, Tomica read beautifully, the bonfire gets primed after each reading so it shoots up a flame when you’re done. After an hour goes by and no one else will read in English I retreat to the edge of the gathering, lie down in a field and listen to Italian and Croatian voices way past midnight, seeing the stars clearly in the sky for the first time in a year at least. The music follows, we don’t get back to Groznjan until 2am or so.


Day Three: Morning in Groznjan, people are remarkably friendly, I go into a restaurant below where Im staying and they give me free coffee and food just because we talked while I ate, waving me away. There’s a reading in the centre of the town, all of the performers from the Wood poets the night before coming to join us underneath the Fonticus Gallery. There’s more music, some slightly strange audience participation, which I escape, and then a chance to read again and listen further. Great to hear Marco Fazzini read, he seems to have had and extraordinary life in writing. At the start of the poetry Tomica, Damir, Maja, James, Sandeep and I read our six way poem. Each of us provided a single line, then added a line to each other’s, making six poems written by six poets. Each of us then read one single six line poem. 

Dinner on the town, long afternoon conversation with James, Sandeep, Marco and the vast table of local poets and friends. Late afternoon I disappear into the hills outside the town for a few hours, first walking and exploring, then with a route, a chance to do some hill running. It’s not so hot so not so arduous as in Zagreb, but the chance to have the heightened experience of exercising surrounded by the immense panorama of these hills, olive trees lining them, a view unto the horizon, is exhilarating. We spend a long evening with pizza talking, to each other and the poets we've been lucky enough to meet in Istria. We return the next day, a bus ride down out of the hills, back to Zagreb and then London. An amazing, all too brief window into a truly beautiful place all excused by the chance of us all happening to write poetry, and more decisively, being open and enthusiastic to the friendships that can arise in that shared practise.

More on www.stevenjfowler.com/croatia

Mexico : diario de la poesía #1 - Hay Xalapa begins

I know I have to start writing about the first day in Mexico after the first day, or it will all pass me by. Such is the pace, it feels I've been here many days, not one. And at the end of the first event I did, a man asked me about this blog, said he read it, it was inspiring, or something like that, and so I now I realise people read it, so I have to keep doing it.
I flew to Mexico City from London watching shite action films I'd been saving, 4 and a half of them. I met Nell Leyshon, also here with the British Council for both Hay Xalapa and Cervantino, and we immediately hit it off. An extraordinary woman from the first, funny as hell, kind, humble, passionate and genuinely interesting. Boded well. We were plopped in the airport Ramada in Mexico city, and talked later into the night over Chalapas, despite being knacked.

The next morning we were bussed down from Mexico city to Xalapa, with other translators and authors including the brilliant Tom Bunstead, covering the beautiful, open plains and mountains of the country. We immediately felt the full force of organisational fury from Hay. It is so amazingly organised, with an ocean of volunteers and organisers, who absolutely ensure you are where you need to be and when. I've never experienced such size in a festival. I had time to use the swanky hotel gym and go to the biggest supermarket I've ever visited, which had an in house bakery and a pork scratchings aisle, before I had to depart for my first event.

Nell and I were not allowed to make our own way, so a poor Spanish speaking student Itzel had to ferry and walk us through the town. We tried to gently escape, the narrow, colourful colonial architecture of Xalapa, its frequent arts centres, live public music and friendly laid back vibe taking us off the rush route to prep me for the event. 

This was the launch of the Enemies anthology, after a few years work, and the book really delivered. Just a beautiful book, so proud of it really. I was on a panel with Rocio Ceron, a force of nature, and Pura Lopez Colome, just an incredible generous and vital person and writer. I spoke in English and the others in Spanish, so I had a nodge in my ear that connected to a live translator. It led to some funny moments that only I could hear as the translator flapped to keep up. Our discussion was really rich, I tried to be funny, failing just enough that I ended up feeling really humbled by the concentrated questions from a large and attentive audience, and some overly kind words at the signing of the anthology afterwards. Pura and Rocio did amazing jobs, and the Hay people really delivered a large audience, many of whom were students and were taking notes, which made me laugh. And the last question was about this blog.

Nell and I nipped back to the hotel to try and grab free swankfood before heading back out for an opening thing, like a wine thing, which will never be my type of evening. I saw Rocio, a few nice people, had a chat, scarpered quick with the Mexican dead pan lead singer of the ropey band started covering George Harrison, and we killed the night talking about journalist murders in this state of Veracruz with other friends and eating Mole chicken.

Reel Iraq: Kurdistan diary #6

More eye bleed, happy not to sleep in order to do everything I can do, knowing how precious this time in Erbil is, and that while in it, things are so hectic that I won't be able to appreciate it until I'm gone. I finally got a chance to visit the city proper, though the bazaar and up into the citadel. Whereas the bazaar was alive, defined by its use, and the friendly, approachable people who populate it, the citadel, this incredible centrepoint to an 8000 year old city, a place assailed by Hulegu Khan, Timur, Alexander, is in the last ten years, finally defeated, stripped bare, renovated out of its appeal. In an amazing move, and it would seem against Unesco's wishes, the local government has decided to relocate the active, thriving community of people who lived within the walls of the citadel, in their own city within a city, and place them in a community elsewhere (called Citadel!) so that the ancient walls can be a pure tourist attraction. Walls are plastered, knocked down, rebuilt, the roads are dusty and empty, most paths are barred. So innately counterproductive to be breathtaking.

We managed to find the one ray of the light in an otherwise depressing excursion, the textile museum in the citadel. Really a beautiful, careful and honest enterprise, Hoshang met the curator, and discussed the programs they have to support the traditional methods of textile production and support the education of the Kurdish women who are preserving this dying art. Yasmin and I shot a video of me reading in the museum, my poem about Alexander and Diogenes. And I bought some beautiful crafts, all the money going back into the museum that is hanging on like a bastion of authenticity, at the heart of a project that has lost sight of itself/

Another brutal, drenched training session in the carpeted basement gym of the chawarchra, weird scaling the stairs back to my room dripping while all the glad handed, white suits shake and loiter. In the post gym fog, I worked further on my translation of Ahmad Abdel Hussein, and his wonderful declarative poem against the Qu'ran and the destructive legacy of Islam in modern Iraq. I had then the chance to read my workings on Ryan Van Winkle's podcast, where Ahmad and I discussed our exchanges and his courageous journalism. The more I know Ahmad, the more humble, gentle and considered he seems.
We were then invited out to a glitzy restaurant on the British Council, and took minibusses, like a proper tourist party, heaving me with flashbacks to childhood coach holidays. A nice evening talking outside, distracted by a giant screen showing football, but really picking Yasmin Fedda's brain about her documentary work and her thoughts on the medium. Dina Mousawi joined us a little later, having met friends of hers who have just relocated from Baghdad to Erbil. By their account, the difference is incalcuable. In Baghdad, a man and a woman cannot walk down the street together without being married and covered, and the army shakes down houses to rob them while pretending to search. This is not even taking into account the sense of lawlessness, and hopelessness, you get from anyone who lives and or has recently lived in that city. Horrible to hear, and yet, where I was once 'careful' about visiting Erbil, now I feel an urge to visit Baghdad, a very powerful one. This foolishness was dampened further when speaking to the British Council staff who live in Baghdad, and reside only in the International Zone, the old green zone, and see that tiny crop of guarded land alone, unless they are in a convoy of bullet proof suvs.

Night book making dominated the increasingly tested Reel team, they had to prepare a pamphlet of the translations between the pairs that were being read in the big event the following day, and it kept them up (perhaps fueled by Arak?) late into the night, formatting, sorting, printing. Impressive dedication while I swanned about, offering to help, and chatting to the BC pros and some weird poets in the bar before sack hitting far too late again.

Reel Iraq: Kurdistan diary #5

Niniti International Literature Festival begins! From now on referred to as NILF (by me, perhaps only by me). Nilf is a collaboration between the British Council and Artrole. No joke. Art-role. Up, feeling like a giant sack of dying cats, early, for the press conference. Very spaced out today, no sleep. Lots of Turk coffee. Worth it to see the raconteur stylings of Ted Hodgkinson, and a ten year old Iraqi girl reading Choman Hardi in homage while Ted became a human mic stand, and then Ryan Van Winkle introduced as Dan Gorman, gave a lovely opening speech about the Reel project and its place in the wider literature festival. I then went to do some filming with Yasmin Fedda, a brilliant documentary filmmaker and generous companion on this trip. She couldn't be more generous with her time, and I've learned a lot about the middle east from just talking to her. The rare mix of humility, intelligence and talent that seems to make up the majority of those involved in the Reel Iraq week. I suppose an exceptional project will be peopled by exceptional people. Here is her beautiful doc Breadmakers, http://vimeo.com/m/21718544 & another about a boxer & a squatter in Rome https://vimeo.com/63646958; look for more of her work off the back of this festival, and a work on Syria imminent. Yas and I shot a small interview and some footage of me reading in the creepy subterranean gym in the hotel Chrwa Charw (?) which is low on equipment and high on mirrors. It looks like the final scene of Enter Dragon. It means my fat face will be refracted into eternity.

We then had a group meeting to prepare for our big reading at the fest, where I will be reading with Zhawen Shally. We talked over our performance, reading each others translations. Such a privilege to read with Zhawen, who is really wonderfully talented and kind, and who is the only Kurdish writer in our group. Hoshang Waziri really helped us again, not only translating but convincing Zhawen that my often radical translations were the right thing for her work in English. I found out Zhawen has seven siblings and Hoshang ten! Four of Zhawen's kin live in London in fact. Clearly the fertility stone is working.
no reason for this, I just liked it, found it in the hotel somewhere

I trained in the carpeted basement doom gym, grunting next to the weird massage parlour that also fills out the hotel basement in the chraw chaw, before attending the big opening reading event. It was a colourful affair, a real wild mix of stuff. Local writers, Iraqi's travelled in from Baghdad and the like, British Council writers and a few of the Reel Iraqers. I was prepared for the 'allah' wails of pleasure from the audience, but it wasn't really like that in the end. No need to open it up really, but I think with my events and art performances, I'm known for a pursuit of friendliness, authenticity and anti-pretension, whatever that means, in the face of stereotyped 'literary' poetry brouha, and I was prepared here for some crimping, lip biting and selfharm. It wasn't that bad, more wild west than ferrero roche, more a smorgasbord of real variation of style, delivery and quality. Nia, Kei, Zhawen and the ten year old girl were amazing. There were at least 20 readers. And someone came dressed as aquaman and wept uncontrollably as they read, which I thought was pretty hot avant garde. A good marathon sesh to set us off.

After that we got a bit creeped out by a super strange man in a maroon tuxedo who was touring the hotel, who was touching me a lot but professing his love for the ladies. It was worse than that but I won't blog it. It was as awkward as a really really long awkward silence, and I enjoyed that immensely. To escape we all met up to take a taxi to the christian area of the city for a big mesgouf fish barbecue. After a very long cab drive we were dropped off near the American embassy, strangely underwhelming and hidden and walked to find an open plan garden restaurant that seemed more a park than a restaurant. I had an interesting conversation with one of Dan's friends from SOAS, a Dane called Henrik, who worked for a charity in Kurdistan that provides psychological care for torture victims. He educated me on contemporary Kurdish politics and the work he's involved in, and once we started talking poetry (by his request) it turned out he knew and loved the work of Morten Sondergaard! Spending such lovely time with Morten in Copenhagen a few weeks back made the world feel small while making time seem slow. That feels a long time ago, reading in the literature house in copenhagen, as I write from Iraq. We sat for hours, til midnight, on a very mild evening, talking, eating coaly flayed fish and generally being merry. 

Reel Iraq: Kurdistan diary #4

The days are piling up so beautifully, everything has taken on its own rhythm, due to Dan, Ryan, Hoshang & co. I spent the morning in the very last translation session, this time working with Ahmad Abdel Hussein. What can I say about him? He is perhaps so remarkable to be a literary stereotype, in that you might imagine, in your most optimistic thoughts, that poets like him roam the places where they are needed, writing poetry that actually changes the way people think, that actually allows their secular and democratic predilections to not be alien and individuated and lost. He is a beacon of sorts. His work is outwardly critical of Islam, and all monotheistic religion. It dense and profound and full of remarkable paradox and metaphysics. The poem I had the chance to work on, live translated with Ahmed and the brilliant Lauren Pyott begins with the sarcastic invocation of allah, and goes on to pillory the hypocrisy of 'peaceful' religion and the empty promises of monotheism. My own work for this project, the Arbil Suite, maintains a similar innate criticism of what I deem the fundamental meta-fascism of a monotheistic god and it's shifts throughout the history of Kurdistan. Ahmad has twice had to flee Iraq for his safety, both for his outwardly secular poetry and for his investigative journalism, which at one point was heavily focused on uncovering a series of bank robberies in Iraq perpetrated by a religious political party that used that money as bribes during an election. Here are two links to more information about Ahmed's actions, one of them being his death warrant, written and published by a religious group. http://burathanews.com/news/72386.html / http://mail.almothaqaf.com/index.php/reports/4128.html What can one say in the face of such dignity and bravery? It was a true privilege, the admiration I hold for his courage and conviction, and for his unassuming manner possessed as he is with the kind of poetic talent that makes him exceptional, even amongst a generation that has more to write about than it should
Ahmad, Lauren & I
I squeezed one more gym session out of the Stars in Shaqlawa, truly a sweat drenched griefhole after my week of pain in there, before we bundled into a minibus and headed out into the land of the Kurds. Such beautiful countryside, we passed through a series of smaller towns, including Harir, a station on the silk route. I have a bit of a fear when it comes to wild driving, having been in a wreck in my younger years, and this journey, which took place during an epic lightning and rain storm, in a rackety bus filled with 16 bodies, with no seatbelts, on mountain roads, in traffic jams and s-bends leaden with massive dilapidated oil trucks, while immensely loud Choubi music blared from the stereo, to which most of the bus danced and waved tissues, while Hoshang had full conversations with the Kurdish driver, forever turning his head, made me most afeared. The music was good though, I am being won around to the driving beats and epileptic shoulder shrugging of the local musical cuisine. For example, I share with you some OF THE VERY FINEST POMEGRANATES 
We arrived at our destination, a waterfall, surrounded by plastic animal dioramas, in stead of full taxidermy, and proceeded to marvel at Dan and Ryan who floated on a dinghy around the pool beneath the waterfall until it became strange and mesmerising, see below. There was a sharpened cleaver next to the water and the man who controlled the dinghys often picked it up. Again I had some lovely picture requests from friendly, shiny dudes, like I was the new Aziz Waisy. Back on the road, Hoshang showed us the remnants of the road the British cut into the mountain rock, which was once the only way through to Iran, and looked like a perch of doom above the river, before we turned back another 3 hours drive to Erbil. The camaraderie in the van was a beautiful thing, these people, as often happens when one finds oneself held in a kind of benevolent camp environment, have become friends, not something I'd easily say, and taking pictures of Ryan and Dina sleeping, or discussing the title of Hoshang's first autobiography are the small things that will stay in the memory.
Slightly dishevelled we arrived in Erbil, and the hotel Chwar Chra, or something like that, and the Niniti literature festival. Right off the bat I got to meet some of the other writers, the festival being a bridge point between British and Iraqi poets on the whole, and in Kurdistan of course, some amazing Kurdish poets, including Choman Hardi, whom Ive wanted to meet properly for sometime. We had a quick fluff and preen before heading down to the welcome dinner where we were roundly welcomed. It feels like there is real affection and appreciation for the Reel project, for its care of concept and execution, and it also feels like we are the cool kids in the room, at the end of the diner. After the mega buffet we sat around talking until late, the genuinely charming, hospitable and gracious Ted Hodgkinson from the British Council offered me an education on contemporary Iraqi politics in between gently absorbing my stupid jokes. For the Niniti International Literature fest, or NILF, as Im calling it, he flew in from a friends wedding in Fiji. That is commitment. I finished the day in Ryan's room, being regailed with stories as the arak (a local spirit, like aniseed vodka) flowed freely and I sat on, teetotal, as I had spent most of the day, in fits.

Reel Iraq: Kurdistan diary #1

I have, and had, no intention to experience my brief week in Iraq in a way many would imagine I would. I absolutely had no intention to reiterate notions of patronising surprise that people are warm, hospitable, friendly and welcoming in Kurdistan, as they, and all people of Iraq, have a reputation for being. I expected nothing, deliberately, and naturally, unthinking about the unpredictable nature of human and social circumstance that should define such an experience I am currently privileged to have. A proviso then, all of this in brackets.

Easy flight, the plane veering into dangerous airspace because of thunderstorms, but all a pleasure, meeting some of the other poets in the changeover in Istanbul. Into Erbil from the airport, the policeman in London asking my destination, and hearing Iraq, just saying Forces, and my not correcting him, so the saloon air conditioned car and empty, banner / bunting strewn roads making it seem I am here to do Work. We arrived at 4.30am local time, and Dan Gorman and Ryan Van Winkle are there, at the hotel, awake to meet us, setting the tone of genuine friendliness and above and beyond effort from the off. A small sleep. 
Alarm on earlier so I can have lots of coffee. It does not disappoint, and the bad taxidermy in the hotel. We all pile into a bus to leave Erbil and head into the mountains, to our cabins awaiting in Shaqlawa. The whole group is together, 4 iraqi poets, 4 others, Dan, Ryan, Lauren, Dina, Yazmin and Hoshang, who all will be instrumental in the translation / transliteration / documenting process, guiding through Kurdish, Arabic, English, to produce the new works that are the result of this week. Very far from my mind as we wind into the Safeen. Everyone is humble, open, everyone is relaxed. They are all genuinely nice people, and it feels like a purposeful collection of humans, offset by a sense of fortune that it seems everyone shares to be sharing the time with each other in such conditions of ease.

The hotel is too plush, amazing, each with our own cabin, air con, it overlooks Shaqlawa, a small resort town, bordered with mountains. We eat together, massive portions of food. Lamb's bodies go buy. I shotguns loads of strong sugary Iraqi tea, which is New coffee. Check in, I digest, and there is a gym, full of equipment barely used, matted floors, open space. I am very happy and smash out a hard hour of training, sprawling on the swiss ball and box jumps, cycle sprints, cleans.

Our opening meeting, formal and informal introductions to each and the process. The Iraqi's are immensely grounded, and funny. I know Nia Davies from all over, and get to meet Vicki Feaver and Kei Miller. After dinner we walk into Shaqlawa, up one central promenade. It is the pomegranate capital of Iraq, and flattened apricot dried fruit syrup sheets. I sugar load. Everyone stares at me, in pink shirt and yellow trousers, with a mullet, but are uniformly relaxed and friendly. We close the promenade and some of our party depart.

We sit in a bar called Rain until late, live Turkimen music. Young boys come to serve us. Some, like people we met in the town, are from Fallujah, displaced after recent fighting in that city, sending them north, to a place, in my limited view, that seems to welcome them, local Kurdish boys and them playing and working alongside each other, but has no schooling in Arabic, only Kurdish, so they cannot go to school. Hoshang from our group, full of life and honest humour, speaks to them, and they speak about their unlikely return to their home, the profound effects of their forced absence on them and their families with a clarity and brevity that is painful to watch, even without speaking their language. Im told 50,000 people have been displaced into Kurdistan, concentrating on Shaqlawa, from Fallujah, over the last 4 months. And 250,000 from Syria. Boys of 8 or 10, working, intent, trying to refuse money from one of the poets Ahmed, their stories told only because they were pressed, making another in our group cry with the simple, profound truth of their being denied things that no child should be denied. No freedom to choose where or what they do. A very brief pall falls over our table.

Walking to the lav a big group of teenage boys erupts in laughter as I go past. I keep going (I wouldn't necessarily say nothing in England). On the way back I try and skirt the table to return. As I do they all stand up, smiling, making the picture symbol with their hands, almost in unison, waving me over with intense and intimidating in a different way grins. They erupt in handshakes, welcomes, questions of where I am from, deep and genuine happiness to meet me, to speak to me in English, to hear what I think of Shaqlawa. I am made sheepish, embarrassed. I have individual pictures taken of me with every member of their party, and then all on the next table. I make it back to our table, and after more teas, they come over and take pictures with our whole group. An hour later, as we finally leave, I turn the tables on them. Ryan takes a picture of them, with me.

Ars Poetica – Bratislava / diary of a magic weekend / poetryfest

One of the best things I’ve done, getting poetry to travel me. I try and only do things that somehow lead to a generative experience that somehow lead to some ambiguous feeling of fulfilment that equates to being happy and positive towards other human beings in the face of the obvious arbitrary coldness and fragility of being alive etc… To be flown, housed, fed and exposed to an amazing city, generous people and wholly authentic expressions of living in language all because Ive written some stuff down is absurd enough to render ridiculous the notion that I might not be buoyed by the experience and I was and am. The beginning of many new things and a multitude of experiences that only leave me better.

So much to admire about the way the festival was run and the poets who attended, and those involved in the program.  The festival has been running for over a decade, and really has established itself through the work of Martin Solotruk, Peter Sulej and others, as a space in which generations mix as much as styles of poetry. All too rare a thing, to see formal poetry readings in translations sitting alongside experimental poetics, electronic poetics and collaborative practise. For me personally, with my desire to see the same breadth and difference in poetry events, to actualise a variance and a pluralism in organisation, it was especially gratifying. Moreover, there was a indelible sense of being part of the city somehow, that the content of the festival was fused directly to the happenings of Bratislava. The support staff with the festival were really energetic and generous, and the venue for the readings was the perfect balance of size and grime.

DAY ONE: arrived, looked after, sent to the floating hotel, the Botel, on the Danube, with Mariano Peyrou, a Spanish poet who I’ve known about for years but never met. Really a great person to begin the thing with, as he’s unpretentious, honest and clever. I need to visit Madrid, sounds like an immense amount happening there. Shown to the restaurant where we can get free meals all week. Beerhall northern European meatcheesedumplingbrown. I’dve ballooned into a full chunk if I ate there all the days, so I didn’t. Meeting all the poets, from as far as India, I’m the only Britisher, thanks fuck.

First night reading, I’m 3rd on the 1st night. Before me, two young Bulgarian poets, Nevena Borisov and Ivan Landzhev, who would genuinely become friends over the days. Really kind, generous, warm hearted and erudite people, and really good to discover so many poets in their 20s here. My reading was fun, felt very relaxed, took some snaps of the audience while the Slovakian translations of my poems were read by Lubo Bakovy, who covered the actor-who-reads-translations-at-poetry-festival ground without melodrama, which normally makes me retch a fair bit. Lubo was ice blood, suited me well. I read some poems from my book out next year, Rottweiler’s guide to the Dog Owner, as it’s a little more palatable for translation. People seemed happy enough, so I was too. Got to witness Mariano give a typically honest reading, and Helena Sinervo too, from Finland, and Prafull Shiledar, all the way from Mumbai. He is a banker in India, but he seemed nice all the same (!). After the vanilla readings were done there was a space every night for new commissions in innovative poetics. This was the highlight for me, as a viewer, and Zuzana Husarova’s collaboration with video, sound, dance artists, a five piece ensemble, really blew me away. It is so hard to make two mediums sink in together, to pretty much pull it off flawless across four is amazing. I wish I spoke fucking Slovakian. I’ll definitely work with Zuzana and her chocolate cookie in the future I reckon.

DAY TWO: Took a tram out into the suburbs of Bratislava and then walked back in. Pretty repetitive, but the parks were really peaceful and full of modernist sculpture. Lots of sexshops and coffee shops. Loads of them in fact, a few each road. Had two lovely meetings, one with the dynamic people from LitCentrum, that pushes Slovak literature abroad. Took me ages to find their office, it was actually in what equated to a literature museum and I felt an intense sense of déjà vu when standing on that road, not realising til I was up in their office that that was where I stayed the last time I visited Bratislava, sleeping in my friends car as we drove across Europe. Two nights sleeping in the front seat. A bit different for this visit. Then I met the brilliant poet Maria Ferencuhova, who I had over for Camarade last year and wrote with Frances Kruk.

The readings were again quite memorable. Robert Rybek, a Polish poet, front kicked the mic off its stand before cursing out the audience and really digging into some weight. Really breathtaking, it was completely genuine, completely authentic. Kato Djavakhashvili read, all the way from Tbilisi, Tozan Alkan from Istanbul, Gerhard Falkner from Berlin and then the electronic poetry performances – Jorg Piringer was a force of nature with his visual concrete animation soundwork, and Heike Fiedler, a revelation from Switzerland, mixing languages and improvising with great aplomb.

DAY THREE: I upped early again and walked an hour or two down the Danube before cutting in to the outskirts to visit the Botanical gardens, and then one of the best fucking Zoos Ive ever visited. I got quite emotional meeting the bear. I got to touch a fucking baby meerkat. There was a white tiger and a red panda. The whole thing was mental. And they had a dinopark was animatronic dinosaurs that could only move one appendage. Must have cost a bomb. So weird it was one of the happiest mornings I can remember, pumped on coffee, music in, animals right in my fat face.

I hiked over the hills back into the city and had a really lovely lunch with Louis Armand. Whatever I aspire to do in London, Louis has done it in Prague, having lived there over 20 years, originally from Sydney. He’s published a boatload of novels and is the man behind the microfestival, VLAK, Equus and all that amazing stuff that wouldn’t exist with innovative poetics in Czechland, along with David Vichnar. Really good to shoot breeze with him, finally, after being an associate editor of VLAK for awhile.

Final night of readings, quite a male lineup, chest puff. But Ville Hytonen! Ive wanted to meet Ville for ages, hearing of his great work through Pekko Kappi, one of the best performers Ive worked with on my events. Great to hear his brogue, Anselm Hollo resurrected quickly. Ville is in Talinn now, Im definitely going to visit him next summer, and probably write with him too. Daniel Cundari was amazing too, a dapper gent from Calabria, living in Granada, he really upped the emotion with some severe youthful panache. Jason Mashak, an American living in the Czech Republic was great too, such a decent bloke, very humble, and his work was graceful and funny. And Louis read, growling out some jazz work that capitivated. After the break Erik Simsik, who seems to be right on the front of the younger avant garde in Slovakia and then Olga Pekova, who created a beautiful, vulnerable / inverted penetrative moment to end the fest with, collaborating with nudity and a boxharp.

On the last night, and across the whole fest, the sociality, arguably the most important subjective factor of any meet, which I actively select or deselect, being as it is often laden with nervousness and alcohol, was wholly generous – friendly, but not overbearing, dedicated to the readings and arts performances, but always personal and conversational. Often very funny too. People had a sense of humour heavy with dark corners. A rare thing for me to stay out late night after night from desire, dry as a bone, increasingly comfortable in lighting everyone up. Slovak poets and artists, on the whole, seem not to regard themselves haughtily, they seem hungry and dynamic, but unpretentious, and the visiting poets too, definitely diamoned the talking without being at all self regarding.. The locals are really interested in work from outside Slovakia but remain in touch with their own authenticity. This is perhaps the word I would best use to describe the people and the majority of the work at the festival, and the atmosphere. There was little pretence, it was uniformly friendly. They also all speak English and I was able to get away with my monogloticism, though frequently apologising to people who speak five languages plus.

It is not always the case that thirty or so poets, dropped into a city together, will gel. I often think the immaterial nature of our creative connection is overstated in terms of predicting how people get on, its just about whether people are kind and humble or not. For an undertaking this size, the connections made between the poets were really inspirational. I had so many generative conversations with those attending and discovered so much new work from across Europe and even beyond. I feel like some relationships were the first step into friendships / collaborations / correspondences that might span my life, and so if poetry is the vehicle of that, all the better, as long as it happens on and again. Im fortunate to have gone, to have been exposed to what I was and will remember Bratislava all lit up by the best circumstances I could imagine.