Almost exactly two years since I spent some time in Erbil, Kurdistan, Iraq, thanks to the amazing Highlight Arts and the support of the British Council, a video showing me reading one of the poems I wrote about the place and the trip specifically has been produced by Yasmin Fedda and hosted in a series of articles by Daisy Leitch on the British Council Website.
Really delighted to feature in MPT, the legendary magazine under the editorship of Sasha Dugdale, for the first time, with my co-translations of Maryam Alatar, taken from the Highlight Arts Iraq project I attended last year. You can buy the issue here, which also features a focus on new and classic Uruguayan poetry: new translations of Líber Falco, Horacio Cavallo and Ida Vitale, plus a conversation between two women poets from Uruguay: Laura Chalar and Laura Cesarco Eglin http://www.mptmagazine.com/product/no3-2015-the-tangled-route--160/
Thursdays : November 5th - December 3rd : 6.45pm to 8.45pm at the Poetry School in Lambeth, London. £90.00. Concs: £72.00
5 sessions 5 international avant-garde poetry movements / methodologies from Japan, Canada, Nigeria, Brazil, Syria & Iraq
Book online using this link: http://www.poetryschool.com/courses-workshops/face-to-face/mondo--the-global-avant-garde.php
I'm very happy to be presenting a new course for the Poetry School focusing on 5 global avant-garde poetic movements of the post-war period, in five different nations, aiming to elucidate traditions that might be occluded in the UK, and explore how their innovations in writing can compliment people's poetry in the now. The onus is on how these great moments in modern poetry can enrich writing practise, rather than dense historical analysis. It’s a rare chance to excavate avant-garde work in such a setting, please sign up above if interested.
Participants will have a chance to share their work at a post-course reading and you can see further information about Mondo and my previous courses & activities with the Poetry School here: www.stevenjfowler.com/poetryschool
Week One: November 5th – Japan
The ASA group to the VOU: Kitasono Katue & more
Logogrammatic poetry: The abstract illustration of language
Week Two: November 12th – Canada
The Four Horseman: bp Nichol, Paul Dutton & more
Sound poetry: Language as Sound, resonant, non-lingual, vocal.
Week Three: November 19th - Nigeria
The Mbari Club: Amos Tutuola, John Pepper Clark & more
Experimental mythology: Mythic tropes as paths to the new.
Week Four: November 26th – Brazil
Noigandres: Haroldo de Campos, Augusto de Campos & more
Concrete poetry: The visuality of the poem as its meaning
Week Five: December 3rd – Syria & Iraq
The Tammūzī Poets: Badr Shākir al-Sayyāb, Adonis & more
The ancient as modern: Free verse as liberation.
in the name of god (lower case)
Ryan Van Winkle & Dan Gorman https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5SrNw5Q3WKI
Finally I had a chance to go back into Erbil and explore the city properly, and buy some weird trinkets. I returned to the bazaar, found some pretty nifty glowing sponge elephants and some camo tshirts, and lots of dried plum sugar sheets, before making my way out into one of the really beautiful parks of the city. If some of Erbil's regeneration is Dubai-esque, to its detriment, its parks are really wonderfully rendered. Music blaring from public speaker systems, immaculate gardens, sculptures. It looked like archival footage from the 70s in the middle east, families on display, picniccing, hobknobbing.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Back from lunch and the grime gym (the owner of the complex, once a resident of Derby, and a former kickboxer, sorted me out with a bag and some good kit), I returned to my room to find it being cleaned. I got talking to a man from Nepal, who has come to Iraq for work. I made him some tea, and we talked for as long as he was allowed to before moving on to the next cabin. Him and his wife moved here a few years ago, and though the money isn't good he characterised the place as good because the worst it got was disdain, and not violence. He said they needed to move on at some point, the money they were earning in Shaqlawa was not enough to feed them and support their family back in Nepal. He spoke perfect English, told me he had a uncle who was a Gurkha and was incredibly mannerly and well spoken. His dignity in the face of treatment that he tried to downplay, but was obviously difficult, bordering on brutal to bare made me feel stupid in the way one does when realising the futility of any notion of fairness on the earth. I am being paid to be in Shaqlawa, being flown here, fed, given time to talk about, translate and write poetry. I believe it can only be good at times to find this absurd. He said we could chat tomorrow before we leave.
I then spent some time in the afternoon working on my translations of Ali, Maryam and Zhawen. My intention was to begin as loyal as possible to the original text, and then veer carefully, when it was required. It didn't turn out like that. The context felt freer, and so I was free. I introduced new ideas even, at points. The poems became mine. I wanted this for my own work, but for theirs...I hope they're okay with that in the end! Those of them who speak English anyway.
The translation process is full of potential. Literal translations of our poems have been made, and we are randomly paired, and do a round robin, working with everyone. We use different poems for each poet we work with, so a wide selection of the work we put forward will end up in Arabic or Kurdish. We then have two three hour meetings a day, for two days, to cover the four Iraqi poets we work with. An intermediary, who speaks the language, but does so much more than that, completes this translation triplet. And this is the work (!) I wrote ten new poems specifically for the occasion, about the history of Erbil, taking, in an abstract manner, ten points in its history, from 6000bc to 2014, as the beginning of each poem, linking them together through the place itself. Erbil claims to be the oldest town in the world, and so much has passed through it, Assyrians, Alexander, Romans, Timur, Genghis, Saddam etc...
My first session was with Ali Wajeh, the amazing Lauren Pyott as intermediary. Ali fits the notion I had in my mind of a male Iraqi poet to some extent, assured, lyrical in his style, full of poetic pontification. The main thing for me was that the translation of my work became new. Ali had no problem with that, my work seemingly 'inspiring' him onto his own track, and I welcomed his more careful guidance through his work, before I kind of wedged myself into it, opening up his dialogue structure with a wee bit of irony and references to Highway 80, the Highway of Death. Got in another gym session before lunch, bringing the poets Nia Davies and Ryan Van Winkle. Very funny mix, fitness and poets.
After dinner we returned to Shaqlawa again. We strolled through the town, much quieter on a saturday night than a friday, and made our way off the main promenade to what looked like a warehouse, but what turned out to be a local gaming hall, with pool and table tennis. The owner (with the photoportrait hung in the hall, above) was a bear of a man, grizzly beard and expert snooker player. Lauren had met him the year before, and his ebullient wife, now ill, sadly, and his initially fearsome visage took on a sadder shade. They had come from Baghdad originally, and had a hard life by any standards. After leaving the poolhall, Dina Mousawi, irrepressible in her energy, ushered Ryan into to a local barbers, where he proceeded to have his four month old mountain man hair and beard wet shaved and cut with an audience, and furore, as though he were about to fireswallow. Yas, the filmmaker in our crew, filmed him reading a poem as the cut took place. The men and boys in the barbers welcomed us all to sit down, joked with us and could not have been more friendly and hospitable, as everyone has been, relentlessly. As we left they refused payment and instead, insisted on a memento.
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.
What is perhaps more amazing than just the opportunity to go to one of the most rarely traveled countries in the world, all covered, to chat to poets and artists, for a week, is the fact that also heading out there are friends in Ryan Van Winkle, Nia Davies and Dan Gorman. Not only will I be immersed in an unforgettable experience of poetry and culture, but Ill be doing so with good peoples all round. Now I just have to find out if Erbil has a zoo..