Ars Poetica is an annual poetry festival held in Bratislava, Slovakia, featuring some of most interesting poets from around the world for over a decade. I participated in the 2013 festival http://www.arspoetica.sk/
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.