Readings in Croatia: Zagreb for Croatian PEN / Grožnjan / The Wood Poets festival

My relationship with contemporary Croatian poetry goes back to 2012, thanks to close friendships with the remarkable Tomica Bajsic, Damir Sodan, Ana Brnadic and others. With multiple readings in London and across Croatia I have had the pleasure of visiting Zagreb, Split and Grožnjan to give readings and to have my work translated into the language. Below are details of the various engagements, often through a Croatian Enemies project, which has seen me work alongside some of the leading lights of 21st century European poetry.

The Enemies project in Croatia - August 2015

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.

The Enemies project: Croatia in London - July 31st 2014

A pleasure to host Croatian poets in London once more in the Rich Mix Arts Centre. Visit to see all the videos.

Zagreb for Croatian PEN & Split - September 12th 2014

This engagement continued in the summer of 2014, when I read in Zagreb on the invitation of Croatian Pen and was interviewed by Marko Pogacar before a live interview with Tomica Bajsic and a trip to Split.

Blogdiary: A rare privilege to spend ten days in Croatia, at the closing of the summer season, at the invitation, and enjoying the hospitality of, the Croatian Writers Association, and my friends Tomica Bajsic, Ana Brnadic and Damir Sodan. I managed to spend real time, not whisking through, in both Zagreb and Split, and meet a whole new bunch of poets and artists.

At the centre of my visit was a reading I gave at the Café u Dvoristu in Zagreb, where Tomica and I chatted, doing a Q & A of sorts, before I read from my new book and some translations were read. Thanks to Damir Sodan, I have dozens of things in Croatian, and it was good to see my poems are depressing and weird for even the most enthusiastic audience across languages.

Tomica and the writers association did a great job of getting actually interested people to the reading, the room was really all poets, students, artists, people who really came to listen and engage. And as often happens, there is the perception when I travel that I am doing so because of a sort of poetic meritocracy, as though I must be known in England by virtue of my leaving it. This is obviously, and enjoyably not the case. So there was no falseness to the modesty of my responses against Tomica extremely generous questions and statements about the Enemies project and Maintenant. Never more than in these energetic, humorous, deeply enjoyable live moments, do I feel happier to feel like a stowaway, or a pretender, or a parasite. All the better, and more so as my work is clearly too dense for people to be supporting me because of that. The other reasons I prefer.

Moreover, the conversations I was able to have in Croatia, to really get to know Tomica, who really is one of the most extraordinary men I’ve ever met, let alone a fine poet (I urge you to look him up, to save me from adding the remarkable biographical details here, his) were inspiring. The spirit of Croatians, perhaps just toward me, but it seemed in general, was generous and open. I took much, learnt much from chatting to dramaturges and sculptors and journalists, some in their teens, some in their fifties.

I then headed south to stay in Split at the generous invitation of Damir and had real writing time in the 30 degree heat and intermittently thunderstorms. It is a beautiful place. Much has come of this trip, not least the excellent possibility of an Enemies project: Croatia in 2015, with readings in both the UK and back in Croatia. Hard not to be excited at more time with such brilliant poets and generous people.

Enemies: Croatia - April 26th 2012 at Europe House

began with a reading given by an extraordinary group of Croatian poets, in London, in 2012. Centred around the magazine Poezija, this new generation of poets, Damir Sodan, Tomica Bajsic and Ivan Herceg amongst them, began to work with me curatorially to create a long term collaborative relationship between Croatian and British poets.