The Tbilisi International Literature Festival – May 2016
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
A GEORGIAN DIARY
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 here www.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.