The Iskele Poetry Festival: Cyprus - March 24th 2016

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.

Travelogue & Festival Diary: Day One

Flying through Istanbul Ataturk airport when pilgrims are returning from Mecca, white robes abound. I'm travelling with Ghareeb Iskander, he and I met in Iraq at a poetry festival in 2014 and we talk about his teaching at SOAS and his new book. We are met at the airport in Northern Cyprus and meet most of the other poets. As is often the case, it’s just a half dozen people involved in the readings, so a closeness in the group forms quickly. We’re driven to the Cyprus Village, a holiday park, with a touch of Butlins about it (we have chalets and there’s a casino). I get to talk to the other poets on the ride. Orsolya Fenyvesi from Budapest, friends with many people I know and admire like Kinga Toth, her intelligence is immediate, she’s worked as an art curator, for charities supporting Roma people and now works in translation alongside her own writing. Elena Karina Byrne and Jeff Vasseur from America are attending too. So great to feel their enthusiasm for being in Europe and meeting European poets, and especially exciting to connect with Elena about her interest and knowledge of American 20th century performance art, visual art and poetry. She has decades of experience writing, performing and organising in the States and is a real wealth of information for me. Her father taught Ed Ruscha and John Baldessari amongst others and she’s lived her whole life in this milieu. Coming into the holiday park compound it feels like a miniaturised Jurassic Park and there’s a beautiful kitsch yellow ceramic donkey by reception waiting for us. The hospitality has begun, the restaurant has been kept open just for us and the Iranian waiter, Mohsen, who recently gave up his Phd in literature, evokes the manners of a waiter from the 19th century faultlessly accommodating us as we talk into the night. 

Day Two

Cypriot poet and powerhouse, Emel Kaya is in charge, we meet her and Nurduran Duman in the morning. Nurduran is a fine Turkish poet and friend, and the reason I am at the table. JL Williams is here too, Jennifer, from Edinburgh, another friend from past Enemies projects in Scotland. We have a series of excursions set up for us, and get our own Scooby Doo bus. Into Nicosia, my first time in Cyprus, so its great to be bussed about without being overly tour guided. We visit a Dervish museum and then the border into Greek Cyprus. The island split is addressed, everyone is honest about it, but its also clearly Turkish all about us, inevitably so. The people could not be more friendly and hospitable, but there’s something in the air with the division in Nicosia. We return to the hotel and I get to go for a run down the beach coast our accommodation is adjacent to. The white sea, the Mediterranean, the coast is underdeveloped and I run past four or five world war II bunkers and a series of steel landing barricades from the same period. It’s 26 degrees and the water is clear into the distance.

To the first reading, the main poetry showcase. A beautiful auditorium bustling with people. We’re in the second row, in front of us, the mayor and other dignatories. There’s a dozen of us reading, short bursts each, as it should be, and we’ve all been translated into Turkish if we don’t read in the language. They have local students, those that Emel teaches, reading the translations. I follow lovely readings from Elena, Ghareeb and Orsolya. Not a place to do a performance, as I would normally do in reading slots like this, but definitely a chance to play with space and audience, to show concern for context. I ask the student, Selin, reading my translations, to swap with me and be at the podium. A small thing, but this is the first in a series of enthusiasms the audience seems to have for my little turns that's really surprising and gratifying. I’m not sure since reading in Mexico, and outside of London, I’ve had reactions as I do here. 


At the end of the readings, we get awards. They are for turning up, which is a long time coming for me, getting a prize for presence. I hug the mayor and the picture of us together seems to warm Cypriot hearts enough that it makes it into the paper the following day. Another unexpected moment when all the festivities close I am mobbed by students for pictures and selfies. They can sense the tone of play I’ve tried to strike, not in anyway being sardonic, but enjoying the moments one shouldn’t take too seriously and I’m happy they think me approachable. All the poets and others from Cyprus, including Jenan Selçuk, who will become a new friend over the next few days, and the mayor, follow this with a feast and music.

Day Three

Early start again and back to the auditorium. It’s school kids now, secondary school. They are 15 to 17 years old, or thereabouts, as I spot tattoos in the crowd. There are way over a hundred students. Their bodies show a certain measure of understandable impatience but they are genuinely enthusiastic about poetry and clap uproariously. I get a big pop when they ask me on stage, the thing I did with Seline seems to have filtered down from the night before. When I get to read I tell them I hated poetry when I was in school, with measured irony but an underlying truth, and they should talk during my reading if they want to, through Ruhsan’s translations, and I get a near standing ovation. I just read one poem and get to sit on stage listening to some great readings from the others. Ghareeb has such weight in his work, I really admire his gravitas, Jennifer is really playful, her energy gets right to the younger audience, and people seem to know Nurduran and her work well, though she’s from Istanbul. Again, when it’s all over, with a slightly more awkward tone, I have a queue of teenage girls waiting to take pictures with me, giggling. No boys, they just abuse me because I said I support Everton. I am dragged into selfies with large groups of 16 year olds and I’m not sure where to put myself. I am gently teased by the other poets for the specific demographic of my localised fame. First time that’s happened to a English poet I think.

I’ve a chance to do another beach run down the coast before a huge lunch (all the meals are amazing and massive) and then another excursion in the Scooby wagon to Famagusta. We see the crusader cathedral Ottoman converted into a mosque and Othello’s castle. I spend time with the stray dogs, a puppy nearly bites me defending a chip and we have pomegranate juice in the ruins of the Byzantine palace. Back to the auditorium for the last event, a symposium on poetry and media. Most of it is in Turkish so I’m lost and take to half listening and chatting to Jenan. A really thorough talk by Elena is the highlight. We have another feast and chat late into the night.

Day Four

A final excursion, this time to Kyrenia. We hit another castle and though it seems the group is always on a schedule in fact we spend hours in cafes and at a restaurant. I nearly die from hummus inhalation and the group has settled into self-referentiality and near continuous laughter. Such a great pleasure to get to know Ghareeb and Jennifer so much better too, acquaintances before, friends now. We follow the north coast back from Girne to Iskele once again, the random outcroppings of holiday home developments popping up like weeds in between the mountain landscapes and the Mediterranean. The sea side land is barren and in between nature and concrete, and there's a stark beauty in it. I try to return to bed early as we collectively have days worth of waiting time the following day for collective flights home and eye-bleed early getups. A wonderful few days, another one of these beautiful, brief experiences in parts of the world made into something unique by the people who have hosted and tolerated me, with a very palpable sense of chance bringing us all together. A brief exposure to a warm and generous culture and place, for a purpose that will always be strange to me, simply to read some poems aloud.