Hay Festival Arequipa : Peru - December 7th to 11th 2016

A beautiful set of days in Arequipa, in southern Peru. A world unto itself, a reversed world, a place full of exceptional aesthetic beauty in its distinct colonial architecture and landscape, surrounded by volcanoes and desert, bright intense sunshine, and equally warm people, both from the remarkable Hay Festival, who invited me to present a new performance on the work of Cesar Vallejo, and to lead a workshop with local students, and those living and working in Arequipa and Peru as a whole. A journey I’ll not forget, one I was privileged to make, with a travelogue and videos of my performances below.

Day One: December 7th 2016

The journey is significant, and travelling is cumulative. I am immensely fortunate to travel often with poetry, but it is not my mode, my work, so stuck in between worlds, the worlds of transition and home, for the previous month, having racked up 25000 miles plus, the trip to Peru requires me to prepare, mentally. The flight to Lima is during the day so I write the whole time (well between watching tarzan), thirteen hours in the air. Arriving in the bedlam of Lima airport I realise I must have miscalculated, I have 30 minutes to catch my connection to Arequipa. Sweating, with a small sticky spike of adrenalin, I grandpa run through the terminals and just make my flight. Is it my fault? I’m so tired I just drool on the second leg. I’m met at the airport and suddenly everything seems calmer. Turns out some authors couldn’t make the connection. It’s all dreamlike already, the night is so warm. The brilliant Mexican poet, Luis Felipe Fabre and I are driven through markedly calm suburbs, the driver giving us a guide in perfect history. How many presidents were born here, the history of the city, its utterly distinct, independent character, its loyalty to the Spanish, its famous architecture. We are staying in the main square of the city, the cathedral is on my doorstep. I feel already as though this is for someone else. Despite everyone actively trying to make me at home.

Day Two: December 8th 2016

I’m groggy, I am losing the place where I’m waking up after so much travelling, so I just take my time. Breakfast buffet, there’s a balcony. The hotel is so nice, not too fancy, not too pompous, just incredibly situated with the most extraordinary view of the city as I glug coffee and eat bowls of kiwi. Can’t believe it’s all free, still. I make my way across the city to the hotel where the Hay Festival desk is based. I’ve been warned the sun is piercing, the ozone worn down, but it just feels warming, people don’t sweat, they just amble. There are crowds in the square, music, it’s a religious holiday, people pour out of the cathedral. The arcades of stone house cafes, hidden markets, no one looks at me as I pop in. I follow pedestrianised avenues through the historical centre, its one of the most immediately striking places I’ve ever been. I feel light headed, stop to look around me, try not to take too many pictures.

I meet the amazing staff at Hay, those that are the lifeblood of these brilliant festival across central and south America, they are uniformly funny, unpretentious, hospitable and active, in body and mind. I meet some of my fellow authors, everyone seems in a happy daze, to have woken up in such a city. I see my old friend Nell Leyshon, whom I met for the first time in Mexico, at a festival like this, and its suddenly like a reunion. Her son has travelled with her, just like her, whipsmart, affectionate, energising. Kindred spirits. We explore the city together, traverse the epic market of local stalls, bizarre toys next to cowboy hats, organ meats next to fruit so big and bright it looks plastic. 

Tiredness sets in slightly painfully towards early evening but I have to stay up to meet a series of volunteers who have agreed, through festival contacts with a local artist, the brilliant and batty Nancy Carpio, to help me with my performance, which is scheduled for the next night. Nancy, unusually for Arequipa, studied modern art in the US, has a long history in performance art but is soon to give it up to become a psychic, full time. Her help is invaluable, to facilitate me making new friends through the work I’ll present - this is so important to me, to use my predilection for literary performance to come up with something new for every place and space I am invited to work in. By asking locals to collaborate not only do I get to meet them but through osmosis something more of the place is inevitably communicated. Around a dozen students file into the hotel lobby and through Nancy’s translation they agree to my plan, uniformly sweet and polite they all are. 

Day Three: December 9th 2016

I have an event to begin the day, the festival now officially in full swing. It is part of the Hay Joven programme, where the festival presents its authors to local school children and universities. I am bussed to Universidad San Pablo, accompanied by the poet Javier Manuel Rivera, who quickly becomes a friend, as we laugh through our broken English / Spanish. 

This event proves to be a magnificent experience, one of the very best workshop type events I’ve ever had the pleasure to partake. You are always somewhat blind to know what students will make of you, especially with my work being a little strange, but the enthusiasm and warmth I was greeted with will live long in the memory. The university staff, including Kevin Rodriguez Siu, who will be my host for a Q&A, can’t do more for me, and for 10am on a Friday morning, there are plenty of people in the audience, though the hall is immense. I begin reading a few poems, but the live translator keeps interrupting, telling me to speak slower so she can translate my poems as I speak them! I begin to just turn my conversation with her into the performance, checking with her before each poem and line. The ruse is landing, the students laughing. Then I decide it’s time to interact, to meet each person who has been so kind to attend one to one. I take my book and tear pages from it, walking into the seats to give each person a poem of mine. Then I ask them to switch places with me and step onto the stage. Sheepishly they do, clumping together. Soon there are 60 or 70 of them on the stage, and I am beneath them, in the audience. I ask them to read the torn poems in their hands. The Q&A that follows is so generous, we talk seriously and jokingly, it’s suddenly a close group. When the session ends, inexplicably the students queue to have their torn pages signed. First time for everything.

Back in the old city I have lunch with Nell, and meet Ryan Gattis, immediately struck by his intelligence and open character, he will become a friend over the next few days. Humble, dry, perceptive, he gently educates me on the history of Los Angeles, where he lives, though he studied in England for sometime, and it takes time to tease out the remarkable, brave work he has done with inner city gangs in the city. The kind of person you hope to meet, to speak and listen to, at such a gathering. We are fed beautifully, the cuisine of Peru, and of Arequipa specifically, more than living up to its repute. I then spend the rest of the afternoon preparing for my main event, the big performance commissioned by Hay Festival, a new live work celebrating and responding to one of my poetry heroes Cesar Vallejo. Suffice to say, as I discovered the entire world tradition of poetry at one time, not so many years ago, Vallejo’s achievement was a genuine influence on my development as a writer. His ability to write of community, of collective action and culture, of people, and of pain and injustice, of death and dying, in a way that is not representational or didactic, but immensely complex, inventive and equal to life and language’s own adversarial, confusing character is something I aspire to. Up there with Mayakovsky, Ekelof, Rozewicz, he is one of the greats for me, so to be able to celebrate him, to align myself with him, it is such a magical, if intimidating, prospect. I spend the afternoon collecting materials with Nancy and finalising my texts.

The performance takes place at the gorgeous Teatro Arequipa right in the old city square again, just adjacent to my hotel. I am pleasantly surprised at how many people file in, young and old. I spend time with my volunteers, strategically placing them in the audience. To begin I explain my process, as a false lead of sorts, writing through and with a translation of Vallejo’s Spain, let this cup pass from me I have had for some time which was a gift from a dear friend. I have spent weeks writing these poems in fact, for this moment, pages of them. So begins the performance, like a reading. I then pull a table to the centre of the stage and dissect this book, this precious article, with a scalpel. I then descend again to the audience, and see they are slightly perturbed by my movement toward them, giving out pages. I read further and lift my hand, the pre arranged signal for the volunteers to stand and begin reading themselves, planted, each with their new pages of Vallejo, so they, Peruvians, may read his original Spanish text to the audience, in the audience. I lift my hand. Nothing happens. I do so again. Nothing. The audience claps. I’m a bit excruciated, it looks like I’ve signalled them to clap, like a Caesar. I literally say please stop clapping. Finally one of the volunteers just stands up and reads. The effect has been somewhat diminished! But it is funny, an accidentally brilliant set piece of a very British kind of comedy. On they go, each reading their pages. Such is the task of a last minute collaboration across languages and nations! I follow this with more poetry before, to finish, I build a collage of the book’s pages on a canvas, live, with glue and ink. Then they come to join, helping, collectively, patching together a new artwork made of Vallejo. It’s a joyous experience, not perfect, but never designed to be, and all those kind enough to help me, not one older than 21, seem high and happy. I've made friends, and we donate the artwork, priceless as it is, to our Hay hosts.


Day Four: December 10th 2016

Free of performances I can relax and at breakfast again I get talking to the staff, as I always try to do, and one of the waitresses tells me of her year living in Eastbourne. We talk for an hour about her time in England, her family in Arequipa. I then walk out of the old city, finally, having wanted to explore since I arrived, first to the small old colonial house that is the modern art gallery, opposite the bus station with its stray dogs and people who do, finally, stare at me. Imtiaz Dharker is giving a reading and talk, with the British Council. Like those working for Hay, the staff at the British Council are so wonderfully hospitable and generous, and Imtiaz is really entrancing, discussing her artworks as well as her poetry. This is a bit of revelation for me, her handwriting built into sketches are so striking. After the event I wander out into the garden and find an old railway carriage, I’m told from a railway the British built. It’s like a venue, so old and ornate.

I’m free to explore out of the city now and walk through the suburbs and along the river, the volcano of Pichu Pichu looming above. The city seems so peaceful. I’m finally around the edges of the city though, away from the perfect palisades. I follow the river back into the old town simply because its too hot to stay much longer out in the open. There’s an event on for the British Council and attending I meet for the second time Anwar Choudhury, the ambassador to Peru and a remarkably funny, down to earth and open man. He’s full of wry humour and enthusiasm, cuts a really different figure from what you’d perhaps expect and his genuine enthusiasm for Peru, for the festival, for the authors is really marked. This is so rare, to feel welcome, so directly, so individually by someone in such a position. His speech, honest and open, really cuts through any pablum. 

I follow this event by attending Nell’s performance, her main event, her one woman show where the story of her writing life is blended with her recent novels. Always a powerful and charismatic speaker, it’s a wonderful thing to watch a friend captivate an audience so completely. When we met, her life spent writing novels, plays and teaching, to great acclaim, hadn’t turned to performance, so to see this brilliant hour was very inspiring, a very personal experience.

Day Five: December 11th 2016

The final night in Arequipa spent on a rooftop terrace and then another gorgeous meal with friends, the Saturday night calm and jovial blending into a free Sunday morning for me, retracing my steps to the giant covered market, buying gifts, talking to people where I can, getting lost in the enormous crowds of people, many in from the countryside for the weekend market, the streets full of life, cars weaving between people. I have time to say my goodbyes to the place, to old friends and new alike, before, with a slight lump in my stomach, I take an evening flight that will begin thirty hours on the road, with changes in Lima and Madrid before reaching London again. Truly a separate experience, vivid, so full of colour and life, so full of people, of new connections. To be able to see such things, to be given such respect and time, to be asked to do so, this will never become old to me, and if it ever does, I've lost my way.

Here are a few excerpts from my new poems, made of Vallejo & I, that were written and read for the festival:

Tip and edge on two sheets of painted paper
and consider Vallejo as a son.
Consider Goya, on his knees, praying before a mirror.
Consider the sweat of clouds or the dry skin of dynamite.
Consider tiny infinite atoms
or consider alpacas, and how they spit.
Consider that all acts, or voices, come from people
through their fear of themselves, their creatureliness,
they’ll speak, then write.
I will ask them time,
hand to me your animals, I will take them.


Listeners with faithful bones, attack me.
When your heart ceases, mark out to move world wide
with love, I don’t really know what to do, or where to be.
but I applaud, turn off lights in the house. 
I have left behind my Livia to be with you this evening.