The Poetry Parnassus. One of the biggest poetry festivals ever held, in the summer of 2012, at the Southbank Centre, over 150 poets, each representing a different nation came to London. I organised a half dozen readings, compared a half dozen more, was one of the local poets in residence, read my own work, conducted over 80 interviews with the visiting poets and was the official blogger in residence. Below you can find the readings and my writings from the festival, including the unforgettable Casagrade: rain of poems, where 100s of poems translated into Spanish on slivers of paper, including one of my own, were dropped over the south bank of the Thames. The interviews I conducted with the poets can be found embedded on their profiles here: http://www.southbankcentre.co.uk/poetry-parnassus/poets
Blog #1: I will be writing this blog, hopefully full of videos, images, artworks and recollections throughout the Poetry Parnassus which is begins tomorrow morning and runs all the way to Sunday evening.
We had our first contact this evening, a chance for many of the poets who are arriving minute by minute from around the world to meet with their British counterparts and the myriad of tireless organisers from the Southbank centre. Often these occasions feel like a slightly tepid school disco but everyone was genuinely enthused and relaxed and in a wholly earnest and positive mood. The ambition of the project, it’s clear desire to strike out against cynicism has really left everyone who is lucky enough to be part of this project feeling humbled by its size and keen to make their work speak. There is so much good work going to come out of the next six days, not just the readings, but the interchange between poets, their methodologies and the chance happenings which are the lifeblood of such understanding. This sense of creative freedom, to have the remarkable space we have in which to discuss, to write, to collaborate, really hit home, sitting in the Poet’s village. With so many poets around too, over 200 in all, the endless possible interchanges are almost overwhelming.
Simon Armitage and Martin Colthorpe gave warm, welcoming speeches and Jude Kelly spoke with a real sense of inspiration and purpose about the project and its origins, and its goals. I will quite rightly end this slight beginning to the blog by bringing attention to the remarkable work of Anna Selby and Bea Colley, Jana Stefanovska and Emma Mottram, who, amongst many others, have been astounding under heavy fire in putting the thing together
Blog #2 The first day of the festival proper was a really remarkable, exciting, exhausting and profound stretch of poetry and discussion and happenings. It began for me at 9am and finished around 11pm.....
I carried a lot of those thoughts into the World Poetry Summit, which was a chance for people with a stake in poetry, its reception and its growth, to discuss a myriad of issues that specifically related to the art in the current climate. I chaired a genuinely engaged discussion with Rocio Ceron, Tom Chivers, Tishani Doshi and Christodoulos Makris about whether Tradition v Innovation was a still a truism in poetry, and how we might move past that dualism into the future with new understandings of poetry, and new and different methodologies and attitudes. As continued to be the case throughout the day, the atmosphere was eloquent and forceful, but never didactic or declarative. People were genuinely interested to listen and learn as well as express.
From the Summit, I had the pleasure of watching the first Lunch poems event, which featured Gerdur Kristny, Bewketu Seyoum and Pekko Kappi, all of whom I had interviewed. The sun was ridiculously hot on the QEH roof garden which bode well for the Rain of Poems going ahead in the evening.
I was joined by my friends Alexander Kell and David Kelly, who are both in residence throughout the week of Poetry Parnassus in order to document the events through photography and art respectively. Their work, from image to drawing to collage, will form part of the post Poetry Parnassus exhibition, curated by Chris McCabe and housed in the Poetry Library. We stayed in the Poetry Library for sometime, with Alexander taking portraits of at least two dozen poets and capturing the moment they signed the World Record book of Record and the specially made Parnassus desk in the front of the library.
I described the feeling of the first day at the festival like being in the army – great lulls in between intense exertion, but somehow the day had a very specific rhythm, one that was continuing dotted with unique and fascinating encounters with poets from around the world. The idea that the immensity of the conflagration would see egos clashing, or prima donna poets strutting around the poets village seems laughable now – the air of relaxation, of informality and friendliness is ubiquitous.
My first event at the festival was the first of two Maintenant celebration readings. The Maintenant series is a regular interview platform for contemporary European poets designed to allow elucidation of their work, theoretically and otherwise, and to present poets who are truly contemporary, and not occluded by the near legendary figures of the near past. It also aims to show a true breadth of what poetry might be in the 21st century, and promote the idea we can leave stylistic and factional dualisms behind by just presenting good work in all its forms.
The event was housed in the Blue room, on the spirit level of Southbank centre, which is a little bit hidden to say the least. I was worried no one would be able to find it but in the end we had near 100 people in attendance and it was standing room only.
The reading were magnificient, a truly varied and fascinating mix of European poetics. Karlis Verdins’ wit, Christodoulos Makris’ energy, Endre Ruset’s gravitas, Damir Sodan’s ebullience, Sylva Fischerova’s power and Pekko Kappi’s brilliance really made an impact on the audience and couldn’t have been more pleased with the event. I had the privilege of reading the translations of Endre’s poem about the tragedy in Utoeya, and having lived in Oslo for a year when I was younger, and having not seen the poem up until the moment I read it, the experience was emotionally intense. And Pekko Kappi, with his pure engagement with the great balladic tradition of Finnish poetry really ended the night perfectly.
Giddy with sleeplessness and surrounded by friends I had specifically inculcated to join me because of their grabbing abilities as well as my fondness for them, I went out onto Jubilee gardens after running the inaugural Maintenant event as part of Poetry Parnassus. That event itself was the end of a long day, and was an intense experience for me personally. The Viking music of Pekko Kappi gets me, and his presence at the Parnassus was really emblematic of my personal satisfaction of what I had been able to introduce to a proceeding that is so large to dwarf all those involved. Also reading the translations of Endre Ruset's remarkable poem about Utoeya, having lived in Oslo for a year when I was younger, was a private and at times, grueling experience.
I had met some of the Chilean collective Casagrande before the Parnassus, through the avant garde workshop Writers Forum, and I had always tried to follow their activities. Knowing their sense of history, their intelligence, energy and their artistic sense of judgement, I expected the Rain of Poems to be a spectacular, but I knew, on the night, it might be more than that, having really tried to give time to educating myself on the history of the project, it's tradition as an act of declaration without didactism and a true synthesis of the happening, the political and the poetic.
The experience was moving. Bombardment after bombardment of poems fell over the garden as the crowd swayed between the obtuse and competitive, and the joyous and cohesive. I was one of the voices who thought the character of London would leave people cynical and banal in the face of the profound, but it wasn't the case, genuinely, friends and families were all turned into something close to children, a stage of emotional brevity, laughter, lightness and engagement. I can only speak for myself, but sharing the experience with those I care about so much, knowing they were there for me, because my poem was part of the bomb, will stay in my memory for a long time. It was a special event for that reason, it brought people into something overwhelming through the act of something simple, and it did on more levels than can be expressed briefly.
I actually asked many of my friends to join me specifically to find my poem in the melee, I really wanted it as a souvenir and because it featured a Spanish translation. Toward the end of the evening, they had become so generous as to approach strangers with offers of money to somehow draw my poem from the pack! The incomparable Tiphaine Mancaux really became the centre of the evening when, after disappearing for half an hour, she returned to pull out nearly 100 poems from her jeanshorts. She must have destroyed swathes of children for the haul. In the end, after pacing the Southbank for a few more hours and scouring it the following day, her and David Kelly had collected 98 different poems, and many duplicates. This essentially means they found one third of the possible poems, and of 100,000 that were dropped, there were only 300 poets involved!
Moreover, as we were leaving the Jubilee gardens and I began the benevolence that will mark the rest of festival by using Tiphaine's industry to appear generous to other poets, by giving them their poems (which have included Agnes Lehoczky, Chris McCabe, James Wilkes, Sylva Fischerova, Kristiina Ehin and Jo Shapcott so far), Tiphaine, somehow, found my poem, resting on the ground.
I have spent time the following day talking in depth with the amazing poets and activists from Casagrande and have suggested we make plans to create a resource for the artistic responses which are bound to flow from such a once in a lifetime evening. David Kelly, who is producing new work in response to Poetry Parnassus, has already begun, creating these incredible collages on the very night.
The Maintenant Balkans event was held at the Poetry Parnassus on friday night. It was great to be around real friends at the reading but it wasn't the highlight for me. Like everything you can have too much of a good thing and by friday I was on a downer about poetry and posturing and this kind of thing. The nature of Balkan poetry is that it holds itself up, perhaps it has to, and that wasn't hitting my mood at the right point. Anyway, the evening had some lovely moments. Jana Stefanovska with her father, the near legendary playwright Goran http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Goran_Stefanovski, was given some reading time with her fellow Macedonian Nikola Madzirov, which was nice and well deserved after all her immense work at the festival. Doina Ioanid is a really fine poet, and it was nice to have her perform with Clare Pollard, who couldn't have been nicer. And, as ever, Damir Sodan was incredible. In fact this is best reading I have ever seen him give, the pace, the wit, the energy - the man is a solar system unto himself, it's hard not to love him.
I managed to get some time with Chris McCabe, the librarian of the poetry library, and a great poet himself, to explain the world record project and some of things the poet’s have been asked to do as part of Poetry Parnassus.
There have been some great events over the last few days. Sasha Dugdale eloquently led a wonderful event with Italian speaking poets down in the white room this afternoon, yesterday’s much discussed New World Order reading was said to be exceptional, featuring some incredible European poets like Valzhyna Mort and Jacek Dehnel, and the Lunch poems the day before that, featured below, continued to entertain. There were workshops with Karen Solie, Kate Kililea, a packed Pacifica reading last night and the Poetry and film screening about David Shook in Equatorial Guinea was very moving. That barely scratches the surface of all that has happened.
It is somewhat inevitable that with all these events that one can get burnt out on poetry and the consistent excess can even seem somewhat deflating. There are only so many readings one can attend without losing the thread of what is being read, and if that happens, one ceases really benefiting from the act of poetry being read aloud, rather than being read alone. That being said, the last few days have been exceptionally interesting, and at times, quite intimate. The experience of the Poets village, and the way things seem to have a momentum of their own, means that hours can pass very quickly and one is left discussing ‘making the most of it’ more than actually doing that. At times an event this size can seem incredibly populated, and you are unable to walk ten yards without beginning multiple conversations. At other times, it does seem like it has been set up purely for you to navigate, always with the nagging feeling you are missing something else, some parallel reading, in some small room, many levels below.
We had ten poets in all for this workshop, which took place at the Poetry library in the afternoon of Saturday 30th of June, and which featured a chain poem methodology constructed of lines of other poets poems, stolen from the Poetry library collection.
We decided on four themes, Moon, Corpse, Fire and Theft, and then we each went off to plunder the books. When we returned, we took two turns, running clockwise around the table, inscribing the lines to create new poems.
In attendance were Els Moors, Tiphaine Mancaux, Robert Kiely, Jon Stone, Kirsty Irving, Alex Kell, David Kelly, Ghazal Mosadeq and Jon Shaw. It was a success, I think.
Without a doubt, the highlight of my week. The reading last night really brought together everything I feel I have been repeating over and again recently - that unpretentiousness and humility and community is the reason to be engaged in more than just a writing practise. The news of the death of James Harvey, a fine poet, a member of the avant garde poetry scene in London and a true and decent gentleman, brought into focus what matters - that if poetry does anything more than just bring people together in an atmosphere of exchange and expression and humour and intensity, then that is wonderful, but an excess. James had friends in poetry, and so last night was a gathering of friends, a circle that extended somewhat for one night to include poets from Mexico, Guam, the Cook Islands...but it was, palpably, a community. The room was completely full, they were turning people away because of health and safety limits and every poet on the bill was fantastic. It could not have been a warmer atmosphere and really left me with a good feeling about my involvement in the festival, which, if we're honest, is often contingent. The realisation was, that when things constrict, when it becomes about people as poets who you can reach and touch, communicate directly with, then the resonance is all the more, especially when their work is marked by innovation which in and of itself demands an attention to engagement and meaning as its defining mode. And it was an achievement to find a corner of this enormous festival and make it about a community that is often unfairly overlooked. Thanks to all who came.
The last day of Poetry Parnassus was really a way of saying farewell and recovering from the intensity of the Saturday. It wasn't exactly maudlin but without a doubt there was a note of relaxation and resignation to the proceedings. I had one more event to maintain, the final Maintenant celebration reading featuring six very different poets - Gerdur Kristny, Nigar Hasan Zadeh, Ilya Kaminsky, Agnes Lehoczky, Donatas Petrosius and Immanuel Mifsud. I thought the reading had its highlights and was nicely varied in tone and style. Many said afterwards they thought the reading really stood out. I had the chance to say a few words below, before Gerdur began in on Bloodhoof... This was it for my involvement in the festival.
As ever the great Ilya Kaminsky showed why he is held in such remarkable esteem around the world. Immanuel Mifsud has always been known to many as a poet and dramatist of the highest order, one who balances intimacy with relentlessness in the way few can. This reading evidenced beyond a doubt that his place is amongst the finest contemporary European writers and in person, was a genuinely moving and intensive experience.
The advantage of having a close friend who is also an amazing photographer is quite evident. More so when you are reading and organising events which, at the time of their happening, seem like simple, small occasions, but when time passes, you realise a record of them would be invaluable. When the record is a single frozen image, with all the indelible, and subtle, qualities that make up good photography, then it is all the more special. Alexander Kell's presence at the Poetry Parnassus was quite obviously important (in this picture to the left, i seem to be eating a swiss roll in one bite, which I dont remember doing)
These images really capture what was so personally important to me about the festival, it served as an occasion to bring my friends closer together through something I was fortunate enough to be doing, and the Rain of Poems was the night when it seemed most intense and even emotional. You can see more of Alexander's work here http://alexanderkell.tumblr.com/, and there are loads more images from the festival that will be up all over the place, including in an exhibition for the Poetry Library about the Poetry Parnassus