IGNOR Festival : Ljubljana - October 25th to 28th 2018
A three day alternative poetry festival in Ljubljana, though my 9th visit to Slovenia, my first to perform. All thanks to Muanis Sinanovic and Dejan Koban, and the massive 20 folk strong team behind the fest, which took place in an abandoned military barracks called Metelkova.
(On our right, my performance and below, a poem I fashioned while on radiostudent as part of the festival)
The fullest of full moons on the first night in Ljubljana, I travel in with Astra Papachristodoulos and Scott Daughters from London, Astra will also perform. I see friends, knowing people in the city who aren’t the people I’m going to meet. Good and bad in that, not making it to the opening night. But apparently everyone decamps to a squat afterwards which is decorred with available browned mattresses and reasonably priced horse. Oh well, you can’t win.
The next day, performance day, I’m writing my thing during the day, with photos taken on this day, trying to shape it immediate and responsive. I scope out the venue, people try and sell me drugs, I’ve got my meds thanks, it’s an autonomous art squat space near the train station, very different tone than the rest of the plush city, and this is a theme, what perhaps the notion of IGNOR is about, being an alternative. The readings start on Balkan time. Basically all readings, in Slovenian, no performances, one spoken word thing, so perhaps the alternative is contextual rather than content based. Astra is great, as ever, she really has gifts in performance. It’s nice too to hang out with Muanis, who is responsible for my being here, who came to London for the first European Poetry Festival and is a considerable presence and poetry mind. Not without some pretty severe and wonderful humour too. He introduces me to some really warm and dry people.
ON MY PERFORMA : I did a Powerpoint performance, the third of this series in fact, following works in Bucharest and Dublin. Those first two were two of the best things I’ve done live. This was not quite there like those, but it was certainly an experiment for the audience within the context of the festival. Some things went fine, but perhaps diminishing returns on the concept, or my failing, my impatience crept into me with the night being quite standard readings in a language I don’t speak starting late and pulling, giving me an edge of harshness I didn’t necessarily plan on having. That does happen to me, I felt my humour was landing in chats but then up on a stage, with a mic, that kind of cut, it stings people a bit. I had a lot of positive vibes but definitely, as has happened to me in other countries when travelling and performing like this, a certain coolness crept into some people’s demeanours after the slightly savage fingertips of the performance were felt. Also the tech got proper balls up twice, in big ways, and that really did crush my rhythm. The second one, when music was supposed to play me out, left me without the possibility of my final words seeming sarcastic or satirical, as they’re supposed to me. All a learning process.
We all go to a bar after, which stays open til 2am, and I have colacao or whatever, hot choco and it’s the loveliest night, just chatting, laughing, the best of this kind of small poetry festival travelling thing.
ON THE RADIO: A full day after the night, hanging with Muanis and Astra again and then to a radio station on a student campus. We squish into a tiny room. Astra is so nice, Muanis asks her impossible questions which is tone setting. I am a pesnik. I was not honest but I was myself. ToO Much so. Listen to the last 10 minutes if you want a tastie. And my poem at the end, they put violion bowie under it. Apparently this radio has a radical politico history thing, but the intro makes it feel very much what people who have never been to slovenia think what slovennia is.
This is a curious interview. There was a ghost in the room, A ghost that was once a mushroom. This mushroom, when alive, walked into a pub. Everyone flocked around it. When a bystander asked, why, why? Someone else replied, because its a fungi to be with. I decided in the first half to speak quick and economic like and the second half pretend to be a prick because I was a bit tired even though I had no obvious reason to be. Who am I kidding? I was a prick all the time. I love Muanis’ enthusiastic use of the english word Yes. He even says Yea. I also love Astra’s pauses. They are poetically watertight. also you like slovenian? bio Steven J Fowler je angleški pesnik, gledališčnik ter vizualni in zvočni umetnik. Preveden je bil v 22 jezikov, prejel je nagrade različnih institucij (Arts Council England, Jarwood Charitable Fundation, Creative Scotland, Arts Council Ireland …), sodeloval je s Tate Modern, BBC Radio 3, Tate Britain, London Sinfonietta, Wellcome Collection in Liverpool Biennial. Bral je na številnih festivalih po svetu. Je urednik pri portalu 3am magazine in učitelj kreativnega pisanja na Kingston University. Sodeluje še pri številnih drugih projektih.
ON COLLABORATING WITH MAX HOFLER : Final night. Grungo. Spend lots of time with my old friend and collaborator Max Hofler and his wonderful partner Nikki, who is as bad as me if not much worse in the hard taste and impatience departments. Busy night at Metelkova. But again mainly readings and in slovenian, fair enough, but some acoustic guitar in there hmmm. Max does an amazing piece which seems entirely improvised. He is one of the very best at live poetry work I’ve ever seen. Here’s the video of Max’s performance and within it is a moment I got to collaborate with him again and it was actually very profound for me. We had not mentioned a word to each other, not a word and in the middle of the set he just called out my name and asked me up and we just did something and I think this is the feeling that actors might get doing something really good. There was just a beautiful moment after I finished playing the drums and said a word and it was well timed and back down I sat.
There’s a freaky disco afterwards and some creepers hanging about and a thunderstorm. One must know when to go. I’ve learned again on my travels that you find about yourself in that which you know you don’t fancy when others are doing. I see a person order three shots of something, drink them, then dance alone in a kind of melting motion. Not super friendly. I’m off.
A whole extra day in the city actually, following all this, a spare day. It thunderstorms and I sit in a cafe and have a beautiful day with Scott and Astra, who are the real deep highlight of the travel as we become fast friends. Then, an amazing privilege, Miha Mauric and Dejan Koban take us into the library of Tomaz Salamun, who was a man I met and who influenced me very much. It was a very beautiful finish to all things here and below you can read the piece I wrote about Tomaz after he died.
ON MY POEMS IN SLOVENIAN : also the FESTIVAL published : Simpanz, a short selected poems in Slovenian oh come on, these poems were translated by Muanis Sinanovic and include a selection of my works from many eons. they include poems, visual poems, art poems, but mainly word poems. they have poems from my favourite book of mine, if youll allow, Minimum Security Prison Dentistry, and my second favourite, Enthusiasm. they also have others.
i don’t think you can buy this book outside of slovenia, but why would you, as 5 people will read this and not one of them will speak slovenian. but for me, inside, to know that my poems can now be read in slovenia by those who do not speak english is actually amazing and quite beautiful.
i owe this pamphlet to the IGNOR festival, who produced it on inviting me to garble in Ljubljana in the october of 2018.
Simpanz means sympathy. No it doesnt it means chimp. No it doesnt it means Man.
dinner with tomaž: remembering tomaž šalamun 1941-2014
By SJ Fowler. https://www.3ammagazine.com/3am/tomazsalamun1941-2014/
It staggers me now to think of it, but my first ever meeting with Tomaž Šalamun was in a restaurant in Ljubljana, just he and I. We sat, just us two, and talked for many hours on a summer evening in his city. I had simply emailed him, blind, without him knowing me, and without me having done anything of note to claim his time or attention, and he responded immediately and generously, and suggested we meet.
Ljubljana is one of the most beautiful cities in Europe, Slovenia as a whole, one of the most beautiful countries. You’d not necessarily hear this from its citizens, who have the admirable self-deprecation of an intellectual, occasionally maudlin people, but amongst the baroque architecture and Habsburg openness to language and nationhood, they also possess one of the highest literacy rates in Europe, and a passion for poetry reflected in the books they shift and the poets they produce. Tomaž Šalamun was the greatest Slovenian poet.
He was a quiet titan who bestrode Tito’s communism and EU Europe with an ease and deference that was his hallmark. To speak to him or read his work was to be convinced these seismic changes were of secondary importance behind the actions and thoughts of each individual human being, whose true complexity and humour and love and expression were to be found in the layered, brisk, intelligent, timeless poetry that he penned for nearly fifty years. His reputation was as strong in America and the UK as it was across Europe and the rest of the world. He was, despite himself, a major poet of great significance.
At that time I was visiting Slovenia every year as a summer break, that country being a second home to me, Bled and Bohinj, the lakes, a place to try and write. And I had emailed him in a moment of boldness just because I was on holiday, and in reply he had asked me to dinner. By the time we met he had seemingly read my work, offered me compliments that showed a close reading that it didn’t deserve, connected me to my interview series, Maintenant, and showed that he had actually read many of those issues already. I later heard from younger Slovenian poets before we met he was telling people at festivals to look up the series and the work it was doing. He had his ear to the ground. And so we talked for hours, his manner famous for its intelligence, warmth, attention and generosity.
Soon he was telling me of his father and his family, its relationship with the multinational, pluralist nature of the Habsburg Empire, the line of doctors in the Šalamun line, then his own writing, his own life. His childhood on the Slovene coast, in Koper, the coast of Rilke, Saba, Svevo. Then his house in Bled, the history of Bled, for I couldn’t shut up about that place, and then, so casually, he transitioned into his time jailed under the communist regime, the time he said that made his name, made him famous. The time that made him so well known throughout his home nation that he had to flee to be able to write again, so cloying was the attention. Then his time in New York, in the late 60s and 70s, making his name again in America, where he went of his own volition, not by invitation, and the excitement of the poets and the poetry scene there, that he connected to just because of a chance conversation in a bookshop and not because anyone knew who he was for a single second. And his time in Iowa at the famous writers workshop. Then the great writers he knew from England, his great respect for those I mentioned and admired like Tom Raworth and Anselm Hollo, colleagues of his in the journey of a life spent in pursuit of poetry. And some great stories I won’t share too, some about Hollo, Iowa bars and the Viking poet coming up against ‘real’ people in rural America. A joke, a funny anecdote never more than a moment away even if he was talking about being in prison, telling me this was nothing, a very brief period, or being an unknown Slovene alone in New York city during its grimy glory.
And then that subject, himself, was done, as gracefully expressed to me, a young, eager, stupid dinner companion, as one could express such a thing. One’s own life, an incredible sprawling life that took in endless travel, endless writing, endless conversation and experience, condensed and relayed, out of politeness. Then it was questions about me, and beyond that, for much of our time, an endless, empassioned discussion about the young writers he had encountered. The depth and knowledge he had of those thirty, forty, even fifty years younger than him was incredible, deeper than my own about my peers. He had read their works, critiqued them, written letter after letter of recommendation, found them publishers, festivals, residencies. He had two or three generations of Slovenian poets in his debt, and beyond Slovenia, poets from around the world, and when thanked, as I was thanking him for meeting me, he would not hear that for a second.
His poetry has meant an enormous amount to me, as it has for so many who have followed him. It has the rare quality of being actually unique. Often labelled, quite bizarrely I think, as a surrealist, this reduction in and of itself is perhaps the best way to begin to understand his work. So dense, elliptical, circular and expressive to be beyond the comfort so many of his readers, it was this quality, always present in his work that he somehow, naturally I imagine, managed to hold together with a directness, a deftness, an accessibility and a conversational flow of language that was at odds with the complexity of the form and imagery. It was somehow as though this density required a brevity to complete it, to be his voice. These were bursts of insight, necessarily complex and winding, but given form as asides, refuting wisdom precisely because that is where it lies. His ability to remain singular in tone when evoking forms and language and ideas that were as wide as the potential of the poetic medium itself was his great achievement. This is what I have gleaned from his life’s work, that poetry is most authentic when it eschews linear authenticity, that the first note of poetry is sentiment and its greatest failing, that when a poet matures, or has any talent, they are like an artisan, they produce something that shocks upon encounter through great craft and that seems then, so easy in the world. As though it was always there.
Beauty of Man
by Tomaž Šalamun
Beauty of man is the furthest history.
We have pressed peaches.
Nobody is coming out from little huts.
We know, squeezed.
The building eroded into its horizon.
I didn’t propel anything that wouldn’t go to pasture.
I kneaded round kerchiefs inscribed above the fresco.
The one who doesn’t pledge the horizon,
how would he pay for it?
The tones don’t know what apples are.
The defense knows.
It bites the serene one.
The great blindness tells iodine:
dress up, stay.
Your little barrel is the arrogant’s clay.
And: on the white sand the grass grows.
I’m from tonight.
I never spoke to Tomaž at a reading or a festival. We never met when there was another person in the conversation. Just a few more times we met, each year or thereabouts when I was in Slovenia, Bled or Ljubljana, did we casually share dinner. We corresponded during his illness and as ever he was generous, energetic in writing, telling me of new plans and hopes to travel. Just back from Brazil he spoke to me of the exhaustion the trip had caused him and how inexplicable this seemed to him, past seventy years of age and unwell. This was a life spent with an energy and a soulfulness few can possess, a huge life traversing nations and political eras, and his was a mind so concentrated, so sharp and complex that I always thought of him as a man of capability somehow, not naturally kind or generous, but applied to himself as being so, as a responsibility, almost entwined with the sensitivity he suffered as a great poet. And this meant all the more to me, to see a man before me who I could learn everything from, that he had chosen a life of writing and a life of being open to people, to people younger than him, and the idea that they might be separate from him because of this seeming absurd. Tomaž was a man who chose to be a great poet and a great person, he chose to be that in the face of changes in his life and nation that he could not control and that at times tried to crush him. He was a courageous man, a truely gifted poet and gutted now, hearing of his death yesterday morning, I feel only privileged that my life crossed his and we shared those short evenings together in Slovenia.