Sofia Poetics Festival - September 2012

I had the fortune of attending the Sofia Poetics Festival in Bulgaria thanks to curator Ivan Hristov, supported by Literature Across Frontiers. The International program of poets saw readings across the city, including a large final event in a public square and I was treated to extraordinary hospitality. You can find more about the festival here: & hear a podcast conducted by Ryan Van Winkle at the festival, for the Scottish Poetry Library, with myself and the Polish poet Tomasz Rozycki here Videos of my readings and a journal of the experience are below.

Sofia poetics: a travelogue by SJ Fowler

Day One: The hotel medic is removed. For my breakfast ticket I get sausage meat and cheese, which I don’t eat, but an espresso, which I will drink, having barely slept. At the end of the street, the sun is really warm in the morning, I can see mountains over the city. Everything’s big. I can’t read Cyrillic, so I can’t read street names, so I’m lost – I like to plan ahead, I’ll find food, to store in my mini-fridge, to maintain my healthy diet. Already too much white bread. The stray dogs congregating under the trees on the motorway island look lean protein. A children’s playground, a red dinosaur with smooth features and stumped limbs. Cyrillic graffiti. Here we go to the magic Mexican violin, people waiting for the bus, it isn’t too hot. A tower block corner shop. It’s Saturday morning. Soft apples and pulpy cappy. An underpass, slightly intimidating group of young men. They like my bear badge, and are disarmingly friendly. The underpass has shops, an internet cafe, which is full – the morning night holds no terrors, I can’t hear any of this anyway. I’m glad I dragged up early, not so glad I didn’t sleep a minute.

Boyana church, 13th century murals, a day trip of poets – generous of Ivan. An earthquake, a French academics praise. Sugary Orthodoxy, a smell of ... air conditioning. An absurd performer as guide – part jackolantern, spider, old man – kisses hands, clutches arms. Such wonders, he proclaims. Needy, small, even ugly in its two dimensions.

The orthodox smell of impotency is lingering. Descending the mountain I saw this morning. A protestant lunch, grilled chicken and nothing else. Lunch with poets. Tomasz effortlessly human, humanist, teaches French literature, from Wroclaw but not Silesian. Lvov? I prompt. Happy to have guessed right. Ivan – is the zoo happy? No, it is sad. Animals are sad. An effusive American, a taciturn American. Sat behind the driver in the car. Normally sitting on the rear left prevents the temptation of grabbing the driver as he steers, sending the car into oncoming traffic, but the sides are switched here. Romani horse carriages, rubber wheels. The horse nearly slips on motorway tarmac. The quiet American takes a picture from the car window. When we stop, the carriage catches us. The boys are muscular, dark skinned, flash bright, sly smiles. The quiet American has no choice but to be made shy. They liked you, I say, but I was watching the horse pass our hotel.

Off from the pack. Beluga – a noble Russian vodka. I come across an abandoned daytime nighclub called 666, just as Cash’s preachy music comes on the shuffle. I can buy what I like with my Lev, I have more potential with it then I am used to. It is exceedingly hot, I feel myself burning. I am not dressed for hot like this. Down Vitosha, this effortlessless, kittens, this beautiful city. It is not trying anything on snipers alley. Peace for travelling on foot. Air too.

Some lost time. I remember, on Vitosha, stopped by a man, literally. I hesitated, trying to move on politely. He calls me a ... and I move on, a wee bit soured. Soon forgotten. I find the Polish Insitute – a poster of Tomasz and Justina. Then the Goethe institut. The stalls before the Nevsky church. I chat with a man who has a shaved head, angry tattoos and a maltese cross flag draped across his chair. He is selling some Nazi paraphernalia amongst the trinkets. They don’t seem real, is my first thought. They seem too new. Was it so long ago, or so recently? From two stalls down I buy two badges, both feature cyrillic writing on tin. A scared black cat, back arched, and a viking longboat. I may be in trouble.

The parks, the backstreets, the little rivers. The Gralina Oberishte has breathtaking calumnic sculptures – women bathing, teeth, dogs, frogs and other animals. Children everywhere intercede on the sculptures behalf. A bit aimless now. Try to walk all the streets I’ve yet to walk. An unrealistic goal. I bump into flea from the red hot chilli peppers. I talk to him, and immediately feel guilty for invading his private time. He seems not to mind and we chat for a few minutes as we walk. I tell him I’m in Sofia to read, he tells me he is in Sofia to play music. I give him one of my books and politely leave. There are pimps at the top of Maria Luiza, and one or two stray prostitutes in the doors of a few seedy hotels. It’s 5pm. I turn down onto Veslets, the Polish institute is where we are reading. Veslets is home to some mad people.

I don’t speak Bulgarian or Polish. Tomasz again, ever the gentleman, Eva Lipska, whom I’ve read before we meet. The Polish ambassador to Bulgaria. Agnieszka from the institute, impeccably hospitable with astute, miniaturised coffees. An actress reading the translations = a lump in my brain is growing at the inevitable overstatement and evening meal of ham. Everyone means well. I am not too ill at ease. Enjoyable, even when indecipherable, even. I’m third to read. My poems are lean, even brusque. As ever I can’t tell what anyone makes of them, and as they are about anti-semitism, perhaps that’s just as well. The room is full and silent, they present, which is a good way to be I think. They want to be there at the very least. I don’t confuse silence with indifference. Poles read with stoicism, Americans with the opposite of stoicism. I hope to be somewhere in between. We all eat together then I walk home alone through the Saturday night of an unfamiliar city. The best bit for the end, getting lost in a dark park.

Day Two: A mass sleep. Cut my lip, shaving. A podcast with Ryan, who is becoming a friend. Hard koffee instead of red bull. A walk into the city. Everything is very much at ease. Ivan says Sofia is an Asian city at heart. More Asiatic than Byzantine. I happen to be reading Henri Michaux’s ‘A Barbarian in Asia.’

Inside the Nevsky cathedral. An immense dome to look up to. Not quite enough to comfort me. Paintings of mortal men trussed up as goldleaf gods. Not quite enough to convert me. Smells a bit of guilt, but not piety. Even the cathedral is casual, which means I can linger. A man is brushing the died candle wax with the reverse end of the broom.

I am able to guilt trip three grown men into visiting the zoo because I love zoo’s so much. Metschke and maimuna, bears and monkeys. There are the well bears and the mad bears. Pacing back and forth, losing their minds in a concrete set that is also a comfort, somehow. The monkeyhouse smells of more than burning hair.

The festival crowns in front of an enormous theatre. Disinterested hundreds, we are the few performers, which feels alien. The reading is meted out with brief applause. Calm again, a gentility. They are numerous, there is a stage dropoff, but where they stand is way back, into a park, as it darkens. Food again, a celebration. It feels as if something else should be coming, something far more difficult. This is not any form of work.

Day Three: Flying home. Goodbyes to Ivan, to Tomasz. Ryan and I are stitched, make plans accordingly: The Bulgarian does not kill the car, he / she parks it. They come in from the countryside and make things less safe but still more safe than other places. I will find out later that Sofia is listed as one of the most dangerous cities for crime in Europe, according to some reputable organisations. Seems hilarious coming back to London. The Bulgarian temperament can be generalised but I don’t know what that might be said to be, exactly. They are more careful than me and quieter than Americans. Sofia has an order, as a place, as a city of parks. Some frightened word which maintains its loveliness in the face of a certain understandable indifference. I noticed the stray dogs, certainly. Imagine a city that becomes an old map, faded, ink fractured, frayed, but fundamentally colourful, no longer even useful as a correspondent isomorph to the upper world, the world perceived when looking up. A map that can’t be used as a map.