Struga Poetry Festival - August 21st to 28th 2018
With the opportunity to give the last reading of the festival, in Skopje's Daut Pasha Hamam, I said that I’ve had nearly 2000 weeks on the planet and this week was up there with the best. Embarrassed by the week behind me, I told the truth. 56 Struga festivals before us, behind me.
A week in Macedonia. The Struga Poetry Nights. Translucent time, hectic, furious but also gentle, diaphanous. This kind of altered rhythm of consciousness descends, a dislocated holiday from reality, a soft military excursion for poetry. The ether turned up, like a week on whippets.
The overriding feeling, reflecting upon it, a few days out, is about the sensation of sincerity without sentimentality that so marked the Macedonians running and steering the ship, and how that permeated into some really wonderful poets / poems / people / experiences.
Pedigree, an extraordinary history, coming into being during the early 60s and extending Yugoslavia’s idiosyncratic connections to independent post-colonial states and a myriad of political allies outside the Russia / US binary. Struga poetry is in Macedonia something that we in the UK do not have. It's important. I'm really happy to be invited, because not many english poets are, because its a cauldron of tradition that I feel bonded too. Global poetry. A friend who has been who has heard I'm invited tells me when he was invited it made the 2nd page of the national newspaper. In England not a single soul will notice. Good. All the better. Monkey in the shadows.
Mite Stefoski welcomes me at the gate. Charisma, and from him, all full of life and humour and hospitality. I've energy for all this, feels like it's going to be something.
Not only have poets like Auden, Neruda, Ritsos, Rozewicz, Senghor, Krleza won the main prize but 100s of proper good poets have attended every year for over half a century.
The opening night - a madness aesthetic (game of thrones theme music, girls with flaming torches and barb wire fences around the stage). Really loving it, its tickling me. The call to prayer kicks in while Adam Zagajewski is reading. I could not have planned more, had I that power. A feeling of lineage. Palpable during director Mite's speech and his segway into a video of Allen Ginsberg reading a text he wrote for the fest. A sense of history and histrionics, so pleasantly unstable.
All told I do 8 performances in 7 days. I am to be adopted / befriended (maybe) by well past 30 poets. I enjoy a kind of courtesy love within hospitality from the Macedonians I meet. I watch nearly 24 hours of readings and do not expire. I get to bobb around the southern Balkans, and lose time, not knowing one day from the next.
Opening night, I am testing the waters. Not sure if my monkey-game performance-readings will fly here, worried about offending, don’t want Mite to get embarrassed if I do some shenanigans and it reflects badly on him should people think I’m a prick.
There’s always curtains at festivals, you can move around and never peek behind, happy, but I try to edge them back – running events so much myself. I know too that the experiential is the poetry, the context is the juice, not really the poems. I try and spend time with the people organising - gorjan, marija, boban, magda, nastasija, nikola. Hard not to get stuck at their hurdle, such a beautiful set of folk. A really warm, funny, dry family they have formed. They are a constant throughout the week, so tired, so decent, I look for and to them. I definitely do some performances just with them in mind.
First reading, during the wargames opening, I just try a little cheeky intro and it confuses people, my one poem is kind of flat. I read last, United Kingdom being the U at the end of national alphabetical orders. This will be a theme.
I fall into some immediately wholehearted conversations with some of the other poets. Friendships beginning proximately. Lots of laughter, it builds throughout the week. 8 days we are here. Martyrs together. Some people are indifferent, of course, as ever, some times this is chance, some times not. But cold fish do not abound. Ida Borjel, Morten Langeland, Jay Millar, John Mateer, Shimon Adaf, Ana Brnadic, Cosmin Perta, Yekta, Hussein Habasch, Martin Glaz Serup, Anne Seidel, Istok Ulchar, Pauli Tapio, Vladimir Levchev, Tiziano Fratus and more and more. One is spoiled for company. Unpretentious, full of a generosity rare even at these things. Obnoxiousness exists everywhere and is about but not really, not the English cynical calculated nox. Intoxicating early, and I'm not even drinking.
Second reading, on the lake itself, a floating stage, I try some play. I talk a bit of shit, wander about when my translations into Macedonian are being read and then take off my shoes at the end, paddle in the lake. It’s encouraging. I need more info on the festival’s culture, the audience, the spaces. But I'm getting good signals to up the apery.
The Macedonians are flatly sincere. It bleeds into all the foreigners I think. When things aren’t quite on flow, its meant with love, with a magical orthodox colourful sea reflected energy and humour, the kindly madness of an aunt. Lots of long chats in the mess hall dinner room, in the hotel Drim, which was built for the festival. Built for the poetry festival. A hotel for the poetry festival, on the exquisitely massive Lake Ohrid, flocked with tourists but not jammed with them, enough to make the poets seem scant-ish, enough that the hotel hosts a couple of banging Balkan weddings. I go down to breakfast lunch dinner buffets everyday without company and leave everytime after talking to many people for over an hour.
I come to Struga with words in my ears from very close friends, endre ruset, harry man, knowing my friend the late tom raworth came here back in the 60s, and I think I might not fit the remit, sooo hot they say and lots of drinking, but Im here and its really wonderful. I walk around the town everyday, find the brutalist openair market, a good supermarket, a little time alone to reset, a few runs the blistering heat. I see loads of handsome swaggering local dudes jumping from the famous bridges, plunging the drim. One has an Albanian eagle tattooed across his chest in outline relief. It looks temporary. Curiously they don’t ever make aggressive eye contact toward me as their peers might in engerland. I feel beautifully ignored in my tasteless shirts and canary shorts. I’m reading Czeslaw Milosz’s land of ulro on a bench, drinking something like iron bru but with more chemicals. Women are friendly, I must seem unthreatening to them, in comparison to the balkan chest puff they are used to.
Shimon Adaf's reading wakes me. I feel ashamed for not listening as well as I might, until he forces me to, to readings, for I am erroneously suspicious about them. He absolutely renders me, extraordinary. It makes people solidify.
John Mateer, utterly absorbing, his readings complete his poetries, so rare that that is the case. Elliptical, investigative, careful, clever. They are prose-ish with poetry caverns you fall into.
Anne Seidel, so intent, decisive, assuring. Her poems are wary, intelligent, spiritual, in the best sense. I keep thinking of Simone Weil.
Ida Borjel. Not the first time. I'm reminded that one can be well aware and yet still a chest just complete open. A poet can be critical in their fingerbones and still their eyes are open, they are kind with the blade. Amazing.
This was one bloody reading, these four, above me. They're teaching, giving permissions. Struga has brought these people together.
My third reading, im trying to remember, a poem in front of a monastery, a lovely morning. I'm standing at the back, smelling a thing I've pulled off a tree. I lie in my intro and suggest I wanted to burst through a banner, but that’s it.
The poets are always around. Yekta, charismatic and present, requiring the latter of the listener. Tiziano Fratus, holding things together to refocus where we are. Pauli Tapio, resonant and universe building. Morten Langeland, clipping things off and stuffing them back into animal images, beyond the story of that. Ana Brnadic, dignity and clarity and hooks. Ghayath Almadhoun, all intense and size and pain. Martin Glaz Serup, graceful and clever and beauty psycho. Jay Millar, wry and clear and I'm reading his book on my bed. Vladimir Levchev, writing a black book all week on endangered species. Indre, bringing the forest to the city, Hussein Habasch, all human and word decent. Josep Pedrals, never with a piece of paper, an aura. Tatev Chakhian, palpable courage, control too. Cosmin Perta, werewolf commanding magical badgers.
Fourth work, from my eight Struga works, oh its on the Lake again. I scout it out in the afternoon. I first float a set of my poems on paper in the lake knowing the current will take it under the stage, while I'm playing techno game of thrones music from the opening night. I actually practise this alone in the day, and I catch them wet as they pop out the other side, sticking them to the screen and reading them off that. The second poem, Gorjan, my translator, I convince him to read the English and teach me the Macedonian, which I gladly butcher. This seems to go down well, like a syrup.
Permission is building for more. Time with others away from one's home. It can be terrible. It can be changeable. It can be lightening. I keep waiting for this week to not be really something else. It remains otherwise, remains a bit magic. I work out, this is my 51st poetry festival. Feels significant.
The fifth reading, the fifth with Kalen Damowski (sic). Kalen approaches me after my paddling, says I'm his favourite poet. I've won the locals over, he could not be more charming, both him and his mother, so I ask him and his mum, who is an actor, Arna, who must read 200 times in this week, reading our translations, rresponsibly and expressively, with Robert, another actor, if he is willing to perform with me, be my surrogate and collaborator. I call him up on stage as the greatest Macedon since alexander. He smashing my ‘There’s the newly deaf dolphin’ poem to bits. I’ve made a friend for life. I find out he was ill in the day after he agreed to the reading, thinking on it. Bravery.
Wine Poetry Judgement. Daytrips. Up earlyish. I keep going to bed early though, knowing in the past I've got so tired at festivals that I become catatonic. A boat ride to St Naum, whose heartbeat can be heard if one is willing to kneel and earpress the floor. I’m alright thanks. I dance around that a wee bit, go walking. The Lake itself is vast, it was wonderful to be upon it. To boat journey itself is rare in the 21st century. Its festive, to feel motion beneath one’s travel.
On the way back I am roped in to judge an impromptu poetry competition with poems about wine. I fashion a conceptual commentary on corruption and levy for my friend Ida Borjel to win and announce the award as such. Certain moments I wonder if when I reach my best amusements they appear to be for myself and I alienate other, more decent people. I catch myself every hour, tell myself to shut up. Beautifully Mite also gave us bottles of wine, a drink I have not drunk for over 12 years, and asked us to write new poems on the label.
Language Calamities in a thundersoaked Ohrid, that was barely seen, but hours spent in a 1000 year old church as Adam Zagajewski receives his golden wreath award. It proves to be a fruitful environment for some memorable conversation, some belly laughter with Cosmin Perta and Clara Riso, and losing myself in Polish / Macedonian readings. I manage to write a few poems here too. But this grand event in Ohrid did provoke in me some thoughts on things I don’t normally consider at festivals - poetics. Normally the busman’s holiday syndrome means thinking through poetry is so constant and negotiated that the provocation of the poetry I see and read (hundreds of poems in translation normally) and the stuff I don’t like flows away. Things better left dead in the water. But before Adam’s reading a speech was circulated by an academic who had written on his poetry and legacy. It was proposed his poetry was a kind of antidote to what was called language calamities. It made my fingertips and other extremities tingle with glee. Naturally at first I thought it a really stupid essay, a straw man argument away from my the fact that the writer evoked the death phrase ‘poetic genius’, unhelpful for everyone involved. But I tried to keep rereading, thinking it carefully through (having more than ample time – the event being considerable). The author didn’t really deal with much in depth but there was something in this I could feel empathy for. It was trying to suggest, legitimately, that Adam’s poetry is a kind of life-raft against certain kinds of existential pain, because it is appears as immediately humanistic, containing all of Adam’s intelligence, subtlety and gesture. His poetry is a knowing poetry and he admirably makes few claims for the things the critic author was suggesting his poems could do. But in that notion I felt the author’s idea a little clearer than at first read, and precisely because I saw them cough through their speech in an orthodox palace. I realised it was for the desire of being saved that they felt Adam and his poetry could save them, from something inevitable. I, like that author, also wanted saving, from very long readings, and then death and pain and madness after that. I just don’t think anyone can help me with those things. Certainly not a poet. Maybe a doctor? I also don’t think I’m able to move beyond the miracle of human language itself, and the lack of appreciation we have for its arbitrary character and what damage that does to us. But something in the heavy statement of people in churches is always to be learned and maybe I felt defensive, that they were addressing me, and my obvious language calamities. The word butchering I take so little pride within.
A poet asks me whether I thought hearing a poet read 7 poems 7 times in 7 days rather than 7 poems once was better or worse. I replied it depended on the poet. Some great readings, some not so. That must happen. There must be some proper full blown milky mini-milk soft buttery eyes like moons poems. For it's poetry in the world, poetry is always, and will always, be a tuxedo with clown shoes. This gives power to those not flapping, gives me a huge advantage here, to play. My sixth reading. I'm still careful. I have often found myself misjudging the tone, misaligning it to the right space, place, audience and context. It has taken me years to learn what is not appropriate but juste (sic) as my friend Yekta has said to me. Before each of my things I ask a member of the Strugans, often Mite himself, to choose the level on the ape scale. 1, a reading. 2, a gesture. 3, a strangeness. 4, a provocation. At first, it was 1. Then 2. This is the big closing newyearseve looking ceremony is Struga. I'm on stage for hours, reading last. They've built a massive platform for us, on the bridge itself. We're on Macedonian TV. I have lots of ideas and even try to smuggle something under the bridge. But I'm asked instead to throw some origami boats off the bridge and into the water. That'll do. I'm a good boy and this is a spectacular end. The pictures capture something that wasn't even recognised when there.
We leave Struga, on a big bus, together. Some goodbyes at the door. Matka Canyon. (Macedonian: Матка, meaning "womb") A hydro electric dam leading to the canyon, of course. A giant sized carabiner slammed into the rock face, for whom? A web address carved into wood, stuck onto the rock. Lunch is great fun, Ghayath Almadhoun makes people laugh to crying, holding court, in his element, touring the world in snoring stories. He tells of how when sleeping next to a pair of french bulldogs their snores synchronised like periods. We give a reading, not the first where background and side noise is competitive. I read eating, thanking the staff, mouth full of pastry and cream, fighting my poem.
Into Skopje, pretty romantic final night, sadness and something as well as all the energy. The final reading is in the Hammam art gallery, the art is questionable, the company not so. It's another marathon, hot in the inner dome. I'm getting used to it, it's endurance and opportunity, for me to prowl about the back, coming in and out of attention, thinking liminally. I've got the last slot again. No pressure, the last reading of the last reading. I just make sure to thank. The last word to the locals. Nikola, Marija, Magda, Nastasija, Boban, and Mite, for god’s sake. My last performance is me pretending that I won't perform, a bait and switch classic, and then asking Yekta to join me by playing piano. We hatch this through chance. Arna tells me that day that Kalen has played piano there an hour after I see Yekta play in the hotel lobby in Struga. I blow bubbles from a rabbit as he plays after my poem. It's pretty lovely.
Then fly home, deal with that. A week entrenched in the mind, so many things that many are lost, needed but not known to be needed, killing a strange summer and opening some new human roads to new things that will carry with them the wonder of their beginnings in Macedonia.