Poetry International Festival in Rotterdam

For poetry lovers and indeed language lovers in general – this is a festival not to be missed. Inspired by the London Poetry International Festival, it was begun almost half a century ago by Adriaan van der Staay and Martin Mooij. Since the first gathering of 23 international poets at the Doelen concert building in Rotterdam, 48 years ago, the Poetry International Foundation has expanded its activities to include National Poetry Day in the Netherlands and Flanders, the Children’s Poetry Festival, the Poetry Day prizes and the Poetry Day anthology and many other events. More recently, the Poetry International Website was established which includes an online poetry magazine with over twenty international partners who publish poems, translations, audio recordings and relevant articles.

Wednesday, 29th May:

I had the pleasure of attending a variety of events at the festival and was introduced to the work of a range of poets from as far afield as Russia, Jamaica and Myanmar.  The afternoon began with the reading of 3 poems by exiled Mexican poet, Dolores Dorantes. An established journalist, poet and activist in her native city of Ciudad Juarez, Dorantes applied for exile status in 2011 after receiving death threats.  The readings, in both Spanish and Dutch,  were taken from her most recent collection – Copia (Copy) and, aptly enough,  took place on the premises of Publication Studio, Rotterdam, a small, independent publishing initiative that began 9 years ago in Portland, USA. It prints and binds books onsite, one at a time, on demand in an effort to help writers and artists reach a public.

Half of the profits go to the authors and only sustainable materials and processes are used. Speaking with Dolores Dorantes afterwards, she told me that Copia is in fact a fragment of a whole book, due to be published in Spanish later this year. Including pictures and other graphics, it is her first truly conceptual work and focuses on the concept of copying, in every sense of the word. ‘Without the process of copying, life and reality do not exist.’  Drawing on her own experience as an exile, Dolores describes, Copia as ‘a kind of litany for all those seeking refuge’.

‘One is more interesting to society as a consumer than a poet’ – Ida Börjel.

Perhaps most interesting for me as an ex-poetry student, was the next event, which involved interviews with two female poets; Ida Börjel of Sweden and Safiya Sinclair of Jamaica. Ida is one of Sweden’s most well-known conceptual poets, her focus; the investigation of the language of power. In her most recent collection, Miximum Ca’Canny (The Sabotage Manuals, 2016), Ida grapples with the language of the law as she rewrites a Swedish law, designed to codify the relationship between the buyer and the seller. In so doing, she attempts to infuse this apparently ‘neutral’ language with ‘some emotions and psychology’ so that one might understand it as ‘a love story between the buyer and the seller’. Part of her inspiration for such a project is that, ‘one is more interesting to society as a consumer than a poet’ and so she attempts to disassemble and repair texts such as these, which are ‘hiding from themselves’. If this sounds a little Foucauldian, it may well be, but this does not detract from the originality of Ida’s work in the field of poetry specifically as she tackles financial reports,  government policy documents and legal statutes from the perspective of a poet.

Safiya Sinclair continues to grapple with the, ‘otherness’ of the post-colonial experience, or, as she put it, ‘writers need to probe the wound that made them’. Her debut collection, Cannibal, came out in September, 2016. The title was inspired by the fact that the word has the same etymology as ‘Caribbean’ and is thus directly linked to the colonial idea of ‘the other’ as ‘the cannibalistic other’. Drawing for inspiration on The Tempest’s, Caliban, she spoke of wanting to ‘colonise The Tempest’ by letting ‘the masters work for me’.  Such an approach echoes that of Nobel Laureate, Derek Walcott, although as a woman, Safiya is also interested in ‘toppling [both] imperialist and patriarchal systems’.

‘It’s not life, but we sip from it anyway’ – Zeyar Lynn.

Time for a change of pace? Indeed, and this came in the form of a thoroughly enjoyable hour spent listening to five highly distinct but equally memorable performance poets. They were; Zeyar Lynn (Myanmar), Nora Gomringer (Germany), Ali Calderon (Mexico), Maria Stepanova (Russia) and Danez Smith (USA). Although the original Burmese version of Zeyar’s poems was probably incomprehensible to the majority of the audience, the sounds of the language alone were worth listening to/ worthy of attention. High and low, long and short, singing and chanting, the effect was hypnotic and added a distinct flavour to the translated version on the screen in front of us. Reading the words of Zeyar’s poems, it quickly became clear that this is a poet of eclectic tastes and sensibilities. His work includes references to local history and customs alongside mention of ‘the Tate’, ‘Sitting Bull of the Sioux’, Hong Kong Poetry Nights, ‘New York’ and ‘horror flicks’.  The undercurrent of playful humour discernable in many of his poems, belies a skilful ability to fuse old and new, dark and light, East and West with apparently effortless charm. Strongly influenced by greats like Neruda, Lorca and Desnos – a line from one of his poems about kissing – ‘It’s not life, but we sip from it anyway’ seems to capture his attitude to the art of poetry.

Speaking of kissing and comedy, acclaimed German poet, Nora Gomringer’s poem, Herpes Waltz, explores kissing with an undeniably dry German humour, read to the rhythm of a waltz! The language of her poetry is often simple. She uses repetition, rhythm and play on words to strong affect as she delves into complex subjects including, Auschwitz from the perspective of Anne Frank and her sister, Margot and the little-known practise of child slaves that continued on farms in Germany and Switzerland until the 1970’s.  But Danez Smith’s performance was a stand out. The themes of his work as a self-confessed ‘black queer’, recently diagnosed as HIV positive, are not new but the power of his words and  oratory brook no argument. Reading  From “summer, somewhere”  and  Dear White America, it is easy to see why he is known also as a Youtube star. But it is not only his talents as a performer, in Dear White America, the prose are deft and cleverly crafted:

dear white america

i’ve left Earth in search of darker planets, a solar system revolving too near a black hole. i’ve left in search of a new God. i do not trust the God you have given us…. take your God back. though his songs are beautiful, his miracles are inconsistent.

Test tube poetry?

Last but not least, the day ended with a debate on conceptual poetry involving Christian Bök, a Canadian poet who, together with Kenneth Goldsmith describes himself as one of the founders of conceptual poetry, highly acclaimed Dutch poet, Nachoem M. Wijnberg and Ida Börjel. In its most extreme form, conceptual poetry is concerned with what Christian described as ‘the limit cases’ of writing. Writing that may elicit a response of, ‘that’s not writing’. Under this umbrella comes plagiarised or copied writing, writing that is illegible – designed to be looked at, not understood and work written by machines. ‘We are interested in uncreative writing’, in ‘generative processes’ and experiments with writing that ‘pushes the limits of language’ rather than expressive poetry. In keeping with such an approach, Christian has written the first bacterial poetry (for want of a better name). This involves taking a poem or line of poetry and translating it into genetic code. This code is then placed in a test tube holding ecoli bacteria. The bacteria are able to respond to the genetic material introduced into the tube and this leads to the creation of a new protein which can itself be ‘translated’ into code and ultimately back into language.

If this sounds more like science fiction than poetry to you, Nachoem shares your feelings. A self-confessed fan of traditional art forms, he believes that the visual arts, ‘went in completely the wrong direction’ and conceptual poetry of the kind practised by Christian and Kenneth may well be seen as poetry’s answer to the sorts of art work one might see in the Tate Modern. As Christian said, ‘just the idea or concept of the poem is enough in itself’ not the end product. However, he also asks where the Homers of the modern world are and why poetry is proving inadequate to record and celebrate the defining moments of modern civilisation e.g. man’s first landing on the moon. I’m not sure that poems in test tubes are necessarily the answer but no one can fault the sheer originality of such an idea.

With this I leave you. Look out for more on the poetry festival later this week!    Souwie Buis   1st June 2018


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