Sunday, 15 July 2012

Poetry Parnassus: a short report

The festival village - an information hub, meeting place, refuelling stop and chillout space for all poets and everyone else who took part in Poetry Parnassus - was the venue for a modest welcoming party thrown on Monday evening 25 June for those of us who had arrived by then, prior to the festival proper beginning the next morning. There we had a chance to meet the team that put this mammoth undertaking together and made sure it didn't collapse under its own highly-ambitious weight. Massive kudos and thanks to all for their enterprise and energy - though I must especially mention Jana Stefanovska and festival organiser, Anna Selby.

So, to my own contributions: Tuesday morning's 'Tradition vs Innovation' panel discussion for the World Poetry Summit was well attended, and immaculately chaired by Steven Fowler. Starting from my take on Gysin's quote, we discussed several interconnected issues including the collaborative possibilities of poetry, the effects of the Internet and technology on composition, multiple publishing platforms, and the appropriation of the interrogative practices of contemporary art. There was a healthy balance of agreement and disagreement, and views were further exchanged in response to questions from the floor which, interestingly, focused primarily on issues of funding.

That same evening (26 June) I read at the Maintenant reading, which took place parallel to the official 'Festival Launch' and at a hard-to-locate room. Despite this it was full to capacity (nearly 100 people) for what was an electric session. Unfortunately Serhiy Zhadan was unable to travel to London at all, but the remaining six poets on the bill presented our varied work to an attentive audience. Footage of my reading is below, while videos of the rest of the evening can be viewed here.

We finished in time to make it to Jubilee Gardens and witness the Rain of Poems. It was a breezy evening, ensuring that the tens of thousands of poems dropped from the helicopter onto the large crowd below got dispersed over a fairly large area of central London, initially missing their target altogether - but following multiple positional adjustments we were treated to the experience of flickering cards with poetry dropping down on us and turning us into children scurrying not away from but towards these bombs, and fighting over scraps of words on paper. (Many poets were lucky enough to find or be given the cards displaying their own poems; if anyone happens to have come across one of those with my poem on it I'd appreciate at least an image of it!) A wonderful event, captured by the cameras of Casagrande:

On to Wednesday, and the experiment of the Poetry Bench, for which I read to a closely gathered audience of 5 or possibly 6 people for around 15 minutes. It was a rather unexpected pleasure to be interrupted between (and even during) poems to provide further contexts, and to be coerced into a dialogue with the group as if I was reading for them in someone's living room.

There were several other projects I got involved in during the week, such as the making of a one-off handwritten edition of all visiting poets' anthology-featured poems on paper made from fibres from around the world. Films were made of each of us reading these poems, for the Poetry Library archive. On another morning I joined several others in making a recording for 'A Call to Poetry', a sound installation to be broadcast on the Southbank Centre's Riverside Terrace until the end of the Festival of the World in September (the idea was to record poems in as many languages as possible, so I chose to read 'Το Πίσω Περβόλι' from Spitting Out the Mother Tongue, which is the one poem in the collection entirely in the Cypriot dialect of Greek).

Each visiting poet was given a 'buddy', a London-based poet with the responsibility of easing us in or making introductions. My 'buddy' was Dean Atta, who among other activities co-runs the 'Come Rhyme With Me' spoken word series on the last Friday of every month in north London, and to which he invited me on Friday 29 June to listen to his other guests as well as do a short set. The vibe was relaxed and friendly and I thoroughly enjoyed the evening. Attending it meant that I had to forgo tickets to the festival's main gala reading featuring all the Nobel laureates and so on, but I'd say it was worth it...

By the end of Parnassus I was full to the brim with poetry, and exhausted by talk, debate, new encounters, general excitement and lack of sleep - but wonderfully content. My concerns about the tone and meaning of the festival were extinguished before they even had a chance to take hold: there was a clear understanding that each of us was present as an individual poet, not necessarily tied to the nation they represented - with the organisers going as far as describing its ethos as anti-Olympic in its refusal of the bombastic, the materialistic, the prescriptive. Beyond that, the atmosphere was overwhelmingly positive. I felt none (or very little) of the competitiveness that often accompanies groups of poets performing at the same venues, and was treated to some really excellent work of diverse types. I met many brilliant, committed and energetic poets, editors, translators, publishers etc and left with renewed vigour and optimism about what can be done within the discipline we call poetry.


For the Poetry Parnassus tour I arrived in Derry on the evening of Wednesday 4 July - and for my workshop at the creativity zone on Queen Quay the next day I directed the writing of collaborative pieces based on the words 'Songs', 'Of', 'The', and 'Sea', using a variant of the exquisite corpse technique. The weather was fabulous and there were lots of activities going on along the quay, all of which meant that our workshops were a little poorly attended despite the great work put in by Catherine McGrotty of the Verbal Arts Centre. In the afternoon Nick Chapman of Speaking Volumes - the organisation that managed the tour - as well as Maureen Roberts and myself were briefly interviewed on site by BBC Radio Foyle. Maureen and I read a poem each on air.

The 'Literary Deathmatch' of the next evening took place in a fun and appropriately tongue-in-cheek atmosphere at the Verbal Arts Centre. The final was contested by Saradha Soobrayen, Gerður Kristný and Maureen Roberts - with Maureen going on to 'win' comprehensively. As for me, I was duly eliminated in the first round.

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