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Thursday, 9 August 2012

Poetry Parnassus and the Paradox of International Poetry

written by the Judge

It hasn’t been long since Poetry Parnassus. The event took place between the 26th of June and the 1st of July, as part of the Cultural Olympiads, and it brought together more than two-hundred poets from all over the world for readings and debates. The scale of the project, even in retrospect, is staggering.

The event having lasted a week, and myself being constrained by the nagging trifle of having a job, I was only able to attend the events on the weekend, which disqualifies me from writing a proper review. This is just as well, because what I am interested in discussing here is not Poetry Parnassus itself as much as some aspects (and problems) of international poetry as they emerged from the festival.

I should start by saying that I thought the field day was a resounding success. The organisers did a superb job in bringing together a group of diverse and fantastic poets, including some real stars (my jaw pretty much dropped when I saw Gioconda Belli on the roster). All of the readings I attended were very interesting, and those I didn’t sounded just as promising. As importantly, the event offered myriad opportunities to pick up books of international poetry and find out information about literature from abroad, often by speaking with the foreign artists and/or editors in person. Myself, I walked away with a collection of contemporary Polish poetry and a pamphlet by a Persian author, two books that I look forward to reading in the coming days. So even though my arguments later in this article may seem critical of the festival, my final position should be clear from the start: great job, and do it again as soon as possible.

With these indispensable disclaimers out of the way, I was a little puzzled by certain of the invitations, particularly in light of what they meant in an event that declared itself as primarily international. Being interested above all in the European poetry scene, I did not look into many of the poets from North America, South America, or Africa (I’m aware that these represented the majority of the festival’s readers and I must stress once more that this article does not intend to review the festival as a whole). What struck me about the selection of the European poets was the fact that so many of them were already international by default. The choices always seemed to fall on poets who were fluent in English, professional translators from or into English, and often having lived away from their home country.

The prime example of this was Ilya Kaminsky. When I entered the site of the event, I found a list of poets by nationality. I immediately scrolled down to the link for Russia, as I am head-over-heels in love with the contemporary poetry scene from this country, and I was linked to Kaminsky’s bio. I had never heard of him before and I am unfamiliar with his work. A little reading told me that he was born in Odessa (which is in Ukraine, not in Russia, and that country has not been Russian since the fall of the Soviet Union), that he moved to the United States when he was sixteen, and that he writes in English. Presently he is, I quote from the bio, “professor of Contemporary World Poetry in the Master of Fine Arts Program in Creative Writing at the University of San Diego”.

I mean no disrespect to the man, but he doesn’t strike me as the quintessentially Russian poet. When interviewed by SJ Fowler for the festival, he spoke of Horace, Borges, and Whitman, and he answered the question “What are your thoughts on contemporary Russian poetry?” by discussing the merits of people like Mandelstam, Mayakovsky and Kharms, all of whom died decades before today’s most interesting Russian poets were even born (for a comparison, imagine answering a similar question on contemporary English poetry by talking of Yeats and Eliot). He also said, when asked about the extent to which he represents his country and culture, that: “Poets are not born in a country. They are born in childhood.” This may be true, but it skirts the important question of how being born in a particular country enriches, limits, colours or otherwise affects a poet’s work. This is how contemporary St Petersburg poet Darja Suchovej writes of buying a present for a friend (the translation is my own, and so is the transcription of the name, which I’m sure I messed up):

Recently the Ozegov vocabulary was released,
the last edition, there’s a dream,
acquiring it in some alley,
among other things because you can’t find a word
in the old one with either 
гз or жз; in the four
volumes of the eighties’ edition, likewise:
and in the older pages yet of the Pushkin-Tongue
vocabulary (four volumes in turn)
there isn’t flatiron, computer, refrigera-
tor, and distributor, and dialer,
nor even leader. But it’s clear with the
xa, the нa, the e
End of the quotes. We had some canapé. We ate
them, without thinking, together with vodka.

This is the type of uniquely national flavour which makes it so rewarding to investigate poetic scenes outside of our own, and it is unquestionably related to the environments where the artist was raised.

The case of other attendants was similar, if not quite as extreme. Elisa Biagini, from Italy, is a translator from English and an expert in American poetry. She has lived and taught in the US (though now she resides in Florence), and she writes in English as well as in Italian. Evelyn Schlag, from Austria, studied German and English literature and writes novels set in places like Quebec, where characters meet American poets like Elizabeth Bishop. Valérie Rouzeau, from France, is a famous translator of Sylvia Plath and Ted Hughes. So is Eli Tolaretxipi, from Spain, except that her specialty is on Plath and Bishop rather than Plath and Hughes (in her interview she cites four writers/poets, two of whom wrote in English, one in Swedish and only one in Spanish, and answers a question about her national poetic identity by saying that “rather than a country a poet has a home which can be anywhere”, which, again, misses the opportunity). Ironically, the poet whom I most readily associated with a European culture was Ryoko Sekiguchi, who represented Japan, but who lives in Paris and is a major voice in French poetry (I assume she must have a certain status in Japan as well, but I only know her work in French).

This is not to slight any of the above poets, much less the event’s organisers. I am not suggesting that these artists are not representative of their countries or that they were poorly selected. Rather, the argument goes the other way round – firstly, and as Fowler’s interviews suggest, these are poets whom by virtue of their international background are more likely to reject or downplay the role of nationality in writing than to foreground it. There is nothing wrong with this in principle, but in context of this festival, it left me with a bit of an unsated hunger. How does the rise of Silvio Berlusconi’s televisual, hegemonic politics-of-communication affect the Italian language and what can poetry do about it? How did the Spanish language respond to and reflect the shift in the perception of homosexuality that took place in Spain over the last decade? What is the attitude of the Russian poetic scene towards all these new Romantic poets who are dying young, like Boris Rizhy, Igor Davletsin, or Dmitrij Bannikov? Could the increasingly academic nature of poetry in France somehow be reflective of the left-wing’s struggles to communicate with its base, thus favouring the rise of populist right-wing parties, and if so, what is to be done? These are all important questions which cannot simply be discarded by saying, as one poet did, that “a woman has no country” (this being a quote by Virginia Woolf, it was also rather wastefully made, which perhaps exemplifies my point – you don’t need to invite an international poet to London if you want to hear people quoting Woolf).

Secondly, to continue my argument, it may be objected that I am putting the cart before the horse. It is easier to communicate with poets from an international background, so naturally they would be the first to attend such events, right? This is true, but it only highlights the difficulty (and the real challenge) of dealing with international poetry – that it is interesting precisely to the extent that it is difficult to mediate with it. A festival such as Poetry Parnassus, despite some of its more grandiloquent terms (the “World Poetry Summit”? Seriously?) is, in this particular sense, hindered by its own size. While it is a great chance to meet individual foreign poets and be exposed to their work, it simultaneously risks projecting an anglocentric understanding of global poetry – which is the trap one must try to avoid. It is true that most poets today speak English anyway because, well, most people speak English. The question that is worth exploring, however, is what can be done with other languages that can’t be done with English. For all the commendable good will of the Parnassus, the great paradox of international poetry remains that the best people to ask are those who are most inapt to answer.


  1. Posted on behalf of Alistair Noon!:

    Dear Andrea,

    Thanks for the review. As a UK-born-and-bred poet based long-term in Berlin, I didn’t get to hear any of the readings (I guess I am one of those international poets…). Your review was a useful fill-in for me, even though you very carefully state what you’re reviewing and what you’re not.

    There seem to be two separate strands to your criticism, one of which I am totally down with, the other one I would like to express some niggles about, which may be about emphasis more than anything else.

    The first strand, if I’m reading you right, is your concern with what is really going on out there in the big wide world, both poetically and politically. I agree that the ether of international poets going from residency to stipend to whatever across the known globe is unlikely to provide the full depth of engagement with national specifics that might be possible. The national case study – and we continue, of course, to be shaped by the nation-states we happen to live in – remains important. This applies whether you’re writing in, from, about or otherwise in relation to the country you grew up in or not.

    But I’m not sure there’s a clear divide between the “rooted”, nationally based poet and the international one. You may have consciously simplified the distinction for the sake of making a valid polemical point. But if so, I think the simplification is problematical enough to require comment. Which brings me to the second strand in your argument.

  2. Part 2 of a post from Alistair Noon:

    The phrases “uniquely national flavour”, “national poetic identity” and “quintessentially Russian poet” really are putting the cart before the horse, as you suggest yourself they might be. They imply that our criterion for interest in a poet might be partially or wholly based on the extent to which they conform to some (notional) uniqueness of a particular country.

    Getting at what is going on poetically in different countries is not necessarily the same thing as finding those countries’ “national poetic identity”. To hijack your Woolf quote, “a woman has no country” and its implied opposite of “a woman has *a* country” are not the only options. There are all kinds of gradations of engagement a poet might or might not have with the country/countries they grew up in or are now resident in.

    Given the maelstrom of differences and yet commonalities that have always characterized cultures – Marco Polo got his head round medieval China fairly quickly because it resembled medieval Europe in many ways – it’s reductive and possibly distorting to mark up the differences rather than the commonalities. The current stage of globalization has strongly homogenizing aspects of course. But through real and virtual migration it also throws up again the complexities of identity that have always existed despite the periodic best efforts of national states to stamp them out.

    You write:

    “I am not suggesting that these artists are not representative of their countries or that they were poorly selected. Rather, the argument goes the other way round – firstly, and as Fowler’s interviews suggest, these are poets whom by virtue of their international background are more likely to reject or downplay the role of nationality in writing than to foreground it. There is nothing wrong with this in principle, but in context of this festival, it left me with a bit of an unsated hunger.”

    Forgive me if I’m being obtuse: I think you are indeed suggesting that they’re not representative of their countries, or at least not representative enough. And here you figure the foregrounding or otherwise of nationality as primarily a biographically determined position (and I wouldn’t dispute that it is that as well) rather than at least in part being a substantive political position. I’ve met people and poets who’ve never left their home country but think internationally, and international travellers totally wrapped up mentally in their home country. I think any festival aiming to reflect the globality of poetry must include the “international poet” as well as the more nationally focussed.

    You’re careful to admit the legitimacy of the international poet, but seem uncomfortable with where to place them. Shameless self-promotion: there’s an essay of mine from a few years back which has a go at exploring these matters specifically in relation to Anglophone poetry, and which might offer another way to place them (http://longbarrowpress.files.wordpress.com/2011/04/translocal-underground-by-alistair-noon.pdf)

    I think the paradox you end with – “the best people to ask are those who are most inapt to answer” – could be less elegantly rephrased as something like: “those who are relatively inapt to answer definitely also need to be asked”.

    There is yet another paradox here of course – I quite take your point that the international poet often turns up at such festivals – indeed doing so is PART of being an international poet. But the conceptual framework of festivals is often quite rigidly national (this is often determined of course by who’s funding it, which is often embassies or nationally based arts organizations corresponding to the British Council).

    Apologies if any of this is incoherent, I’m firing it off after having been given a lot to think about.

    Best wishes from Berlin

  3. Alistair has also asked me to post this 'PS':

    PS My girlfriend has just made an obvious point which I rather humourlessly overlooked. If Olympic athletes can compete for countries they've spent five minutes in, then maybe it's legitimate for poets to "represent" countries they might not be too strongly connected to...


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