A new Prague anthology celebrates the Vltava as a river of slain crocodiles, viziers and rotgut

Sylva Fischerová, photo: David Vaughan

If you enjoy poetry and will be in Prague on June 25, the (A)VOID Floating Gallery on the embankment at Náplavka will be hosting an event that you shouldn’t miss. 7 p.m. sees the launch of a fascinating anthology of poems inspired by the River Vltava. The anthology is fully bilingual in Czech and English, and it gives us a flavour of the Vltava that is refreshingly different from the river of the tourist brochures. The event will also be an opportunity to meet some of this country’s best poets and translators. David Vaughan went on board to meet the poet Sylva Fischerová and talk about the anthology, with its intriguing title – A Giant Barrel of Rotgut.

Sylva Fischerová,  photo: David Vaughan
We are on the River Vltava, on a rusty boat in the district of Výtoň, just south of the centre. This is the point where an old iron railway bridge crosses the Vltava and there’s a wide embankment, known as Náplavka, which has become a very popular place for people to come in fine weather… unlike the blustery drizzle that we are enjoying just now. This boat has a special place in Prague literature and poetry, and to explain more I’m joined by the poet Sylva Fischerová.

“This boat is really a very specific place. Some people say that the many attraction here on the embankment is the boat itself. It is a place full of cultural activities and we are here because this boat gave birth to a bilingual poetry anthology – Prague River Anthology – which also has the title A Giant Barrel of Rotgut, in Czech, Dryák ředěný Vltavou.”

Rotgut is basically bad liquor…


… and it is not exactly the romantic image of Prague that most tourists have.

“Well, it isn’t! The title is taken from a poem of mine. I was about 20 or 21 when I came to Prague from the Moravian city of Olomouc where I grew up, and I wrote the poem The Newcomer’s Prague. The title of the anthology comes from this poem.”

The Newcomer’s Prague Nobody told me how to live and when
to drink hemlock
and from whose hand and to what saint Nobody told me how to walk through the night town
so as not to hear the crying
that constant crying of the lamps and the tram doors
running through the crevices between people
like the high string of a violin
taut between the two ends of infinity Prague is a great cold block when night falls
and that night is beneath the block
I walk along its edge and up and down
people talk, so sure of themselves
like the swans on the Vltava
of their morning breakfast but nobody told me how to walk
along the edge of the block
on which corner to fall
on which corner to catch hollow bird bones
From the hollow bones we made
pan pipes
and we play on the bank
even if nobody told us
that pan pipes are and we are and to get it all together is
that Prague is a giant barrel of rotgut diluted by the Vltava
that roils like the presidential flag furling over
the Castle
and like the flag even Prague will someday disappear, and the time will finally come to find out who we are
and how far away love is. [Trans.: Matthew Sweney]

The poem mentions swans, which are always a typical feature of the Vltava. In fact, swans were part of the inspiration for this anthology…

“The very first impulse for creating the book was the moment when two young artists met – Martina Nosková who was then a student at the Academy of Arts, Architecture and Design here in Prague and my daughter Ester who was a high-school student at that time…”

…So she was even younger than you were when you wrote the poem that we’ve just heard…

“Exactly. They met in 2010, here on the Prague quayside Náplavka, and more precisely they did not meet in person but via their works of art. At first Ester saw two larger-than-life-size swan sculptures placed here on the river bank, and she wrote a poem where one of these swans plays an important part. Here is a quote from that poem, which is called August 2010:

[…] So come, come now, let’s sit
on a half-drowned bench by the riverside,
we’ll laugh at the artificial swans
and try not to think about anything […] [Trans.: Matthew Sweney]

“This was the very beginning, the first impulse. The second step happened two years later, in 2012, when right here on this boat a series of public readings took place, organised by Viktor Špaček and Josef Straka, both of whom have their poems in this anthology. Josef Straka began to collect poems inspired by the Vltava, which were read on the boat. And then we decided to make an anthology. In no way did we want to create a salvage yard anthology of all poems which contemporary poets have written about the Vltava, because everyone knows the deceptiveness of enterprises like this. So, instead we decided to choose poems which seemed very expressive and at the same time composing a kind of image of the Vltava as a ‘slain crocodile’ – the metaphor comes from a poem written some decades ago by Božena Benešová – and Prague as a ‘giant barrel of rotgut, diluted by the Vltava’, creating interesting new patterns.”

Tell me something about the poets featured in the anthology.

“We decided to stick to living authors, whether already established or just setting out. But we didn’t feel ourselves to be limited by nationality. So we also include poems inspired by the Vltava written by the American poets Gary Snyder and Richard Katrovas. There’s one magnificent poem by Richard Katrovas about the Bridge of the Intellectuals. It is a really good poem about the bridge built during the ‘50s by Prague intellectuals who found themselves in conflict with the communist regime.”

They were forced to work in manual professions. The bridge is just a little further upstream from here. Here is part of the poem by Richard Katrovas, The Bridge of Intellectuals:

If Crane had been a Czech, and deigned to live
till ’53, he might have more than praised
a bridge, for in that year of Stalin’s death,
artists and intellectuals of Prague –
but only those the Party had to fix
after an “elegant coup” in ’48 –
finished their bridge across the Vltava. […]

… And as I read, we’ve been interrupted by a train going over the railway bridge. I’ll continue with the last four lines of the poem….

[…] I’d like to know that once or twice a year
an old man, whose hands are soft from idle thought,
comes, by bus or car, to gaze awhile
and simply marvel that the thing still stands.

“Richard Katrovas was born in 1953. He comes to Prague for the Prague summer literary school, so he comes here every summer. His daughters are living here. So he knows the history.”

We’ve already talked about the title, A Giant Barrel of Rotgut, coming from your poem, but how did you decide on that particular title for the anthology?

 (A)VOID Floating Gallery,  photo: Ian Willoughby
“Well, it has its history, because the first title for the book was from a poem by Petr Borkovec, and it goes like this: ‘Obvykle jsem po oči v řece/ celý den, zapisuju si.’ It’s quite a long title, but I think it still works in Czech. It was planned as a title for quite a long time, but then Justin Quinn, who translates Petr’s poems into English, said that he could translate it, but that it wouldn’t sound like a title for a book. In English it goes like this: ‘Usually, I’m up to my eyes in the river,/ all day, and I take notes.’ That simply is not a title for any book! So we were lost. Then the idea crossed my mind, what about ‘Dryák’, because it sounds great in Czech – ‘Dryák ředěný Vltavou’. And then we had a little debate with Matthew Sweney, because he proposed as a translation ‘a giant barrel of moonshine’. As you know, moonshine has some other connotations as well, romantic connotations, and it does not sound that good. So I proposed ‘rotgut’…”

… which is rough.

“Yes, it is. You can see that the birth of this book took time – a couple of years – and the same applies to the title of the book. And I should add that the book could not have come about at all without the financial and organisational support of the City of Prague.”

Let’s have a last poem by a writer whom I particularly like. I know him more as a writer of prose, although his prose is in itself very poetic. He is Michal Ajvaz and the poem is called Café Slávie. The Café Slávie is a very famous café just a few hundred yards to the north of us on the river bank by the National Theatre:

Café Slávie “Do, tell us something!” the ladies implored.
It was one Sunday morning in Slávie,
through the windows was Střelecký Island all covered with snow,
shining in the January sun.
“I once played chess with a vizier, my life was at stake.
Instead of chess pieces we had colourful seashells.
It was so hard to concentrate –
not only I was not sure
which seashell represented which chess piece,
but on top of that the shells were alive,
sticking out their fleshy legs,
crawling over the chessboard to and fro.
The board was all plastered with their slime.
I was feverishly considering the moves,
but at the same time thinking to myself:
In such a situation, is there any point thinking at all?
Wouldn’t it bring the same result,
if I moved the seashells only at random?
The vizier was smiling devilishly.
We were sitting on the terrace of his palace above the sea,
beyond the vizier’s head in his turquoise turban
the red sun neared the horizon,
boats with rosy sails swaying in the waves.
The light of the setting sun reflected
off the glossy sticky chessboard
which shone bright as if made of gold…”
“Tell us more, tell us how it all turned out!”
At that moment the glass door of the café opened
and the vizier walked in,
heading directly toward my table.
He was smiling devilishly.
The bill please!
The piercing laughter of a woman
with flamboyant makeup
resounding from the next table.
Dirty snow lying in the rails.
My God, how tired I feel. [Trans.: Veronika Francová]

We’ve had a taste of several different Pragues – all washed down with dubious liquor. Where can our listeners get hold of the anthology?

“We plan to launch the book here at the boat on June 25 at 7 p.m. Almost all the authors will be present. The evening will continue with a concert by Monika Načeva with DJ Five. So it will be a wonderful evening. Everyone is welcome.