Poetry fever in the Czech Republic
This week in Czech Books we are gripped by poetry fever. The Czech Republic is in the middle of an international poetry festival, the "Den poezie" - or Poetry Day. As we'll be finding out, the festival reaches some of most far-flung corners of the Czech Republic; we also explore what makes the "Generation 2000" of young Romanian poets tick, as they bring their work to a Prague audience.
I'm joined by Bernie Higgins, who is one of the main organizers of the festival and well known to Radio Prague listeners, and by Dan Duta, the director of the Romanian Cultural Institute in Prague.
Bernie: "This is the eighth year now and it's grown from a one-day event to a two-week event, though strangely we still carry on calling it the 'poetry day'. It has events in over forty towns and villages in the whole of the Czech Republic. It is not just a festival for very well known poets - although some are participating, such as the very good Czech poets Petr Kral, Petr Hruska and Marie Stastna - but there are also lots of events organized in schools and libraries. We have a lot of events for kids."
And so it is trying to get across the message that poetry is not just something for a rather obscure elite...
Bernie: "... though there is plenty of obscure poetry too! It really is a very broad festival and we really are very pleased that so many teachers, librarians and others are getting involved in working with young people to make them realize how fantastic and lively poetry is. But we do also have the more traditional readings by poets. Not only is it widespread geographically across the country, but we also have an increasing number of participants from other countries. This year I think we have poets from eleven other countries.
"The general theme of this year's Poetry Day is 'Kde domov muj?' which means 'where is my homeland?' and is the first line of the Czech national anthem. I think it is an interesting question for us all to ask Maybe the grave is our only home really. We're all heading there! So I think it is interesting to ask this question in the Czech Republic, as in all other European countries which are having to think about what home is, what poetry is etc."
You mention that the festival is multi-national, involving poets from many different countries, so I think this is a good cue to go over to Dan Duta from the Romanian Cultural Institute to tell us a little bit about the Romanian involvement in the festival this year.
Dan: "I would like to emphasize Bernie's words that poetry as an international language might show to each of us where 'domov muj' is - where is my home. Maybe poetry could be a common European home. Maybe the only real home we have is culture - literature, poetry. That's why we are very happy to bring three Romanian poets to the festival this year to introduce them to Czech society. They are three very important names of today's Romanian poetry. One of them is Ileana Malancioiu, an anti-communist fighter and very important member of the Romanian civic society. She belongs to the older generation of Romanian poets, one of those who resisted communism and wrote anti-communist poetry even during the 80s, during the very hard dictatorship of Ceaucescu. She was very well known in the west too."
And the other two poets are much younger.
Dan: "The other two poets, Robert Serban and Denisa Merina Piscu, belong to the 'Generation 2000', a deeply intellectual generation of young poets, who express their protest against what is happening today in Romania and the social and political realities, by retiring into a very personal, intellectual universe, by discovering again a kind of minimalist and intellectual poetry."
You say that they are protesting. With the dissident generation under the old regime it's clear what they were protesting against. What is it that angers the younger poets of the 'Generation 2000'?
Dan: "They are the second disappointed generation of Romanian youth after the anti-communist revolution in 1989. Everybody expected a lot from the revolution. Everybody was expecting a strongly anti-communist evolution in Romania after the revolution. As you know, it didn't happen like this, so young people especially are disappointed. The generation of the revolution expressed its protest in a very energetic way with meetings and with noisy protests, sometimes almost violent protests against the neo-communist power in Romania, while this second disappointed generation only found out about these realities, only saw them and noticed them, but did not feel like fighting them. Of course they are angry too; they were expecting something else. They notice almost the same communist atmosphere as in the 80s when they were children and they protest in this way - a kind of 'hippy' way of protesting, but without flower power, without songs, but by writing deeply intellectual poetry, creating their own minimalist poetic universe."
Bernie: "I have here a poem by Denisa Mirena Piscu, called 'Fluffy and Mechanical' - which is also the name of the whole collection, and she translated this herself into English."
Fluffy and Mechanical
with a very long and coloured muffler
hanging from my neck,
fluffy and mechanical,
the snail stretches out on both my ears
What am I going to do
In old age?
The child said:
"Bring the window to me
So I can see
How beautiful it is outside!"
They took my grandmother to the grave
Dressed in Blue
A beautiful woman,
Her face yellow,
Her lips sandy
From such a thirst.
The lioness had pulled her bleeding baby lion next to her
She was licking him with golden slobber.
The boy who came to us last night
Had a list with reproaches regarding our society
I tried to find him a plier or a screwdriver
So he could fix our lamp.
Nothing was to be found
We sat down on the edge of the bed
And ate an orange.
Poems written on shopping bags
Shopping bags for the promotion of the artist
May he be
As a young man or
On his dying bed.
Today all the women are wearing red sweaters,
Today all the women have knocked their heads on the walls
Before leaving for work
In order to relieve their energy
In order to stick the wallpaper.
The lamp has turned off
It is snowing black outside.
There is a kind of purity in this writing.
Bernie: "Yes, this poem is in eight minimalist sections, so it's very fragmented, very suggestive. There really is a purity and harshness about it. I'm very much looking forward to her participation in one of the international events here."
Dan: "I'm in love with her poems. Even the title of the collection, 'Fluffy and Mechanical', gives a sense of childhood. On the one hand there is the sense that the toys of childhood are mainly fluffy and mechanical. It's the universe of childhood, of the purity of childhood, of the mind in childhood, but unfortunately combined with the ugliness of reality. On the other hand, don't forget that it's about a young girl. Fluffy and mechanical also has something to do with the idea of Barbie, of something artificially beautiful, coldly and artificially beautiful. There is an attempt to create an on the one hand feminine or female - though not feminist - poetry, and on the other hand of recovering the lost universe of childhood."
Bernie: "Here is a poem by the older poet we have been discussing, Ileana Malancioiu, from her collection called 'After the Raising of Lazarus'.
The Doctor on Duty
Go away quickly, she said to me, I'm afraid,
you see that Doctor X is on duty/ he surely knows what to give me to help me to breathe,
he told me nobody dies while he's on the ward.
And indeed, that very young doctor
who was not as famous as his heart was good/ came in the middle of the night and gave her
something that kept her breathing until the next day.
Afterwards she understood
that his shift was finished and we had started
that terrible day about which already
she had begun to say it would never be over.
The one who was on duty looked down
on us without interfering:
I never said that nobody dies
while I am on duty, I am not at fault.
[Trans.: Eilean Ni Chuilleanain]
Dan: "Ileana Malancioiu, as I mentioned at the beginning, created a very serious universe, a very grave universe - in compliance with reality. She is poetically obsessed with the big themes, like life, death, the sense of the human existence, the sense of human destiny and I guess that this poem is very specific for personalizing this contradictory, black and white destiny of the human being. Those two doctors represent the hope and the disappointment, the hope and giving up the hope, that actually there is nothing absolute in human destiny, only hope from one day to the next."
The festival started a week ago, but there is still plenty to see between now and 23rd November, including several events in English. You can find out more on the internet at www.volny.cz/denpoezie.