Gregory O’Brien reports on recent literary occasions in Rotterdam and Moscow which featured New Zealand poets
There must have been a world before
the Trio Sonata in D, a world before the A minor
but what kind of a world?
A Europe of vast empty spaces, unresounding,
everywhere unawakened instruments…
[Lars Gufstafsson, “The Stillness of the World Before Bach”]
Saturday 18 June 2005 Rotterdam
We begin with the plainest of things, as poets should. Tusiata Avia, Vincent O’Sullivan and I are on an overheated train from Antwerp. We have left behind the literary mosquitoes of Elzenveld – night-fliers that spent the short northern nights sampling poets in the high-ceilinged bedrooms and grand courtyards of the 16th century hospital in which we were installed. (Jenny Bornholdt and Bill Manhire, who read with Vincent and Tusiata at the Elzenveld Festival, are now heading off in other directions.) We arrive at Rotterdam a few hours before the opening night of the Poetry International Festival, at which the three of us are to read. Later we listen to the Swedish poet Lars Gufstafsson handling ideas with consummate care and ease, “the skill with which a German handles a boiled egg”.
Before the opening night reading, recordings from earlier festivals are played through the sound-system. We take the stage just after the voice of Elizabeth Bishop has concluded “One Art”. The auditorium is left marvellously unsettled by her voice. Poetry International maintains a very palpable connection with its past. Everything is recorded; every poem read is translated and published in booklets. Each year, an anthology in Dutch – Hotel Parnassus – features poems by all the festival writers.
During the interval on the first night, and after some impressive, no doubt scholarly, introductions by academics from the Netherlands and elsewhere, the Australian poet John Tranter offers the following semi-clerihew:
In the spirit of which Vincent O’Sullivan continues:
Not a blemish
Sunday 19 June 2005 Rotterdam
The visiting poets are themselves recipients of a visitation – in the sweltering heat out on Rotterdam Harbour. Opinions differ, but the event is considered by some nothing less than a “Visitation of Muses”. We are, all of us, on an antiquated ferry making our way calmly parallel to the harbour front with its space-age architecture. From out of an adjoining canal comes a speedboat containing two blonde women in microscopic red bikinis. A short fat man at the wheel steers the vessel alongside ours. After some minutes of conspicuous display (it is as if some act of piracy is unfolding before us) a bottle of rosé wine is offloaded through a window of our boat to one of the young women – at which point the Speedboat of Muses veers away, leaving behind only a wake of blown kisses.
Monday 20 – Thursday 23 June 2005 Rotterdam
The evenings are spent in a dazzling sequence of readings – a whirl of different languages, all of them helpfully rendered into small booklets of Dutch and English which are dispensed from the front of the auditorium before each reading. I share an evening event in the Grote Zaal (large hall) with the Dutch writer Anne Vegter and a youngish Lithuanian poet Gintaras Grajauskas – a purveyor of pristine, dead-pan monologues:
the Germans are orderly, the Irish industrious,
the Hollanders hospitable, only us Lithuanians
have nothing to flaunt
At the translation workshop I deliberately wear a t-shirt designed by my friend Noel McKenna, on the front of which is printed a wan-looking poodle with the word LOST writ large above it. The t-shirt is my “Lost In Translation” joke – and one not lost on the two young workshop organisers, Marsha and Sophia. Wearing the garment a few days later in Amsterdam, two people approach me, telling me that they believe they have found my dog.
A bendable bus has been arranged to take the poets from the Nautilus Club to the auditorium for the evening’s reading. After a late afternoon spent discussing Meister Eckhart and medievalism with the German poet Monika Rinck – whose English is near perfect – I spend the latter part of the evening trying to explain to her the meaning of the New Zealand expression “Ladies a plate; men a crate”. No solution is forthcoming.
A question from the floor for Lars Gustafsson: “As poet, do you feel you are inventing or discovering?”
To which he replies: “As a poet I am oscillating between the two.”
“But what precisely is it that you, Mister Gufstafsson, are trying to do, working with language?”
“As a poet, you are trying to keep the instrument steady, to keep the light down around the telescope.”
Vincent O’Sullivan and I survive half an evening of slam poetry – an energetic, high-volume session in the Grote Zaal. It is the World Slampionship and television cameras on wheels are whizzing about the stage. Two baseball-capped youngsters hop around in the spotlight, warming up the audience and the five competition judges in the front row: three appointed experts, alongside two punters plucked at random from the audience. It is more than a little like New Zealand Idol. The Slampion of the Netherlands is the local favourite – but the event, like the rest of the festival, is not really concerned with nationalism. “We are all one big SLAMily,” announces one of the frontmen. “Slam-tastic,” agrees one of the judges, a man who has earlier been designated “The Slam-Professor”.
For the rest of the week Vincent O’Sullivan is referred to as “the Slam-Professor”.
Lars Gustafsson says a poem is like a mathematical formula. This he adjusts a few moments later: “No, not a formula, it is a proof.” He remembers his friend Joseph Brodsky, the Russian. They were very close, so close, in fact, that “we could read each other”.
Brodsky would always say: “We Russians, we have nothing. We have nothing but language.” Later in life he taught creative writing in North America. What did Brodsky offer his students? There was one thing he had for them, Gufstafsson remembered. He gave each of the young poets a fountain pen.
In New Zealand we make too much of writing, context and entitlement. Having bumped into Anne Vegter on a sidewalk in Rotterdam, I tell her I am reluctant to finish and read in public my translation of her poem “D. D.” because
(a) the poem is so obviously by a young woman
(b) I am no expert on menstruation (see last line)
(c) it is the by-product of a culture I know little of
(d) it is in a language I know absolutely nothing of
(e) the voice of the poem is a long way from my “voice”
(f) I don’t relate to it on a personal level
(g) I feel a million miles away from it
Having reeled through various other evasions, I notice that Anne Vegter is now glancing at me sideways. When I finally quieten down, she asks me what on earth I am on about. It is a poem … A “thing” made of words. What has anything I have said got to do with that?
I skulk off to the Museum Boijmans Van Beuningen Gallery, install myself in the vicinity of Kees Van Dongen’s Interior with yellow door and spend two hours polishing the following (retitled) translation:
BEST BEFORE by Anne Vegter
In this as-yet-unexpired instant of being
unaffected, next morning we gauge
the acidity of the pillowslip
the day’s date.
Drip the tap, switch on the light
these lines in the mirror what a pity-pretty.
“You can make the ecstatic moment but still
miss the tide.” Do Not Consume After/Best Before
see lid. Our evenings have grown quiet, no, quiet
(what I feel, another period).
Anne Vegter often inserts her own name into her poems so I am particularly pleased when I happen upon the word “unaffected” in the second line. To the Dutch ear, even more than to the English, “unaffected” sounds almost identical to the poet’s name.
I read the translation the following day, immediately after Lars Gufstafsson has delivered his Swedish translation of the same text. He obviously had no problem with the task. Vincent O’Sullivan dealt effortlessly with another Vegter piece later in the programme.
Tuesday 28 June 2005 Moscow
After three days alone in Moscow, I meet up with Ian Wedde (recently flown in from Nice) and Tusiata Avia, who has come across from Amsterdam. After an afternoon of Andrey Rublyov icons in the Annunciation Cathedral, we eat New Zealand lamb, then watch an episode of bro’Town in the lounge of the New Zealand Embassy, the onion cupolas of the Kremlin hardly a kilometre away.
Wednesday 29 June 2005 (afternoon) Moscow
In the afternoon we visit the Gorky Institute. The Russian writing centre has an impressive ratio of professors to students: one to one. Sixty-five professors for 65 young writers. The buildings, however, are in a state of disrepair. We are told that when Putin recently visited the institute he hardly noticed the architecture. He was more interested in the small, wire-mesh enclosed soccer pitch where the poets play mini-soccer in their down-time. He wanted to know if they had any “talent”. We are then shown the window from which Osip Mandelstam looked out at small birds. And the room where Mayakovsky made his last public appearance before shooting himself.
At a meeting with the directors of the institute, I find myself sitting beside Harry Potter’s Russian translator – a man with many more strings to his bow than that. His own books have appeared from prestigious imprints and he recently co-translated Peter Ackroyd’s London. But nobody pays attention to any of that. Even now, a man at the far end of the table is waving his hand over his head then pointing and exclaiming, “Harry Potter!”
Wednesday 29 June 2005 (evening) Moscow
A Russian song has an effect not unlike that of snow upon a landscape. In the lounge of the New Zealand Embassy, Moscow, Masha Zheltova sings Russian songs with lyrics by Pushkin, Tsvetaeva and Esenin. Ian Wedde reads a poem, then stands to one side, aghast, as Arcadii Dragmoshenko delivers his Russian version. In Moscow, the translations of the New Zealand poems are read with a kind of conviction that I suspect only Russians can summon forth. Tusiata and I also read and then listen, humbled and exhilarated by the experience. In appreciation, Tusiata offers a Samoan dance, a small beat-box accompanying her from just behind the Embassy piano.
Arcadii Dragmoshenko, who translated Land of Seas: An Anthology of New Zealand Poetry, is considered one of the foremost living Russian poets. His versions of New Zealand poetry will attract much interest. He has brought with him from St Petersberg a number of the other translators involved in the project. With them – and one of the editors of the anthology, Evgeny Pavlov – we amble forth into the night, rambling across Moscow in the late evening light – it is nearly 11 o’clock – before settling on a bar/café/bookshop at the front counter of which two men are seated with submachine guns. The two characters, neither of whom is wearing a uniform, hold their weapons as though they are part of an ordinary evening’s ordinary equipment.
A Russian proverb:
Each glass of vodka is poured twice.
Having totally misunderstood our instructions concerning late-night entry to the New Zealand Embassy, we return at 2am to find ourselves locked out. Tusiata gets what sleep she can in the backseat of a parked van in the embassy compound while Ian and I resort to walking the streets of Moscow until 6am. Skirting the casino and red light districts, we linger around the star-shaped entrance to one Metro station – not far from a six-metre tall bronze Dostoyevsky – before rambling onwards towards Red Square.
Monday 4 July 2005 Wellington
As they say in Holland, it is now the “cucumber time” – the quiet month which follows the high season. New Zealand poetry went on something of a big adventure – to Antwerp, Rotterdam and Moscow – after which the poets, certainly, were left enriched and wiser. Now, as Mandelstam writes, “the mist of events drifts away”. This week Monika Rinck writes from Berlin to say that she arrived back after the Rotterdam festival to find that she could no longer understand German. It took six hours for her mother-tongue to return. That is about one seventh of the time it took me to return to Wellington from Moscow via Vienna.