“Poetry is like an erect penis that is not disturbing or threatening.” Yep, someone said that at the first ever European Poetry Festival. Was it said ironically? You’ll have to keep reading. The European Poetry Festival was like a lazy river going around London, from Kingston to Shoreditch to Knightsbridge except not at all lazy. It was a little bit crazy, very much alive, and daring enough to call itself avant garde.
The European Poetry Festival was a different kind of poetry. It was the flowing kind, the quirky kind, the fun kind, the not-for-awards kind, the a-little-bit-art kind, the everyone’s-invited-to-the-drinks kind, the we’re-all-weird kind, the end-up-in-someone’s-backyard-playing-poetry-games-and drinking-and-almost-everyone-met-that-night-and-you-laugh-about-goats-and-pregnancy-and-love-and-it’s-such-a-surprise-yet-was-actually-the-dream-you-made-come-true kind. It was a good kind.
I admit, it was rather niche. Hey, are you into contemporary Romanian poetry? Hey, are you into avant garde sound poetry in four different languages? And yet, each event was wonderful – so different and unique in a variety of venues.
The first event I attended was the headline event – the European Camarade at Rich Mix. 32 poets were paired together and asked to create an original collaboration for the night, and yes it was all recorded. (Had me thinking about Naropa and ‘For the Archive’). SJ Fowler, the curator and director of the festival, brought together an exciting group of poets from all over Europe; I only cried twice.
Once from the somber ridiculousness of Alessandro Burbank and Robert Prosser as they called themselves monks, talked of melons, and spoke in German, English, and Italian. They engaged the audience, jumped between us and shouting out the most German/Italian phrases they could think of. I heard Robert say, “Vaffanculo” and knew what was going on (means ‘fuck off’ in Italian).
And again, from SJ’s and Max Hoffler’s performance. Steve announced that he was starting a Best Poet’s Award for the festival, and said that an AI program had decided that Max Hoffler was the best poet at the festival, not because they were friends, or that he always invited him to perform in Austria, or that he was published by an important publisher, but because he was the best poet ever. And then he the read best poem ever. Here are a few of my favorite lines:
Poetry is like a rainbow at midnight
Poetry is like an erect penis that is not disturbing or threatening.
Poetry is like a hot potato burning off your fingerprints
Oh it was definitely ironic, incredibly spot on about questions such as, what do awards actually mean? And, what is a poem? And, what is a great poem? To hear SJ questioning and making fun of his own institution was a bold, yet hilarious moment.
Simona Nastac and Giedrė Kazlauskaitė performed two very different takes on the word ‘dress’. Giedré’s was philosophical, yet relatable – going on a date and exposing the way your mind works, and then wondering if they still want to kiss you, while Simona’s was puzzling and eloquent. It seemed she was reading a poem she’d written as a description for a kickstarter to raise money to buy the perfect Vivienne Westwood dress so she could be a piece of art. I asked her after, and it was. She successfully raised the money to buy the dress.
The next night at IKLECTIK in South London, in a white barn in a park in the shadow of the Hospital and Waterloo, I experienced performance literature and sound poetry. Ásta Fanney Sigurðardóttir questioned what poetry was, asking us all to say a word. Was that a poem? While Rike Schleffer used sound in a beautiful way to highlight the musicality and emotion of her poetry, and Kinga Toth! How intense, recording noises – the crinkle of tin foil, a bracelet clanking in a metal bowl, to share the anguish at finding an unknown piece of skin in her mouth and fearing the worst. The last three minutes of the performance were just silence, as she moved around the room staring at us, her mouth agape in pain. All the poets were marvelous.
The last two nights I spent crawling from the Romanian Embassy to the Austrian Embassy. Both events were regal in a high ceiling ballroom, chandelier and wine reception afterwards. And yet the same avant garde aliveness of poetry. The Polyphonic Reading at the Romanian Embassy was something special, listening to ten poets read poems in Romanian, Ukrainian, Moldovan, Hungarian, and German – I had no clue that Romania was so diverse – along with illustrations of their poetry and music. There was even a poem by Matei Hutopila about getting drunk at a bar, coming home, and accidentally peeing on your own fence -appreciating the beauty of the steam rising up over the mountains. I’m obsessed with toilets and toilet culture, so obviously I complimented him on the poem.
As you can tell, I had a fantastic time at the European Poetry Festival. It was a strange dream for a week, meeting so many interesting people and truly experiencing the contemporary poetry landscape in Europe. It was one of the youngest audiences I’ve seen for a poetry festival. And to my joy, all of the venues were full. People do care about poetry. I cannot wait for next year!
The European Poetry Festival took place from the 5th to the 14th in London, Manchester, and Middlesbrough. All of the videos can be found on the website. If you would like to get involved, do get in touch at firstname.lastname@example.org.