Europe versus San Francisco
at the Poetry Festival

Barbro S Osher
This article appeared in the 2001:2 issue

At the very end of April this year, a meeting of Titans was staged in San Francisco: some of the best European poets met with resident counterparts for a five-day festival dedicated to contemporary poetry in all its facets, languages and voices. It was a feast for all poetry buffs with its immense diversity, over thirty writers attending. Belgium, France, Germany, Italy, Norway, Spain and Sweden had gathered their best forces to bring their native talents and their native languages (and translations) to the readings, and San Francisco countered with its local talents. Stefaan van den Bremt (Belgium), Charles Dantzig and Marc Cholodenko (France), Volker Braun, Lutz Seiler and Philipp Schiemann (Germany), Dacia Maraini and Massimiliano Chiamento (Italy), Tor Obrestad (Norway), Àngel González and Manuel Mantero (Spain) and Katarina Frostenson and Johanna Ekström (Sweden) faced up to their American counterparts Joanne Kyger, Barbara Barrigan, André Baca, Taylor Brady, Bill Berkson, Norma Cole, Denise Newman, Michael Rothenberg, Leslie Scalapino, Cedar Sigo, Hugh Steinberg, Tarin Towers and Elizabeth Treadwell.

Disparate Voices
The difference in approach to themes and writing between the US and the European voices was apparent from the very first reading. La Grande Dame of Italian poetry, Dacia Maraini (also feminist, essayist, novelist, film-maker and playwright) read her poems in her native Italian as well as in English (translation by Genni Gunn), a juxtaposition of short, breathless lines of colorful Italian splendor against the night-mares of the serpents of war carried to the subconscious via television images. The scents of jasmine waft through violent evenings, the abundant evening meal is thoughtfully enjoyed while the horror of an overseas war tears at corners of the mind. “Is the war inside or outside?” With a typical new-generation beat, Massimiliano Chiamenti writes in both Italian and English — sometimes mixed together in the same poem, where the images from home carry a complexity mixed with the media-lingo of the present day.

Volker Braun, born in Dresden a few months before the outbreak of the Second World War, grew up in this totally devastated city, finding jobs to survive, and finally ending up at the Berliner Ensemble. He brought a disillusioned awareness of fear and suffering, historic mementos from Roman gladiators paired with the throw-away society of our times symbolized by a media-famed beauty on a catwalk and Carl Lagerfeld. We are all Barbarians, mortals set against “the Great In Vain”. Braun, for obvious reasons, does not speak English (translation by David Constantine), but his younger German counterpart, the popular Lutz Seiler, does, even though he was born and bred in East Germany. His poems, written entirely in the lower case (translations by Jennifer Poehler) carry echoes of Soviet characteristics, tattered surroundings and children grown old prematurely by memories of what preceded them.

More light-hearted, even humorous, was Charles Dantzig, a young Parisian who paired with Marc Cholodenko as France’s contribution. Dantzig brought the house down with an extempore poem about his impressions of the festival, elegant French descriptions as a background to onomato-poetic outbursts of shuffling, sneezing and coughing sounds. Cholodenko on the other hand displayed an inner landscape of stringency and restraint in carefully crafted vocabulary. Both urban and urbane.

Two “exiled” poets represented Spain, Àngel González and Manuel Montero, two peers residing in the US. González, in his mid-seventies and as highly esteemed in Spain as in the Americas, is a professor of contemporary Spanish literature at the University of New Mexico, and Montero teaches as a professor of Romance languages at the University of Georgia. Both bear the markings of their different origins — rivers and bullfights respectively, mirrors of the inner self. Both spend stretches of time in Spain in order to revive both images and language, and both are deeply revered and respected as exponents of a living Spanish poetry tradition.

Stefaan van den Bremt, poet, translator and essayist, prefers the notion of Dutch as his language rather than Flemish. His short, pithy, almost aphoristic lines contain a sharp poignancy, superficially unemotional yet, in melancholy mood, holding up poetry as a counter to death. His is a highly indi-vidualistic European voice. His poems, translated into English by Yann Lovelock, were dramatically read by Rita Bral, the Belgian Consul.

Norway’s Tor Obrestad brought another original voice to the podium — an indomitable, sensuous, roaming and roaring male voice. Obrestad was born on a farm, has traveled widely as a writer and journalist to such places as Kosovo, Albania, Macedonia and Yemen; but his language is that of a son of western Norway. His poems were translated by Ren Powell.

The Ice Maidens of Swedish poetry
Katarina Frostenson and Johanna Ekström could be regarded as representatives of two different generations and fields of interest. While Frostenson, a member of the Swedish Academy, clearly has a penchant for French literature (she is the translator of Michaux, Duras and Bataille, among others) and music (she wrote the libretto for the opera “City”), Ekström is a visual artist (having created installations, photographs, dance and sculpture) and treads easily in the land of contemporary American technosociety. Yet there is common ground in their very sensitive and mature symbols incorporating nature, water, air, stones, grass; their aware-ness of color and colorlessness, shapeless shapes. Powerful powerlessness. Both have amazing stage presence, and performed admirably, reading their poems translated by Joan Tate and Sarah Death respectively.

Frostenson stunned the audience with the starkness of her images, her grey hues, the white bones, the harrowing stillness of the world, the ever-forgiving and engulfing presence of the waters. The poem “Canal” from her collection “Thoughts” took those themes to their utmost limits, also evoking parallels with the libretto for “City” and its character, Sorl, a non-person. The fragility of life itself, a life that has been taken and disappeared, but nevertheless still there. We are escorted by her through areas of dream-like consciousness, feeling every bone in our weary bodies, like an eternal November, grey and unforgiving, frozen; and yet we are invited over thresholds into fluidity. We are the living and the dead.

Johanna Ekström moves somewhat closer to tangible reality with images from the landscapes of childhood and pubity, entangled in the “gelling of time”. A leopard moves along the railroad tracks of her grandparents’ Västmanland as she enters the lights from the jogging track next to her parents’ home, and darker dreams lurk: the internal and external worlds are intertwined. She is astonishingly mature for her young years, multi-talented, aware — one looks forward to future creations of visions and words by Johanna Ekström.

An American conclusion
It became increasingly obvious that there was a dividing line between the Bay Area poets and the Europeans, both in approach and subject matter. Although some US poets displayed both depth and fervor, the lasting impression was of the exquisite crafting of the European poetry, the melancholic voices echoing hardships and historical tragedies. In contrast the abundance of the sunlit Californian landscape seemed to shape and impregnate the writings of the locals and gave them an almost prose-like, prosaic feel. Even when images were loaned from foreign cultures they were handed to us as a reality, rather than symbols. In the aftermath the lack of fun and humour among the European voices was picked out as the dividing line between the here and the there. For all those of us who have grown up with the richness of a multitude of languages and cultures this was a feast, and a nostalgic, soul-searching journey back to utter complexity. One culture mirrors the other.