Meridian Czernowitz 2011 proves that while poetry knows no boundaries, poets do
“... because there is no other way
but swim in this sea
with a whale tattooed
on your shoulder...”
(Excerpt from Hagit Grossman’s poetry presented at the festival)
On September 2-4, the peace and quiet of Chernivtsi was interrupted by poets and poetry buffs from Ukraine, Austria, Israel, Moldova, Germany, Poland, Romania, France, Switzerland, Great Britain and Russia. Meridian Czernowitz President Svyatoslav Pomerantsev said in his opening address that the festival was a historical-cultural experiment whose objectives include putting Chernivtsi back on the cultural map of Europe. To create heritage rather than to be simply heirs was the motto uniting representatives of various poetic schools and genres who came to experiment together.
A FORGE OF FORMS
On the one hand, a good poem is a priori self-sufficient and does not seem to require any experiments with form. If you read a poem publicly in complete darkness or write it on a bare female chest, or mix it together with fire, dancing and drums (these and other poetic tricks have been part of local events and large festivals for quite a while now), it will hardly become any better for it. But it will certainly attract attention — and as everyone knows, people love bread and circuses. In a short time, unembellished recitals may be perceived as sensations or retro-style renditions.
On the other hand, the festival, held for the second time in Chernivtsi, convincingly proved that presentation does make a big difference. Moreover, it revitalizes the poem itself. This is especially evident in the case of poems written and read in an unfamiliar foreign language – what force and expression is contained in every sound! For example, the audience gave Israeli poet Hagit Grossman a rousing ovation for her emotional recital of poems in the original. (“Poetry should not force you to think or try to understand. It has to force you to feel you are alive! Don’t believe it when they say poetry is boring — it is the thing that creates this life!”) Austrian poet Gerhard Rühm hypnotised the audience with his rhythmic-emotional recital of (surprise!) ordinary numbers. Michael Augustin, German poet, folklore collector and broadcaster, founded a poetic telephone line which is still operating. Ilma Rakuze, a freelance writer from Zurich, stunned the listeners with three pithy poems dedicated to Joseph Brodsky whom she knew personally. Emmanuel Moses, French writer, poet and translator, draws ideas for his poetry from the Holocaust. The works of all festival participants were published in a single volume in a Ukrainian translation, but they will hardly speak to the heart of a person who has not heard them recited alive.
No one was surprised – though perhaps entertained once again – by such things as video poetry (presented by BUK awardees), poetic performances (a media performance based on Jim Morrison’s poetry by The Postam of Nobel from Russia; a theater performance involving Ihor Pomerantsev’s poems staged by the Independent Theater Laboratory, etc.) and poems recited to music accompaniment (Serhii Zhadan & Sobaky v kosmosi, Yuriy Andrukhovych & Karbido, etc.). Iryna Khomyshyn presented a poetry-collage symbiosis in an exhibit titled “Secrets.”
Apart from poetry recitals proper and a variety of mixes of literary genres with other arts, the festival also featured a number of events not related to poetry, such as the Meta-physics photo exhibit by Milena Findeis, who also gave recitals. Further offers included tours in the Museum of Jewish History and Culture in Bukovyna, a concert of the Jewish music orchestra directed by Lev Feldman, and more. The historical dimensions ranged from retro (Paul Celan’s poetry with Mark Belorusets and Peter Rychlo) to avant-garde (Humanists, a play by Oleh Skrypka and Les Poderviansky). Festival experiments showed that the “clothes” in which poems are “dressed” do make a difference. After all, clothes make the man.
DE FACTO OR DE JURE?
The status of an international festival involves more than merely inviting foreign guests. The organizers managed to attract acclaimed figures but found it more difficult to secure full-fledged participation for them. Some critics said that the foreigners could only participate in one event a day – the one where they could speak (but not understand others). Providing simultaneous English translation and the required equipment would be possible perhaps only for a well-financed European festival. However, even with the meager funds they had, the organizers could have arranged an English-language tour of the old city. Left to their own devices, foreign guests had the option of either attending the Ukrainian-language events and listening to the vibrations of sounds or exploring the city on their own. “Europeans are used to their standards, so any shortcomings and oversights are very painful to them,” says Iryna Vikyrchak, a young poet at the festival who was also one of the organizers. “We don’t have this standard; the level is much lower, but we want to climb higher. Transportation was the object of most complaints. Some had to switch planes two times, while others endured an 11-hour bus ride – all because the Kyiv-Chernivtsi flight was cancelled.”
“This year the festival turned out to be much grander than the previous one which was exclusively a Ukrainian-German affair,” Vikyrchak continues. “This time we added other countries, and it naturally became harder for the organizers to handle. While this festival had an abundance of music and poetry performances, plays, etc. that have more of an entertainment value, the next one is going to be more academic in nature. Close attention will be paid to poetry itself and its varieties such as non-traditional poetry and contemporary performed poetry from different countries. Hopefully, we will be able to expand the geography of the festival.
“Ukraine remains a kind of terra incognita to foreigners, so we are not simply doing this for ourselves, but also opening Ukraine to others by inviting them here. Intellectuals are always the source of shaping public opinion, so we make every effort to make a good impression on them. The Swiss poets were surprised at the number of young people, to say nothing of their colleagues or journalists, who came to recitals.
“Poetry is a fairly intimate thing not designed for large audiences. Only in Cambridge can you recite poems before 4,000 people who will sit and listen from four to half past eleven – they have a totally different mentality... But even there everyday recitals took place in small rooms to help the listeners feel they were one on one with the poet. Poetry is not mass culture, but one for intellectuals and a narrow circle of them at that. Frankly, we did not expect such high attendance at our festival, so it was a pleasant surprise.”
In any case, all these shortcomings were more than set off by the general air of lightness and celebration and the high level of participating poets and artists. This ease did not negate the depth of the works presented or divert attention elsewhere as is often the case with local literary events.