mandag, oktober 15, 2018


In the serie of travel letters from The Balkans written exclusively for Kornkammer are Notes from Bosnia-Herzegovina from the Norwegian writer Øyvind Berg, and from the Danish writer Peder Frederik Jensen; the Swedish writer Ola Ståhl also has a post scriptum from Sarajevo, and goes through Skopje, but writes primarily from Kosovo. And below the Canadian writer Jay MillAr just sent us a travel letter from Macedonia, together with two poems written in Croatia.


It is so interesting to be the only person from North America at a European poetry festival. The concerns are very different and there are so many languages that are not in competition with each other (as opposed to a dominant language that competes with itself). And I’m not sure, because it’s only the second day and I’ve only been immersed a short time, but it’s very possible that the major difference between North American poetry and European poetry is the influence of Capitalism.

I can’t pretend to be an expert on anything, especially Capitalism, and in particular North American Capitalism because it is an atmosphere I exist in. One does not pay a lot of attention to the air they breathe. Why that is I’m not sure. But somehow the air seems different here at this festival, in that I’ve noticed it, the literary airs, and Capitalism as I understand it’s influence on writers appears to play less of a role in what I’m experiencing. Is it because there is a lack of pop culture references? Or to a literary tradition I am familiar with as a Canadian? It might be some simple thing, like not having a lot of context for any of the poetry I’m experiencing. As for literary celebrity, being a part of celebrity culture, it is surely influenced by capital. Yet I am not experiencing celebrity here, although there is a forest of trees that has been planted over the years in the town of Struga, one tree for each of the poets honoured with the annual Golden Wreath (Margaret Atwood has a tree in this forest, the only Canadian and one of perhaps two or three women to be so honoured), and this does not mean that the poets attending the festival are not literary celebrities in their own countries.

My thoughts here come under the influence of a gathering of differences, after all — many cultures that I do not interact with on a regular basis, and in some cases know nothing about, all sharing their work and thoughts in languages I do not understand. Since being here I have spent hours sitting through poetry readings in various languages that are then presented in translation, but in another language I don’t understand. English is not the dominant poetic voice here — 2 out of 30 poets work in English, and neither are from North America. Yet everyone communicates in English off stage, which is interesting to experience too — as though English has become the international language of exchange (Capitalism) more than a language of artistic expression. And there is little in the way of celebrity because no one is in their own milieu. It is different (to me) than being at a festival in North America where the population of writers working in a single language is huge, and capitalism is a driving force (the atmosphere), so competition plays a significant role, and as a result there can only be different levels of success. But again, I’m saying this immersed in something different, that being a literary festival where writers from different backgrounds are all presented more or less at the same level. Which makes me think that literary celebrity might be something that happens within a given culture, which also means a specific language (even in Canada, with two official languages, Quebec literature and Anglais literature have little to do with each other). This is especially true among poets, who as artists do not cross borders easily, so specific is their use of language to their immediate culture. And for languages other than English, being translated into English is a significant measure of success, i.e. Capital, and in fact having at least some work translated into English is a requirement for an invitation to Struga Poetry Evenings.


Today we drove from Struga to Skopje for the last night of the festival. About half an hour from Skopje we stopped in Mitke where we got off the bus and were told to start walking up a valley along a river to a dam, and then beyond. Along the way a few of the poets and myself, who were a little hungry and tired from staying up far too late the night before involved in a slightly drunken singalong (something that I don’t think could actually be possible at any of the Canadian festivals -- Canadians would be proud that Leonard Cohen songs were on high rotation) on the terrace of Hotel Drim (and this after a night swim around 1:30am), and we joked that perhaps we were being made to endure a physical representation of an Adam Zagajewski poem, quietly enduring life along an
isolated path with other poets. And then marvelled at the possibility that Struga Poetry Evenings might actually honour their yearly laureate with a secret performance of such endurance, tailored to the work of the poet. And then we arrived at the end of the trail at a lovely restaurant where we were served an excellent meal with fine wine and then we had another poetry reading with some wonderfully unexpected surprises and poetry shenanigans. And then we all wandered back down to the bus and headed for the hotel. Now we are all walking downtown to the square where we will enjoy a final night of poetry.


After another three and a half hour long reading last night we all went back to the hotel for a late dinner. There was a general sense amongst the group — we would be saying goodbyes now, but there was something else too — as though we had all come through something incredible and profound, and were now on the other side, weary and perhaps even quietly sad, and I marvelled at the generosity of the festival team — it was because of their hospitality we have had such an experience, and in the name of poetry: A rare thing. And then staying up late talking with Martin and Josef (the walking poet of Prague — I was told that he has walked every street in Berlin), it was decided that the three of us would get up in the morning to walk into the old part of Skopje. But when I woke up I wondered if I should go back to bed — it had been many nights with little sleep and I didn’t have to catch my ride to the airport until 12:30. But I did anyway and met the others in the lobby and I snarfed down some food and coffee and off we went.

Skopje was curiously quiet at 9:00 in the morning — it was as though the apocalypse had happened. There were very few people on the street, and the shops were all closed. Even the square in the middle of the town that had been so lively the night before, full of curiously bold and overblown statues and fountains lit up dramatically to evoke the nation, was quiet and mildly unimpressive, as though they needed dramatic lighting and many jostling people to be effective. But on the other side of that we fell into the old town, and it was a little more lively there, but not so much that a stray cat couldn’t sit at a table at a cafe, licking  itself contentedly and still be served no coffee, and the streets were delightful in that way they can be when they are clearly very old and were made for human traffic long before the idea of a car existed in everyone’s mind. We poked around and found somewhere to have a coffee, and then Josef had to head back to the hotel to catch his ride to the airport to return to The Czech Republic. 

So Martin and I wandered around a little more and I bought some postcards with the small amount of cash I had left; Martin bought some souvenirs for his kids. We left the old town and stood in a little raised parkette that was devoid of people but full of the sound of a cat we couldn’t see bemoaning something.

Moving on we looked at more “state maintenance” statues and monuments, and noted how state buildings and monuments were pristine and kept up while other buildings, often neighbouring buildings to the state buildings, were not. It was all very curious to see. I had been carrying around with me a parcel that I’d brought with me from Canada containing a contract and a copy of a novel we had sold into the Macedonian market to a small publisher called Feniks — I had thought I’d mail it when visiting, but when I discovered that their address was very close to the hotel we were staying at, I decided to try to drop it off and failing that find a post office to mail it. There was time so we started heading that way on our way back to the hotel. Finding the address was easy enough, but the building was locked up and there seemed to be no sign of the publisher anywhere. We were going to give up when an older gentleman came out of the building carrying a few sacks of what seemed to be toys and we asked if he knew of Feniks and he replied, speaking in a slow and careful English that he knew the people who ran it. But today was a holiday and everything was closed (including post offices) and people were away. He introduced himself as Tomislav and invited us up to his apartment where he said we could find their phone number and call them — maybe they would be able to meet us. So we went with him up to his apartment on the fourth floor and we managed to figure out how to call the publisher and I spoke with her and she was very surprised to hear from me. She was away for the day but we made arrangements for Tomislav to hold the package for her until she was back from holiday. And then he said that business was over, so we should have a drink, and he went away for a minute and came back with three glasses, ice, and whiskey. We had a drink and talked — he showed us pictures of his family, his wife and daughter and grandson, and told us about his summer home in Ohrid and his camper in Greece where he had just spent a month by the sea. He asked about where we were from and when he found out that we were poets in Macedonia for the festival he told us his father had worked for the festival years ago. Martin and Tomislav spoke in German for a bit while I felt like a mono-linguistic fool — Tomislav said his German was much better than his English because he had friends there, but I thought his English was very good — slow, perhaps, but accurate. It was way better than my Macedonian at any rate. We talked a little longer and he said if we missed our flights we should just come back and he would help us, and we exchanged contact information and took a photo to mark the occasion. And then we thanked him for his generosity, shook hands, and said goodbye to scuttle off to the hotel to catch our ride to the airport, remarking at what a hospitable fellow Tomislav was, to take the to time bring two total strangers from distant lands into his home and assist them with a small task as he did, despite clearly being on his way out somewhere. His Macedonian generosity really did make the end of our stay in this country a special one.


Two guys are playing heavy metal tunes 
on the steps of one of the university buildings: 
Back in Black, Sweet Child of Mine — 
except it’s a clarinet and guitar duo 
what could possibly be next? 

But they don’t play anything next, 
they just pack up their shit and leave, 
which makes sense because it is late, 
maybe ten thirty on a Tuesday. 
Moments later they are back — 
they set up and start playing again, but 
it’s as though they are a totally different band — 
same instruments, different goals, playing 
a lulling melodic pop song I don’t recognize. 
Maybe it’s a Croatian hit — after all 
I’m in Zagreb. 
                         Sometimes it’s important 
to feel lonely and detached, dropped into 
a place where you don’t know where 
you are or where you are going or why. 
It’s even better if you can’t speak the 
language or understand the signs: 
you just make it all up as you go along. 

This is the university, sure it is.
These are the cafés that 
you surely came to see.
This the botanical garden. 
Now you are passing the capital 
building, this is the train station, 
here is an important sculpture 
of cultural significance, now 
you are free. 


There is a plane in the sky.
It could be a reflection of the plane
I am in, which is also in the sky.
I could be looking around the planet
At myself seated at the window
Of a plane looking off 
In the distance at myself. 


Jay MillAr (born 1971) is a Canadian poet and co-publisher at Book*hug Press. He lives in Toronto. His newest book, I Could Have Pretended To Be Better Than You: New & Selected Poems is forthcoming from Anvil Press in 2019. This text is written directly for Kornkammer, ind more travelreportages from the Balkans here.

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