Friday, 9 October 2015

An Evening Out

If your spouse came home and told you, "Tonight, we have been invited by someone from the Faro Islands to an evening of readings by Faroese, Estonian, Norwegian, Israeli, Hungarian, and Polish poets", imagine your feelings.


But you would be completely wrong. I know this for a fact, because last night that is exactly what my spouse came home and told me, and in the event it turned out to be one of the best evenings we have had in years.

Ronny Someck kicked things off with a story about a mouse being chased by a cat.  Eventually, the mouse finds a good hiding place and waits there, cowering and listening for any sign that the cat has given up the hunt and gone away. Eventually the mouse hears a dog barking just outside his hiding place. "If a dog is barking nearby", the mouse reasons, "that must mean the cat has gone, because a cat wouldn't stick around while a dog was in the vicinity." Confidently, the mouse emerges into the open. To its horror, the first thing it sees as it comes out is the cat, still waiting. "All right," the mouse says, "I give up, you win. I know you're going to eat me, but first tell me how come you are still here, when I distinctly heard the sound of a dog barking right where you are sitting?" The cat looked at the mouse, with an expression of self-congratulation. "Oh, well," it replied, "nowadays everyone needs to be fluent in at least two languages, you know."

What a perfect joke to tell in Belgium.

Having scored such an excellent diplomatic coup, Ronny then read several of his own poems, including Algeria, Revenge of the Stuttering Child and Third Kiss Blues, as well as this one, in preparation for which he rather generously handed round little cups of arak to the members of the audience.

After Ronny, Veronika Kivisilla from Estonia appeared. She read a very touching poem about an encounter with a drunk, and another about a bedroom showroom. I wish I'd known her work is not available in English - I'd have photographed the parallel texts that were projected on the wall. She sang an Estonian song and was about to leave the stage, when the organiser reminded her that she had promised to play her "archaic" instrument. "Are you sure I haven't taken up too much time already?" Veronika asked, but the organiser insisted that she hadn't and that an archaic Estonian instrument was what was now required. Dutifully, Veronika went to the side of the stage and picked up something that looked rather like an Appalachian dulcimer, but was apparently something specifically Estonian. "I have made one of these" Veronika told us, "but this one was made by my friend." With that, she settled down to play:

At this point, possibly partly thanks to the arak supplied by Ronnie, I was thinking soppy thoughts about what a great place the world would be if all of humanity's energies could be channelled into poetry and archaic Estonian musical instrument making.

A young Polish poet who, we were told, had decided to "consecrate" her life to poetry, rather broke this idyll by tottering onto the stage in a very short black lace dress and very high stiletto-heeled shoes and reading a lot of "poems" - more than any other writer during the evening - each of which was about her travails with love, sex and "weed". Self-obsessed was the description that came to mind, but perhaps that too was the arak talking. So that others can judge for themselves, unprejudiced by my sour reflections, here are a couple of random lines, which struck me as giving an accurate flavour of her work:

"Kiss me, without melting the lipstick
in the back pocket of my trousers"


A Hungarian named Daniel Varro followed, full of apologies for the fact that he still uses metre and rhyme. Because of some resentful remarks I heard John Burnside make a couple of years ago in Melbourne about people who insist on traditional form, I was vaguely aware there was some kind of debate about these things going on among poets,but have we really come to the point where it is necessary to apologise for using  pentameter?  Can you be cold-shouldered for the shape you give to your work?

Anyway, Daniel was followed by a Faroan called Sissal Kampmann. She alone of the evening's performers had had the foresight to bring along some printed copies of her poems, together with translations. I can't give you the wonderful rich sound of her spoken Faronese, but I can reproduce one at least of her texts:

Sissal's brother made this painting to illustrate her poems
When Sissal finished, to our surprise no-one got up to replace her on the stage. Instead, from behind us came a melancholy blast of some kind of music. Everyone turned, and there was a figure who looked more like an elf than a human, blowing into a goat's horn, (from which the goat it had once belonged to had long since been detached, it should be noted).

This turned out to be a Norwegian poet and musician called Karl Seglem. He strolled down through the auditorium, stopping here and there to beguile individual audience members with his goat by-product instrument, encouraging them to mimic the sounds he was making.

He was followed by a young man who, when Karl climbed onto the stage, climbed on after him and sat down at the piano which was over on the left hand side. Karl proceeded to play his goat's horn in various ways:

interspersing his efforts with attempts at audience participation. We ended up, at his behest, hissing and click-clocking and making various other silly sounds. So far he had said not one word. Everything had been achieved with gestures only.

Eventually, Karl picked up his text and appeared to be on the point of sharing some of his poetry with us. First though, there seemed to be some mysterious process going on where he had to attune himself to the music:

At last he was ready and the words flowed:

Sadly, once again, I didn't have the presence of mind to record what the words meant in English, but luckily one of the poems Karl read is available in translation on the web. I was somewhat mesmerised (if there are degrees of mesmerisation) by his performance and the way in which he made the boundaries between words and music blur.

After Karl the performance ended. But, hurray - the Faroese dried fish and Estonian apple wine (14% alcohol) instantly began to flow. 

Sassil, the Faroan, explained to me that dried fish is pure protein and very good if you need to heal a wound. 

I suggested to Veronika, the Estonian, that in many ways what we had just experienced was the kind of evening the old comrades of the Soviet system would have approved of, and yet it was precisely the kind of thing that could not really have happened under their aegis. She told me that actually there had been similar things under the old regime but all the work of the poets participating had had to be enigmatic or at the very least ambiguous - a sort of Tarkovsky obscurity had had to be adopted as the means of approaching writing, which, of course, like all restrictions, actually provided quite exciting challenges to creativity. 

The Hungarian who still works with rhyme and metre agreed that formal structural restrictions were often creatively stimulating, even oddly liberating. 

The Norwegian explained that the ideal horn for his kind of music needs to have a slightly oblong central cavity, rather than a round one. He said that people had played goats' horns in this way in his country in earlier times wherever there were shepherds, to create frightening, scary sounds. At first I thought he meant people were trying to scare the Norwegian shepherds of the past, but eventually we clarified the situation - it was the shepherds who blew the horns, in order to frighten off wolves et cetera. 

This misunderstanding suggested to me that perhaps 14% alcohol, however sweet and delicious, is not immensely good for one's intelligence and that possibly it was time to go home.


  1. It looks like an evening to remember, but I think I would have got the giggles.

    1. A combination of low expectations & strong drink helped - plus the Norwegian rather encouraged giggling from his audience, although my video doesn't catch those moments. An evening spent with no mention of Syria, Putin, Merkel, refugees, Brexit or the various other spectres lumbering about in the minds of NATOers & EUers also made a welcome change