Thursday, 27 March 2014

Sabad World Poetry Festival, New Delhi
Reflections 3: World Poets / Stage and Page

Marc Chagall, The Reader

Ways of reading: stage and page

The manner of reading was much more standard European, that is to say book rather than voice-based, the voice serving a the presenter of the text. At one extreme was Helda Marie from the Seychelles whose context was communal performance, complete with singing, dancing and acting, at the other the Norwegian Ingrid Storholmen who spoke of the visual function of the page.

I myself am closer to Ingrid than to Helda by instinct and practice and while I have written about this before I will recap on the nature of the contrast.

The oral tradition is rooted in the following: the community, the concept of the many and the sharing of an essentially conservative, traditional and ritualist space. The voice is public. It is heard by any within earshot. It moves into the individual's space and occupies it, asserting its confidence in shared communal values. It can talk of private matters (Helda read a very moving poem about the death of her father) but it does so on hallowed public ground. There is an implication of physical proximity, a swaying or flowing. The collective is greater than the individual. The poet performs a priestly role, mediating between the mass and the transcendent.

The page tradition depends on the one-to-one contract between writer and reader. The book is, most of the time, read silently and reorientated as voice in the reader's imagination. The loud and the public are suspected of being rhetorical intrusions, acts of demagoguery, The poem is a meditated space that creates an internalised physicality that may produce a faster heart-rate, tears, finger tapping and so on but within the confines of individual sensibility. It values the individual more highly than the collective. It is to some degree, or so I suspect, an extension of the protestant sense of God as someone addressed directly without mediation. Inevitably I think of Rembrandt's self-portraits or of the monasticism of Mondrian's abstractions.

It is not a matter of preferring one to the other, but of being who one is with one's own history. To an African or Caribbean poet the book tradition might seem cold and formal, not warm and intimate as others might interpret it. To those brought up in the European tradition, performance is crowd space without regard for complexity of thought and feeling, not a magical arena that supports a common way of life.

Antonio Collinas (Spain), Ingrid Fichtner (Austria), Ingrid Storholmen, Lorna Shaughnessy (Ireland), Marra PL Lanot (Philippenes), Gerard Noiret (France) Miloslav Topinka (Czech Republic), Moya Cannon (Ireland), Nikola Madzirov (Macedonia), Pia Tafdrup (Denmark), Richard Gwyn (UK), Oscar Cruz (Cuba), and myself, we were all of the page-to-individual-reader sort. We have learned to project and perform our poems as an extra to the words on the page.  Others among us - Les Wicks (Australia), Maram Al-Masri (Syria), Najwan Darwish, Tanure Ojaide (Nigeria), Tiziano Cera Rosco (Italy) and Tulasi Diwasa (Nepal) - make complete sense on the page but move further into the public arena for one reason or another.

The  three perfect encapsulations of the intimacy of the page were, for me, Richard Gwyn, with poems of intense personal feeling controlled by a delicacy of touch that transformed the poems into acts of grace;  Ingrid Fichtner, whose tiny, crystalline poems performed themselves, even in translation,  but were given their due translucency and musicality in her voice; and Nikola Madzirov, who richly visual lyricism and invention needed very little projection, perhaps none at all.

(I mustn't forget, of course, that we were mostly reading and hearing translations into English and a dull translation loses all the impact of the original.)

This post is getting too long so I'll divide it into two

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