Series Reviews

Poetry International Festival, Rotterdam

The Lower East Side Festival of the Arts, NYC

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Poetry International Festival, Rotterdam
June 16 - June 22

Lift-Off with Paper Airplanes
by Stephen Cvengros

Rotterdam's 32nd Poetry International Festival began with an imbongi roar, as Africa's oldest oral tradition was summoned by Zolani Mkiva. An imbongi is a folk poet who carries with him the history of his people and is often called upon at gatherings to represent the voice and spirit of the tribe. Alternating between his native tongue and self-taught English, Zolani took us to Africa, where he cradled the birth of a people and then a new generation. He called on the new generation to carry the wisdom of the gods into the face of a new enemy: evil ignorance. He then brought us back to Rotterdam, rejoicing and praying that this new voice could live and prosper here and everywhere. In a powerful guttural growl with tongue clicks and whoops, he welcomed the poets of the world to the stage.

First up was Robert Pinsky, who served as U.S. Poet Laureate from 1997-2000. From New Jersey, Pinsky conceived and recently completed the "My Favorite Poem" Project in the States. After thanking Mkiva for giving him such a tough act to follow, Pinsky proceeded in his elegant diction to recite four poems, "Samurai Song," "Shirt," "ABC," and "House Hour." He was well received since his words, like those of all the poets of the evening, were projected in Dutch translation on a screen above and behind him. In his precise technical style, Pinsky makes the poem "Shirt" challenging and enjoyable by fusing process and emotion to give the most ordinary of inanimate objects a fully realized history.

Vrooman talked to God, calling Him "System"

After a brief introduction and a request for no applause, Leo Vrooman, one of Holland's most renowned authors, took the microphone. In his intimate style, he gave us a peek at his personal philosophies and dreams. The 83-year-old father of Dutch pre-experimental writing showed his depth and foresight with his four poems: "23," "Who Visited," "Psalm for Much Later," and "Closure." The 12-stanza "Who Visited" began and ended with the dinosaurs, but in between, emphasized the weakness of everyday humanity and everyday relationships. In "Psalm for Much Later," featured in the event's catalogue, Vrooman has a carefully worded conversation with God, whom he refers to as "System."

During the intermission we were invited to wander around the Schouwburg complex, investigate the smaller stages, browse the abundance of publications and editions of poetry, or watch previously taped video performances. The whole production is very user-friendly, with international food stands outside, a super low entrance fee, and of course alcoholic drinks offered at convenient locations throughout the building. A gang of student types in medieval robes wandered the marble floors, surrounding a man on the stairs here, a woman in a wheelchair there, and dispensed snippets of Erasmus, the great Dutch thinker and writer.

Strand charted the surreal landscape of childhood self-invention

The main theme for the evening was "The Child and Me." After the break, sixteen poets from around the world took turns reading or reciting on the special feelings of youth. The poets were brought onto the brightly colored mock livingroom stage five or six at a time, and each given a short introduction. The variety of thought, emotion, and character was remarkable. The tone ranged from whimsical to ominous--in accents from all corners of the earth.

Mark Strand from America set the tone by turning our childhood homes into surreal landscapes where we could relive the invention of ourselves. Leo Vrooman brought an imaginary friend to life with kindness in the face of pain. Tom Pestins from Australia via Greek Macedonia gave thanks for the richness of Mother Earth. The Chilean Armando Uribe gave a very somber discourse on identity. And Toyin Adewale from Nigeria sarcastically asked us to stop sucking our thumbs.

Robert Pinsky stood out, with a powerful piece titled, "Jesus at the Age of 5." Dorothy Parker (Australia) let us in on a scalding conversation between an analyst and his mother, while Shimon Adaf, a young writer from Israel, took a trip down the birth canal. The evening was finished off by a longer poem spoken by Tsjebbe Hettinga in his native Fries, a language from the North of Holland which sounded to me a bit like church Latin.

Elsbergs's paper airplanes, Ural's red cat, Zajc's rose

The most entertaining performances of the evening were given by Dane Zajc (Slovenia), Yalvac Ural (Turkey), and Janis Elsbergs (Letland). Elsbergs's wit and irony reminded me of smaller stages back home in Minneapolis. His style and bearing seemed quite familiar, perhaps since we are the same age, 32. His little poem titled "Paper Airplanes" surprised me as it gently accentuated the failures and frustrations that can be associated with trying new things.

Mr Ural typically writes children's books and was very amusing. He read three upbeat poems which were defined by the presence of a red cat. Then there was Zajc, the lyric librarian with scruffy beard and cigarette voice who offered "The Smallest Rose," a simple, repetitive poem that very clearly describes the kernel of the mystery, beauty, and complexity of birth and being: It's about love.

21 Rotterdammers came back from the dead

In addition to the midweek slam and the nightly main events at the Schouwburg, Poetry International staged alternative events at various locations throughout Rotterdam. An amateur/professional theatre production called Lazarus brought twenty-one Rotterdammers back from the grave. There was a workshop for kids, plus open readings, series readings, interviews with writers, and discussions with poets. There were indoor and outdoor book sales, music, videos, and a late night lounge. The week-long event culminated in a Friday night revue.

With "Form" as its theme, the closing night of the 32nd Poetry International Festival Rotterdam was interesting and entertaining. There were readings by China's exiled Bei Dao and South African rebel Lesego Rampolokeng followed by fifteen more international poets reading and discussing their form with presenter Hugo Brandt Corstius. I had the opportunity to speak with many of the poets throughout the evening and gain their overall impressions of the festival.

Most listeners tuned out the Chinese birdsong

I offer first my own impressions and an overview of the grand finale. I noticed during Bei Dao's wonderfully spoken presentation that the crowd had almost no reaction. Mr Dao used a lyrical, friendly, conversational voice while reading but used no English or Dutch and attempted no other interaction. Mr Corstius had said earlier that poetry is a universal language, its simple beauty like that of birdsong. True, but the audience's lack of empathy during the Chinese reading showed that sometimes the ear is deaf to birdsong.

Lesego Rampololkeng is a man you would like to ignore but can't. Still, his machine gun rap style was not as arrogant or bombastic as I had expected. He was charming between pieces and reminded us that he was a poet and nothing more. He quoted the violent adjectives used to describe himself and laughed at the idea that he "engaged in battle" on stage, as a local paper had written.

'I am a poem taking form.' -- Lesego Rampololkeng

After reading "Blossom," a poem on the human condition, he targeted the personality vacuum of do-nothing politics before going on to bash the critics with an ironic piece titled "Dedication." In addition to apologizing to some local girls he had inadvertently insulted, Lesage voiced his discomfort with the organized structure of the poetry festival. He read a poem called "Talking Prose," a retaliation against the decay of the poetry scene, and then "Mountain Sermon" which warned against microphone lies and set the stage for the rest of the evening with an unintelligible chorus and the closing line, 'I am a poem taking form.'

T.S. Eliot says in On Poets and Poetry that it is not the poet's main task to reinvent his language, but that it does coincidentally happen. As a society exhausts one form, new forms are contrived or free verse is used to bridge the gap. He proposes that the language of poetry (and prose) recycles itself continually and in different societies at different times. Poetry International's presentation on Form blended distinct cultures with varying time periods to dizzying effect.

Arabic form poem ended in a marvelous 'Ab'

The Australians brought sonnets, which the Russian did also, but with a varied rhyme scheme. The Pole read in sextet. The Hungarian spoke about rhythm, the Chinese, 7th century Tsung, the Serb a traditional piece from the 18th century. Tamin al-Barghouti from Palestine sang a strict Arabic form that used the same word in four different ways, over four lines, with the last line ending in the sound, 'Ab.' Marvelous.

Jan Baeke from the Netherlands used wordplay as form, taking an existing poem, extracting and discarding the key word from each line, and then recreating. Clever. Other participants, of course, also invented their own form and H.J. Pieterse from South Africa gave the best justification, saying that the basis for his form was variation.

The Xhosa orator Zolani Mkiva was called on once again to close out the festival and before offering his compliments to the Poetry International Society he gave gifts to the Dutch Friesian Tjebbe Hertinga for his memorable performances and to Tamin al-Barghouti from Palestine, in hopes that Tamin's work would continue to be an inspiration for peace.

The body poetic was trust, humility and integrity

Overall, the events were well organized and enjoyable, though some of the poets and travelers had grown weary after the long week of work in a foreign city. The English translations were available mainly in pamphlets, while the translations projected onstage were in Dutch. For an English-speaker, the events required a little extra mental effort to digest everything. In any case, most people I spoke with shared the impression that this was an important festival for poetry and poets, an opportunity to learn and share ideas, a source of inspiration, and an opening up of the poetry culture far removed from local poetry politics.

Program Director Erik Menkveld and The Poetry International Society deserve the credit for that because, as Zolani Mkiva said in his closing statement, the organization carries itself with an air of love, trust, passion, humility and integrity. More appears on the website, presented in Dutch and English:

(Poet Stephen Cvengros lives and works in Rotterdam.)


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Series Review

The 6th Annual Lower East Side Festival
of the Arts: June 1-3

By Pete Dolack

One of the sure signs of summer in New York is the Lower East Side Festival of the Arts, held annually at the Theater for the New City. It is also one of the most city's anticipated events, and this year's appearance, June 1-3, was up to the event's usual standards.

Saturday's performances in the theater's main space, the Johnson, featured a typical mix of stripped-down theater, sketch comedy, and music. Among the highlights was a "radio play" performed by Al Lewis and Bob Fass in which the two played P.T. Barnum and Walt Whitman conversing about--and clashing on--the role of art in life. Social satire of a more pointed variety was performed by the Wise Guise group.

Once again the Wise Guise displayed their ability to home in on the self-righteous police state that Giuliani-era New York has descended to and to expose the consequences of this degeneration for regular folks (especially Black and Latino young men) in a manner that leaves the audience roaring with laughter. As they have done in previous Lower East Side festivals, The Wise Guise presented topical material in a breezy, yet tight fashion.

Particularly sharp was the group's concluding piece that featured a White New York City police officer explaining in a "public service announcement" how young Black men can avoid being shot by police. This was demonstrated on a Black member of the group who ultimately walked with his empty pockets turned inside out, his arms tied to a wooden stake behind his head, with a flashlight beaming from the stake onto his face--among other indignities. The success of this piece lies, in part, in the seeming "normalness" of the first "suggestion," which quickly escalates into ever more outrageous commands. The writing nicely builds up the satirical edge of the piece, and succeeds in treading a very narrow, difficult path: satire that is genuinely funny, a little absurd, but still close enough to reality so that after you finish laughing, you say to yourself, "Hey, wait a minute. That could happen...." It is no easy task to draw honest laughs from the deadly serious problem of above-the-law New York City police officers shooting and killing young Blacks one after another. In addition to the strong writing, the acting ability of the Wise Guise makes their satire work.

Another standout effort was a 20-minute play written by Bina Sharif and performed by Ms. Sharif, Balaji Nagaraj and Kevin Mitchell Martin. "On the Edge of the River Ganges" manages to tweak greed, one's own willingness to exploit, the clash between the developed and undeveloped worlds, American cultural arrogance and the New York art world. The two main characters, poor Indians, whip together a quick painting that catches the attention of an American art buyer. The American offers a price that is far lower than his anticipated resale price, but which still represents a large amount of money to the impoverished artists. One of the artists refuses to sell the painting and is dismissive of the American, until the offer is increased, after which she greedily tries to extract a bigger price, insisting moreover that the American pay in dollars, not in Indian rupees. The American pays and the Indians have made a killing--in their terms. But the whole episode is a dream, leaving the originally reluctant seller, who was initially contemptuous of the American's money, wailing in agony at losing her dollars.

Other memorable performances in the Saturday session included Bobby Miller, who performed two familiar pieces, one, his signature prose poem on the life experiences of someone who has lived 10 lives, and the other, his monologue on a life in hair dressing. The experimental jazz duo Spin 17 (Ed Chang and Motoko Shimizu) used wind instrumentation, electronic sound effects and vocals to create a sometimes jarring yet intriguing sound. Spin 17's stress was very much on the experimental, and worth the effort of the concentration required.

Sunday's full day of events featured not only another evening of theatrical, musical and dance performances in the Johnson, but a two-hour presentation of New York's poets in the theater's auxiliary downstairs space. (Full disclosure: I was one of the performers for this segment.) Curated and hosted by Jushi, the work presented in this two-hour program was generally strong, with crisp readings complementing strong writing, sometimes political, sometimes personal, sometimes sexual, sometimes somewhere else. A couple of poets either rambled on for too long or read material that was unfocused in comparison to others on the program, but they were the rare exceptions.

Upstairs in the Johnson, the Sunday program was heavily accented by dance presentations. Two memorable presentations were from the Bangladesh Theater of America and the World Arts Bureau of China. The former presented the theatrical musical "Rhythm of Bengal." A large cast was well choreographed and easily commanded attention with its music and dance. The World Arts Bureau presented two extracts, one a martial arts performance by Li Bo, who crisply showed dexterity in gymnastic exercise, with flags and with other objects. Li Guoqiu sang an episode from the Chinese-language Beijing Opera Shajia Bang. Although the audience had only a brief explanation of the opera from the presenter's introduction, the hundredsong audience appreciated the musicality and artistry of the performance.

Penny Arcade gave a compelling performance in her monologues about her mom and middle age. Ms. Arcade's friendly, comfortable style of story telling complemented well her sometimes funny, sometimes poignant writing; she has the ability to bring layers of depth to her stories while steering well clear of mawkishness and exploitation.

(Poet/journalist/political humorist Pete Dolack is a distinctive voice well-known on the New York circuit.)

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