The opening ceremony of the 29th Festival International de la Poésie took place in the Maison de la Culture, at the heart of Trois Rivières, a medium-sized city halfway between Montreal and Québec City, Québec Province, Canada. Gaston Bellemare, the organiser of this miraculous event, was described by one of the speakers as the President of ‘La République de la Poésie’. His presidential style is incomparable; thanks also to the director Maryse Baribeau, there has never been a more hospitable festival. From 4 October to 13 October, 2013, the city of Trois Rivières gave itself over to poetry, and our days here have been a blessing. Poets have arrived from Finland, Senegal, Egypt, Peru, Benin, Argentina, Brussels, France, China, and many more places. Some have dual origins, announcing complicated lives of resistance and exile: Iraq/Spain, Egypt/ Québec, Cuba/ Québec, Syria/France. Australia is represented here too: Peter Boyle is an invited poet, and I am on a holiday surpassing all dreams. In this Francophone culture, poetry, eating and drinking go hand in hand, day after glorious day.
But to go back to the beginning: on the stage in the auditorium where the opening ceremony took place was a small dais, and on the dais was an empty chair. One spotlight remained on the dais throughout the evening. The empty chair was conceived by PEN International (originally Poets, Essayists and Novelists). The oldest human rights group in the world, PEN was founded in London in 1921 with an international mission. It has become clear over the years that in many troubled areas of the world writers are targeted for imprisonment, torture and assassination. PEN has taken the lead in defending writers everywhere. The empty chair is for our brothers and sisters who are in prison or other places of torment.
Outside the Maison de la Culture, others are also remembered. The absent, the forgotten, the poets whose lives we will never know, are uniquely represented in Trois Rivières by the world’s only monument to the Unknown Poet.
The festival continued as it had begun: the opening ceremony concluded with an invitation to step out into the foyer for wine and beer. The speaker urged us to enjoy ourselves by making reference to Rabelais’ great observation that there are more old drinkers than there are old doctors! From there on it was non-stop multi-sensorial pleasure. As the program unfolded we learned that the festival was almost completely decentralised, taking place in foyers, cafes, patisseries, restaurants and bars all over the city, and even in a few religious settings. There were readings and discussions over breakfast, morning tea, lunch, afternoon tea, apéritifs, dinner, early night at the bar, and late night at the bar.
Each reading included four or more poets reading just a few short poems. We always had time to think about what we were hearing, we always heard several poets, and we never had to go back to the auditorium to find ourselves looking at each other across a barrier created by the contrast between spotlight and obscurity. Rather, we were together in intimate spaces, reading, listening, discussing, joking, eating and drinking. The audience included other poets, of course, along with residents of Trois Rivières, people from the province and the nation, and some from overseas as well.
For such a festival to succeed, internationalism must be more than a list of countries of origin. The cosmopolis of poetry achieves its vitality through both diversity and conversation. Here in Trois Rivières we were telling stories along with reading poetry; we were sharing lives, histories, and passions; we listened attentively, and the poets spoke eloquently. We had occasion, day in and day out, to laugh together. Sometimes there were tears as well.
Our conversations developed into fascinatingly mixed smorgasbords, with French, English and Spanish predominating, often mixed together in unexpected ways. The official language was French, though, and every poet brought works that had been translated into French, if they weren’t written in that language to begin with. Every poem was read both in French and in the poet’s own language. My French is not good enough to allow me to appreciate many of the subtleties of poetry, and I missed a lot, but at the same time, I was thrilled to hear the sounds and cadences of other languages, catching emotions and intensities borne by the human voice in one of its most expressive modes.
Postcard: an afternoon in the church
I became entranced with the Arabic poetry of Ahmad El-Shahawy before I could understand it. It wasn’t until the afternoon reading in the Saint James Church (Anglican), the only event in which English was the primary language, that I was able to appreciate both its meaning and its impact.
Ahmad is a journalist in Cairo, as well as a poet. His work has won numerous prizes, including the UNESCO Prize for literature in 1995 and the Cavafis Prize for poetry in 1998. As well, he has been the subject of many MA and PhD dissertations. He loves Egypt: its long history, its greatness, its ancient civilisation, and the possibilities for a future that remains faithful to that ancient cosmopolitanism. As I listened to him, I thought about the fact that journalism is one of the most dangerous professions in times of political troubles. I admired his courage, and I was enthralled with how he allowed his love of life to speak for itself, and implicitly to become an act of resistance in a place threatened with extreme repression.
The poem I filmed is from ‘The Book of the Dead’ (1997). Clouds, sky, ashes, stars, earth, and wind flow through the poem. Birds and trees inhabit it, as do angels, and light, and roses, and a woman who is loved. In this garden of life and death birds and trees talk to their gods, and the hoopoe, the sacred bird of ancient Egypt, writes verses in its own Koran. Love flows through this sacred place, and loss, while part of the flow, is also a wound. The poem is read first in English by Peter Boyle, and then in Arabic by Ahmad.
Postcard: lunch at the Maison de la Culture
On many occasions the Festival included music along with poetry. Musical improvisation was the main mode; there were many moments of unexpected and beautiful intra-action.
The most captivating performances took place over two sessions of ‘World Music and Poetry from Afar’. The group was Afroworlbeat, and most of the poets were from beyond North America. Many of the poets selected readings that worked with intra-actions across times and places. The three musicians engaged gently and thoughtfully with the reading. The depth and liveliness took our breath away.
One of the readings I filmed was by Peter Boyle. He was born in Melbourne and has lived in Sydney most of his life. He is the author of numerous books of poetry which have won many praises. He translates poetry from French and English, and was recently awarded the NSW Premier’s Award for translation. Peter read his poem ‘Berlin Buch’ in both French and English, while Afroworlbeat carried rhythms and short melodic lines of wonderful intensity.
How does it happen? Across languages, histories, lives, continents, dreams and nightmares, revolutions, wars, bombs, migrations, exile, injury and love – across all these distances and experiences, we were brought together in transformative moments that felt and were miraculous.
©Deborah Bird Rose (2013)