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We do things funny over here…

By Don Share
Vera Pavlova (left)

Vera Pavlova (left)

I recently attended the Poetry International festival in Rotterdam – one of the best poetry-related events I’ve ever been to – meeting day and night with poets from countries other than the USA, and heard – literally – not a single word about writing programs, nor about avant-gardes, post-avant gardes, flarf, or conceptual writing .

Imagine that!  Well, I know that writing programs exist outside of the US (particularly in the UK now), and yet… we sure seem to do things very differently over here. The relative lack of toadying and jockeying for position I found among poets from other countries – and I know that a single week is nothing conclusive – leads me to wonder how and why things seemed so different. I have no answer. But among all the poets, editors, and attendees of poetry events I met or saw … most very keenly wanted to read and learn about everybody they could. There was an impressive urgency among poets to encounter the work of people who were different. Sure, we had a few passionate and even heated discussions – but never about the kind of pecking-order stuff one must take for granted day in and day out over here. We’re a big country, but our literary culture seemed quite small over there.

Two poets in particular opened my eyes in many ways; they are not completely unfamiliar to American readers. Dunya Mikhail is an Iraqi poet now living in the US, with books published by New Directions; Vera Pavlova lives partly in Alaska, partly in her native Russia with her husband and translator Steven Seymour (whom you’ll hear in this recording), and her poems have appeared in places like Tin House and The New Yorker.

Click here to listen to my interview with them, which includes questions about exile, women poets, translation – and getting pigeonholed!

Comments (9)

  • On July 8, 2009 at 9:37 am Wyn Cooper wrote:

    We had Dunya Mikhail read at the Brattleboro Literary Festival a few years ago, and you could have heard the proverbial pin drop during her reading. I have never seen an audience so transfixed. Chris Merrill, who runs the International Writing Program at the University of Iowa, was sitting next to me. He turned to me half way through her reading, smiled, and said, “God, she’s the real thing, isn’t she?” She certainly is.


  • On July 8, 2009 at 10:33 am Kenneth Goldsmith wrote:

    My god, Don. Such gorgeously dressed poets! We can all take a page out of their book! Damn!


  • On July 8, 2009 at 11:53 am Bobby wrote:

    “You know Vera Pavlova even if you think you don’t.

    If you ride the NYC subway and pay attention to the ‘Poetry in Motion’ posters, you’ve read her poem.

    If you read the New Yorker magazine, you surely have noticed Vera’s poems on its pages.

    Only a handful of Russian writers and poets have been thus honored.”

  • On July 8, 2009 at 1:12 pm Brian Salchert wrote:

    Did a Dunya Mikhail search and chose the YouTube video
    of her reading in Berkeley’s Lunch Poem series. Several
    poems she read in the language they were written in and
    then read the English translation. That was quite revealing, especially sonically.


  • On July 8, 2009 at 1:31 pm Don Share wrote:

    I assume that she did. If you listen to my interview, she decides not the read a poem I asked her to (!), and picks another. As you’ll hear, both poets are very, very striking sonically in their own languages as well as in translation.

  • On July 8, 2009 at 1:33 pm Joel Brouwer wrote:

    Don, Were these dresses handed out at the conference registration tables? Nice idea; I’ve never liked those hang tag thingies you usually get. Would be fun if everyone at AWP or MLA wore identical uniforms. I vote for those awesome overalls Rodchenko designed for the early Soviets.

  • On July 8, 2009 at 3:36 pm Martin Earl wrote:


    Thanks for bringing this up: the fact that we “do things very differently over here”. Couldn’t be better stated. I’ve worked for the Rotterdam festival off and on over the last few years, when they’ve had Portuguese poets attending. They do an excellent job producing versions of invited poets’ work in Dutch and English, publishing small booklets in the three languages. Just a thought on what you’ve observed: there are two principal differences between US and Canadian Poets and those from other countries. One of them is that schools and movements (originally a European phenomenon) hardly exist in modern Europe and on into the middle East and beyond. In the very early 90s I came across the remnants of this kind of thing in East Germany, as though the poets there, the East Berliners and the writers from Leipzig and Jenna, had been frozen in time during the communist years. And yet, on the other hand, poetry is still very important in individual countries, and its praxis dovetails more with the life of the citizens of these countries, in terms of national identity, or rejection of such…across all political lines. Poets as well are more present in the national presses. The American corporate mode, which tends to contain rather than disseminate poetry has never really formed abroad. Poets are at once more individual (language and nationality drive this, of course) and more grounded in their local contexts, less apart from the societies they live in.

    Just a start…


  • On July 8, 2009 at 5:18 pm John Oliver Simon wrote:

    I’ve been to the grand Colombian festival in Medellín, and the warmth and solidarity among worldwide poets is quite wonderful. One year the FARC, the left-wing guerrillas, kidnapped some poets and brought them to a safe house and asked them to gove a reading for the compañeros. “Con mucho gusto,” replied Blanca Varela, the dean of Peruvian poetry, “but I didn’t bring my work.” “Momentito,” replied the comandante, went into the other room, and brought back a book of Varela’s poems. The reading went off without a hitch, and the poets were returned safely to their hotel.

  • On July 8, 2009 at 9:20 pm Christopher Woodman wrote:

    I still haven’t been able to scroll down this far because of the photo, Don.

    Don’t you know poets only do poetry when there’s no action?

Posted in Uncategorized on Wednesday, July 8th, 2009 by Don Share.