Don’t get me started about the Macedonian Poetry Festival.
Put it this way. If it’s a sex fest that you want, and you look like you might be a woman, then go to the Macedonian Poetry Festival. Put it in your calendars. It’s in August every year.
Then again, if it’s actually poetry that you want, also go to the Macedonian Poetry Festival, which, as I discovered, and to my surprise, is not just a local affair but an event international in scope and focus. It’s been attended by such laureates as Pablo, Ted, Allen, Seamus, W. H.; and others from other places that in the English-speaking world we may not be so familiar with. Like Eugenio Montale, Joseph Brodsky, both Nobel Prize winners; and Leopold Sédar Senghor who, as well as being a poet, was the President of Senegal. Like Václav Havel from Czech. Poetry and politics. Remember him?
Would you believe it? Even our own Thomas Shapcott from Ipswich was guest-of-honour in 1989 and upon his head was placed the Golden Wreath.
There have also been, in the entire fifty years of the festival’s existence, two women, one white and one black – a Desanka Maksimović of Serbia and a Nancy Morejón of Cuba – who also had golden wreaths placed upon their heads.
So now here I am on the first morning of the first day of the Festival’s Golden Jubilee. I’m downstairs in the Hotel Drim in one of the official gallery spaces where there is a photographic exhibition, a memorial of sorts to mark the first half-century. I’m doing the rounds of it, pacing the perimeters, perusing the pictures hanging on the walls in their frames: your Nerudas, your Heaneys, your Senghors, your Montales, your Lundkvists, your Amichais. All interesting. But it’s the image of Ginsberg blown-up in front of me, in dark-room-developed black-and-white, that catches and holds my attention.
No chiselled bust shot or self-conscious solitary study, in it Ginsberg is casually strolling the Struga streets with another man, a poet, a Macedonian poet whose name escapes me the moment I read it on the paper plaque. But I do take in what he’s wearing.
The man is wearing a light-coloured safari suit and a pair of delicate spectacles. There is something fine, too, about his features, his bones, his throat, in comparison to the wiry-bearded, goggle-eyed Ginsberg. But they are both smiling – one the smile of someone who has caught, the other the smile of someone who has been captured. They share the same dreamy expression on their faces, the same glazed-eye gazes. And because of this it seems to me as if they have known, between them, some kind of intimate pleasure, poetic or unpoetic or both. Now this pleasure in that time, in that place, in Macedonia in 1986, when homosexuality had another ten years to be decriminalised, would have been unspeakable.
Of course, I’m only speculating.
But if they did share the kinds of pleasures I am imagining, I do not begrudge them. On the contrary. Something for everyone at the Macedonian Poetry Festival. No. I do not begrudge them.
Just as I do not begrudge the present-day patriarchs, or their pleasures, here before me, on the first night of the first day at the fiftieth Macedonian Poetry Festival’s official opening ceremony at nine in the evening.
Out they come, one by one.
They teeter, they totter, they dodder assisted by walking frames, sticks and the beautiful, young women who accompany them, arm in arm, in old-fashioned ways onto the main stage. There, into the microphones that patiently await them, they gasp – or at least they seem to – their poems’ and their own last breaths. It does seem that way, as if hunched in their now-too-loose, crumpled suits they tire too easily; as if their bodies can no longer withstand or contain the force of their words or passions.
So, no. I do not begrudge the patriarchs anything.
They are my dear dears.
And now I am here.
In the audience, I mean.
With the thousands and thousands – the thousands – I sit on the grass. Others sit on chairs, fold-out, cafe or the odd municipal bench. Some stand. We all flank the banks of the River Drim. We face the stage which is actually, most days, a bridge. And we listen so attentively to the patriarchs and their poems. They transmit and we receive. It’s an eerie-feelinged atmosphere.
So quiet you could hear a pin drop – if pins were actually being dropped which, of course, they aren’t. Instead, what you hear in their place, along with the patriarch’s last-seeming gasps, is the soft beat of the wind; a breeze on the sails of the toy-like ships; boats that bare-chested boys make twist and turn on the water’s surface as part of the festival’s spectacle, as part of the celebration.
And then when the patriarch’s poems are done, when each poem is done, the people, the thousands and thousands of us roar with applause, and cheers, and bravos like I have never seen people roar for poetry before. Like, really, it is satisfying some great human hunger, a deep desire.
And then again the quiet.
And then the roar of applause.
And if that’s not enough, then do you know? I don’t. The nice middle-aged couple, who have invited me to share their picnic blanket and roasted pumpkin seeds with them, tell me that this night and the next and the next the Poetry Festival is being televised live and uncut on Macedonian National TV. To the whole of the rest of the country. To the thousands and thousands of other people who cannot be here but wish they could; who sit, the couple promise, glued in front of their screens. For poetry?
But Ginsberg. Back to that beatnik.
There’s a story that comes to mind when I think of Macedonia and poetry and him.
Now, I can’t remember if it was an old friend, also a poet, who told it to me when he came back from New York where he’d been – and good for him – chasing his dreams. There, he’d gotten involved in the famous, fledgling-welcoming Nuyorican Poets Cafe and had sort of gotten to know Ginsberg, at least rubbed shoulders with him regularly. Enough to understand that it was a habit, his custom to cruise the Nuyorican venue, as my friend put it, for fresh, young, male meat; to go home with a new piece of it every time.
Now, I’m not judging. Again, I’m not begrudging. As long as it’s all adult and consensual. I’m just saying. Poetry. Gatherings. Festivals.
But the story I was remembering.
Maybe it was this same friend, the one who went to New York, who told it to me. Or maybe I read it somewhere in a book or magazine. In any case – hearsay, gossip – it’s become a part of my own personal Ginsberg lore and legend; an example of his humanity, along with his pleasure-seeking, which is also an example of his humanity, I believe.
The story goes like this.
Ginsberg – he wasn’t always in New York, obviously. Sometimes he used to teach – poetry – in Boulder, Colorado at the Jack Kerouac School of Disembodied Poetics which he co-founded, incidentally. And what a crazy name. I mean – disembodied? Who wants a disembodied poetics? Not me. And I’d guess not him. Well, what do I know? I don’t know everything.
Anyway, while Ginsberg was teaching – poetry – he used to get quite involved with his students. He’d socialise with them. He’d have them around to his house for these big, generous, impromptu, family-affair type dinners. You know the kind. With a big pot of stew and a ladle laid out on the table; loaves of day-old bakery bread, mismatching crockery, cutlery, glasses and lots of bottles of cheap red wine. Lots of talking and shouting and laughing, too.
One night, sometime between the start and the middle of one of these big, impromptu family-affair type dinners, there was a knock at the door. Ginsberg – Allen – got up to answer it, thinking it was just another guest who was late. It was. It was a young, lone Jehovah’s Witness that Allen saw standing on the doorstep. All crew-cut and clean-shaven and neat-suited, he was carrying a copy of the bible and the good news.
Well, Ginsberg – Allen – what else could he do? In the fabulous frame of mind and mood he was in, he opened the door wide, wider still. He wrapped a warm, welcoming arm around the shoulders of the Witness and whisked him down the hall, telling him that he must come, come, join them, join us, to eat, eat his fill.
And the Jehovah’s Witness – what else could he do? Probably a little stunned that he had not been shunned as he usually was, he came, came, joined, ate, communed and broke bread with Ginsberg and the young poets-in-training. He was full. He had become so. He could not eat one morsel more, he said. At which point, Ginsberg – Allen – with perfect timing and in all sincerity, turned to the boy and asked, ‘Now, what is it that you have come to tell me?’
And the boy’s mouth hung open, slack at its hinge.
He was speechless or he’d forgotten the answer to the question.
He also had a bit of spinach caught between his two front, perfectly straight, white teeth.
Now, there, right there, Ginsberg should have been made an honorary Macedonian. Given the Macedonian people’s love not just of poetry but of hospitality, of being hospitable to anyone who should come a-knocking. Be it a neighbour, a relative, a friend, a travelling cabbage-grater salesman – or saleswoman – children folk-song singers on saints’ days and other special holidays. Even gypsies. Well, maybe not them. But definitely the Jehovah’s Witnesses. These door-knockers, in Macedonia, are especially well-loved. New in the region, having just expanded their mission, the Witnesses are enjoying a surprisingly friendly market.
This is an actual, true phenomenon.
So, what is it that I have come to tell you? What is it that I have come, to your door, conjuring so much smoke and so many mirrors, to say?
Firstly, it’s this.
Maybe no man in Macedonia ever hit on me at all. I may have simply been projecting my own repressed, internalised sleaziness – needs – desires – out onto the screen of the world, onto Ginsberg, onto poets everywhere, onto the anniversary of the fiftieth Macedonian Poetry Festival. It’s possible.
Then again, I am an extremely beautiful and charming woman whose mere physical form must, no doubt, excite erotic promise. And I was, I am travelling alone – in a country where women normally don’t. Did I mention that?
Secondly – and this is not what I have come to say but a consequence of what I have said – I want to offer my apologies to the Macedonian Poetry Festival for possibly defaming its name. It was not my intention. But I accept, I concede that I may never, despite the country’s love of guests, be welcomed back. Let alone be the third woman to have a Golden Wreath placed on my very embodied head.
Anyway, I’ve got enough hats at home already.
And there is one last thing.
Here, on the first night of the first day, at the official close of the official opening of the fiftieth Macedonian Poetry Festival there is a surprise for me, for us. After the patriarch-poets have finished their fine sets; and the bare-chested boys have laid their sails to rest; and the roar of the audience’s applause has died down to an almost-silence, there is one final thing I want to show you.
Above us, above the crowds’ heads, the thousands and thousands of us heading home or to our hotels or on to the late-night open mic bars, there is a sudden explosion. We don’t know of what. For a moment, I think, we all think in collective unison, that it must be a bomb – bombs. Stunted, second world war bombs that have been taken from an ancient military storage facility by an individual or terrorist group and set off. But it’s not. It’s just fireworks. Cheap ones. I don’t want to say from where. But they boom and crack so low; they send flaming shrapnel-type objects from sky to earth and threaten to set bushes and ladies’ bouffants and small trees alight.
We run. We shield our heads with newspapers, handbags, festival programmes, with bare hands. The thousands and thousands of us, stirred, affected, confused, we run. But from or to what? In this little scene and also in a broader sense – from what or to do we run? Which kind of folly? What kind of danger, desire or threat? Here at the fiftieth Macedonian Poetry Festival, is it really just sex that we all think we want?
Well, I’ll speak for myself.
It’s union that I aspire to, that I need. Spacious union – with appropriate boundaries, of course – with all things. Embodied. Disembodied. Both. Isn’t that what poetry’s for? Am I right or am I wrong?
Still, if every man in Macedonia didn’t hit on me, I’d probably feel something was amiss. I’d miss the indignation I feel. I’d think: I’d lost my mojo.
But in this moment, under the fireworks-pretending-to-be-bombs, amidst the chaos of criss-crossing crowds running away and towards, all that’s not so clear.
We run. I run.
But if I stopped and looked up, if we all looked up, we’d see – I want you to see – the night sky. It’s full of colour. Red, pink, blue, green. Yellow in bursts and streams; fountains. Comet-type things with tails appear only to disappear. Faulty, imperfect; shrapnel flaming, falling. So much wild colour. And it’s way too brief.
Now. Are there any more comments? Questions?