Brian Haman on the Poetry Reading Evening in Bucharest
By Brian Haman
On a wintry Tuesday evening in Bucharest, poets, scholars, students, and others gathered under the auspices of Prisma Ukraïna and New Europe College to experience and discuss the poetry of four contemporary Eastern European poets. The event itself, ‘Testing the Limits—Language, Nation and the Other: Young Eastern European Poetry’, marked the culmination of the first day of academic talks taking place as part of Prisma Ukraïna’s Winter Academy “Revisiting the Nation: Transcultural Contact Zones in Eastern Europe” (Feb 26-07 March 2018).
After brief introductions by Professor Susanne Frank (Humboldt University) and writer Miruna Vlada, Romanian poets Elena Vlădăreanu and Claudiu Komartin along with their Ukrainian counterparts Iryna Shuvalova and Katerina Kalytko performed selections from their respective poetry collections. Crucially, the poems were read in Romanian and Ukrainian, with English translations projected onto a screen for audience members who understood one or neither of the two poetic languages. The quandary (and indeed opportunity) for the non-Ukrainian or non-Romanian speakers was the choice between reading the poems in English or absorbing them through the rise and fall of the poets’ voices and gestures.
Many (but not all of) the poems variously examined ideas related to individual, collective, and national identities within personal, cultural, and political contexts as well as the notion and implications of the ‘other’. Set against this thematic abundance was a pronounced linguistic richness, one which was reflected in the polyphonic voices of readers and listeners in which the poems and discussions seemed to cross-pollinate and bear unexpected fruit. Such are the fortuitous benefits and persistent pleasures of blending academic performativity with the performance of poetry.
But what about the performances themselves? Katerina Kalytko provocatively paired poetry with technology as she read her poems from her mobile phone; Elena Vlădăreanu’s pacing dared her listeners (and readers) to keep up with her wit and humour; the force of Claudiu Komartin’s tone lingered in the air; and Iryna Shuvalova’s rhythmic intonation and bodily movements incarnated her words, lines, and stanzas. Far from the perils of performing poetry against which some warn, the varying approaches displayed by each poet exemplify the possibilities of aesthetically transmuting inert words on a page into the communal space of the public sphere. The private reading of poetry is thereby replaced by the public privacy of experiencing the poem as it emerges in the presence of others.
During the question session, the poets were asked about the ideological labelling and political expectations that seem to shadow young(er) Eastern European poets. While some like Kalytko engage with the traumas of war, others such as Komartin seemed to eschew the necessity of the political in favour of mining the complexities and vagaries of personal relationships. Whilst each of the poets confront the limits of ‘nationhood’ in twenty-first century Eastern Europe – some explicitly, others more obliquely – all of them seem intent on wanting to make (in the words of Robert Lowell) ‘something imagined, not recalled’. In this way, the burden or weight of history functions more a starting point rather than a terminus – perhaps itself a privilege of youth. But such an approach might also hold the promise for moving beyond culture’s proscriptive orthodoxies and linguistic limits.
In his poem ‘Otravări’ (“Poisons”) the widely-known contemporary Romanian poet Marin Sorescu acknowledges chance’s poisoned chalice and its potential impact on individual consciousness:
Iarba, munţii, apele, cerul Grass, mountains, waters, the sky
Mi-au intrat în sânge have mixed with my blood
Şi-acum aştept and now I am waiting
Să-şi facă efectul. for the effect.
And yet not every poison – whether perceived or otherwise – proves fatal, for Sorescu’s final stanza concludes:
Şi mai simt că devin And inside me I also feel
Parcă albastru, parcă nemarginit, a kind of blueness, boundlessness,
Cu stele pe ochi with stars on my eyes
Şi pe vârful degetelor. and on my fingertips.
Before he began reading his own poems, Komartin informed the audience that the revered Romanian Romantic poet Mihai Eminescu (1850-1889) died on Strada Plantelor 9, just down the street from New Europe College. Was it a case of anxiety of influence or a self-conscious break with the past? Perhaps each young European poet is waiting for the influence of history to reveal itself in their poetry, but until that time – if indeed it ever arrives – one senses that Kalytko, Komartin, Shuvalova, and Vlădăreanu will continue to write with stars on their eyes and on their fingertips.
 Marin Sorescu, Selected Poems, trans. by Michael Hamburger (Newcastle upon Tyne: Bloodaxe, 1983), p. 34.