When you open yourself up to the Universe, the Universe provides! With a free summer ahead of me, I have decided to return to Spain after many years, Barcelona in particular, which I’ve always wanted to explore. No plan, no activities, just to stay awhile and see what the city has to offer. Sunny May, and although Barcelona has a super convenient metro, and an amazing bike path system, I am content to walk, especially down in the old section of town, where what would be back alleys in the US are a main streets, a whole maze of them, filled with people and small shops: Food, music, clothes. All the signs in Catalàn, a Romance language similar to Spanish, and French, so that I can understand most of them, but have no idea to how to pronounce the words. In fact, and I didn’t know this before I came, Catalonia (or Catalunya as the natives call it) used to be its own country for a while, like Texas, and, also like Texas, they’re fiercely proud of themselves their language and culture. I envy their bilingualness, like having a secret language only cool people know.
It’s my second day here, rambling along La Rambla, main avenue in the touristy centro section, when I see a green poster outside of the Palau Virreina advertising the 2011 Barcelona Poetry Festival. A week of daily free readings and performances at the Palau and other nearby locations. And it started yesterday! I check the schedule of events, and, though I’m fine with just seeing what the poets in Spain are up to, some American poets are reading, including Jerome Rothenberg and…Gary Snyder!
The next night I return to the Palau Virreina, early, and though I didn’t think a poetry reading would attract much people, I’m wrong. The place fills up, all chairs taken, people standing in back and even weaseling down the aisles. The building is old old, stone walls probably older than the United States, but it’s been converted into an arts center, currently displaying some contemporary photography. Two huge wooden doors open into a high arched hall in the layout of a cross, though the ‘top’ of it is closed/walled off and the stage arranged right at the center, so chairs in the wings are viewing that performance sideways. I suppose this isn’t even a ‘hall’, since parts of it are open to the sky. A courtyard I guess.
The opening act for Jerome Rothenberg is a South African “poet/musician” named Kgafela Oa Magogodi. During his reading/performance he sits with a guitar in his lap, tapping out the rhythm with his right foot on a tambourine, and occasionally picking up small percussion instruments like a drum stick or rattle, singing in English and what I take to be a tribal language from South Africa, but between ‘songs’ (which at times are him just talking over a simple vamp) reciting poems in the style of what some would call ‘spoken word’, meaning fast and passionate and occasionally rhyming and on the political side, criticizing both his government and the United States. I’m all for that, though he seems to be preaching to the choir, which is, in my humble opinion, the problem with that type of poetry: it’s passionate, but not subtle, nor surprising, nor does it tell me anything new, or make me think differently about politics, or anything.
I have to say that I’m not that familiar with Rothenberg, never read his stuff except maybe in anthologies. Magogodi introduces him as “The Shaman” and he has that air, though all poets have that air, a little. He looks like an old Jewish Torah scholar, except with short white hair and beard, his head and neck curving over in the beginning of a question mark, from a life bent over books, and which is probably what I’ll end up looking like. He’s dressed all in black: black slacks, black t-shirt, black shoes, with a Native American-looking necklace of wood and turquoise. An assortment of props are already on the podium: a feather, a baton, and what looks like a long plastic tube.
He addresses us in english, and I wonder how much the audience understands, and even how much of the audience is spanish/catalan versus maybe american, and starts by saying he’s going to sing a traditional native Seneca song, in the original language, then in English, then “for the first time ever, en Catalàn!”
That gets a huge roar, though when he actually starts singing, the song just consists of the line, “The animals are coming” repeated a few times while he shakes a rattle and waves a feather. Still, I think the Senecas would have been proud that one of their songs has been sung across the ocean in a language just a little bit less in danger of disappearing than theirs.
Impressing the crowd even more, Rothenberg reads one of his poems in English, then a Spanish translation of it. Unfortunately he can’t keep that up, and after that reads just in English, and though interesting to me perhaps, he’s losing some folks, they’re getting restless, especially when us English-speakers (and there seem to be more than I would have thought) chuckle, or go ‘huh’ after an interesting line. Since Rothenberg does such a good job of reading his one poem in Spanish, I’d think he could have, or even should have, talked between poems en español, at least un poquito, to keep the crowd with him, since they loved how he started out. But, he also reads a ‘tone poem’ (as in, just made up of sounds) by a German dadaist, Hugo Ball, while whirling that plastic tube over his head the whole time, making a high pitched whine. Which seems to have the same effect on everyone, as in, Um, what the fuck was that?
He ends with a Navaho song, about how horses came to their land, which is interesting since the Spanish were the ones who actually introduced them, but I like the idea of the ‘losers’ re-writing history with poetry and song, taking the oppressors out of the story completely. I’m not sure people get it though. Maybe I’m thinking too much. It’s happened before.
The description in the program says that Magogodi and Rothenberg will “show a way to listen to poetry that incorporates ritual and combat in every verse and every gesture” (my translation)(from Catalàn!) which only goes to show that the Spanish like their descriptions to be melodramatic, because there is no ritual or combat, nor have the two performers ever met before the show. What they do have in common is an interest in mixing/melding languages and cultures together.
The huge wooden doors of the ‘palace’ have been kept open for the poetry reading, which I think is meant as an invitation to any passers-by (and there are many) though throughout there has been a constant Rambla rumble of people out on a Friday night, and at one point a large group gathers in the back of the hall and have to be shushed, though they don’t really. I’m not sure if they’re people who have just wandered in, or who are waiting for the Sufis, because in fact they are the headliners tonight: three people performing Sufi poetry and music. A beautiful red-haired woman dressed all in white reads the poetry, translated into Catalàn, while the two men, one of whom also sings beautifully, accompany her, and/or play musical interludes between poems, with both stringed instruments (guitar, violin, and some kind of traditional lute or oud) and sometimes on handheld tambourine-looking drums. Since the poetry is in Catalàn, I tune it out sometimes and just enjoy the music, but other times I can understand some of the words. It’s all about love. All you need is amor.
Halfway across the world and all I do with my free time is what I’d do back home: Hang out in a bookstore. The best one, LA Central, a block off La Rambla, has a huge collection. I seek out the poetry section, curious about which American poets are the most popular, and (this may make some people angry, but I love it)(meaning both that I love that it makes people angry, and love that it’s true) it’s Charles Bukowski, hands down. There are eight of his books of poetry, in translation, compared to Sylvia Plath and Anne Sexton, each with one book. John Ashbury nowhere to be found.
I’m renting a room from a woman while staying here. Much cheaper than staying in a hostel, and much quieter. I’m going ‘old school’ traveler style, enjoying having no phone, no car, no computer, no iPod. Still, with not even a radio in my room, I do miss music, so that every little snippet I hear seems like a gift, like when I stop into a smoothie place down on Calle Ferrán for a slice of pizza, as a halfway cheap lunch (because Barcelona is expensive) and the Rolling Stones’ “Beast of Burden,” is playing. One of my favorites, haven’t heard it in a while. Tired from walking all day, gazing at all the beautiful Spanish women, the perfect words for what I’m feeling:
I’ve walked for miles, my feet are hurting
All I want is for you to make love to me
Poetry vs. Music. Two points on a continuum? Heidegger says all artists help in the creation of the world, but he reserves top place for the poets, because they create with language, but here on La Rambla, Saturday afternoon, a percussion troupe appears. Modern day punk rock Catalàn Kodo drummers, blocking traffic, yelling and pounding and dancing and lifting their drums in the air. A hundred people surrounding them, dancing with them down the street.
On Saturday night, when I arrive back at the hall of the Palau de Virreina. A group of people, volunteers, dressed in funny-looking, what I take to be traditional Catalunyan, red hats, wait at the front of the courtyard. One woman, guapa, approaches me and says hola. I try not to act nervous as she asks me if I’d like to hear a poem. Me encantaría, I say. I would love to.
She spreads out a set of ten (or so) cards, face down, and asks me to pick one. On the other side is the name of a poem, and who it is by, which, alas, I don’t really catch, but at least it’s in Spanish and not Catalàn—I may have a chance of understanding it.
She smiles, seemingly pleased by my choice, and recites it by memory. I understand most of it, I think—it seems to be in a simple accessible style, a poem about a woman’s face. I try to be brave and look the beautiful woman in the eye, and she stares right back, and when she’s done I want to tell her that she has a face like that, but what if I’ve misunderstood? What if the woman’s face in the poem is old and wrinkly? Instead, I play it safe, as I always seem to do with women, and say simply, Gracias. That’s all I can say to beautiful women who recite poetry to me. Gracias.
The problem with having events in the courtyard of the Palau de Veillreina becomes evident: Rain. I arrived early, just to get out of it, but with the open courtyard, half the seats are wet. Hardly above a drizzle, not unpleasant to walk through, but not to sit in. I grab a metal folding chair down front, under a second-floor walkway, in the second row. The first row is just a little out in the open, so the seats are half wet. All the video recording cables, and half the stage, are out in the rain. Steam rising from the stage lights. I start to worry about be electrocuted.
A trio of older people sit down next to me, and the woman right next to me smiles and nods. The hall is filling up, or at least the dry parts, with a small section of us under the crosswalk, then twenty feet of empty wet chairs, then a larger group standing in back. The whole time we’re sitting there, through a glass wall to the left there is a room, a classroom maybe, with chairs and a couple desks up front. I finally ask one of the guys in charge why we can’t all move in there. He claims we wouldn’t all fit, though I’m not so sure. More likely, moving all the recording equipment, sound and video, would be impossible, so the recording/video of the poetry has become more important than the poetry itself.
My new neighbor spreads out her umbrella and puts it over the chair in front of us, because by now the rain has gotten stronger and raindrops are splattering off the seats and back onto us. I thank her and mention that things don’t seem planned out very well. She nods and says that it’s a matter of organization, and that if a corporation had organized this, everything would run smoothly. Anarchist that I am, I have to agree with her. “Sabes,” she says, “Los poetas son idealistas, pero no muy organizados.” Indeed.
Lining the back of the stage are four super-comfy-looking chairs about the size of love seats. All black, of course. And dry. The poets arrive, and man are they young. Two young men, two young women. I guess I’d expected people like Jerome Rothenberg, wise men, or wise people, but nope, these look like college kids. I tell this to my neighbor and she laughs. “We don’t have many poets here in Catalunya!”
The four youths ascend and stand in a row at the front, in the drizzle. Like, for a while. Silent. I think this is a statement of some sort. My neighbor chuckles. Then, through some unspoken signal, three of them retreat to their chairs, of which I’m seriously jealous right now.
Two of them, María Cabrera and Jaume C. Pons, are from Catalunya. The other two, Pablo Fidalgo and María Salgado, from Madrid. So, half the poems will be in español, and half in catalàn. The guy from Madrid, and the seeming organizer, Fidalgo, reads first. He’s cultivating his inner Pablo Neruda, both in body weight and poem content, where ‘amor’ appears every other line.
I understand most of the Spanish poems, though I actually prefer the Catalàn poets, they have better stage presence, speak more intensely. The young catalàn woman is serious, and intense, and I want to marry her and her sexy rolling r’s. Pons, the catalàn guy is the best, even the other poets seems to acknowledge this. He’s the only one who uses humor, which I like, as well as a couple ‘shout outs’ to both Keats and Jim Morrison. He even sings a verse from The Doors’ “The End.”
All lusting after beautiful women who write poetry aside, I feel like I’m in a good tribe that night. A room full of people who like poetry, and surprisingly a lot of younger folks. I’m not sure what would happen in the States, though there are plenty of artsy-looking older folks, including a few other men with long hair, so I don’t feel too much like a freak.
I wonder what writing in Catalàn is like. That is, everyone here seems to be basically fluent in both Catalàn and Spanish, therefore these poets seem to be choosing the language they want to write in. I wonder if they would say that? That it’s a choice for them? Because Spanish is a world language, they could write in it and have people from Santiago to Los Angeles understand them. But to choose to write in a language spoken by maybe a million people? Two million? And yet, I would do that too, write in my own language versus the language of the oppressor. Except I have no choice, the language of the oppressor is the only one I know.
On Sunday I do get to see a couple of older Spanish wise men poets: Luis García Montero and Joan Margarit. I arrive at the Ateneu Barcelonès, where the reading is being held, a little late. In contrast to the Palau Virreina, this building is new, fancy, a little sterile feeling even. I walk in and a security guard points me through some doors, where I can already hear the sound of poetry being recited. I check my watch. Really? It’s not that late. Who ever heard of a poetry reading starting on time?!
I enter the room, a small theatre with rows of seats, and with a large movie/tv screen, on which the two poets are seated on a stage somewhere. Not here though. Shit. I almost decide fuck it, that I didn’t come to see a video of poets reading, but on the other hand I have nothing else planned, so I awkwardly crawl over some people’s laps to a lone chair off to one side. I’m lucky to get that, the salon fills up with people coming in after me who have to stand in back.
At first I think the poets are reading somewhere else, Madrid maybe, and we are watching a simulcast of some sorts, but then on hearing them talk between poems I realize they’re actually in the building, in a larger theatre, and that we’re in an overflow room. Wow. How’s that for a poetry crowd? Still, grrr, I want to be in the main hall.
The two poets have a weird dynamic. The younger one, Garcia, reads one poem seated in his chair. The second, older, poet, Margarit, stands up and walks to the front of the stage and reads while gesticulating like an Italian. Montero’s poems have humor, and joy, like Charles Bukowski or Frank O’Hara, while Margarit’s poems are harder for me to understand. I can’t tell if it’s because he’s speaking in Catalàn, or if he just has a super-thick accent, or both, but they are, or seem, serious, though he also seems to impress the audience a bit more. Towards the end, Margarit tells Garcia that he happily sees him as the heir to his throne. Which sounds horribly arrogant. I know, right? Who would have thought a poet could be arrogant? But maybe Margarit has earned it.
And now for something completely different. Lee Ranaldo, guitarist for the band Sonic Youth, is giving a performance back at the Palau Virreina. I’m not sure what to expect, but since it involves the guitarist from Sonic Youth, I’m expecting noise. In fact, his performance, or show, is called “Noise Recitation: Against Refusing.”
This time there’s a huge screen at the back of the courtyard, with a large square stage. A wire has been suspended down in the middle, with a small noose about head height. Two Fender amps flank the stage, one in each back corner tilted slightly up, with a small podium stage-right, where I sit a couple rows back. I show up early and still barely get a chair. Huge turnout, with a slightly different crowd. All the alternative music crowd, generally younger, and with more tattoos, has turned out, expecting perhaps more music than poetry, or a concert instead of a poetry reading. They’re certainly rowdier, especially the women, who all seem wonderfully foul-mouthed, making me think of these lines:
In the streets the women come and go
laughing and yelling, “Coño!”
About ten minutes before the show, Ranaldo comes up on stage. No one in the audience seems to know if it’s really him, or maybe just a roadie, since he’s now like, an older guy. Maybe a little older than me, meaning late forties, with grey hair, though cut in kind of an old Beatles British invasion style. He hangs a Fender Jazzmaster electric guitar from the wire noose, wrapping it around the head and through some of the tuning pegs. With a wireless unit duct-taped to the body, he turns up the volume knob, leaving the guitar just hanging there, moving in the wind a little, and since it’s on, and the amps are on, the strings vibrate slightly, creating a low moan and a really high-pitched, though faint, feedback sound.
The lights lower, and a weird collage movie projects on the screen: shots of some very skinny young people crawling around coastal rocks, très 70s. I’m not sure if they are the Sonic Youth folks from way back or not.
Ranaldo comes up on stage. Again, nobody knows it’s him until he grabs the mic and begins to talk, so there hasn’t been any applause. Or maybe everyone else knows what to expect? And I’m the dummy? It’s happened before. Anyways, he gives a brief explanation of what he’s about to do, in English. He’ll be reciting some of his poetry (later I learn that it’s from a new book of his, Against Refusing), but that “half of it won’t make sense.” He doesn’t even know what the words mean, so we shouldn’t worry if there’s no translation.
He grabs a drumstick, walks over to the guitar, and starts banging on it. He has some effects pedals on the floor by the podium that I can’t see, but which must include distortion, and some kind of repeater, and some other weird stuff, because the hall fills with sound. Low notes and some high notes. Feedback. Clicks of the wood stick on the wood body. He even hits the strings, getting huge vibrating thick chords.
Holding the mic in one hand, he recites his first poem, something about traveling by car through California and the desert. I’m not sure the words would stand on their own. Seems like he could just be reading from a dictionary with just as much effect. But what an effect! The movie continues, with more bizarre scenes strung together, of mostly naked people wearing masks and spitting rubber spiders out of their mouths. Ranaldo takes a violin bow and strokes the guitar strings, sometimes one, sometimes all six, stepping on his various effects pedals. In fact, I’d argue he’s ‘playing’ his pedals as much as his guitar.
Even more bizarrely, Ranaldo pushes the guitar away, sending it swinging in huge circles around the stage. The noose/wire stretches, it’s black and mostly invisible with the stage lights and movie playing, creating the effect of the guitar as an animate being, floating around in space singing/screaming/moaning. A ghost.
Ranaldo recites more poetry, going from more narrative-ish stories to listing off weird sound-words, reminding me of the Dada poem Rothenberg read the other night. At one point Ranaldo even takes the guitar off it’s noose and carries it to one of the amplifiers, creating a weird feedback loop that, combined with the repeat effect, sounds like, and is as loud as, a helicopter hovering overhead.
I’m actually surprised Ranaldo has a guitar strap, not sure why, but he does, which he puts on the guitar. Slinging it over his shoulder, he fingers some chords and single notes. Not a lot, never many notes at once. Instead, he just seems interested in ‘layering’ notes and sounds over each other, in different rhythms (or indifferent rhythms).
He hangs the guitar back up and sends it swinging around in more huge loops. I, and the guy next to me, keep expecting, maybe in some way hoping, it will hit the podium, but it never does. Would make a cool noise though if it did. I love though that at one point the guitar tags Ranaldo on the back, but I seem to be the only one who laughs out loud. At another point, he pulls it to the back of the stage, then sends it swooping out over the heads of the people in the first few rows, again like a live creature.
I started the show (? Or, what do I call this?) thinking it was either the most pretentious thing I was ever going to see, or the coolest, and by now I’m thinking it’s the coolest. His weirder poetry seems to fit the mood more, and he uses repetition effectively, especially at one point when he chants the last line of a poem over and over, “Open all the boxes! Open all the boxes!” While bringing the noise to it’s loudest peak of the night.
I expect Ranaldo to just leave the guitar screaming and walk off the stage as his ending, but as the movie ends, he gets the guitar under control and plays it some more with a violin bow, calming things down, leaving it hanging with just a low hum. He walks over to the microphone, smiling, and quietly says, “Thanks.”
Huge applause. The house lights comes on, and though I can’t necessarily hear or understand the exact worlds people around me are saying to each other, the expressions on their faces say what I’m feeling: Holy shit. That was the craziest fucking shit I’ve ever seen or heard.
Gary Snyder has been one of my favorite poets for years, though I had despaired of ever getting to hear him read, since I’ve moved back to Michigan and, well, he’s getting old now and I figured he’d want to retire quietly to his house up in the Northern California mountains. But, apparently, he has come all the way to Spain for this reading, which takes place in a small auditorium in the Caja Madrid (a big Spanish bank) building on the Plaça de Catalunya, a large plaza and park, with a huge fountain and trees and benches and metro stop, and where the Rambla starts, heading south to the port. And the spot where, a week later, protesters will set up camp, as part of a nationwide manifestations against government austerity measures, due to the crumbling economy, caused, in part, in my opinion, to government deregulation of banking practices, including those of Caja Madrid.
The arts wing of the building, the Espai Cultural, houses some contemporary photography exhibits on the ground and basement floors. In fact, since I arrive super early, I wander downstairs to look and stumble on Snyder getting interviewed in front of a camera crew. I can’t help it: I smile when I see him. One of my heroes, in person. Someone whose writing changed my life, really. I try not to gawk though, not wanting to seem like a dork-stalker-groupie.
The auditorium is on the second floor. I slip in early, while the techies are still checking the mics. The room is set up weird, in a large ‘V’, with the stage at the base, so that the two ‘wings’ of seats are separated and not visible to each other, though both can see the stage. I’m glad I got a good seat right up front, because ten minutes before the reading is supposed to start, a flood of people come pouring in, scrambling for seats like jackals.
The first hour of the ‘reading’ is actually a showing of the short documentary The Practice of the Wild in which the writer Jim Harrison, a friend of Snyder’s, interviews him in different settings, including while walking in the woods, interspersed with Snyder reading some of his poems. I’ve actually seen this before and, though I’m a fan of Harrison, he’s not the most photogenic person (Snyder later describes him as looking “like Genghis Khan”) and talks in kind of a mumble-growl. In fact, since many people in the audience don’t seem to know who he is, or maybe they do, they kind of end up laughing at him. I’m also left feeling that Harrison doesn’t ‘dig’ as deep as he can with his questions. But I think the audience is won over by Snyder, the wise man of the woods, talking about Buddhism, and writing, and his past.
After the movie, the host and interpreter for the night, Nacho Fernández (love that name!), a writer and translator from Madrid, gets up and introduces Snyder, though I get the impression that he needs no introduction to anyone there, Spanish or otherwise. In contrast to Jerome Rothenberg (they must be around the same age) Snyder is straight-backed, thin, and wiry, dressed in blue jeans and boots and a shirt right out of an L.L. Bean catalogue, looking twenty years younger than he actually is, and like he’s about to go for a hike in the mountains. When he first walks up on stage, he seems tired after his trip of three or so days, but as soon as he starts reading, he gets more energy.
He and Fernández sit at a long table. Snyder reads from a small collection of poems, mostly earlier work, that Fernández has assembled and translated, and which has been handed out for free to all the attendees, with the English and Spanish versions on facing pages. Since I know Snyder knows Chinese and Japanese and probably Sanskrit and some Native American, and has lived in California most of his life, I half expect him to read some of his poems in Spanish, but he doesn’t. Fernández translates everything Snyder says in between poems, which is a lot, since Snyder likes to basically tell a story for every poem, and I see some of the Spanish people next to me kind of following along with the Spanish versions of the poems. I like following along too, to see how the poems ‘work’ in Spanish. And they seem to work well. Though Bukowski would have a heart attack for me saying this, he and Snyder both have a plain, simple language, no big words or complex phrases. Snyder tends to let the things he’s describing stand for themselves, just listing objects, letting us readers visualize them. Not a lot of adjectives or adverbs like I tend to see in Spanish poetry. I wonder if Spanish readers tend to think of poets like Snyder and Bukowski as too stripped down, too minimalist. But no, here’s Snyder in a packed auditorium. Though, based on the crowd reaction to some of the funny lines in the movie, and in certain of the poems, I start to think that maybe 2/3s are American, which makes the size of the crowd even more surprising. Of the Americans actually in Barcelona right now, how many would actually come to a poetry reading?
I’m familiar with all the poems, and like I said, I’ve seen (and heard) videos of him reading, but hearing the poems in person has a certain magic. Plus seeing his expression, his wrinkly smile, or even the moments when some sadness appears, like in poems about his sister, and Lew Welch.
Interesting note: He reads one of my favorites, “As for Poets,” but with a revision. Instead of all the described poets being male, he’s changed at least the Water Poet to a female, so that the stanza now goes:
Stayed down six years.
She was covered with seaweed.
The life of her poem
left millions of tiny
Criss-crossing through the mud.
I’m not sure about anybody else in the room, but his words bring back memories of California and the southwest United States, making me miss the woods and desert. What am I doing in this big city? But where else but in a big city could I see a performance like Ranaldo’s? Or even attend a poetry reading by Gary Snyder?
There’s a funny poem by Bukowski describing doing a reading with Snyder, where the Snyder groupies (hey, I’m one, I can say this) keep asking for an encore, one more poem, and it happens tonight too. “Otra! Otra! One more!” And I’m like, yeah, ok, let’s hear one more. So first he reads a letter a twelve year old girl wrote to him after going with her mom to see him read in California, a rhyming poem thanking him. To thank her, he wrote a rhyming letter back. Cute. Clever. Very unlike what I associate with Snyder and his poetry, ie humor, but it’s a nice light way to end the evening.
After the reading, I consider going up to the stage to just shake Snyder’s hand and tell him thank you, but the jackals are already descending, and Snyder looks tired again, though still smiling. I just mentally bow and head out the door.
One lone man sitting in a café, scribbling in a notebook. A young woman waiting on the corner across from the café. Evening. She’s waiting for poetry. Or for a boyfriend to pick her up on his motorcycle. Or, no, for another young woman. They wait together for poetry. They type poetry into their phones. The man would write poetry on their bodies. They would whisper poetry to him, one in each ear. And then rain. And then two more young women, all of them now huddling under an umbrella reciting poetry to each other, and he looks away and they are gone.