I am not a good traveller. I am not hardy, nor am I easy going. I have often dragged myself across the planet out of embarrassment. Embarrassed that someone should ask me to travel to them. Most often, to read a poem in a language different than that of the audience. An ever-narrowing body of people, who read poems, let alone listen to them, from some anonymous, anomalous, mostly confused blurt from England. Worse still my poems are wilfully obscure, even to myself. Yet I have a record in writing, and less usefully, in memory, of immense fortune, travelling to over fifty festivals and readings and performances everywhere from Mexico to China, from Georgia to Bangladesh. To do this through poetry is to travel in a shadow existence, often a perfect middle ground – attending great parties where no one knows who you are.
I can remember clearly the first time I was invited to a poetry festival. I had travelled significantly but cheaply up until my twenty-fifth birthday. I had always been working to save to pay for these trips. Some I was running to posed regrettable risk. To West and North Africa, on trains in Russia. Other places. Always alone. Then an invitation to Sofia. I remember being dumbfounded by the email. They would buy my plane tickets, my hotel. What the fuck is an honorarium? I remember, more than that, being sat around a dinner table with a rather famous Polish poet and his searching for the words to describe his annual and seemingly endless procession of festival appearances. His lifestyle bouncing to literary gatherings where and when he wanted. He said it was a circuit. And I thought, I’ll have that.
I’m sat in the audience of a literary festival, in the front row. It’s unpleasantly hot in the shade. I’m wearing fluorescent blue trousers and a Hawaiian shirt but no one in the audience sat behind me knows who I am. I have done my events at this festival already, two readings and a panel. Not many people in the audience for those, but this event is packed, at least two-hundred braving temperatures reaching forty degrees. The three figures on stage are discussing travel writing. I am an interested party, so glad to have my delegate pass thrown around my neck, allowing me a reserved front row seat.
The figure in the centre, who keeps pinching and pulling his shirt forward, to fan himself and allow the sweat to run into his shoes, declares that travel writing is the most ancient form of literature. He’s not being combative, it’s an event about travel writing, he has the audience in acquiescence. They have come to see him speak specifically, his name draws them in. Look to Ibn Jabaya, look to Marco Polo, he says. The novel is a far more modern invention, he says. The novel more modern, but perhaps, if we consider epic poetry to be its precursor, then not so, he adds, as an addendum. The travelling poet has a grand tradition. Look to Li Po. Look to Hessian. Poetry, yes, poetry is the oldest form of literature, it vies with travel writing, he says. Perhaps we can add a few since then to that list? Auden and Isherwood? I feel myself as likely to be in their company as I am to draw crowds at an international festival. I couldn’t draw crowds in a bar in my hometown. And all the gladder I am for that fact. Had I desire to be that man upon the stages, addressing the hundreds, I wouldn’t be a poet. I’d write something people actually read, like a young adult novel about a dystopian future, or magicians, or I’d write a travel book.
How and why I ended up in these places, in basement cafes in Prague reading poems with a French bulldog on my lap, or in five-star hotels in Bombay at sprawling international festivals plastered with corporate sponsors, or in Iraq two weeks before Isis made their first incursions north, or in Mexico, sick as a dog, being stopped by military police, I am unsure. I have as much in common with the austere, semi-famous novelists or obnoxious young journalists who litter these festivals, or semi-psychotic conceptual artists or drug-addled hipster poet models, as I do a Formula One driver. And yet the invitations continue to flow in, perhaps precisely because I am the most useless of things and I understand the necessity of uselessness in a world where utility seems all we have to measure ourselves against. Because, in that knowledge and suspicion, I organise myself, I document what I do, I try to act grateful and I would rather see a Chilean sound artist scream into a microphone for forty minutes and declare that to be poetry than listen to an audience sigh with heartfelt appreciation as an interminable introduction lasts longer than the work itself.
A poet travelling is a writer dragging behind them their own corpse. Most especially at a literary festival. That is, wherever they go on the currency of their writing, it is not likely to be only their writing that got them there. They are not likely to have sold a great deal of books in that country, or even have poems in that language be well-read, even by those who offer them patronage. More likely they are simply visible, a body who writes married to some scant pages, carrying that writing like a conjoined twin. Perhaps the invitation has come because they have been seen online, or a recommendation through friends, and certainly in my case, often my unique attraction being that I am British and actually interested in travelling or being translated. The process is mysterious. Who knows quite how these invitations come into being? I would only say perhaps there is a direct relationship between how generous the invitations are and how little people worry, in general, about the poetry that creates them in the first place.
What is the corpse that I have dragged behind me? Poetry itself? Or my own body, that which follows me in boring conversation? Or perhaps the weight is what people think poetry is, a failed corpus of aged and aging stuff, words, that intimidate them, or blind them with dust, or give them the satisfaction of being learned. And I’ve had nothing to do with that.
It is rare, in these trips I have undertaken, to have met more than a handful of people who have read the poems I’ve written enough to be able to express that knowledge. Not to say that it’s not possible that many others hadn’t, and perhaps I am being pessimistic, but it’s not likely. And I make this point because I believe it is all the better it for being so. For what is reputation for but to get you to travel around the world, to share your work (even if unknown until that sharing) and to meet other writers and make new friends? I can say, to counter what might seem like pessimism, it is a life I dreamed of having when I was young – energetic, strange, global and I have enjoyed the success without success. The backdoor has swung open to me, I have none of the pressures of many of the writers I have met at these festivals, but still, I’m there with them.
I would venture, too, in a world where one’s value is about production and the reach of that production, it certainly does not seem sensible that a poet should get to travel because of their poetry. Not just perhaps because poetry is small in our world, so irrelevant, so fundamentally beyond the market, both literally and metaphorically. But also because almost no one has ever heard of them doing so, at least in the 21st century. When I have relayed to my friends and family the invitations I’ve had to visit a country, paid for by them, I have been met with incredulity. Can it be real that I have been to these places because of poetry? And not for some other, more obvious and valid reason? And yet this is the grounding of so much of my life, and what I now understand travel to be. Travel is now something that is not just pleasure, not just adventure, not just work, never solitary and whose destinations are not mine to choose. I never have a hand in the destination I travel to. I always met other poets. It is a period of my life where I have been continually shocked at my own presence.
So, like Li Po stumbling drunk down the banks of the Yangtze, or Hessian traipsing across the Alps, or Auden in Iceland being given deliberately incorrect translations by miffed locals because they thought him effete, I continue the tradition of the irrelevant and confused poet increasing his confusion while ever so slightly, locally, decreasingly my irrelevancy.
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