I'll admit I wasn't sure what I was actually heading into this evening when I carted my stuff over to the city and showed my pass to get into the chamber early, but the quality of the readings this evening really shocked me - in the best way possible. The Red Chamber, with its velvet carpet, old oak, and soft lighting made for an intimate and acoustically beautiful locale. (It also made all my pictures look like I've used some shitty hipster-faux-filter, but I swear that's not the case.)
There were eight poets reading, and each represented a different country. Many read their original poems in their native language then the translation directly afterwards and it was so enriching - I've never been to a reading where that happened, but now I can't imagine it any other way.
The first poet to speak was Nicholas Powell, and he read poems about Finland and Australia.
The second to speak was Chantal Spitz from Tahiti and her interpreter. Chantal was the only poet who read her originals in an other-than-English language but then did not read out the translations herself. At the time I accepted this choice, but as the evening went on and I heard other poets read their own translations, I began to understand the richness of meaning that comes from hearing that one, original voice read both versions. I suppose it might come across too arrogant to expect foreign poets to read the English translations of their poetry at a reading, and that's fine, the point I simply want to make is that the reading is so much more powerful with the single author reading both versions. So shoot me.
This handsome German fellow is Jan Wagner, and his work was particularly good. I really enjoy it when spoken word is also humorous, and Jan's pieces often ended in really clever remarks which eased laughter from the cosy audience. He read most of his work first in its original German, then in its English translation, citing the translators as he went. I officially really appreciate that procedure. Extremely eloquent with great frames. Go Jan.
Next in line was the extremely impressive Jeet Thayil from India. He read several of his poems by heart, and they were really beautiful little things. He was also amusing, he prefaced one of his poems with "this may be a feminist poem", another with "this might be an anti-marriage poem", and one was just all about how pissed he is at Baudelaire for lying to him about what being a poet was all about. Really good poetry, yes, but even better was the excerpt he read from his new novel Narcopolis - it sounds truly amazing. I'll be buying it without a doubt. Seriously. Get into that stuff, people. Now.
This fine specimen of a Canadian woman was easily my favourite of the evening. a rawlings (lack of capital letters is deliberate) works her voice in the most incredible ways to create a whole soundscape of poetry. She has the skill of a beatboxer, matched with the talent of a striking poet, and for whole minutes she reads from her book but speaks no words, almost as though she was reading music rather than letters. The thing about this woman, is that every single noise she makes is so full of purpose - as though each word and sound is so carefully pronounced that you can tell she is constantly communicating exactly what she wants to. Her message is clear. It's an incredible experience and I've definitely never heard anything like it.
Second last to speak was Ouyang Yu from China. Ouyang read his poems in his native Chinese, then in English of his own translation. I understood a fair bit of his original works, and I honestly have to say that something was lost in translation. The audience grew a little restless and I felt it was a bit unjustified. For anyone reading this who does, in fact, understand Mandarin, then give him a shot.
The last to speak was Australian poet Les Murray. To be honest, it wasn't the strongest end to the evening for the simple fact that Les was not quite as eloquent as each of the other speakers. I liked the way his anecdotes to describe the poems morphed into the poems themselves, and he did have an economy of words and a good wit about him. One of his poems about having diabetes was very good, although another was about how he was afraid of the internet because he didn't want to be wrongly arrested for child porn? Something like that? Maybe I'm just not the intended demographic for his particular kind of work...
Unfortunately by the time Les was speaking, some of the older attendees (perhaps those more aligned to his intended demographic) were finding it difficult to hear and stay awake.
The evening ended with many attendees getting to speak to their favourite poets, and I left the chamber listening to praise bouncing off the walls. It must be a nice change for this room because I think normally it's just a bunch of asses sitting on their asses in there. As I was filling out the forms to return my guest pass and leave Government House, I overheard an elderly woman asking a security guard if she could return to the seats while she waited for a taxi, despite having already signed out.
"Of course!" He replied warmly, to which she said:
"Well it's my house, after all, isn't it."
HELLZ YEAH IT IS, LADY. IT CERTAINLY IS. I think Government House should be open to a whole lot more of these kinds of events. The building belongs to all of us.