The North Wales International Poetry Festival's Aberystwyth instalment on 21 October in the National Library of Wales featured five prominent poets of decidedly different backgrounds. These five were brought together firstly to share their work in their native tongues with simultaneous English and Welsh translations in textual format projected for the audience. Secondly, the idea was that we should all engage in a dialogue that transcended specific cultural contexts. Staggered just one hour before this, at Palas Print in Caernarfon, a different group of poets performed their works with a similar translation format, similar goals, and a wholly different experience. The idea that these, or any of the eleven other events spread throughout the month of October, were 'just' a series of readings must quickly be dispensed with, as this incredibly ambitious sequel to last year's festival was much more – it was a massively coordinated celebration of language and culture interacting across the various venues of north of Wales (Aberystwyth kindly having been allocated to the north
That said, many great ideas often fall short on execution. The concept of the festival is brilliant, but it would be rendered merely an idea if the individual events did not fulfill their stunning promise. Aberystwyth specifically had the great fortune of having accomplished poets Martin Solotruk of Slovakia, Doina Ioanid of Romania, Marie-Louise Chappell of France, and Eiríkur Örn Norðdahl of Iceland perform their work, with an additional reading by Eurig Salisbury, who hosted the evening with bi-lingual verve and humor, traits which, if you'll pardon the pun, translate beautifully to his poetry. His themes of identity in a Welsh context, even zeroing in on Aberystwyth, were a perfect way to end the readings, and helped tie together the evening's threads of culture, language, meaning and self.
This is not to say, of course, that the poets were charged with beating the motifs of the festival into bloody, over-wrought submission. Far from it. There was longing, absurdity, reverence, and if you wanted, you could close your eyes and listen to the way the words formed, the cadence and sounds of a language you might not understand somehow lifting you beyond a frame of meaning. Martin Solotruk could show you paradoxes in language, and unpack the density of one single word that is somehow both totally alien and completely familiar. Or perhaps Eiríkur Örn Norðdahl could take you inside Iceland's financial crisis with a sonnet of abbreviations, delivered with intensity, humor, and the musicality of song.
It is only too easy to reduce events to statistics, to numbers on a screen or page. It is also exceptionally difficult to distill these same events into charged syllabics built on a bed-rock of formal execution. With 'The Crisis Sonnet' and his other performed poems, Norðdahl transformed the line into a time signature, moving the audience once again into a different frame of understanding. The lush textures of Marie-Louise Chappell's poems were also imbued with a certain musicality, luxuriating in the richness of language. Doina Ioanid may have chosen one longer selection, but it, too, drew a very positive reaction from the audience. Delightfully quirky titles such as her latest collection, Chants for Taming the Hedgehog Sow, might belie the depth and rigorous intelligence on display not only at this particular reading, but across her body of work.
This festival has proven to be an incredible opportunity for poets from across Europe to enter into the long, vibrant flow of history in this country while at the same time exposing their audiences and each other to their own unique processes. The NWIPF has been a resounding success, opening up new channels of dialogue, regardless of the language of expression.
Jake Oliver, New Welsh Review online contributor