Hi gang,

With autumn chasing away the last remnants of summer, the October Loose Muse has a real international flavour:

LOOSE MUSE – London’s Premiere Women’s Writers Night.

Wednesday 10th October – the second Wednesday of each month.

@ The Poetry Cafe, 22 Betterton Street, London WC2 (closest tube = Covent Garden),

8.00 p.m. – £5.00 – £3.00 concessions

Features this month:

Ivy Alvarez is the author of Mortal (Washington, DC: Red Morning Press, 2006), with a second collection forthcoming from Seren Books. A recipient of writing residencies from MacDowell Colony, Hawthornden Castle and Fundacion Valparaiso, her work appears in journals and anthologies in many countries, with individual poems translated into Russian, Spanish, Japanese and Korean. www.ivyalvarez.com

Jona Burghardt is a writer, poet, translator and teacher, from Buenos Aires, who has lived in Germany since the mid 80’s.  She specializes in poetry written in Spanish and German, edited a series of Korean literature, and translated German, Austrian, Swiss, Arab and Asian authors into Spanish for International Poetry Festivals in Colombia, Argentina and Venezuela, where she also led workshops. Her poems have been translated into Arabic, Chinese, English, French, German, Portuguese and Turkish, and she has presented her work at international festivals all over the world.

Plus plenty of chances to come read your own work from the floor. 

So come share the passion, share the joy!

Agnes Meadows

Host and Coordinator – Loose Muse Women’s Writers’ Night

Baghdad Blogs (7)

A blog diary of my time in Iraq as a guest and participant in the Babylon International Festival of Arts & Cultures, 4-11 May, 2012

DAY THREE – Sunday, 6th May – Afternoon/Evening – Poetry & Marigolds on the Euphrates

Our visit to Al-Mawahil had subdued us all, underlining our obligation as writers to report what we were witnessing in this broken country, and write about our experiences. Otherwise what was the point of us coming? If we didn’t write about the Festival and what it represented, surely it would be just another literary ego trip, something unusual to add to our biographies?  On the bus to the afternoon readings we could talk about little else, agreeing it had been a harsh and painful experience, yet an important one for us all to share.  It helped put Saddam Hussein’s expulsion from power into perspective, whatever we felt about the legitimacy of the war.

The Festival’s Book Fare was still doing good business when we arrived there for the day’s first readings later that afternoon. Each day we were given copies of the full-color newspaper supplements with photos of us sightseeing foreign writers, and translations in Arabic of the poems we had submitted to the Festival.  A young man took a photograph of Jona, Alicia, Lisa and me smiling in front of a large Iraqi flag, which would appear in tomorrow’s supplement.  I met the man who had translated the two pieces I had sent weeks ago, a delightful man called Hamid Al-Shammari, who praised my work enthusiastically. He wanted to put my poems on his website, together with photos of the two of us together…how could I refuse?

The afternoon eroded in a welter of heat and dust, the sun setting slowly in a flame-filled sky while more of the Arab writers read from their work.  Even though most of us Europeans spoke little or no Arabic, it was easy to understand the passion with which they read.  Each had their own stories of brutality and bloodshed to tell, their writing providing a common platform of shared experience that was translated into the language of empathy.  It was hard not to be moved by the emotion that was threaded through their words even if you could not see the pictures they created.

As the moon rose sedately in an indigo sky, we transferred to the arts centre for the day’s second readings, which would feature us Europeans (myself included).  The road from the Book Fare took us along the banks of the Euphrates, one of the great rivers of the world along with the Nile, Amazon and Ganges, and I became quietly excited I was seeing it with my own eyes.  Enthusiasm aside, it saddened me this ancient river was so polluted, with rafts of rubbish floating near the river banks.  All kinds of crap (literal as well as metaphorical) had welded into a messy carpet, a breeding ground for the voracious mosquitoes and evil-natured multi-legged bugs and beasties. I wondered why nobody cleaned it up. There were piles of garbage accumulated everywhere – surely it would be more pleasant to live in a cleaner environment and wouldn’t take much effort to clean it up?

Rhetorical questions.  I recently learned that anyone trying to do so would automatically be accused of getting above themselves, and be ‘disposed’ of.  Yet the spirit of those who had created the legendary Hanging Gardens in ancient Babylon still lived in this modern city.  Only inches away from the streams of evening traffic the river banks were transformed into one long garden centre with thousands of palms and marigolds for sale, a solid ribbon of green and gold foliage.  It was strangely comforting to see the need to create beauty in the midst of so much destruction.

Before the evening’s readings we had a chance to look at some of the visual arts display and catch the exhibition of Moammal Ekrema’s calligraphy. Each piece was a fluid and evocative masterpiece, a clear demonstration that Moammal was at the top of his game, a different kind of poetry.  And then we began to read our work – Jona, Tobias, Lasse, Angela, Lisa and myself.  I was surprisingly nervous as I read my two poems.  The first was entitled ‘Istanbul Moments’ about Istanbul, one of my favorite places, the second entitled ‘Refugee’, speaking with the voice of a refugee living far away from their homeland.  It seemed appropriate given the circumstances, and was greeted warmed by the audience, especially when Hamid read the Arabic translations.  More photos ensued, more hand- shakes, more enthusiastic young people surrounding me for a group picture.  You could get used to this, I thought.

And then Dr Ali got up on stage and in front of the entire audience described how emotional I had got when we’d visited Al-Mawahil that afternoon, and thanked me for crying.  He actually thanked me for crying, for showing human compassion at a site of such monstrous inhumanity.  Of course that set me off again, and soon I was surrounded by people taking pictures of me crying (not my best look!), which got an even bigger round of applause.  It was all a bit overwhelming.  Fortunately Jona, Lisa and Angela were at hand to cheer me up with their easy, undemanding friendship.

On the way back from the readings we stopped for coffee at a roadside coffee shop in the heart of town.  It was wonderful to sit in the open air watching young Babylonians relaxing and enjoying the pleasure of the moment.  The coffee was sweet and strong enough to stop conversation, the night benign, and for that one moment conflict and death seemed very far away.

Baghdad Blogs (2)

A blog diary of my time in Iraq as a guest and participant in the Babylon International Festival of Arts & Cultures, 4-11 May, 2012

Day One – Evening, 4th May – Arriving in Babylon

Finally arrived in Babylon around noon, the aftermath of the sandstorm still evident in the orange colored sky and layer of fine dust covering everything. The hotel complex I am to call home for the next few days has definitely seen better days, with bungalow-style blocks of rooms set amongst threadbare gardens where roses struggle to lift their sorry heads. I have room number 5 in block 6. There doesn’t seem to be a plan or programme, but at this stage I’m too tired to worry about it, convinced that someone will tell me what’s happening and introduce me to everyone else later. Besides, from other visits to the Middle East and Asia, I’ve learned to go with the flow and take casual management in my stride. All will be revealed – eventually.

My room is enormous, filled with a suite of extraordinary bedroom furniture. The bed itself is about the size of the average Parisian ‘bijou’ apartment, and could easily sleep four people, six if they were thin! Bed, wardrobe, and chest of drawers are all in elaborately carved dark wood, heavily decorated with white metal, so bizarre I have to take photos. The room has everything it should have – fridge, phone, wall clock, TV, aircon/fan. Unfortunately only the TV is working, stuck on National Geographic without sound, plus the lugubrious fan (a blessing as it’s 40 degrees outside). It is also unquestionably the filthiest room I’ve ever stayed in, a layer of grit covering the grimy carpet, making walking barefoot hazardous. The bed linen on the gigantic bed is torn and stained – I don’t want to think about what with – and the bathroom is a cavernous, mucky room covered in cracked medicinal pink tiles. The toilet doesn’t flush, while a squadron of fierce mosquitoes hovers around me as I take a shower in the sunken pit that doubles as a shower cubicle. But the water is hot and plentiful, which is all I need right now. A hot shower and then a sleep for a few hours lying on top of the bed, covering myself with one of my shawls so the mossies don’t eat my feet.

I wake at 5.00 p.m. The sun is still high in the sandy sky, and I’m beginning to think food might be nice. I eat the nuts I saved from the ‘plane, have another shower then leave my room to find where everyone else is. Not a soul in sight, just a few surly gardeners watering the rose-beds, their eyes busy with curiosity and unasked questions. I say hello. They ignore me. I walk around for 15 minutes, see no-one. The ‘office’ is closed. Still no indication of a programme. So I go back to my room, watch more mute National Geographic, doze until 8.00 p.m. then try again, wondering if the Festival organisers have forgotten I’m here. The sun has set, the night is turbulent with flying things and there is the heady smell of jasmine in the air.

Determined to find someone who can tell me what’s going on, I head back to the ‘office’ where a cluster of middle-aged mono-eyebrowed men in grey suits sit watching TV and smoking cigarettes. They greet me effusively, usher me in, offer me cold drinks, insisting on taking ‘photos on their mobiles of us together. On the coffee table in front of them is a pistol, and I know each of them carries his own weapon under his jacket. I make a feeble joke about guns. Nobody laughs; for them, carrying a gun is normal, even at a poetry/arts festival. I couldn’t be further away from the Poetry Café if I tried!

Half an hour passes, still nothing happens, and I begin to get impatient. I ask again where everyone is and what’s programmed for tonight. At last someone calls Dr Ali Al-Shalah, the Festival’s hard working Director, who invited me to attend. Much rapid-fire conversation ensues and within minutes I’m dispatched into the night in a cab. By the time I arrive at the Festival’s launch event venue in an open air amphitheatre, the programme is almost over. At the door I see Dr Ali and he greets me effusively, as happy to see me as I am to be seen. I’m led to my seat where several of the other foreign writers are sitting – Lasse Soderberg and Angela Garcia from Sweden, Jona and Tobias Burghardt from Germany, Lisa Mayer from Austria and Aminur Rahman from Bangladesh. They smile and shout their hello’s cheerfully; I’ve rarely been greeted with such warmth by complete strangers, and I start relaxing in the enthusiasm of their reception.

On stage a troupe of pretty primary-school age girls in frilly frocks with matching hats are performing a simple but lively dance. When they finish, the applause is thunderous, and they giggle and kiss their hands at the audience like seasoned troupers. On the crenellated walls of this new amphitheatre, a bevy of soldiers listen to oud and poetry, clapping to the rhythm of the words, their AK47’s slung casually over their shoulders, forgotten for now. Before I came here someone said to me that poetry didn’t seem appropriate in a war zone. I had replied that surely that’s when poetry is needed most. What I’m witnessing now, under a watchful moon, surely proves my point.

Another few moments and the performances are over, and all the guest writers are shepherded onto a bus to take us back to the hotel complex where dinner awaits us. We dine al fresco, talk and laugh, poets and writers from so many places drawn together by our common love of words and the conviction that war and occupation are never the solution to anything. I’m glad I’m here, glad to be part of this Festival and all that it represents. Later, I fall asleep to the mute flicker of more National Geographic on the TV, the insistent whine of murderous mosquitoes.