WHY ARE YOU IN HAITI (PT 1)?

The plan, l’idee, was to unfurl all this in real time. To document strangeness and immediacy as it happened, without reflection, without a bit of a cute tightening to narrative, to a story…but it happened too fast. Events and things and panic and sensation and the need to just get in the back of the pick up truck without questioning, to close yer eyes and duck yer hair into the flow without completely understanding, and most importantly, to let the flow grab you and your elbows and ankles and go. With open eyes and a quiet brain. Just get in the back of the van, and ask questions later. So now, I’m sitting in my flat in a cold, dank Edinburgh, a week later. Raising my eyebrows, and remembering the heat, a little, on my skin.

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So. This is not immediate. This becomes a reflection, something tidy, an arc.

Where did we get to? I have arrived at the hotel. It’s like a fort, huge iron gate, guardsmen. And having seen the chaos of the streets, my reaction is relief. A shameful but welcome security. I’m greeted by Camille, from Memoire D’encrier, the literary press in Quebec. She is slight, quick, beautiful, concerned and to me, incomprehensible. My heart is now drumming so hard in my ears that I can’t understand anything. Give me a room. Give me Wifi. Let me hide. Let me breathe.

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Camille introduces me to a table of bright faces: Moe, Marie-Andrée, Natasha, les autres. I am panicked. ‘Il faut pratiquer son français‘ or something, brightly. Christ, yes. Or just give me some air conditioning, a shower, a bed. A grave. Why am I here?

Why am I here? Fair question. It’s to do with the Edinburgh International Book Festival, and their theme of Translation for the 2015 Festival, how they’re putting that into practice. It’s awesome, superbe, outward looking – and all will be revealed at the June EIBF launch. I’m not even just blowing smoke up their juxters because they’ve sent me to an island. Meanwhile, I’m Kim Philby. But I was always going to be a crap spy. I smile too easily. This festival, Les Nuits Amérindiennes, it’s part of an exchange between First Nation (Innu, Wendat, Cree) writers based in Quebec, published by the Montreal based press Memoire D’encrier (a Rodney et Camille), francophone, and a number of arts centres in Port Au Prince. It’s spectacular, and particularly centred around an Innue poet, Joséphine Bacon. She is a formidable woman, a stunning poet, and a wonderful, generous presence. Come, come see…

The Haiti connection? There is a strong link between Montreal and Haiti. There are some incredible arts centres in Port-au-Prince, working with Haitian artists (The Haitian Slam Poets! More on that later…) : Fokal, Centre D’art, Parc de Martissant, et encore. So. It’s a Festival Les Nuits Amerindiennes, en Haiti, with First Nation poets, performers, artists, scholars de Quebec presenting performances, readings, workshops, discussions in various Port-au-Prince venues over 4 days, 6 – 10 mai. C’est superbe, c’est incroyable. La poésie, la politique, les livres, et puis…

…Aye so. I’m here. Northern Irish born, Scotland based, the only person from the other side of the Atlantic.  I’m the outsider, étrangère. I’m also…no, seriously,why the fuck are you here, in the nicest, most quizzical way? Um. Edinburgh International Book Festival? To meet some Québécois writers? This was the best way to do it? Yes. Okay. But I’m here. I do speak the language (I mean, sort of, but just enough for banalities, la vie quotidienne). But I don’t know these stories. I really don’t know these stories. So. I have some talking to do. And these people? These poets, these artists? This is something else. Performances like you haven’t known.

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Pull your socks up (it’s too hot for socks) and tie your hair back, Violet. Because you’re used to opening your mouth back home, and now, you’re going to have to listen. I have a line worked out: Je suis ici pour observer, pour écouter, pour apprendre.

To watch, to listen, to learn.

If that doesn’t make you sound like a zoo inspector.

But you’re probably going to try and open your mouth at some point.

Le Singe Est Dans L’Arbre (or, Tie Your Hair Back, Violet)

#2 Miami – Port Au Prince – L’Hotel De Plaza, Champs De Mars.

The hotel wake up call is for 4am local time. According to my body, it’s really 9am. So I’m sure it should feel okay. I jolt awake in a bed the size of an ocean, swimming in white sheets.

Dark and warm, with a wind. Ta ra, Miami.

On the plane. A fluttering as I realise the French parts of the safety announcment are incomprehensible. It sounds like French in places. I glance up at the screen because I have, of course, been half heartedly ignoring it: wanting to be world savvy, nonchalant, cool, of course but lacking the courage to openly read my book and risk the ire of a conscientious/sadistic air steward. Anyway. It’s not French. Creole, I hazard a guess. Oh God. Mon Dieu. If this is the dominant language. My school girl/au pair language fumblings are not going to hold up. Shit. Mon Dieu. Merde.

Headphones in. Dive for French dictionary. Rehearse. Push play on familiar voices. Keep me safe Withered Hand, Billy Liar, Hailey Beavis, Franz Nicolay, A New International and The Starlets. Tie your hair back, Violet. Breathe.

Port Au Prince airport. I’m on the aisle seat, can just make out mountains, haze. Suitcase fine, passport fine, customs fine. None of the usual bumpf of shops, cafes every two feet. It’s efficient. A huge tourism poster for Sans Souci Palace in the North. I’ve read about that one. Pink bricks, placed one by one by slaves with the utmost cruelty. Or indifference.

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And then I’m out. To a small lobby, just concrete and glass, and outside is heat and pale hard yellow dirt, corrugated shelters and an iron rail barrier. And so many people, waiting, leaning, walking slowly.

I search for a sign with my name, hands on suitcase. I’m praying that my details got through to Camille and Rodney, that they made sense, that I wrote them correctly.

Flanked by two faces, one male, one female. They’re professionally dressed, with identification, and they’re adamant that I’m not going outside until I know what I’m doing. They try to persuade me to order a taxi with them. I don’t feel hustled, just a concern. I am so very obviously strange here.

I try.

Merci, mais j’attends quelu’un, je suis ici pour un conference litteraire.

This seems understood. I’m not moving anyway. Neither are they. We all face the window, staring hard at the makeshift signs.

C’est quelle heure? Ah oui, je suis un peu tot. Je vais rester ici justqu neuf heures et demie, et puis…peut etre

I see a pale sign arrive. R….Mc…

C’est moi! C’est moi!

I’m excited. They’re excited. It’s all going to be fine.

The man takes my bag to the car, the driver smiles but is silent. I try some French again but it’s either too horrible, or he speaks Creole. Which is more likely. I settle for silence. There is too much to look at. So many faces. Concrete, thrust through with wires like exposed nerves, tendons. Colour everywhere. A particular shade of blue green, the colour of the sea over white sand before a reef. The streets are rubble.

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The traffic is crazy, and there are no rules although also, miraculously no accidents. The dominant vehicles are minbuses, packed with grave faces. They come complete with carnival armour, welded or nailed on. Mad Max on acid, a fairground apocalypse. Over the windscreen, on the bumpers, a variation on the following phrases.

Vision de l’eternite

Don a Dieu

Madonna

Patience, au nom de Jesu.

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Still fluttering. But it’s going to be okay.

A Hurricane To Answer For

#1 Edinburgh – Heathrow – Miami – Port Au Prince

‘For the planters to voluntarily accede that fugitive slaves had fled to become free persons, that they had the ability to consciously and materially negate the condition of perpetual bondage imposed upon them by slavery, would be to undermine the ideological conditions of slavery itself.’

(The Making of Haiti, Carolyn E. Fick)

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I love flying. Offer me a ticket to anywhere and I’ll take it, the longer the haul, the better.

Or I love running away. Either or. Airport coffee, airport sandwiches. I don’t have to do anything. I love the boredom of it.

(I should be rehearsing – practising – my French. I should be. I really should.).

They have WiFi on planes now. Did you know that? I keep my phone off.

All those business travellers – all men – reading voraciously, holding the books up and to their faces in the waiting lounges, with titles like Philip Roth’s The Plot Against America or Paulo Coelho’s Adultery.

And the captain is always called something appropriate. This time, Dirk.

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I finished Fishnet before I left the layover at Heathrow, and The Gracekeepers is buried in my forwarded luggage. I have brought good books, written by friends and acquaintances and I am proud to be reading these books. But there is the niggle that I should use this time – this precious time – more wisely. Not wisely – these are clever and wise books. Worthily. I’m here on someone else’s ticket, not to enjoy myself. This must come under the title of Work. So in an effort to be conscientious and live up more to the idea of myself, I reach for the borrowed tome on Haiti’s slave rebellion and fight for independence, whatever that means (it means the same things, it turns out), finally watch that Edward Snowden documentary. Try to catch up on understanding the world whilst 37,000 feet above it. Late by two or two hundred and fifty years.

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Touch down, and it’s flat, it’s so flat. There is nothing to break to the horizon here. Flat and dark, with trees that look only grey and roads that look only straight. The dusk has finally caught up with us, after nine hours of chasing the sunlit curve on the atlas, outrunning the dark by a matter of mere hours and timezones.

We file dry mouthed and red eyed towards the front of the plane, past the abandoned business class, all discarded magazines and ear plugs and cellophane and glasses that once held – I imagine – champagne or gin. One day, perhaps. I’ve been there once before by accident. The idea of it was better.

But our flight was half empty, and most of us had a row to ourselves, the unimaginable peace of straightened legs across seats and more than one blanket. It was a good humoured flight. Sometimes space to stretch feels like luxury enough.

(I’m not drawing any parallels here with colonial slavery, by the way. That would pretentious, ridiculous and an swingeing insult to all concerned. It’s a very good book.)

The warmth seeps muggy around the opened plane door, steals us out into Miami. 10 hour stopover.

xx

Playing Badminton With Morrissey

This is now officially Not Going In the second pamphlet. So, it can go here instead. 

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Playing Badminton With Morrissey

He hits the court and waits

bullchest belligerent

the fey years have given way to stockiness

and with his vanity hooded

in a diffident smirk

Morrissey is here to win

at badminton.

The truculent shuttle swoops

high as falsetto

(Boz has assumed position

at the rear of the court.

He knows his place.)

With a rush and a push

and a bullying elegance of play

the game is irrefutably

always

his

A loss would be met only

with a feathered poisonous silence.

A win with a cocked eyebrow

and a quip

‘Oh, it was really nothing.’

His calves are surprisingly toned.

[Rachel McCrum, 2012]

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*There is a story why this poem exists, involving a wet cold night in Edinburgh, a bar and a taciturn man called John who liked The Smiths and badminton. That’s the story.

‘crisis, watershed moments’

‘Instead of the standard acknowledgment of wrongdoing and assurances of reform, Nadya wrote a paragraph on the importance of ‘crisis, watershed moments’ in the development of young people. ‘I have devoted myself to creating such critical moments’ she wrote. ‘And I do this solely out of concern for the school, so it may develop faster and better.’

‘This is the way we are forever serving life rather than living life. I want to live life. My freedom is this: Here I stand, I can do no other as Martin Luther said. My cause may be hopeless, but I find my freedom in the responsibility I take on, and to retreat for me would be to die a little, to use the words of the students protesting at the Sorbonne in 1968.’

(Maria Alyokhina)

‘She had to cram Sartre when she needed to at the institute.’ Olya told me, apparently ashamed to be disclosing her friend’s embarrassing circumstance. ‘She lacks the concentration necessary for reading: it’s easier for her to watch movies.’ What was worse, N told me, Maria persisted in her unself-conscious admiration for Aronofsky’s sentimental Requiem for a Dream.’

‘That evening the judge read aloud the conclusions of a committee of psychiatrists and psychologists who had examined the defendants. They had found them sane and fit for trial but had nonetheless diagnosed each with a personality disorder. Maria, they said, suffered from emotional distress brought on by her desire to protest. Nadya and Kat were both labelled with something called ‘mixed personality disorder’. Nadya’s symptoms were her ‘active position in life’ and ‘heightened ambitions’ while Kat exhibited an abnormal ‘insistence on her own point of view.’

‘Pussy Riot does opposition art. In other words, it’s politics that uses forms created by artists…We were seeking the true sincerity and simplicity and we found them in the holy-fool aesthetic of punk performance. Passion, openness and naivete exist on a higher ground than do hypocrisy, lying, and false piety used to mask crimes.’

‘We have more freedom than the people who are sitting opposite us, on the side of the accusers, because we can say what we want and we do say what we want.’

‘The same way as the OBERIU poets remained artists, truly inexplicable and incomprehensible, even after being purged in 1937. [The poet] Alexander Vvedensky wrote ‘The inexplicable pleases us, and the incomprehensible is our friend.’

(Nadya Tolokonnikov)

‘A person’s integration into society begins with the education system, and this system is designed to ignore individuality. There is no such thing as personalized education. Culture is not taught, nor is philosophy or the most basic of information about civil society. On paper, these classes exist, but they are still taught as they were in the Soviet Union. As a result, contemporary art is marginalized, the impluse toward philosophical thought is repressed, gender is stereotyped, and civil opinion is swept under the rug.’

‘I believe that religious truth cannot be static. I believe it is essential to understand that contradiction and splintering are inherent to the development of the spirit. That these things must be lived through as an individual is shaped. That religious truth is a process and not a product that can be stuffed just anywhere.’

(Maria Alyokhina)

Maria, Kat, Nadya

– From ‘Words Will Break Cement: The Passion of Pussy Riot’ by Masha Gessen.

Nikos Karouzous (b. Nafplio 1926 – d. Athens 1990)

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ROMANTIC EPILOGUE

Don’t read me if you haven’t
attended the funerals of strangers
or at least memorial services.
If you haven’t
divined the strength
that makes love
the rival of death.
If you haven’t flown a kite on Clean Monday
without monkeying with it.
pulling on the string continually.
If you don’t know if Nostradamus ever
sniffed flowers.
If you haven’t been at least once
to the Deposition from the Cross.
If you don’t know any past perfect.
If you don’t love animals
and, especially, squirrels.
If you don’t hear thunder with pleasure,
wherever you are.
If you don’t know that the handsome Modigliani
drunk at three in the morning,
pounded furiously on a friend’s door
looking for Villon’s poems
and began to read for hours out loud
disturbing the Universe.
If you call nature our mother and not our aunt.
If you don’t joyously drink the innocent water.
If you don’t understand the Flowering Era
is the one you’re living in.
BEWARE
WET PAINT.
Don’t read me
if
you are
right.
Don’t read me if
you haven’t quarrelled with the body . . .
Time I was going,
I have no more breath.
POEM ON A TAPE RECORDER
Joy of night, oh sonorous lights,
marvelous evening
the colored noise of the city
divided up my loneliness, sometimes yellow,
orange, blue, and now red
dyeing my gait pure green.
Love had white marks.
Stop. Rewind.
The turmoil bore the white marks of the world.
The clouds invisible.
No.
The angel radiates like marble
in the deserts of the moon, in the honeysuckle white
death is duped and the night
is amused with shooting stars.
No, no.
Time approaches visions
on tiptoe.
Greed!
I should have further submerged
the grief within my soul.
No.
The cricket ornaments expanses.
The night comes down the stairway of darkness
sits on the passion of Mary.
All alone the busts breathe in the gardens.
Stop. Everything is erased.
I want to escape from words.
I’m sick of it.
Better it would be to listen to what on the next balcony
two perennial old ladies are saying;
sitting there by the hour.
[translation Phillip Ramp]

‘We must look for man wherever we can find him.’

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‘I belong to a small country. A rocky promontory in the Mediterranean, it has nothing to distinguish it but the efforts of its people, the sea, and the light of the sun. It is a small country, but its tradition is immense and has been handed down through the centuries without interruption. The Greek language has never ceased to be spoken. It has undergone the changes that all living things experience, but there has never been a gap. This tradition is characterized by love of the human; justice is its norm. In the tightly organized classical tragedies the man who exceeds his measure is punished by the Erinyes. And this norm of justice holds even in the realm of nature.

«Helios will not overstep his measure»; says Heraclitus, «otherwise the Erinyes, the ministers of Justice, will find him out». A modern scientist might profit by pondering this aphorism of the Ionian philosopher. I am moved by the realization that the sense of justice penetrated the Greek mind to such an extent that it became a law of the physical world. One of my masters exclaimed at the beginning of the last century, «We are lost because we have been unjust» He was an unlettered man, who did not learn to write until the age of thirty-five. But in the Greece of our day the oral tradition goes back as far as the written tradition, and so does poetry. I find it significant that Sweden wishes to honour not only this poetry, but poetry in general, even when it originates in a small people. For I think that poetry is necessary to this modern world in which we are afflicted by fear and disquiet. Poetry has its roots in human breath – and what would we be if our breath were diminished? Poetry is an act of confidence – and who knows whether our unease is not due to a lack of confidence?’

Giorgos Seferis, Banquet Speech, The Nobel Prize in Literature 1963.