Tuesday, July 28, 2009

Trip Report Part Two: Ghent

This second installment of my trip report is a bit longer than the first, and more detailed. Why? Because--admit it--you probably know nothing about Ghent, so a few extra details won't hurt.

On July 9th, Mark and I took a train from Gare du Nord to Brussels and from there a train to Ghent. For the past three years I've had a substantial number of French-speaking Belgian students, mostly from Brussels, in my EFL classes. But Ghent is in the Flemish part of Belgium, a place where most of my French-speaking students have never been, so I was glad to experience this other part of the country first hand.

Belgian politics is quite complicated--there are six separate governments (and parliaments), each with their own federal, regional and linguistic divisions. Some things, like education, are dealt with by the linguistic divisions. Roads and infrastructure are managed by the regional divisions and the federal divisions deal with things like finance and law. Even though there's currently no working national federal government, the country operates very smoothly.

Things did seem to be running very smoothly in Ghent. The city has a well-preserved medieval center but it also has a large university and much larger than Bruges, to which it's inevitably compared. Even in the summer with many of the students gone, Ghent felt like a thriving small city.

We were fortunate enough to say with Helen White during our visit. I initially "met" Helen virtually, through the work that she does with Krikri, a fabulous organization that highlights a range of contemporary poetic ativity through festivals, performances, projects and workshops. In 2008 they organized the Zaoem festival, and Helen was kind enough to use some of my pieces for the visual poetry exhibition. More recently, Helen organized Infusoria: an Exhibition of Visual Poetry by Women from Three Continents, which brought together work some of the most compelling contemporary visual poets from Belgium, Canada, Germany, Britain, the Netherlands, Turkey and the United States. My special edition of Foursquare snuck in there, too.

So, Helen is clearly a stellar organizer and curator. She's also a fabulous host, which I'll talk more about in a minute. However, I also want to mention her own work. Helen's visual poems manage to be complex and delicate at the same time. One of my favorite pieces by her is "A Planet Like Pluto":

You can learn more about Helen and her work through her website.

Helen, as I said, was a fabulous host. During the three days we spent there, Helen took us all over the city, cooked tasty quiche, and maintained a refrigerator stocked full of cheese and beer. I won't tell you about every beer we drank or every cathedral that we went in, but here are some of the highlights of our time in Ghent.

1. Beer. Belgium's reputation for good beer is completely justified. While in Ghent, I drank numerous Trappist and abbey beers that I'd never had before, as well as a variety of lambics and gueuzes. My favorite was by far Rochefort 8. Rochefort 8 is perfectly malty and not at all boosey. We sat outside, even though it was really very cold, and drank beer at Het Waterhuis Ann de Bierkant:

We sat inside at Trollekelder and drank beer when it was raining. Helen very wisely chose to have a coffee:

We had beer with lunch and dinner, beer with friends, beer after the reading. You get the idea.

2. The reading was incredibly fun. I'd never before read to an audience of predominately speakers of languages other than English, so it was a challenge to put together a performance that would work in that context. Mark performed some pieces from Temporary Worker Rides a Subway as well as The End of America. I performed some sections from Terminal Humming and also my 2006 Dusie Chapbook, Diverse Speculations Descending Therefrom.

This photo is blurry, but it captures the mood of my performance quite well:

After Mark and I performed, other people in the audience also came up and gave short readings/performances. I was grateful to hear work from so many poets who were new to me. Here is Jelle Meander, a poet and musician--and one of the other Krikri organizers--performing a sound poem:

Xavier Roelens, Olaf Risee, Tine Moniek, also performed that evening, as well as (if I remember correctly), two other men who recited some more traditional Flemish poetry. The event ended with an improvisation around the pig we'd all been admiring. There's a lot to be said about the work people performed that evening, and especially about the context of sound poetry in Belgium (and, as we later learned, the Netherlands). In a country with three official languages (Flemish, French and German) and rather intensely local debates about what language is spoken where and by whom, sound poetry seems both daring and practical. Mark and I talked about this a lot on the trip, with each other and with the poets we met. You can read more of Mark's thoughts on the subject at his blog.

And then, we went to the bar, drank beer, and played with a mysterious blue balloon. It was a very late and lovely night. (Left to right: Lies Van Gasse, Tine Moniek, Xavier Roelens & Olaf Risee):

3. Medieval and Renaissance Architecture and Art. As I've already said, Ghent has a well-preserved medieval downtown. On just about every walk, we spent a lot of time admiring the buildings and the canals. The Sint Baafskathedraal (Saint Bravo Cathedrdal) was especially interesting. The cathedral was built, of course, in stages over hundreds of years. We went there to see "The Adoration of the Mystic Lamb," an early Flemish polyptch panel painting by Hubert and Jan Van Eyck. My favorite panel depicts the pagan writers and the prophets of the Torah rushing forward to worship and adore the mystic lamb of God. Virgil is in there somewhere. I love how calm and unexcited their faces are.

Sint Baafskathedraal is also lovely in its own right.

We also went up the tower of the Belfort in Ghent. I'm not especially afraid of heights, but even I was a bit daunted by the height and the very narrow walkways along the outer edge of the bell chamber. Here's the view overlooking the town hall, which is the large building on the left.

3.2 Helen, Mark, Xavier Roelens and I took a trip to the Museum voor Schone Kunsten in Ghent, which has a great collection of Medieval and Renaissance Flemish work, including several by Hieronymus Bosch (but not "The Temptation of Saint Anthony," which we saw in Brussels, and which I'll write about later). Bosch's work is beautifully detailed and grotesque--it did look proto-surrealist, although his depictions of heaven and hell are probably pretty consistent with the medieval literature of his contemporaries.

The museum also had an exhibition of works on paper by Raoul de Keyser, the artist in residence. In retrospect, I realize I was a bit familiar with de Keyser's work because of an exhibition of his paintings about two (or three?) years ago in New York. I didn't see the exhibition (because I live in San Diego), but there's a brief article about it in the Brooklyn Rail. Most of the pieces at the Museum voor Schone Kunsten were pencil or charcoal on paper, and I could see how he moved from doing work that was mostly figurative to work that is more abstract.

4. Mark and I had read about jenever, a kind of gin, before we'd left on our trip, and were eager to try some. With Helen, we went to a bar that specializes in jenevers, next door to Het Waterhuis Ann de Bierkant (where we first drank beer). There are two types of jenever: "Oude" (Old) and "Jonge" (Young). Confusingly, though, this distinction has nothing to do with age, but with distilling techniques. Either way, I prefered aged versions of both types, and in general prefered the oude jenevers to the jounge ones. Some jenevers are flavored with fruit or chocolate, but those weren't my favorites. On a rainy afternoon or evening, of which there are many in Beligium, sipping a jenever in a warm, cozy bar feels perfect.

5. Helen took Mark and I to meet Godfried-Willem Raes and his robot orchestra at the Logos Foundation. The foundation specializes in collaborative music and dance concerts that involve interaction between people and the robots. Godfried and his team have developed not only the robots, but a variety of human interfaces, including microwave radar and wireless gesture control. Yes--wireless gesture control! Although he's still working on perfecting this technology we saw Godfried conduct the orchestra with very subtle movements of his hands. These are some of the instruments:

And here's Godfried in the back setting up the orchestra to perform. Note all of the wires coming out of the computer.

Several composers have written pieces specifically for the robot orchestra, which now has forty robots, including organs, bell-machines, a double string hurdy-gurdy, the player piano, a vibraphone, an accordeon and a sousaphone. You can read a more in-depth description of the robots here on the Logos Foundation website. Finally, Helen, who has performed with the orchestra, wrote a longer piece about it for the Infusoria blog that I urge you to read.

I'm grateful to the creative energy and generosity of Krikri, and especially Helen, for making our visit to Ghent possible. I think that I'll have to find a way to be back in Ghent sometime soon.

Look for the third installment of this trip report, on Amsterdam, in the next few days.

Friday, July 24, 2009

Trip Report Part One: Paris

From July Paris-Ghent_Amsterdam-Brussels-Paris 2009

Mark and I have been back in the San Diego for about two days. I've sorted through most of our digital pictures and am nearly over my jet lag. I'm conscious enough at least to do a trip report.

Paris looks exactly like Paris. And by that I mean there was nothing surprising about, for example, the blocks and blocks of mostly apartment buildings that unfailingly had their ground-floors devoted to cafes and retail, or the Cathédrale de Notre Dame, the Basilique du Sacré-Cœur, the Seine, or the signs above the Metro stations in their gorgeous art deco lettering. Even the geography of Paris felt familiar--I knew that 27 Rue de Fleurus was in the 6th Arondissmont, that the Bois de Bologne is the bois of Nightwood, that Kiki was from (duh) Montparnasse.

Of course, having knowledge of and accurate expectations about a place isn't the same thing as actually being in that place. Here are a few highlights and observations of the first part of our trip:

1. The blocks and blocks of cafes and bars--they're a very pleasant combination of public and private space. People hang out in them like many Americans hang out in their living rooms and kitchens. A cafe is where you eat, of course, but it's also where you meet your friends and family, relax at the end of the day, do your reading, etc. Most cafes have very similar menus, so you can sit down almost anywhere and know that you can eat at least a reasonably competent version of an omelet, crepe, or stew. For the most part, there are no TVs and no music, even in bars, just the constant sound of people talking to each other.

From July Paris-Ghent_Amsterdam-Brussels-Paris 2009

2. People really make use of their available public space, especially in the warm weather--I think this is what I loved most about Paris. Mark and I sayed in the 10th, near our friend Joe Ross and within walking distance of Gare du Nord, Gare de L'Est and the Canal St Martin. There were people sitting by the canal all day, every day, but especially at lunch time and in the evening. It was especially warm during our first few days in Paris, and the scene at the canal was like a huge block party. Anyone who didn't want to be in a cafe or couldn't afford it was eating, drinking, and talking down by the water. In some cases, people bought a drink from a cafe and then took it down to the canal, or they brought some food with them and brought it into a cafe to eat with a drink.

From July Paris-Ghent_Amsterdam-Brussels-Paris 2009

2.1. Mark and I spent a great evening in Belleville, just on the other side of the canal, with Nicholas Manning. Unfortunately, I don't have any pictures from this evening because I managed to drop my digital camera and the memory card fell out. I didn't realize the card was gone until the next morning. Ugh. The 10th and Belleville were, to me, the most livable neighbourhoods we visited in Paris. The 10th is more gentrified than Belleville, but both neighbourhoods are multi-ethnic and mostly residential (i.e. there are no major tourist sites in them).

Unlike Brussels, which I'll write about in a future post, Paris does not fully embrace food from other cultures (except various kinds of kebabs--and most kebab shops also sell crepes, which is telling). Part of the point of the cafe culture is--yes, to socialize--but it's also to be able to eat simple, reliable French food. Most cafes aren't about culinary or cultural adventure. In Belleville, though, you'll find Chinese, Vietnamese, Indian and African resturants, and a variety of people eating in them. Bellville is still inexpensive enough to allow people from, again, a variety of different contexts to live there. Bellville was even more like a block party than the Canal St. Martin.

3. There is art all over Paris, and it's inevitable that you'll happen upon an interesting object or place without even trying. While wandering around Montmartre, for example, we saw this house which built for Tristan Tzara by Adolf Loos.

From July Paris-Ghent_Amsterdam-Brussels-Paris 2009

3.1 And here's mark in front of Victor Hugo's house on the Place des Voges:

From July Paris-Ghent_Amsterdam-Brussels-Paris 2009

4. We went to the Louvre and the Tuileries out of a sense of duty, but I enjoyed the Rodin museum and garden much more. I love the way that modernism starts creeping into his work, and how many of his pieces just seem to be crawling their way out of the stones. There were numerous casts of Victor Hugo, always with the same stern face no matter how much busy-ness might have been going on in the rest of the sculpture. There was also a cast of Balzac in a monk's robe, which struck me as deeply hilarious.

From July Paris-Ghent_Amsterdam-Brussels-Paris 2009

5. The museum also had several rooms devoted to Camille Claudel. I remember renting and watching Isabelle Adjani's film version of Camille Claudel (1988) during my first or second year of high school. But, beyond that, I knew very little about her. It was good to see so many of her works on display.

From July Paris-Ghent_Amsterdam-Brussels-Paris 2009

6. Our reading went well--I wasn't expecting much of a crowd, because Paris really empties out in July. However, there was a very pleasant number of people there, including many folks I hadn't expected to see who were in Paris on vacation or visiting family--including Mark Lamoureux, Susan Briante, and Farid Matuk. Mark read from a variety of different books and manuscripts, including Notes from the Center on Public Policy and Felonies of Illusion. Felonies of Illusion is one of my favorite Mark Wallace books, but I'll have to blog about that another time. I read from Terminal Humming, of course.

6.1 Here are several folks milling about after the reading: Mark, Joe Ross, Nicholas Manning, Andrew Zawaki, and in front a woman I was never introduced to. (She seemed interesting, and I think she said she was from Boston. Does anyone know who she is?)

From July Paris-Ghent_Amsterdam-Brussels-Paris 2009

6.2 After the reading, Mark and I went to get some food with Michelle Noteboom, Frederic Forte and their very very new baby. Mark and I shared a huge, decadent plate of charcuterie. I'm certain that I could happily (though not healthily) live off of cheese, charcuterie, bread and wine. Fred's a member of Oulipo, and it was interesting to talk with him about that, and about publishing in France. Once you publish a first book, then you can count on someone publishing really every book that you ever write. Fred has a press ready to publish his manuscripts in progress. There isn't much of a chapbook culture in France, or even a small press culture--in part because writers don't seem to feel the need for one. This theme came up again and again in conversations with writers and artists in Ghent, Brussels and Amsterdam, too. I'm split between outright jealousy at the huge amounts of support and respect that writers in Europe recieve from their governments, pulishers, and art organizations, and an acknowledgement of the benefits of DIY culture here in the United States. I have more to say about this, but it's enough to constitute another post, so I'll return to it later.

7. Mark and I spent a lot of time with Joe Ross, Laura, their two children, and their dog, Ceasar. Joe is an old friend of Mark's from Washington, DC. (Incidentally, Joe and Laura moved from DC to San Diego before eventually moving to Paris. I find this fact comforting). It was really wonderful to be able to visit with them. I was also quite smitten by Ceasar:

From July Paris-Ghent_Amsterdam-Brussels-Paris 2009

Saturday, July 11, 2009

In Ghent

And having a lovely time....I suspect I won't be posting many pictures, notes, comments, reflections about this whole trip until after the trip is over, but they're coming!

Wednesday, July 01, 2009

Readings in Paris and Ghent

In Paris


An end-of-the season special all-English language reading
with authors Mark Wallace & K. Lorraine Graham
Tuesday, July 7 7:30 p.m.
At : Le Next
17 rue Tiquetonne 75002 Paris
M̊ Etienne Marcel / RER Les Halles
Gratuit! Free!
(+infos sur le blog: http://ivywritersparis.blogspot.com/)

Friday, July 10
K. Lorraine Graham and Mark Wallace
Galerie Link
Blekersdijk 39
9000 Gent
tel. +32 9 223 59 42
Hosted by: KRI KRI

Impromptu afterparty: please do stay in the Galerie Link after the readings for a glass of wine, homemade cookies and the most wide-ranging and unexpected performances you can imagine. Bring all your friends and a short text or piece of music, and treat us to whatever the microphone can take.

What is an impromptu? Anyone who wants to will have a maximum of three minutes to perform their own work. The idea is for everyone to get a chance to do their thing and to hear as wide a range of poetry and music as possible. At our first impromptu evening in April, we heard everything from a children's story in English and an anti-papist declamation in French to Flemish majorettes and a sound poetry tarot card reading. So take a deep breath and hold onto your seats.

Where: Galerie Link, Blekersdijk 39, Ghent, Belgium
When: Friday 10 July 2009, 20:00
Admission: voluntary contributions welcome