In the serie of travel letters from The Balkans written exclusively for Kornkammer are Notes from Bosnia-Herzegovina from the Norwegian writer Øyvind Berg, and from the Danish writer Peder Frederik Jensen; the Swedish writer Ola Ståhl also has a post scriptum from Sarajevo, and goes through Skopje, but writes primarily from Kosovo. And below the Canadian writer Jay MillAr just sent us a travel letter from Macedonia, together with two poems written in Croatia.


It is so interesting to be the only person from North America at a
European poetry festival. The concerns are very different and there are so
many languages that are not in competition with each other (as opposed to
a dominant language that competes with itself). And I’m not sure, because
it’s only the second day and I’ve only been immersed a short time, but
it’s very possible that the major difference between North American poetry
and European poetry is the influence of Capitalism.

I can’t pretend to be an expert on anything, especially Capitalism, and in
particular North American Capitalism because it is an atmosphere I exist
in. One does not pay a lot of attention to the air they breathe. Why that
is I’m not sure. But somehow the air seems different here at this festival,
in that I’ve noticed it, the literary airs, and Capitalism as I understand
it’s influence on writers appears to play less of a role in what I’m
experiencing. Is it because there is a lack of pop
culture references? Or to a literary tradition I am familiar with as a
Canadian? It might be some simple thing, like not having a lot of context
for any of the poetry I’m experiencing. As for literary celebrity, being
a part of celebrity culture, it is surely influenced by capital. Yet I am
not experiencing celebrity here, although there is a forest of trees that
has been planted over the years in the town of Struga, one tree for each
of the poets honoured with the annual Golden Wreath (Margaret Atwood has a tree
in this forest, the only Canadian and one of perhaps two or three women to
be so honoured), and this does not mean that the poets attending the
festival are not literary celebrities in their own countries.

My thoughts
here come under the influence of a gathering of differences, after all — many
cultures that I do not interact with on a regular basis, and in some cases
know nothing about, all sharing their work and thoughts in languages I do
not understand. Since being here I have spent hours sitting through poetry
readings in various languages that are then presented in translation, but in
another language I don’t understand. English is not the dominant poetic
voice here — 2 out of 30 poets work in English, and neither are from North
America. Yet everyone communicates in English off stage, which is
interesting to experience too — as though English has become the international
language of exchange (Capitalism) more than a language of artistic
expression. And there is little in the way of celebrity because no one is
in their own milieu. It is different (to me) than being at a festival in
North America where the population of writers working in a single language
is huge, and capitalism is a driving force (the atmosphere), so competition
plays a significant role, and as a result there can only be different
levels of success. But again, I’m saying this immersed in something different,
that being a literary festival where writers from different backgrounds
are all presented more or less at the same level. Which makes me think
that literary celebrity might be something that happens within a given
culture, which also means a specific language (even in Canada, with two
official languages, Quebec literature and Anglais literature have little
to do with each other). This is especially true among poets, who as
artists do not cross borders easily, so specific is their use of language to
their immediate culture. And for languages other than English, being
translated into English is a significant measure of success, i.e. Capital,
and in fact having at least some work translated into English is a
requirement for an invitation to Struga Poetry Evenings.


Today we drove from Struga to Skopje for the last night of the festival.
About half an hour from Skopje we stopped in Mitke where we got off the
bus and were told to start walking up a valley along a river to a dam, and
then beyond. Along the way a few of the poets and myself, who were a
little hungry and tired from staying up far too late the night before
involved in a slightly drunken singalong (something that I don’t think
could actually be possible at any of the Canadian festivals —
Canadians would be proud that Leonard Cohen songs were on high rotation)
on the terrace of Hotel Drim (and this after a night swim around 1:30am),
and we joked that perhaps we were being made to endure a physical
representation of an Adam Zagajewski poem, quietly enduring life along an

isolated path with other poets. And then marvelled at the possibility that
Struga Poetry Evenings might actually honour their yearly laureate with a
secret performance of such endurance, tailored to the work of the poet.
And then we arrived at the end of the trail at a lovely restaurant where we
were served an excellent meal with fine wine and then we had another
poetry reading with some wonderfully unexpected surprises and poetry
shenanigans. And then we all wandered back down to the bus and headed for
the hotel. Now we are all walking downtown to the square where we will enjoy
a final night of poetry.


After another three and a
half hour long reading last night we all went back to the hotel for a late
dinner. There was a general sense amongst the group — we would be saying
goodbyes now, but there was something else too — as though we had all come
through something incredible and profound, and were now on the other side,
weary and perhaps even quietly sad, and I marvelled at the generosity of
the festival team — it was because of their hospitality we have had such
an experience, and in the name of poetry: A rare thing. And then staying up
late talking with Martin and Josef (the walking poet of Prague — I was
told that he has walked every street in Berlin), it was decided that the
three of us would get up in the morning to walk into the old part of Skopje.
But when I woke up I wondered if I should go back to bed — it had been
many nights with little sleep and I didn’t have to catch my ride to the
airport until 12:30. But I did anyway and met the others in the lobby and
I snarfed down some food and coffee and off we went.

Skopje was curiously quiet
at 9:00 in the morning — it was as though the apocalypse had happened.
There were very few people on the street, and the shops were all closed.
Even the square in the middle of the town that had been so lively the
night before, full of curiously bold and overblown statues and fountains lit
up dramatically to evoke the nation, was quiet and mildly unimpressive, as
though they needed dramatic lighting and many jostling people to be
effective. But on the other side of that we fell into the old town, and it
was a little more lively there, but not so much that a stray cat couldn’t sit
at a table at a cafe, licking  itself contentedly and still be served
no coffee, and the streets were delightful in that way they can be when
they are clearly very old and were made for human traffic long before the
idea of a car existed in everyone’s mind. We poked around and found somewhere
to have a coffee, and then Josef had to head back to the hotel to catch
his ride to the airport to return to The Czech Republic. 

So Martin and I
wandered around a little more and I bought some postcards with the small
amount of cash I had left; Martin bought some souvenirs for his kids. We left
the old town and stood in a little raised parkette that was devoid of
people but full of the sound of a cat we couldn’t see bemoaning something.

Moving on we looked at more “state maintenance” statues and monuments, and
noted how state buildings and monuments were pristine and kept up while
other buildings, often neighbouring buildings to the state buildings, were
not. It was all very curious to see. I had been carrying around with me a
parcel that I’d brought with me from Canada containing a contract and a
copy of a novel we had sold into the Macedonian market to a small publisher
called Feniks — I had thought I’d mail it when visiting, but when I
discovered that their address was very close to the hotel we were staying
at, I decided to try to drop it off and failing that find a post office
to mail it. There was time so we started heading that way on our way back
to the hotel. Finding the address was easy enough, but the building was
locked up and there seemed to be no sign of the publisher anywhere. We
were going to give up when an older gentleman came out of the
building carrying a few sacks of what seemed to be toys and we asked if he
knew of Feniks and he replied, speaking in a slow and careful English that
he knew the people who ran it. But today was a holiday and everything was
closed (including post offices) and people were away. He introduced himself
as Tomislav and invited us up to his apartment where he said we could find
their phone number and call them — maybe they would be able to meet us. So
we went with him up to his apartment on the fourth floor and we managed to
figure out how to call the publisher and I spoke with her and she was very
surprised to hear from me. She was away for the day but we made arrangements
for Tomislav to hold the package for her until she was back from holiday. And
then he said that business was over, so we should have a drink, and he
went away for a minute and came back with three glasses, ice, and whiskey.
We had a drink and talked — he showed us pictures of his family, his wife
and daughter and grandson, and told us about his summer home in Ohrid and his
camper in Greece where he had just spent a month by the sea. He asked
about where we were from and when he found out that we were poets in
Macedonia for the festival he told us his father had worked for the
festival years ago. Martin and Tomislav spoke in German for a bit while I felt
like a mono-linguistic fool — Tomislav said his German was much better than his
English because he had friends there, but I thought his English was very
good — slow, perhaps, but accurate. It was way better than my Macedonian
at any rate. We talked a little longer and he said if we missed our
flights we should just come back and he would help us, and we exchanged
contact information and took a photo to mark the occasion. And then we
thanked him for his generosity, shook hands, and said goodbye to scuttle
off to the hotel to catch our ride to the airport, remarking at what a
hospitable fellow Tomislav was, to take the to time bring two total strangers
from distant lands into his home and assist them with a small task as he
did, despite clearly being on his way out somewhere. His Macedonian
generosity really did make the end of our stay in this country a special one.



Two guys are playing heavy metal tunes 
on the steps of one of the university buildings: 
Back in Black, Sweet Child of Mine — 
except it’s a clarinet and guitar duo 
what could possibly be next? 
But they don’t play anything next, 
they just pack up their shit and leave, 
which makes sense because it is late, 
maybe ten thirty on a Tuesday. 
Moments later they are back — 
they set up and start playing again, but 
it’s as though they are a totally different band — 
same instruments, different goals, playing 
a lulling melodic pop song I don’t recognize. 
Maybe it’s a Croatian hit — after all 
I’m in Zagreb. 
     Sometimes it’s important 
to feel lonely and detached, dropped into 
a place where you don’t know where 
you are or where you are going or why. 
It’s even better if you can’t speak the 
language or understand the signs: 
you just make it all up as you go along. 
This is the university, sure it is.
These are the cafés that 
you surely came to see.
This the botanical garden. 
Now you are passing the capital 
building, this is the train station, 
here is an important sculpture 
of cultural significance, now 
you are free. 

There is a plane in the sky.
It could be a reflection of the plane
I am in, which is also in the sky.
I could be looking around the planet
At myself seated at the window

Of a plane looking off 
In the distance at myself. 

Jay MillAr (born
1971) is a Canadian poet and co-publisher at Book*hug Press. He lives in
Toronto. His newest book, 
I Could Have Pretended To Be Better Than You: New & Selected Poems is
forthcoming from Anvil Press in 2019. This text is written directly for
ind more travelreportages from the Balkans here.

Democracy in Europe

Interesting, is it not, that two European countries within the last weeks have chosen to use their democratic right to not vote in order to fight their governments, and to not validate their, in different ways, extreme decisions, by simply #boycotting the elections.

#Macedonia #Romaina

In a few days Kornkammer will publish a short travel letter from Macedonia by the Canadian writer and publisher Jay MillAr, written before the Macedonian referendum took place, visiting the famous Struga Poetry Evenings.