Saturday, Noon I’m in the Bowery Poetry Club meeting Lyubomir Levchev, a poet famous in Bulgaria and mostly unknown around the world. He’s here in New York City for an onstage conversation with hometown poet Bob Holman in Holman’s own downtown dive, the Bowery Poetry Club. It’s all part of the current PEN World Voices festival, which ends this weekend.
Levchev has a gentle manner and a warm smile. He’s been on the scene since the late 1950’s, when he and several other poets of the day were known as Bulgaria’s “April Generation”. These were the post-Stalinist years when the small Eastern European nation was feeling out its ability to support an independent local arts scene. Despite the stark political circumstances, Levchev’s early writing style will feel familiar to anybody who’s read American beat poetry from the same era. Here are a few verses from The Garden Before Paradise, a dark story-poem about the aged and exhausted remnants of a downbeaten army:
The Field Marshal went by.
He didn’t like the town.
The tanks went by.
The trucks went by.
And only a bumpy road remained,
And a hundred injured horses.
A sentimental commander
had made a strange gesture —
he had given a team of horses
freedom and peace …
And this during wartime hunger.
These weren’t graceful circus performers
nor slender-legged steeplechase jumpers.
These were warhorses,
made deaf by guns,
blind by fire,
horses with spotless honor.
Decorated with monstrous wounds,
they grazed slowly in an orchard,
and drank long from the stone trough
their last sacrament
Levchev (the name means “lion” in Bulgaria, he says) has been active in Bulgarian poetry since the 50’s, and he jumps at every chance to plug other poets besides himself. I get the feeling he’s sort of a Eastern European equivalent of our own Bob Holman, a spoken-word scenemaker who inspires groups of people to create poetry together. The two men look alike — bearded, stocky, with big smiles — which makes the similarity even more pronounced.
I step out of the dark cozy Bowery Poetry Club space into the bright East Village daylight. There are two final PEN performances I’d like to catch, one at 4 pm and one at 4:30, but I’m also feeling a little burnt out, and when I spot a peace march walking down Broadway (it turns out there is a major event scheduled for today, and there’s a big turnout) I get diverted. I follow the crowd to Foley Square where dozens of anti-war organizations are manning booths and handing out URL’s and stickers. It’s a lively crowd, and I even find an inspired literary reference in a gang of ragtag protesting musicians, dancers and clowns who call themselves ‘The Rude Mechanicals’ (this is a Midsummer Night’s Dream reference, if I’m not mistaken).
It’s too late to make it to the uptown events, and as I look at the colorful mass of protestors around me it occurs to me to hope that some of the foreign writers here for PEN have found their way to this spot as well. Just as New Yorkers like me are first encountering these foreign writers at this festival, so many of them are encountering this city for the first time. The sunlit scene at Foley Square is the New York City I’ve always loved best — freaky, eclectic and opinionated.
I hope all the visiting PEN writers had a great time at this festival, and I’d also like to take a minute to thank Bud Parr of Metaxu Cafe for organizing a bunch of us bloggers to work together to cover this event. I think it’s been a very successful experiment — Bud, you rock!