WHEN DANISH poet Peter Wessel presents his Polyfonías Poetry Project in Galway as part of this year’s Cúirt International Festival of Literature, it will be a unique aural experience. It features poetry and music, but is not a poetry recital or a concert. It is instead an interaction between voice, verse, music, and languages, to create a new poetic-musical sound.
Peter will present Polyfonías Poetry Project in Cava Restaurant, Dominick Street, on Thursday April 23 at 6pm. On the night he will be accompanied by Spanish clarinettist and percussionist Salvador Vidal and Mark Solborg, a Danish/Argentinian composer and guitarist. It will be the debut performance of the show in Ireland, so what can we expect?
“I will be reading my poetry which is in four languages - Danish, English, Spanish, and French, and interweaving that with the music made by Mark and Salvador,” Peter tells me over the phone from his home in Madrid. “The music will be both composed and improvised. However this is not a recital concert. It’s not poetry with musical accompaniment. It is more like a jazz show, where the three of us improvise equally. It’s a dialogue between the three of us.”
Enrique Bernárdez, professor of English at the Universidad Complutense in Madrid, says of Wessel’s show: “Wessel does not only use a number of languages...He transforms all of them into a single language...and lacks any equivalent in the literature of the West...Music is integrated, not simply used as an adornment.”
Peter’s poetry is unlike anything you may have come across before. Although he has written in Danish and English, since 2003 he has written multilingual poems which are made up of words from Danish, English, Spanish, and French. Take for example the first verse from his latest poem Greed and Gråd which will receive its premiere reading in Galway:
“Donde yo nací, dans la langue maternelle/de mon pays,/på mit modersmål danés,/greed,/avaricia,/er grådighed,//og gråd,/la primera sílaba de soledad and separation,/is llanto,/Federico’s lament for Ignacio, matador de toros,/a las cinco de la tarde.”
The interweaving of different languages within the verses and Peter’s voice interweaving with the music promises to be a rich aesthetic experience. What led Peter to come up with this multilingual way of writing poems?
“The fact that I have lived outside of Denmark more than half my life,” he replies. “My wife is Spanish. My daughter was born in France. I moved to America for a time when I was 18. I was brought up in a bilingual household. My parents spoke English to each other so we children wouldn’t understand what they were saying. You had to learn English quick if you wanted to know what was going on!”
However it was the time Peter and his wife lived in a small Spanish village that provided the genesis for his poetry to take on it’s current multilingual incarnation.
“In the early 1990s we moved to a village north of Madrid,” says Peter. “It was centred around a building that was Philip V’s hunting castle in the 1700s. I did become friends with the Irish poet Michael Smith but he was only there in the summer. My wife was working all day and I had very few people to talk to.
“I had published poems in Danish and English, and had been writing in Spanish, but I didn’t know what language to write in anymore. Two years later we moved to Madrid and I felt something was going to come out that was not any language previously heard.
“I was asked by the Spanish radio service to read poems. The service is to broadcast Spanish culture around the world, particularly to South America. I couldn’t write it in English, so I wrote it in Spanish, but by the time I finished four different languages were involved!
“I realised this was my calling so I continued writing in my odd language and realised that poetry is not a particular language but a language in itself. The words I choose are words that had the most iconic status or cultural overtones such as siesta, chanson, cool, raison d’être, the blues, self made man, joie de vivre.”
Peter’s passion for languages is such that it can even affect his everyday thinking. “If I have to make a shopping list when I’m buying my groceries I may write the list down in four languages,” he laughs.
Peter is looking forward to this Irish trip as he is passionate about Irish music and poetry and sees in our cultural expressions, something not unrelated to his approach.
“Irish poetry is tremendously sonorous, extremely musical, probably because Irish poetry has not lost the bardic tradition,” he says. “When you play music or dance you shouldn’t think. And you shouldn’t either when you sing. A lot of thinking goes into my poetry and I hope it is good food for thought, but I prefer poems that don’t think too much. The code-switching in my Polyfonías helps me to avoid the traps of the rational mind.”
This week FC Barcelona progressed to the semi-final of the UEFA Champions League. Peter is not a massive football fan but admits to having a liking for Barça. Is that not a dangerous thing to do in the middle of Madrid and Real territory?
“No,” he laughs. “Madrid is like an enormous village. There are areas that are Real and others that are Athletico. Then there are bars where Barça fans hang out and it’s obvious they are Barça bars. Did you know that José Luis Zapatero, born in León in north-western Spain and President of Spain, is a stout Barça supporter?”