Vincent Farnsworth on the evolution of the expat poetry scene in Prague

 A recent death and a recent birth have made for a new reality in the creative scene of English language poetry in Prague. The death was literal, that of Alan Levy, the local newspaperman who first called Prague the "Paris of the nineties." The birth, metaphorical, was of the Prague International Poetry Festival, which has laid the groundwork for a new phase in expatriate poetry in the Czech Republic. Borrowing the term "deep politics" from political scientist and poet Peter Dale Scott's writings on the deepest machinations and impulses within world political crises, the death of Levy and the birth of the Poetry Festival coming closely together in time signal a shift in the strata of "deep poetics" in Prague.


Alan Levy was both credited and scorned for coming up with the "New Left Bank" proclamation for Prague. His position as editor-in-chief of the Prague Post meant his prediction has been repeated ad infinitum in periodicals throughout the English-speaking world. The story goes that this widespread advertisement for the western/foreigner expat art scene of Prague created a flood of neophytes emulating the lifestyles (if not the work) of Hemingway, Henry Miller, Anaïs Nin and Gertrude Stein. This caused more established or serious writers to be leery of participating in a situation that became a glaring cliché. Whether or not this cause and effect ever existed is hard to say, but the shadow of the "Paris of the nineties" appellation did color every literary endeavor in Prague throughout the '90s and afterward. It seemed like everyone was looking at everyone else, checking to see who the literary star would be, amid fairly wretched open readings and journals, and the more serious writers responded by staying as far away as they could.


In his recent (terrific) novel The Russian Debutante's Handbook, Gary Shteyngart has emulated George Orwell's previous critique of the Parisian artistes through a definitive "Prague novel" lampooning Prague's non-scene, filled with drunken and self-obsessed would-be writers doing a lot of other things than writing: "It was sort of an excuse for Americans to get together and have a very, very good party . . ." Shteyngart said in an interview. "I would go to all these bars and listen to poetry readings... I remember listening to this poem and it was the most god-awful thing I ever heard... It was a beautiful city on the banks of a beautiful river with cheap food and even cheaper beer. The only thing missing was the talent. It's been ten years and what has really come out of Prague?" The sore point he skewered by name, a weekly open-mic night called "Beefstew," which died its own quiet death a couple of years ago, along with its qualitative cousin, Optimism magazine, which the writer Andrei Codrescu told me was "the worst name for a poetry magazine I've ever heard of."


Whether Levy was an inadvertent cause of this or not, he certainly was not to blame. A prolific describer of what was and what could be in Prague, his weekly Prague Post profile of various socialites, diplomats, and minor celebrities was an attempt to mine a truth or omen from a personal history. At his memorial service a videotape was played in which he not only talked about dying in Prague, but elaborated on his New Left Bank prediction, saying he never meant that great poetry or novels would come out of expatriate Prague, because art has changed so much. He said the art might not be recognized for years, and might be "a sculpture of public hairs."


Levy's videotaped elaboration of the Paris of the '90's idea was an outtake from the new film "Rexpatriates." If Levy's passing marks the end of the (failed) Left Bank era, "Rexpatriates" is its cinematic epitaph. A farcical send-up of the expatriate in Prague stereotypes (made by the filmmaker and longtime Praguer Nancy Bishop), the film takes its name from Levy's phrase for Americans who spend time in Prague, experience reverse culture shock when they go back to the US, and then return to live in Prague as "re-expatriates." By playing himself in a film that pokes fun at the expat art scene, Levy signaled that his prediction would no longer hold sway. In the Deep Poetics view, when he passed away this last April, Levy resolved the "Paris of the '90's" conundrum: he took it with him.


But on the grave of the New Left Bank sprouted the 1st Prague International Poetry Festival. A week-long affair in mid-May spread across five different venues, the event featured a wide range of local and visiting poets, despite the limited budget of the organizer, Prague-based Australian Louis Armand. That such a varied, both international and grassroots poetry fest should pop up at this time is a real boon to the Prague English-language literary environment.The fest featured well-known writers such as Charles Bernstein and Anselm Hollo, and Prague-based writers such as Gwendolyn Albert, Travis Jeppesen, Laura Conway, Phil Schoenfelt, Jeff Bueller and myself. There were Czech writers who also work in English, such as Vit Kremlicka and Vera Chase, and the Prague-based Slovak aphorist Robert Gal. Other native English speakers included Drew Milne from Great Britain, Munayem Mayenin (who claims both UK and Bangladeshi origins), Michel Delville and Andrew Norris (Belgium/UK). Other writers came from Romania, Austria and Slovenia. There was also a strong Singaporean contingent.


But for more than ten years now there has been another annual literary festival in town, the Prague Spring Writers' Festival. It is often a mighty assortment of visiting literary heavyweights (Arundhati Roy, for instance) and a selection of Czech writers centered around an author and theme (2002 was "Jean Genet: Beware of Pure Concepts".) Somehow, though, it usually fails to click with either the local English-language community or the Czech one, often suffering from a lack of representation of significant local writers in either language, high ticket prices, and a somewhat stuffy atmosphere.


But the mere existence of this festival – as well as the weekly Alchemy poetry reading series, book signings and readings at the Globe Bookstore, the "Mr Hyde Park" multilingual reading at the Obratnik Café, and Prague Literary Review (started by Armand) – indicates a poets and writers' continuum that sallies forth irrespective of recent deaths and births.


In Shteyngart's novel and Bishop's film, the first decade of the expat English language writing scene in Prague has produced unabashed testaments to the emptiness of the hype, and to the clash of know-nothing Yanks with the ruins of post-communism. Both works are worth the experience. The second decade of the East-West experiment that is expat Prague may well produce something of another order of magnitude altogether – maybe involving the written word, maybe transcending it. Or maybe not.


Vincent Farnsworth is Managing Editor of Jejune


Read Toby Litt's response to this article here.

Poetry News, Summer 2004