CROWD Literature’s Omnibus project was a literary tour like few others, running from May to August in 2016, from the far north of Finland to the beaches of the Mediterranean in Cyprus. It lasted twelve weeks, taking over 100 poets from nearly 40 countries by bus through 14 nations in Europe with over 50 events, readings and performances. Unsurprisingly a project operating with such a maximalist ambition required dozens of local partners, aside from its foundational creative of team of Forum Stadtpark Graz, Lettretage, Ideogramma and Nuoren Voiman Liitto, and hundreds of people working hard to make it happen. I had the privilege of being on the latter part of the tour, on the Graz and Belgrade legs.
There are the facts of it. For my own part the experience was as generative, challenging, exciting and memorable as you’d expect, sharing intimate time, bonding closely, with old friends and new, writing, reading, talking and performing. But more than this, it was an experience of overwhelming irony. This amazing project, almost absurd in its size and scope, placed me one summer night on the stage of what once was Tito’s amphitheatre, in the grounds of his old house, in Belgrade, for the Krokodil Festival. The date was June 24th. Some reading this will know already why that’s an infamous date. There were nearly a thousand in attendance, Serbs, pouring out of the city to watch poets, sitting on rock, the sky darkening, still hot outdoors. I was one of the first to read and the format of the reading was such that two hosts asked the poets questions before they read their work, which had been translated behind them. I didn’t mind this, but also didn’t care for it, wanting to control my aesthetic, poetically, without being contextualised as a person first. A bit numb, I made my way to the stage and was immediately asked how I felt about Britain leaving the EU? I didn’t say much. Sick, a bit embarrassed. To the Serbs, whose brightest see European membership aspirationally, there was nothing to say.
That’s the fact of it, for me. That I was the only British member of a project that included over 100 poets. That’s interesting, and gloomy, in the first place. But that on the tour, it was especially painful. The project, that existed in two realms. The first to create a powerful, personal environment for poets to make connections, to explore and discover, to meet and learn others from their continent, across its massive, ever changing cultural landscape. The second, to make a point about our shared experience, our unity. CROWD Omnibus was designed to foster closeness, to overcome the restrictions and borders that many want to create, and when it was conceived, I am willing to bet, all this was hypothetical. Theoretical even. Not literal restrictions, not the literal creation of new borders. And yet, there I was, in that place, with my fellow poets, witnessing my own nation sever itself from its own continent, make itself smaller. What can one say in the face of such irony. It was like losing something irreplaceable and precious while being presented with a gift for the future.
As to the work produced and the friendships made, well context shapes content. It is a generalisation, but as much as the critical faculty of our current consciousness attempts to ignore this fact, and treat the content of artwork, of literature, of even human action, as singular, independent and practically objective, it is important to note. Fundamentally, what it means, is that environment shapes action, organisation creates experience. In poetry, this is a key element of the culture – an artform normally associated with individuality over collectivity, due to moribund, theological myths about the poets as receptor of inspiration, projects like CROWD Literature’s Omnibus Project do so many things at once, but certainly, profoundly they show poetry not only thrives in collective, communal, active spaces of creativity, but that it is perhaps there we might find its future. Poets and audiences were inspired, became closer, began relationships, and in human terms what more can be asked of something that it creates friendships and memories may last the length of our lives.
By Steven J. Fowler