Sunday, 13 May 2018

An Estonian Poetry Adventure at Prima Vista Festival

Tere! Kuidas sul täna läheb?

I've just come back from a trip to Estonia, where I was performing as part of the Prima Vista International Literature Festival in Tartu.

Tartu is the second largest city in Estonia and it’s located in the South East of the country. It’s pretty small in comparison to most cities – with a population of just under 100,000 people – but it’s really historically significant and has played a major role in preserving Estonian culture over the years, especially during Estonia’s annexation by Russia in the late twentieth century.

Tartu is also one of twenty-eight UNESCO World Cities of Literature and the city is hugely proud of its literary heritage and cultural identity, with statues of its most famous writers all over the place.


During my stay, I came across monuments to Oskar Luts, Friedebert Tuglas, F.R. Kreutzwald, Kristjan Jaak Peterson and Eduard Vilde (sitting next to Oscar Wild on a bench outside a pub – although this is just artist’s licence, as I don’t think the two of them ever met in real life).

There was also some truly glorious Eighteenth Century neoclassical architecture in the town square.

The majestic-looking town hall (complete with UNESCO flags!)

I was one of nineteen foreign writers and poets performing at Prima Vista during its six-day programme, including writers from Russia, Latvia, Finland, Argentina, the USA, Ireland, Austria, Germany, France, Sweden, Slovenia, Poland, Brazil, Hungary and Italy.

The festival itself had a really relaxed and inclusive atmosphere and it was so nice to be surrounded by so many enthusiastic writers and readers from all corners of the world!

A bit of Slam Poetry on a Wednesday evening

It was also really lovely to listen to poetry being read and performed in other languages, and I particularly enjoyed listening to the young poets participating in the festival’s slam competition. It feels really strange to be watching poetry without being able to understand the words, but it made me really aware of other elements of the performances, like tone of voice, gesture and stage presence. It was really enlightening!

I also learned that the word ‘hashtag’ is the same in English and Estonian. So that’s pretty useful!

I performed as part of a poetry presentation by local Estonian poets called An Atlas of Dreams, alongside Estonian poets Krista Ojasaar, Andra Teede, Silvia Urgas, and Helena Läks, and Estonian singer and musician Lilli-Krõõt Repnau. I think my performance went down pretty well, and although the other poets were all reading in Estonian, I really enjoyed their different styles of performance.

Are those two little men in the background trying to look up my skirt!?

We all hung out after the show and had a chat about poetry, language and the politics of Brexit and – as if to highlight the fact that humanities similarities unite us more than our differences divide us – everyone I spoke to was very keen to talk about the weather too.

And you thought it was just a British preoccupation!

I facilitated a writing workshop on my final day in Tartu, which was held at the head-quarters of the Tartu City of Literature. The building used to be Soviet offices during the Cold War, and it had a sort of beautiful faded glamour that was very pleasing to me.

Extreme poetic concentration!

My workshop was attended by ten participants and we all had great fun thinking about performance and language, and discussing the difficulties of expressing yourself in a language that is not your mother-tongue.

All the participants wrote in English and their work was incredibly thought-provoking. We had a nice mix of ages and abilities in the group (from professional writers to teachers and students to people just starting to write for the first time) and they all seemed to enjoy the session. I certainly learnt a lot!

More poetic concentration - it's a tricky business, this writing poems lark...

It was not the first time that I wished I could speak a second language, and I’m sure it won’t be the last. Time to download Duolingo again, methinks…

I also did a few touristy things during my stay, including a visit to the National Museum of Estonia, which was absolutely fantastic and gave me a great overview of the history of the country. I also visited the bizarre but brilliant tagurpidi maja, which means Upside Down House in Estonian.

Go home, House. You are drunk. 

Built as a strange and wonderful tourist attraction, the Upside-Down House is exactly as you would imagine. The house stands on its roof, and visitors enter through one of the upstairs windows. The house is furnished exactly like a very nice three-bedroom family home, only completely upside down!

Walking on the ceiling through the kitchen, living room, bathroom and bedrooms is a truly disorienting experience, but it makes for GREAT Instagram pictures!

I think my face looks tonnes better upside down, you know!

I had the whole place to myself, so I took a lot of photos!

I also had a really lovely conversation with the attendant at tagurpidi maja who, as soon as she heard I was English, felt compelled to tell me how much she enjoyed Midsomer Murders. A woman after my own heart!

I’m really pleased I got the chance to be part of the Prima Vista Festival, and see performances from poets and writers from across the world. Highlights for me included Joelle Taylor (who absolutely stormed it on the Wednesday night) and the great thematic presentation by the City of Literature Team (featuring Nottingham's very own David Belbin reading one of the poems about the future) as well as a great show in Spanish and English by Ignacio Perini.

Joelle Taylor - one of the UK's best living poets

I only wish I could’ve stayed longer, and I can’t wait to visit Estonia again someday!

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