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THE PRAGUE MOMENT

… the beautiful engineers are all dead, the secret technicians conspire for their own glamour in the Future… – Allen Ginsberg, “Král Majáles,” 7 May, 1965

 

There are cities in the world that exercise a particular influence over the minds of writers, artists and historians because they seem to manifest a type of spirit, a genius loci, through which an intellectual vitalism is channelled or communicated. Cities galvanized, in their very substance, by a cultural electricity – a vortex – their names imbued with powers of conjuration – Paris, Berlin, New York, Prague. Such is the mystique of the mind’s geography, that thought and poetry find their location in a given place and time which nevertheless appear transcendent. Equally, there is a question of pragmatics: culture, wherever it is conspicuous, happens by implication and association, like a political crime.

The end of “the Empire of Stalinist tyranny”[1] signalled by the fall of the Berlin Wall and the Velvet Revolution, not only projected Prague into the centre of a new Europe and a new European consciousness, it also reignited – however briefly – the libertarianism with which the city, ever since the “thaw” of the 1960s and the Prague Spring, had been symbolically associated. Following the communist putsch of 1948, Prague – once the heart of Mitteleuropa – became an annex of that historical and cultural fiction known as Eastern Europe. As Michael March noted in his preface to Description of a Struggle, this pseudo-territory had been “a lost continent for over forty years.”[2] The cultural landscape which emerged in Prague during the Soviet Union’s collapse was thus one both newly central and yet fundamentally decentred.

Writing in a special issue of the New Orleans Review – “Ten Years After the Velvet Revolution” – Petr Bílek noted that Czechoslovak poetry in the early 1990s exhibited a type of historical schizophrenia. Most of the work being published in the immediate aftermath of the revolution “had been written in the seventies and eighties, but repressed by the old order.”[3] As Alexandra Büchler observed in her editorial to an issue of Transcript devoted to “Iron and Velvet: A Decade of New Czech Writing”: “Haste and indiscriminate publication of what had been banned and censored until 1989 made for a chaotic scene.”[4] This was evident even at the time. “Czech literature of the 1990s,” wrote Daniela Dražanová in a 1993 issue of Prognosis,

exists in fast-forward and reverse. Publishers are printing the formerly banned works of “dissident” authors, previously censored Czech classics, and the efforts of fresh and relatively unknown writers.[5]

Such an outpouring produced a sense of hyper-anachronism on the one hand (“time exploded”),[6] and a cultural disconnect with a younger generation, which often found itself alienated from the historical revision in progress and with more affinity to contemporary literature from elsewhere. Some, like Ewald Murrer and Jakub Rosen established their own journals, such as Iniciály, devoted to publishing writers under thirty.[7] At the same time, the picture of “Czech” poetry after the revolution was complicated by at least three other factors: the competing claims of newly returned émigrés; the ethnic and political divisions which would lead to the partitioning of Czechoslovakia in 1993; as well as by conflicting East/West representations of the Prague literary scene inherited from the Cold War and transformed by the rapid growth of an international literary community within the city itself. What this meant in reality was something like Brion Gysin’s dictum: “Nothing is true, everything is permitted.”[8] Jaromír Slomek, a critic at Literární Noviny summed the situation up when he wrote that “Czech literature of the nineties is something completely different from the books being published in the nineties.”[9]

Out of this complex genealogy, no clear sense of what inaugurated the “Prague moment” can really be gained. Throughout the “Normalization” period of the 1980s, the Prague intelligentsia had been systematically suppressed. Much of the writing to appear in print during the early 90s had first circulated in samizdat, using typed carbon copy. Prague writers experienced their own cultural milieu as a series of arbitrary discontinuities, mediated (according to changeable State policy) by the official publishing apparatus, access to educational institutions, and the availability of exit visas. The 1984 awarding of the Nobel Prize to the Prague poet Jaroslav Seifert (one of the original signatories of Charter 77) – and the consequent accessibility of his work in translation – created a type of parallel universe outside communist Czechoslovakia (ČSSR), shaping a literary consciousness entirely at odds with prevailing realities within the country. One of the “greats” of modern Czechoslovak poetry, Seifert’s writings brought with them evocations of Prague as the city of Vítěslav Nezval, Karel Teige, Toyen; of Guillaume Apollinaire, André Breton, and Marina Tsvetaeva.

During the same period, apparently apolitical writers such as Miroslav Holub were also becoming well-known abroad. Holub was a frequent contributor to British journals like Encounter (founded by Stephen Spender) and the Times Literary Supplement. Alongside Seifert, Holub was widely regarded by many outside the ČSSR to be a major defining figure of the Prague literary scene. British poet laureate, Ted Hughes, famously described him as “one of the half-dozen most important poets writing anywhere.”[10] This was starkly at odds with the reception of Holub’s work among the mainstream of Czech academics and critics. In her introduction to the Arc anthology, Six Czech Poets, Alexandra Büchler writes – as late as 2007:

That Miroslav Holub is by far the most widely-known Czech poet is symptomatic of the ready acceptance of cerebral poetry of linear thought, “universal” ideas and easy-to-decipher allegories on the one hand, and a reluctance to engage with poetry referring to an unfamiliar culture and literary context on the other. Even Seifert, whose work received a brief flicker of attention following the Nobel Prize award, did not merit as prominent a place in English-language publishing as Holub, whose work was brought out by Penguin and Faber, and later by Bloodaxe.[11]

This typecasting of Holub as somehow exemplary of a failing – on the one hand, of a “universal” poetics and, on the other, of the English-speaking literary establishment (as culturally myopic) – masks, behind a facile ethnographic binary and an undeclaired aesthetic ideology, a set of more fundamental issues that have continued to inform how the various cultural dialogues that make up the contemporary Prague cultural scene are reported. Holub, an accomplished immunologist, maintained – against this kind of parochialism – a sense of the artist’s moral duty to enquire about the state of the world at large. In the inaugural issue of International Quarterly, he insisted that concerns such as global ecology must not simply be ignored by retreating, for example, into a type of arcadia of national identity. Responsibility for the state of the world is a shared burden, one that cannot be eschewed by glib assertions that history, in the abstract, is to blame. This was a long-held view, dating back to his collaboration with poets like Jiří Šotola, Miroslav Florian and Karel Šiktanc, and their collective rejection of “abstract ideological proclamations.”[12] For Holub there was no room after the revolution for the perpetuation of the “ghetto mentality” that had gown up within the mainstream of Czechoslovak literature – in many respects “a typical minor literature,” in Bílek’s words, which “preferred to dwell on specific domestic issues rather than be part of an international exchange.”[13]

In the early nineties, in the face of war in former Yugoslavia, history indeed appeared to cast a long shadow over the future of a re-unified “Europe.” Holub, who steadfastly rejected the victim-culture that cast the Czechs as the butt of Austro-Hungarian, Nazi and Soviet oppression, insisting that historical “blame” could not simply be apportioned according to binaries of political or cultural hegemony. He shared a commitment to unpleasant truths – a commitment similar to that of other poets, like Paul Polansky and Gwendolyn Hubka Albert, who in the late nineties devoted much energy to exposing the hidden history of the Lety concentration camp (a camp for the internment of Roma and other ethnic and political undesirables, exclusively operated by the Czech collaborationist authorities throughout World War II).[14] But if Holub thought of himself as first and foremost a “European,” he also argued against forgetting the specific responsibilities we share for our local and internal landscapes.[15] The process of lustration – the exposure and prosecution of former communists – remained controversial in post-revolution Czechoslovakia. Holub, who was blacklisted through the 1970s but who some critics attempted to associate with the former regime, never turned away from the necessity to face up to one’s history in its most specific yet also most universal aspects.[16]

The apparent ideological rift between a broadly “western” poetics and the national sensitivities of some Czech translators and academics – as made clear in the case of Holub – has arguably to do less with poetics as such than with a certain “resentment” which applies equally within the sphere of specifically “Czechoslovak” and later “Czech” literature of that period, in which dividing lines are often perceptible in terms of personal politics and political histories – between émigrés and non-émigrés; dissidents and non-dissidents; anti-communists, socialists, anarchists, democrats, capitalists, monarchists; and also inter-generationally. In a typical remark – which takes in the work of writers like Ivan Blatný and Josef Skvorecký – Bílek writes:

Most of the poetry written in exile had few original ideas to offer; it reiterated views already held by its writers and readers. And, paradoxically, this poetry exhibited many of the same features of the official poetry published by the communist regime in Czechoslovakia…[17]

It is equally telling that, of the twelve poets Bílek chose to include in the Summer 2000 issue of the New Orleans Review – a survey of the state of contemporary poetry in the Czech Republic – none were born after 1963, while only three (Sylva Fischerová, Božena Správcová and Jáchym Topol) were born after 1952. The attempt to frame these disparities in terms of the legacy of the Cold War, of ‘68 and the “Moscow communiqué,” or of ‘80s normalisation, serves only to obscure – or attempt to obscure – the fact that in Prague, as elsewhere, fundamentally self-serving agendas remain at work in establishing claims over cultural discourse.[18] Political or aesthetic ideology often provide an otherwise arbitrary basis of critical proscriptions. One finds, for example, certain discursive forms of modernist poetry earmarked as Soviet (Yevtushenko); a return to lyric “subjectivism” as a specifically domestic response to the uncertainties and vicissitudes of a world from which higher temporal authority (“the constant presence of an obvious enemy”) has been removed.[19]

As elsewhere, literary criticism in Prague has for the most part remained aloof from popular, and properly contemporary, culture. The widespread influence of, in particular, 1960s western music upon pre-revolution (dissident) writing has been well-documented.[20] Unsurprisingly, Lou Reed, Frank Zappa and Allen Ginsberg remained, throughout the early nineties, major cultural icons in post-communist Czechoslovakia, adored by former president Václav Havel. As late as 1998, students were conducting 24-hour readings of Lawrence Ferlinghetti’s poetry during the Beat publisher’s visit to Prague that May. While Beat poetry is now frequently accused of being politically “naïve” and – like surrealism (which continues to prosper in the city) – anachronistic, its sustained popularity indicates, beyond mere nostalgia, a general disaffection with the sorts of cultural binaries that – although the terms have changed since the end of the Cold War – have been preserved in the current status quo. To appreciate the ongoing significance of the Beat legacy in the ‘90s, one need only look to Prague’s hugely successful 1998 Beat Generation Festival – in whose catalogue, incidentally, Srp published the StB (secret police) files documenting Ginsberg’s 1965 visit.[21]

Against the propaganda of free market capitalism (celebrated uncritically after the revolution by supporters of Václav Klaus) and of cultural nationalism, Ginsberg’s refusal of ideological solidarity – “the Communists have nothing to offer but fat cheeks and eyeglasses and lying policemen / and the Capitalists proffer Napalm and money in green suitcases to the Naked”[22] – represents a critical stance which, in the era of the IMF and the WTO, appears to be newly affirmed.[23] The question that remains is how much of this reaffirmation is connected with any formal advancement of poetics, and whether or not the impact of Ginsberg and the Beats upon the Czech cultural consciousness has evolved beyond its historical moment.[24]

Perhaps unsurprisingly, the pop-literary view from the outside also remains dominated by the Beat legacy and in particular that of Ginsberg who visited Prague twice during 1965, before being arrested and expelled from the country (allegedly for corrupting the city’s impressionable youth). His account of being crowned “King of May,” and his subsequent deportation, was recorded by Richard Kostelanetz in a New York Times article two months after the event. The article begins with the pronouncement: “To university students all over the world today, Allen Ginsberg is a kind of cultural hero and sometimes a true prophet.”[25] Kostelanetz reports that Ginsberg arrived in Prague from Poland on the 30th of April (his second visit to the city). Ginsberg’s account commences from the following day:

I walked in the May Day parade that morning, and that afternoon some students asked me to be their king. I agreed; they put me on a truck, and I travelled in the procession of the Polytechnic School [ČVUT], with a Dixieland band on a nearby truck. The procession went through the city to a main square, where 10,000 to 15,000 people had gathered. I made a speech, dedicating the glory of my crown to Franz Kafka, who once lived on that square.

From there, we are told, the procession continued to the Park of Culture and Rest (Park kultury a oddechu Julia Fučíka; the present-day Výstaviště exhibition grounds) where Ginsberg found himself elected Král Majáles by an assembled body of “100,000” students from all of Prague’s universities.[26]

A few days later, late at night, someone suddenly attacked me on the street, screaming “bouzerant,” which means “fairy” or “queer”; and all of us, including the students with me, were arrested by the police and taken down to the station. I wasn’t released until 5 A.M.; they took affidavits from the others. I suspect the attacker was a police provocateur, but I can’t prove it.[27]

On the 7th of May, Ginsberg was arrested and held in isolation before being put on a plane for London. Almost twenty-five years later, Ginsberg was working to bring attention to the plight of Prague’s dissident community. In January 1989, Ginsberg appeared alongside The Fugs’ Ed Sanders and Vratislav Brabenec, of The Plastic People of the Universe, at a New York concert in support of the Czech poet Ivan Martin Jirous (known as “Magor” or madman). Jirous had been imprisoned by the communists for reading protest poems in public. Jirous, an art historian by training but prohibited from working, was known for his conception of the “Parallel Polis,” or “Second Culture” – the belief that art could expose the régime’s falsification of social reality and bring about its collapse by “living in truth.”

The city to which Ginsberg returned a year later in 1990 was very soon to undergo a type of transformation few cities ever experience. Over the next few years, Jirous’s “Parallel Polis” would come to seem like a more fitting description of the separations occurring within Prague society on both an economic and cultural level – the outcome on the one hand of a fantastically corrupt voucher privatisation scheme (widely heralded in the West as a new economic miracle),[28] and on the other by the large scale return of former Czech émigrés and the rapid increase in the size of the city’s international community. A New York Times article estimated that by 1993 there were up to 30,000 Americans alone living in the city.[29] Many of these had some connection with the emerging “scene” – as writers, translators, editors, publishers, artists, filmmakers, human rights activists, booksellers, teachers, students, musicians and groupies. This loosely formed community – the new “Second Culture” – gave rise to a constructed myth of the city which combined a nostalgic Bohemianism, a Western hankering after cultural authenticity (the “poetry of witness”), and a type of Wizard of Oz fantasy set in juxtaposition to the 1980s “culture wars” and political bankruptcy of the Reagan/Thatcher era in the US and Britain.[30] As Bruce Sterling wrote in 1993, in an article for Wired magazine:

this is a very ‘90s city. Even its artistic problems are ‘90s artistic problems: the struggle of a bewildered and put-upon generation to speak authentically in an era whose central directive is to reduce all art and all life to an infinitely replicable commodity, to turn Kafka into a T-shirt and Havel into a carny attraction, to shrink-wrap cultures as pasteurised package-tour exotica, to make art a bogus knickknack and heritage the hottest-selling market segment of the Museum Economy.[31]

Prague, mired in its own and others’ histories, has never been a stranger to myth and mystification. “It’s uncanny atmosphere,” notes Heinz Politzer, “had impressed observers as early and as independent of one another as the American Longfellow and the Northern German Wilhelm Raabe.”[32] But Prague’s influence over the Anglophone imagination dates back further still. At least – if one is inclined to excesses of cultural genealogy – as far back as Anne of Bohemia, patron of Anglo-Saxon poet Geoffrey Chaucer, with whose writings – on the model of Boccaccio – the long migration of a vernacular literary English is said to have begun, born – as it were – of translation.[33] It was at this time, too, that Jan Hus, whose statue stands at the centre of Prague’s Old Town Square, sparked a political and cultural revolution in Central Europe by translating and teaching the work of Englishman John Wycliffe.

From Shakespeare’s imaginary Bohemia, and the Prague of John Dee and Edward Kelley, to the real and romanticized post-Revolution city of the 1990s, is perhaps not such a great leap. Nor would a comparison appear entirely out of order. The metamorphoses of Prague following the Velvet Revolution of November 1989 in part revived, in part invented, a pan-European and cosmopolitan tradition that forty years of communism never quite succeeded in snuffing out. From the Utraquists to the Plastic People of the Universe – from Hus, via Masaryk, to Havel – from Arcimboldo, via Kafka and the surrealists, to Klíma – the idea of Prague persists as a type of Xanadu of cultural resistance in which a poetry of universal ideas, contrary to Auden’s glib pronouncements, might indeed make something happen. As Sterling notes:

A lot of writers come here, not because Havel can teach them how to write, but because Václav Havel is a symbol of what words-in-a-row can do. [34]

When Ginsberg made his speech in 1965, dedicating the glory of his crown to Kafka, he was acknowledging a symbolic debt to a writer who, though he was a Praguer to the very core of his being, was also a German-speaking Jew (whose collected writings, incidentally, were not comprehensively translated into Czech until the very end of the twentieth century).[35] Kafka, the great ironist of state bureaucracy and individual alienation, defined what it meant not to be the citizen of any singular nation or state, but to be a creature of that “Parallel Polis” which is not merely a collocation of architectures, municipalities and ordinances, but a type of cultural vortex whose topology is both particular and universal. In a world beset with fundamentalisms of every kind, it is worth being reminded that the figures, the places and moments of cultural modernity – at any time – have always been in some sense foreign.[36]

In 1990, returning to Prague at the invitation of mayor Jaroslav Kořán, for the first time since his expulsion in 1965 (“to reclaim my paper crown”),[37] Ginsberg gave a “momentous poetry reading” at the Philosophy Faculty of Charles University.[38] In the audience were many of those who had been students when Ginsberg was expelled from the country twenty-five years previously – including Havel – and were active in the literary underground before the Velvet Revolution. Karel Srp, founder of the dissident Jazz Section (1971), has pointed out that the connection between Prague and Ginsberg dates back even further, to the mid-1950s with the journal Světová literatura.

The editors were the first to publish Ginsberg’s Howl in Czechoslovakia, as well as stories by Kerouac and Ferlinghetti. As these authors sometimes illustrated the dark side of the United States, communist censorship tolerated them.[39]

For Joseph Yanosik, “the influence of Ginsberg’s [1965] visit on Czech culture should not be underestimated,” and was, according to him, a major catalyst for the ’68 Prague Spring.[40]

Ginsberg’s return thus signified for many the inauguration of a new cultural moment which, under the presidency of the playwright Václav Havel, would result in what the expatriate American newspaperman Alan Levy later – in an often quoted editorial – called the “Left Bank of the nineties”:

We are living in the Left Bank of the Nineties. For some of us, Prague is Second Chance City; for others, a New Frontier where anything goes, everything goes, and, often enough, nothing works. Yesterday is long gone, today is nebulous, and who knows about tomorrow, but somewhere within each of us here, we all know that we are living in a historic place at a historic time. Future historians will chronicle our course – and I have reason to believe that they’re already here – but even they will need to know the nuts and bolts of what it was like and how it felt to live and be in liberated Prague in the last decade of the 20th century.[41]

Writing two years after Levy, Sterling concurred:

Prague is very much like Paris in the ‘20s, but it’s also very much unlike Paris in the ‘20s. One main reason is that there is no André Breton here. People do sit and write – stop by The Globe, the crowded émigré bookstore on Janovského 14 in north Prague, and you’ll see a full third of the cappuccino-sipping black-clad Praguelodyte customers scribbling busily in their notebooks. There are many American wannabe writers here – even better, they actually manage to publish sometimes – but there is not a Prague literary movement, no Prague literary-isms. No magisterial literary theorists hold forth here as Breton or Louis Aragon or Gertrude Stein did in Paris. There isn’t a Prague technique, or a Prague approach, or a Prague literary philosophy that will set a doubting world afire. There are people here sincerely trying to find a voice, but as yet there is no voice. There may well be a new Hemingway here (as The Prague Post once declared there must be). But if Prague writers want to do a kind of writing that is really as new and powerful as Hemingway’s was in Hemingway’s time, then they will have to teach themselves.[42]

Like Ginsberg, Levy had been expelled from Czechoslovakia by the communist authorities. Originally from New York, Levy moved to Prague in 1967, where he chronicled the Soviet invasion the following year – recounted in his book Rowboat to Prague (1972; reprinted in 1980 as So Many Heroes). In 1971 his press accreditation was revoked and, along with his family, he was expelled from the country on allegations of spying. For many years he lived in Vienna, where he served as foreign correspondent for the International Herald Tribune and as dramaturge of Vienna’s English Theatre. Levy returned to Prague in 1990 and subsequently became editor-in-chief of The Prague Post, from its founding in 1991 until his death in 2004. Of his contribution to the city’s cultural life, Havel wrote:

Alan Levy chose to become active in our country during what was for us a very sensitive and important period – the time of creating a free, open environment for the media. Because of his human qualities and professional experience, he quickly became recognised as a not inconsiderable figure for whom I had great respect.[43]

Levy, the author of 18 books, published interviews with W.H. Auden, the Beatles, Fidel Castro, Vladimir Nabokov and Ezra Pound – a body of work that, for some, helped to establish the requisite genealogy for viewing the post-1989 Prague scene within the broader historical context of previous international milieux in Paris and Berlin. He also represented a sense of continuity with a Prague of the past.

As the only accredited American journalist in the city during the years immediately following the ‘68 soviet invasion, Levy was able to lay claim to a particular authority in seeking to foster the young, post-revolution scene. He was, nevertheless, merely one of a number of longer-term expatriates whose activities, in some respects, constitute this scene’s pre-history – among them the Academy Award-winning animator, Gene Deitch; the “Rhodes Scholar Spy” and KGB informer, Ian Milner; and Mary Hawker, daughter of the defector and propagandist George Wheeler, a former major in the US military government in West Germany. Both Hawker and Milner worked in what is today the Department of Anglophone Literatures and Cultures, in the Philosophy Faculty of Charles University – the same university department in which Prague Structuralism was first theorised in the 1920s by the likes of Vilém Mathesius, Jan Mukařovský, René Wellek and Roman Jakobson. Before his death in 1991, Milner served as the translator of poets such as Holub, Sylva Fischerová and Vladimír Holan.

During the years leading up to the Velvet Revolution, philosophers, musicians, artists and writers from the “West” continued to visit Prague, despite the restrictions put in place by the communist authorities. The seminars of the underground university – hosted during the 70s and 80s by dissident philosophers including Ladislav Hejdánek and Julius Tomin (father of the writer Lukáš Tomin) – brought to the city the likes of Jacques Derrida (detained in Ruzyně prison in December 1981) and Roger Scruton, and has been examined in detail by Barbara Day in her book The Velvet Philosophers.[44] Meanwhile Philip Roth’s The Prague Orgy (1985) helped to maintain the myth of Prague literary Bohemianism, echoing the émigré writer Milan Kundera’s Unbearable Lightness of Being (1984).[45]

In May 1989, Joan Baez – one of many 1960s artists to influence Czechslovak dissident groups – performed a concert in Brno, openly criticising the regime (she performed a reprise concert in Prague on 17 November, 2009). At the same time, writers like Gwendolyn Albert (studying linguistics in Prague on a Fulbright scholarship) were becoming involved in the day-to-day operations of the Občanské Fórum (Civic Forum, soon to constitute the first post-communist government, headed by Václav Havel). When the revolution began in earnest, more than a week after the fall of the Berlin wall, Albert was working in Civic Forum headquarters in the Laterna Magika Theatre, assisting Rita Klimová (later to become Havel’s first ambassador to the United States).

In an account later published in the Prague Post, Albert records the moment, on 23 November 1989, when Alexander Dubček – the former ČSSR president deposed by the Soviet invasion in 1968 – addressed the crowds from the balcony of the Svobodné Slovo newspaper offices on Wenceslas Square, standing beside a Václav Havel who had only recently been released from ten months’ imprisonment.[46] This symbolic conflation of the Velvet Revolution and the Prague Spring served to feed a broader, international romanticism about the city and its political and cultural circumstances. With glasnost still working its inexorable way towards the collapse of the Communist Party in Russia, the post-revolution euphoria in Prague served as the backdrop for a self-willed literary renaissance. As Bílek notes:

After the revolution, almost two thousand private publishers emerged. Instead of two periodicals covering all of contemporary literature, suddenly there were dozens of monthlies and quarterlies appearing and disappearing.[47]

This renaissance was in part fostered by the rapidly growing international community in the city and by a reading public hungry for news from the outside.[48] Regular publications soon began appearing in English, German and French. In November 1990, five Americans from Santa Barbara founded Prague’s first English-language newspaper, Prognosis, which published bi-weekly (and for a brief period weekly) until its closure in March 1995. Many of the writers to emerge on the Prague scene worked for the paper in one capacity or another – including John Allison, Anthony Tognazzini, David Freeling, Randall Lyman, Thor Garcia and Louis Armand. Less than a year later, The Prague Post – a weekly newspaper with ambitions more orientated towards the status quo – was founded by Lisa Frankenberg and Kent Hawryluk (two former Prognosis employees), with Alan Levy as editor-in-chief. By 1993 two further papers where briefly in print – Prague News (half in German) and the Bohemia Daily Standard – representing the apogee of the “left bank of the nineties” phenomenon.

 The middle of 1991 saw the first of Prague’s international writers’ festivals, initiated by the former New York book seller and (until 1993) director of the Prague Book Fair at Palác Kultury, Michael March. The same year saw the publication of March’s Child of Europe: The Penguin Anthology of East European Poetry. This anthology, like the Prague festival, grew out of a project beginning in the 80s. As March recounts:

I established poetry festivals and readings at Keats House [in London] – publishing and introducing with George Theiner, editor of Index on Censorship, the work of such great poets as Vladimír Holan – before moving the readings to the Arts Theatre and Donmar Warehouse Theatre. From 1983, they became the “Covent Garden Readings.” In February 1989, I brought “Child of Europe” to the National Theatre, presenting poets from eight communist countries, at a decisive moment. The Festival was broadcast on television and radio, and praised in the press. In May 1991, I moved the readings to Prague – to Valdštejn Palace, which was opened for the first time in living memory to the public.[49]

The inaugural festival featured, among others, Miroslav Holub, Eva Kantůrková, Irving Layton, Karel Pecka, Paul-Eerik Rummo, Zdena Salivarová, Josef Škvorecký, and Petr Odillo Stradický. 1992 saw Robert Bly in Prague as a guest of the festival, and in succeeding years a roster of internationally renowned authors (Lawrence Ferlinghetti, Susan Sontag, Harold Pinter, Jorge Sempún, Alain Robbe-Grillet, Robert Creeley) appeared alongside Czech writers such as Ivan Klíma, Hana Androniková, Jáchym Topol, Sylva Fischerová, Jaroslav Rudiš, Sylvie Rychterová, Michal Ajvaz, Petr Borkovec and Ewald Mürrer.

In February of 1992, Howard Sidenberg – a former doctoral student in Russian politics at the University of California-Santa Barbara – founded Twisted Spoon Press out of a communal apartment in Smíchov. Sidenberg, who had arrived in Prague the previous year, joined with translator Kevin Blahut, artist Kip Bauersfeld, and the writer Lukáš Tomin, to establish the sole continuously operating English-language literary press in the country.[50] The first title to appear was Tomin’s debut novel, The Doll, described by Fay Weldon as:

A visionary work, by an extraordinary and important young writer. As cultures and languages mix and merge, Tomin meets the consequent literary challenge head on, and actually makes this reader hopeful about the future of the novel.[51]

Tomin, the first of two sons of prominent dissident intellectuals (his mother, Zdena Tominová, had been spokesperson for Charter 77), had lived in the UK, France and Canada since 1980 and wrote three novels in English (all published by Twisted Spoon). A series of poems had earlier been published in the London Literary Review and The New Statesman. After his return to Prague in 1991, Tomin became a regular contributor to Literarní Noviny, Iniciály, Host and The Prague Post. His second novel, Ashtrays (1993), illustrated by Alf van der Plank, is regarded by many as the masterpiece of the Prague renaissance of the 1990s – described by the Post as “a linguistic tour de force.”[52] Without ever having received the recognition his work warranted, and which his early reviewers suggested was immanent, Tomin committed suicide in 1995 at the age of 32. His body was discovered at the foot of a cliff in the Šárka valley.[53] His third novel, Kye, was published posthumously in 1997. Reviewing it, Anthony Tognazzini wrote of Tomin as “a fine formalist whose narrative experiments are bold and intriguing.”[54]

During its almost twenty years of operation, Twisted Spoon has produced books in translation by Bohumil Hrabal (Total Fears, written between 1989 and 1991 as a series of letters to an American student in Prague, April Gifford), Ladislav Klíma (Glorious Nemesis, translated by Marek Tomin), Eva Švankmajerová (Baradla Cave, translated by Gwendolyn Albert), Pavel Brycz, (I, City, translated by Joshua Cohen and Markéta Hofmeisterová), Vít Kremlička (Selected Writings), Róbert Gál (Signs and Symptoms) and Tomaž Šalamun – alongside work by Louis Armand, Joshua Cohen, Søren S. Gauger, Travis Jeppesen, Christopher Lord and Phil Shoenfelt – garnering strong reviews in the Times Literary Supplement, the London Review of Books and the Los Angeles Times. Throughout, the emphasis of the press has been, in Sidenberg’s words, “on introducing both new works from contemporary writers and work from an earlier period that has been neglected in translation.”[55]

Soon after Twisted Spoon published its inaugural titles, Prague’s first English-language literary journal appeared in print, in June 1992 – founded by Doug Hajek and fellow Canadian Laura Busheikin, with former Los Angeles resident Tony Ozuna (who had arrived in Prague two years earlier), and designed by soon-to-be-prominent Czech artist Veronika Bromová. Deriving its name from a play upon the pan-Slavonic for “tongue” or “language,” Yazzyk was avowedly cross-cultural, publishing work both in translation and the original English. Seeking in part to emulate former underground magazine Revolver Revue[56] and Joachim Dvořák’s more recent Labyrint Revue (a journal devoted to articles on culture, writing and the arts largely in translation), it included such writers as Jáchym Topol, Michal Ajvaz, Egon Bondy, Iva Pekárková, Eva Hauserová, Ivan Jirous, and Jana Krejcarová, alongside David Freeling, Randall Lyman, Věra Chase, Toby Litt and Daniela Dražanová. A consistent feature of Yazzyk’s cover was the incorporation of the tri-part design of the new Czech flag. The first two issues (with a print run of 2,000 copies) sold out within twelve months of publication – number 2, on “Erotica, Sexuality and Gender,” has since become a rare collector’s item. There was rumour of a number 5, to be edited by Cyril Simsa – an active translator, critic, essayist and science fiction writer. Fantasy and the Fantastic was to be the theme, but the journal folded before it could appear.

Although running to only four issues, Yazzyk was a major accomplishment and paved the way for many of the journals that were to follow. In his article on the Prague scene in Wired, Bruce Sterling wrote: “it may not be the best literary magazine on the planet, but it’s the best one to deal with this corner of it.”[57] Ozuna describes how the first issues came about:

Our contacts for writers and translators were all from the mailing lists of the Czech underground, who were operating out of an office for VOKNO magazine across the street from Hlavni Nadraži. We were able to easily solicit texts from many translators: James Naughton (Oxford University), the translator for Bohumil Hrabal, Miroslav Holub, and Alexandra Berková; Peter Kusy (Columbia University), the translator for Milan Kundera; and Paul Wilson, Václav Havel’s translator. Lawrence Ferlinghetti and Allen Ginsberg urged us to use poetry translations of Ginsberg’s Czech counterpart, Egon Bondy (whom we did publish in two issues). The Bondy was only published due to the collaboration of Martin Machovec, who is the current (as he was at that time as well) expert on literature of the underground.[58]

Also in June of 1992, Aleš Najbrt and photographer Tono Stano started up the bilingual RAUT magazine, funded by Reflex, produced on large format (70cm x 100cm) glossy paper, featuring photography, interviews and new writing – including Toby Litt and Tomáš Míka’s translations of Jaroslav Pižl in issue 2.

Three months later saw the beginnings of the Beef Stew poetry readings. The first reading took place on the 13th of September at Rubín Theatre, in Malá Strana and continued, two weeks later, at the fugitive Ubiquity Club’s “Reggae Room.” Two weeks later still the readings moved to the Prague Cultural Centre in Prague 5, where they continued until the end of the year. Readings also took place at a tea room in Žensky Domov, near Anděl metro station. From February 1993, Beef Stew moved to its permanent venue in the downstairs bar at Radost/FX, on Bělohradská street. Initiated by New York poet David Freeling, Beef Stew ran every Sunday evening for ten years, during which time the readings were coordinated by a string of writers including Anthony Tognazzini, Jim Freeman and Willie Watson.

A favourite venue for British and American journalists reporting on the New Bohemia, Beef Stew became the epitome of Levy’s rive gauche hype.[59] Freeling: “Everyone wants to find a great writer. We’re all waiting for something to escape the pot.”[60] Beef Stew was variously loved and loathed by members of the international community and the media alike. Many sought to find in Beef Stew symptoms of a cultural disconnect. Gwen Orel, in Performing Cultures: English-language Theatres in Post-Communist Prague, described the open-mic readings as “a cultural ghetto where [American] expatriates performed their ambivalence.”[61] For many involved in the Prague scene, Beef Stew was nevertheless – particularly in its early years – at the heart of a substantial English-speaking subculture.[62] While the epicentre of that subculture shifted many times as the decade progressed and literary circles eccentrically formed and reformed across the city, a list of those who performed in the Radost basement reads like a Who’s Who of the Prague ‘90s. Among them, Lukáš Tomin, Julie Chibbaro, Myla Goldberg, Peter Orner, Stuart Horwitz, Alan Ward Thomas, Anthony Tognazzini, Louis Armand, Donna Stonecipher, Ken Nash, and Jeri Theriault – writers who went on to build important careers both in Prague and abroad.

Perhaps due to limited book publishing opportunities in Prague at that time, many worthwhile manuscripts never saw the light of day – a signal for detractors to declare, like Gary Shteyngart (author of The Russian Debutante’s Handbook and one-time reader at Beef Stew) that the scene lacked talent.[63] Myla Goldberg, author of Bee Season (Random House, 2000) and Time’s Magpie: A Walk in Prague (Crown, 2004), was a regular reader at Beef Stew between 1993 and 1994, where she presented chapters of an unpublished novel Cirkus, an intricately structured story about the last days of the Kludský family circus (1902-1934), which circulated in typescript and became one of several underground Prague classics without ever making it into print. Julie Chibbaro, author of Redemption (Simon & Schuster, 2004), was another regular, arriving in 1996. She described the Beef Stew readings as “life-changing”:

to have a weekly audience response helped me to understand what worked and what didn’t in my pieces (at least to an extent). It was hosted by an excellent writer named Anthony Tognazzini and held at Radost. Around that same time, about five of us got together and started a writers’ workshop, helping each other learn and improve. One of the writers recommended I submit my work to a little mag called Optimism Monthly, edited by Alan Ward Thomas. He ended up publishing a number of my stories and novel excerpts (about ten) in the next several years. An editor, David Speranza, at another journal, The Prague Revue, also asked for a story, “Chrome,” which was published in the Autumn/Winter 1996/97 edition of the Revue.… My time in Prague transformed me from a person who thought she was a writer into a professional.[64]

Along with David Freeling, Anthony Tognazzini was a central figure in the Prague expatriate scene. Over a period of six years, Tognazzini published in almost every English-language periodical in the city, writing regularly for Prognosis and the Prague Post. According to long-time patron and sometimes publisher, Jim Freeman, Tognazzini was one of the major voices to emerge from the early 90s and is perhaps the most closely associated with Beef Stew. His collection of short stories, I Carry a Hammer in my Pocket for Occasions Such as These – published in 2007, by BOA in New York – originated as a chapbook produced by Alan Thomas’s Presidential Press, ten years earlier. Peter Orner – a lecturer in Anglo-American law and Human Rights at the Law Faculty of Charles University – began publishing in the Atlantic Monthly while living in Prague. The Second Coming of Mavala Shikongo (Little, Brown, 2006) was described by Dave Eggers in the Guardian as a “georgeously written book… bursting with soul.” Orner’s first book, a collection of short stories entitled Esther Stories (Houghton Mifflin, 2001), was ostensibly written chapter-by-chapter for the weekly Beef Stew readings. As Orner recalls:

I was working on my first book, Esther Stories. Each Sunday night I read with a group of writers at the Beef Stew reading series in the basement of Radost. Beef Stew was led by Jim Freeman. I loved Beef Stew because it was such a supportive environment and also because it gave me a deadline. Each week, I had to finish something. It didn’t matter what the hell it was, it simply had to be something. It was odd down there in the dark. Some nights the light wouldn’t work and I remember being barely able to see what I was reading.[65]

Writing in the Lonely Planet guide to Prague (2008), former Globe bookstore partner, Mark Baker, notes that “with 20 years’ hindsight… it’s possible to say the critics were too quick to pounce.” The Prague scene, he adds, “spawned more than its fair share of decent writers,” among others:

  • Jonathan Ledgard, a long-time Prague correspondent for The Economist… the author of the acclaimed novel Giraffe (2006), based on the story of the slaughter of central Europe’s largest giraffe herd by the Czechoslovak secret police in 1975.
  • Maarten Troost… a reporter in the early days of The Prague Post and the subsequent author of two hilarious titles: The Sex Lives of Cannibals (2004) and Getting Stoned with the Savages (2006) – books that could have been written about Prague but are actually about his later adventures in the South Pacific.
  • Olen Steinhauer [who] spent time here in the mid-’90s before decamping to Budapest to write five acclaimed Cold War spy thrillers. The fourth book, Liberation Movements (2006), opens in the Czech Republic and shades of Prague can be seen throughout the series.
  • Robert Eversz [who] has lived off and on in Prague since 1992… his 1998 novel Gypsy Hearts is set here. He’s written several popular noir thrillers, including Shooting Elvis (1997), which explore America’s obsession with celebrity culture.[66]

 

The story doesn’t end there. Defying the notion that Prague’s international scene was principally a North American enclave, Toby Litt – author of ten books, including Corpsing (Hamish Hamilton, 2000), Ghost Story (Penguin, 2004) and Journey into Space (Penguin, 2009) – completed three novels between 1990 and 1993, while teaching English at the Economics Faculty of Charles University. As Litt notes, however:

All three Prague novels are still unpublished, as is the Prague-based novel, dissidents, I wrote back in England. Eventually, The Prague Metro helped me get an agent, Mic Cheetham, who still represents me.[67]

Tom McCarthy – author of the widely acclaimed Remainder (Alma/Vintage, 2006) – had a similar experience. Living in Prague until 1993, where he worked at the Fine Arts Academy (AVU) as a life model, McCarthy only succeeded in publishing his own Prague-based novel – a roman-à-clef in part about the city’s contemporary art scene, entitled Men in Space – in 2007. Reviewing Men in Space for The Observer newspaper, Lee Rourke wrote: “McCarthy is fast revealing himself as a master craftsman who is steering the contemporary novel towards exciting territories.”[68] Louis Armand, a visual artist and critical theorist at Charles University, read at Beef Stew intermittently from mid-1994. In 1997 his first poetry collection, Séances, was published by Sidenberg’s Twisted Spoon Press, being described by Miroslav Holub as “luminous and original” and by John Millett as “among the best work written anywhere.”[69] A second volume appeared from Arc four years later. His first novel came out in 2001 from Salt, inaugurating their Modern Fiction series. Meanwhile Phil Shoenfelt, formerly of the New York band Khmer Rouge, published a bilingual volume of song lyrics and poetry – The Green Hotel/Zelený Hotel – with the Prague-based publisher Maťa in 1998. His first novel appeared in 2001, with Twisted Spoon, entitled Junkie Love – described by Nick Cave as “a nice nasty read.”[70] Having received numerous independent book awards, Junkie Love was taken up in 2006 by a Random House subsidiary. Another long-time Prague habitué, Christopher Cook, later published a novel, Robbers (Carroll & Graf, 2000), and a collection of short stories, Screen Door Jesus (Host, 2001), to critical acclaim. Like Goldberg’s Bee Season and McCarthy’s Remainder, Cook’s Screen Door Jesus was also made into a film.

By the time the Beef Stew readings came to an end in 2002, more than twenty of those writers active in Prague during the first decade after the revolution had embarked on noteworthy publishing careers. Such accounts give the lie to opinions, like Shteyngart’s, periodically aired in the media to the effect that Prague in the nineties was little more than a haven of “bored liberal arts trained cubicle drones… recession refugees and debt artists fed on the myth of ‘20s Paris and 50s New York.”[71] Writing in the August 2007 issue of the Washington D.C. periodical, The Smithsonian, Jonathan Kandell – casting an appraising look back over almost two decades of literary revival – rightly concluded that expatriate writers had indeed “made remarkable contributions to Prague’s post-Communist renaissance.”[72]

As this renaissance gathered steam in the mid-nineties, an increasing number of initiatives broadened the scope and complexion of the international scene. The English-language press continued to expand (at least 25 periodicals appeared during the ‘90s alone – from underground zines like Riding Black to financial reviews like the Prague Business Journal), while at the same time opportunities in theatre and film began to open up. The years 1991 and 1992 saw the creation of at least three English-language theatre companies, each at least partly orientated towards producing new work: Peter Krough’s North American Theatre (which opened its first, and only, season with Larry Shue’s Wenceslaus Square); Victoria Jones and Clare Goddard’s Small & Dangerous (managed by Camille Hunt – who a decade later would be a partner in the successful Hunt & Kastner Gallery); and Black Box International Theatre (initially Studio Theatre, headed by Elizabeth Russell) – opening with the premier of Jim Bunch’s “Lay Down by Me” under the artistic direction of Nancy Bishop.[73] As Gwen Orel notes:

The presence of English-language theatres in Prague in the nineties coincided with the ongoing transition to a market economy in the Czech Republic, as the English language itself became increasingly the international language of business and culture.[74]

While Small & Dangerous lasted only a year under that name (during which time it produced a long list of short plays by local writers: Sean Fuller’s Death in Smichov, Tim Stanley’s Belongings, Robert Russell’s Icebreaker, Victoria Jones’s Sailor, Vijai Maheshwari’s Boy, Girl and Probability, Robert Eversz’s Cowboys and Indians, Mark Rayner’s Duet for Killers, Clare Goddard’s hanging, Bryn Howarth’s Who Will Untie Us? and William Lee’s Refugees), it nevertheless survived through the mid-nineties as Big Knees – a partner of the Misery Loves Company ensemble – continuing to stage new work by two of Prague’s most successful English-language playwrights, Fuller and Laura Zam.[75]

In the wake of these early theatre ensembles followed a long line of others: Exposure, Beautiful Confusion, Prahaha Productions, Channel Surfing, Prague Ensemble Theatre, English Workshop Productions, Bear Theatre, Prague Playgroup, the Old Town Theatre Project, Black Snow, the Prague Playhouse, and Blood, Love and Rhetoric. In 1996, Four Days – a non-profit theatre association headed by Denisa Václavová – initiated the ongoing International Theatre Festival 4+4 Days in Motion (4+4 dny v pohybu), featuring dance and movement theatre. From 1998, the seminal Misery Loves Company, founded by Richard Toth, evolved from a text-based ensemble into similarly more physical, post-dramatic theatre, under the name Miloco (led by Daniel Fleischer-Brown), establishing the Fulcrum Festival of Physical Theatre in 2000 and devising original work throughout the often dry years of Prague’s turn-of-the-millennium theatre scene. But in the early nineties, emerging companies like Small & Dangerous and Misery Loves Company remained closely integrated with the broader literary community. Plays were regularly commissioned from writers who read their scripts at Beef Stew and whose work began to be published in magazines both abroad and in Prague. At the same time, opportunities in film became increasingly frequent with the foundation in 1993 of the highly successful Stillking production company. Some of those involved in these early experiments – like Nancy Bishop and the poet Maya Květný – subsequently went on to important careers (both Bishop and Květný are now major casting agents in Prague’s studio film industry).

1993 also saw the establishment of several new English-language publishing houses, whose activities – while mostly short-lived – fed a general wave of optimism about the future viability of a commercial literary market. These included: Praha Publishing (one-time publisher of Prognosis, now the name of a producer of medical text books); Two Tongues Press – conceived, yet never realised, by a Canadian, Marilyn McCune (its first title was intended to be short story collection by James Ragan); and Modrá Músa – formed by another Canadian, Laura Scanga, and two Americans, Michael Vena and Scott Rogers (a classics student from the University of Virginia).

In July of the same year, Rogers – along with three Prague Post writers, Jasper Bear, Mark Baker and Maura Griffin, with Rogers’s future wife Marketa Janku – opened what was to become Prague’s major literary landmark of the ‘90s: the Globe Bookstore and Coffeehouse. Established on the former site of a small laundry service in Holešovice, at Janovského 14, the Globe catered to a mixed clientele of translators, bibliophiles, anglophiles, students and the local literati. With its distinctive motto – in libris veritas; in kava vita – it quickly became a magnet for visiting writers as well as a base of operations for many in the now established international community. Along with Café Kandinsky, at Kamenická 9, and basement bar/clubs like Pokrok and Fraktal, the new bookstore contributed to the growing perception of the Letná-Holešovice district as Prague’s “Greenwich Village.”

During its first year, the Globe hosted readings by Allen Ginsberg,[76] Martin Amis, Ivan Klíma, Arnošt Lustig, Ludvík Vaculík and Jáchym Topol.[77] Those who worked at the Globe over the years, until its relocation across the river in 2000, included Dan Kenney and Edmund Watts (who would both publish newletters from there), the poet Tim Rogers, artist Kip Bauersfeld, and the singer Tonya Graves. Writing in the Prague Post fifteen years later, Frank Kuznik observed:

In the heady days of the ‘90s, when Americans arrived almost daily in Prague with backpacks and visions of joining a new Left Bank brimming with artists and writers, literary readings were a staple and center of the expat community. Many were held at the Globe, which in its heyday as the only English-language bookstore in town attracted visiting authors such as Richard Ford and Amy Tan, and a steady stream of amateur poets.[78]

Soon after the Globe opened its doors, its resident press – Modrá Músa – produced the first anthology of contemporary English-language writing from Prague, entitled Bohemian Versus, edited by Scott Rogers. A deluxe hardbound edition, using handmade paper from the sixteenth century Velké Losiny mills, the anthology included work by Jeffrey Young, James Ragan, David Freeling, Daniela Dražanová and Kevin Blahut. In his introduction, Rogers – with Anita Lynn Forgach of the Prague Fine Arts Academy – wrote that: “it is a fact that in Bohemia under communism it was a custom for ‘books to perish like birds.’… The book you now hold, which respects and makes use of the fine Czech tradition of bookmaking, stands in sharp contrast to the books of those Czech writers of the not-so-distant past who persevered with only handwritten, typewritten, or mimeographed texts (samizdat).” Rogers and Forgach go on to add:

Since the Velvet Revolution of 1989, the arts in the Czech Republic have flourished in a renewed atmosphere of freedom of expression. Prague has once again regained its former magnetic appeal as an international focal point for young artists, musicians, and writers, all of whom have come to this city to participate in the new Czech renaissance. Though the writers represented in Bohemian Verses differ in age, gender, motherland, and purpose, all for various lengths of time have called Prague home.[79]

As the years pass, this question of calling Prague “home” has become more complicated and vexed. With the 1990s receding from view and the communities it engendered disappearing or being merged within less easily identifiable social networks and structures, so too has the very conception of a contemporary Prague “scene” become more difficult to reconcile with its fin-de-millénaire antecedents. It is understandable in this light why no further anthologies appear after Bohemian Verses for the next seventeen years – a perhaps unforeseeable timeframe within the uncertainties and flux of the new Republic. The experience of Prague as a habitation of foreigners “at home” has had to be experienced and thought-through differently from the post-Revolutionary romanticism that often confused the lived city with its mythological doppelgangers in Paris and elsewhere: imagined communities ranged in opposition, mutually evoked, invented and reinvented.[80]

With the concept of history still ideologically overburdened by the legacies of Marxism, on the one hand, and confronted by a rampant (amnesiac) consumerism, on the other, many writers turned to an anthropological view of their situation, recognising that history, as Miroslav Holub once said, “is always a failure by definition…”[81] Navigating the contingencies of daily post-revolution experience became for some the foundation of a poetic – evoking Nathanial Tarn’s idea of poet-as-anthropologist. For others, contingency pointed the way to alternative realities, to psychogeographical overlays and counter-rational mappings of urban territories – rending the city as a type of amalgam of mythology and poetic construct.

Whatever anthropological dimension there might have been to the early literary renaissance, it nevertheless remained a creature of circumstance in which a whole “generation” found itself, irrespective of ethnicity, in radically foreign times. “It is on this basis,” as Gwendolyn Albert observed already ten years ago, “that people from all over the world have met and attempted to communicate with one another in post-1989 Prague.”[82] And yet it remains true that whenever writers have committed to make this city a “home,” as Rogers says, they, in turn, become creators of new “histories” and custodians of a Prague that was becoming as foreign to the Czechoslovak population as their own would have been to that of Max Brod, Egon Erwin Kisch, Hermann Ungar, Franz Werfel, Gustav Meyrink, Rainer Maria Rilke and Paul Leppin.

At the same time as the Globe was opening, bars and nightclubs across the city were catering to the semi-exotic “new Bohemian scene” and a barrage of rapidly shifting cultural paradigms. Edmund White, writing for Vogue, observed:

The Czechs can’t seem to explore fast enough all they missed out on during 40 years of communism. They’re digging down into their pre-war modernist heritage. They’re keeping their bars open 44 hours a day, they’re translating books from every language, and they’re travelling as much as the disadvantageous exchange rate permits. The frantic desire to catch up accounts for much of the exuberance of this thrilling youthful city.[83]

Echoing a sixties euphoria, post-revolution Prague was a mix of low rent communalism, drugs and open possibility. Dozens of squats existed in the city’s suburbs and downtown, adjacent to such well-known landmarks as Charles Bridge (including Asylum, a semi-legal performance space on Betlemská street established by the poet Jay Godwin and home to the Electric Circus). Many of the buildings that housed them had been left in legal limbo following the ‘89 revolution and the ensuing restitution laws which sought to return formerly nationalised properties to their pre-1948 owners. Among these was the Art Deco Café Slavia, located opposite the National Theatre, a centre-piece of Prague’s pre-communist literary culture. Slavia closed for lengthy periods throughout the early ‘90s under administration by the Academy of Performing Arts (AMU). On 8 November 1993, the “Society of the Friends of Café Slavia” (John Bruce Shoemaker, Marek Gregor, Ladislav Provan) gained access to the building and reopened the café for two weeks – attempting to restore the café’s former ethos – until the authorities had it closed down again on the 20th.[84]

As the nineties progressed, an increasing number of subculture bars and clubs opened in neglected buildings across Prague. Many of these became well-known, like Klub Stalin (located beneath the demolished Stalin Monument in Letná), Bunkr (in a former Civil Guard bunker and nuclear shelter, along with Radio 1, at Lodecká 2 in Nové Město), Jo’s Bar & Garáž (opened in 1992 by Canadian Glen Emery – a former resident of the ČSSR in the ‘70s and ‘80s – on Malostranské náměstí), Repre (briefly located downstairs in the pre-restoration Obecní Dům – co-owned by John Bruce Shoemaker, frequent sponsor of Twisted Spoon Press, Trafika, Optimism and Think), Tam Tam (located on the second floor in Slovanský Dům, now a boutique mall at Na Příkopě 22 – operated by Christoph Brandl), and Klub X (first in Palác Metro on Národní, then in the basement of Dětský Dům, across the street from Tam Tam at Na Příkopě 15). The Thirsty Dog/Formanka (not to be confused with the present Žíznivý Pes), a bar which opened on the river-side of Obecní Dům for only 18 months during 1993 and 1994, achieved particular notoriety before being shutdown on the 7th of June by city health inspectors. Allen Ginsberg read there, Joe Strummer (of The Clash) performed there, and Nick Cave wrote a song about it for his album Let Love In.[85] These venues catered to a broad demographic, often mirrored in the crowded private salon-style gatherings presided over by patrons and poets such as Bruce Damer and Věra Chase.

For the following three years, the Prague scene ran on overdrive. In 1993 alone, three new literary journals appeared.[86] Grasp, a student magazine edited by Revan Schendler and Robert Haas, produced out of the Philosophy Faculty of Charles University, had to wait sixteen years for its second issue to see the light of day in 2009 (when it was revived by its current editors Andreas Patenidis and Iliya Bolotyansky). The other two journals fared significantly better. One Eye Open / Jedním Okem, a journal of women’s issues in Central and Eastern Europe, was founded by a twenty-five year old American, Deborah Dubois who – along with Laura Busheiken of Yazzyk – joined prominent Czech feminist Jiřina Šiklová in establishing the Gender Studies Centre in Prague.[87]

One Eye Open was targeted to an audience across the former Soviet bloc, with a view to addressing the shared situation of women in the post-communist region, where public awareness of problems routinely addressed by feminists in the West remained minimal. While One Eye Open was, up until its last issue, primarily a literary journal, it was nevertheless consistently addressed at creating gender dialogue. Speaking about the significance of the journal’s title, Dubois explained in an interview that “people’s eyes aren’t open here… Getting one eye open is a start.”[88] One Eye Open would eventually run to six issues, the last appearing in Spring 1998. Its editors included Věra Chase, Eva Věšínová, Clare Wallace, Marci Shore and Jacqui True. Among the journal’s contributors were Eva Hauserová, Maya Květný, Magdalena Lubiejewska, Randall Lyman, Jakub Zahradník, Pavla Jonssonová, Sylva Fischerová, Louis Armand, Rebecca Floyd and Kirsten Lodge. The ambitions of One Eye Open were also shared by a number of women’s writing groups that grew up in the city, lead by poets like Laura Conway and Lenka Králová (whose “Art of Disappearing” group held regular readings at Žižkov’s Klub A and published a bilingual anthology under the group’s name in 1999).

Undoubtedly the most widely respected journal to appear in the 1990s was Trafika, named after the traditional Czech tobacconist/newspaper shop, founded by three Americans – Michael Lee, Alfredo Sánchez, Jeffrey Young (with Scott Rogers serving as Managing Editor). Published by Modrá Músa and the World Literature Society, Trafika began life as a quarterly, slipping into an irregular rhythm with number 5 (from which point it is registered as being published by “Trafika Inc.” in New York), then appearing again only twice in the succeeding four years – its last issue under the sole editorship of Young, in Autumn 1999. Rogers once made the prediction: “In five years’ time, Trafika will be established as one of the premier magazines of the world, enhancing Prague’s reputation… There is a great Czech literary tradition to which we are contributing.”[89] On its debut, the journal was described by one reviewer as “slickly vacuous,” with only a nominal connection to the city’s literary community, despite its widely advertised Prague connection.[90]

Paradoxically, the success of Trafika largely stemmed from its strictly internationalist orientation and its emulation of iconic journals like Granta and the Paris Review. “We believe,” Rogers said of the journal, “that literature is international in scope.”[91] In six years of operation, it published a number of important Prague writers, including Lukáš Tomin, Michal Ajvaz, Jáchym Topol, Sylva Fischerová, Ludvík Vaculík and Petr Borkovec (his first appearance in English, in Trafika 3), alongside such recognisable names as Gilbert Sorrentino, Joyce Carol Oates and John Barth. A few Prague writers also found temporary editorial work at Trafika, most notably the poet Donna Stonecipher, whose book The Reservoir was published in 2002 by Georgia University Press.

Still in 1993, Divus – the art publishing house founded by Ivan Mečl, released its first English-language title, the Australian Miles Lewis’s Batman’s Hill. At the same time, the first chapbooks began to appear from among the writers associated with Beef Stew, including Anthony Tognazzini’s Introductions from the Execution Stand, Ken Nash’s Palaver & Other forms of Intercourse, and Darren Waters’s Notes on the Second Coming. In the following year Jim Freeman’s micro-press published Stuart Horwitz’s 123 Thoughts on Writing and Aesthetics and Jay Godwin’s Priceless Poems from Worthless Words (Freeman would go on to publish three more of Godwin’s books over the next two years). Other chapbook titles appearing contemporaneously included Maya Květný’s Nestled Indecorous, Anthony Tognazzini’s Everybody’s Book and Karin Cintron’s Waiting out the Night.

May 1994 saw the inauguration of the revitalised Prague book fair, Svět Knihy, with regular panel discussions with local and international authors co-ordinated by translator and director of “Literature Across Frontiers,” Alexandra Büchler. In November, Jiří Stránský hosted the 61st World Congress of PEN International, whose theme for that year was “Literature and Tolerance.” Writers attending included Václav Havel, Arthur Miller, Harold Pinter, Tom Stoppard, Ivan Klíma, Arnošt Lustig, Sylvie Richterová and Salman Rushdie (but not Lawrence Ferlinghetti, who declined).

Meanwhile two other English-language periodicals appeared. The first, Transitions, a news publication, ran for five years (1994-1999) before moving online. The second was the short-lived X-Ink (running to five issues), describing itself as “Prague’s monthly cultural arts forum,” edited by Matthew Salt. Adopting the same large format as Yazzyk, the new bi-lingual magazine included writing on art, theatre, film, design, music, architecture, as well as poetry and fiction. Its staff included playwright Sean Fuller and Twisted Spoon copy editor Amy Nestor. During the same year Bruce Damer – with Jitka Kafková and Geraldine Mucha – opened D-Salon, hosted by the artist Kateřina Štenclová, with a view to generating patronage for contemporary art and new writing in Prague.[92] The salons took place at the Novotného Lávka club, near Charles Bridge, and featured exhibitions and performances, including film actor James Mitchell Lear’s “Hemmingway Reminisces.” Meanwhile, international media attention turned to a one-off experiment organized by Ken Nash and Karin Citron at the English School of Prague, involving twenty fiction writers (Myla Goldberg, Ken Nash, Karin Cintron, Julie Ashley, Thomas Alan Ward, Jeff Herzbach, Karel Skarstein, Jason Penazzi-Russell, Lawrence Wells, and others), on the 9th of April – the 24-hour “Novel-a-thon.”[93]

1995 – the year Radio Free Europe moved its headquarters from Munich to Prague’s former Federal Parliament building – was greeted with the arrival and rapid departure of Velvet magazine, Prague’s first “city magazine,” precursor to Pozor: News from Around the Bloc (edited by Kevin Bisch and Elizabeth Cornell) which lasted all of 1996, and Think (edited by Jeffree Benét and published bilingually), which continued until 2002 and established itself as something of a bête noir of the Prague expatriate community – anticipating the fortunes of the Prague Pill in 2002-2003. The remainder of the nineties witnessed a succession of publications with widely different reputations aimed increasingly towards politics and business, including The New Presence (from 1996), Threshold Praha (1997), The Prague Tribune (1997-2007), Freezerbox Magazine (edited by Alexander Zaitchik and Cedric Howe from 1998 to 2008), Central European Review, (1999-2002), and Transitions Online (the continuation of the earlier print magazine, commencing from 1999). In 1997, the art magazine Umělec was founded (published by Divus) – appearing in a separate English-language edition from 2000 onwards, under the editorship first of fiction writer Jeff Buehler and then of playwright William Hollister.

While Jejune: America Eats its Young was initially published in Oakland, California – appearing biannually from 1993 – editor Gwendolyn Albert’s return to Prague in 1995 helped to further diversify the city’s publishing scene. In the intervening years since her participation in the events of November 1989, Albert – along with partner Vincent Farnsworth – had begun to establish herself as an important new writer in the San Francisco Bay Area, having produced a volume of poems written earlier in Prague, entitled Dogs, with Ed Mycue’s Norton Coker Press in 1991. Farnsworth, the journal’s managing editor, divided his time with being a sound-installation artist (founding the Pazvuky Noise project with bassist Dan Kenney) and, beginning in the late ‘90s under the stage name Reverend Feedback, front man for the now legendary Blaq Mummy. Throughout the latter half of the ;90s he organised readings at the Globe and elsewhere. In 2001 he published his second collection of poetry, Immortal Whistle Blower, with Bill Lavender’s lavender ink press in New Orleans.

Unlike earlier English-language literary journals in Prague, Jejune was avowedly grungy in its aesthetic and outwardly anti-establishment in its political orientation. Tim Rogers, reviewing Jejune 8 for the Prague Post, compared it to the mimeographed zines produced out of New York’s Lower East Side in the ‘70s – Ted Berrigan’s C, Ed Sanders’s Fuck You, and Anne Waldman and Lewis Warsh’s Angel Hair.[94] As often focused on issues of civil rights as it was on new writing, Jejune published articles and interviews dealing with the rise in neo-fascism and the plight of the Czech Republic’s Roma community. Number 8 carried an interview with poet Paul Polansky and Nazi-hunter Lubomír Zubák, about the cover-up over Lety concentration camp, along with an interview with Petr Uhl, former dissident and (at that time) Czech Commissioner for Human Rights. Jejune continued for six years, running to nine issues in total (each wearing a cover designed by artist Mark Neville), containing work by a range of local and American writers, including Bill Berkson, Tom Clark, Theodore Schwinke, Jeremy Hurewitz, Paul Polansky, Sapphire, Spencer Selby, Alexander Zaitchik, Jenny Smith, Robert Bly, Jules Mann, Robert Bové, John McKeown, Eileen Myles, Lydia Lunch and Ed Mycue.

Contemporaneous with Jejune, but appearing regularly every month over five years, was a magazine that was probably the most fully identified with Beef Stew and the Prague expatriate community – Optimism Monthly. In an interview in February 1996, long-time editor Alan Ward Thomas commented on the idea behind the magazine:

The purpose of Optimism Monthly was to help overcome the tremendous cynicism that arose after the initial buzz about the Paris of the ‘90s wore off… We try to stay loyal to regular contributors and always have new writers in each issue. We’ve already published over a hundred writers, quite a few of them for the first time… For example Jenny Smith’s “Egon” or Theo Schwinke’s poems about God and animals; Julie Chibarros’ voice is delightful and unlike anything I’ve ever read; Anthony Tognazzini has written cubist fairytales… there are headways being made into new ground.[95]

Published by Tim Otis, with production support from Tim and Mimi Rogers, and edited for much of its run by Alan Thomas (the last twelve numbers being edited by Laura Conway), Optimism contained artwork and writing by a long and impressive list of local and visiting writers, including Maya Květný, Anthony Tognazzini, David Vávra, Dan Kenney, Jim Freeman, Laura Conway, Paul Martia, Donna Stoneceipher, David Freeling, Neil Danziger, Julie Ashley, Alan Baird, Jeremy Saxon, Stevieanna DeSaille, Ken Nash, Ira Cohen, Joie Cook, Tim Rogers, Jenny Smith, Stuart Horwitz, Theodore Schwinke, Karl Skarstein, Věra Chase, Peter Svobodny, Isobelle Carmody, Christopher Lord, John McKeown, Alice Whittenburg, Kirsten Lodge, Julie Chibbaro, Patrick Seguin (editor of the fugitive zine RASH), Phil Shoenfelt, Róbert Gál, photographer Lucia Nimcová, Anne Waldman, Věra Chase, Vít Kremlička, Kateřina Piňosová, Šimon Šafránek, Julia Vinograd and Jeri Theriault.

1995 also saw the beginning of another international review in the mould of Trafika, begun by a group of editors linked to Jáma Restaurant and Klub X – Jason Penazzi-Russell, David Conhaim, Max Munson, Will Pritts and Todd Morimoto. Changing its name for the second issue – from Jáma Revue to The Prague Revue – the new journal set out with ambitions, like Trafika’s, to be a quarterly before settling into an annual rhythm with its last three issues. Unique among Prague’s literary journals for its devotion to publishing original full-length plays (including Joe Sutton’s “An Eternity,” William Borden’s “Hangman,” Richard Toth and William Hollister’s “Dumb,” and Přemysl Rut’s “No Tragedy: A Little Czech Macbeth”), The Prague Revue also holds the honour of having printed the only English translations of Bohumil Hrabal’s poetry (issue 5, 1998). Among those to serve on the Revue’s editorial board were Jan Flemr, Michael March (director of the Prague Writers Festival), Howard Sidenberg (of Twisted Spoon), David Speranza, Louis Armand and Clare Wallace (formerly of One Eye Open).

Rebekah Bloyd – co-translator of Miroslav Holub’s The Rampage (1997) – described the Revue as “daring and original.”[96] Reviewing number 7 for the Prague Post, Tim Rogers observed that “the strength of the Revue lies in writing from times and places that have not received much attention in English.”[97] Its 1999 issue (number 6) – dedicated to the memory of Holub – included a feature on the Spanish “Generation of ‘98”; number 5 (Winter 1998) included a selection of Portuguese poets translated by Richard Zenith; while number 7 (2000) presented the work of eleven contemporary Slovenian writers, guest edited by Brian Henry and Andrew Zawacki. Among the Revue’s most notable contributors were Daniela Dražanová, Anthony Tognazzini, Ewald Murrer, Laura Zam, Arnošt Lustig, Igor Pomerantsev, Jakub Deml, Julie Chibbaro, Ivan Klíma, John Kinsella, Miroslav Holub, Karel Srp, Michael Brennan, Justin Quinn, Vít Kremlička, Susan M. Schultz and Aleš Šteger.

In December 1995, in an old Blues club on Národní street, called Klub X, The Prague Revue sponsored its first X-Poezie readings, which would continue at its new location on Na Příkopě, in the centre of Prague’s downtown, almost weekly until the club’s closure in 1997. X-Poezie was a mix of open-mic and featured readers – among them Ivan Klíma, Miroslav Holub, Peter Bakowski, Justin Quinn and Yevgeny Yevtushenko. The readings spawned a series of chapbooks, produced in collaboration with Twisted Spoon Press, including poetry by Louis Armand and Lukáš Tomin’s Kye Too – posthumously published in a limited edition in 1999. Under the imprint of the Prague Revue Cultural Foundation, the Revue – in 1996 – published Yevtushenko’s Neumírej před smrtí as a hardcover book in Czech translation and – in 1999 – David Conhaim’s novel Autumn Serenade. After a seven year hiatus, the Revue reappeared under the managing editorship of Stephan Delbos, in 2008, making a foray into the Prague Fringe Festival with a surrealist variety show created and directed by Delbos entitled “The Dearest, Freshest, Deep Down Thing.”[98] Contributors to the revived Revue included Lewis Crofts, Ken Nash, Louis Armand, Christopher Crawford, Douglas Shields Dix, Lucien Zell, Elizabeth Gross and Catherine Hales.

In 1996, the Revue’s Jason Penazzi-Russell initiated the first Prague Culture Festival, bringing together Prague’s music and English-language literary communities, with readings by Donna Stonecipher, Anthony Tognazzini, David Freeling and Louis Armand at the Malá Strana blues venue, U Malého Glena. The festival anticipated by two years the Poetry Day festival (Den poezie), founded by Bernie Higgins in 1998 and taking place, every year since, during the two weeks around the birthday of the Czech Romantic poet Karel Hynek Mácha (16 November). Participants during Den Poezie’s eleven year history include Věra Jirousová, Kateřina Rudčenková, Alexandra Berková, Louis Armand, Graeme Hetherington, Věra Chase, Vincent Farnsworth, Gwendolyn Albert, Laura Conway, Šimon Šafránek, Kateřina Piňosová, Phil Shoenfelt, Patrick Seguin and Róbert Gál.

Returning to 1996 we encounter two more English-language periodicals. One, a small-circulation zine published out of the Globe Bookstore by Dan Kenney and Eric Wargo – entitled [unpronounceable symbol] – containing a mix of reviews and interviews with local personalities; the other, a biannual with international ambitions, originally co-produced in Prague, London and Dublin – entitled Metre – edited by David Wheatley and Justin Quinn. Quinn, resident in the city since 1992, has become over time a respected translator of Czech poetry, in particular the work of Petr Borkovec and Ivan Blatný. His first volume of poetry, The O’o’a’a’ Bird, was published by Michael Schmidt’s Carcanet Press in 1995 and was nominated for the UK’s Forward Prize for best first collection.

While Metre made little direct connection with the Prague scene during the nine years that it operated an editorial address in the city, it nevertheless created a different, largely Anglo-Celtic, context for the reception of some Czech writing in translation. One issue – number 12 (Autumn 2002) – was devoted to “Reports from Central Europe,” and contained work by Cyprian Norwid, Marcin Sendecki, Ewa Lipska, Tadeusz Różewicz, Mila Haugová, Afanasy Fet, Ivan Blatný, Petr Borkovec and Anthony Caleshu. In their introduction, Justin Quinn and Fran Brearton evoke a contemporary neglect of writing from the former Iron Curtain countries, noting that the West lost its interest in poetry from the Soviet bloc with the eastward spread of capitalism:

Once a certain western sentimentality about suffering had been exposed, it seemed that critical debates about Central European writing had nowhere left to go. The attempt to market “the poetry of perestroika” marked the last gasp of an existing debate rather than the beginning of a new critical dispensation.[99]

And yet this situation is perhaps indicative also of a general loss of prestige of poetry in English-speaking countries during the 1990s – exemplified in the UK by the abolition by major presses like Oxford of their poetry lines – as well as by a revaluation of the “role” of poetry in Central Europe itself. As Ivan (“Magor”) Jirous has said, it was possible under the former regime for anyone to write poetry and go to prison for it, but this didn’t mean the poetry itself was of any worth, other than as a political provocation.[100]

What Brearton and Quinn argue for, in place of this widely typecast “poetic mode of political allegory,” is “a much more complex and interesting panorama of [the] various literary cultures, constrained in the past by… forms of politicisation, beginning to explore and rediscover other modes.” In short, they call for “a re-assessment that understands a genuinely international map of poetry through its working in national tradition as well as within a broader European poetic language.”[101] Given the context, it is hardly surprising that the selection of poets which follows is made primarily on grounds of ethnicity, with no effort to address either the essentially multicultural character of contemporary Central Europe, nor even the complex profiles of individual poets. The fact that Blatný, for example, had been in exile in Britain from 1948 until his death in 1990 (time spent largely in psychiatric institutions), and wrote in English as well as Czech, isn’t allowed to impinge upon what is ostensibly an ethnocentric argument – the type of ethno-“internationalism” so savagely caricatured by David Černý’s recent Entropa installation at the Council of Europe headquarters in Brussels (January 2009).

Robert Creeley’s visit to Prague in May 1998 provided an opportunity for a consideration of the dominant tendencies in English-language poetics in the city, between the legacy of Ginsberg and the Beats, on the one hand, and that of Black Mountain and its many outgrowths on the other. The previous year, Alan Ward Thomas, editor of Optimism, published his first book – Dandelion: Scattered Reflections on Allen Ginsberg – while in 1998 Vincent Farnsworth, in Exquisite Corpse, and Louis Armand in Sulfur both published responses to Creeley. Indeed, by the end of the nineties, a core of poets had emerged in Prague whose work stood out from this tradition and was gaining increased acknowledgement, including Gwendolyn Albert, Laura Conway, Farnsworth, Armand and Michael Brennan.

Conway’s first book, To Knock Something Hard in the Dark, had appeared from Bench Press in San Francisco in 1981. Concordia, in Prague, published her collaboration with Kateřina Piňosová – The Alphabet of Trees – in 2002. In 2005, her work was anthologised in the New American Underground, being described by the San Francisco Chronicle as “joining the ranks of Ginsberg, Ferlinghetti, Corso.”[102] Farnsworth’s first collection of poetry, Little Twirly Things, was published by Norton Coker in 1992. Evolving the concept of “deep poetics” – attempting to “fuse the contemporarily relevant and political with perennial truths”[103] – Farnsworth’s writing attracted the attention of Andrei Codrescu, who later referred to him as “the sage of Prague”[104] (Codrescu read with Farnsworth at the Globe in July 1999). In 1998 Farnsworth was a member of the Allen Ginsberg Memorial Committee chaired by Amiri Baraka and in 2000 starred, with Thor Garcia, in Tally Mulligan’s film High Low. Robert Creeley, shortly after his Prague visit, described Armand’s poetry as “generous and engaging.”[105] In 2000, Armand’s work was included by Michael Brennan and Peter Minter in their breakthrough anthology Calyx: 30 Contemporary Australian Poets, heralded by critic Marjorie Perloff as “poetry no one can afford to ignore.”[106] Brennan, whose Vagabond Press (briefly based in Prague in 1999) published work by Pierre Joris, Charles Simic and James Tate, served as the guest editor of issue 7 of the Prague Revue. His first collection, The Imageless World, was published by UK press Salt in 2003 and received the Dame Mary Gilmore Award.

In September 1998, Bil Brown, a graduate of Naropa University, founded the non-profit Pražská škola poetiky (Prague School of Poetics), with Jenny Smith and Jenne Magno. The school organised a series of festivals and bilingual workshops focused on writing, performance and improvisation, involving writers such as Anne Waldman, Jerome Rothenberg, Bernadette Mayer and Lydia Lunch. As Magno relates: “There was a feeling at that time that Prague was the vortex.”[107] Collaborating closely with the Schule für Dichtung in Wien, the Pražská škola also played host to some of the writers and performers loosely associated with the Vienna School, including Nick Cave and Blixa Bargeld.

According to its mission statement, the Pražská škola’s major objective was “the cultivation of a responsible poetics” linked to outreach and humanitarian programmes[108]:

Poetics is a hidden science that investigates and expands the parameters of creative expression, and is described by American poet Charles Bernstein as “the continuation of poetry by other means.” The Pražská škola poetiky, a new international school of poetics based in Prague, upholds this dictum by hosting an intensive annual programme of exchange, invention and performance, as well as year-round activities designed to ignite a dialogue within the international writing community and the Prague community at large.

The Pražská škola was described by Lawrence Ferlinghetti as “important for the development and recognition of Czech poetry,” while Anne Waldman – co-founder with Allen Ginsberg of the Jack Kerouac School of Disembodied Poetics, in Boulder, Colorado – called it “a unique visionary project, promoting literature and writing and the artistic imagination across cultural borders… creating new dialogues and possibilities in the next millennium.” As Ide Hintz, co-founder of the Schule für Dictung, wrote:

Central Europe has always been and always will be a genuine transmitter and translator between cultures and languages (traditional and utopian). Prague hosts and neighbours many languages (spoken and written). The Velvet Revolution – together with other post-Stalinist revolutions – was prepared mostly by poets, artists and intellectuals.[109]

The same year (1998), Bil Brown collaborated with James Welsh to form involute press, publishing Jenny Smith’s Egon for Eight Voices (previously serialised in Optimism). Brown, Smith and Magno also participated in the Allen Ginsberg commemorative readings in Vienna that year, along with members of the “Labyrinth” group (Peter Waugh and Karin Kaminker).

The end of 1998 saw the opening of another literary café, GplusG, this time in Prague’s inner eastern suburb of Vinohrady – a partnership between former Slovak dissident Fedor Gál and son, and writer, Róbert Gál. Four of Paul Polansky’s books appeared under the GplusG imprint between 1998 and 1999 – a volume of poetry, a novel, and two edited volumes drawing upon the poetry and oral histories of survivors of the Roma holocaust; other authors include Leslie Feinberg, Jorge Semprun and Jan Urban. A series of international readings at Café GplusG during 1999 (“Mezinárodní Literární Večírek”) was hosted by Theodore Schwinke, with a community of writers including Farnsworth, Polansky, Gwendolyn Albert, publisher Howard Sidenberg and Jenny Smith (whose play Tall Cotton, was performed at Jazz Club Železná in mid-September, with Greg and Andrew Linington).

Seven months earlier, in February 1999, a new bilingual quarterly appeared online, edited by Alice Whittenburg and Greg Evans. Called The Café Irreal, this new journal announced itself by way of a manifesto on “irreal” literature – defined by Evans as engaged with underlying impossibilities in the depiction of the physical world, which is rendered both unpredictable and fundamentally inexplicable. Unlike its predecessors, The Café Irreal was devoted to a clearly defined aesthetic philosophy, evolved from that of the Prague surrealist movement of the 1930s. In its eleven years of online publication, The Café Irreal has published translations of Ewald Murrer, Věra Chase, Jiří Kratochvil, Ladislav Novak, Michal Ajvaz, Josef Janda, Pavel Řezníček and Alexandra Berková, alongside work by Michael Stein and Lucien Zell.

Rounding out the year, Jeri Theriault published her first collection of poetry, East of Monhegan / Na východ of Monheganu, translated by Lída Sasková, while Bil Brown and Danika Dinsmore coordinated the Prague chapter of the month-long “3:15 Experiment” (August 1999).[110] But as the year came to an end, so did a major local institution. Unable to renegotiate its lease, The Globe Bookstore and Coffee House was forced to move from its original location across the river to its present address on Pštrossova. Retaining only two of its original owners – Scott Rogers and Marketa Janku – the Globe was reconceived as an internet café and service provider (Globopolis). The new dot.com, recipient of the largest venture-capital package in Czech history, lasted only a year before folding. Rogers moved on to be chief operating officer of the new In Your Pocket guidebook publishing group. The bookstore was sold to a German investor, Michael Homan, and in 2006, after years of financial struggle and dwindling clientele, was resold.

The second decade after the Velvet Revolution began with signals of impending doom. While millenarians across the world were locked down in their bunkers out of fear of nuclear Armageddon sparked by mass computer malfunction, cultural sceptics were announcing the failure, end, or non-existence of Prague’s “left bank of the nineties.” Alan Levy’s predictions about the next Hemmingway emerging from the city, so often bandied about as to have become a catch-cry for all things ridiculous, was said to have been precisely that. Moreover, as Francis Fukayama was busy insisting, history itself had come to an end, the internet had abolished the culture of the book, and culture too would henceforth exist only in a type of retrospective, virtual fashion in an new age of post-literacy. Few involved in the local scene were bothered by this new Munich accord aimed at whipping the Prague renaissance off the map. As poet Jenny Smith noted in an interview: “Time Magazine declared Prague dead. That’s good.”[111]

With the election of Tony Blair as British prime minister, and the electoral coup d’état of George W. Bush in the United States, the beginning of the twenty-first century appeared in temper far removed from the elation and optimism which greeted the fall of the Berlin Wall a decade earlier. A series of new wars, economic crises, the erosion of the social contract across Europe and the English-speaking world, climate politics and impending ecological disaster, combined to create a sense of regression and lost opportunity. At the same time, a new wave of social militancy appeared to spread across the developed world in response to the excesses of globalisation and the re-emergence in many countries of a quasi-police state. In September 2000, the International Monetary Fund/World Bank summit took place in Prague’s communist-era Palác Kultury, attracting some 12,000 international protestors. For weeks the city was subject to a heavy police presence reminiscent of the lead-up to November 1989. Two years later – on the 4th of March, 2002 – the US State Department released its annual report on human rights in the Czech Republic, heavily criticising police brutality during the IMF/World Bank protests. It was a pattern that would be repeated at the Prague NATO summit in November 2002. With the election by parliament of the economic rationalist Václav Klaus to the presidency on the 28th of February, 2003 (the deciding votes having been cast by delegates of the unreformed Communist Party), many people began to wonder about the progress of Czech political culture after the Velvet Revolution. As Gwendolyn Albert noted: “there was a promise of a kind of society in 1989, and there is a big gap in that promise.”[112]

Following the 11 September attacks on the World Trade Centre in New York, armoured vehicles appeared in the centre of Prague, alongside concrete barricades manned by heavily armed militia – largely around the American Embassy and Radio Free Europe headquarters (declared to be prime terrorist targets). A never-substantiated claim had it that one of the 9/11 hijackers, Mohammad Atta, met with Iraqi officials in Prague on the 8th of April, five months prior to the attacks.[113] Many of the barricades and police checkpoints remained in place throughout the decade. A number of Prague’s literary community took an active lead in the anti-war movement – including Gwendolyn Albert, philosopher Erazim Kohák, feminist Mirek Vondraška and journalist Arie Farnam, protesting against the US invasion of Iraq and the so-called doctrine of pre-emptive war.[114]

On the 6th of March, 2003, student Zdeněk Adamec poured gasoline over himself and set himself on fire in Wenceslas Square only a short distance from the spot where philosophy student Jan Palach had immolated himself in January 1969. In a note entitled “Action Torch,” posted on the internet just prior to his suicide and condemning the Iraq war, Adamec wrote:

We didn’t get any better even after the Velvet Revolution… The so-called democracy we gained is not a Democracy. It’s about the rule of officials, money and treading on people.[115]

While it is generally recognised that the turn of the millennium represented a difficult time for the international scene in Prague, news of its demise had been greatly exaggerated. Continuing its project of outreach and social advocacy, the Pražská škola poetiky evolved in late 1999 into two complementary programmes: Projekt 2000 and Prameni, both under the general directorship of Jenne Magno. Projekt 2000: “The Subversive in Voice and Verse,” was a workshop series and festival of experimental poetics and performance. Among the poets who presented workshops were Jerome Rothenberg, translator of Vitěslav Nezval and founder of ethnopoetics, and the increasingly present Anne Waldman. The Projekt 2000 festival took place at Galerie NoD, 10-28 November (2000) – dedicated to “stretching the boundaries of word, text, voice and vision.” Participants included Waldman, Kateřina Piňosová, Anna Vaníčková and Antonie Svobodová (working with “bodytext”), Pavla Jonssonová, Iva Vodražková, Kateřina Kotková and Lydia Lunch.

Projekt 2000 supports an underrepresented portion of the artistic community in that [the] festival is a tribute to experimental women writers, artists and performers. Not only are women artists underrepresented in the Czech Republic, but very few are translated into English… and very few American women artists have been translated into Czech. This is an important time socially and politically for women in the Czech Republic. The festival will take place less than 6 months after an all-female shadow cabinet formed in response to the [Czech government’s] all male cabinet and one particular member’s comment that women do not belong in politics. It is a time for strong, creative, independent women’s voices to be expressed.[116]

The arts group Prameni pursued “poetry by other means” in a continuation of Pražská škola’s outreach programme. “Parallel Poetics: Dissent, Discourse and Democracy” (2000) was an attempt at opening discussion into “the importance of uncompromised individual expression and parallel artistic culture to the creation of preservation of civil society”:

We believe that discussion of the role of poet and artist in society, the importance of self-expression to the development of the individual and society as a whole, and the impact of parallel cultures on local and global change, is essential in the Czech Republic.[117]

From September 1999 to June 2000, Prameni developed the “Living Word Poetics Project” with Kateřina Piňosová, designed as a series of workshops with students at the Romská střední škola sociální v Kolíně. The project was sponsored by the Just Buffalo Literary Centre in Buffalo, New York, and was designed as a poetry exchange between the Roma students and students of the Native American Magnet School #19 in Buffalo.[118] A volume of writings by the students, produced during the workshop sessions, was published in 2003 as Život Fungoval a Nakonec Skončil/Life Went on and Finally Ended.

In 2003, the Pražská škola was formally taken over by Naropa University/Jack Kerouac School of Disembodied Poetics, under the directorship of Anne Waldman, launching the short-lived Šanalan Poetry Festival, with Jenne Magno remaining as co-ordinator. The festival, running from the 11th to the 18th of May, featured Irina Andreeva (of physical theatre group Novogo Fronto), singer Ida Kelarová, Jáchym Topol, Alexandra Berková, Rikki Ducornet, Anselm Hollo, Pavla (Slabá) Jonssonová, Ivan Klíma and Kateřina Piňosová. Concurrent with Šanalan was the first Vienna-Prague “Poet-Artist-Performers for Peace,” sponsored by Urbannomadmxs and Prameni, at the St Martin-in-the-Wall church on Martinska (16 May), with Gwendolyn Albert, Kristin Weight, Ken Nash, Franz-Karl Prüller, Victoria Oscarsson and Peter Waugh.

During the first three years of the decade, seven new regular reading series grew up in different parts of the city. The Fra reading series at Café Fra in Vinohrady (hosted by Petr Borkovec, editor of Souvislosti); “Poetry Jam” and “Poetry in the Twilight” at Železna Jazz club downtown (hosted by Lucien Zell and Ryan Mergen); “In One Voice” at UniJazz (hosted by Edmund Watts); the Jejune readings at the Clown & Bard on Bořivojova street, Žižkov (hosted by Vincent Farnsworth); “Mr Hyde Park” at Literárná Kavárna Obratnik in Smíchov (hosted by Kristen Weight, running from 2002-2003); and the Alchemy Reading and Performance Series, commencing at the newly opened Shakespeare & Sons bookstore and café in Vršovice, before moving to Tulip Café and eventually the Globe.

Begun in 2003 after the closure of Beef Stew, the monthly Alchemy open-mic (hosted first by Laura Conway and then Ken Nash) has featured book-launches by Lewis Crofts (The Pornographer of Vienna, 2007) and Clare Wigfall (The Loudest Sound and Nothing, 2007), and readings by Justin Quinn, David E. Oprava, Carrie Etter, Holly Tavel, Alistair Noon, Jeremy Saxon, Kateřina Rudčenková, Věra Chase, Richard Katrovas, Howard Hunt, Donna Stonecipher, Louis Armand, Greg Evans and Alice Whittenburg, Jorn Ake (Boys Whistling Like Canaries, 2009), Jeremiah Paleček, Jane Kirwan, Jim Freeman, Joe Sherman, Thor Garcia and Vincent Farnsworth, Alan Levy, Róbert Gál, Myla Goldberg, Gwendolyn Albert, Lucien Zell, Gene Deitch, Šimon Šafránek (Fiery Wheels, 2000), Jerri Teriault, Christopher Cook and Phil Shoenfelt.

2000 saw the brief appearance (for six issues) of the literary broadsheet Plastic (Semtext), edited by Louis Armand. Semtext published essays and poetry by Justin Quinn, Marjorie Perloff, John Kinsella, Peter Minter, Juliana Spahr, Lukáš Tomin, Brian Henry, John Tranter, Susan M. Schultz, Michael Brennan, D.J. Huppatz, Sandra Miller, Rod Mengham, Andrei Codrescu, Bruno Solarik, Emmanuelle Pireyre, Ethan Paquin, Nicole Tomlinson, Pam Brown, Brendan Lorber and Aleš Šteger.[119] It became the model for the Prague Literary Review, a monthly tabloid-format review founded in 2003 by publisher Roman Kratochvila (of Shakespeare & Sons) and editor Michael Levitin. From its second issue the PLR, as it became known, was edited by Louis Armand, with a focus on a core of writers including Aleš Debeljak, Joshua Cohen, Travis Jeppesen, Drew Milne, McKenzie Wark and others. Cohen and Jeppesen had both previously been editors of the Prague Pill, a free newspaper published by John Caulkins, with a focus on culture and political critique. The Pill in certain respects resembled the earlier Prognosis, and its antagonistic relationship with the Prague Post mirrored the former’s. With the collapse of the Pill in 2003, Cohen and Jeppesen worked freelance for magazines like Think Again and Umělec – Jeppesen producing some of the most committed English-language art criticism so far to appear outside academic publications. Disorientations: Art on the Margins of the “Contemporary,” a volume of Jeppesen’s writings on Central and Eastern European art, was published by Social Disease in the UK in 2009.

Prior to arriving in Prague, Jeppesen’s novel Victims was selected by Dennis Cooper to debut his Little House on the Bowery series for Akashic Books in 2003. In his review of Victims for the PLR, Tom McCarthy wrote: “the book holds a remarkably confident and able line through complicated waters, diving into interiority, surfacing in direct speech, aquaplaning into prose that’s brilliant at times…”[120] Jeppesen’s second novel, Wolf at the Door, appeared from Howard Sidenberg’s Twisted Spoon Press in 2007. Also published by Twisted Spoon was Cohen’s first book, a collection of short stories, entitled The Quorum. A draft of Cohen’s book-length monologue, Cadenza for the Schneidermann Violin Concerto (Fugue State Press, 2007), appeared in PLR 2.2 (March 2004).

In May 2004 – coinciding with the Czech Republic’s accession to the European Union – Armand, with Kratochvila, founded the Prague International Poetry Festival (První Pražský mezinárodní festival poezie), a week-long series of readings sponsored by the PLR and Twisted Spoon Press.[121] The readings, in Czech and English, took place in five venues across the city, incorporating Ken Nash’s Alchemy readings at Tulip Café, and ending at the historic music club Malostranská Beseda. The festival brought together over forty poets from Prague and around the world, including Anselm Hollo, Charles Bernstein, Trevor Joyce, Drew Milne, Andrzej Soznovski, Tomaž Šalamun, “Kollaps” (Jaroslav Rudiš, Alex Švamberg, Pavlína Medunová), Laura Conway, Phil Shoenfelt, Travis Jeppesen, Šimon Šafránek, Vincent Farnsworth, Rod Mengham, Věra Chase, Gwendolyn Albert, Róbert Gál, Stephen Rodefer, Fritz Widhalm, Nichita Danilov, Sándor Kányádi, Munayem Mayenin, Cristina Cirstea, Martin Solotruk, Peter Šulej, Vít Kremlička, Martin Zet, Jeff Buehler, Jaroslav Pižl and Martin Reiner.

Writing in the Poetry Society Newsletter, Vincent Farnsworth observed:

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 [2 April, 2004], 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 of a new phase in expatriate poetry in the Czech Republic. Borrowing the term “deep poetics” 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.[122]

Of those participating in the festival, eight had been or were soon to be published by Twisted Spoon. Beginning in 1997, the press had begun to develop a series of new writing in English from Prague, alongside translations of contemporary writing from across Central Europe. Books by Milan Simecka, Natasza Goerke, Emil Hakl, Pavel Z., Andrzej Stasiuk, Søren A. Gauger, Radu Andriescu, Iustin Panta and Cristian Popescu, all appeared after 2000, as Twisted Spoon continued to gain international recognition as the sole major English-language literary press in the region.

At the end of 2004, Armand ceased being editor of the PLR. The remaining four issues were co-edited by Cohen, Jeppesen, Sidenberg and Róbert Gál. During its relatively short life, spanning fourteen issues, the PLR had published work by a long list of notable writers, including Petr Borkovec, Marjorie Perloff, Ron Silliman, Keston Sutherland, Bruce Andrews, Jáchym Topol, Vladimír Hulec, Anselm Hollo, Peter Šulej, Tomaž Šalamun, Dennis Cooper, Kateřina Piňosová, Lukáš Tomin, Stephen Rodefer, Lou Rowan, Václav Kahuda, Laura Conway, Ivan Blatný, Raymond Federman, Susan M. Schultz, Eva Švankmajerová, D.J. Huppatz, Larry Sawyer, Sandra Miller, Tony Ozuna, Justin Quinn, Alan Sondheim, Gregory L. Ulmer, Clark Coolidge, Nicole Tomlinson, Ken Nash, Phil Shoenfelt, Gwendolyn Albert, Pierre Daguin, Vincent Farnsworth and Jeremiah Paleček. After the collapse of the PLR, Jeppesen and Cohen founded BLATT with Anagram bookstore owner Miro Peraica as publisher. BLATT continued in the same format as the PLR, releasing three issues in 2006 and producing Jeppesen’s Poems I Wrote While Watching TV. A reading series and mini-festival were hosted by the magazine at Café Metropole in Vinohrady, until Jeppesen’s departure for Berlin in 2007. Cohen had already returned to New York the year earlier.

With Prague’s second post-revolution literary renaissance well-underway by mid-decade, the overly hyped ‘90s began to recede into distant memory, but not before Nancy Bishop issued a retrospective reappraisal in her satirical 2004 film Rexpatriates (in which Alan Levy had a cameo role shortly before his death). Farnsworth:

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… 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 signalled 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 ‘90s” conundrum: he took it with him.[123]

From a perspective of twenty years, the lure of periodisation, of identifying different groupings and tendencies, presents itself in ways that it did not in the past. The textual record, however, remains uneven and incomplete, rendering an historical view opaque at best, even when from time to time broad outlines appear to present themselves, or defining traits seem to recur. It is of course no more possible to define such a thing as a Prague “poetics,” as it would be for any other geographical location. And yet, like communities of writers intimately identified with other cities around the world and at different times, it may be that a “Prague School,” or schools, exists. Yet whatever collective aesthetic may be attributed to writers living and working together in this particular space, it is always worth keeping in mind the nature of any habitation which goes beyond the mere contingencies of urban geography. “Our” space, as Henri Lefebvre once wrote,

remains qualified (and qualifying) beneath the sediments left behind by history, by accumulation, by quantification. The qualities in question are qualities of space, not qualities in space. To say that such qualities constitute a “culture,” or “cultural models,” adds very little to the matter.[124]

How such a space is imaginatively constituted in and by language is the question which is perhaps most pressing for any writer, and above all for the writer whose habitation is first and foremost that of a foreign space, over which no sovereign claim is possible – “the foolish crown of no ignorance, no wisdom anymore”[125] – which is, of course, the space of language itself. Language, to paraphrase Richard Kuhn, establishes the realities for which history must seek explanation. Prague, the name of this city, echoes the word práh, meaning “threshold.” And it is the sense of living on a threshold – of performing in the gap between what history is able to measure and what its legislators seek to proscribe – that lends to this habitation its character of ostranenie – of strangeness and estrangement – just as in those old Prague films that show us a protagonist caught before a mirror, confronting a doppelganger about whose inner nature we struggle to grasp anything.

Whatever after two decades may be said to characterise the Prague “scene,” in the end we have only the words with which to build anthologies and make sense of. As the poet Barrett Watten says: “Finally the operators disappear and one language looks at another.”

 

April, 2010

*from THE RETURN OF KRAL MAJALES. PRAGUE’S INTERNATIONAL LITERARY RENAISSANCE 1990-2010 AN ANTHOLOGY https://litterariapragensia.wordpress.com/2013/10/05/the-return-of-kral-majales/

 

[1] Ivan Klíma, Introduction, Description of a Struggle (London: Picador, 1994) xix.

[2] Michael March, Preface, Description of a Struggle, xvii.

[3] Petr Bílek, “Czech Poetry of the Nineties,” New Orleans Review 26.1/2 (Spring/Summer, 2000): 16.

[4] Alexandra Büchler, Editorial, “Iron and Velvet: A Decade of New Czech Writing, Transcript 6 (2003): http://www.transcipt-review.org.

[5] Daniela Dražanová, “Transitional Literature,” Prognosis, 25 June-8 July, 1993: 2B.

[6] Jáchym Topol, Qtd in Tim Rogers, “The Metamorphosis of Prague,” Book Magazine 9 (March/April, 2000).

[7] See Tom Burkett, “After Big Brother, Unchained Writing,” Prognosis, 21 August-3 September, 1992: 3B.

[8] The last words of Hassan i Sabbah, Old Man of the Mountain, quoted in John Geiger, Nothing is True, Everything is Permitted: The Life of Brion Gysin (New York: The Disinformation Company, 2005).

[9] Qtd in Dražanová, “Transitional Literature,” 2B.

[10] Qtd in Sarah Boxer, “Miroslav Holub is Dead at 74; Czech Poet and Immunologist,” The New York Times, 22 July, 1998, A17.

[11] Six Czech Poets, ed. Alexandra Büchler (Todmorden: Arc, 2007). Cf. “A Conversation with Arnošt Lustig and Miroslav Holub,” Trafika 1 (1993): 157. Holub: “I was told by some important people at the American embassy: ‘You are only protected here by being published abroad.’ So I learned in the 1970s to write with the view of the English translation in my mind. And nowadays I write almost immediately both language versions.”

[12] Miroslav Holub, “Náš všední den je pevnina,” Květen 2 (September, 1956): 2.

[13] Petr Bílek, “Czech Literature in the Post-Communist Era: The Socio-Historical Context,” Transcript 6 (2003): http://www.transcipt-review.org.

[14] See Black Silence: The Lety Survivors Speak, Paul Polansky (Prague: GplusG, 1998).

[15] Miroslav Holub, “Troubles on the Spaceship,” trans. David Young, International Quarterly 1.1, “Europe in Transition: East and West” (Spring 1993): 96-99.

[16] As noted by Jiří Holý and Jan Culík, after 1968, Holub was dismissed from his position at Prague’s Microbiological Institute and his work wasn’t published in the ČSSR again until 1982, following a degrading public self-criticism, which permitted him to be employed in a junior position at the Institute for Clinical and Experimental Medicine. Holub’s position at the Microbiological Institute was only restored in 1995 (“Miroslav Holub: 13 September 1923-14 July 1998,” Obituary Notice, http://www.arts.gla.ac.uk/Slavonic/Holub.htm).

[17] Bílek, “Czech Poetry of the Nineties,” 19.

[18] See Kai Hermann, “The Fall of Prague,” Encounter (November 1968): 85-92.

[19] Bílek, “Czech Poetry of the Nineties,” 21.

[20] Cf. Gwen Orel, Performing Cultures: English-language Theatres in Post-Communist Prague (PhD dissertation; University of Pittsburgh, 2005) 18-19: “The subversive power of jazz and rock-n-roll were linked explicitly with the English language: early groups had names like Hell’s Devils, Crazy Boys and Beatmen. In 1970 the communist regime forbade the use of English in rock-n-roll culture: bands could no longer sing in English, take English names, or cover songs from British or American bands. Rock-n-roll had become so important to the Czechs that it was the 1976 trial of an underground Prague band, Plastic People of the Universe, that led to the formation of Charter 77.”

[21] In a 1996 interview, Ginsberg – who had since obtained, via a Freedom of Information Request, access to his FBI files (he was placed on a “Dangerous Subversive” internal security list in 1965) – was quoted as saying: “I found that the FBI had translated a denunciation of me by Prague’s Mladá fronta, saying that I was a corrupter of youth and alcoholic – which I’m not – and not to be trusted. They sent it over to the Narcotics Bureau to send to my representative, Congressman Jolson, wanting him not to answer my questions and request for protection and complaints about the set-ups, the entrapment procedures of the Narcotics Bureau, because I was irresponsible, as is proved by this communist newspaper… and that anything I said might be turned to embarrass him. So I realised that in certain areas, the Western police and the communist police, by 1965, were one international mucous membrane network. There was hardly any difference between them.” Allen Ginsberg, interviewed 11 August, 1996 – cited in Herbert Mitgang, Dangerous Dossiers: Exposing the Secret War against America’s Greatest Authors (New York: D.J. Fine, 1988) and The National Security Archive, CNN, episode 13: “Make Love Not War: The Sixties,” 10 January, 1999.

[22] Allen Ginsberg, “Král Majáles,” Collected Poems 1947-1980 (London: Penguin, 1985).

[23] “I must say that I see little difference between the armed and violent governments both Communist and Capitalist that I have observed.” Allen Ginsberg, The Letters of Allen Ginsberg (Philadelphia: Da Capo, 2008) 474-5.

[24] Arguably, with the exception of writers involved with the international scene, the major experiments in late-twentieth century English-language poetics, aside from the Beat movement, have had little appreciable impact on Czech literature.

[25] Richard Kostelanetz, “Ginsberg Makes the World Scene,” The New York Times, 11 July, 1965, 32.

[26] Ginsberg, “Král Majáles.”

[27] Kostelanetz, “Ginsberg Makes the World Scene,” 32.

[28] See Robert McLean and Hana Lešenarová, “Bribe Case Turns ‘Economic Miracle’ Sour,” Prognosis, 10 November-16 November, 1994: 5.

[29] “Y(oung) A(mericans in) P(rague),” The New York Times, 12 December, 1993, 671.

[30] The height of this phenomenon was perhaps the US cable television pilot for a resident sitcom to be called “Prague 1,” produced by screenwriter Eric Stunzi in May 1993.

[31] Bruce Sterling, “Triumph of the Plastic People,” Wired 3.01 (1993): http://www.wired.com/wired/archive/3.01/.

[32] Heinz Politzer, “Prague and the Origins of Rainer Maria Rilke, Franz Kafka, and Franz Werfel,” Modern Language Quarterly 16.1 (1955): 49.

[33] See David J. Wallace, “Anne of Bohemia, Queen of England, and Chaucer’s Emperice,” Litteraria Pragensia 9 (1995): 1-16.

[34] Sterling, “Triumph of the Plastic People.”

[35] Richard Kostelanetz, “Ginsberg Makes the World Scene,” The New York Times, 11 July, 1965.

[36] The so-called “Velvet Divorce” of 1993 – the separation of former Czechoslovakia into two separate states, Slovakia and the present-day Czech Republic, marked a critical point in which national revivalism posed a serious threat to Prague’s restoration as an international city. To a certain extent, cultural nationalism remains endemic within the major state academic institutions, at odds with the lived reality of the city’s cultural practitioners.

[37] Allen Ginsberg, “The Return of Král Majáles,” Collected Poems 1947-1997 (New York: HarperCollins, 2007): 982. At a performance at the Jack Kerouac School of Disembodied Poetics, 30 June, 1992, Ginsberg noted that, during the quarter century since his expulsion from Prague, no election of the “King of May” had taken place, the tradition only being reinstated in 1990. His return provided the opportunity for pointing out, once again, the irony of America having been held up, in the Cold War imagination, as a Land of the Free. In his poem, Ginsberg writes: “And tho I am the King of May my howls and proclamations are banned on America’s electric airwaves…”

[38] Brian Kruzick Goodman, “Allen Ginsberg – King Majáles,” The New Presence 4 (Winter 2004): 41-43.

[39] Qtd in Darrell Jónsson, “When Poetry was King,” The Prague Post, 7 May, 2008.

[40] Joseph Yanosik, “The Plastic People of the Universe,” Perfect Sound Forever (March 1996): http://www.furious.cpm/perfect/pulnoc.html

[41] Alan Levy, Editorial, The Prague Post, 1 October, 1991.

[42] Sterling, “Triumph of the Plastic People.”

[43] Václav Havel, quoted in Mark Nessmith, “Top Post editor Levy dies at age 72,” The Prague Post, 8 April, 2004.

[44] Barbara Day, The Velvet Philosophers (London: The Claridge Press, 1999).

[45] It is notable that, throughout the nineties there was in fact no Czech edition of Kundera’s novel. From 1985, Kundera himself wrote exclusively in French.

[46] Qtd in Kimberly Ashton, “Speaking Out: American Activist Passionate about Human Rights,” The Prague Post, 25 July, 2007. Cf. Alan Levy, “Gwendolyn Albert, Militant Pacifist,” The Prague Post, 12 June, 2003.

[47] Bílek, “Czech Poetry of the Nineties,” 20.

[48] A trend which has continued. According to figures compiled in 2005, 28.8% of all books published in the Czech Republic were translations – 2,211 of those from English alone (Dana Soupková, Czech Literature in English Translation, unpublished MA thesis, Masaryk University, Brno, 2006: chapter 1.1). As Miroslav Holub notes: “translations have been an integral part of Czech culture since the nineteenth century.” See “A Conversation with Arnošt Lustig and Miroslav Holub,” Trafika 1 (1993): 157.

[49] Michael March, Prague Writers’ Festival website: http://www.pwf.cz.

[50] Julie Ashley, “Of Words and Twisted Spoons,” The Prague Post, 16 October, 1996.

[51] Lukáš Tomin, The Doll (Prague: Twisted Spoon Press, 1992) – publisher’s blurb.

[52] Michael Halstead, “Book Review: Ashtrays,” The Prague Post, 23 March, 1994.

[53] Day, The Velvet Philosophers, 69.

[54] Anthony Tognazzini, “Tomin’s Final Novel,” The Prague Post, 26 November, 1997.

[55] Howard Sidenberg, Twisted Spoon website: http://www.twistedspoon.com.

[56] Revolver Revue was founded in 1985 and published in samizdat until 1989, after which it achieved regular publication.

[57] Sterling, “Triumph of the Plastic People.”

[58] Tony Ozuna, letter to the author, 22 January, 2010.

[59] One memorable episode involved organizer David Freeling shouting “This is not a democracy, this is a poetry reading!” in response to complaints by sections of the audience about free speech when a fist fight broke out after Beef Stew regular Jeremy Saxon punched a heckler in front of a Czech TV crew (ČTK1) who recorded it all on tape. (Alan Thomas, letter to the author, 10 February, 2010.)

[60] Qtd in Randall Lyman, “Open Mike,” Prognosis, 5-18 March, 1993: 3B.

[61] Orel, Performing Cultures: English-language Theatres in Post-Communist Prague, 73.

[62] Typically the readings were followed by late-night drinking sessions at a nearby bar. In the early days it was Stará Besseda in Žižkov (next to where the Clown & Bard later was at Bořivojova 102). Next, the after-reading venue was Literární kavárna Paseka, near Náměstí Míru for several years. After Paseka, U Havrana near I.P. Pavlova became the post-Stew watering hole of choice.

[63] Gary Shteyngart in conversation with Coilín O’Connor for Radio Praha / Český Rozhlas, 26 March 2004.

[64] Julie Chibbaro, letter to the author, 3 January, 2010.

[65] Peter Orner, letter to the author, 3 January, 2010.

[66] Neil Wilson and Mark Baker, Lonely Planet: Prague, 8th ed. (London: Lonely Planet, 2009) 33. “This list was compiled early last year and would now also include Matt Welch’s Myth of a Maverick (nonfiction), Leslie Chang’s Factory Girls (also nonfiction) and Brendan McNally’s Germania. I also didn’t include John Allison’s very funny The Adventures of Joe Marlboro (in Prague)… The late Alan Levy wrote several books (not mentioned above), including Rowboat to Prague (on the 1968 Warsaw Pact invasion) and The Wiesenthal File” (Mark Baker, letter to the author, 2 February, 2010).

[67] Toby Litt, letter to the author, 26 January, 2010.

[68] Lee Rourke, “Men in Space,” The Observer, 9 September, 2007: 27.

[69] Publisher’s blurb.

[70] Publisher’s blurb.

[71] Alexander Zaitchik, “Let the Kazoos Sound: A Decade of English Press in Prague,” Think (November/December, 2001): http://www.thinkexpats.com/component/content/article/85-publications/190-let-the-kazoos-sound-a-decade-of-english-press-in-prague.html

[72] Jonathan Kandell, “Americans in Prague: A second wave of expatriates is now playing a vital role in the renaissance of the Czech capital,” Smithsonian magazine, August 2007: http://www.smithsonianmag.com/people-places/prague.html##ixzz0e6bJDanM

[73] Orel, Performing Cultures: English-language Theatres in Post-Communist Prague, 46 and passim.

[74] Orel, Performing Cultures, 1.

[75] Orel, Performing Cultures, 71-75.

[76] Ginsberg also read that year (1993) at Viola, a long-established literary venue on Národní, and at the American Centre on Hybernská.

[77] Mark Baker, “Reviving a Lost Literary Scene,” The Prague Post, 1 November, 2006.

[78] Frank Kuznik, “Literary Revival,” The Prague Post, 7-13 May, 2008: A7.

[79] Bohemian Verses: An Anthology of Contemporary English Language Writing from Prague, ed. Scott Rogers (Prague: Modrá Musá, 1993) xvi-xvii.

[80] Indeed, as I write this I am reminded of František Palacký’s famous remark: “If there were no Austria, we would have to create it.”

[81] “A Conversation with Arnošt Lustig and Miroslav Holub,” Trafika 1 (1993): 163.

[82] Gwendolyn Albert, “Allegiance to the Strange: Prague Expatriate Writing of the Nineties,” New Orleans Review 26.1/2 (Spring/Summer, 2000): 161.

[83] Edmund White, “Prague’s New Face,” Vogue, September, 1994: 352.

[84] “Destiny of Café Slavia Still Unknown,” Carolina 96 (26 November, 1993): carolina.cuni.cz/archive-en/Carolina-E-No-096.txt.

[85] Glen Emery in conversation with Coilín O’Connor for Radio Praha / Český Rozhlas, 25 June 2007.

[86] As Bílek notes, during this same period Czech-language literary publishing contracted. “Since 1993, except for books by a dozen big names, almost all Czech poetry has been self-published or produced by presses whose names appear on only one book” (“Czech Poetry of the Nineties,” 20). Additioally: “Data from 2001 suggests that out of 3,136 registered publishers, one third published one book a year” (Bílek, “Czech Literature in the Post-Communist Era”).

[87] See Randall Lyman, “Word Soup,” Prognosis, 5-18 March, 1993: 3B.

[88] Qtd in Lyman, “Word Soup,” 3B.

[89] Qtd in Michael Halstead, “Literary Symbiosis Drives Ambitious Magazine,” The Prague Post, 9 March, 1994.

[90] Christopher Sheer, “Review of Trafika 1,” Prognosis, 29 October-11 November, 1993: 7B. Like Trafika, the Prague Summer Writers’ Workshop – initiated in August 1993 by Trevor Top (publications officer at the ill-fated Central European University) – maintained a largely nominal connection with the local literary community. Linked initially to the University of New Orleans, and later coming under the directorship of Richard Katrovas, the Workshop has for many years brought visiting American students and faculty to the city.

[91] Qtd Halstead, “Literary Symbiosis.”

[92] Deborah Michaels, “New Salon Aims to Increase Arts Patronage,” The Prague Post, April 6-12, 1994: 3a.

[93] Michele Kayal, “In Prague, Overnight Novels a Test for U.S. Expats,” USA Today/International Edition, 11 April, 1994: 9A.

[94] Tim Rogers, “Jejune: Angel Heir or Devil’s Advocate?” The Prague Post, 16 December, 1998.

[95] Alan Ward Thomas interviewed by Dan Kenney, [unpronounceable symbol] (February 1996).

[96] Qtd in Stephan Delbos, “Description of a Struggle: The History of the Prague Revue,” Luna Park Review (2008): http://www.lunapark.com/PragueRevue.htm

[97] Tim Rogers, “A Delectable Selection of Literary Diversions,” The Prague Post, 27 June, 2001.

[98] The Prague Fringe Festival was established in 2002 under the directorship of Steve Gove. http://www.expats.cz/prague/article/fringe-festival-prague/2008-prague-fringe-reviews/

[99] Fran Brearton and Justin Quinn, “Introduction: Reports from Central Europe,” Metre 12 (2002): 85.

[100] Ivan Jirous in conversation with Alex Zucker and the author, Club Jilská, 24 November, 1994.

[101] Brearton and Quinn, “Introduction: Reports from Central Europe,” 86; 87.

[102] David Lerner, Julia Vinograd and Alan Allen (eds.), The New American Underground: Vol. 1. San Fransisco – Poets from Hell (Victoria, BC: Trafford, 2005) – cover blurb.

[103] Qtd in Bill Lavender and Dave Brinks (eds.), “Death Interrupted: A Colloquy of Words from New Orleans,” Big Bridge 14 (2006): http://www.bigbridge.org/BB14/.

[104] Exquisite Corpse: Cyber Corpse 4 (April/May, 2000): http://www.corpse.org/archives/issue_4/index.html.

[105] Robert Creeley, letter to the author, 31 May, 1998.

[106] Michael Brennan and Peter Minter (eds.), Calyx: 30 Contemporary Australian Poets (Sydney: Paper Bark Press, 2000).

[107] Jenne Magno in conversation with the author, 15 February, 2010.

[108] “Living Word Outreach Poetics Program” (1998).

[109] “What is Pražská škola poetiky?” press release (January, 2000).

[110] See http://www.315experiment.com.

[111] Qtd in Angela Primlani, “Composition in Prague,” The Prague Post, 22 September, 1999.

[112] Qtd in Ashton, “Speaking Out.”

[113] Patrick E. Tyler with John Tagliabue, “A Nation Challeneged: The Investigation; Czechs Confirm Iraqi Agent Met With Terror Ringleader,” The New York Times, 27 October, 2001.

[114] Jennifer Joan Lee, “A Movement Mushrooms,” The New York Times, 6 March, 2004.

[115] “Torch 2003,” iDNES.cz, 6 March, 2003.

[116] Projekt 2000, press release (May, 2000).

[117] Parallel Poetics: Dissent, Discourse and Democracy, proposal (2001).

[118] Matt Gailitis, “Exploring Possibilities,” The Prague Post, 31 October, 2001.

[119] Some of the work from Semtext was later gathered in a special issue of Litteraria Pragensia – “Contemporary Poetics,” vol.11, no.22 (2002) – edited by Louis Armand and including contributions from Susan Schultz, Marjorie Perloff, Stephen Muecke, Steve McCaffery, Véronique Vassiliou, Rod Mengham, Drew Milne, Kevin Nolan, Augusto de Campos, D.J. Huppatz. This in turn became the basis of a collection of writings published as Contemporary Poetics by Northwestern University Press, in 2007.

[120] Tom McCarthy, “When God Drops the Remote Control,” PLR 1.3 (2004): 17.

[121] Mindy Kay Bricker, “On the Wings of Poesy, a Gathering of Literary Lights,” The Prague Post, 13 May, 2004.

[122] Vincent Farnsworth, “Paris/Prague?” Poetry News (Summer, 2004): http://www.poetrysociety.org.uk/content/publications/poetrynews/pn2004/pinprague/.

[123] Farnsworth, “Paris/Prague?”

[124] Henri Lefebvre, The Production of Space, trans. Donald Nicholson-Smith (Oxford: Blackwell, 1991) 230.

[125] Ginsberg, “Return of Kál Majáles.”

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About Equus Press

EQUUS was established in 2011 with the objective of publishing innovative & translocal writing.

Discussion

2 thoughts on “THE PRAGUE MOMENT

  1. Pozor was edited by Kevin Bisch and Louis Charbonneau. Elizabeth Cornell was the publisher.

    Posted by Lou | August 5, 2016, 4:40 pm

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  1. Pingback: THE PRAGUE MOMENT | Afro Futurism - January 3, 2017

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