Josef Straka: a modern-day Prague flâneur

Josef Straka is an heir to the rich tradition of the poet as a wanderer through the city. In Paris they have the “flâneur”, but in Prague it is the “chodec”, the walker, who captures the poetry of the everyday and the ordinary. Josef’s poetic journeys have taken him far beyond the edges of the city and even this country itself, as we find out in his conversation with David Vaughan for this week’s Czech Books.

Josef Straka, photo: David VaughanJosef Straka, photo: David Vaughan Besides his work as a poet, Josef Straka is a driving force behind much of Prague’s literary life. It’s hard to keep count of the hundreds of readings, discussions and literary happenings that he has organised in recent years, many in cooperation with Prague City Library. He has contributed to many of these events himself, both with his own poetry and promoting the work of poets he loves. He told me that it all started in Smíchov, a district in the south-west of Prague.

“Ten years ago I started to organise some literary evenings at the Municipal Library in Smíchov. It started with one event a month but grew to more than a hundred events per year at Prague’s Municipal Library (Městská knihovna) and the House of Reading (Dům čtení).”

And that really is a sign of how this is a very literary city – the thought of having an audience for a hundred literary evenings a year!

“It’s an evolving process. I started to work with the Municipal Library of Prague and then with the Avoid Floating Gallery in 2012….”

… which is a wonderful space on a boat on the embankment known as “Náplavka”.

“Yes.”

It’s something that it is probably quite hard for non-Czechs to understand – just how important the language of poetry is in a country where the language is only spoken by ten million people. Poetry is important, because if it’s not going to be cultivated here it’s not going to be cultivated anywhere else.

“Three weeks ago I read with a Danish poet, Knud Steffen Nielsen. The Danish language is spoken by only five million people and I think it will be very good and necessary to support the minority languages. My last guest at the Poetry Day festival was the Icelandic poet Gerður Kristný. Only three hundred thousand people speak Icelandic.”

I was at that event, and it was wonderful just to hear the poetry in Icelandic, even without understanding it.

“I think that festivals and readings are a good way of promoting these languages and their literature.”

Having spoken about promoting the Czech language and Czech poetry, you are now going to read one of your Czech poems in English translation… paradoxically.

“This is my poem, Unavené město, Weary City, from my last published book Small Exiles, translated by David Vichnar. It’s about some of the social problems of this society now.”

Weary City

to submerge!
for the while, and noiselessly
the already extended coherence
to refuse them afterward with a certain amount of nobility
to never want
dreams tampered with
in some zone of “despite”
in the gradually permeating ghettoes
in possession of their own logic, of a possible sanctification
to catch a fleeting spleen
the faces of others always smiling only a few minutes after the fact
to keep erring, someone always wanting to straighten our values and set our order for us
giggling throughout
the way we’ve grown accustomed to
somewhere, somehow accustomed to
that no! that it’s this way and it’s peace and quiet we want most of all
trams from the Krymská station drive off again
people have already greeted the midnight
but still it’s as if they wanted nowhere to go
that other city’s already asleep in its stressful mood
behind the house and apartment flats an occasional cry breaks out
or not, keeping silent!

You’re continuing in a great tradition of Prague poetry, of the poetry of the walker through Prague. Tell me about your inspiration.

“The poet and artist Jiří Kolář lived in Krymská Street, which I mention in the poem. He was influential in many ways. He was going from the factory to the pub for a beer, and walked around the city, watching everyday life. I like his poetry because there are no metaphors or poetic symbols. He is only the watcher.”

Unlike Kolář, who moved to France, you are not in exile, yet you feel yourself to be a stranger.

“After the Velvet Revolution – after two, three, four or five years – in many ways I came to feel that this is not my country. I am living in exile. I like the situation after the Velvet Revolution, but my utopias, my ideals, are somewhere else.”

We are now going to hear a poem called Strange Exiles, again in a translation by David Vichnar.

Strange Exiles

catching oneself again belonging nowhere
the tram out in the industrial wastelands slowly admits darkness and rawness
and footnote comments appear more distant in the pathetic awkwardness of someone’s demonstrations –
we’re all criminals, or at least some of us
trespassing, peculiar looks aside
disagreement hanging upon lips
alighting at the Kablo Station
with farina of snow “assailing” the nape
waiting for another connection and then one more
the next bus finally arrives
circling round the peripheries of Lidls and Kauflands weary ah Weary
darkness behind their eyes’ cemeteries
descent alongside huge buildings of embezzlement
down the tunnels of disappearing quarters
with the loud laughter of passengers boarding the bus at further stops
to build the memory of places in foreign exiles
to traverse the crossroads of looks from twenty years ago to try to hold onto something
before it dissolves again in the greyish giggling glooms

“This is maybe my premonition of today’s situation. I don’t know! I like narration. I like to be the witness of all around. I like the everyday life context and concept, and just to watch.”

What’s wrong with the metaphor?

“I don’t know. It’s just the way I write. I like to go into the city landscape and walk around.”

Your poetry has also found inspiration beyond the borders of this country. You’re going to read us another poem, which is about the River Oder – the Odra in Czech – which is the river making up a large part of the border between Germany and Poland.

“It’s in the footsteps of Günter Eich, another of my favourite authors. He is one of the German authors who described how Germans felt after World War Two without metaphors, ornaments, symbols and so on. There is only poetic description of the situation in Germany in the 1940s and ‘50s. Günter Eich is working with language, with the subjective meaning of his life, in the poem. My text, Odra, is inspired by one of his poems, Oder, Mein Fluß – Oder, My River – but only very loosely. It just goes to the places where Günter Eich was born and went to school. The poem is in his footsteps but also in my footsteps and the footsteps of my exiles.”

Odra

I reflect on what it’s like to be spending the last year
in a foreign country
a chimera?
unsuccessful journeys into cities ending
with -in and -ol?
or into some others
notes, pattering, vowels yelped out
tickets punched by a taciturn conductor,
who merely points to the direction indicated below
on the right
I then follow the borderline, segueing into a river
walking round a place
called Kolonie before the war
today just a lonesome tractor with a blade
for cutting grass
an enclosure with rams and an indicator: 5 km to Destination
a few hundred metres on a bike path ending
cyclists slightly bemused in the bluish
dusk of the hidden sun
to be lost for a moment now
two countries you’re not at home in, not quite present
in either of them
temporary outsidespace
to endure till the last cup of coffee on the island you’ve reached by
a wooden connecting bridge
a few tables, a tall white tent
under which a 6 ft. 6 in. man is heating up sausages
suggesting a discount, in an hour
the fire will be out,
he says words, a lone couple dreaming of a life together
sitting down by the grasses
untroubled and motionless.

I know, Josef, that you also have a love of music. How does that find its way into your poetry?

“I don’t know the inspiration exactly, but I like post-punk. I like The Cure, Joy Division, Siouxsie and the Banshees, Bauhaus, Cabaret Voltaire. For me it is a strong inspiration. The Cure keeps me going in my depressive times. Somebody understands me! Maybe it’s just a dialogue with The Cure in words without the music.”

Each Sunday, participants will be able to vote in our new series Hit of the Century, covering 100 years of music in Czechoslovakia and the Czech Republic. (More)