Barcelona, City of Literature at Unbound

For one night in the Spiegeltent, Edinburgh hands the stage to a fellow UNESCO City of Literature

Feature by Laura Waddell | 03 Jul 2018

After our own referendum, Scotland has taken quite an interest in the constitutional debate in Spain. It is fair to wonder if poetry there reflects the political upheaval. “It has been a period which has shaken up Catalan society, and poetry, being a human expression as it is, has echoed it,” says Maria Cabrera.

Cabrera – who often performs alongside the band El Pèsol Feréstec, which translates as ‘the savage pea’ – is part of the Barcelona line-up for this year's Unbound. As well as being an award-winning Catalan poet, she teaches linguistics and is currently translating English poet Emily Berry into Catalan. “There have been at least two poetic anthologies which have included expressions of 1 October 2017 (the day of the Catalan referendum),” she tells us.

Catalan poetry “is a minority practice in a minorised culture,” says Marina Espasa, coordinator of the Ciutat de la Literatura, and a writer herself. She has put together this line-up of some of Barcelona’s best poets. It’s tempting to draw easy parallels between the constitutional debates of Catalonia and Scotland, and poets working in minority languages in both cultures, but the poetry itself, of course, cannot be generalised. It digs deeper. What kind of concerns do poets have in Barcelona? “Themes and concerns are very diverse," says Cabrera. "Each generation shares themes and stylistic approaches with contemporaneous generations in other cultures. In younger generations, there are, for example, clearly identifiable signs of postmodernity: intertextuality, genre hybridasation, classical metric forms combined with social and modern themes.”

And how does it go down? “In Barcelona, poetry receives attention and institutional help, and in Catalonia there is quite a big amount of poetry prizes. In Spain, except for one or two exceptions, there is a great lack of awareness of Catalan-written poetry."

One of the line-up, Enric Casasses, is a poet who has gained a cult following in Catalonia. Around Casasses’ figure, as seen in his performances on YouTube, are rapt audiences listening intently to his direct delivery. His work has been published by big publishers and underground presses alike and is described by Espasa as “questioning the position of a language-made self in the world.”

If Edinburgh’s event is anything to go by, Barcelona’s poetry scene looks vibrant, and Espasa describes it as powerful. Why is that? “Considering the dimensions of the Catalan-speaking community, the poetry which is written in this language is, thematically, formally and generationally, very diverse. And because there is a strong poetry reading circuit, poets are more used to speaking up than other writers, and have freer spirits.”

Also on the line-up is poet Mireia Calafell. She’s co-director of the Barcelona Poetry Festival, and in 2015, she was awarded the Lletra d’Or for the best book published in Catalan for Tantes Mudes. It was subsequently published in Spanish. Like Calebra, her poetry evokes personal freedoms. It “deals with the constraints which grind us down in human relationships and our relationships with our own body,” says Espasa.

It all sounds like a good fit for this year’s festival theme of Freedom. Espasa agrees: “The invited poets explore, from different perspectives, the idea of freedom, individual as well as collective.”

And there’s another factor, she says: “The fact that poetry has such a small audience gives it more freedom, in the sense that it is not submitted to market pressure. The majority of the poets don't make a living writing and reciting their poems, which means that they only write when they feel the intimate and urgent need to do so, and then they can treat any theme they want to.”

Set Thought and Voice Free, Edinburgh International Book Festival, Speigeltent, Charlotte Square Gardens, Sat 25 Aug, 9pm