Scandinavian poets go Khmer

A poetry festival ‘Northern Europe Meets the Mekong’  that fuses Cambodian and Northern European poetry will take place at various locations around Phnom Penh this week. Following readings in Siem Reap and Battambang, six poets from Sweden, Denmark, Iceland and the Faroe Islands will perform in the capital alongside their Cambodian counterparts. All the poets will recite in their own language so that listeners can get some idea of the depth of various types of poetry.
Anna Mattson, one of the organisers of the festival, titled “Northern Europe Meets the Mekong”, explains the inspiration behind this exciting exploration of cultural diversity.
“I have been working with literature in Cambodia for some years, and I spent a lot of time talking with people in  both Sweden, where I come from, and Cambodia about how nice it would be to have some sort of meeting between these different cultures,” she said. 
“This now has resulted in the showing of different ways of reading and writing poetry,” she said.
This unique cultural opportunity could signal a resurgence of interest in poetry among Cambodians, something Mattson cited as among her goals.
“Before the Pol Pot regime, I’m sure there must have been poetry readings for audiences in Cambodia, because poetry in the Cambodian language is designed for an audience,” she said.
“But in contemporary Cambodia I think that this kind of festival is a new idea, and we hope to reach out to Cambodian listeners.”
Mattson says the distinct differences between Cambodian and Northern European poetry will produce significant challenges during the festival, even though the foreign poetry will be translated into Khmer.
“Cambodian poetry is what we would call in the Western world very traditional poetry,” she said. “Poetry in the West becomes something very personal, but Cambodian poetry uses different rules, it uses a very metric style, and poets are not free to use the words that they want to, but have to use certain words that fit with the rhythm and subject of the poem,” she added. 
However, even though the differences between Cambodian and Northern European poetry are more obvious than the similarities, Mattson says each style of poetry has a great deal to contribute to the festival.
“Cambodian poets almost sing when they recite their poetry. They do not read it out as we do. This is a special tradition, and the mixing of traditions will be the most interesting thing about this festival,” she said.
According to her the Northern European poets in particular have been chosen for their diverse creative roles, and Mattson hopes that the Cambodian audience will be inspired to pursue similar outlets for their creativity.
“The Northern European poets each write in a very modern style; they don’t focus on the traditional aspects of rhyme and they are all different in the subjects that they write about,” she said. “They are also very different in age. The youngest one is 25, and the eldest is 60,” she added. Support for the event has come from the Nou Hach Literary Project, which aims to promote and strengthen the development of modern Cambodian literature.


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