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Poet’s Grave-digger
Umělec magazine
Year 2008, 2
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Poet’s Grave-digger

Umělec magazine 2008/2


Andrej Bazant | out - interview | en cs de es

You sometimes give concerts with Ruce naší Dory (Our Dora’s Hands), you run the Varlén Puppet Theatre, in which you present your puppet plays. Did you ever write any prose?
I was always a bit turned off by that. Before you arrive at some message, it takes such a long time. But I find myself now involved in a certain project. It’s called “Pastýřské déja-vu” (Pastoral Déja-vu). Perhaps this too is prose. They focus on the diary entries of a man, who finds himself in a parsonage after suffering from memory loss or identity crisis. He does not know if he’s a prisoner, or a local minister. He tries to figure it all out, but ends up passing from déja-vu to déja-vu. I was actually in one parsonage. I suffer so much in the gruelling heat. You find yourself in such a languid, strange state. Then during one week I wrote a number of entries that would equal roughly one month in the life of the previously-mentioned man. I took a long break. This is important for me. Not to have to stare at the empty, lined paper. I walked around and always wrote individual entries into various places in the margins and interspersed them with drawings. These were of the interior and exterior of the church. I even had free entry into the sacristy. I walked around and described my experiences and placed them all within the structure of my hero’s problems. And so a huge canvas full of drawings, titles and notes came about. From banal musings to reflections on his life, his situation.

You’re a poet, a musician, and an artist and you write plays. And now comics.
Červený Amadeus (Red Amadeus) is a sharp challenge to empty bubbles (promises). And also a marginal issue. But Varlén is important to me. And recently he's become sort of a flagship; a pirate ship. With Varlén, for the very first time I've moved toward artistic expression. It helped me a lot to have an image in front of me. I put the image together and only interlaced it with texts. It worked out well, and I began to get the hang of it. Completely by chance I encountered a method that brought me joy. Most things I just tolerate. It is a fragmentary affair. I combine fragments of original images into one image or into a chain of other fragments. As a rule, all of this, at first, develops intuitively—as a mosaic, which I later connect with relationships. It does not have to create what we call a story.

Where does the format for Varlén, your imaginative comics-collage, come from?
I cannot overlook anything. First and foremost, there are catalogues and leaflets that are thrown in our mailbox. More important is the method of working with them. No electronic changes and no photo copying. They have to be original collage sheets. If I need fifteen portraits of Jan Amos Komenský, then I will find them. And so I prefer to use as many as I have available.

Varlén brings to mind many things. Film reels of black-and-white grotesques that have been cut up and drawn by children. One could say that they contain elements of Dada and surrealism. It’s a communal but also a political satire. The result is comics in a nervously-composed collage. How did you begin working with comics?
I met with SilvaT, who had been drawing comics for a long time. He inspired me to do a joint heroic comics. I needed first and foremost a hero. I offered him Red Amadeus from my plays of the same name. But the philosophically-inclined gentleman remained just a lascivious dandy in the comics. Anecdotalness in lieu of invented, more complicated subject matter. I was nearing the end. Comics started to amuse me. I had never done this before and I wanted to try. But I don’t know how to paint. Then SilvaT told me that it is possible to do comics collages. He explained that this is done in the same way as classic comics, but of course the artists have a huge amount of material. When they do not know how or do not wish to draw, then they just paste the object in. And, idiot that I am, I took a stab at it. What a scary form of enslavement! You think up a story and then you look for a picture of a suitcase. And you need five! I said this won’t work. So afterwards I just gave the process free rein and made stories based on what I had. All at once incredible collages began to appear right in front of my very eyes.
It looks like free-form open playing with cut-outs. But in fact it is a serious and demanding discipline. Varlén has two important subtitles: “A Diary of Everyday Concerns” and “Comics on the Edge of Existence.” So it’s nothing to laugh at. It contains an urgent subtext.
I map out individual papers and name them in my mind. Varlén’s focal point is structure, structurality.

But you can’t deny that it is also very funny at the same time. This concerns all these things.
I feel that not boring people to death is part of good upbringing. Humor often relates to its opposite. Did you ever see a clown in a kiddie-corner an hour before his show?

Sure, but when you consider Klíma or Kafka, then these things are very funny (comical) and ...
... and a shiver goes down your spine. So I would be glad if Varlén had the same effect.

Does your poetry work the same way?
Almost everything works that way with me. That’s probably why I’m always doing so many things at once. But manufacturing art doesn’t interest me. For me that’s an ontological anchor. All the various facets of art, I make them my own and try them out, or attempt to try them. Actually I am always doing one and the same.
Besides musical groups, where it’s necessary to keep up the rhythm, production is not important for me. Introduction and reprises. Mainly I need to write the play. Then all I need to do is run through it with actors two or three times and I move on from there. Sometimes I can repeat things. It’s pleasant when they invite me somewhere to show my play. I do not however try very hard to present my works to the world. Plays evolve merely through the fact that they are repeated.

You wrote Psí setba (Dog Planting), a collection of poetry, and since then nothing. It’s been a couple of years now.
In between, I had to get to know cultural operations, and the people in that area, against my will. I feel strange among Prague poets and stuck up musicians. It’s their cryptic egos. They almost poisoned me with their poetry. I lament when that furious ambition to publish a “collection of poetry” is so passionate the earth shakes. Poetry moves. Out of necessity. It has been compiled. The gazebo has fallen! But I must confess that I am being a bit hypocritical, given that I am preparing a compilation of “non-poetic texts.” Those texts behave the same way as Varlén. In a topographical manner they focus in on the mess on my writing table. It will be called “Klepteton.” The name comes from a dream I had. I was walking through a courtyard and I saw a woman’s face through the window. I entered a classroom, where the teacher was showing the students my portrait—or, rather, a caricature with a raven on my head. The teacher was saying something about the Klepteton collection. I have no idea what that word means. The dream will be a motto. A collection of dreams realised as a swan song—rather Traum (Dream) march of “refined” collections. I take notes on the most intense dreams.
And SilvaT then asked me to make an enormous, realistic comic strip from them, one that took place in real space and landscapes. Then he would photograph all of it and precisely adapt the material. So I sketched out one topic, old and obsessive. I wrote about it in letter form.
The storyline is as follows. A certain man is convinced that Ladislav Klima’s funeral urn is not stored precisely as it should be. So one day he secretly takes the urn from the Malvazinky Cemetery and carries it away to examine its content, in the town of Cholupice—a region that Klíma considered amazing. And there he actually carries out the examination. But he is gradually overcome by the burden of responsibility, because this is a truly fatal act. He succumbs and then is tempted by insanity. In his already weak mind he finds one way to undo everything. He invents a way to fill the urn with his own ashes and arranges things such that (the urn) makes its way back to the grave in Malvazinky Cemetery. I described in detail how he achieves all this. During the process I used my professional knowledge of funeral procedures and all the administrative work involved. It actually works. Under certain obscure conditions it’s possible to arrange all that. All this is in a letter, in which the hero describes in detail, with a pathological emphasis, all his acts to a pre-determined addressee. How he went to the licence bureau, where he found out how many urns would be there and how Klíma’s urn would look. He contemplated how one person could lift a three-hundred kilogramme marble slab. How he could hide the seam so that the grave would look untouched. Given that his mind is insane, he also sorts out all the details and their consequences. He is obsessed by sharing all minutiae. I walked the same path as my hero. The reader will not be sure whether or not this actually happened. The man who receives the letter will go to Malvazinky. He will be someone from the interment field like me. He finds out that everything is true. It’s a continuation of the bizarre fate of Klíma’s urns.

How did you come up with this idea?
During walks around the Cholupice area. I was there several times. I was drawn there by his best prose, Cholupický den (Cholupice Day). Something awesome happened there, even if today the landscape is destroyed. Klíma is definitely part of that, which at the time, tore me apart yet put me back together again. Klíma, Váchal, Březina and Deml. This is a quartet that was fundamental for me. It contains positions that I cannot do without as a person. As any well bred person, I too, of course, got into the Mácha cult.

In Psí setba (Dog Planting) you write, “Four men, one alive, one lively” – in this case are you speaking of the four you named? Who’s the “alive” one and who’s the “lively” one?
At the time I wrote it, I was impressed by Ivan Diviš’s Theory on Reliability. And the lively one is Diviš. I had a significantly vague term on art after the Second World War and Diviš unlocked its meaning for me. Diviš’s poetry is extraordinary. I have never come across anything like it before. It was an epiphany for me. And it began with me burying it in Břevnov Cemetery, and I considered it necessary to discover something of that, about which he wrote.

You buried Ivan Diviš?
Yes. I put him there. I also gained some details from those ravens. They were good boys from Hostovice. They said that he was buried in something that looked like the kind of jacket that lion-tamers wear. It had golden braiding. And he reportedly had a moon rock in his hand. He describes this experience in the text A za I.D. (A for I.D.), which opens the collection Horákův laboratorní básník (Horák’s Laboratory Poetry). Břevnov Cemetery is starting to be an interesting burial place. People of this spiritual milieu gather there. There’s Patočka, Lopatka. I didn’t bury them; I was still young at that time. But I remember Karel Kryl, Anastáz Opasek and, of course, Ivan Divíš. And recently, Petr Kabeč. My hands were the last to touch his casket. Those people meet there, because they probably wanted to be as close as possible to Patočka and Opasek. It must be interesting there.

And Mácha is not in the “Four dead ...” aphorism.
He was a modern poet and yet worked in the Biedermaier era. I swear, if you read more of his poetry, there is also something shocking there. And it’s known that it’s not Czech. But he brought unity in life and art to the table. Everything else surrounding was just rustling paper. He was roughly eighty years ahead of his time. His secondary literature is overwhelming. Prose with autobiographical elements. It’s completely solitary. But I don’t see any continuity afterwards. He broke his way through to the avant-garde. But if you want to arrive at something that you could give your seal of approval to, you have to turn your back on Mácha and run the other way. He’s a cobra. You can’t move a finger in his shadow.

Psí setba is actually two hundred short poems or aphorisms.
I always complicated my life by setting out various formal limitations. Not only in poetry. And afterwards I untied my hands and arrived at aphorisms. I wrote the first twenty and then said to myself that I rather enjoyed it. That it was exactly what I had set out to do. Here I’m still thinking about Klíma’s statement that every word you write must be justified. Yes and in aphorism I don’t need to bend over backwards to achieve a message. And I wrote ten of them. But what do I do with them? It doesn’t make sense to use them anywhere. So I wrote fifty of them. And then I was able to make a collection for my acquaintances. And I did. And a further three sets of fifty over time. The amount is important, because otherwise aphorism does not function. You must have a lot of aphorisms, so that together they can form some sort of image.

Do you feel that this hermetic tradition is the best way for you to connect the internal world with the external one?
I have to say that I read nothing from those books that I would consider to be nonsense. That is, of course, dogmatic, but all the same thereby attractive. That’s my modus operandi, the basic thing I work from when I begin to create something.
Reading authors like Pierre Lassenic, D. Ž. Bor and others, that was actually the first step to my arriving at my own poetry. You have to dig through everything that interests you. You have to become a disciple for between five and ten years. You have to try out things that fascinate you. Then one day you have to forsake it, cuss it and make your own way for awhile.
Ultimately, you bring it all back and it’s changed by a certain epiphany. A permanent relationship develops from this enchantment.

When we talk about your starting points—how do you look at what is called the “underground”?
Part of my work is tied to the underground. I did actually find inspiration there, and my work has been shaped enough thereby. But whose hasn’t. Yet what we today call “underground” in the sense of descendents of Plastic People is a dead-end street. I don’t say that all of it’s laughable. There’s always several interesting efforts there. But today the “underground” lives elsewhere—in sub-cultures, some about which we know nothing.
In my opinion, it’s not about how your music sounds but rather how you approach cultural industry. Whether you give a crap whether you’re played on the radio, or if it’s important for you to do that thing. The majority of the declared “underground” does not fit this image. They are very results-focused guys, who are happy when they’re visible or “seen.” I mean how did the underground come about here under our Czech conditions? Precisely by giving up on the Communist cultural industry. And it doesn’t matter if it was the protest songs of Charlie Soukup or the dark music of the Plastic People. Today there’s a common acceptance that anything played in a dark tone, or stupidly, is suddenly “underground.”
I work in this contemporary, already post-underground, scene. And for this reason I have no other option. No other open scene like this exists here. It’s just as open as it is provincial. Even outside of big cities a number of rural artists are making names for themselves.

You’ve been creating work for twenty years and you’ve never published a line?
Officially, no. For a long time my work was bad, and thank goodness that no one got hold of it or published it. But solitary people have always fascinated me. When you look at them and read them, as those loners have, you then say to yourself that it is a sort of duty to have things that way. And then you stop worrying. At the start you still have the need for some sort of larger feedback. In time, that passes though. You take on a reserved approach as if polishing a doorknob.
I maintain balance and listen to opinions that interest me. Feedback is important for me, but it’s enough to get it from a couple of people. As the years pass, you come to understand yourself the value of your work. I couldn’t expect that the puppet play, Ztracení v Gottwaldu (Lost in Gottwald), which was written as a dress rehearsal of its own sort, would be a success. I would be crazy to do so. Otherwise I’m a cuckoo bird. Coo-coo! Coo-coo!



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