I’m not a Prague poet (and I know it)

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Do you ever get the feeling that you’ve arrived but the party’s over? All the best music – the Beatles, the Rolling Stones, Dylan – the decent stuff, the genuine article – has already been produced. The best writers have already written the best books, the best painters have already painted the best frescos. All that’s left is just a derivative, watered-down version of what’s gone before. History has already been made and you weren’t there.

I feel like that about Prague sometimes: that by not making it here in the Wild West nineties when there was no Starbucks or Marks and Spencer I’ve somehow missed a Significant Period in Western Civilisation. Living in twenty-first century Europe, despite the Babel of languages, everything is much of a muchness. There’s a Marks and Spencer on Wenceslaus Square, a Costa coffee on Narodni Trida. The only thing I can’t get hold of goods-wise is decent humous.

To the poets then. Apparently, post-Velvet Revolution, Prague became an artistic and cultural melting pot with creative types from all over the world (especially the US of A) taking advantage of the great exchange rate and descending upon the Golden City to indulge their dreams of producing a literary magnum opus. For these folks, nineties Prague was the Paris of the twenties. At least they thought it was. Whether the quality of their output matched that of Stein or Hemingway is open to question. However, thanks to a new anthology of writing in English (mostly) produced by Prague-based authors, you can judge for yourselves.

I attended one of the two launch parties: hey, it’s a fat book. There were readings. Some were good, some weren’t. This isn’t all that surprising: even the some of the greats (T.S Eliot, W.H Auden) weren’t particularly good at reading their work. Someone read a funny short story about working for a language school that had its own unique method for getting their students to speak English – teaching on stilts. There were not so young men making notes in those Moleskine notebooks presumably to prove that when you’re imbued with poetic genius, inspiration can strike at any time. Ah, I promised myself that I wouldn’t mock the poets too much in this post but they make it so easy.

It’s the pretentious posturing that I can’t stand. It seems so unnecessary.

Writing is a lonely business. It’s about you, bum on seat, pen in hand, struggling to come up with some decent ideas. If you want to be Lady Gaga (or the contemporary literary equivalent thereof), go on Ceskoslovensko Superstar instead. You could show off some of the circus skills you acquired while grafting at Shitty School of Languages in order to fund your “real” work – an 800 page homage to Rilke written entirely in a post-Derridean stream of consciousness, self published copies of which are currently arranged in piles in your living room, themselves an ironic testament to the tragic short-sightedness of the publishing industry. That’s what you’d like to believe anyway.

P.S All bloggers (not-so) secretly want to be Proper Published Authors.

An American native speaker gives conversation classes


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16 Responses to I’m not a Prague poet (and I know it)

  1. Jakub

    It is true that Prague was popular among American writers in the nineties. But did any single one of them really make it big in literature? I don’t know any. Did they produce any new movement that is nowadays followed? In comparison to the Paris of the 20s, Prague in the 90s seems boring and marginal. I know only one book about Prague which received enough attention to consider it literary success – The glass room (shortlisted for Booker prize) and even that book, I think, was not a product of an artist living in Prague.

    • girlinczechland

      Hello Jacub,

      When I said sometimes I feel like I’ve arrived after the big historical movement has passed, I meant more that I missed out on the Wild West Nineties, before capitalism (and the impact of globalisation) really got their claws into Czechland (or so I’m told). It must have been a really interesting time. I, like you, have my doubts about whether Prague really was “the left bank of the Nineties” but as I said, if you get a copy of The Return of Kral Majales then you can decide for yourself.

      Also I think “The Glass Room” was set in Mesto, a fictional city based on Brno 🙂


      • Jakub

        Oh I see, in that way you probably missed something – it was fun to grow up in the strange mixture of capitalism and post-communism.

        Shame on me about The glass room, I thought I remembered it and was wrong. I even thought I knew which villa in Prague it was.

      • girlinczechland

        Hello again Jakub,

        Can I ask if you enjoyed “The Glass Room”? Personally I didn’t enjoy it all that much although I can see how it would be exciting for Czechs to have a British novelist be insiped by their country and its history. I just wish more Czech writers were translated into English so that this exchange could work more in both directions… I really enjoyed Hulova’s first novel, “All This Belongs to Me”, which was released last year:



  2. Jakub

    Unfortunately I have not read The glass room. I only know about it because I was following the last year Booker prize, looking for books to read. In the end, I went for the winner of BP, rather than the book about Czechia. Actually, the winner (The Wolf Hall) made me think quite a bit about Hulova because the author does something that she does too – using contemporary colloquial language to narrate in first person about events that are geographically or temporally remote – for me, this use of language strips away credibility.

    I agree with you that it would be nice if there were more Czech authors translated into English. I am not a fan of Hulova’s Pamet moji babicce (I found its story and language somewhat pretentious, as if the main task was to shock) but I like a couple of Czech contemporary writers – Michal Ajvaz and Emil Hakl among others, and neither of them, as far as I know, has a book translated into English (Ajvaz, I think, has one, but its translation, I heard, is very bad). Maybe their translation is waiting for you…:) do you know them?

    On the other hand, I also wish some English authors received more attention in Czechia. For instance, some of my favorite contemporary British authors, like David Mitchell or Kazuo Ishiguro, are virtually unknown in Czechia (even though some of their works were translated, so in this way it is still better than the reception of Czech literature outside).

    Hmm, so I see I told you what I think about literature and Hulova and Wolf Hall and nothing about what you asked:) Sorry.

  3. Mate, all those people who said Prague was so bloody brilliant twenty years ago and we missed it all are just deriving narcissistic self-importance from the fact that, as otherwise underachieving drifters, they just happened to be in a particular location a few years before current incomers, and most of them haven’t actually achieved anything worthwhile in the last decade or two – let alone write the next great American novel. Ignore their navel-gazing pretension and come out and drink wine with us instead!

  4. girlinczechland

    Ms Knedlikova,

    Ha, this made me laugh! Wine-drinking is preferable to navel-gazing anyday…


    • Danos

      Yep, gotta go with Knedlikova on this one. A fun place to visit (I was based in Moscow at the time so a trip here for cheap eats and drinks was a trip beyond heaven in those days), but wow, whaddabunchalosers. 35,000 horny American males, all but unemployable back home, eeking out a living as “English teachers”. Which would have been nice had they been able to speak it properly in the first place…

      I’ll stress again, a fun place to visit and hang out for a bit, but remember the bad stuff too: impossible to get a phone, internet (ha), NOBODY took credit cards and changing money was an expensive nightmare outside bank hours (and even during them, for that matter). The local cafes had different tax rates if they did over 100,000 kcs a month in business, so many of them simply shut arbitrarily when they approached that figure. The radio taxis were just starting to catch on, but you really took your chances hopping in one, Czech speaker or not. This was before the Vietnamese shop owners showed up en masse which meant that we were all hostages to the regular shop hours. Need a bottle of wine, toilet paper, snacks outside the regular hours (shut at noon on Saturdays)? Good luck to you mate. The “food”? Well, the less said the better unless you were eating at someone’s home…

      Those days are mostly gone, and it’s not such a bad thing.

      • girlinczechland

        Hi Danos,

        Yes, those days must have indeed gone as I (fortunately) don’t really recognise much from your description. Life is probably tamer twenty years from the revolution but certainly more comfortable for us spoilt and western types. One day they’ll even have real houmous in Tesco and then I’ll be completely at home. 🙂


  5. Danos

    Oh yeah, I had meant to suggest a houmous place to you (maybe you already know it?).

    If you go to the Vodickova tram stop, head up the hill on Skolska. On your left side, maybe 50 metres from the tram, you’ll find a Greek delicatessen “Nostos”. Lovely couple from Crete run it. Their pitas are, sadly, frozen, but authentic Greek (the perforated round kind). They’ll even toast them for you on the spot. Their houmous is very good and they’ve got olives, olive oil and the usual suspects at decent prices. I prefer the Syrian version of houmous it myself (the consistancy, garlic and olive oil all fluctuate from country to country) , but the “Middle Eastern” food in this country is simply not worth the bother if you ask me. I was spoiled by living in that region for several years; yum.

    • girlinczechland

      Hello again,

      Thanks for the tip – I’ve walked past the place but never tried it. Will put that right very soon – I feel hungry just thinking about it!


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  7. liam griffin

    arrived firstly in Prague in 1993 for a month and lived there permanently from 1998 to 2001. there’s no words to describe the magic that was there, the athmosphere or the sheer complete total lunacy of it all.there were some incredible writers.will never forget Matt Carr’s poetry reading in the Globe circa 1999.If you can get a copy of his masterpiece “The Suchdol Diaries” that he read from that night you’re getting as close as you can get to the raw undiluted essence of the 90’s in Prague.the beers were mysteriously always full.

  8. Ryan Connor

    There is a buzz in Anglophone poetry outta Prague right now. You will not see the best quality being read at readings The good work is being produced in apartments all over the city and published in USA and UK literary journals. I can think of two or three poets who have not yet published a full length collection but who undoubtedly will. There are also poets like Justin Quinn and Louis Armand who have many books between them. Quinn has had work in the New Yorker twice in the last 18 months. The social lit scene and readings were pretty wild up until Spring last year then became very quiet- socially. There are plenty of books and magazines publishing the Prague poets but the drinking/reading scene has quietened it down. I was speaking with a poet called Josh at the end of last year and he told me the root cause of this quietening down was a poet called Chris Crawford leaving town and poet/editor Stephen Delbos hiding himself away, presumably to work. Apparently these two were key agitators, Crawford as a bridge between different groups of writers and Czech/English poets; and Delbos as an organizer of readings and publisher of poetry pamphlets..
    These things always go in waves but to arrive in Prague now IS an exciting time in terms of publishing but in terms of quality poetry at readings….not sure.
    I myself am a lurker, writing some humble verses by night and attending some readings–so far I haven’t had the courage to stand up and read!
    Keep up the interesting blog!

  9. Pavel

    With internet literature unfortunately lost high status in culture, today there are no more genial weirdos in literature, only weirdos, and this process starts in 90´ so maybe this is reason there are no great books from Prague expats writers. Henry Miller today would happily sell pet food over internet and I am afraid with expansion of gay clubs Hemingway would never write book.
    I am right now reading great blog about young man in south Asia, his adventures with girls, snakes, criminals, alcohol and money deficiency, but it is only blog with few readers and his topmost ambition is make few hundred dollars on adds.

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