Stephan Delbos is a Prague-based poet. Five years ago, he moved to the Czech capital, where he edits the Prague Review, teaches literary writing at Charles University, works as a business reporter at the English language newspaper The Prague Post and occasionally hosts the Alchemy poetry reading series at the Globe café. I talked to Mr. Delbos about the English language poetry scene here in Prague and what initially drew him to the city.
“I came to Prague six years ago, originally to study as an exchange student at Charles University, and after a year of studies, I returned back to the US to finish school. I came here on a whim, but I had met some good people, and fell in love with the city, so I came back to Prague a year later. I’ve lived here for five years now.”
Would you say that moving abroad has had an effect on your writing?
“Definitely, maybe not an effect that other people would notice, but I think that living abroad, on the one hand, I feel like I am on the cutting edge here, but on the other hand, I feel that I am lost in the wilderness, because there is a lot more happening in terms of publishing in the US. I get to avoid the infighting and backbiting of the literary scene in the US, while still having access to it through submissions and such.”
You’re also very active in the local poetry scene. Can you mention some of the projects that you are involved in here?
“First off, I started managing the Prague Revue a couple of years ago, a literary magazine that was around from 1996 to 2001 and then took a hiatus. We put out issue 8 one and a half years ago, we’re working on the next issue now, it’s basically a once a year literary journal of all kinds of writing, art and photography. So we’re hoping to publish the upcoming issue next spring.
“Also, a new kind of personal project that I am working on is a poetry pamphlet series called Rakish Angel. It’s a basically a limited edition, handmade publication of local poets, English language poets and Czech poets in translation.
“The first one was Six Prague Poets, which came out in December and featured myself, Kateřina Rudčenková, who is a Czech poet, whose work was translated by me and Chris Crawford, who is a Scottish poet also featured in the pamphlet, and two American poets, Gill Fleischman and Jason Mashak, who live in Prague.”
Big publishing houses tend to shy away from poetry. With the smaller publications you are involved in, would you say there still is a market for poetry?
“Yes, I think there is a market for poetry, but not in the way that we think of publishing markets in general. If a book of poetry sells a couple of thousand copies, it’s a big success. I think there is a market for poetry, but it’s a smaller market than for novels.
“I think that poetry readers appreciate poetry and read it more deeply than novel readers. You might not find a poetry book at the airport, for example, but I think the people who read poetry, I don’t think the audience has shrunk or grown very much, it’s pretty constant.”
Here in Prague, do you think that the English language poetry scene, which you are very active in, and the Czech poetry scene overlap sometimes?
“I cannot speak for the whole English language poetry scene that has been going on for the past twenty years, but I think during my time here, it’s kind of been one of the big failures of the English language poets here. If you think back, Prague was often compared to the Paris of the 1920s, the left bank of the nineties thing, but if you look back at the American writers living in Paris at the time, there was much more cross-pollination, much more translation of the Surrealists and the avant-garde French writers, bringing those writers into English, and that really fostered some vital links between the two cultures.
“Here, I don’t see as much of that happening, I know many people who have lived here for a number of years who don’t speak any Czech. I think in the past couple of years, there have been some overtures between the Czech poetry scene and the English poetry scene.
“Certainly, there are some writers that I can think of, such as Justin Quinn, an Irish poet who teaches at Charles University and is very active translating for example Petr Borkovec, who is a contemporary Czech poet. But I do think there is a lot of room for improvement in that, if that happens, Prague might finally be recognized as the vital literary scene that it has always wanted to be.”
In terms of Czech language poets, are there any that you would say you really admire or that have influenced you?
“Sure, when I was working on my Master’s degree, I lectured on Jaroslav Seifert, and I translated a number of his poems, he is kind of a big figure for me, I really admire him. He lived for such a long time and he had the opportunity to write about so many different historic and personal events. More contemporary, there is Pavel Šrut, who recently had a bilingual collection published titled “Paper Shoes,” I really admire his work. A number of others: Vladimír Holan, Vítězslav Nezval, the surrealist poets. Certainly some of the stylistic traits and a way of breaking lines and a solid stanza structure, I have tried to incorporate or have subconsciously incorporated into some of my work.”
And in terms of poetry related events here in Prague, what was your highlight so far? Is there anything that stands out?
“Last year, I read at Švandovo Divadlo. They do a literary evening once a month and I believe once a year they do an English language evening. I read there, and Roman Kratochvila, who owns the Shakespeare and Son’s bookstore, invited me and translated some of my poems into Czech. It was a bilingual reading, and mostly Czechs attended, so that was a big thrill.”
You also teach at Charles University. Can you tell me a bit about that?
“Sure, it’s a new course that I designed for first year students, it’s basically literary writing. I had the opportunity to put together a syllabus of my favorite poets, and essayists and fiction writers. So we read those and discuss them. The students are first year literature students; so basically, I try to teach them how to write about literature, which is pretty challenging, actually. In terms of writing critically, you have to go beyond what you like and don’t like, and talk about if it’s successful or unsuccessful.
“I also teach a few courses at Anglo American University, a small private school here in Prague, in the summer, to coincide with the Writer’s Festival, I teach an intensive four week creative writing course, where we read all the writers who are here for the festival and have the opportunity to go to the festival and also workshops of students’ work, so that keeps me active as well.”
Aside from teaching, you also work as a business reporter at The Prague Post. Do you ever wish that you’d be able to make a living working solely as a poet, and do you think that’s even possible today?
“Well, the number of people who have been able to make their living purely as poets you can probably count on two hands from the beginning of time. I think that the writers that I really admire, people like Sartre, Robert Lowell or Ezra Pound, are people who didn’t consider themselves just poets or novelists but rather writers or men of letters. George Orwell would be in that list as well, and they didn’t limit themselves conceptually or stylistically to a particular genre, but instead tried to engage the world through their writing.
“So that’s the way I try to look at it. I think if I just had to write poetry all the time, I wouldn’t get bored, but I would probably write a lot of really bad poetry.”
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