On the recommendation of Jenny Smith, Bil Brown went to the Czech Republic late in 1998, 10 years after The Velvet Revolution changed the way people viewed the Eastern Bloc.
Prague Post founder and editor, Alan Levy - a writer, like Brown that got his start in Louisville, working for Barry Bingham's Courier-Journal and Louisville Times - called Prague, "The Paris of the 90s" and Brown, an graduate of Boulder, Colorado's Jack Kerouac School of Disembodied Poetics couldn't agree more.
His teacher, cofounder of The Kerouac School and internationally recognized celebrity poet Allen Ginsberg, was crowned Kral Majales, "King of May" in 1965 when visiting Prague during the "smiling face of Socialism" but still under the scrutiny of the Soviet empire.
Brown went to Prague to start a school based on the Kerouac School, Naropa University's premiere avant-garde writing program, a place until then unique in the world.
With the last decade coming to a close, there has been a tendency to speak of yet a third “renaissance” in Prague’s international literary scene - the first two being Czech Poetism movement of the 1920-30s and then the radical anti-socialist movement of Charter 77 that among other triumphs of the will inspired The Velvet Revolution.
From a perspective of the last twenty years, the lure of periodization, of identifying different groupings and tendencies, presents itself in ways that it did not in the past. It may be that a “Prague School” (or schools) exists. If one does in fact exist, Bil Brown is one of the founders and recent-leaders of a so-called "Prague School"
Poet Robert Creely's visit to Prague in 1998 provided an opportunity for consideration of the dominant tendencies in English-language poetics in the city, between the legacy of Ginsberg and the Beats…
By the end of the nineties, a core of poets had emerged in Prague whose work stood out from this tradition and was gaining increased recognition—among them Gwendolyn Albert, Laura Conway, Vincent Farnsworth, Louis Armand, Michael Brennan, Jenny Smith and Bil Brown.
In September 1998, Bil Brown, a former student of Ginsberg and filmmaker Stan Brakhage, founded the non-profit Pražská škola poetiky (Prague School of Poetics), with Jenny Smith and Jenne Magno.
The school organized a series of festivals and bilingual workshops focused on writing, performance and improvisation, involving writers such as Anne Waldman, Jerome Rothenberg, Bernadette Mayer and Lydia Lunch.
As Magno relates: “There was a feeling at that time that Prague was the vortex.” Collaborating closely with the Schule für Dichtung in Wien, the Pražská škola also played host to some of the writers and performers loosely associated with the Vienna School, including Nick Cave and Blixa Bargeld.
According to its mission statement, the Pražská škola’s major objective was “the cultivation of a responsible poetics” linked to outreach and humanitarian programs:
Brown, Smith and Magno wrote in the mission statement:
Poetics is a hidden science that investigates and expands the parameters of creative expression, and is described by American poet Charles Bernstein as “the continuation of poetry by other means.” The Pražská škola poetiky, a new international school of poetics based in Prague, upholds this dictum by hosting an intensive annual program of exchange, invention and performance, as well as year-round activities designed to ignite a dialogue within the international writing community and the Prague community at large.
The Pražská škola was described by Lawrence Ferlinghetti as “important for the development and recognition of Czech poetry,” while Anne Waldman— co-founder with Allen Ginsberg of the Jack Kerouac School of Disembodied Poetics, in Boulder, Colorado—called it “a unique visionary project, promoting literature and writing and the artistic imagination across cultural borders ... creating new dialogues and possibilities in the next millennium.” As Ide Hintz, co-founder of the Schule für Dictung (School of Poetry in Vienna, Austria), wrote:
Central Europe has always been and always will be a genuine transmitter and translator between cultures and languages (traditional and utopian). Prague hosts and neighbors many languages (spoken and written). The Velvet Revolution—together with other post-Stalinist revolutions—was prepared mostly by poets, artists and intellectuals.
The same year (1998), Bil Brown collaborated with Louisville Poet Jameson Welch - then visiting Europe - to form Involute Press, publishing Jenny Smith’s Egon (previously serialized in the little magazine Optimism). Brown, Smith and Magno also participated in the Allen Ginsberg commemorative readings in Vienna that year, along with members of the “Labyrinth” group (Peter Waugh and Karin Kaminker).
While it is generally recognized that the turn of the millennium represented a difficult time for the international scene in Prague, news of its demise had been greatly exaggerated. Continuing its project of outreach and social advocacy, the Pražská škola poetiky evolved in late 1999 into two complementary programmes: Projekt 2000 and Prameni, both under the creative directorship of Bil Brown and Jenny Smith, and coordination of Jenne Magno.
Projekt 2000: “The Subversive in Voice and Verse,” was a workshop series and festival of experimental poetics and performance. Among the poets who presented workshops were Jerome Rothenberg, translator of Vítěslav Nezval and founder of ethnopoetics, and the increasingly present Anne Waldman.
The Projekt 2000 festival took place at Galerie NoD, 10-28 November (2000)—dedicated to “stretching the boundaries of word, text, voice and vision.” Participants included Waldman, Kateřina Piňosová, Anna Vaníčková and Antonie Svobodová (working with “bodytext”), Pavla (Slabá) Jonssonová, Iva Vodražková, Kateřina Kotková and Lydia Lunch.
Projekt 2000 supports an under-represented portion of the artistic community in that [the] festival is a tribute to experimental women writers, artists and performers. Not only are women artists under-represented in the Czech Republic, but very few are translated into English ... and very few American women artists have been translated into Czech. This is an important time socially and politically for women in the Czech Republic. The festival will take place less than 6 months after an all-female shadow cabinet formed in response to the [Czech government’s] all male cabinet and one particular member’s comment that women do not belong in politics. It is a time for strong, creative, independent women’s voices to be expressed.
The arts group Prameni pursued “poetry by other means” in a continuation of Pražská škola’s outreach program. “Parallel Poetics: Dissent, Discourse and Democracy” (2000) was an attempt at opening discussion into “the importance of uncompromised individual expression and parallel artistic culture to the creation and preservation of civil society”:
We believe that discussion of the role of poet and artist in society, the importance of self-expression to the development of the individual and society as a whole, and the impact of parallel cultures on local and global change, is essential in the Czech Republic.
From September 1999 to June 2000, Prameni developed the “Living Word Poetics Project” with Kateřina Piňosová, designed as a series of workshops with students at the Romská střední škola sociální v Kolíně.
The project was sponsored by the Just Buffalo Literary Centre in New York, and was designed as a poetry exchange between the Roma students and students of the Native American Magnet School #19 in Buffalo.
A remarkable volume of writings by the students, produced during the workshop sessions, was published in 2003 as Život Fungoval a Nakonec Skončil/Life Went on and Finally Ended.
A new wave of social militancy appeared to spread across the developed world in response to the excesses of globalization and the re- emergence in many countries of a quasi-police state.
In September 2000, the International Monetary Fund/World Bank summit took place in Prague’s communist-era Palác Kultury, attracting some 12,000 international protestors.
For weeks the city was subject to a heavy police presence reminiscent of the lead-up to November 1989. Two years later—on the 4th of March, 2002— the US State Department released its annual report on human rights in the Czech Republic, heavily criticizing police brutality during the IMF/World Bank protests.
Brown, along with visiting Kerouac School friend and activist Brad Will - the IndiMedia documentary filmmaker who in 2007 was assassinated by Oaxaca, Mexican officials - housed many visiting protesters in his flat in Prague's Old Town neighborhood. During the summit, Brown was notably documenting a "poetic response" to the "overt terrorism and usury" of the IMF/World Bank. A response that still resides in Prague. Brown left in 2001, after 9/11 he notes the response seemed premature.
Although the world banks are causing the scarcity of the world's natural resources, including starvation and a silent and not-so-silent genocide of indigenous peoples, as well as the overwhelming environmental concerns - I thought calling G.W. Bush and company international terrorists during the time of The Patriot Act might be of some concern to my growing family. The Czech artists I knew instilled a sense of righteous paranoia of the government that has stuck with me. Some of the Czech Surrealists for example were hung for their art, or imprisoned and families separated for just speaking their mind.
In 2003, the Pražská škola was formally subsumed by Naropa University's Jack Kerouac School of Disembodied Poetics, with close guidance from Brown who had returned to the states while his daughter was being born during 2001-2002 - arriving just just weeks before 9/11 - returning briefly to Prague Sept 2002 until January 2003. Now he resides in Los Angeles, and only his children visit their grandparents home in Prague. However, like Alan Levy, the reverse culture-shock of returning to the US after a long sabbatical in Prague has given Brown cause to consider re-expatriate life.
Like Prague Post founder and editor Alan Levy, I thought I would die in Prague. In fact my Czech ex-wife who lives here (Louisville) now with my two half Czech children returned to Prague to stay with me there in 2001. Incidentally leaving her Guggenheim husband in the process - who she also met in Prague. We left soon after, because I knew that I was an American and likely would be back to the states for an extended stay. I still might go back to Prague. Or at least, like Levy, have my ashes thrown into the Vltava.
THE RETURN OF KRAL MAJALES anthology includes the work of over 90 writers and translators active in Prague between 1990 and 2010; generously illustrated with archival photos, portraits, film-stills and memorabilia; and complemented by a detailed bibliography of English-language literary journals, chapbook series, anthologies, book publications.
Contributors: Michal Ajvaz, Jorn Ake, Gwendolyn Albert, Hana Andronikova, Louis Armand, Julie Ashley, Alex Barber, Kip Allan Bauersfeld, Kevin Blahut, Petr Borkovec, Sarah Borufka, Michael Brennan, Bil Brown, Anna Bryson, Alexandra Buchler, Isobelle Carmody, Vera Chase, Lou Charbonneau, Julie Chibbaro, Joshua Cohen, Laura Conway, Christopher Cook, Christopher Crawford, Lewis Crofts, Pierre Daguin, Barbara Day, Stephan Delbos, Danika Dinsmore, David Doubek, Daniela Drazanova, Vit Erban, G.S. Evans, Robert Eversz, Vincent Farnsworth, Sylva Fischerova, David Freeling, Jim Freeman, Michaela Freeman, Stuart Friebert, Robert Gal, Thor Garcia, Myla Goldberg, Elizabeth Gross, Emil Hakl, Bernie Higgins, Stuart Horwitz, Howard Hunt, Travis Jeppesen, Ivan Martin Jirous, Alexander Jorgensen, Richard Katrovas, Jane Kirwan, Jana Klepetarova, Eva Klimentova, Vit Kremlicka, Maya Kvetny, Toby Litt, Christopher Lord, Paul Martia, Jason Mashak, Tom McCarthy, John McKeown, Maureen McManus, Joshua Mensch, Tomas Mika, Ewald Murrer, Ken Nash, Scott Jonathan Nixon, Andrew Oakland, Peter Orner, Tony Ozuna, Iva Pekarkova, Katerina Pinosova, Jaroslav Pizl, Magdalena Platzova, Paul Polansky, Justin Quinn, James Ragan, Martin Reiner, Pavel Reznicek, Tim Rogers, Katerina Rudcenkova, Jaroslav Rudis, Simon Safranek, Revan Schendler, Theodore Schwinke, Patrick Seguin, Bethany Shaffer, Joe Sherman, Phil Shoenfelt, David Short, Howard Sidenberg, Jenny Smith, Donna Stonecipher, Holly Tavel, Jeri Theriault, Alan Ward Thomas, Anthony Tognazzini, Lukas Tomin, Marek Tomin, Nicole Tomlinson, Jachym Topol, Petra Vachunova, David Vichnar, Lawrence Wells, Alice Whittenburg, Clare Wigfall, Laura Zam, Lucien Zell, Alex Zucker.
BIL'S NOTE: I have geared this specific writing for the journey of one poet, myself. Not meant to step on any toes. With a bit of editing for continuity, adding names and changing a few details, the majority of this release was liberally taken from various pages of Louis Armand's introduction of the anthology The Return of Kral Majales. Still editing - in haste - for inclusion, Danika Dinsmore, and others that made the Prague school alive. Please check out the anthology en whole, 950 pages of amazing writing and community! Thank you all!