Underground in Lviv

Martin Dowle, Country Director British Council Ukraine, goes underground in search of a poetic meeting of cultural traditions.

I don’t normally associate grand 19th century opera houses with underground cellar bars, but I do now, after a trip to the west Ukrainian city of Lviv.

An inconspicuous side door with a boat outside is the only sign you are heading for the counter-cultural. As your eyes adjust to the dark, you have to feel your step carefully.

Down a flight of stairs you then have to cross a body of water on a series of planks – then, passing another boat and some wellies, you come back into the light and a fully-fledged cellar bar named after the La Rive Gauche.

A river really does run under both Lviv and the opera house – it was covered over in the nineteenth century. So it was a highly appropriate location for a very unique series of poetry readings which resulted from a workshop at the city’s sixth literature festival between four poets – two from Scotland, two from Ukraine.

The two duos – former festival director, Ostap Slyzsinskyi and Kona Macphee, and Sophie Cooke and Halyna Kruk (dubbed Cooke and Kruk) – really got under the skin of each other’s writings and unearthed some subterranean meanings that more superficial translations might have missed.

In four days they even managed to tackle how poets can deal with different structural rhythms between the two languages – Ukrainian apparently can’t deal easily with iambic pentameter – such as half rhymes and slant rhymes.

This was most definitely an experience that could not have been undertaken by e-mail, and needed substantial patience – though how they managed to produce an hour and half’s worth of readings between them is hard to imagine.

Lviv lends itself well to the needs of a literature festival. Its bars and Viennese-style coffee houses provide an intimacy between author and reader largely lost in the UK’s big lit-fests.

And its commitment to exploring literature across borders, expressed in its ‘dialogue of cultures’ debates, is spot on for a city that rightly celebrates multi-culturalism and its role as as a meeting place between East and West reflected in a dramatic, and at times traumatic, history.

Read more blogs by Martin Dowle

Find out more about our work in Ukraine