Monday, November 28, 2005

Protector of the Small

Here's some small and beautiful books that I have around the house:

This Is Important by F.A. Nettlebeck.
Half a sheet of letter paper, xeroxed, cut the long way and folded accordion-style. Tiny poems.


you travel for
a distance and you
don't see any bones,
you worry, because
then you are lost.

Okay, not my favorite poem in the world, but I like the idea of these little scraps floating around the world! Nettlebeck's work is often amazing. This Is Important looks to have come from the 80s in Santa Cruz. Last year I saw Nettlebeck read at Art 21 in Palo Alto - he came out from Arizona or Colorado or somewhere on a visit - and he blew me away. It was like a scruffy, stinking, roaring tiger at a Persian cat show. He came complete with drunken shit-kicker girlfriend who heckled everyone and asked them if they were dead. (As it is generally a lovely yet WASPy crowd, quiet and solemn as church.) Meanwhile Nettlebeck was ranting from his novel with sort of time travelling scungy teenagers and reminiscings of the 70s Santa Cruz poetry scene and the bones of Ginsberg. There is something to ephemeral slips of paper and to experiences like that mad, mad reading in the art gallery!

Inevitable - writings by Sabrina C.
Letter paper, halved the short way, folded, and stapled on the short edge handout not booklet style, xerox.
Roller blade fire mama, spandex short and legs hard with gleaming muscle, the shine shifting, blinding ants for a second...
Sabrina tries hard to capture each moment, each person passed in the street, the blinding sweat rollerblade beauty and the "lonely aluminum wolves", "how they cross and uncross streets in nervous jittered unlacings". Strong fierce lovely poems... I like the roughness of the work and of the book. My favorite of her poems I've seen so far is the long one in Inevitable that starts:
Now the key has to be ready and accessible between fingers three and four by the time I've even rounded my block
right hand in my right pocket, I've got the lock down of my mental security in check.

She describes how she pictures the locks and the sequence of actions necessary to get into her apartment's gates and doors; in the middle of the imagining and unlocking, she describes her enemy. It's eerie for me to read, as I also wrote a long poem about this very thing.
I know the way they look in the sun
their eyes downcast and watching
their sideways following heet whispers as they warm you up for their licking shadows

I know the way that they plan their sentences to follow my passing like a scent
and their lingering desires that catch me like ghosts of stink perfume

I know the rooms they live in
boxes of heated sheets
stained with the imprints of their turning night bodies
their hands praying to crucifixes
while creating the beads of rosaries
in cream and liquid testimonies of faith

they are praying to something they will never get
and though I am nameless, I am it

That's quite powerful. Do you see the roughness, but the power of the roughness? I think the power would disappear if smoothed. I saw John Lee Hooker play once, and it was like that, rough, smoky, crackling, noisy, with extra bits. It had noise in the signal.

Nonce by Cid Corman.
Small and thin. Japanese striped paper jacket. printed & stapled, 1965. 500 copies printed. The jacket goes over the staples to hide them.

As the sun
lights mountains
the child's hand

lifts to its

I'm on a roll with the poems about babies and sunbeams.

shower! As
if I couldnt
go out,
if I wished!

Aw yeah. Should tattoo that on myself, for when the revolution comes. Why wait for the revolution? It's a good motto anytime. Thunder shower! Hah! It expresses such affection and boldness, an intimate relationship with the world. Like he's saying, "Oh, you!" and patting the storm on its head. Or anything that makes a Big Noise to scare you. You don't have to be scared - says Cid. And it's conveyed in so few words! Go ahead and try to do that.

I'm a sucker for this poem:

Someone will
sweep the fallen
petals away

away. I know,
I know. Weight of
red shadows.

I feel oldfashioned for liking Corman so much. I'm not sure how much of my liking is in the poems and how much is in his little books and his philosophies. I'm sad that he died a couple of years ago and I didn't even know. We were writing letters for a while, and he gave me permission to reprint his translation of Lu Chi's Wen Fu, a work on writers and writing.

He was the sort of person who delighted in writing to everyone, sending off little paper doves, emitting poems and interesting thoughts to anyone who might find them. Whole chunks of the letters would repeat themselves sometimes. As if he wanted to make sure it got through to someone, like repeated coded messages from a submarine... He would have had a lovely blog.

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Wednesday, November 16, 2005

Cheap thrills, writing hangovers, long poems

Have you ever written - and published - a line that later gives you a hot blush of shame? For me it's always some cheap trick of rhetoric that seemed like a good idea when it spewed off my fingertips into TexEdit, some utterly dorktastic 9th grade journalism thing, a throwaway bit of demogoguery that mixes the trite and pompous. I can think of two of them right now that I'd love, love, love, to delete from the face of the earth.

Other lines I've written stick in my head more pleasantly. I'm in love with them despite their technical flaws, and I don't want to abandon their imperfections.

This happened to me today. I was driving along, thinking about poetry. A poem I wrote 10 years ago, "White Horse," started running through my head. I haven't thought of it or looked at it for quite a while, though I tried reading it aloud at a poetry slam in San Jose once - my first and only poetry slam, and it was the wrong kind of poem and I hadn't memorized it.

Things bothered me about this poem: I kept plonking back and forth between prosy explaining-language that embarrasses me, like:

her children fight, complain, scream,
her mother and sisters bicker
far into the night, chainsmoking,

and dense stuff that I approve of still, like:

Resignation bright as a trumpet, victim-shiny,

It became completely obvious to me how I wanted to fix the poem and save it from my own clumsiness. Because it's good, really, especially the very end:

Your hands, Diana, pull the life
from his warm animal eyes, his skin
collapses, the bones protruding
unwind, unwrap themselves into crackling
mummy bandages, deeds to property, car
registrations, proof of insurance, diplomas,
credit reports, all fluttering up and around your hands
like paper doves, and the moon dissolves into its own
beams. My wet puddle self is drawn up in the same
life-line, into the horse's skin, which,
reanimate, boneless, sways to accept her weight,
all fluid and alert, and we are together
rollicking off into the moonless night.

"Off into" bothers me, and yet I don't want to abandon it, for its trueness to my own speech patterns and for its rhythm and emphasis.

There's other poems I know I can't rewrite. I have to start over, and start somewhere else.

At that time 10 years ago my poetics were focused around narrative movement. I wanted each poem, without being prose, to have something happen. The mood and images had to be in a story, and that story had to be something beyond "Oooo, look, I just had a vague epiphany." I wrestled with that one for a while.

But later, I spouted off thusly, in one of my "Hot Air" essays. I think this one was in Caesura magazine:
Poetry swirls and leaps and turns in on itself. It should be dense, rich, layered. Dense poetry rewards study and thought. It should not pace – not even long narrative poetry. It changes state. It boils and sublimates.

A prose poem is something different; a vignette, or a collage, not an excerpt from a novel.

Look at the poem. If it can be written out as a paragraph – with a paragraph's pacing and sensibility – then make it so.

(You see what I mean about my tendency to bombast... But I was trying to say something steely-eyed about Bad Poetry, without citing any actual examples of bad poetry, those ones I'd been hearing that were driving me crazy...)

And then suddenly I moved on to writing very long poems, listening to the structure of long poems. I love how certain poems move in and out of a subject, returning to touch base and then spinning out into the distance, never quite letting you go - but you have to pay attention! But no, actually, you don't. The long poem allows space for spacing out. You can listen to it, and as in listening to baroque music, your mind can spin out into some fascinating direction and then be reeled or yanked back in, back into the present of the poet's voice. At readings at Waverley Writers, and then later at Art21, and the Saturday Poets, I heard Steve Arntson recite his long, long poems about the coast of Oregon and Kirk and Spock and the Wizard of Oz, and immediately classed him with Kerouac, Ginsberg, Grahn, in his mastery of the form of the long poem. It was instructive for me. I have his CD, "Poem Dreams with Imaginary Companions" and another huge audio tape with the oregon poems.

At the time I was translating a poem that takes 20 minutes to read aloud, that is all in rhymed couplets and mean to be sung: "Florentino y el Diablo." Now, I am translating Nestor Perlongher's long poem "Cadáveres", which spins off in baroque fashion and "yanks" you back with repetition. Each verse - and the lengths and rhythms vary - ends with the words, "Hay Cadáveres". In a way I felt... Oh, this is so rude ... but I'm a snob and I love the clusterfuck density of Perlongher's shorter, more cryptic poems where many things happen at once, like a 10-dimensional cryptogram, and I remember first reading "Cadáveres" and thinking "Ha. That's a cheap trick. Here's his popular poem." But really I love that poem.

Believe it or not, I have a point I'm winding up to make. Recently I was talking to someone, I think Serene who does the Nomad Cafe reading series, about our love of "that 70s thing" that is sort of like beat poets, or like the next generation of poets who obviously love the beats but who are not quite beats, and we think of ourselves as continuing in that vein. I am about ready to declare that whole Thing to be part of what Cuban and Argentinian critics call the neobarroque. At some point last year, Hilary Kaplan turned me on to her translation of Alexei Bueno's amazing long poem, "The Decomposition of Johann Sebastian Bach", so there's a Brazilian neobarroco writer for you.... Once I started reading about neobarroco, I realized that's what I'm doing. For a year I've been thinking of my own poetics as part of the neobaroque, but it's been a private process of consideration. I should write this up more thoroughly, with examples.

It is like the beautiful moment during Quetzalcoatl's version of "El Gabán y el gavilán" where the song is interrupted by the harp spiralling off into something hesitant, like a haze of a chain of thought that's almost broken...

Anyway, I really hate it when people call me a language poet. I'm a neobaroque poet. And in the best of my nascent traditions, I will promise to write about all this tomorrow. Then tomorrow, I'll have a new and shinier thought.

I will also promise to discuss Steve Arntson's work in detail. It's astonishing to me when I'm in a room full of people who seem not to realize that whenever he reads it's a Momentous Occasion. If I ever help to get his poems published or collected or recorded I will be very, very happy. The world is missing out and I can't stand for his work to disappear into the fog of memory.

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Monday, November 14, 2005

The computing of literacy

I'm sick of my own longing for a "real book". Yes, I suck at sending out my work. For 20 years I've made little booklets and magazines - sometimes bad and sloppy, sometimes good and sloppy, sometimes, I think, very beautiful... And I still can't believe the scrambling after legitimacy that I see and frankly, that I feel myself do at times. Someone says a nasty thing about "self publishing" or vanity presses, and I know what they mean. They mean writing that's so bad you're embarrassed to be on the same planet with it.

But anyone can declare themselves a press.

When vanity has capital, it becomes legitimate. That's disgusting and unacceptable! We should be careful not to equate money with literary quality. On the other hand, hating the "legitimate" is no better than its opposite. I wish that people would exercise their own judgement in poetry; would take pleasure in excellent work whether it is found in odd corners or trumpted from the rooftops with vast marketing power.

Look at the snobbery around web-based publishing. I predicted ten years ago that it would be coming to a head right around now. Maybe I was too optimistic, because I hear sneers at web journals from all over despite the amazing greatness of what's out there. My anthology project would never have gotten this far without places like Palabra Virtual, for example. In science fiction, I've been reading for a book award, and have found almost all the best short fiction online, in Strange Horizons or on

Collectivity also does not guarantee quality. A magazine or a press run by several famous people with reasonably good taste doesn't automatically produce better work than something edited and published by one or two people. In fact, the more people you have on a project, the greater the likelihood that some crap creeps in, because someone's ex-boyfriend or old teacher or classmate can't be left out without great offense and scandal. Editing magazines or anthologies is a literary art, sometimes done well as a collaboration, sometimes fine as a solo production. (I tend to believe most strongly in tight collaborations that are heavy on process and commitment - but there are editors whose taste and judgement I trust more than others. )

So if we know good and bad when we see them, how come good work doesn't always bubble up to the top, like some kind of perfect libertarian merit-based fermentation process? Physical books and magazines are ephemeral, I think more so than earlier in this century. Libraries don't have space. Archives aren't as accessible as they'd like to be. Bookstores and publishing are a travesty, a running sore. More poetry books get printed and destroyed than get printed and sold.

It seems obvious that we need different models of publishing and reading.

In blogging, a new literary genre that is only beginning to gain recognition, it's almost all self-publishing. It is now incredibly simple, and free, to make your writing available. You can go to the nearest public library and blog all you want from a public terminal for most of the world to read as they please. How do you, then, as a reader, find what's good? (I'm not thinking yet about "How do you, as a writer, make money?") The search engine model is to create an algorithm, a formula, weighing various factors to assign relative ranking to web pages. This becomes a bit of a popularity contest, and it's possible to rig it just like you can rig the literary game by all your friends also being writers and critics... I imagined a few years ago in my paper "A search engine model of literary quality and intertextuality" that we could make open source, flexible algorithms to make infinite, individual, multiple, dynamic ranking systems for literature, for anything textual, so that the question "What is good?" could be rephrased easily, constantly, as "What is good for this particular purpose, at this moment, to whom, and according to whom?

So, to ask this question another way, how can I find some good poetry on the web? There's so much of it. No one's controlling what is "publishable" quality and what isn't. How can I filter out the crap?

I think granularity and tagging might help with this problem. A sort of "Technorati for poetry" or for literature in general would be very helpful. Imagine if every poem published on the web, anywhere, were marked up as a poem, tagged as a poem. And then imagine if one's identity as a critic and writer were also a tag. Instantly you have solved the problem of editing, publishing, judgement. You find a person whose work you like as your starting point, then you see if you like their judgement of what's good, and look at their tag clouds and their rankings, and keep poking, following, and adjusting until you have your own custom "magazine" of what you love best. Your own reputation then depends on your own judgement of what you say you love best. If you think about it, this imaginary data structure already exists, but it's imaginary. It exists already in informal social networks, in your trust of what your friend thinks of the latest book as well as what some pompous ass in the NY Times Book Review says about it. I just want this beautiful data structure, this social network of literary criticism, to have a home and good tools.

My understanding of all this is somewhat based on reading people like Eugene E. Kim of eekspeaks, and Mary Hodder of Napsterization, and that whole crowd that I met at BarCamp and BlogHer, too many to list here. But I have been writing and thinking about "it" for years without much connection to the places where most of the intense conversations are happening.

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Damned with machista praise

From an essay by José Carlos Mariátegui - cited by Daisy Zamora in the intro to her anthology, La mujer nicaragüense en la poesía:

"Los versos de las poetisas generalmente no son versos de mujer. No se siente en ellos sentimiento de hembra. Las poetisas no hablan como mujeres. Son, en su poesía, seres neutros. Son artistas sin sexo. La poesía de la mujer está dominada por un pudor estúpido. Y carece por esta razón de humanidad y de fuerza. Mientras el poeta muestra su "yo", la poetisa esconde y mistifica el suyo. Envuelve su alma, su vida, su verdad, en las grotescas túnicas de lo convencional" (Zamora 22).

"The verses of poetesses generally aren't women's verses. One doesn't sense in them any female feeling. The women poets don't talk like women. They are, in their poetry, neuter beings. They're artists without sex. The poetry of women is dominated by an idiotic modesty. And that's why they lack in humanity and power. While the male poet displays his "I", the poetess hides and mystifies herself. She wraps up her soul, her life, her truth, in the grotesque tunics of the conventional." [translation by Liz Henry]

I don't know the year that Mariátegui wrote this essay, but most likely sometime in the 1920s. It's fascinating to contrast his criticism of women with that of other (male) critics who run off at the mouth about the oversexed women poets who go too far with their passion and who can't seem to write about anything important, anything other than love. I had just been writing about him in conjunction with Magda Portal, María Wiesse, Angela Ramos, Alicia del Prado, and other women who were publishing in Amauta, a Peruvian magazine. He was the only man mentioned in conjunction with these very political, activist women, and I wondered if he had some interesting take on feminism. Well, he sure sounds jerky in that one excerpt, kind of like he wants a free show from these un-neuter women who boldly strip themselves of their tunics...

Last week I translated Magda Portal's poem "Liberación". And check out these lines:

Un día seré libre... Seré libre presiento,
con una gran sonrisa a flor de corazón,
con una gran sonrisa como no tengo hoy.
Y ya no habrá la sombra de mi remordimiento,
el cobarde silencio que merma mi Emoción.
Un día habré logrado la verdad de mi Yo!

One day I'll be free... I'll be free, I know it,
with a huge smile that flowers from the heart,
with a huge smile that I don't have today.
And then I won't have the ghost of my shame,
the coward silence that tamps down Emotion.
Someday I'll have achieved the truth of my Self!
[forgive the translation... a crude first draft.]

Wow! That just can't be a coincidence. It sounds like she wrote it in response to Mariátegui. A little bit of poking around on the web and I found this fascinating essay by him all about Portal's poetry, comparing her to Agustini, Ibarbourou, and others: 7 Ensayos de Interpretación de la Realidad Peruana, from 1928. Mari&ategui has a huge crush!

I find it annoying how he says her work isn't "descended" from any other women -- as if feminist geneologies would demean the work or the poet, and as if she sprung up out of nowhere and as if no other woman anywhere were writing like that. Praise becomes isolation; isolation becomes tokenization. I understand that his motivations were partly nationalist, but from my perspective, I see every introduction to women's work from this era saying "How come this woman poet has no equal, no precursor? Where did she come from? " as having a subtext of assigning freakishness to women writers.

But then, the more I look, the more I find that these women writers often were surrounded by other writing women. They're not left out because they're trivial; they're left out because non-triviality is defined to be male.

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Friday, November 11, 2005

Anthologizing; standards of selection

I've been working on my anthology project for over a year. It's of poems by Latin American women writers - well, Spanish America - and is focused on work published between 1880 and 1930. My goal is to give a fair representation of what was being published by women in that era. I've done a lot of research! And I could spend years expanding this project; it's fascinating and there is a ton of material. To do this project right, I would need to go spend a couple of months in various big libraries. I'd like to visit the Benson Latin American collection in Austin; I'm familiar with it because I used to work in that library system. I'd like to go to big libraries in Buenos Aires and Uruguay and Cuba and Guatemala, to look at copies of women's magazines and other literary magazines from the turn of the century.

For now, I have quite a lot to work with. I have good work from about 40 or 50 poets, and many more I haven't yet been able to judge. I've translated a smaller core group of 21 poets, made short bios for them, and compiled lists of their work, where I could find that information. Most of these poets are not well known. You have your famous ones in roughly this order:

- Gabriela Mistral (Won the Nobel Prize)
- Delmira Agustini
- Alejandra Storni

I'd say that's it for the "known" writers that you would expect from an academic who is a latin americanist, or is from Latin America. Storni, especially, was hip recently. And a few poets in the U.S. will have read selected translations of Mistral. Usually the dippiest and stupidest of her poems.

Beyond that, people seem to know Juana de Ibarbourou; Salome Ureña, Gertrudis Gómez de Avellaneda. Correct me if I'm wrong! The other writers are either little-known even to most literary people, or they're known (or known of) by people from their own countries. This is not surprising; academia rewards specialization. People tend to become experts in a particular time, place or "literary movement"; even so narrow as to study a particular writer. The mindset of the ambitious anthologist must be quite different.

I find most of my "unknown" women poets only in anthologies that are country-specific, and often only in old anthologies from 1930. There is a certain sentimentality attached to them, as they might have been poems memorized in grade school for recitation.... again, the poems best known are not the best poems.

So what do I mean by "the best poems"? On some level, I have an absolute artistic standard, a very traditional "golden bookshelf" one, that I'm judging by. It's elitist and snobby. I like density of language and meaning, a "leaping" quality, and intertextuality. I like a surprise. I value poems that are exciting to me as a poet - and value them over poems that might be more exciting to a general audience. This kind of discernment is good to have, but it can also be a liability or an obstacle to interpretive vision and judgement; it can be blatantly classist; it's like wearing blinders. Steeping myself in non-elite traditions gives me other standards to judge by; like with literary genre, you can't judge one sort of thing by the standards of another. In other words, I believe that literary critics, anthologizers, and teachers have to get over that sense, or not be limited by it.

On another level, I want to find "what's interesting to people now" including anything that I think will be unexpected. If I see (and I do) that "latin american women's writing" is being marketed in the U.S. as having a certain kind of eroticism, then I want to find poems that are metaphysical and abstract. When I read prefaces to other anthologies that say that women mostly write love poetry that's overly sentimental and twee, and that men's poetry is more important because it's political, then I want to find some political poems by women. Whenever I make up my mind to look for something that I've read doesn't exist, frankly, I've found it! That is very satisfying to my notions of feminism.

Overt feminist content often interests me in a poem, so while Adela Zamudio's "Nacer Hombre" doesn't make my snooty elitist filter, it is boldly feminist. It has also been an extremely famous poem for over 100 years. That alone gives it historical interest. And when I show it to people, they tend to respond with surprise and pleasure that such a poem was written at all in 1887:

Cuánto trabajo ella pasa
Por corregir la torpeza
De su esposo, y en la casa,
( Permitidme que me asombre).
Tan inepto como fatuo,
Sigue él siendo la cabeza,
Porque es hombre!

Actually, these sentiments were not so rare as people think. It is a sad symptom of the state of history, and of feminist history, that it should be so surprising.

I look for works that are representative of a particular kind of writing. Here's a perfect example: Emma Vargas Flórez de Arguelles, born in 1885 in Colombia. I found a few of her poems in an old anthology of Colombian women poets. She never published a book, but had poetry in magazines and newspapers and was part of a family of poets. That's all I know about her. If I could go to Colombia, or if I spent a week digging, I'm sure I'd find more about her life and more of her work. The poem I am including in the anthology is called "Manos femeniles." It's totally barfy. I'll give you some of my English translation:

Professional hands that instead of a needle
take up the pen, driven by longing,
and instead of embroidery, shape verses;
you're the busy secretaries of the soul,
that in happy times, peaceful, create
harmonious verses from honey and vinegar.

It gets worse. Lilies, mothers, children, Christ, butterflies, shy maidens, fragility, embroidery, stars, pearls, honor, and "holy obedience" all make cameo appearances and one is slightly tempted to think of the word "doggerel". But then I think back to Longfellow and Tennyson, who are just as barfy and doggerel-prone and yet who are still judged to be "good" though out of fashion. If they were women they would disappear into the mists. How unfair! And Emma Vargas actually fits the stereotype of "women's verses" that make people roll their eyes. Shouldn't we actually take a long hard look at such poems before we judge them?

Indeed when I look deeper at "Manos femeniles", it's got something going on. I realize now, from reading a lot of poems like this, that there's something similar to the U.S. women's temperance movement going on; that Vargas is part of the feminism that thought of women as essentially holy and better than men; the famous "angel in the house". The poem addresses famous men directly, challenging them to think of women poets as interpreters of a sort of fragile women's dream-world, as if women are more directly in touch with the land of fantasy and imagination than men can be. In a modernist aesthetic, this is like saying that men can't be good poets! They're too sullied by gross impurity of the world and of just being men, apparently. Men sin a lot, and have battles and make a lot of noise. Women care for the wounded and for children, and are Christlike, while also sort of magically channelling poet-energy from the stars, from flowers, jewels, and from, you know... modernist fairyland. Then she winds up the poem with a rousing call to sisterly action:
Women of America, sisters of dreams,
for new songs, our hands together all
shall weave a laurel wreath,
and - united - we'll add from our gardens
fresh violets, exotic jasmine,
leafy lilies, red carnation!

You have to admit that's kind of cool! And while by my absolutist golden-bookshelf standards, I would sneer at it if it were written last year and read at a poetry slam, when I picture it in the context of its time, it's interestingly radical.

This is getting to be a very long post. I will continue tomorrow.

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Wednesday, November 09, 2005

Accents, language, nationality

I enjoyed being in Montreal, surrounded by people speaking French. It was good to be in another country.

I could understand a few words and the gist of a sentence, but only after a 10-second time delay where I tried to spell words in my head. I can stumble through a French newspaper article, or follow a poem along with its translation into Spanish or English, but the same words spoken aloud - they often don't compute!

My own voice sounded harsh and unlovely in my ears, flat and strident, after a day or so listening to French and Spanish. It was embarrassing evidence that I am an uncouth U.S. American. I might as well have been saying "Gee! Gosh! I guess so! W'all, I'll be!" and slapping my knee while twiddling a strand of hay between my teeth, right off the set of "Hee Haw". We have a lot of reasons right now to be embarrassed to be USians. Suddenly I could not escape being identified with a category I find distasteful... any personal or subcultural identities I have were subsumed into national identity, and into stereotype.

On the street and on the Metro I played guessing games - who was going to speak French? Was it possible to tell by how people dressed? I think there were correlations, but I didn't have enough experience to guess right.

Strangers generally spoke to me in French, and I learned to say "bon jour" and "bon soir" but then there'd have to be a switch to English or shrugging. I wondered if people were reading me as French-speaking, or if it is standard in the Downtown and Village Gai areas to start off with French either because of the population there or for political reasons. Here, if someone speaks Spanish to me, it is either because they don't speak English or because they have "read" my race incorrectly.

In the Metro I overheard a tour guide - in English - explaining to a group that the west side of one of the islands, the English-speaking side, just seceded from Montreal and is now its own city.

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Tuesday, November 08, 2005

Impressions of poems; depth of meaning

My favorite readings from ALTA were translations of poems by Julio Martínez Mesanza and Luis Cernuda. Readers were often grouped by language or by country; I made an effort to go to the Spanish-language readings, especially if they were heavy on poetry and light on fiction.

Don Bogen translated Martínez Mesanza's decasyllabic lines into blank verse, into deftly rolling yet dense & compact lines that lent dignity to the work. Listening with concentration and focus is difficult. Even if I achieve it, the words slip away from me and I'm left with only impressions. I need to see the poems on the page. Unfortunately I lost my notebook where I jotted down some of Bogen's lines, but the originals are here:

Martinez Mensanza

His poems spoke of war: trenches, artillery, castles. knights, tapestries, goniometers; the language of war, of power and chaos, seemed doubly rooted in history and fantasy, catapulting the poem's metaphors into philosophical musings applicable to anyone's struggle in life.

I thought of the function of war, of battle, in poetry. Consider the symbolic and narrative value of combat in comic books or superhero stories. The battle is charged with meaning; the "action sequence" in a spy movie, in a western, when Wolverine fights his womanly arch-enemy and her razor claws, when Chow Yun-Fat and the gangster spray an endless hail of bullets around the church and he crawls blindly past his blind lover... Consider Arjuna's struggle, his moment of choice and judgement before the Battle of Kurukshetra in the Mahabharata. Combat, ultimately, is about that razor edge of consciousness, about decision using all possible information and experience.

Es poder una torre sobre rocas had a powerful impact. Maybe because I had just been working on a long poem about towers, or The Tower, what we think "tower" means; fictional towers of all kinds, tarot cards, the tower of babel, the Two Towers; and the tower's antidote, the rhizome. Something about the ephemeral quality of hearing, and my own bad memory, makes poetry hook unexpectedly into my own thought trains; on some level, I stop listening, I phase in and out of focus on the heard poem. This imperfection of understanding is productive. Later there is time enough to read the poem on the page and grasp it fully.

In fact, I don't like a poem that is simple enough to grasp fully on one hearing. How dull, how disappointing, how very like a sound bite! For example, the poem by the Bulgarian poet, who was certainly a nice guy and a sensitive poet, and perhaps a translator himself. But the very poem that listeners in two audiences sighed over, in appreciation and perhaps in relief that it could be understood, I found to be one of the worst I heard all weekend. It was quite short, and had something like this: "God is a child/making sand castles/ and doesn't understand/that he can control the waves..." I am a fan of the short poem as a form, but if it's short, it had better have some good thick ideas jam-packed into it, especially if it's one image and one metaphor. Songs don't have to be that simple. A poem you can understand completely in one hearing is poor food for poet's souls.

I forgot to talk about Cernuda, but I'll do that in the next post.

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Monday, November 07, 2005

Fired up about translation; Comparative Literature and translation

After the ALTA conference I'm all fired up about translation. In the next few days I'll be writing up my notes from the panels, hallway conversations, lunch dates, and bilingual readings.

I bounced around the conference spreading lots of ideas. One thing I love about ALTA is that it's not just for professional academics. Because it's so hard to make a living being a literary translator in the U.S., everyone has a day job. There's courtroom interpreters, surgeons, and high school foriegn-language teachers, heck, elementary school teachers. People's jobs tend to be in teaching, publishing, editing, or - like me - housewifing. Those mavericks do great work, and they get a lot of respect from the academics, who also tend to be the red-headed stepchildren of their departments; foreign language, Comp Lit, English, Composition, Creative Writing - none of them are quite the right fit and your translation might not be quite respectable, might not count so much towards your tenure. Of course there are execptions, and some people are lucky enough to be in one of the rare universities with a Translation Studies program.

Comparative Literature is the logical home for translators in academia. It's already cross-disciplinary. It's theory-heavy right now, and could use a little course correction, a little practical connection with the world. Translation, at least of living languages and authors, maintains a direct connection with literary communities. Take a look at the book Comparative Literature in an Age of Multiculturalism. It's a collection of short essays on Comp Lit, including a report on the state of the discipline from the 60s, 70s, and one from the 90s. (The 80s one is missing, because the Culture Wars were so intense.) If you look at the drafts of new American Comparative Literature Association essays available here: ACLA drafts that translation is being "noticed" more by Comp Lit. Maybe a shift in the discipline is happening, or should be happening. What does this mean for Comp Lit departments?

Comparative literature students and profs would benefit from learning more translation theory, and from doing translations. Translation theory and literary translators would benefit from thinking of their work as essentially comparative. What does that mean? As far as I understand it, it means keeping many factors in mind at the same time while doing your translation: your own subjectivity, the gaps in your knowledge, the depth or shallowness of your knowledge of other cultures and contexts. Seemingly unrelated areas of knowing can factor into a translation; though you're translating an Argentinian short story from 1920, your knowledge of Icelandic history or the Tale of Genji, as a comparatist, is going to deepen the work. Putting translation into Comp Lit as a discipline would revitalize Comp Lit, and would acknowledge the way that translation is a creative, critical, literary, and political act.

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