Ed note: Our friend Ming Holden, whom David and I met while visiting Mongolia in 2009 traveled to Istanbul last fall to take part in WALTIC 2010. We asked her to share her thoughts and impressions with us. -- sdh
--Olov Hyllienmark, Keynote Speaker, WALTIC 2010, Istanbul
Sometimes I think of contemporary American poetry as a really great crowded party in a really great bohemian apartment, a party with a bunch of mind-blowingly intelligent artists, and everyone's paired up and in small groups. Each conversation (and participant) is interesting and pertinent, compelling and admirable. Each is also markedly different, and I struggle to locate the unifying thread.
But what, in this metaphor, is the apartment? What defines contemporary American poetics besides a pervasive fragmentation engendered by a plentitude of lively voices? And what does it look like from the outside, this party? I think many Americans are worried about the reputation of our nation as a world leader in recent years; has its literary reputation and leadership, taken a hit as well? What role is American poetry playing now when in many nations the literary party goes underground because the voices that would make up the merry din are silenced?
I got a few answers to these questions when I attended the second-ever convention of the Writers and Literary Translators International Congress (WALTIC). WALTIC began in the Swedish Writers Union, and for an international literary development to have its genesis in a relatively small and quiet nation is exciting in itself.
WALTIC is an exciting international development for other reasons, among them the fact that the only other worldwide convention to discuss freedom of expression, copyright, and other contemporary issues facing writers is the annual PEN congress. Unlike PEN, WALTIC is open to the international literary community at large, and while PEN officials have attended both conventions, WALTIC welcomes freelance translators, journalists, and, say, a random 23-year-old -- that would be me -- tagging along with some Mongolian dudes.
I was inspired to attend WALTIC 2010 in Istanbul this past September to tell the story of Tumen Ulzii Bayunmend, an exiled Chinese dissident writer. I’d met Tumen in 2007 during my post-graduate year as a Henry Luce Scholar, working as the international relations advisor to the Mongolian Writers Union in Ulaanbaatar. Tumen was awaiting official word on his application to the UNHCR for refugee status; I worked on his behalf because, as Mongolia had no PEN Center, there was no one else doing so
Upon my arrival in Instanbul, I learned that I was one of only a handful of Americans in attendance among hundreds from elsewhere around the world. As such I had chance to get a sense of how we appear to literary folks whose locus of concern and memory is not the US of A.
In his lecture, Eugene Schoulgin, secretary of international PEN, pointed out that because only 2% of what Americans read is foreign literature in translation, we have the mistaken idea that “literature is an anglophone affair." But it was Ko Un (right), the keynote speaker for WALTIC 2010 and a survivor of multiple arrests and prolonged detentions, torture, and imprisonment, who incorporated references to American poets and poetry in his address. Mr. Un described Gary Snyder as "an American ecological poet” and drew connections between the concept of survival of the fittest and what he termed a "massacre of languages," by which he meant that in the coming century 60-90% of the world's languages will be extinct. He also referenced Allan Ginsberg's experience being blacklisted in "America, an advanced democratic country and champion of free speech."
As an American it's difficult to describe the experience of sitting in a room with those who have been tortured because they choose to write.. I was struck by how Mr.Un's face maintained a peaceful, affectionate expression throughout his address, which included snatches of heartbreaking poetry ("The gulls lost their ocean. They cry out.") This man has published 150 books in several genres in spite of enduring countless traumatic experiences as a direct result of his devotion to language and creativity. Still, he chose to use his time onstage to communicate the kind of wonder that connects the universe and the cosmos to language. "The literature planet," he said, "is a place where an ancient ethics of respecting boundaries and a freedom to transcend boundaries exists together."
That this guy would choose to mention Snyder and Ginsberg of all the poets in history has to mean something, right?