“To write in Slovenian is to write in fragility,” poet Aleš Šteger said at a New School poetry forum on March 29. He was speaking of his fractured native language.
He and Brian Henry, the Virginia-based poet and translator, visited the university for a cross-cultural conversation about poetry and translation. They collaborated on The Book of Things, which BOA Editions released last November and is a finalist for the Best Translated Book Award. At the New School both read their poems, then fielded questions from moderator David Lehman.
Šteger is something of a poetry rock star in Central Europe – he has the awards and the haircut to prove it. He published his first book at age 22 in 1995, and Slovenia promptly heralded him as one of its most promising writers. Since then, he has written four books of poems, a fictional travelogue, and a collection of lyric essays.
Šteger also helped found the Days of Poetry and Wine Festival in Medana, a village near the Italian border. There he met Henry, who later translated Šteger’s English-language debut.
The Book of Things is exactly that – a collection of fifty poems titled after everyday objects, such as Earring, Aspirin, Toothpick, Cork and Cocker Spaniel. Šteger carefully sets a table — full of objects you know, love and rarely think about — and then he flips it over. Not like a New Jersey housewife, mind you, but a skilled and inquisitive poet.
Šteger read a few Things, including “Shit” and “Egg.” The latter begins, “When you kill it at the edge of the pan, you don’t notice / That the egg grows an eye in death.” (Hear the poet read it in English and Slovenian in the video above.)
“There are no sacred or banal things among things, no hierarchy,” Šteger agreed. “Every thing has the power to become everything.”
Instead of writing about an object in the tradition of Francis Ponge, Šteger said he strives to understand an object’s inherent logic. The series began with a couple of nagging poems.
“They were a mystery, a riddle haunting me, tracking me down, and I couldn’t get rid of them,” he said. “I tried to create a different framework that was listening to, not so much speaking for, things.”
He described his home country, Slovenia, as a place where language is fragile. It gained independence from former Yugoslavia 20 years ago, and writers feel the honor and the burden of preserving the language. MFA programs are unheard of, he added.
As for his translator, Brian Henry studied Latin, French and Spanish, and taught himself Slovenian while translating poems by Tomaz Salamun. If he didn’t practice regularly, he would lose the ability to translate, he said. He relies on Google Images to fine tune his understanding of the language. For instance, he entered what appeared to be the Slovenian phrase “bed head,” and images of headboards popped up — the correct translation.
Ahsahta Press released Henry’s latest book, Lessness, in March. His other works include Wings Without Birds, Astronaut and Quarantine, and his poems have been translated into Croatian, Polish, Russian, Serbian and Slovenian.
Among the original poems he shared at the forum were a series of elegies for failure, a poem about Ronald Reagan’s seemingly endless funeral, and the memorable “Brother No One.” He takes on the lack of things with the same verve Steger brings to things.
“My son at 5 years old said ‘my brother’s name is no one,’ because he has none,” Henry said. “I thought, how interesting, to name something you don’t have.”
He currently is translating Šteger's book of lyric essays, Berlin.
(Photo left to right: David Lehman, Brian Henry, Aleš Šteger. Photo and video credit: Stephanie Paterik.)