Last year, I taught poetry to first-year college students from five countries in Asia. It was hard and wonderful. One of the hard things was to convince my students to revise. Many of them felt that the original power and sentiment would be lost in the dryness and technicality of revision. On the other hand, one of the wonderful things was their interest and appreciation in one another's work. I put the latter in service of the former by asking them to "translate" a peer's poem into their own poetic language.
Through this task, they saw that revision was a creative, generative exercise, not just a program of correction and deletion. It also helped them to see, more clearly, what they did as poets, in a way that comparing their work to published poets hadn't. Before, when asked to describe their writing style, they rarely went beyond whether they liked to write short or long poems, with short or long lines. But once i asked them to engage seriously and actively with a peer's work, to the point that they had to create a writing prompt for their peer (an idea from Poets on Teaching: A Sourcebook), over half of them said to me something like, "I love her poetry but it is nothing like mine."
One student took my assignment a step further by asking her "peer poetry partner," as they called it, to translate one of her own poems into a new poem. The poet, Nargis Hajran, a striking young woman from Afghanistan, seemed to channel William Blake in turning what was already a powerful, sonically startling manifesto of sorts into a sort of nihilistic, sardonic vision, without changing many words or altering the pace and rhythm. If you have a moment, I entreat you to read these poems aloud to yourself. Spoken, they will nest in you like a song.
Here is the original:
I want to think about everything
About a small obsolete home in a jungle
About a river, that now is a pathway
About a rancher who had lost his mutton
In a mountain, under this wide sky, this blue color
And I, I want to think about the pain of losing
A rancher lost his mutton and I,
I lost my shadow under this blue wide color
When the sun skirt had cover all the earth
I lost my shadow in glare of her eyes
Now my hand are burning
How did I let her to steal my accompany
The street is going , seasons are going
I remain here with a handful of memories
I will cover the sun with my scarf
To show her the pain of losing
I without my shadow is like
The sun without light.
And here is Nargis's translation of her own poem:
Sometimes I want to think about nothing
Who cares if a rancher had lost his mutton?
Who cares if the river is still bubbling or not?
Sometimes even, I do not want to think about myself
I want to forgot who am I, I want to leave my shadow
I want to cover my face with my scarf
I want to hide from the entire world
I do not like my shell; I want to tear it to hundred pieces
To make free my soul out of all these limitations
I want to leave here but I had lost myself in deep of darkness
Wait please do not run anymore for me
Time is over see you never
It is the real pain of losing
Swimming in nowhere
The sun is without light like I without hope.