I have been in Barcelona about two weeks, have watched spring transform from cool, sometimes rainy days, into warm days of bright sun and light past 9 each evening. I cam here to teach a workshop called Writing About Art in Barcelona. Now that my students have gone, I am transforming myself back from being a teacher and tour guide around the city into being a writer. These transitions are never as easy or as natural as the seasons.
I am staying in a small artist residency called Jiwar. I came here first in December, almost by mistake. I thought I was going to a different colony, but this is the one I wrote to and they had a small room available for me. I am now back in that small room facing the garden.
I thought I was going to start with a discussion of Salvador Espriu, the most famous Catalan poet, of the 20th century. But I left my translation by Magda Bogin at home and you can read about him elsewhere. Instead, I picked up a copy of a more recent book, Six Catalan Poets, edited by Pere Ballart and translated by Anna Crowe. While I wouldn't want to make this into a VIDA post, it is striking to me that of the 6 poets, only 1 is a woman. So I will focus on her: Gemma Gorga. She was born in Barcelona in 1968, has a Ph.D. in Philology fromt he University of Barcelona, where she is a Professor of Medieval and Renaissance Literature. She is the author of 4 books of poetry. Her last book, Llibre dels minuts (Book of Minutes, Barcelona 2006) was republished in a bilingual Calalan-Spanish edition as Libro de los minutos y othros poemas (Valencia, 2009), trans. by V. Berenguer.
I am particularly drawn to her Book of Minutes, because they read like small prose poems, or like a sequence of aphorisms, which is a genre I have been working in for several years. Here is one of them that I particularly like:
You strip water with your hands, and thirst appears. You strip thirst with your mouth, and the question appears. You try to follow, you try to unfasten reality, button by button, to take off every bit of clothing until you stroke the slow delight of actual flesh. Who has interposed so many veils in this dance? Whatever you do, your hands will meet clothing, too much clothing, so much clothing you'll never be able to find out what each thing is beyond the tired meaning in the dictionary.
Here's a short prose poem that seems to be alluding quite directly to the problem of translation as well as the problem of language itself. In this country, to speak, to read, to write in Catalan has always been a political act. To hear Catalan, you might think you were back in the time when Provencal, its sister language, was spoken. For that is the language it sounds closest to. Not a dialect of Spanish (Castiliano, as they call it here), but a separate Romance language. During the Franco years, from 1936-1975, it was forbidden to publish in Catalan or to teach it in schools, yet everywhere, walking on the Ramblas, you could hear it being spoken. I don't think Americans can understand what it means to be living in a small region with 4 million speakers of your language. An ancient language. A 1,000-year-old culture. To hear Catalan is to hear a staccato series of hard consonants. Easy to decode if you read French. Hard to understand when it is spoken.
I'll reproduce here a short minute of hers in the original Catalan and then its English translation. My apologies for not knowing how to put in accent marks in Pages, which is a very primitive word processing program.
La felicitat s'assembla a un monosi'llab. Per la seva senzillesa estructural. Tambe', per la brevetat amb qu`e ens visita la boca.
Happiness is like a monosyllable. Because of its structural simplicity. and also because of the brevity with which it visits our mouths.