When Odysseus sets sail for the Trojan War, he places his infant son under his friend Mentor’s protection. During Odysseus’s long absence, Mentor guides Telemachus into adulthood--sometime through his own sage advice and companionship; at other times, because Athena, the goddess of wisdom, takes his form to offer divine counsel. Now, because of these stories, Mentor’s name is the word we use to describe those wise and trusted advisors who teach and encourage us along the way.
As with Telemachus and Mentor, the original mentorship pairing, this relationship is important for almost everyone as we try to navigate our way through the world. In practical terms though, I think in writing it’s particularly important. This is a lonely business--just you and the words in your head--and so full of rejection that having someone more experienced encourage you is often what allows us to keep trying; a mentor’s approval can give you permission to believe in yourself. When the “We enjoyed your work, but...” slips pile up or when you look at your poems and image seems stale and every phrase hackneyed, mentors remind you that your words have value. And, of course, sometimes they also point you towards journals to submit to or job openings or new books to read that you might love.
I have been very lucky with mentorship, both with the mentors I’ve had and the students I’ve been closest to once I became a teacher. In high school, I was a Creative Writing major at Interlochen Arts Academy, a boarding school for the arts in Northern Michigan, where I was taught by Jack Driscoll and Michael Delp, writers whose workshops focused on craft, offering incisive and thoughtful encouragement rather than false kindnesses. Because the faculty treated our work seriously and brought in guests readers like Mary Ruefle and Stephen Dunn, I grew up thinking literature was a thing I could participate in making--that I could write books and edit and publish them--rather than something inaccessible created by mysterious people far away. I was also lucky in a way I didn’t realize until I also became a teacher trying to balance being present for my former students with the demands of my own life: my mentors stayed invested in my well-being long after I graduated--exchanging letters, meeting for coffee (or, when I was older, vodka martinis), and, later, bringing me back to Interlochen for a semester to guest teach. This, more than anything, is what I’m most grateful for: that Jack and Delp gave me the chance to pass on some of the same care and attention they’d once given me to students who I adored.
I found a similar attention to mentoring in my graduate program at The New School, where Meghan O’Rourke, Matthew Zapruder and our gracious host here, David Lehman, all not only helped me make breakthroughs in my poetry inside the classroom walls, but also ushered me into the literary community beyond MFA-world as an active participant--encouraging me to submit my work, presenting opportunities to gain editorial experience and graduate-level teaching credentials, and answering questions about practical things like distribution when I started my own press.
The further along I move in my own life--not just as a writer or a teacher or an editor, but simply as an adult who has lived in the world--the more I look at mentorship as being part of a continuum: I appreciate the guidance I’ve received over the years and so I want to help students whose work particularly speaks to me, as well as those I feel a certain protective affection for or an affinity with. I don’t know what sort of effect I’ve had on my students’ lives--good, harmful, or nonexistent--but I want to be a good mentor. What I do know is how glad I am to be part of the chain that connects us, my former teachers and my students, and how much I care about each one of them wherever they are, even long after the thread of actual interaction may have untied itself.
As I wrote this post, I found myself thinking about W.S. Merwin’s John Berryman poem which I first was assigned to read as a teenager in a workshop at Interlochen and now use in the workshops I teach. I love the poem for so many reasons, but one is how Merwin, in describing his teacher, also passes on what he has learned.
I will tell you what he told me
in the years just after the war
as we then called
the second world war
don't lose your arrogance yet he said
you can do that when you're older
lose it too soon and you may
merely replace it with vanity
just one time he suggested
changing the usual order
of the same words in a line of verse
why point out a thing twice
he suggested I pray to the Muse
get down on my knees and pray
right there in the corner and he
said he meant it literally
it was in the days before the beard
and the drink but he was deep
in tides of his own through which he sailed
chin sideways and head tilted like a tacking sloop
he was far older than the dates allowed for
much older than I was he was in his thirties
he snapped down his nose with an accent
I think he had affected in England
as for publishing he advised me
to paper my wall with rejection slips
his lips and the bones of his long fingers trembled
with the vehemence of his views about poetry
he said the great presence
that permitted everything and transmuted it
in poetry was passion
passion was genius and he praised movement and invention
I had hardly begun to read
I asked how can you ever be sure
that what you write is really
any good at all and he said you can't
you can't you can never be sure
you die without knowing
whether anything you wrote was any good
if you have to be sure don't write
On my birthday today in 1950, Ben Hogan won the Unted States Open in a three-way playoff. What made it almost miraculous was that Hogan had suffered multiple injuries sixteen months earlier when a Greyhound bus swerved out of its lane and hit Hogan's car head on. Hogan, attempting to shield his wife, Valerie, from the impact, went to the hospital with a broken collarbone, broken ankle, broken ribs and a double fracture of his pelvis. (Valerie escaped with minor injuries.) A blood clot in Hogan's leg required emergency measures; doctors tied off the surrounding veins to prevent the clot from reaching his heart. As a result, Hogan’s legs atrophied. Would he ever play a round of golf again? The more pressing question was whether he would ever walk again.
Yet here he was at the Merion Golf Club in Ardmore, PA, site also of last year's U. S. Open. Hogan defied the skeptics, playing four rounds of superb golf, walking from hole to hole unassisted. At the 72nd hole, he needed a par to tie Lloyd Mangrum and George Fazio for the lead and join the pair in a June 11th playoff. Hogan's one-iron shot to the green, one of the great moments in golfing history, occasioned Hy Peskin's photograph, above, undoubtedly the sport's most famous. A year later Hollywood turned the inspiring tale into a movie, Follow the Sun, with Glenn Ford as Hogan and Anne Baxter as Valerie. Click here or here for more on Hogan's heroics. -- DL
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.
In my workshop, I often use a prompt where I pass out blank index cards and ask my students to--as quickly as possible--write down one of their secrets. The secret can be mundane (I talk in my sleep or I broke a vase and blamed the cat) or intimately shocking (I cheated on my boyfriend with his cousin; I steal money from the cash register at work); it doesn’t matter. It just has to be something that most other people in their lives wouldn’t know. I also suggest they try to disguise their handwriting so that all the secrets look as if they could belong to anyone.
After I collect the cards, I shuffle and redistribute them so that every student holds someone else’s secret. It’s always possible--chance being a trickster spirit--that a student’s own secret returns, trailing him or her like a cat stalking the hapless rabbit, texts from a lover who can’t fully believe things are over, the eternal recurrence of the blood stain on Lady Macbeth’s hand. So this doesn’t derail things, I tell them if you draw your own secret, pretend it’s not yours; follow the next step the same way you would if the secret you have belonged to a classmate. The only rule for the second part of the prompt is that no one is allowed to speculate about origins--who in the room the secret they’re writing about first belonged to. Other than that, they can write whatever they want: a persona poem confessing the secret as their own, a narrative poem describing the situation, a pantoum incorporating the secret as one line in its intricately woven pattern, anything.
Now I’ll confess one of my secrets: I stole the prompt. One of my students was given this exercise in a different class and then mentioned it in passing in my workshop--I’ve used it every semester since. To Christina Castro (the messenger) and Major Jackson (il primo fabbro), a tip of my hat and a resounding thank you.
This assignment is usually a class favorite--perhaps because of its mixture of narcissism and mystery, the way the students’ balance of interest keeps shifting back and forth between who has my secret and how are they writing it and whose secret do I have. I think it also plays into a particularly modern love for simultaneous self-disclosure and concealment--the same impulse that leads to Internet chatrooms where our avatars type out desires and regrets we might never dare admit to our loved ones or therapists; phone apps like Secret that allow you to contribute anonymous confessions to a newsfeed your contact list can idly scroll through as they ride the bus or wait in line to buy groceries; and Postsecret, a website and book series compiled from confessions scrawled on postcards and mailed to the site’s founder who posts a new selection of secrets each Sunday. I’m fascinated by these Internet confessionals where people articulate their deepest most vulnerable truths and yet still remain strangers, both known and unknown at the same time. I fall a little bit in love with almost everyone whose secrets I read because secrets are the gates we walk through as we become intimate with others: in the early stages of attraction, we want to learn everything about the enticing new stranger--to discover the locked box of each of their secrets and open it--and later we love them because we know them, because they have given us their mysteries to hold.
I feel compelled to make a sweeping generalization about poetry: I think the best of it requires secrets. Some poems seem to have secrets hidden beneath the words, while others appear eager to reveal them, the “I” shedding personal disclosures as rapidly as new lovers do their clothes. Many of the writers whose work I’m drawn to the most these days give the illusion of doing both--of concealing and revealing simultaneously--as with the famous opening to John Ashbery’s “Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror”: “...as though to protect / What it advertises.” Here I would also mention Mary Ruefle, Graham Foust, Erin Belieu, Simone Muench, Latasha N. Nevada Diggs, David Dodd Lee, and Anne Carson among others.
Lately, I find I’m a Goldilocks of sorts--wanting poems that neither give away too much (the porridge too hot) nor too little (the porridge too cold). What I need is a tease of meaning, a poem with enough clarity of intent to initially draw my interest--be it through the stained-glass-shard of an image or a compelling voice--and enough mystery and elusiveness to keep me coming back, reading and rereading the work, never entirely sure I can rest in the certainty of perfect and complete understanding.
As a boy in Minnesota, Bob Dylan listened to a Minnesota girl sing the ballads of Harold Arlen and thought he could travel down the road taken by Dorothy and the Scarecrow. By the time he took up the guitar and changed his name, he had wandered so far into Woody Guthrie territory that a reader confronting an article in The Nation entitled “Woody, Dylan, and Doubt” could be forgiven for thinking that it concerned the singer’s relation to Arlo Guthrie’s papa on the one side and the condition of epistemological uncertainty on the other when in fact the piece addresses allegations that Woody Allen had misbehaved with his adopted daughter, Dylan Farrow.
Judy Garland had to endure many an indignity in her star-crossed career but the heartache of child abuse wasn’t one of them. Born to sing America’s all-time favorite movie song, Arlen’s “Over the Rainbow,” Judy was as natural a Gemini as you will find – totally binary, loyal to a fault yet fickle, happy and proud yet sometimes suicidally desperate, given to coming late to the set fortified by drinking bottles of “Blue Nun,” “Liebfraumilch,” and similar white stuff, which tasted terrible but did the job.
On June 10, 1922, Judy Garland was born in Grand Rapids, Minnesota, at 6 AM. With her moon in Sagittarius, and her Mercury and Venus in Cancer (her rising sign), the great singer had the heart of a poet, the sensitivity of an eternal diva, and a really good voice. If only there had been more Virgo in her chart, the girl who embodied Dorothy in “The Wizard of Oz” might have had greater career endurance. The absence of earth signs doomed her to a nervous disposition and the likelihood of an early death.
Born Frances Ethel Gumm, Judy craved the approval of father figures, was easily bruised by criticism, sometimes affected nonchalance but really cared very deeply about other people and wanted to be included in group activities. Her Saturn in Libra helps to explain her outstanding musical talent, and her will to succeed in motion pictures may be inferred from her midheaven in Pisces conjunct Uranus.
The death of Judy's father at age thirteen stunned the young actress, who eventually broke off relations with her mother. The amphetamines helped in the short run. She had five husbands.
An old astrological adage: The stars favor the stars. From the moment the teeanage Garland sang to Clark Gable's photograph ("You Made Me Love You"), her astonishing rise to the heights of Hollywood glory was in the cards (Queen of hearts high) as was, alas, the inevitability of internal conflicts and demons postponed but not resolved by the habitual use of narcotics. She was still in her teens when she she and Ray Bolger, Jack Haley, and Bert Lahr sang as they danced along the yellow brick road leading to the wonderful wizard of Oz. That was in Technicolor. Already in the black-and-white of Kansas cornfields, she sang the anthem of eternal aspiration, “Over the Rainbow,” which was named the greatest song of the twentieth century in a survey conducted bythe National Endowment for the Arts and the Recording Industry Association of America in 2001. She teamed up with Mickey Rooney and their versions of “Our Love Affair” and “How About You?” are the best out there. She did “The Trolley Song” in one picture and “Atchison, Topeka, and the Santa Fe” in another. She would have made a great Annie Oakley in Irving Berlin’s “Annie, Get Your Gun,” and we still have tape of one song she did (“Doin’ a What Come Naturally”), but she was too fucked up to do the movie and the part went to Betty Hutton.
In Chinese astrology, Judy was born in the year of the dog. Her element is water. This is consistent with her destiny. Her relation to Minnesota mirrors that of Dorothy to Kansas except that there was no home to go back to. The three farm hands in the dream were almost recognizably there, surrounding her bed, when she awoke in Hollywood. Why did gay men have a thing about her? Because (a) they had good taste, (b) they could identify with her suffering, (c) they could admire her indomitable will, (d) they could smell the tragedy on her breath, (e) even macho boys could identify themselves with Dorothy Gale, (f) where gossip and conjecture overlap, anything goes, or (g) all, some, or none of the above. And remember: she was the mother of Liza Minelli, and all you need to do is see the current revival of Cabaret (2014), good as it is, and compare Michelle Williams’s performance as Sally Bowles with that of Liza in the 1972 movie, and you will see the difference between an actress who is trying as hard as she can and a natural-born diva, with the vocal cords of a heroine and the soul of Judy Garland’s daughter.
In the 1960s Judy was hell on wheels to work with, if Mel Torme’s account in The Other Side of the Rainbow is to be trusted. Mel Torme was the music director on her short-lived television program, “The Judy Garland Show” on CBS, and Torme says she tormenting him. Judy would call you in the middle of the night, make you come over and hold her hand, make capricious decisions, stand up guest stars like Lena Horne, skip rehearsals, tell fart jokes on the set. On the other hand she was who she was, and you loved her when she lifted her glass and said “l’chayem.” She was so earnest you couldn’t help pull for her. “This television jazz is all new to me,” she said. “The Blue Lady helps to get my heart started.” She couldn’t stand what she called the Smothers’ Brothers “goyishe humor,” and the show had other guests of that ilk. But when Barbra Streisand was the guest star, it was incredible. The two divas did a duet of “Get Happy” and “Happy Days Are Here Again” that you can listen to over and over again – it is the ideal rendering of two of the Depression’s enduring hits.
Judy sang and danced with Gene Kelly (“For Me and My Gal”) and with Fred Astaire (“Easter Parade”), and the saints of St. Louis marched in and sang "The Trolley Song" in unison on June 22, 1969, the day of her death. At Carnegie Hall in 1961, with composer Harold Arlen in the audience, she sang "Get Happy," "Stormy Weather," "The Man That Got Away," and "Come Rain or Come Shine" in 1961. Five Grammy awards! She was dead at 46.
If Judy and Frank Sinatra had been lovers, they would have scored very high in passion, high in intimacy, average in synergy, and below average in commitment.
-- David Lehman
Lately I have been thinking about translation and how it exists under everything. Everything we write, everything we speak is a kind of translation--an attempt to bring forth into words what we think and see and feel; to accurately transcribe our ideas and emotions. This, of course, is impossible: there are no perfect transcriptions--we cannot render the ineffable into, well, the effable without picking up a few flaws along the way.
This is also not a new thought. Gustave Flaubert famously called language “a cracked kettle on which we beat out tunes for bears to dance to, while all the time we long to move the stars to pity” and J. Alfred Prufrock’s frustrated cry of “It is impossible to say just what I mean!” echoes on and on into the dark. The language poets took this idea and expanded it by having language, the mode of expression, determine meaning rather than the other way around. So, if everything is a translation already (from the interior to the exterior; the thought to the expression), how can we even begin to approach attempting a further translation, the traditional kind where we shift a poem from one language to another? If there isn’t a word which is the exact equivalent of the blue edge of morning or that conveys the pleasure of lying awake and breathing in the warm scent of your lover’s sleeping skin, how can we find a word in English that matches--in sound, meaning, appearance and connotation--a word in Russian or French? It seems daunting.
But perhaps rather than daunting, this is exhilarating. If we open up the idea of translation to include “interpretation” and not only allow for, but embrace the multiplicity of possible metamorphoses the original work can undergo as the mode of expression changes, the impossible becomes a dazzling game. The field of experimental translation is vibrant and diverse and I’m not nearly well-versed enough in it to present a catalog of all the concepts it contains or the people doing interesting original work there; instead, I want to mention a few of my favorites.
Telephone, founded by Sharmila Cohen and Paul Legault in 2010, was originally created as a literary journal, but has expanded to also publish books as an imprint of Nightboat Books (a translation of Shakespeare’s Sonnets and an upcoming reprint and translation/expansion of B.P. Nichols’ Translating Apollinaire tentatively entitled Translating Translating Apollinaire). For each issue of the journal, the editors choose 5-6 poems from a poet writing in another language and solicit roughly 10-12 translators from a range of experience (professional translators of that language, writers with no previous translation experience at all, and others who fall somewhere in between), telling them they are free to do absolutely anything they want in their translation--that there are no rules; the resulting translations are presented side by side as comparative texts, allowing the reader to see multiple versions of the same poem. Past issues of Telephone have focused on the German poet Uljana Wolf and Quebecois poets Renee Gagnon and Steve Savage, and the next issue features the work of the Russian poet Sveta Litvak; participating poet-translators have included Rae Armantrout, Mary Jo Bang, Jen Bervin, Harryette Mullen, Ron Padgett, Juliana Spahr and Timothy Donnelly. The press’s operating principle, according to Cohen, has always been “to make the umbrella of what is called translation as broad as it can be.” Cohen adds that Telephone includes “interpretation” in its usage of the word “translation” because “to translate poetry you need all those elements of interpretation such as homophonic sound-based translation, meaning-based (whether it be literal or intuitive). To us, changing
media is like changing language (English to French, a poem to a film or a sculpture)--these are also, in essence, translations in so far as the new format is a new language.” Telephone’s third issue, featuring the Brazilian poet Augusto de Campos, was a collaborative effort with New York’s EFA Gallery and included translations of his work into multiple forms of media--sound, film, photographs and paintings, as well as textual translations.
Another project I love that shifts media and conflates interpretation with translation is, like Cohen and Legault’s press, also inspired by and named after the children’s game where a phrase is whispered from person to person, changing along the way as people interpret what they hear. This is Satellite Collective’s Telephone project. About a year ago, Satellite put out a call, asking for poets, visual artists, composers, filmmakers and choreographers to apply to participate. Those who were selected joined an international (artists from 140 countries are involved) multi-genre game of telephone where every artist in the chain is given only the one translation of the original message that directly precedes their own and asked to transcribe it as faithfully as possible as it moves between genres. Here, the idea is to see how the original message naturally evolves as it is passed along, sliding through genres from painting to poem to film or composition or dance or poem again. The end result of this project will be an online exhibition tracing the message and its various translations, as well as several physical gallery shows in the United States and Europe.
What I think I love most about translation is that it’s a conversation--with the dead or with others separated from us by distance or time. What could seem like a barrier--another language, another art form even--instead becomes a bridge. Instead of the poem existing isolated and immutable, chiseled into stone, it enters into communion with an endlessly unfolding fellowship of others; people who carefully actively listen, and then reflect and reinterpret it so that the original is both reaffirmed and transformed. By moving the work beyond the static, we are allowed to see multiple possibilities of what the poem can be.
You’re still real, still a gorgeous mess of flesh.
You’re a businessman in the bathroom mirror.
You’re a barrier reef, an echo, an atom splicer
You let off spurts of steam
& crazy-person laughter.
You spill liquor on the rug.
You step on Christmas bulbs
& yell mazaltov!
You flicker in my stitched peripheral every night.
Let’s weigh ourselves down with uprooted rose bushes
Let’s buy a watch together.
-- G. Andrew Collins
A few days ago I was walking down the street on the kind of sunny day that puts smiles on the faces of normally cranky Bostonians. A young guy with a blond buzz cut in a jeep with the top down was at a stoplight with Jet Airliner--one of my favorite Steve Miller tunes--blaring on his radio.
I mouthed the words and looked up when I heard a honk. It was the guy in the Jeep, giving me a big grin and a thumbs up as the light changed and he roared off down Massachusetts Avenue.
My mind wandered, as it often does, and I started thinking about that song’s interesting history. It was written in 1973 by Paul Pena, a blind American blues singer of Cape Verdean descent, who recorded it that same year for what he hoped was going to be his commercial breakthrough album. But because of hassles with his label it wasn’t released until 2000. When a former member of Steve Miller's band who'd produced Pena's album played it for him, Miller decided to cover Jet Airliner for his '77 “Book of Dreams” LP. As the first single it climbed to number eight on the Billboard chart.
Pena was besieged by personal and health problems, and his album’s shelving left his career in tatters. His wife became terribly ill and he gave up performing to care for her, and when she died of kidney failure he basically withdrew from the world, distracting himself by fiddling for hours with a shortwave radio.
His passion for music was rekindled when he stumbled over a new and amazing sound, singers who could somehow produce two or even three tones at once. The broadcasts were in Russian, so he had no idea what he was listening to. He spent eight years trying to track down the source, and finally found someone who could explain that what he’d heard was “throat singing”—a tradition born in Tuva, a remote region of Mongolia. He bought some recordings and spent three years teaching himself the technique, and when The Throat Singers of Tuva came to San Francisco he went to the concert and met with the group afterward to sing for them.
This story, and the amazing events that followed, were captured in Genghis Blues, a film that won a 1999 Audience Choice Award at the Sundance Film Festival and was nominated for a 2000 Oscar for Best Documentary. His blues career got something of a bump from the film, but sadly he didn’t have much time to enjoy it; his health worsened and he died in 2005 of complications from diabetes and pancreatitis. This incarnation didn’t work out so well for Paul Pena.
It’s bittersweet to watch Genghis Blues now, with this sad, gentle, brilliant, grumpy, droll, rumpled shaggy dog of a man who just couldn't seem to catch a break, except for one moment of triumph that would have been too preposterous for a fictional film. The kind of moment that can happen only in real life.
Maybe no sound ever disappears completely; it just becomes too faint for human ears. Maybe the voice of Paul Pena, chasing the blues away by practicing throat singing in his cramped little room, is still out there somewhere…floating in the ether.
Ann Kjellberg, founding editor of Little Star, an annual journal of poetry and prose, and Little Star Weekly, its mobile app version, will be offering a poem every Sunday this spring. This is her seventh post.
Maria Stepanova (b. 1972) would be read and remembered in her native Russia as a superior poet, had she not also distinguished herself in other spheres. It is impossible not to mention that she is also the founding editor of Colta.ru, the crowd-sourced independent online magazine of culture and the arts, with a readership now in the hundreds of thousands, that has persistently eluded the Russian state’s oft-remarked monopolism of ideas. Stepanova’s own poetry is not overtly political, but, as novelist Mikhail Shishkin observed last year in The New Republic, in Russia poetry has since its birth offered an alternative to absolute power and proposed with its very existence a notion of the individual never fully subdued by state control. We hear a lot in America about the submissiveness of the Russian citizenry to contemporary political propaganda, but we don’t seem to look very hard at the lives and work of those who do struggle, like Stepanova, to persevere on their own terms.
Stepanova’s narrative poem “Fish” appears in the current issue of Little Star in a translation by Modern Poetry in Translation editor Sasha Dugdale. It is a kind of modern riff or romance based on the Soviet iconography of the polar explorer (Brodsky wrote one too). Stepanova’s variant introduces a female consciousness to this usually all-male preserve, in the form of a mermaid. The reader experiences the mermaid, as the the arctic team that fishes her up does, through an almost impenetrable veil of watery, fishy strangeness. Her good nature peeks through the purposefully clinical annotations recorded by her bemused hosts. Their world is not hospitable to her though; in the end she escapes their company in a flourish of freedom and autonomy, bearing her own mysterious scars.
When we Anglophones hear contemporary Russian poets, even of the most avant-garde variety, read their poems aloud we are often startled by the strong undertow that their intense history of formal invention still pulls in their verse. Dugdale preserves this admirably; we feel the poem’s rhythms emerge from the initial, no-nonsense note-taking of the speaker as he puzzles, relevantly, over the mermaid’s language, and in it we feel some of the rhythms of the sea that are the only real home for the mercurial consciousness that is our fish. The lines’ mesmeric rhythms and the memory of the fish seem to draw the speaker of the second half of the poem toward madness—the fragmenting influence of a wilderness that is beyond the scrutiny of his instruments and their pragmatic, conquesting spirit.
The poem is romantic within its pastiche of romanticism. Russia’s renewed conquest of the Arctic reframes the mermaid’s assertion of autonomy—both female and artistic—from its grainy, black-and-white Soviet mise-en-scène.
Maria Stepanova is the author of ten books of poems and the editor-in-chief of Colta.ru. She was a 2010 Joseph Brodsky Fellowship Fund Fellow in Rome. Read her essay about Roman cemeteries here. Read a recent interview here. Read the Russian original of this poem here.
In a tin bath, a tin bath she lay
We poured water in, and mixed in some salt
One man got drunk, another repaired the transmitter,
A fourth man wandered the shore in lament:
What would he tell his grandchildren, but I digress:
Speaks no English, has not expressed hunger,
Still one should do something—cook, or offer something raw.
This cannot be, it simply cannot be.
Eyes—hungry, wide-lipped, hair
Like wet hay, pale as ice and smelling of vodka;
If it turns on its side even slightly, a line
Of vertebrae knots the length of the back, like on yours.
Not a word of Russian, most likely Finno-Ugric
But sadly no experts were at hand
When the nets were cast in hope that morning
And the beast smiled and beat its tail in greeting.
Twilight, tins were opened, lamps brought in.
Cards and a chessboard appeared without undue haste.
I try debating with our mechanic, but he won’t take the bait.
A quick check-over (Witnessed by. Sign on dotted.)—
Not long enough. Only first observations,
Weight: sixty. Length of tail: ninety.
Jagged wounds in the abdominal area
Mostly likely caused by a sharp object.
Not long enough. Only early theories,
There is no time. The reestablishing of radio contact
Keeping the hut warm, catching fish.
Eats the fish with us all, very neat and tidy
Can’t stand coffee, refuses to wear clothes;
Measured the diameter of nipple; change tub water
Morning and evening; the thing sleeps hugging tail.
Can’t tell faces apart. Doesn’t remember names.
Not long enough, just come from the radio engineer
Have suspicions someone sabotaging radio
And emergency generator, work out why
No point in working out why, still I do believe we will meet.
Better to put the notes into code, put all notes into code,
At eighteen hundred last night another helicopter over the pines
Rapid pulse, slight nausea
Splashing and laughter from behind the calico curtain.
Yesterday and today let fish out for a swim.
I stood guard with a pike, Petrov had a carbine.
Didn’t attempt to slip away, only splashed around;
Water temperature; body temperature;
Possible uses for the purpose of fishing.
I ran along the shore, pretending to be a hunter.
It dived in and out gently, to no good purpose,
Wet, white-toothed and gleaming.
Only now: is it happening, I can’t tell
Two hours of pointless conversation
In the cold about the radio and the spares,
A sprint back to the hut. Silence behind the curtain.
And no one there, behind the curtain. The tub upturned.
Smoke in the mess room, I step in a puddle
And there, to the soothing hiss of the radio
The fish and the mechanic are playing snap.
Not long enough, not up to it, the thing is sick
And smells less like vodka, more like moonshine
Distended pupil, sweats, palpitations,
Listless, lethargic, no appetite,
No communications, no photographic equipment
Filth, fishscales amongst the medical instruments
Dreamt of God again, the rotating propeller
The pines bending, and the noise of the rotor.
It’s Petrov again: doctor, he says, doctor…
It’s quiet behind the curtain. The tub is empty.
The mechanic had a flask of spirits, a secret.
I don’t object, let the fish swim. On the floor
A wet scarf, fish likes to keep its throat covered
Although what use a scarf is to it, I don’t know.
From the window astoundingly clear on the bay’s shining
Surface, the head of a swimmer moving forever beyond range.
Must concentrate on essentials: we are flying away.
Despite the care I took in sabotaging the transmitter
It was put to rights painstakingly, more than once
And then there was no reason to put it off waiting
For the helicopter, for the helicopter waiting, waiting.
Everything is packed and the crates stowed,
All reckonings completed, all logbooks closed,
Blinds drawn, flags lowered, I am asleep.
My dearest, I went out late in the evening
To look at you in photographs taken at college,
I haven’t seen her for so long, she hasn’t changed
My Dearest I hoped I would never have to tell you,
My Dearest, I hoped to conceal it
My Dearest, I hoped I wouldn’t live long enough
To meet with, the coming together of two halves,
The full combination of classical attributes.
Addressed to the President of the Academy, Professor Nikitin
A copy to the Kremlin, the original for my widow.
Research notes. A diary with his observations.
Height, weight, estimated age.
Those characteristic scars in the abdominal area—
There, submerged in water, last-century surgery
Operations without anaesthetic on the seabed
Changes in pressure, fibroids, scars
Giving birth is hard; bringing up the child is hard
And marriage is a near impossibility.
And such yearning, such yearning, although on dry land.
…But most of all: I love you, your very own.
But most of all: forgive me, this is not goodbye
But last of all, and first of all,
And Christ! All in all: fare you well.
And if this place is the far edge of the earth,
It is not the furthest edge of the earth.
—Maria Stepanova, translated by Sasha Dugdale
Photo E. Nechaeva
Watch for Jacques d'Amboise's entrance at 3:14. He's performing in Stars and Stripes (Balanchine/Sousa, one of my favorites) and it looks like he's been shot on stage out of a canon.
When asked why he choreographed to Sousa's marches, Balanchine replied, "Because he makes me happy."
Please join us June 12th for an inside peek into The Writers Room, the members-only institution that has saved writers from extinction in New York City. The $95 ticket includes hors d’oeuvres, cocktails and an intimate conversation with three award-winning members of The Writers Room.
For more information and to buy tickets, go here.
This week we welcome Kate Angus as our guest author. Kate is an editor at Augury Books and the Creative Writing Advisory Board Member for The Mayapple Center for Arts and Humanities. Her work has appeared in Indiana Review, Subtropics, Best New Poets 2010, Court Green, Barrow Street, The Awl, and Verse Daily. She is the recipient of A Room of Her Own Foundation’s “Orlando” Prize, The Southeast Review’s Narrative Nonfiction prize, a New York Times “Teacher Who Made a Difference” award, and an artists residency on the Wildfjords trail in Iceland. She lives in New York and can occasionally be found on “The Twitter” at @collokate.
In other news . . .
Beginning this week, Sharon Dolin will join us from Barcelona, where she is running the Writing Writing About Art in Barcelona poetry workshop. Sharon is the author of five poetry books, most recently: Whirlwind and Burn and Dodge, winner of the AWP Donald Hall Prize in Poetry. In 2013, Sharon was awarded the Witter Bynner Fellowship from the Library of Congress, selected by Poet Laureate Natasha Trethewey. Sharon is at work on a memoir, Hitchcock Blonde, as well as a book of aphoristic sequences, The Book of Lost Aphorisms. Find out more about Sharon here.
Welcome Kate and Sharon.
I wait for signs of it, my body in drought, pulled teeth
housed inside drawers. Gates, empty.
Yesterday, another girl
dead. Her plantains
left on the lips of a balcony—
flies digging inside the cupboards.
A red pepper is hemmed
beneath my breasts tonight. They say a moth
flew from my hair—
into woods heavy as a closed door. Lampposts calling
-- Raven Jackson
John Deming, editor in chief of the important on-line journal Coldfront, has posted Part I of a 3-part interview with David Lehman.
I interviewed David Lehman for about three hours in his office on a Friday night in October, 2009, two years after I finished studying with him and others at The New School. It was around that time that he published two new books–Yeshiva Boys, a collection of new poems, and A Fine Romance, a book of prose about the great Jewish songwriters in America. I was compelled by both books, and I also found it interesting that his book of poems had some thematic overlap with his book of prose–a pattern we’ve seen in him before, when he published The Last Avant Garde: The Making of the New York School of Poets around the same time that he published The Daily Mirror, a book of daily poems that took on some of the improvisational whim that surfaces in some prominent works by New York School poets, especially Frank O’Hara (“just go on your nerve”).
Now, four and half years later, we have succeeded at transcribing and editing the conversation. Lehman is a well known poet, and perhaps equally well known for his editorial work–the annual Best American Poetry series is a staple, but he has also edited The Oxford Book of American Poetry, Great American Prose Poems, The Best American Erotic Poems, Ecstatic Occasions, Expedient Forms, and other books. He is also the author of several books of prose, including Sign of the Times: Deconstruction and the Fall of Paul de Man and The Last Avant Garde: The Making of the New York School of Poets. He has drawn considerable attention to poetry and its many modern manifestations over the years. With all of this work to his credit, it is conceivable that his own poetry is not always afforded the attention it deserves, a notion suggested by the poet Bill Knott. Knott, who died earlier this year, had his own history of frustration with the Best American Poetry series, but on April 2, 2012 blogged the following of Lehman:
…I must confess my admiration for his superlative service to poetry and for his unique accomplishments…He is so well-known for his civic leadership in the poetry community, his role as the public persona aegis of BAP’s success, and for being the face of USA poetry as it were, that his own distinguished and marvelous verse is perhaps sometimes lost in the shadow of that spotlight fame, and doesn’t get the recognition and acclaim it deserves…He should put out a big Selected Poems, and it should win the Pulitzer on the strength of its own merits alone.
My dad landed on Utah Beach, not as part of the first wave, thank god, or I probably wouldn't be here, but days later, to clean up. He went on to fight in the Battle of the Bulge and to liberate a concentration camp. Like so many others, he enlisted, a tough street kid from the Bronx, the child of Eastern European immigrants. During boot camp, he was court-martialed for striking an officer who called him a dirty kike. Though he was acquitted, he got shipped out soon after without having completed his training.
I don't know much about his service, not because he was particularly reticent but because he died suddenly at fifty, before I was mature enough to imagine my parents had lives worth learning about. How I regret that I never asked him about those years. Anyone who has tried to get WWII military records knows that a fire destroyed many of them. Thus, all I have are the things he carried, a French-English dictionary, a guide to Europe, and, oddly, a copy of Don Quixote, in Spanish. Several years ago, I gathered these mementos together and along with a few photographs asked Star Black, the brilliant poet, photographer, and collage artist to make something of them. A few weeks later she presented me with three collages, one of which is shown here. That's my dad in the middle, looking handsome, and so young! In the upper left is a page from his guidebook in which he wrote a list of the places he fought his way through, ending with "and a funeral in some god-forsaken place."
One of the more moving accounts of life as an infantryman during WWII can be found in Roll Me Over, by Raymond Gantter. Ganttner was a teacher who turned down his third deferment to serve in the army. He was unfit for officer status so he joined the infantry as a private. His service was almost identical to that of my father's. Here's a passage:
[This post originally appeared on June 6, 2009]
What about a 3-D printer? The thought kind of darted into mind the other night at the Met Museum while I was wandering through the Charles James show. I felt its inspiring prick right after I put the kibosh on my first thought, which was to step up to one of the items on display, remove it from its mannequin, and just walk out with it. In case you don’t follow fashion, Charles James was a self-absorbed curmudgeon with highfalutin taste who ended up in squalor at the Ansonia Hotel and who, by the bye, happened to be an unparalleled designer of women’s ball gowns, cocktail dresses, and coats in the middle of the 20th century. A spatial visionary, he had a gift for imagining a dress or a cape that simultaneously reads as an architectural construction and functions as a mating call. Well, yes, I know, anyone can do that. But he also had the sitzfleisch to then, personally, spend up to twelve hours at a stretch devising the weird, abstract shapes of fabric that go into a skirt constructed to give the effect of 1000-thread-count sheets foaming on an unmade bed, or a single, serpentine seam to connect a skirt and a bodice so that they reconfigure a torso of a certain age to shed ten pounds and 25 years. A few of his confections can almost stand up by themselves as Modernist sculpture and yet, reportedly, feel no heavier than an eiderdown quilt to wear, even though, by the scale, they may weigh 40 pounds. Some of his presentation pieces are so picturesque that they’re given names: “Swan Dress,” “Cloverleaf Dress.” We’re beyond fashion here; indeed, we’re way beyond dressing for any genre of success: we’re dressing in metaphors of undressing for the wild. This is the poetry of Charles James.
One urban outlier is the “Taxi Dress,” from 1932: a fashionably black, wraparound sausage casing of a garment that attaches with three little pronged thingys at one hip. It was called by James the “Taxi Dress” because it is (theoretically) simple enough that a woman could “get into it” in the back of a taxi. In 1932, he must have meant a Checker Cab. I’ve been in the back seat of a lot of taxis, and, let me tell you, to get into that dress you’ve got to get out of something else. Given the tight space of taxi back seats these days, that transformation would almost certainly necessitate football contact with any seatmate, and the “something else” you’d be most likely to get out of would be any prospect of another date, once the person’s broken bones had mended. Indeed, if anyone reading this has ever actually “gotten into” James’s “Taxi Dress” in the back of a taxi, please let me know, and I’ll send an E-mail blast to all my fashionista friends that yoga really does work. What I’m trying to say is that the art of Charles James—like that of a significant poet in any medium—is not literal. The image of the title “Taxi Dress” does not need to (indeed, may not be able to) be realized in action. It only needs to be envisioned by the potential customer. In his titles for his peerlessly idiosyncratic designs, James proved himself not only an artist of enchanting, impeccably tailored, wearable temples to the erotic but also one of the slyest marketers of his day. One might say that all of his dresses are variations on the same, ur-“Ad Dress.”
Back to the 3-D printer: The Charles James show has taken some hits in the press for being in two parts, both located in the Met’s basement level yet at opposite ends of the museum. Ah, but the method in this madness! To get to the darkened room—maybe ‘cavern’ would be more accurate—where the spectacular ball gowns gleam from the depths like prehistoric sea creatures, one necessarily must pass through the Met’s collection of ancient Greek and Roman sculpture directly overhead. To get to the crypt with the shimmering cocktail dresses and sculptural coats, one must pass overhead through the Met’s collection of ancient Egyptian art. That is, just in one’s approach to the genius of the man, one is made to see him in the context of the ages, of the standards of art “The Metropolitan Museum of Art” represents. And so, in my transmigration from the mummies to the mannequins, I began thinking about what I’d want my new 3-D printer to print.
You know, these miracle printers can make any New York expedition so much easier. An hour or two before you require an accessory, you just turn on the machine, program it, and, voilà!, it produces a new handbag, a portable house, an AK-47, whatever. From the James show, I’d go with a dolman-sleeve day coat that closes with merely a button or two; that I could “get into” in the back of a taxi.
But why stop there? The Egyptian ladies are all swathed in stony representations of pleated tissue—in prototypes of Fortuny—however, from the Met’s Greek and Roman galleries, how about a print-out of that headless marble statue of Aphrodite in her “Venus Genetrix” incarnation. This breathcatching figure, elevated on a waist-high pedestal, is a first- or second-century Roman copy of a lost, 5th-century B.C. Greek original by Kallimachus. As a copy, it’s not very faithful, which is probably why the Met calls it an “adaptation”: Wikipedia has pictures of several other copies of the lost sculpture, which reside at various museums, and all of them possess the bodies of mature women (“Genetrix” refers to Venus as a maternal figure). Furthermore, the Kallimachus original was apparently bronze and larger-than-life-sized. The Met’s version, rather, offers a relatively petite goddess, just a half inch under five feet tall, who has managed to keep her figure, slender and high-breasted, despite her maternity—a Jean Harlow of the breed. And what is she wearing? Wow! Scholars will try to tell you it’s called a peplos or maybe an Ionic chiton, but I see “Water Dress” by Charles James! From the front, it pours down her body (to “get into” that section, all one needs is a waterfall). From the side, it’s a cool column of half-frozen creases. From the back, it’s the entrance to a ravishing polar enigma, with the marble worked into glaciate planes and folds. The difficult part of the printer’s programming will be reproducing the soft, worn-away texture of the marble, i.e., getting the presence of a couple of millennia into the 3-D copy; but I have no doubt that, as I write, some prodigy is inventing a way to replicate even the handprints of time. Maybe I should also tell the printer to give her a arms and a head—but whose? Perhaps a set from one of the living sconces with glowing eyes in Jean Cocteau’s “Beauty and the Beast” film? Wait, the printer seems to be jammed. It didn’t understand my request for the effect of millennia on the marble. If it can’t get that, the creation of a head is certainly going to be an issue. I’ll think about it tomorrow, right after I go through my to-do list. Let’s see what’s on for tomorrow? “Note to self: You must change your life.”
(Charles James: Beyond Fashion through August 10, Metropolitan Museum of Art, NYC)
I left it
on when I
left the house
for the pleasure
of coming back
ten hours later
to the greatness
of Teddy Wilson
"After You've Gone"
on the piano
in the corner
of the bedroom
as I enter
in the dark
from New and Selected Poems by David Lehman
THE RULE OF THUMB
Ringfinger was nervous
when they learned
that Hand might succumb
to the rule of Thumb.