The full issue will be available soon. Find it here.
The full issue will be available soon. Find it here.
Jim just loves to garden, yes he does.
He likes nothing better than to put on
his little overalls and his straw hat.
He says, "Let's go get those tools, Jim."
But then doubt begins to set in.
He says, "What is a garden, anyway?"
And thoughts about a "modernistic" garden
begin to trouble him, eat away at his resolve.
He stands in the driveway a long time.
"Horticulture is a groping in the dark
into the obscure and unfamiliar,
kneeling before a disinterested secret,
slapping it, punching it like a Chinese puzzle,
birdbrained, babbling gibberish, dig and
destroy, pull out and apply salt,
hoe and spray, before it spreads, burn roots,
where not desired, with gloved hands, poisonous,
the self-sacrifice of it, the self-love,
into the interior, thunderclap, excruciating,
through the nose, the earsplitting necrology
of it, the withering, shriveling,
the handy hose holder and Persian insect powder
and smut fungi, the enemies of the iris,
wireworms are worse than their parents,
there is no way out, flowers as big as heads,
pock-marked, disfigured, blinking insolently
at me, the me who so loves to garden
because it prevents the heaving of the ground
and the untimely death of porch furniture,
and dark, murky days in a large city
and the dream home under a permanent storm
is also a factor to keep in mind."
"The Definition of Gardening" from Shroud of the Gnome by James Tate (Ecco / HarperCollins,1997)
I found the poem below recently in a pile of papers from around 2008. I had no memory of having written it, but I’m sure many writers have the same kind of experience. Forgetfulness enshrouding us all. What intrigued me is that the poem seems to predict what happened a year or two after I wrote it. In late 2010, I sold a precious piece of my past—an Irish button accordion I got when I was around 8 years old. I can still dimly remember going to Manhattan with my father and his best friend P.J. Conway to buy this instrument, which I think cost about $200, a fortune for my family in those days. It was beautiful but hard to play—the keyboard action was high and stiff.
The Black Box, painting by Susan Campbell
When I retired from the Smithsonian in 2009, I needed to look for some extra money, and that’s when selling the old box occurred to me. I’d hardly touched it since 1980-81, when I replaced it with a succession of instruments that are easier to play. I don’t think it was a bad decision to sell it. My father had a kind of Zen-like non-attachment to material things, and I think he would have blessed the de-accessioning of the box. It was bought by a Dublin accordion-player of impressive ability named Ray Dempsey (pictured below). He in turn sold it to a Frenchman named Laurent Jarry, who presides over an accordion emporium in the Paris suburb of Montreuil that I would love to visit one day.
My father took me downtown
and bought me the most amazing
black box. A beauty, with flags,
harps, and flowers,
all in rhinestone. My name
affixed to it, in big block
letters, also of rhinestone.
To me, they were white diamonds.
The box was very heavy.
As I got older, it grew
even heavier. Because only
an expert could open it,
I never put anything into it.
After my father died, I put
the black box into a bigger
box and didn’t think
about it for many years.
Until a few weeks ago, when
I was overcome with a sense
of the past, which has a distinct
smell, like that of someone eating
Doritos in the Metro, and I looked
everywhere for the box. But it’s
gone, and all those ancient
attachments, so glittery
and fragile, gone with it.
Laurent Jarry's Accordion shop
The small, yellow grass-onion,
spring's first green, precursor
to Manhattan's pavements, when
plucked as it comes, in bunches,
washed, split and fried in
a pan, though inclined to be
a little slimy, if well cooked
and served hot on rye bread
is to beer a perfect appetizer——
and the best part
of it is they grow everywhere.
-- by William Carlos Williams
I help you store the “Number One”
foam fingers in their box;
and clean the grease of hot dog stands;
and check the many locks;
and help you stack the bleachers up,
douse house lights in the gym, while listening to your baleful cries,
your curses thrown at him
who turned the spheroid over,
or flubbed the easy pass,
or watched the orb go unretriev’d,
as it bounced off the glass.
You weren’t the only one to boast
his team would be the king,
only to hear instead the taunt
cheerleaders love to sing,
the lonesome sound of dreams denied
that makes the true fan cry:
“Na na nana, na na nana,
hey hey hey, good-bye …”
-- James Cummins
Ed. note: The poem, though it may or may not have been written on March 15, marks the end of March Madness this evening and subtly welcomes the baseball season, which annually proves the wisdom of Alexander Pope: "Hope springs eternal in he human breast."
Over at the American Scholar, a group of committed poets have been writing a sestina, week by week, stanza by stanza. Last Tuesday, David Lehman picked a title, thus completing the poem. Here's what he writes about the title and the months-long collaboration:
The title that strikes me as the most elegant, succinct, and pertinent is “Compline,” as proposed by Paul Michelsen. Compline is the Latin name for the night prayer, the final canonical prayer in the Catholic day, following Vespers. Our sestina is a prayer of sorts; it is endowed with religion and the spirit of divine immortality leavened by the occasional jest; and if readers don’t recognize the title, all the better if they hunt it down in the dictionary or are moved to visit W. H. Auden’s vastly underrated sequence of poems “Horae Canonicae.” And if there are traces of “complete” and “complaint” in our title, so be it.
It was not an easy choice—I also liked “Her Hourglass a Prism” (Charise Hoge), “Mary, Singing” (Christine Rhein), “Uncertainty” (Patricia Smith), andLaWanda Walter’s whimsical “How to Dress for Anything.”
To all my thanks, not only for the spirited effort resulting in a truly collaborative endeavor that can, I believe, stand on its own as an anthology piece of the future, but for the contagious enjoyment of the process. I am immensely gratified, too, by the compliments in my direction. If we are a team and I am the coach, well, that metaphor goes right to my head like a perfectly chilled, light-yellow drink consisting of top-shelf bourbon, lemon juice, and honey in equal measures, shaken and served in a rocks glass.
I shall do my best to contrive another contest that will spur the team to heights. But that may take me some time. Meanwhile, I have thought of prompts for the next couple of weeks, and I hope they will prove inspiring.
Man in Santa suit kills eight
with a single efficient shot,
At a party of his in-laws
near Los Angeles
on Christmas Eve
the man in the Santa suit
drew his gun
and started shooting
as soon as they let him in
which they did because
he said he was Santa Claus
and they thought he had come
to entertain the children.
Then he sprayed
with pressurized gas
and set the house on fire.
The owners of the house,
an elderly couple
retired from the
and their daughter, Sylvia,
the estranged wife
of the gunman,
were among the dead
12 / 25-26 / 08
Serious writers must sometimes explain that writing is not a hobby, not a leisure pursuit, and not a luxury. Rather, it is the most essential practice of our lives. Audre Lorde said it best: "Poetry is not a luxury. It is a vital necessity of our existence. It forms the quality of the light within which we predicate our hopes and dreams toward survival and change, first made into language, then into idea, then into more tangible action."
"Yeah, yeah, yeah," one of my dearest former poetry students said to me many years ago. "But what do you really mean when you say that writing is not a luxury?" It was just a few weeks after the beginning of my poetry class. He could not understand the notion that some serious writers' very survival depends on writing. It all seemed like romantic claptrap: for him, writing was a luxurious choice, not an austere calling. He was a wealthy white student at a small, private liberal arts college who had always dreamed of being a famous, award-winning, bestselling writer. But, as he shared on the first day of class when we all introduced ourselves, if he did not achieve his ambition, he was going to be okay because he could rely on being comfortable. Then he said, "After all, writing is just something that I do on the side."
During a conference in the middle of the semester, he told me that he did not know what he was going to do after the first week of my class because he had never had a black teacher before, much less an LGBT Buddhist teacher. I affirmed my former student that day in our conference and I affirmed him every other day throughout our rapport in the years to come. (And I have received his permission to write about him with the understanding that I not reveal his name.) His honesty was one of many starting places for true learning between us. True learning is frequently uncomfortable: we must break to reveal. If you think that I was in the slightest bit upset with him for his honesty, then you may need to read my thoughts about bias. In fact, he was doing everything right: he was trying to work-through the influence of his upbringing as he came to terms with my searing, discomfiting poetry lessons.
I sensed that he was covering up pain. The tragedies of my own life helped me to see a darkness engulfing him, a darkness so encompassing that he could not fathom its encroachment upon him. I suspected that my former student was a drug addict a month after meeting him. Unlike most teachers at the school, I have lived through the harshness of the streets and I know its struggles. I have never been an addict. But, some of my dearest friends have struggled with addiction. My office at the time was on the far, backside of the campus in a dorm. When I was working late, I would often see him when he was high: stumbling, nodding with a glazed, deadened gaze and an ashen pallor about his skin.
One day his drug supplier came on to campus to drop off a shipment. Yes, along with being an addict, he was a dealer. I saw them conversing furtively behind the dining hall as I made my way to the bus stop late at night to go home: the white young man of privilege and the black young man of disadvantage connecting through drugs. Then they both turned to look at me, the black LGBT Buddhist teacher from the working poor world of the streets and I broke the spell of their secret, painful rapport by calling out, "Be safe! I'll see you in class next week!"
Soon my former student's substance abuse and drug dealing came to the attention of the authorities at school. An incident occurred about which I still do not know the details. He stopped coming to class. It would not be long before his problems would force him leave the school. But, while he did not formally complete my poetry class, he continued his education with me.
One night I received a call from him at 3 a.m. in the morning. "Please," he weeped, "Come help me. I think I am in Druid Hill Park. I don't know where to turn." Without hesitation, I hopped on a bus and then walked past the abandoned buildings and trash strewn thoroughfare to the cross streets where he said that I would find him huddled under a street light. He was shivering. He seemed to have lost some of his clothes. He wore only one shoe. I gave him my jacket. "Aren't we going to hop a cab?" he asked and I told him, "Absolutely not. We are going to catch a bus." As long as I did not alert his parents or the school, he agreed to let me help him.
He fell asleep on the bus without asking where we were going. It was only when we arrived at a 7 a.m. meeting of Narcotics Anonymous that he understood my designs. I lived blocks away from the venue where that early morning Narcotics Anonymous meeting took place. When I walked to the bus stop in the mornings, I passed by the meeting folk lingering outside, smoking cigarettes. That morning after the meeting, over breakfast at the Paper Moon diner in Baltimore, I suggested that it was time for him to rewrite his life. And so began my former students' true writing education.
Five years later, the poems started coming: vital, brutal, brilliant poems about being a rich kid on Woo-Woo (heroin laced marijuana smoked in a cigarette), Belushi (heroin laced with cocaine), and Cheese (heroin laced with cold medicine). He once told me, "I'm an asshole." I then encouraged him to "write like an asshole until you come to a place in your life when you can cover up your behind."
Ten years later, I am pleased to say that he has rewritten his life and, whatever happens, he has the tools to keep doing so. His very life depends on writing. I told my former student who is now my friend that I was blogging this week and I wanted to feature one of his poems to introduce his artistry to the world. At first he agreed, but then, just before midnight, he called to say that he was not ready. Instead, he suggested that I link to an old hymn called "It Is Well With My Soul" that I once sang to him over the phone five years ago that begins: "When peace, like a river, attendeth my way,/When sorrows like sea billows roll;/Whatever my lot, Thou has taught me to say,/It is well, it is well, with my soul."
It is Saturday July 28, 1990 at the now defunct Frederick Douglass Creative Arts Center on West 96th Street in New York City. I am at a middle school children's writing workshop. Improbably, I am the teacher. The night before the workshop I cloister myself in the bathroom. Nervous stomach. Clammy hands. Head spinning. A writing teacher? Me?
Earlier that year I taught a few tap dance classes to children as a substitute at the Hot Feet studios in the nation's capitol. I also taught buffon clowning at a weekend workshop for children at Philadelphia's Walnut Street Theatre. But teaching writing? How do I do that? Oh, I knew it could be done. I was molded by superb reading, writing, and performing educators. One such mentor was Samuel H. Wilson, Jr., a founder of the Arena Players, the oldest, continuously operating African American community theatre in the United States of America. Mr. Wilson recommended that I replace him for the Saturday children's writing workshop in 1990. Fred Hudson, the artistic director of the Frederick Douglass Creative Arts Center, readily agreed.
I had known both men since I was a child entertainer. Mr. Wilson and I had also led anti-gang violence workshops at public schools in the Mid-Atlantic states throughout the 1980s using techniques from Augusto Boal's Theatre of the Oppressed. Mr. Wilson was a giant in my world because he genuinely cared about my welfare. "What are you working on?" he always asked, and whatever I told him, he was invariably encouraging. In 1990, Mr. Wilson was occasionally sick. He would have only five more years to live before dying of pneumonia in 1995. It is now 2015: twenty years since his death and I still miss him deeply.
That Friday in July of 1990 before my first workshop the next day as a writing teacher, I call Mr. Wilson on the telephone for help. He asks me to think back to what he told me about writing many years before when I was a child. "Writing," Mr. Wilson always told me, "is just another way of caring about other people." He also said that, "Editing is just another way of caring about writing" and "Reading is just another way of changing the world." Then Mr. Wilson told me that if any of these things are true, then teaching is just another way of sharing this good news. At the core of his reflections was a vision of writing as relationship-building, as affection, and as care.
Over the phone Mr. Wilson suggests that I get the children talking to each other, sharing their own stories, and looking into each others' eyes. "It's not always page-bound," he says to me. "Don't be afraid to use your theatre technique to teach writing," Mr. Wilson bellows into the phone. That Saturday, after we warm-up by running around the room and vocalizing, the children and I create characters based on the real life denizens that occupy our neighborhoods. Then we fashion scenes in which the characters work through conflicts. We move in and out of writing, talking, and performing. And I am pretty sure that I learn far more than anyone else in the room.
For all of my life, Mr. Wilson's reflections about writing, editing, and reading have lit my way through the sometimes dark world of literary fortune. Even today I often begin and end my writing classes with his reflections. His ideas have taught me to be a generous writer, reader, and supporter of others. I see beyond the frequent provincialism of cliques, schools, clubs, and canons. I try to find a way to care about a diversity of writing around me. Rather than focusing on how the writing fits my own predilections, or the fame of the author, or the assumed cachet of the publishing venue, or the friends associated with the author, or even whether the work is narrowly "good" or "bad"--rather than focusing on any of these things, I try to care about the work by understanding the structural principles that seem to govern its design.
Let me close today's entry with just such an exercise of care about a recent poem published by Mary Meriam in the Winter issue of American Arts Quarterly. "It Gets Very Dark until the Moon Rises" is more than a Petrarchan sonnet. It is a poem that seethes forth from the central verb statement in its first line: "darkness drives her pick-up truck." Everything thereafter in the poem structures itself around this remarkable conceit. And then we (the reader) are off on the journey of this hard-living, smart, unlucky woman through the dark of Highway 86 until the turn in the poem when the moon shows the woman's face, and I'll leave the rest, dear reader, to you.
Old she-bear, pent
in her rocky den,
gnaws a footpad
dry as dust,
solitary rakes in sticks
and scratches the scar
that marks a hunter’s
Shaking the ice
off her frozen fur, she licks
the snow and huffs
out clouds of steam.
The obituaries of legendary University of North Carolina basketball coach Dean Smith have heralded his civil rights activism and team-above-self philosophy as much as his basketball legacy. President Barack Obama honored Smith with the Medal of Freedom in 2013 as a leader who transcended his sport. This week, I asked the motley crew at my middle-aged, co-ed basketball game, to pause in respect. I wore black socks and black headband to mourn, and a Carolina blue shirt to celebrate the life that shaped my values and ethics as much as any member of my biological family. For once in my life, I could stand at the three-point line and feel like Michael Jordan – who called Smith “more than a coach…a mentor, my teacher, my second father.” I raised my index finger and pointed downcourt, the way Smith taught players to thank teammates for an assist.
In my close extended family in the tobacco belt of North Carolina, Dean Smith was a deity. He echoed what they taught me about loyalty, humility and hard work. Coach –there was only one for my kin – connected me to my father who struggled with depression and alcoholism. None of that changed when I played for UNC rival Wake Forest in college. My junior year, in March, my father killed himself with a shotgun. For the rest of that season and many after, Coach Smith signaled from the sidelines all that my father wanted for me.
At 56, I’ve not got a lot of game left, but I still have a lot of Dean, on and off the court. Or at least I hope so.
Finding the Net
I could count on my father,
closed down, bed bound,
for Carolina basketball.
He would come out
for supper, snacks,
our Boys in Blue.
Dean Smith delivered.
Forty minutes of family,
triumph, selfless defense,
four corners of calm.
I seldom saw the bourbon
or pills. I watched perfect
pass after perfect pass
trounce the devils.
And my father fade.
I will find the open man.
In Third Grade My Father Loves Me Best When I
Watch hoops with him
I can stay up late if I nap after school. The nap is my idea.
I know why Coach Smith is the Dean of college basketball.
Open the 1957 scrapbook
When our Tarheels beat Wilt the Stilt for the National
Championship, the year before I was born.
I know the Constitution is a do-over of some Articles
Confederation. I can name the Supreme Court.
Ask about Washington, D.C.
The trip he shook hands with Sam Rayburn, the big boss
of a House, but not the White one.
How guards and tackles protect quarterbacks.
That safeties must save the day.
Laugh with him about playing God
of the Grapevine in Glendale. His younger cousins
were angels. Fetched grape juice, Ritz crackers.
(poems from a work in progress, For Opening the Mouth of the Dead)
Catherine Woodard helped return Poetry in Motion to NYC’s subways and is on the board of the Poetry Society of America. Her poems have appeared in CNN online, Painted Bride Quarterly, RHINO and other publications. She is a former journalist who lives and plays basketball in NYC.
Julie Babcock's stunning first collection of poems, Autoplay, offers spare, carefully crafted lyrics that are as familiar as they are uncanny. By invoking the seemingly tame imagery of Midwestern cities, the poems in this striking collection lull the reader into a sense of complacency, only to skillfully undermine this expectation that they will encounter a familiar narrative. As the book unfolds, Babcock excavates violence, discontent, and enchantment from beneath an unremarkable exterior—marked by "the green hills of the gold course," "baby-sitters," and "breath against the mirror"—restoring a sense of both danger and wonder to everyday life. In doing so, Babock offers the reader a perfect matching of form and content, particularly as her stylistic dexterity illuminates and complicates the content of the work itself.
With that in mind, Babcock's use of received literary forms to deliver unexpected content is particularly impressive. She draws a parallel between inherited modes of writing (of which couplets, tercets, and quatrains are only a few examples) and the Midwestern cultural landscape, suggesting that both have been made to seem inhospitable to creative endeavors, but can give rise to stunning imaginative work if we allow them to. She writes in "Ohio Apologia,"
A twin can never divide her wealth.
I planned to go where I'd never melt
into a mold of virgin or slut.
I wanted to love you to love myself.
I crossed the rivers with my bag of stealth
my story line revised and trussed,
but a twin can never divide her wealth.
Here Babcock simultaneously inhabits a traditional literary form and received ideas about femininity, suggesting that one can work within these bits of inherited culture to expand what is possible within them. In much the same way that the speaker herself is "twinned," her story line is "revised and trussed," suggesting the inherent instability of both literary traditions and narratives of identity. Autoplay is filled with beautifully crafted poems like this one, which offer a carefully constructed relationship between style and content.
Along these lines, I found Babcock's use of domestic imagery compelling and provocative, especially as she suggest the violence inherent in being confined to a given place. She creates a wonderful tension between the confines of formal poetry and the volatility of the images contained within these formally pristine edifices, suggesting the inevitable discontent with one's origins. Consider "Autoplay,"
I am the baby-sitter. She
is snuggled so close
we might be one.
We hear a noise
and flee the house.
"We're safe," I say, as we jump
on the outdoor trampoline.
For Babcock, a particular place entails not just mere surroundings, but specific gender roles, modes of communication, and narratives of identity. In much the same way that the speakers' voices are contained within neatly presented tercets, couplets, and pantoums, the violence inherent in narratives of place is also subsumed within these orderly forms. What's fascinating about this tension between style and content is the way that Babcock subtly suggests that conflict, and contradiction, can reside beneath a seemingly un-rippled surface. Like many of the poems in Autoplay, this piece is as beautifully crafted as it is self-aware. This is a stunning debut, and Babcock is a poet to watch.
Khavaran cemetery, located in southeast Tehran, is a place where religious minorities bury their dead. Jews, Christians and the Baha’is are not allowed to be buried in other cemeteries on the grounds that "they are apostates and must not contaminate the resting place of Muslims.”
In February 2009 the Islamic Republic of Iran announced its plan to demolish the cemetery and run a highway through it. By this they intended to erase all evidence of the massacre. However, the cemetery still stands and every September on the anniversary of the massacre the authorities have blocked and harassed Mothers of Khavaran, a group consisting of the families and supporters of the executed, to visit the cemetery. On May 18, 2014 Mothers of Khavaran received the 2014 Gwangju Prize for Human Rights.
"The Poem" by Mohsen Emadi is a short film about Khavaran; it is about human brutality in the name of religion and ideology. The film has been screened in Spain, Brazil, Mexico and Portugal. Emadi is a poet, literary translator and filmmaker.
I believe in the power of empathy, the ability to put oneself in another person’s shoes without having to necessarily agree with her or him. I believe that seeing the world through another person’s eyes forges an inner shift towards an ever-expanding movement and that poetry, too, can precipitate such change.
I drew this diagram years ago for a class I was teaching at Walnut Creek, California. I called it the Shift-Circle. It begins small, like a pebble dropped in a boundless pond. The first circle is miniscule but it sets in motion ripples of ever-expanding breadth. I suppose I would need a physicist to draw it for me properly. However, here it is as a one-dimensional drawing.
You can enter the cycle at any point and begin a journey that appears to be circular but is in fact ever expanding and never the same in content or depth. Movement leads to a shift in perspective, which leads to empathy. Empathy is an agent of change. If you enter at a moment where a shift in perspective is taking place, then you continue your journey to the next step, which is empathy, and from there, to change, which creates movement towards another shift in perspective. By that point you have created and moved into the next layer of ripples.
Similarly, a poem begins with that first pebble in the water. It creates the first circle at any of the points the poem enters: change, movement, shift in perspective, or empathy. The circle must be completed before the poem can continue to the next level.
An exercise: Take a favorite poem and ask at which point does it enter the Shift-Circle? Does it complete the first round, and if so, does it move on to the next rung of the ripple?
In 1955, Davood Pirniya, a music lover and a well-connected and powerful man within the Iranian government, used his political resources to fund and establish an orchestra, bringing in the best vocalists and composers for a new radio program that presented a gorgeous marriage of music and poetry. He called the program Flowers (Golha). The earliest version, Eternal Flowers (Golhayeh Javidan), featured poetry by beloved ancient poets: Saadi, Rumi, and Hafez. In each program selected poems were recited by a mellifluous voice, followed by a musical interlude and then golden-throated singing to a beautiful composition in traditional form. Later, in Multicolored Flowers (Golhayeh Rang a Rang), poems by contemporary poets were also included in the program. Although singing poems is an old Iranian tradition, these programs introduced to the public—young and old, rich and poor—work by new poets as well as by ancient masters, in a form that was pleasing to the ear and the heart, the mind and the soul. These radio programs became immensely popular in both cities and villages, among the well-educated as well the illiterate.
The programs were numbered. Here is number 570, with Homeyra, one of the divas of the time, singing poems by two contemporary poets as well as Iran’s beloved Hafez. The program begins with an introduction of the artists; then Firouzeh Amirmoez recites the first section of the first poem. After a brief musical interlude, Homeyra sings that same section. Listen:
Today many of Iran’s talented musicians and vocalists live in exile. Here in the United States a well-known and immensely talented Iranian vocalist and composer, Mamak Khadem, is among a handful of musicians in exile who have kept this beautiful tradition alive. In her 2011 album, A Window To Color, Mamak brings to musical life Iran’s beloved 20th-century poet, Sohrab Sepehri. Here is a video renditions of one of the songs, "At the Water's Edge" (Labeh Aab):
In recent years Mamak has also begun composing traditional Persian music for poems written in English or in translation. In 2010 she performed my poem (written in English,) “I Am Neda,” at the Billy Wilder Theater for an event sponsored by PEN USA and the Hammer Museum in Los Angeles. Two years later, in her album Widow to Color, Mamak sang Sepehri’s poem “Az Sabz Be Sabz” (Green to Green) in translation. It’s enchanting to hear the English words dance between Persian melodies.
Here is a portion of “Green to Green,” along with its translation. I wish I could play the entire song here, but if you are interested, download it from iTunes. Better yet, get the album. It comes with an insert with all the translations.
From Green to Green
(by Sohrab Sepehri, Translated by Sholeh Wolpé)
I, in this darkness
wish for a luminous lamb
to come, to graze
on the grass of my weariness.
I, in this darkness
see my outstretched arms
wet beneath this rain
that once drenched
the first prayers of man.
I, in this darkness
to ancient meadows,
to golden images we watched
on mythical walls.
I, in this darkness
saw the roots
the meaning of water
to death’s new sapling.
In 2013, the International Writing Program at the University of Iowa launched a multimedia web gallery with 52 weekly installments of Walt Whitman’s Song of Myself in 15 languages. Each installment of the poem was supplemented with commentaries from distinguished scholar Ed Folsom, and poet and literary translator Chris Merrill, who is also the director of the International Writing Program at the University of Iowa.
When I was commissioned to translate this American classic into Persian for the Whitman Web, I knew it was going to be an all-consuming project for the next 52 weeks of my life. When I first read Song of Myself in college, I wished I had read it in translation when I was in school back in Iran. It would have changed my perspective of the United States in a radical way. At the time what I knew of America came through the lens of Hollywood Westerns, dramas, and TV soaps such as the very popular Days of Our Lives.
Here I was now with the means and opportunity to give my fellow Iranians Whitman’s masterpiece. I was excited. I was also terrified. What a daunting, humbling, and at the same time exhilarating project! Translation is re-creation. I knew I had to re-create Whitman’s poem in a language and culture fundamentally different from English and the world within which Whitman lived. And I knew I could not do it alone. So I called my friend, Iranian poet and translator Mohsen Emadi, who lives in exile in Mexico City. He was a poet I trusted and whose work I had translated into English. Together we planned to work on Skype and re-create Song of Myself into Persian. As poets we were united in our approach to literary translation. We both believed that we owed the poem (and Whitman himself) our absolute best to deliver a living, breathing Song of Myself in Persian—a re-creation.
On our first day of collaboration, we spent two hours discussing how to translate the title. We settled on Avaz-e-Kheeshtan. Still ahead were weeks of such discussions and of cutting to the marrow of the poem. Some nights I went to sleep with pages of the sections we were translating scattered on my bed. I studied each section in depth, produced the first draft of the translation, and sent it to Mohsen. He then sent me his draft, after which I responded with mine. We’d then Skype and work on the fourth and fifth drafts together, mouthing the words to compare their music and discussing the use of one word versus another, in terms of implication, historical reference, and musicality.
Whitman sang in my head for those 52 weeks, spoke to me, teased me with lines I thought impossible to translate. This is a poem that is deeply rooted in American culture and expressions—expressions in need of interpretation or complete re-creation, as in the case of such lines as “Endless unfolding of words of ages!” (line 477), “I resume the overstaid fraction” (line 967), and “I am afoot with my vision” (line 716).
Some phrases or expressions that may appear simple and direct in English are quite challenging in Persian. For example, “And am around, tenacious, acquisitive, tireless, and cannot be shaken away” (line 147) seems straightforward enough. Yet we spent hours thinking about and discussing the words “around” and “shaken away.” There are multiple ways to translate these words in Persian. We needed to not only communicate the meaning and intention of the poet accurately but also maintain the beauty of expression it demanded.
Another example of the type of challenges we faced is section 35 in its entirety. It is written in a completely different voice than the rest of the poem. How were we to bring to the Iranian reader’s imagination the voice of the American sailor telling his story in such an intimate yet sailorly tone? After a lengthy discussion we decided to employ the diction of a dashee, a tough Iranian street guy—a manner of talking that is readily recognized by Iranians and communicates to them the class and background of the speaker.
Whitman also made up words. The night before Christmas I went to bed thinking about “slough of boot soles” in section 8. I was in regular correspondence with Ed Folsom and Chris Merrill, so, forgetting it was Christmas Eve, I appealed to them for help.
I wrote: My dear Ed and Chris, I don’t know how to translate “sluff of boot-soles” in section 8, particularly if it is a sound. Help!!!
Chris replied: I have the feeling that Whitman's coinage contains the idea of a snake sloughing off its skin, the image of a man shuffling down the street, and the sound of boots scraping the sidewalk. (Hass and Ebenkamp suggest that it is "pure onomatopoetic invention.") Shuffle, shamble, scuff, scrape, soft-shoe, rub, skip, graze... Is it common to coin words in Persian? If so, then this may be such an occasion. Good luck!
Ah, I thought. Good luck to me indeed.
Then came Ed’s answer: I've always heard Whitman's "sluff of bootsoles" as his invention of the sound boots make as they slog through mud. "Sluff" is a phonetic spelling of "slough," which as a noun is a muddy bog, not unlike Manhattan sidewalks and streets in the mid-nineteenth century. As a verb, "slough" is to shed or cast off. So all those boots walking the muddy streets are continually taking on mud and shedding it off, all the while making a distinctive sound that echoes both the noun and the verb—the sluff of bootsoles.
On Christmas day, while kids jumped out of bed excited about presents Santa had left under the tree, I sprang out of bed excited about the idea I had woken up with. Still in my PJs, I dialed Mohsen on Skype. Just out of bed, his salt-and-pepper hair in a tangled mess, he watched his crazy poet friend, namely me, do a crazy dance before the computer camera, yelling: “I got it! I got it! Kelesh Kelesh. Kelesh Kelesh.” That was the precise sound-translation of Whitman’s onomatopoetic invention.
Later, Ed wrote: Sluff Sluff Sluff: I hear it every time I witness someone walking through mud! And now I'll hear kelesh kelesh kelesh as well . . .
(On the website, readers are also able to listen to each section of the poem read aloud in Persian by me. http://iwp.uiowa.edu/whitmanweb/fa/section-1)
At the 2014 AWP conference in Seattle, I went to a reading sponsored by Slapering Hol Press, the African Poetry Book Fund, and Prairie Schooner, presenting poets from a new collection. Instead of putting seven poets in one anthology, the editors Kwame Dawes and Chris Abani gave each poet a chapbook, then put the seven chapbooks into a beautifully designed box called Seven New Generation African Poets. The poets are TJ Dema, Clifton Gachagua, Tsitsi Jaji, Nick Makoha, and Len Verwey, Warsan Shire, and Ladan Osman.
What a brilliant way to introduce young African poets to the American public. “We are finding in these poets,” writes Kwame in his introduction, “a cadre of writers who remain committed to the rich and enduring challenge of finding a voice and idiom that manages to reflect a quality of modernity operating in African cultures.”
Ladan’s poetry is unaffected and simple, unabashedly alive in spirit, and full of interrogation—desperate questions that are flung our way with care and craft:
If this poet is white in third world countries,
what am I here? It’s possible I’m just like the wind in the curtains.
Why do rocks enslave
water? What is the slave’s poem? Does the sea favor its roar or murmur?
Warsan Shire’s poems knocked the breath out of me. Her voice is unbounded, original, and honest. In Conversations about Home, she writes:
No one leaves home unless home is the mouth of a
shark. I’ve been carrying the old anthem in my mouth
for so long that there’s no space for another son,
another tongue, or another language. I know a shame
that shrouds, totally engulfs. I tore up and ate my own
passport in an airport hotel. I’m bloated with language I
can’t afford to forget.
I am thankful to Kwame Dawes and Chris Abani for selflessly and diligentlysupporting such bright new voices from Africa. Literature can serve as a bridge between cultures and people, and in these dark times what better way to serve humankind than to build that bridge, poem by poem.
On my usual walk to class
there is this woman walking in front of me,
sun warping the bedazzled cross on her shirt.
All rail legs and cheekbones, she could be a model.
She is yapping on her phone to some guy
named Henry, presumably her significant other.
Poor, sweet Henry, forever waiting on the other
end for his chance to speak. I am just about to pass
this woman when a chunk of her hair hits the ground
in front of me. I think the mass looks like a tangled octopus.
I watch her massage her scalp where the octopus once was,
completely silent, and I will Henry to use this as his chance
to speak. She considers picking it up off the ground
but immediately thinks better of it and keeps walking.
I wonder to myself if this is a statement about women
and how we go through some ridiculous shit to look pretty
but never want to admit to the world just how ridiculous it is,
or if this woman had dropped herself somewhere along the way
and was too embarrassed to get up. I was about to ask
her when she picked up where she left off, with
“Henry, are you even listening?”
-- Daryl Sznyter
There’s a new Language Movement in town.
I remember when Charles and Bruce began publishing L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E, how their writing made me think of language in a new way. Whether I’m in Australia, or on a reservation in South Dakota, when people say they are talking “in Language,” what I know is that they’re talking in their Mother Tongue. To these folks, English is not Language, English is the way you get along. Language is who you are, words that have been passed down through generations.
“Language Matters” is the first nationwide media recognition of the Language Crisis, which is not just about languages, but cultural diversity. It’s about global homogenization, the Pringleization of society, about cultures being steamrollered under globalization. The growing call to action for language preservation is a drive to see the cultures of the world through a lens of understanding and respect, of seeing the world through a cultural lens, not just a political one. The problem is that in this era of the consciousness of literacy, in this world of hard science, endangered languages and cultures are disadvantaged; if you don’t have the quantification, the metrics, you don’t really have something to say. Quantifying languages is complex (I’d like to say impossible, but I can’t). This is where the poets come in.
Four years ago, when we started “Language Matters,” people were saying there were 7,000 languages in the world. Now there are 6,000, not because we’ve lost that many languages, but because now that these numbers are really starting to count for something on the political table, linguists are beginning to hedge. It’s hard to know exactly how many languages there are, and harder to enumerate speakers. It’s not like counting the number of pandas. In the prologue to the motion poem “Khonsay,” where each line from a different endangered/minority language, we split the difference, say there are 6,500. And the reason I used the “endangered/minority” construct is because linguists also disagree on the at-risk level of many many languages.
When I was in Wales asking people if they spoke Welsh, there were people with a junior high level of vocabulary who were quite proud that they could speak Welsh. Others, who were absolutely fluent, said they couldn’t really speak it. They were hanging out with people who were born into the language, who knew more slang.
The only thing everyone agrees with is that huge numbers of languages, languages that have been around, usually, for millennia, are dying out right now.
When I tell people we’re losing half the languages on the planet by the end of this century, unless we do something about it, they never ask “how many languages is that, exactly?” Instead, their reactions are always “yes, let’s do something about it.” And again, this is why I think that participating in the Language Movement, helping to protect all languages, is part of the job of the poet in 2015. It’s a movement to protect the diversity of languages in the world. A movement to give respect to all languages. A movement to appreciate that each language has its own poetry, and is an important part of an Ecology of Consciousness.
Digital Consciousness connects us all. But are we listening to each other? Are we respecting each other’s traditions? It’s great to have “Language Matters” find its way out into the world, four years after David Grubin and I had that lunch. When I was working on “The United States of Poetry” with Mark Pellington and Joshua Blum, Josh, who gave me a dictum about TV that I’ll never forget. “The first rule of making a television program, is to get it on television.” The national broadcast of “Language Matters on PBS is the end of that quest, of that story.
Which means it’s the beginning of the journey. Now that people have seen the show, what about the call to activism inherent in it? So I ask all you poets out there to live like Natalie Diaz, and help your own Language find its way into the world. And if that Language happens to be English, well then you don’t understand the part about what Language is. Help me get this program into places where languages are struggling to survive and a screening of the film will give cred to the work. Find languages around you and learn from them. Take seriously the role of the poet as a protector of language, not just a user.
There’s nothing like writing a poem, to take words, each one with its own history, multiple meanings, and build a sculpture of meaning. It’s a gift, the words that come to us. People have sparked these sounds, people have laid down their lives for their continuation—language is the essence of humanity, and poetry is the essence of language.
Working with linguists has allowed me to see language from the other side. The collaboration of science and art is good for everybody. If you never could understand the people who come up to you and say they can’t understand poetry, I recommend your going to a linguistics conference and try to understand what those people are talking about!
But to me that’s what the future holds. Sit through a lecture in a language you don’t understand, listen to the poetry of a language you’re trying to learn, place yourself in a situation where English is useless, learn what Language really is. This is the clarion call of our time. This is why Language Matters.
Put earbud in west ear
Put other earbud in east ear
Clapsticks, didj, now your voice
Recorded yesterday, Mt Borredale,
In Amardak, you’re the Last Speaker
Hear? Your voice doesn’t sound so good
You sang good, but the recording was no good
Could you sing now, Charlie, please?
Charlie nods. Charlie listens
Clapsticks, didj, now your voice, please - Now
Now Charlie listens
OK Charlie, we need you to sing Now
Charlie nods and listens
Now Charlie listens
Cue Charlie – listens
Jamesy tells Charlie
Get headphone splitter
Jamesy puts on headphones
Charlie and Jamesy listen
Clapsticks, didj. Charlie’s voice
Jamesy sings a little
Jamesy looks at Charlie
Charlie looks at Jamesy
OK? Charlie listens
OK, Jamesy now speak Iwaidja with Charlie
OK, Charlie listens, Charlie nods
OK Jamesy looks at Charlie
OK clapsticks in fingers
OK Charlie listens, didj
OK now. Now Charlie sings
Asking Charlie Mangulda, the Last Speaker of Amurdak, to overdub his performance from the sacred site of Mt. Borradale, was one of the most complex and unnerving directorial moves—to me, not to him—I’ve ever had to do. John Tranter, our local sound guy, is just a dynamite practitioner. But recording Charlie’s voice, two, cracking clapstick players, and a bulbous didgeridoo on a cave’s platform under an ancient painting of a Rainbow Serpent, proved to be too much for our top-of-the-line digital equipment. This poem tells the story. I won’t repeat it. I won’t even tell you what Ma barang! means, I’m sure you already know. And if you don’t know, then you really do already know.
What I do want to talk about, briefly, is the opening lines. In Amurdak, Charlie’s language, is one of the very few instances where you can actually see a difference in consciousnesses between languages. The idea that some languages are more primitive than others is simply cultural prejudice: you can say anything in any language, and every language has a full syntax and grammatology. But in Amurdak, Charlie doesn’t know his left from his right. This concept, which until the 1960s was thought to be universal, actually doesn’t exist in a few languages. The way Charlie designates direction is simply and solely through cardinal directions. And it’s been shown that it doesn’t matter where speakers of these languages are placed, they are automatically oriented to the compass points, so that they can say of the choices, “I’ll take the one on the southwest.”
Now, you could infer from this that Amurdak people don’t see themselves, each one, as the center of the universe, where left and right is always and only consistent to the person speaking. Instead, the Amurdak people—or in this case, Charlie, the Last Speaker—is simply a point standing somewhere on Earth. But that’s just an inference. Or maybe a poem.
One more thing before we close. When Charlie was translating the creation myth of Warramurrungunji, he listed the dozen or so languages that the Goddess dropped, thus bringing humans to the place she had created. Somehow, under the disturbing lights of the camera, with the intrusion of the microphone, Charlie remembered three words of a language that linguist Nick Evans, an expert on cultures of Northern Australia, didn’t know he could speak. And when Charlie mentioned Wurdirrk and gave Nick some words, it was the first time that this language has ever been recorded. That’s correct. I think this was The Apotheosis of the whole shoot of “Language Matters.” I could see the headline in the Times: Documentary Crew Discovers Lost Language.
The words Charlie spoke translate to: “I want to listen to you,” “yam-digging tool,” and “give me fire.” The first thing that was apparent to Nick from these three words is that they are unlike any other language, which means Wurdirrk is not a dialect—without these words, we never would have known that.
As a poet, I’d like to say one more thing about the words. If you triangulate from them, what you have is a whole culture. “I want to listen to you,” the essence of the community. “Yam-digging tool,” the basis of the community’s relationship with the earth and it also means “digging deeply into the meaning of something.” And “give me fire,” the essence of light, of heat, a great song title, and the best joke in the book.
For “gimme fire,” I envisioned Charlie as a little boy, these strange people coming out of the darkness late at night, shivering and cold, needing some of this precious fire for light and heat. Later, Charlie would give me the deeper meaning of this idiom. Hey buddy, you got a match?
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.