To begin ...

As the twentieth century fades out
the nineteenth begins
it is as if nothing happened
though those who lived it thought
that everything was happening
enough to name a world for & a time
to hold it in your hand
unlimited.......the last delusion
like the perfect mask of death

Sunday, April 5, 2009

From The New Delta Interview (Part Two): Translating, Sequencing, Performing

Interviewers: Brooke Champagne, Hillary Major, & Mike Walter

Q: I’d like to follow up on the question of translation. All of your poetry is so musical; do you feel any of that gets lost in the translations that you’ve heard? How much does it change, do you think?

A: Well, I think it probably changes a great deal. I can’t tell because when something of mine is translated into a language that’s not my language, I don’t know it enough to feel myself inside it. I can kind of understand what’s being said because it’s my poem that’s being translated, but I don’t know that I can judge the “musicality” of it in another language. Sometimes when I’m at a poetry reading of my work in France or Spain or South America, people who are native to the other language will come up and whisper to me, “Those translations really missed the mark.” What can I do – especially when others tell me that they’re okay?

Q: So we just have to learn every language, if we want to translate our own poems.

A: Well, recently on a trip to South America, I was doing my own reading of the Spanish translations. Could I follow while I was doing my own reading? No, I really couldn’t. It definitely sounded pretty good. And often too I work very closely with the translators. That works out better, for instance, in Spanish than Chinese. In Chinese, I can’t in any sense become a reader. I can answer questions, but I can’t otherwise work too closely. Sometimes it becomes very strange. Somebody, maybe even now, is working, trying to do a translation of “Cokboy,” which is very culturally specific, both Jewish and American in its language and thematics, and that makes translating wildly difficult. For example, in “Cokboy,” I play for a few lines with a kind of fake Yiddish accent, trying to imitate it or pretending to: “vot em I doink in dis strange place,/ mit deez pipple mit strange eyes.” The Chinese translator asked me, “Why does Cokboy resort to African-American dialect?” [laughter] I don’t know in what way dialect is expressed in Chinese writing, whether the written system is flexible enough to duplicate that peculiarity of sound that we think of as a dialect.

I can remember a couple of other translation stories. There’s a little manifesto of mine from the 1960s that starts out with the sentence, “I will change your mind.” That’s very playful, you know: I’ll change your mind as in mind-altering, or just I will change your mind in the ordinary sense of that: "I'll change your opinions." But what do you do with it in French? I don’t remember what my translators did, but there’s really no way of catching or matching it. It becomes a very serious statement: “I will transform your esprit.” But then esprit is itself a problem, a single and very common French word that covers both mind and spirit. So I don’t know how it works for the French when I talk about the esprit — are they hearing mind, which is a rather secular term, or are they hearing spirit, which is a rather non-secular, religious term? I’m writing a poem right now in which I think about and juxtapose, mind and spirit. This is something I’ll spring on a translator in another language. German runs into the same problem, where Geist is both mind and spirit, a philosophical word used by Hegel in the Phenomenology of Mind or the Phenomenology of Spirit, depending upon your mood on any given day. German can distinguish mind and spirit, but not in the common everyday language – not in the way we do in English. But then I do a lot of translating, too, so I work on situations where English can’t really handle what’s in French or German.

Q: When you read from Shaking the Pumpkin, you mentioned that there’s only one word underlying the four words from the song-poem “the animals are coming.”

A: In the opening song of the ritual poems that I translated, there’s only one word in the Seneca – a word that means something like “come” or “coming.” But it’s got a number of syllables, five syllables to be exact. “Coming” would be two syllables; “come” would be one syllable. That’s a little bit of the problem in translating it – particularly when I come to sing it in English. To the Senecas, I assume it’s quite clear what the coming refers to, what the arriving refers to – the sacred animals being called to join the ceremony. But the translator in English has several options – both for sound and meaning. The first possibility is “they are coming,” or to get it down more precisely, “the animals are coming.” That’s a question that comes up in translation: how much should you add by way of explanation to a text? How faithful, how minimal or maximal, should a translation be?

Q: I’d like to ask you about sequences, because so many of your poems are part of sequences. Do you begin with the over-arching idea, or does the theme emerge as you write?

A: Different poems happen in different ways. With some of the sequences, there is, at least, once you’ve gotten into it, some definite idea of what you’re doing, what, even in a formal or thematic sense, has to follow in subsequent poems. With A Book of Witness, say, taking that as a sequence, I had been interested for a long time in a form of poetry that takes the grammatical first person (the “I”) and then repeats it through a number of changes. Sometimes in magical poetry, the shaman or the magician or the sorcerer reiterates the “I,” thus thrusting himself or herself into the poem – or seeming to, since the “I” is sometimes identified with an outside force.. In the case of the Mazatec shamaness Maria Sabina: “I am the woman of the principal fountain, I am the woman of the mighty river, I am the woman of the sun, I am the woman of the stars.” I, I, I, I, I. In Technicians of the Sacred, I say something about this as a form, a form of poetry. But I was not – in A Book of Witness – writing that kind of heavily repetitive poetry.

Actually, to give some credit, I had been looking at a series of, not poems so much as verbal texts by the artist Jenny Holzer, a series that she calls Laments and that appears to be a little like Edgar Lee Masters’ Spoon River Anthology, voices of the dead speaking and always speaking in the “I” voice, but more nervous, harder to pin down than Masters is. I did one or two poems modeled on that but with big gaps between the “I” statements and with changing voices … with a range of “I”s, my own and others'. And having started with that – one or two to start with – I did three or four more and decided that I wanted to do many of them. I had no idea how many, but it began to push along, and pretty easily at first. I found after thirty, I did forty; I didn’t seem to be running out of steam; I did fifty. And then, as it turns out, I think serendipitously, the fifty-first rounded the corner of the century mark. The fifty-first poem was written on New Year’s Day 2000. So then I began to think: well, I just crossed over from one century to another, maybe I’ll push on for another fifty poems in the 21st century – in other words, a century of poems. Over a period of time, maybe a year, year and a half, I had another fifty written. And then I thought, that’s the true terminal point for the century. A hundred.

So again: I had not at the beginning said, hmm, we’re coming toward the end of the century, I think I’ll write a hundred poems and I think I’ll do something with the first person pronoun, but as I got into it, at a certain point I knew I was going to do a long series. At another point I began pushing toward fifty poems and at another point toward a hundred poems. It was already marked out, you know, in a formal sense, what the poetry was going to be.

With Poland/1931, if you take that as a series of poems, a book of poems as it were, I wanted to take what I thought of, rightly or wrongly, as a debased form of ethnic writing and see how I could work with it. (I think a lot of this was in the air then.) I started out playing with a poem by Gertrude Stein called “Dates,” which you can find in a volume of the Yale Gertrude Stein series called Bee Time Vine. It’s very Steinish. I don’t have it here in front of me, but I think there are twelve or thirteen short sections to it, and one of them reads “Pass Over. / Pass over. / Pass. / Pass. / Pass. / Pass. / Pass pass.” So I said, Oh, that’s very nice, Gertrude Stein is writing a Jewish poem. Then I did a little take-off on it in which I added the phrase “pass water” at the end. I had been reading a novel Satan in Goray by Isaac Bashevis Singer, who was not as famous back then as he would become a year or two later – but not thanks to me, let me add – and there was a wholly different vocabulary, mystical, magical, Kabbalistic, you know, different in source and tone from Gertrude’s. So I systematically substituted Singer vocabulary for Stein vocabulary, closely following her sounds and rhythms. I can easily remember, there’s one little numbered section consisting of two words in Stein “college extension” and that – because the central character in Singer’s novel is a Jewish “messiah” who converts to Islam – became “holy Mohammed” in my poem “Satan in Goray.” (Same rhythm, you see, in one and the other.)
Starting from there I drew on a variety of experimental forms (and some not so experimental) that I had been developing over the previous decade – the change in this case being basically thematic. The book grew very much as did the time that went into it – both the writing and the research. I had definitely to research for this one because the material didn’t come to me automatically. So there’s a strong presence there of Singer and other Yiddish writers, and I was also looking over folklore texts, religious writings, memoirs, archives of Jewish life and lore, and talking to people, as much as I could, for whom that older Poland was a reality. I did not set foot in Poland until 1988, whereas Poland/1931 was written at the end of the 60s and the beginning of the 70s. I didn’t know the extent of what I would be doing when I started, but it became clear to me soon afterwards.

Q: I’d like to ask about the performance aspect of poetry. Because your work is so musical, I’d like to hear your ideas on how close music is to poetry, not necessarily just performance poetry, but poetry in general. Do the sounds come first to you or the subject, or is that different all the time?

A: It depends on what poem I’m writing. Poetry is musical in so far as it takes into account certain questions of timing and rhythm that are common both to poetry and to musical composition. We make assumptions that at least one of the origins of poetry is in musicalized words, sung words, song — that’s one basic root source (and pretty much a platitude, however true). Speech is another source, but speech has musical qualities to it also. Poetry, in a way, is a form of writing that almost always demands to be spoken or to be made audible, to hear or to read out loud, to chant, to do something with it beyond the reading (silent) on the page. With prose … some of the best prose demands, in a way, to be erased in the process of reading. You read good prose and you’re carried by what’s being said, but you’re not necessarily tuned into the language; in some ways the language almost disappears. The language doesn’t become an interference. With poetry the language is an interference. I would think of it as a demand to be heard.

For my generation, the poetry reading, which had been a very occasional thing before and I think did not exist at certain times and places, seems to have become a common practice of all poets. There may be some poets today who actively write poetry without getting into the reading of poetry, but not very many. Once that happened, some of us began to think seriously about the nature of the performances that we were doing. I found as a reader or performer of poetry that I was most assisted or enhanced by working with musicians, particularly with Bertram Turetzky, a very wonderful contrabassist, who helped me understand better the rhythmic possibilities of what I was doing. The bass in that sense is so much a rhythm instrument – a catalyst bringing your own rhythms forward. I think working with musicians – and not only bassists – enhanced the musicality of the performance even when the musicians were not there. I don’t always have to have my bassist with me, you know, to perform poetry. [laughter]

Over the years, I’ve worked on getting a certain amount of nervousness out of the performance. There will always be a degree of nervousness, and that’s positive because it’s high energy and so forth, but extreme nervousness for me had the drawback of speeding up and otherwise distorting the reading so much that I lost control. You need just enough nervousness to lead to a charged performance but not so much nervousness that you lose track of what you’re doing. I remember early on having experiences like: what am I saying? what am I doing? how do I keep my hand from shaking? Over the years, I think I managed to work most of that out.

Now also it’s possible to do still more expanded readings, bringing in visual elements and so on. On a couple of occasions poems of mine, Poland/1931 once and That Dada Strain once, were turned into theatrical performances. Ensembles of people were moving and dancing and taking roles, acting out the words as theatre people will do, making me nervous sometimes by the way they read the poems. There’s a kind of snobbish, a kind of exclusive attitude many of us poets have. For us the poetry reading explosion of the 50s and 60s was really a question of poets reading, not just of poetry readings. In certain cultures, Hispanic cultures for example, it was common to have poets do the writing and then other professionals, generally actors, do the reading. We gave that up or started to look down on actors as readers … and probably lost most of our audience as a result. I mean, I love going to a reading and hearing a poet read, even if the poet is a lousy reader, but I can’t insist on that being the case for everybody. Conceivably, somewhere along the line there’ll be a return to professional readers. I remain of the generation that prefers to have the poet read, and I’m also apprehensive about the way that actors read poetry, you know, the tendency to try to play in character, to perform a character in the reading, and therefore to get away from the language.

[Following a reading at the campus of Louisiana State University in 2004, I sat down with members of the campus community & the staff of the student-run magazine, New Delta Review, for a question-and-answer session. The interview was published in the summer 2005 issue with the title “The Synthesizing Mind,” and the the first part was republshed in this blog on March 18, 2009.]


Jillian J said...

Your poetry breathes.

Sirama Bajo said...

Jeez, this is MY kind of entry.