Monday, December 28, 2009

Stepping on Orozco

I spent a few hours at New York's Museum of Modern Art checking out the Gabriel Orozco retrospective. Given all the hype and coverage, how could I not? To that point, here are a couple of the glowing critiques given by The New Yorker and The New York Times. Anyway, proving that I do actually agree with the critics once in a while, I quite loved it--it was funny and, at times, beautiful (e.g., the whale skeleton tattooed with seemingly-organic graphite abstractisms, the etched ceramic shells). Though there were a few found objects that I puzzled over (see the "Empty White Shoe Box" photo).

In honor of Orozco, and my experience with his white shoebox, I wrote a quick and slightly silly poem. Anyway, the exhibit is worth the trip but try and go at odd times to avoid the school kids and tourists. And no critiquing the poem, please, it's only for this page!

Modern Art

            It makes one appreciate the space around an artwork
            as much as the art itself.
                      - From, Dec 23, 2009

The guard grabbed my arm the moment I stumbled
on the small white box on the floor, crushing
one of its sides. Though it wasn’t until he whispered,
Good God!, that my eyes found the very tiny sign
on the wall behind, which read “Empty
Shoe Box,” Courtesy Marion Goodman Gallery, New York,
naming the object I’d just destroyed as Art.

It wasn’t my fault. A group of gangly girls
most likely on a school trip giddy with the scent
of each other or with being thirteen had pushed
past me, almost over me. Of course, I’d been absorbed
in a hunt for my glasses, one hand
holding the mouth of my messenger bag away
from my body, the other wrist-deep
in its depths. You see, I can’t really read
without them, actually without glasses
even familiar faces look fuzzy these days.

So perhaps it wasn’t odd that I overlooked
the white box on the floor
next to an equally white wall. I read later
that in ‘93, Gabriel Orozco, the artist, ran hours
through Venice’s dark flooded streets searching
for a similar box, after someone,
like me, kicked it during its first exhibition.

Less than two minutes later, a woman
in a black suit with creased edges and unexpected
purple punk hair emerged from a door etched
into a far wall. She held a brown paper bag
in one hand. The woman stepped quickly over
to us and without speaking to me
or the guards, reached down and picked up
the dented white box, tucked it under her left arm.

Then she reached into her brown paper bag,
extracted another white box exactly the same,
sans dent. She placed the box carefully
on the floor, turned it a few degrees
to the left, then stood and, still without saying
a word, returned through the door in the wall,
clicking it softly behind her. I wonder
what she told Marion Goodman.

Saturday, December 26, 2009

Open Letters--Small Publishing of Big Translations

Speaking of today's New York Times Arts section, there was a long lovely article on a small, year-old press called Open Letter Books that does nothing BUT translation. The press, affiliated with the University of Rochester in New York, publishes 10-12 books a year and has an online literary website called Three Percent. Get it, 3%? Because translations account for only about 3% of the US book market.

Open Letter's list includes authors from all over the world--South Africa, Chile, Spain, Germany, Poland, Lithuania, France, region seems excluded and though there are no Middle Eastern or Asian writers, I'm sure we'll see representation as the publishing house evolves. Right? The concentration so far has also been largely fiction and essays, though they said to expect some poetry soon. I'm looking forward to that as well.

Anyway, for $100 you can receive all 10 of a year's publications, which seems a pretty good deal though given how much is already begging to be read on my shelves, I'm not sure I want to add to my pile without a thorough perusal. Their books DO have beautiful covers, so perhaps just looking at them might be worth the investment.

Check it out and kudos to what seems a really fascinating press.

Wednesday, December 23, 2009

More Translation Please

In my last post, I was complaining a bit about the narrowness of translations of not only novels but also poetry into English. So, rather than complain, I thought I would highlight a couple of translation awards. Perhaps an idea for a late Christmas present or something to bring in the New Year?

First, there is the Popescu Prize for Poetry in Translation, which is a biennial prize awarded by the UK’s Poetry Society. You can think of the UK Poetry Society as analogous to the US Poetry Foundation. On their website, the UK Poetry Society call the Popescu a “prize for poetry translation” and, further down, a “prize for European poetry translation” featuring “poetry translated from another European language into English”. This year the Popescu went to Professor Randall Couch for his translation of Gabriela Mistral’s Madwomen. Of course Mistral is Chilean. The prize really is an honor for both the author and translator, though I’m not sure the Chileans enjoy having works by one of their own classified as ‘European.’

Of as much interest is the shortlist for the prize. I’m particularly intrigued by two authors I’ve never heard of: Elena Shvarts and Oktay Rifat. Without these translations, perhaps I never would have.

Of course there’s also the annual PEN Award for Poetry in Translation, which is conferred every spring in New York. The award recognizes book-length translations of poetry from any language into English published during the current calendar year, and is judged by a single translator of poetry.

Two PEN award winners I have particularly loved are Peter Cole’s translation of Aharon Shabtai’s J'Accuse; and Chana Bloch and Chana Kronfeld’s translation Open Closed Open by Yehuda Amichai. They could not be more oppositional in terms of tone--Shabtai is politically on the faaaaar left while Amichai was, I'd say, more middle left. There are no right wing Israeli poets, or rather, there are no well published right wing Israeli poets.

Anyway, I know that translation, perhaps more so in poetry than in novels, is almost impossible. A better word might be transliteration, representing words in one language into another. Moreover, a good translation depends as much on the talent of the translator as on the talent of the originating writer. But that doesn’t mean we ignore them. And it doesn’t mean that all is lost in the translated work. Rather, I believe that the act of reaching out, of trying to grasp another’s experience, another’s words, even if slightly garbled, broadens our own experience. How can we forego that?

Monday, December 21, 2009

Where are the Translations?

I’ve been browsing bookstores in New York, which has become an even greater pleasure since living in Israel, where there are no English language bookstores and the English language section of most Israeli bookstores is taken up by bestsellers and books on Jewish/Israeli themes. One point struck me—the volume of poetry books that are translations from other languages. Of course this includes such classics and required reading by authors like Beowolf, Chaucer, Dante, Homer, as well as what might be called translation candy (so good no one can resist and that seems to find its way into everyone’s stocking at some point) from Rilke, Rumi, Neruda, etc.

But taking up a lot of shelf space were fairly recent translations of Durs Grunbein, Adam Zagajewski, Jorge Luis Borges, Mahmoud Darwish, C.P. Cavafy. Not that any of these poets are likely to displace the Steven Kings and Dan Browns of the poetry world. Yes, you know who I mean—Mary Oliver, Wendell Berry, and Billy Collins. Although I think all three of these poets have great merit. And what would my father give me every three years if not Billy Collin’s latest book of poems?

So I spent a few minutes congratulating readers of poetry for their broader interest. Certainly Horace Engdahl, the permanent secretary of the Nobel prize jury, couldn't have mean poetry readers when he said last year, "The US is too isolated, too insular. They don't translate enough and don't really participate in the big dialogue of literature." Engdahl went on, "That ignorance is restraining." Well, maybe, maybe not. Because after my few minutes of satisfaction, I couldn’t help but note the lack of contemporary translation. Yes, there was another translation of Rilke, another of Darwish, but what of the thousands of poets writing around the world right now, today?

Of course I know the difficulty of translation, especially when most local poets in their respective countries have yet to garner a large enough body of work (not to mention local audience) to have translators outside their borders take note. Still. To that point, I want to shout out about a couple of blogs that highlight translations and works (in English) being produced outside US borders. Two I like are ShadowKnifePen, which always has interesting news and anecdotes of South American poets, and Absinthe Minded, which focuses on European poetry.

If you know of any, please dash off an e-mail to me. I’d love to take a look.

Monday, December 14, 2009

The People Spoke

I watched “People Speak” on The History Channel last night. I loved it. Some won’t agree. Howard Zinn, is, to say the least, a controversial figure, even an instigator. Many call him Marxist, socialist, anarchist, even liar. As one blogger put it today:

“Zinn has spent a lifetime teaching college students about the evils of capitalism, the promise of Marxism, and his version of American history – a history that has, in his view, been kept from students. His controversial 1980-book The People’s History of the United States paints traditional American history as a façade – one that has grotesquely immortalized flawed leaders and is based on principles that victimize the common man. In 2004, Zinn wrote a companion book entitled Voices Of A People’s History Of The United States, which includes speeches and writings from many of the people featured in The People’s History.

How could you put this forward as HISTORY? It's political commentary without attribution.”

History is written by the victors. I’m not sure who wrote that but it’s true and in America’s case, ‘victors’ include those in political and financial control, those who fund, publish, market the books we study in grade school.

With that in mind, I found Zinn’s program interesting, entertaining, even inspiring. I’ve read Zinn’s “The People’s History,” and yes, as the blogger writes, Zinn suggests that the history told in school, in books, is not the whole truth, but I think what Zinn is actually asking us to do is to view all accepted history with skepticism. There is no one history and for each group, perhaps for each person, it will be different. America’s history is certainly not always heroic. For many peoples, it was filled with tragedy and horror. But part of America’s greatness, I think, is that we are able to still hear voices telling those histories and recognize them. Zinn’s is one of the voices, and he puts forward the case for an alternate history, or at least versions of alternate histories, which I believe are no less true than those I read in my sixth grade history book.

In People Speak, various actors and celebrities recite the words of historical figures such as Susan B. Anthony, Langston Hughes, Cesar Chavez. Yes, Zinn sometimes seems a little heavy handed in his dismissal of the ‘accepted’ history but the words, poems, songs, speeches he evinces should be heard. Here is one I particularly loved, a speech given by the African American abolitionist and woman's rights activist Sojourner Truth in 1851 at The Ohio Women's Rights Convention in Akron, Ohio. It’s not the version on Zinn’s program, but equally spellbinding:

As a citizen of Israel, I’ll add that Israel is similarly experiencing the painful recognition of alternate histories. There is valid Palestinian anger to the Israel Palestinian conflict—towns were razed, people killed, intent sometimes verged on evil. Israel is beginning the painful recognition that their truth is not the Palestinians. Revisionist historians who write about Israeli transgressions such as Benny Morris have gained widespread recognition, films such as Beaufort and Waltz With Bashir, which present the moral ambiguity of Israel’s history, were wildly popular and won many awards. Anyway, in both cases, that of the US and Israel, history moves, as it must.

Friday, December 11, 2009

Re-considering My Retreat

It’s been three weeks since I took ownership of this condo in New York and it still feels like a hotel. The sheets creased from their boxes, the towels sloughing off the small pills of newness, indecision regarding where to hang a picture, place a lamp, even the perfection of the wood floors and newly painted walls feel strange. Like a new car, it won’t be until I make that first ugly scratch in the wood or the first long black scuff along the base of the walls (and not immediately spend hours trying to erase it) that I’ll feel it’s mine. I also need neighbors! Only myself and five others in the nine stories. I know I’ll miss the absolute quiet of the mornings but I want to hear a few footsteps, doors slam, an argument at an unseemly hour of the night.

I go back to Israel in January (for anyone wondering, I’ll split my time between NY and Tel Aviv). I haven’t studied a word of Hebrew, opened up an Israeli newspaper, answered an e-mail from an Israeli friend in three weeks. Yes, I know. I claim that my deliberate ignorance is a form of hermetic retreat. I needed a few weeks away from the always-terrible news to regroup. Don’t we all sometimes need to block out what bothers us most? If not to give our emotions a rest, than to strengthen our ability to evaluate, understand, fight, whatever… its onslaught.

But I am re-entering the world of poetry (and this blog). Tonight Marie Howe, Mark Doty (two of my favorites) along with Dale Peck and Kate Walbert read at an event sponsored by The Writer’s Studio. Tomorrow, perhaps, perhaps I won't turn off the news and let news of Israel trickle in.

Thursday, December 3, 2009

Loving Every Version of Rilke

Someone once wrote that Rilke is ‘easy,’ that readers who enjoy Rilke’s emotional and excessive words exist on some plane whose borders don’t reach the deeper, the more complex, (dare I say it) the harder shores of what some consider today’s most important poetry. Rilke, some say, is poetry light. Compounding the perceived infraction is that the innumerable versions of Rilke’s poetry, translated from its original German largely by folks who speak little or no German, bear little resemblance to Rilke’s abstract verse. So, whatever the reader is enjoying isn’t actually what Rilke intended. At least according to Marjorie Perloff. Well, I have loved Rilke for most of my life and can remember the first night I read his Duino Elegies, the shiver it sent over my skin.

In the introduction to a new enormous translation of Rilke by Edward Snow, poet Adam Zagajewski claims that Rilke is probably more widely read in the United States than in Germany. Ange Mlinko, who penned a wonderful essay about Snow’s volume, thinks this fact implies something about Americans' fascination with existential homelessness and self-invention and drift. Perhaps. It’s hard to remember that in his time, Rilke was not well known, and lived mostly on the largesse of second-tier aristocrats. He was homeless. But as Mlinko goes on, “It was out of his experience of homelessness that Rilke fashioned a persona who speaks with an elegiac voice not for himself but for the world of consciousness, which migrated here into animals (often cats), there into objects (roses, sculptures)”.

I also think Rilke’s draw also relates to America’s more spiritual bent, our drive to see meaning, a unity, under and between our lives. We Americans are an optimistic bunch. Arguing a bit with Zagajewski, Mlinko writes, “We read Rilke for a vocabulary that transcends our little, individual languages to a universal (and premodern) figural vocabulary of the lyric. If it is an illusion, it is an optimistically American one--and still generative”. I love this poem, “Autumn Day,” translated by Stephen Mitchell (whose translations of Rilke I still go to most). Like so many of Rilke’s poems, it is both celebration and lament.


Lord: it is time. The huge summer has gone by.
Now overlap the sundials with your shadows,
and on the meadows let the wind go free.
Command the fruits to swell on tree and vine;
grant them a few more warm transparent days,
urge them on to fulfillment then, and press
the final sweetness into the heavy wine.

Whoever has no house now, will never have one.
Whoever is alone will stay alone,
will sit, read, write long letters through the evening,
and wander along the boulevards, up and down,
restlessly, while the dry leaves are blowing.

- Rainer Maria Rilke
translated by Stephen Mitchell

Rilke’s philosophy is one that stands in opposition to that igniting much of post modern poetry and its pessimistic fragmentation, which suggests that any meaning, any reality, is illusion. Rilke’s poetry yearns and strives toward some sort of visibility with full knowledge that visibility may prove impossible. It is that striving, that yearning, that, I think, resonates with many readers, including myself. Should I care whether the finger drawing down my spine is Rilke’s or Stephen Mitchell’s or Edward Snow’s? I can’t say that I do, it just gives me one more reason to read yet another translation.