In Memory of Seamus Heaney
by William Corbett

6 Oct

We all know people who do not put on airs. Seamus Heaney was such a one. Seamus also had no gestures. Most of us learn to fake it and in time become adept at all the little white lies, and some of the larger ones, of fakery. But not Seamus. He was alert and wholly present whether engaged with those he knew well or with the thousands of students, bartenders, reporters, workmen, secretaries and waiters that he encountered. In over thirty years of friendship I never saw Seamus act otherwise.

Not that he was a saint. I remember him saying of a student who pestered him with his poems during office hours. “I read his poems and begin to wonder what about my fucking commas?”

All the little things that came so naturally to Seamus, the decencies, courtesies, good cheer and attention to the smallest matter add up to one big thing, Seamus, master poet and an even better man.

When he came to our house for dinner as he often did he brought two bottles of wine, flowers and a new book or broadside. Hundreds who had him to dinner could write the identical sentence. Seamus made you feel welcome, Sven Birkerts once said, in your own home. Before the Nobel Prize he lifted any sort of gathering he attended. After the Nobel the lift he gave gained in altitude. We were all brighter and funnier for his presence.

On the Saturday The New York Times ran Seamus’s obituary under a three column-wide black and white photograph—Had there been a larger one since the death of Churchill?—the reader had to find the man I knew in his face because he was absent from the obituary. The Times talked to the poet Paul Muldoon and stopped there. No Helen Vendler, Derek Walcott, John Hume, Jorie Graham or Derek Mahon. Absent Seamus the man, Seamus the poet seemed only a career, a ghost of himself. In England the BBC treated him like an historical figure and again overlooked the lovable and much loved person.

In talking with family and friends who knew Seamus and friends who didn’t, I’ve been telling the same stories. Today is September 13th, a Friday, two weeks after my daughter Marni called with the news of his death. Thirteen was a luck number for Seamus who was born on April 13th and thus became Samuel Beckett’s birthday twin. I’ve thought of Seamus every day over these last two weeks—time to tell the stories I know.

Every obit quotes Robert Lowell’s opinion that Seamus was “the most important poet since Yeats.” For Seamus, Lowell, who had dined with the Heaney’s the night before his death in a New York taxicab, remained a master. We were on our way to have lunch with Charlie and Helen Simic in their New Hampshire home. A fall Sunday. On the way up Seamus wanted to stop at Lowell’s grave in New Hampshire in the Stark family plot off a side road, which I had once visited.

The plot—Lowell’s mother was a Stark–is surrounded by an iron fence with a gate. Lowell is buried next to his mother and father.  A simple stone, name, dates and his epitaph, “The immortal is scraped / Unconsenting from the mortal.”  Seamus stood silently and took in the stone. Then he looked around for a souvenir—he loved such souvenirs—and spying a birch branch he broke and trimmed it to the size of a baseball bat and swung it once or twice to feel its heft. It had to have the proper weight of the occasion. Later I saw the branch on his Dublin mantelpiece.

And on my last visit to Dublin in June 2007 he showed me a prescription written by William Carlos Williams, a gift from a fan, that he had mounted in glass. I also remember a bow, souvenir of a trip to Japan.

On my first Dublin visit in 1988, my daughter Arden and I stayed with the Heaneys in their Strand Road home. He took us on the tour he gave friends to the Wicklow Mountains and his country house in Glanmore, with a few ruins for diversion. For this ride he managed to get his sons Mick and Chris to come along. We topped a hill and he stopped the car. “Come on.” We trotted into a soggy field toward a tower of peat bricks. Seamus handed me a brick as if to say, “You’ll know you’re in Ireland when you grab hold of this.” It was brown and russet, heavier than I would have thought.

(What he said didn’t sound like him then and doesn’t sound like him now, but these are the words I remember.)

We stopped at a large stone inn, all of us eager for nourishment and the boys eager for a break from the ruins and views they’d seen so many times. We were served before a fire. Delicious food and drink in a dining room that had no other diners. Seamus had called ahead to have the inn opened for us.

Then we stopped at Glanmore, a two-story brick house with a lean-to shaped kitchen that had been grafted on to the back of the house. Seamus wanted a nap and fell fast asleep curled on a blanket chest. His boys let him have an hour’s shuteye before they urged Arden to wake him. She did and he leapt up as if from a deep sleep unsure of where he was. We walked outside and stood before the cattle gate near the road. Rain dripped off it. Seamus said something about how much he liked looking at the beads of rain on the gate’s iron bars.

In Dublin Marie and I woke before everyone else and walked out on the Strand in front of their home and watched the horses being exercised at a gallop. Seamus walked Arden and me down the long approach to that day’s page from the Book of Kells then we visited an exhibition of Viking gold in which we saw the delicate boat that would be the cover of Seeing Things before Marie joined us for a lunch of place at a hotel bar.

Seamus brought me down stairs to the men’s room in the National Library where he wanted me to gape, and gape I did, at the tall, heroic urinals fit for statues of warrior kings. Astonishing! Seamus got from me the whoop of pleasure he expected. We finished that day with pints of dark and bitter Guinness and glasses off whiskey in a bare pub where there was no business but talk and drinking.

Two other memorable moments: Seamus and family and Arden and I entered a restaurant and the diners rose to applaud. As we sat down at our table bottles of champagne went pop and our glasses were filled. Seamus was both delighted and a little embarrassed by the attention. He had a way of bowing his head in thanks that looked a little like hiding. Before dinner one night Marie and I sat in the Heaney kitchen listening to Seamus on the BBC talk about Eliot, a real conversation and not an interview: a casual hour of poetry over the air, a thing not to be encountered in America.

Our daughter Marni graduated from New York University on a May day in 1987. We had been invited to the big, draughty Cambridge house the Heaney’s rented that year. We tried to beg off, the drive, etc. Seamus wouldn’t hear of it. We arrived to find a party; the Irish consul, America’s ambassador to Ireland William Shannon and his wife and Catherine Heaney’s school friends and their parents–nothing literary about the gathering. We joined the table just as dessert was served. Seamus came from the kitchen with champagne bottles in both hands and Chris Heaney brought more bottles. Popping the cork he toasted Marni, and we all raised our glasses.

Many of the famous writers I’ve known need to have the party to come to them. In general famous people need to know that they are known. Not Seamus. I doubt “Famous” would have caught on as a teasing nickname had his first name been Samuel. The rhyme’s a cheap one. He had the gift of spontaneity and making an occasion long before he was awarded the Nobel and afterward he knew how to turn an evening away from himself and toward others. Marie has this gift as well.

One icy February night when Marie was not in Cambridge Seamus came to dinner and we drank more than usual. He was not a heavy drinker, at least in my presence. He was steady, in for the long haul and evenings were usually so lively that however much we drank got burned away in good talk. But this night…well, I drove him to Harvard Square and saw him walk toward Holyoke Center and his room in Adams House.

Two days later I learned he had fallen on slick ice and hurt himself. I found him in a room at Harvard’s infirmary surrounded by Harvard English faculty joshing him about watching his step. There was much laughter in which we joined as he winked at me keeping our evening our secret.

Seamus remembered that fall in this poem he sent out as a Christmas broadside:

I.I. 87

Dangerous pavements.

But I face the ice this year

With my father’s stick.

On our card he wrote, “I think of this as our poem.” We had a few tipsy evenings after that but none of them got into a poem.

A small pleasure I’ve missed since Seamus stepped down from Harvard was running into him in the late afternoon and having time for a “quick one.” We’d head to Grafton Street, say our hellos to Paul the bartender and huddle in a booth like conspirators. Seamus liked to know what was going on and he enjoyed gossip. Within days of his death I stopped in at Grafton Street. Paul beckoned me to the bar. “We’ve lost a good friend,” he said as he poured me a drink, “They gave him a grand send off.” I’m guessing that the bartenders Seamus introduced me to in Dublin had similar feelings.

I’m kicking myself that I can’t remember more of Seamus’s table talk but then his talk never sounded rehearsed or like he had said the same thing at a dinner the night before. He saved his pronouncements for his books. At least to me he never spoke for the record.

One night we were having a drink before dinner in our living room. Seamus was seated with his back to the door through which came old friend Jackson Braider. He didn’t know Seamus was coming to dinner but seeing his balding head of thinning what hair thought he recognized a friend and gave Seamus a rub on his skull. He was startled; Jackson, recognizing his mistake, gave an embarrassed apology. We laughed and so, while Jackson babbled a few words, did Seamus. That night, napkin tucked in at his neck and spread across his chest as he always wore it, Seamus dug into Beverly’s spicy mussel soup. He was partial, as he liked to remind us, to bivalves of all sorts.

In June 2007 I got to Dublin for two days. I had come from the Wordsworth Trust in Grasmere, England where Seamus was well known. The cabbie who drove me to the train station asked me where I was going.

“Dublin.”

“Are you a poet?”

“Yes.”

“Will you be seeing Seamus Heaney?

“We’re friends. I’m staying with him.”

“A great man. I’ve had the honor of driving him quite a few times. Give him my best.”

“I will.”

When I recounted this to Seamus he remembered Jim the cabbie.

Seamus was recovering from a stroke he’d had at the end of 2006. His sleep pattern was irregular, in conversation he lost a few words which annoyed him, his hands trembled and he seemed troubled by vague anxieties. He was tentative in a way I’d never seen him be.

After lunch we went to a pub to have a drink with Seamus’s older son Mick. We sat in a sort of confessional booth just inside the front door. It was private and snug yet open to the publican. We could hear that the place was full of women. They were celebrating having run in Dublin’s first marathon to benefit breast cancer research. Word got out that Seamus was in the house and one of the bartender’s brought in a book for him to sign. “She’d appreciate it,” assured the bartender, and gave the woman’s name. Seamus inscribed it to her a he surely inscribed thousands of his books as requested.

On the first morning we walked the along the strand. Five minutes into the walk the first neighbor stopped us. “It’s grand to see you Seamus on this fine day. Grand to see that you’re feeling yourself again.” The third or fourth encounter sent Seamus back home.

He didn’t feel like accompanying me to the Lucian Freud exhibition at Dublin’s new museum of modern art so he provided friends, Dennis O’Driscoll and his wife Julie Callaghan for that task. The museum was closed that day but open for us with the director there to greet me and make sure we had everything we needed.

That night Seamus, Marie and I went to dinner in a new restaurant opened by friends in the area of Dublin’s canals. Seamus made sure the hosts knew I was the husband of a renowned cook and knew Boston and New York restaurants. The hosts joined us for an Armagnac and the conversation turned to their business and a planned trip to New York and where might they dine.

After dinner we walked along a canal to the seated statue of Patrick Kavanaugh. Seamus posed next to Kavanaugh then stood to read his poem carved into the monument to the poet. I remembered Seamus’s story of Kavanaugh’s coming to read in Belfast. Seamus picked him up at the train station in a tiny second hand car he’d just bought on time. Kavanaugh couldn’t get over a poet having a car and such a young poet and such a grand car! And he had a family did he and a car for the family!  Kavanaugh cuffed him, playful but aggressive, which Seamus took as a reprimand for breaking the poet’s code. Not entirely serious on Kavanaugh’s part but serious enough.

There will be much written about his poetry. I have to offer only a few general observations. No American poet of his generation came from the near 19th century rural farm life in which Seamus was reared. His memoir “Mossbawn” is of a world into which the 20th century, in the presence of American troops on their way to World War II, enters and will change all. The intensity of his poems about his mother’s tin scoop, his father’s suits, the forge and the pump, the things he knew as he grew up this amplitude of feeling is deep and broad. He did not have to dig for these subjects or his powerful, measured response to them.

I have no idea what sort of poems Seamus would have written had modernism not skirted his part of Ireland. The great Irish writers before Seamus, Shaw, Joyce and Beckett, had to leave Ireland to create their work. As did Oscar Wilde before them. One of the abiding strengths and pleasures of Seamus’s poems is their sense of place and the language that comes with it. His Irish has a rich local tang. This is not a matter of words alone but of the native accent that never left his poems. You heard this in every reading he gave.

I wonder if Seamus, who must have given several hundred readings, read aloud all the poems he had written. Some reader will go to the Internet and piece together a lifetime of the man’s music. He had a great ear, an outwardly directed ear for the language of his tribe, for the words men actually use and a large vision for this music to serve.

When I think of his poems I imagine the snedder, spirit-level, sledge-hammer, his father’s ashplant, and his mother’s tin scoop buried “past its gleam.” Out of these he managed to make something of equal weight, not just something remembered but a present thing by which to locate ourselves in this world.

Writing this I went to Robert Lowell’s short memoirs of his friends Randall Jarrell and John Berryman. They are beautifully written, pinging with Lowell’s quick intellect. He saw his friends as poets first involved with him in the art of poetry. He mentions Berryman’s wife once and has nothing to say about Jarrell’s. Most of those who knew Seamus well knew his wife Marie. She was his balance, an equal partner in life but his opposite with an agreeable edge to her, his compliment.—his “four walls and a ring.”

William Corbett

Spotlight on the Annual: #4

14 Aug

Continuing with my selection of outstanding poems from the Zoland annuals I turn to Zoland Poetry #4 for Kevin Young’s Mercy Rule.

Roland Pease

 

Mercy Rule

 

         The true test of a man is a bunt.

         —Ted Berrigan

 

 

SLUMP

 

The sting in your hands

         swinging

a cracked bat

         early spring.

 

The anger of the one-armed boy

         at bat, whiffing

at every lousy pitch

         tossed in the dirt, or air

 

above him, eager—

         it was hard

to watch. Swung out, he’d spike

         & splinter his bat

 

into the giving ground,

         arguing with his hand

& hook—cursing it,

         himself, furious

 

as the sun that shined

         setting in all our eyes.

 

 

STEALING

 

Only time

         I ever heard

my eyes were any good

         was watching a full

 

count pitch

         just miss—

I’d take my base

         before the ball’d

 

been called.

         Lead-off man,

righty, my strike zone

         small enough

 

little squeezed through,

         the ball a camel

needling impossible

         into heaven. Hell, I’d steal

 

second standing—

         would wait till

they tried throwing

         me out at first, my long lead

 

like a taunt, then head

         to second

without a thought.

         In that game

 

called pickle,

         or hotbox, I rarely

got caught.

         I ran like only the sly,

 

four-eyed can—to get there

         & to get away,

to reach somewhere

         safe, where I never

 

thought to stay.

 

 

PATTER

 

When I played

         little league in Onandaga

Coach wouldn’t let us

         patter like the others—

 

no hey batter batter

         swing

no nothing.

         At the plate silence

 

greeting all comers—

         prodigal sons

returned to the farm

         no arms thrown open

 

in welcome. Or alarm. Chatter

         was rude, Coach said, & anyways

unnecessary. We were above

         all those taunts—We want

 

a pitcher not

         a belly itcher

instead eerie quiet

         met the Visitors

 

whenever we took the mound,

         batters swinging into

a calm that would undo

         most anyone who

 

thought noise worse

         that its opposite,

that the storm

         wouldn’t come.

 

 

FLAME TEMPERED

 

I only owned one bat,

         my favorite,

Roberto Clemente’s name

         burnt into the wood—

 

length 27 I think, a yellow

         plank lathed

off some tree in Kentucky.

         I swung that Slugger

 

often as I could

         not knowing Clemente

except what Dad had told me—

         he was a man who loved

 

people, who tried doing good

         so was dead.

Later,

         when our racist neighbor

 

wouldn’t let me spin

         on her swing set—

you can play, she said, freckled,

         pointing to my friend

 

but he can’t, calling me out—

         I thought

of my Clemente bat

         that, off duty, Dad leaned

 

in the front closet in case

         anyone dared break in.

So when

         she called me N

 

I called her honky back.

         Stung, she yelled

for her daddy, who came out

         no matter what she’d said

 

& threatened me

         from his short porch

till I split—some black kid

         who dared talk back

 

like Clemente’s bat.

         Even then

I knew you weren’t

         supposed to do that.

 

Only later did I learn Clemente

         means mercy.

 

PRACTICE

 

We’d play pepper

         or 500

for hours. Past dusk

         I’d ricochet

 

a racquetball against

         the garage or the side

of our complex, invent-

         ing game, or plays

 

to save the Ninth. Every pitch

         a strike, each catch

kept us from losing

         the World

 

at home. Reenactors

         of our civil war,

The Yankees would knock

         our Sox off every time. Pitch

 

by pitch we rehearsed last night’s loss

         in the playoffs, begging

for one more inning.

         Can I say I still loved Reggie

 

Jackson bars, saving all

         my rancor

for the Hollywood Dodgers?

         After all, Mister

 

October looked

         like my father—afroed,

mustachioed, furiously

         arguing with all

 

he had endured,

         even as he saved

someone’s day. Only night

         would send me

 

inside, where the light

         gathered, pooled

in our living-room lamps,

         their bulbs

 

like a baseball warming

         your palm.

 

 

THE DIVISION

 

We played in blue jeans

         unlink other teams

in their tidy PAL uniforms

         the cops paid for.

 

We were outlaws, our hats

         dark, maroon shirts

with our names on the back,

         skin black

 

& brown & in between—

         we played a mean

game, if only after

         a season of being

 

the Bad News Bears, losing,

         umps even invoking

the mercy rule some games.

         We’d wake

 

& pray for rain.

         Or an ankle sprain.

One day something

         gave way—the spokes

 

they turned & all

         of a sudden we won,

beating teams twice

         our size who’d skunked

 

us before, giving goose-eggs to kids

         in golden sleeves

& tall corn-yellow socks, their new cleats

         aimed at our shins.

 

We were our own Negro League.

         Our mascot was Reggie,

chubby, goofy,

         Marcel the relief,

 

& Damien our best pitcher, his long nails

         stabbing the stitches—

his windup quick, pitch

         clipping the corner of the dish.

 

I even saved one game—bases loaded,

         the bullpen spent

or gone wild, the backup

         pitcher’s backup, I threw slow

 

but straight, strike three

         turtling across home plate.

They hoisted me high that night,

         our fathers for once smiling wide.

 

Our final game we took first place

         & won the division, the sore

faces the losing team wore

         less shock, or disbelief—

 

that you could take—than disgrace

         & plain rage. The mask

of their catcher tossed

         in the Kansas dust.

 

Anger sat there, uneasy—

         amp; also too easy—even

their parents hated us, claimed

         to have forgotten our trophies.

 

Who cared if they couldn’t take

         watching us celebrate?

That, for the required final handshake—

         good game-good game

 

they christened their palms with spit?

         Later, we washed up clean—

& sprinkles or chocolate dip hid

         our ice cream, disappearing.

 

 

 

Spotlight on the Annual: #3

15 May

Continuing with my selection of outstanding poems from the Zoland annuals I turn to Zoland Poetry #3 for two of Nick Twemlow’s Palm Tree poems. We congratulate him on his book, Palm Trees, winning the 2013 Norma Farber First Book Award from the Poetry Society of America.

Roland Pease

 

Palm Trees /  13

 

Everything is scale, these days. Going green? Archaic. Broadcasting

live? Covered in mothballs. This streaming life. Our contiguousness,

our resilience, our shapeliness. Our vogue. What, after all, is

a starling doing today? Or the Baltics? My globalist tendency

amplifies the tankers lined up in English Bay, the yellow mounds

of sulfur viewed from the shore as we run the seawall in Stanley

Park, a sun perpetually setting, reminding me of my addiction to

dusk, an addiction to the twilights of addiction. Memory serves

only the purpose of reminding me that I continue to forget things.

Friends come and go to Mexico, family sits on the porch of Wichita,

wondering who rewound the sea.

 

Palm Trees / 17

 

The war is happy to be alive. Today’s report calls for drear as far as

the mind can see. In debt to the shadow creeping over my lung, I will

compose a letter to my creditors, wherein I will confess to everything.

For now, more Ramen. For now, I’ll pretend you think I’m still

going to enlist. I want to shoot the real enemy. I want to protect your

propensity for peeling potatoes in the buff. I want every war I know

to be happy to be alive.

 

Zoland In Conversation: Jennifer Scappettone

24 Oct

Jennifer Scappettone is a poet, translator, and scholar, the author of the poetry collection From Dame Quickly (Litmus, 2009) and of several chapbooks, including Thing Ode / Ode oggettuale (La Camera Verde, 2008), translated into Italian in conversation with Marco Giovenale. She edited and translated Locomotrix: Selected Poetry and Prose of Amelia Rosselli (University of Chicago Press, 2012), which won the Academy of American Poets’ biennial Raiziss/De Palchi Book Award.  Killing the Moonlight: Modernism in Venice, is forthcoming in 2013 from Columbia University Press.

She took some time to correspond with Zoland Poetry translation editor, Christopher Mattison, this fall about her translations of Amelia Rosselli. Please visit our Featured Poet page for a sample of Jennifer’s translations of Rosselli, and for poems inflected by this project.

ZP: In Amelia Rosselli’s introduction to “Metrical Spaces” she writes of an attempt to formulate a new “geometrism”—remarking that “I practically thought in forms that were approximately cubic.” Could you clarify the various issues afoot here—including Rosselli’s background in ethnomusicology, and her existence within at least three languages.

Scappettone: Great question; I hope for the response to take the form of a book on spatial turns in postwar aesthetics, ultimately, but I’ll attempt to do justice to the main issues involved in few words here. Rosselli felt that free verse had been exhausted by the mid-twentieth century, and sought a way of reinvigorating poetic rhythm through fixed forms. She developed her “forma-cubo” (cube-form) upon rereading the sonnets of the first Italian schools, which she read as “cubic.” (Remember that the word “stanza” literally means “chamber.”) Rather than dictating meter through syllable or stress count, however, she determined that she would frame her thoughts in verses of equal length, composed at the typewriter. (Her manuscripts actually contain measurements for the approximate length of each line, though she stressed line duration over shape in her commentaries.) She took walks along the Tiber with the intention of capturing and documenting her surroundings in this cubic form. Working semi-improvisationally within predetermined geometrical constraints on the page seems to have freed her thoughts to move and submit to transcription more quickly, without shutting down the potential for an infiltration of the stanza by multiple rhythmic logics—a multiplicity of which she was aware in composing across English, French, and Italian, whose tempos are so different from one another.

It’s important to understand as you note that Rosselli was at the forefront of musicological developments in the 1950s, in dialogue with practitioners of post-Webernism and the dialectic between constraint and indeterminacy in composition. Her first publication was actually a musicological tract on the harmonic series in 1954, seeking to analyze the liberation of the voice from the tempered scale through the “substructures” of folk musics. She was exposed to Bartók and other contemporary composers when finishing her European degree in London, and attended the Darmstadt Summer School for New Music and Luciano Berio’s seminar on electronic music at Dartington College for the Arts. While working on her first books of poetry, she was involved in collaborations exploring the latest techniques in the “spatialization” and phonological analysis of the voice. These experiments reflect a fundamental step away from romantic or expressivist notions of the voice as an unmediated channel of expression, though such notions dominated much poetic discourse at the time. Rosselli’s constructivist geometrics reinforce this step away from essentialist notions of selfhood in poetic terms.

ZP: “Escape” is a recurring theme in Rosselli’s poetry, her essays on poetics, and in your own research. You make note of her attempt to “reinvigorate” free verse, but tied to that is a certain frustration or even desperation–as within her introduction to “Metrical Spaces”, where she writes—”how to escape from the banality of the usual free verse,” or in your discussion of her work seeking an “exit from the I.” Could you expand on these various forms of escape and the use of disruption between languages to achieve her poetic goals.

Scappettone: Well, yes. For someone who was born into exile, and whose father and uncle were assassinated by Fascist henchmen for their political activities when she was only seven years old, the theme of escape is perforce central. Her verse is laced first and foremost with the compulsion to escape from political oppression by unidentified forces. (In her day-to-day life, persecution at the hands of fascists, the mafia, and the CIA began to dominate Rosselli’s consciousness, with repercussions that are nothing short of tragic.) It would be no exaggeration to state that her idiolect is the result of colliding socio-psychological forces: a love for Italy, and for the language of her heroic father, which incited her to approach it again and again; and a perpetual flight from this language which became the vehicle of the totalitarian authority that murdered him.

I wouldn’t want to conflate the different impulses of exodus in Rosselli’s work, but it is true that she sought a way out of the individual ego dominating contemporary poetry in the form of confessionalism, hoping to represent and address collective consciousness through the 1960s and ’70s. She even sought a way out of the I/thou binary in poetry, reading it as a purveyor of the historical subordination of women through lyric.

All this brings us to a contradiction in her work: the geometrical frame/constraint that liberates cognitive tempos always threatens to double as imprisonment.

The word “fuoriuscito”—which can read either as the noun for political refugee or the past participle for something that has leaked out or escaped—is a key term for Rosselli. She rejected the term “cosmopolitan” to describe her upbringing and poetics, and stressed the difference between her own research across languages and the arguably more superficial plurilingual play of the neo-avant-gardes, which she regarded as merely mimicking Pound and Joyce, with little sense of consequences.

ZP: Bi- or trilinguilism might usually be seen as an asset in navigating the contemporary world, but Rosselli maintained a vexed relationship between Italian, English and French, as well as a hybrid space that included aspects of each.

Scappettone: Plurlingualism as a term suggests a free-flowing transit from one language to another with no need for cognitive, social, or psychological adjustment. Rosselli’s work reflects a struggle in translation that she would have experienced in flight between France, England, the United States, and Italy, and that is never elided, resonating through her astonishing voice. Her poetry is polyglot or polyvernacular: a volatile amalgamative compound with discomposing effects on the so-called target tongue. It almost always appears to be composed in one language alone—but arcane or inexistent terms, solecisms, syntactical ruptures and ambiguities, and other improprieties stud the myriad junctures at which the dominant language of composition is subjected to the pressure of another. While Pier Paolo Pasolini condescended somewhat by reading Rosselli’s linguistic strategies in psychoanalytic terms (as instances of the Freudian slip), he was correct in comparing their effect to that of a terrible laboratory experiment or atomic blast. Rosselli’s poetics generates the strain of “minor” language that Deleuze and Guattari theorize through the prose of Kafka (who was one of Rosselli’s favorite writers). It is a language haunted, interrogated, and imploded by another.

 

Zoland In Conversation: Fiona Sze-Lorrain and Sky Lanterns

19 Sep

This summer we corresponded with Fiona Sze-Lorrain, poet, translator, and co-editor of Manoa’s newest issue Sky Lanterns: New Poetry from China, Formosa, and Beyond, about her take on translation, the editing process and the state of contemporary Chinese poetry.

You can find out more about the anthology here and about Fiona and her work here.

ZP: In my experience I have found translation to be a type of surgery. After identifying the particular reading which you want to extract, you begin the painstaking slow process of transplanting it in a new language, aligning its valences, its references, its imagery with its new host. Inevitably, something is left behind. Though knowing that from the outset allows you to focus your attentions and your efforts on the particular poetic constellation which you are intent on recreating. I imagine that on a larger level, editing a collection of Chinese poetry from across the diaspora would be a similar endeavor. That in selecting work representative of a literature, one must be adept at both reduction and reconstruction of larger literary tropes and trends. Is that true?

Sze-Lorrain: Possibly.

ZP: What is the relationship, if any, between your concerns as a prolific translator of contemporary Chinese poetry and your concerns as an editor in the case of Sky Lanterns and other similar projects?

Sze-Lorrain: This is a difficult question.  I wanted to say there isn’t one.  In both cases, I like spontaneity and accidents.  During the preparatory stages, I tend to shun analytical emphasis — it is tempting — because it hinders my aesthetic judgment: intuition, timing, personality, style, feeling, and taste.  I don’t think this is an original thought on my end.

Sky Lanterns started to evolve from a project to a creation or an artistic expression when it could move as a gathering force of voices.  I ask myself what informs me — and what doesn’t — when I write my own poetry.  I negotiate sensibilities and choices with the Editor-in-Chief, Frank Stewart.  It is freer and more dispassionate than to just think about translation.  Pardon me for simplifying.

ZP: You mentioned a dedication to including women in your prologue; did you and Frank Stewart have any other priorities as to the work you wanted represented when embarking on this project?

Sze-Lorrain: I think both Professor Frank Stewart and I share an appreciation for work with emotional gravity and authenticity. I don’t mean emotional.  It’s the contrary.  I meant work that communicates — in tender, efficient and meaningful ways.  I like simple words, natural flow.  I avoid conceptual work, but that’s just my subjective likes.

ZP: Could you talk a little bit about the literary politics of the Chinese Diaspora?

Sze-Lorrain:  The Chinese diaspora isn’t a social label or definition.  It’s a reality that evolves all the time.  More and more diasporic writers adopt their second language.  Others stick with writing in Chinese.  Their “reasons” ­vary from socio-economic factors to aesthetic drive and existential search.  What strikes me as most organic isn’t about determining their “Chineseness.”  These discussions never end.  They are quite consumerist too. It’s more rejuvenating to discover how each of these writers dialogues with others in a larger world and nature.  More spiritual concerns of art and creation can weigh in.  Such questions, too, are more benevolent in terms of timelessness.

ZP:  Do the poetries included in the continent-spanning gathering of Sky Lanterns intersect and interact, or are they parallel?

Sze-Lorrain:  All and none of the above, I hope.

ZP:  In his opening essay, “Ancient Emnity,” Bei Dao compares the vocation of a writer to “walking on thin ice, held up only by one’s own fear and doubt.” I found this statement to be refreshing. It seems that these days, many of our most celebrated voices decline to speak on the presence of doubt in their lives and work and by sin of omission seem to deny their susceptibility to it. The equation of accolades equaling imperviousness to doubt is then taken even a step farther as to be reversed in the younger poets, denial of doubt and over-confidence equaling worthiness of these accolades. This admission of Bei Dao’s at the beginning of the anthology set the tone for me for the rest of the book and as I read this theme opened itself further in many other pieces such as the poetry of Amang and of Yi Lu. To put it bluntly, I felt a lack of irony and a heightened engagement with emotion in the work on these pages. There is a unique and lyrical meeting of symbolism and sentiment in these poems and the aesthetics of this gathering seems to have sidestepped or overtaken the long shadow of post-modernism. Is this reading of the work representative of contemporary Chinese poetry?

Sze-Lorrain: I think it is certainly one way of reading it.  Self-doubt is in some ways a transfiguration of faith.  I wish we would doubt ourselves more than we doubt others.  It’s a pity that doubt might be mistaken as a lack of self-confidence.  Perhaps it could be meaningful to embrace confidence more as a healthy reflection of our ease with others than explorations of a “self”?  I don’t know.  Writing seems like a prayer sometimes; there’s a lot of listening.

The lack of irony is something else.  Irony, especially in the Chinese (neo-) Communist climate, politicizes language and thoughts — and feelings — unnecessarily.  In some cases it’s even more violent than violence itself.  It’s clever: it evades, eludes, yet it seems more a commentary than the participation.  Just my sensibility or failure; I can’t champion these poets’ work, though I am sure their language must have something to offer those who appreciate it.  I’d prefer humor to irony.

ZP: In your prologue you state that translation is a “topic that could too quickly be substituted for the poetry itself. The less said the better.” I can see how this could be a statement on the trend of the celebrity-poet translator or the experimental translator both of whose products are often more about the encounters between themselves and the original work rather than the original work itself. But perhaps I am putting words in your mouth. You are an astounding translator.

Sze-Lorrain:  Merci.

ZP:  In this anthology alone you bring a plethora of unique and variegated voices beautifully over to English. I could not help but wonder at your drive and be curious as to what fuels it. I hope that this might be a space where you could say more about your desire to say less.

Sze-Lorrain:  Ah.  Nunc est bibendum.  I can’t say if you don’t know.

 

 

 

 

Zoland in conversation: Mónica de la Torre

23 Jul

Mónica de la Torre’s poetry books include two in English, Talk Shows (Switchback) and Public Domain (Roof Books), and two in Spanish, Acúfenos (Taller Ditoria) and Sociedad Anónima (UNAM/ Bonobos). She has translated Latin American poets and edited multilingual anthologies. A recent collaborative book project, Taller de Mecanografía, was published in 2011 in Mexico City by Tumbona Ediciones. Four, her new poetry book, is just out from Switchback. She lives in Brooklyn and is senior editor at BOMB Magazine.

She took some time to correspond with Zoland Poetry this summer about her approaches to translation, her work as an editor, and her own poetry. We hope you enjoy the resulting conversation, please visit our Featured Poet page for a sample of Monica’s most recent poetry and translations.

 

ZP: In your newest collection, Four, asides of location, whether physical, temporal or emotional, wind like tree rings through the larger landscape of the book; while on a more immediate level, fragments of other texts, quotes, and cultural references (sometimes marked, sometimes not) are folded into the body of each poem independently. Could you talk a little bit about the structuring of Four, and the poetic dialogue that is created when a work is internally quartered, fragmented, then shattered into such a multitude of layers?

dlT: I like that you call it a collection of poems and not a book. Calling it a book might be a stretch given that it’s four chapbooks (two long poems and two serial poems) saddle-stitched individually and bundled together in a slipcase. With the collection’s format, my aim was to have readers assemble its contents—the booklets can be read in the order of the reader’s choice. Had the poems been bound in a single book, I would have had to order the four different series sequentially, and in doing so, I would have imposed a narrative logic to, and perhaps even a hierarchy on, the collection. I was interested in removing all of that, but I was also in having their structure be consistent with the nature of the poems. All of them are occasional in some way or another—they’re all responding to particular circumstances—so I wanted to respect their autonomy and have their physical manifestation relate to ephemera. Mariposa Negra is an elegy for my friend Aura Estrada, whose life was cut tragically short at age 30. Shift is a site-specific piece written for a performance that was part of a festival of collaborations at the Zinc Bar in New York in 2011. Photos While U Wait is meant to resemble a scrapbook, each poem-cum-snapshot memorializing a particular occasion. Lastly, Poets House commissioned four poets to write something in response to an exhibition of works by Gego, the late German-born artist who relocated to Venezuela, at The Drawing Center in New York—Lines to Undo Linearity, an anti-ekphrastic poem, resulted from that. (I realize that even in describing the chapbooks I can’t help but to assign them an order.)

So to try to fit these disparate works into the overarching narrative that a book inevitably puts forth seemed contrived to me. The nondescript title of the collection is part of the same effort to avoid dictating the reader’s response. (And also a nod to Roberto Bolaño’s Tres.)For at least three months I kept thinking of what to call the collection, and consequently also delaying its production… My editors at Switchback and I kept combing through all of the poems in search of a line or a phrase that might capture the spirit of the whole collection. We thought of calling it “Your Presence Is Requested,” “Photos While U Wait,” “Shift,” “Mariposa Negra,” “The Past Perfect”… the list goes on. We’d all agree on a title, and then a few days or weeks later it wouldn’t feel right anymore. I was getting increasingly frustrated by my inability to commit to one. A couple of weeks before going to press I realized what the problem was: no title would do precisely because it would add another layer of meaning to the collection and subordinate each part to a larger whole. The only thing that would work would be a descriptive title. Despite its neutrality, Four as a title seemed irresistibly polysemic: it’s a homonym of “for,” which relates to the poems’ occasional nature; there are four sides to a page; printing signatures are always multiples of four. (I’ll stop before I incur in the “referential mania” of the unhinged character in Nabokov’s short story “Signs and Symbols”? Suffice it to say that I like that all of these possible meanings insist on the physicality of the page, on book as medium.)

I’d hope that the reader would like to become involved in assembling the contents of the chapbooks as well. I tried to offer multiple points of entry into each and also the possible connections between them. The voices and registers of each one are perhaps jarringly different, but the reader is invited to contrast them and, in doing so, question the implications, and perhaps shortcomings, inherent in each mode (each deals with the lyrical and subjectivity in its own way.) And more to the point you raise in your question: there is a conceptual thread tying the works together: each deals with pre-dictions, with readymade utterances that acquire (and lose) meaning over time: clichés and idioms in Photos While U Wait and Lines to Undo Linearity; cited and found text assembled to be delivered orally in a specific time and place in Shift; and, besides all the others, actual foreboding writing in Mariposa Negra. All recorded utterances, all writing, constitutes pre-diction activated at the time of reading. Reading provides a space for the potency of pre-dictions to unfold, through memory’s active role in the process.

Regarding appropriated text—a specific type of pre-diction—I’m as interested in defamiliarization as I am in its opposite: familiarization. Transported to and framed on the page, set phrases, idioms, clichés, lyrics—all from the domain of orality—appear defamiliarized, made strange. We do a doubletake upon encountering them in a different context, and perhaps, by seeing them in a different light, we glean something unexpected about them. (A non-literary example: I was saying good night to a friend who doesn’t speak Spanish. After hearing me say “Buenas noches,” he asked if I wasn’t supposed to use the plural only when speaking to a group of people. He was wrong, as you know, but his question made me notice how unusual it is to say “Good nights” or “Good mornings” to people when greeting them in Spanish!) Conversely, I’m fascinated by the reverse process: the one by which foreign, quoted text appears familiar or natural in the new context you bring it to. There’s a lot of this in Shift—I quote freely from an array of literary texts (Nathalie Sarraute’s The Use of Speech, a book on architecture by Markus Miessen titled The Nightmare of Participation, Eva Hoffman’s Time), websites, blog posts, and weather reports, but in the context of my piece, the cited text seems fitting. What’s this process about? Much has been written about defamiliarization, and not enough about its opposite. I’m thinking of how utterly baffling it is to encounter, for instance, quotes by Emerson and Goethe in David Shields’s Reality Hunger. Their words on the readymade quality of culture, and against individualistic views of literary production, respectively, seem so contemporary, so totally at home in the context in which he presents them—this is perhaps more shocking to readers today than Shields’s approach to composition, which, in the poetry world, harks back to the 1970s.

Engaged readers will assemble my texts by connecting the dots between cited and found texts that appear juxtaposed to other types of writing throughout the chapbooks. The logic behind my juxtapositions is that of the bricolage, it’s mainly improvisational, and so perhaps the “connecting the dots” metaphor is not apt: there’s no picture there that I’m hoping the reader will be able to draw. As you put it, the point is a dialogue between the materials I’ve put forth. The only real dialogue is that whose outcomes are unexpected, don’t you think? That’s actually how those quoted materials made it into my work in the first place: I was in dialogue with them, but I wasn’t certain of which direction the conversation was going in. That’s left open, and hopefully continues when the reader interacts with the book.

 

ZP: This question of dialogue is continued in your translations of Juan Luis Martínez. In my experience translation demands an outline of priorities and intentions, given that to transplant the multitude of valences surrounding each word of a poem, to say nothing of the cultural reverberations, is impossible. Decisions must be made beforehand about what will be ferried over, and what will be left behind. As you mention in your note, the poems of La Nueva Novela are answers that have subsumed the original questions written by Tardieu in French, so much so that people sometimes assume the entirety of the exchange was written by Martínez, as well as questions that were written by Martínez addressed back to Tardieu. What has been your approach to translating this interwoven multi-origin multi-faceted work?

dlT: Martínez was a trickster. La nueva novela is a monument to literary artifice if there ever was one. One of the poems in the second section of the book, “Five Problems for Jean Tardieu,” is titled “A Transparent Problem”: a rectangle in the middle of the page has been cut out and replaced by a strip of Mylar. The same text is printed on the front and back of the page: “Tardieu, why is it that if You look at yourself in the mirror through this page, all you can see is how You look at Transparency and not also how Transparency is looked at?” If you actually follow his instructions, what you see in the mirror is the inverted text printed on the back page, however—the notion of transparency is doubly or triply complicated, then.

With the same spirit of defiance, throughout the book he counterpoints opacity and transparency—some poems are almost impenetrable, yet others, the more dialogic ones that prompt the reader to engage with them without the reader’s hardly noticing it, appear transparent and radically accessible. Yet there’s veiling at play in them too. The poems of Tardieu that Martínez translates and includes in the first part of La nueva novela—which although absurdist and pataphysical, have the semblance of plausible schoolbook math or logic problems—are in this second group. So far, most of the poems that I’ve translated come from this part of the book.  My approach has been to reenact the veiling as much as possible without taking the strategy as far as Martínez. (Perhaps the only way to do the work justice is to put my translations of Martínez’s translations of Tardieu’s poems in a book of mine and weave together our responses to the problems. I should try that approach, actually!) So I’ve tried to make my translations seem as familiar and neutral in English as possible, so that they could read as being taken from any old English-language textbook. They’re camouflaged, in other words. I’ve tried to conceal their otherness, and if I have failed, it’s due to my clumsiness as a translator.

My approach would be different if I were working on the more opaque, collaged poems in La nueva novela. First, I would track down all the source materials for the poems, and then I’d think long and hard as to what the best approach would be. In the case of the English-language materials that he borrowed (say, text from Alice in Wonderland, for instance), should I translate Martínez’s Spanish versions back into English, or should I simply use Lewis Carroll’s original excerpts? If my aim were to expose the variations that Martínez introduced when translating, I would probably try to replicate the variations in English. But if my goal were to emphasize Martínez’s procedural approach regarding reframing and appropriation, then I’d just use the original sources in English. The same would apply to the material that he took from other languages, such as French.  If I wanted to bring Martínez’s procedures into focus in my renderings, I’d cull from available English-language translations. I know of few other books as hyper-referential as La nueva novela. The magnitude of the materials he appropriates and cites is such, and his approaches so various, that it’d be wisest to handle the translation of each poem on a case-by-case basis.

 

ZP:  Professionally, you are a poet, a translator, and also an editor. You have published work in both Spanish in Mexico and English in the US and apart from your independent projects, you have regularly collaborated with other poets, translators, and artists. I am interested to hear how these various pursuits inform each other, and how you have braided them together in your own poetry.

dlT: I share Oswald de Andrade’s sentiment in the “Cannibal Manifesto”: “I am only interested in what is not mine.” I find that each translation project and collaboration is gratifying and enriching in the sense that it both diminishes and yet also widens the scope of what I think of as being “mine.” On the one hand, true collaboration and dialogue promotes a healthy and desirable dissolution of the ego, yet, on the other, it expands the horizon of the selves of the participants in the joint process. I’m interested in work that engages and capitalizes on the self’s protractile and retractile qualities, its extreme malleability, it’s multiple facets, and have never been one who could suspend dialogue with the world around me in order to focus on self-expression. True dialogue is non-instrumental: it doesn’t have an ulterior motive. It’s about going on a ride for the sheer exuberance of it. This is at the heart of a lot of the projects I’ve chosen to become engaged in. I think it was Mac Wellman who once said to me: “We only exist in dialogue.” Meaning that if we’re not in dialogue, our interiority—the alleged core of our essential self—is merely speculative. I’m not sure this is relevant to what you’re asking me, but I like its implications!  And just to be a bit more specific about how my various pursuits inform each other: I think it’d be fair to say that collaborating with others, but especially translating and editing, helps me focus on language as a material, it establishes a distance from communication’s what and instead allows me to focus on expression’s elaborate machinery.

 

ZP:  In your recent talk as part of the Omniglot Seminars, you contrasted the poetry scene in the States and that of Mexico, expressing wonderment at the Mexican poetry readership which you described as being very small but egalitarian in its voraciousness and wholly undivided by the aesthetic fractures that split the American poetry readership. Having experienced the fallout of this division and yet of course holding aesthetic prejudices myself, I am interested to hear more about your navigation of such completely different atmospheres.

dlT: You know, shortly after I said that I started wondering if it wasn’t a mistake to make such a blanket statement. I’m not sure that what I said is actually true. There’s more nuance to it—of course the Mexican poetry world is fractured along lines similar to those that divide poets here in the US (politics, formal issues, various approaches to the lyric tradition, innovation and avant-garde poetics.) It’s just that when it comes to American poetry, Mexican poets and readers might be more open to diversity. Different evaluation criteria apply because American writing loses its context in translation. Or, to put it another way, individual works by certain poets might be translated, but not their context or lineage. The same happens here in the US, of course, with works in translation. If you’re not an expert, you might read Bolaño and actually believe that Infrarrealistas had a strong presence in the Mexican poetry scene of the late 1960s. A few years ago I was at a reading that Mexican poet Coral Bracho gave in New York, as part of the PEN Festival, and during the Q&A someone from the audience asked her where she saw herself in a scene dominated by Octavio Paz, on one side of the spectrum, and the Infrarrealistas on the other, when she started publishing poetry! A frankly absurd question, given that the Infrarrealistas were utterly marginal during their brief existence. Bolaño did such a fine job crafting the myth of the movement 30 years after its existence, that their legend has managed to distort people’s sense of literary history. Call it revisionism. For me, it’s a formidable example of Borges’s notion of how the imagination leaves its marks on reality. (Not unlike certain biographies on whose covers we find not the subjects of the biographies themselves, but the photos of the actors who played them in the film version… Salma Hayek as Friday Kahlo, for instance. I can’t prevent myself from putting Javier Bardem’s face to Reinaldo Arenas.) I’m constantly amused by misreadings, and am most certainly not immune to them myself.

 

ZP:  Finally, on a different note, would you be so kind as to share with us a small personal truth that has allowed you to persevere in this profession?

dlT: I’ll just say that perhaps the strongest reason for me to keep at it is that I’ve never once felt like I’ve gotten down my approach to poetry. I have yet to nail it. I can’t repeat what’s worked in the past, because having done it has put me in a different position from where I started. There’s no accumulation; every time I approach a project, I feel like I’m new to poetry.

In 2001 I was at a summer art program in Skowhegan, Maine. Robert Creeley was invited to give a lecture. I remember him saying that he wasn’t the poet in the family, his sister was. He was just doing what he was doing, sort of like bouncing a ball. What he said really spoke to me: I’m just doing what I do; it’s for others to decide what that is.

 

 

 

 

 

 

POETRY AT BOOKSTOCK – JULY 27 – 29

15 Jul

POETRY AT BOOKSTOCK – JULY 27 – 29

Hunting for a Vermont-style summer literary idyll and can’t afford the tuition to Breadloaf?

The village of Woodstock recently added words to its quintessential picture postcard image with the inception of Bookstock: The Green Mountain Festival of Words. Founded by a consortium of local nonprofits in 2009, the fourth annual Festival runs July 27 – 29, 2012 and caters to a broad swath of literary tastes and temperaments.

Poetry-related activities at Bookstock—including readings, signings, workshops and a free-form jam—continue to quietly accrue a reputation. In its first three years, the reading series has hosted among others Ellen Bryant Voigt, Jody Gladding, David Budbill, Chard deNiord, Wesley McNair, Cleopatra Mathis, Wyn Cooper and Sharon Olds.

This summer’s festivities get rolling on Friday night (7/27) with a Poetry Jam hosted by poet/publisher Peter Money. Started last year on a whim via word of mouth, the jam packed more than 50 participants into a local pub. Saturday (7/28), as novelists, children’s authors and cartoonists of note (New Yorker illustrator Ed Koren gives a keynote that morning) take turns at venues clustered around Woodstock’s historic Green, poets Dara Wier, Marie Howe, Vermont’s current Poet Laureate Sydney Lea, and Pulitzer Prize winner James Tate dive into diverse waters on the poetry main stage. Ranging from Lea’s masterful Vermont-based narratives to Howe’s breathtaking lyrics interweaving physical and metaphysical worlds, Dara Wier’s wry “whirlwinds of detail and mystery” to her inimitable husband James Tate’s genre-unto-himself brand of surrealism, Bookstock’s four-hour immersion in poetry promises an invigorating, if not astonishing celebration of poetic voices.

And if readings, signings, workshops (former Alice James Books executive director April Ossmann conducts one Friday afternoon) and jams fail to fill your weekend’s quota for verse, Bookstock invites attendees to experience poetry in the wild on the newly installed Poet’s Trail at nearby King Farm. Soon to be annexed as part of Marsh-Billings-Rockefeller National Historical Park, the retired Farm has recently morphed into a sculpture park. This summer’s exhibit? “Poetry on the Land,” naturally.

Originally conceived by local high school English teacher Martha Perkins, the loosely interpretive Poet’s Trail wends through thick stands of pine, hemlock and spruce before climbing into open meadow. The trail’s shrouded intimacy conduces to the internal journey we take when reading any poem, in which the words themselves, mounted to random trunks, inhabit, imbue and converse with the natural landscape. Hikers encounter a predomination of Mary Oliver classics along the way (“The Summer Day,” “Next Time,” “The Fish,” “The Sun,” “Sleeping in the Forest,” “The Journey”), while assorted works by Robert W. Service, Lynn Valente, Brian Turner and Tony Hoagland interpose along the walking anthology. The poems reward hikers with familiar discoveries, the way ubiquitous red eft newts, indigenous yet unexpected, surprise us at our feet, their brilliant orange bodies motionless upon brown-needled ground. The trail is a synthesis of old and new iterations, a work in progress. Not occasioned to the landscape per se, its poems speak not only to this place but to unspecific vistas in our souls. No Poet’s Trail in Vermont would be complete of course without an obligatory nod to Robert Frost. Ascending to the light and panoramic height of an expansive upper pasture, hikers gain a final clarity at the invitation of Frost’s “Directive” to “Drink and be whole again beyond confusion.”

 

For more information and a complete schedule: http://bookstockvt.org/presenters/four-poets/

Poetry at Bookstock is supported by the Vermont Humanities Council, the Byrne Foundation, Zoland Poetry and Harbor Mountain Press.

 

Partridge Boswell, Bookstock Organizer and Founder

 

 

 

 

Zoland Poetry Translation Fellowship

30 May

We are pleased to announce that applications are now being accepted for the Vermont Studio Center’s Zoland Poetry Fellowship. One award for an outstanding translator of contemporary international poetry will be awarded.

Fellowship Deadline: June 15, 2012. To apply, visit: http://www.vermontstudiocenter.org/apply/

Brief Description: Founded by artists in 1984, the Vermont Studio Center is the largest international artists’ and writers’ residency program in the United States, hosting more than 50 visual artists and writers each month from across the country and around the world.

Where: The Vermont Studio Center is located within the village of Johnson, VT, along the banks of the Gihon River in the heart of the northern Green Mountains. Located 35 miles (approximately 1 hour) northeast of Burlington, VT Burlington International Airport (BTV) is the nearest airport.

Lodging: VSC provides each resident with a modest, comfortable room in one of seven large VSC houses in the village of Johnson. Accommodations are in single rooms with shared bathrooms. Houses are simply furnished and bed linens, pillows, blankets, towels, and a weekly linen service is provided. VSC does not offer in-house laundry facilities.

Studio: All Writing Residents are assigned a studio in the Maverick Studios, which opened in January 2007 and is the first new building to be constructed by VSC. Each of the 16 studios overlooks the Gihon River, and comes equipped with a large desk, a surge protector/power strip, a bookshelf, an adjustable-height desk chair, a reading chair, a cork board, a floor lamp, a desk lamp, and individual heat and light controls; the studios are environmentally friendly, wheelchair-accessible, and centrally located on the VSC campus. Maverick Studios include a wireless network for accessing both the internet and a shared printer.

Meals: Breakfast, lunch and dinner are provided seven days a week in the dining room by our chef Mark Hallett. Along with daily entrees, the menu includes desserts, soups and a full salad bar. We are not able to provide for special dietary requirements.

Expectations: Studio Center Residencies are open-ended and flexible, allowing residents to shape their time in Johnson in a way that suits their needs, with the focus always on encouraging the development of each artist’s and writer’s distinct and personal creative routine. To further encourage the creative work of its residents, VSC provides the opportunity to share work in readings, open studio tours, and slide shows, and to collaborate in any way that is productive to their process and creative development. The Studio Center’s two distinguished Visiting Writers each month will be available for individual conferences.

Zoland Poetry Congratulates Vol. 4 Contributor Tracy K. Smith on Winning the 2012 Pulitzer Prize for Poetry

27 Apr

Tracy was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for her most recent book, Life on Mars. The following poems appeared in Zoland Poetry #4:

 

Everything That Ever Was

 

Like a wide wake, rippling

Infinitely into the distance, everything

 

That ever was still is, somewhere,

Floating near the surface, nursing

Its hunger for you and me

 

And the now we’ve named

And made a place of.

 

Like groundswell sometimes

It surges up, claiming a little piece

Of what we stand on.

 

Like the wind the rains ride in on,

It sweeps across the leaves,

 

Pushing in past the windows

We didn’t slam quickly enough.

Dark water it will take days to drain.

 

It surprised us last night in my sleep.

Brought food, a gift. Stood squarely

 

There between us, while your eyes

Danced toward mine, and my hands

Sat working a thread in my lap.

 

Up close, it was so thin. And when finally

You reached for me, it backed away.

 

Bereft, but not vanquished. After it left,

All I wanted was your broad back

 

To steady my limbs, Today,

Whatever it was seems slight, a trail

Of cloud rising up and off like smoke.

 

And the trees that watch as I write

Sway in the breeze, as if all that stirs

Under the soil is a little tickle of knowledge

 

The great blind roots will tease through

And push eventually past.

 

 

 

At Some Point, They’ll Want To Know What It Was Like

 

There was something about how it felt. Not just the during—

That rough churn of bulk and breath, limb and tooth, the mass of us,

The quickness was made and rode—but mostly the before.

 

The waiting, knowing what would become. Pang. Pleasure then pain.

Then the underwater ride of after. Thrown-off like a coat over a bridge.

Somehow you’d just give away what you’d die without. You just gave.

 

The best was having nothing. No hope. No name in the throat.

And finding the breath in you, the body, to ask.

 

 

The Universe: Original Motion Picture Soundtrack

 

The first track still almost swings. High hat and snare, even

A few bars of sax the stratosphere will singe-out soon enough.

 

Synthesized strings. Then something like cellophane

Breaking in as if snagged to a shoe. Crinkle and drag. White noise,

 

Black noise. What must be voices bob up, then drop, like metal shavings

In molasses. So much for us. So much for the flags we bored

 

Into planets dry as chalk. For the tin cans we filled with fire

And rode like cowboys into all we tried to tame. Listen:

 

The dark we’ve only ever imagined now audible, thrumming,

Marbled with static like gristly meat. This is for keeps.

 

A chorus of engines churns. Silence taunts: a dare.

Everything that disappears disappears

 

As if returning somewhere.

 

 

 

 

 

:

 

 

ZOLAND IN CONVERSATION: The Last Books of Héctor Viel Temperley

2 Mar

Zoland correspondent P. Scott Cunningham, the director of the O, Miami Poetry Festival and the author of Chapbook of Poems for Morton Feldman (Floating Wolf Quarterly, 2011) sat down with Stuart Krimko and Arlo Haskell of Sand Paper Press to bring us an in-depth look at their new translation title, The Last Books of Héctor Viel Temperley. Enjoy!

 

 

PSC: I met poets Stuart Krimko and Arlo Haskell in 2010 at the Key West Literary Seminar, where Haskell lives full-time and serves as the festival’s Media Director. Krimko, the Director of David Kordansky Gallery in Los Angeles, was in town for the Seminar and to help with release of three new titles by the publishing imprint they run together: Sand Paper Press. Last year marked a milestone for Sand Paper; they published the first collection in twenty years by American Oulipo legend Harry Mathews, and now Haskell and Krimko have just released The Last Books of Héctor Viel Temperley, the press’s first book in translation. Krimko, who travels each year to Buenos Aires, translated the poems, while Haskell served as editor and publisher. The following exchange took place over email during the first few days of 2012.

 

PSC: I don’t think it makes any sense to talk about this book without first talking about Sand Paper Press and, by extension, small presses in general. Tell me how you two met, and how that led to the creation of Sand Paper Press.

 

AH: Stuart and I met at Bard College in the fall of 1996. The following year we both took Ann Lauterbach’s class on 20th-century American poetics. I think for both of us this was a transformative experience, the first time either of us had read in a serious and substantive way poets like Wallace Stevens and Charles Olson, John Berryman, Elizabeth Bishop, Ezra Pound, then up through so-called New York schoolers like Frank O’Hara, Ron Padgett, John Ashbery, and James Schuyler, as well as the writings of influential non-literary types like John Cage. By the next semester we were pretty hooked, and we ended up in Ashbery’s poetry workshop together, where we learned about obscurer writers like Pierre Martory and Carl Martin, and were given assignments to write poems based on Oulipo constraints and zodiac signs. As a result of both of these classes, and I suppose as a result of being 20 and in that first flush of adulthood, we developed a great sense of camaraderie among poets, a great feel for an audience and the impact a poem could have one one’s life and one’s friendships. Stuart was living off campus with David Janik, who is now our designer, and they’d invite a bunch of us over to share a handle or two of cheap wine and we’d sit around and read poetry in their living room. It was an amazing group of poets, and when Ashbery showed up and shared some jug wine and read some new work with us, you know I think we felt like “we can do this. We are doing this.” As the years went on we kept doing it, kept wanting to do it, and it turned into making books, small ones at first, my Fool Proof, Stuart’s Not That Light, handmade things that took incredible amounts of time to fold and stitch and assemble, and then we decided we wanted to step it up, print more copies, save ourselves the work of assembly, and keep pushing the work out there. The Press is an extension of our friendship, really, and it’s an effort to make more friends out there in the world, to find a handful of like minds and do something cool that they will like and that may form the basis for new friendships. It’s all about living, and living a satisfied life, and for both of us I think the key to that is in placing art at the center of one’s life and one’s relationships.

 

PSC: Tell me about who Héctor Viel Temperley was, both as a person and as a poet, and how you, Stuart, discovered his work and took an interest in it.

 

SK: I learned about Viel Temperley’s work when I studied at the Universidad de Buenos Aires en 1999. Hospital Británico was assigned reading for the Literary Theory and Analysis course I did there; the Argentine educational system is modeled after the French, Napoleonic model, so this incredibly rich and complex course, in which there were three simultaneous sections devoted to completely different sets of readings, was what the first thing that first-year students encountered. In addition to high level theory (the Russian Formalists through Derrida, and at breakneck speed), students were introduced to literature chosen especially to challenge them. I describe this scene because it gives you an idea of Viel Temperley’s reputation in Argentina. He is beloved by a knowledgeable few, considered outside the mainstream in every way, and yet for all its strangeness, the poetry is open and accessible enough for first-year literature students to approach it.

 

Viel Temperley himself came from a prominent family. His first book, published in the mid 1950s when he was in his early 20s, won an award, and his second was published by the same house that was publishing Borges at the time. However, he never joined Argentine literary society as such. This must have been a conscious decision, as he seemed to be set up for success, and there has long been a remarkably active literary community in Buenos Aires. He made his living as the owner of an advertising firm, he  fathered seven children, and he continued to write poetry. But he also developed a highly personal brand of faith that cannot be considered either purely poetic or purely religious; by the beginning of the 1980s, he lived in his own apartment and spent much of his time in solitude, writing and praying, occasionally making a trip to a monastery outside of Buenos Aires, where he had a number of friends who were monks. The late books, for which he is best, known, were essentially self-published. Though he was a dedicated athlete he also smoked, and by the mid 80s he had developed lung cancer, which spread to his brain. He died in 1987, just after publishing Hospital Británico, which, because it draws text from each of his previous books, is a kind of cathedral-like summation.

 

PSC: “I am the place where the Lord spreads out the Light that he is,” Viel Temperley says in Hospital Británico, a phrase that could come right out of a Baptist service in Mississippi. Are we more tolerant of Viel Temperley’s religiosity because he’s dead? Because he’s Argentinian? Do you think that an extremely well-written, formally ambitious book of poems would have less value if it espoused the values of Pentacostalism or another far right Christian sect? Or is it the strangeness of H.V.T’s Christianity that makes such statements tolerable to non-believing liberal poetry readers like myself?

 

SK: Poetry to me is religiosity. Some of my favorite poets are manifestly religious. I named one of my own collections after George Herbert, who was a pastor and only wrote about religious themes. In the interview I translated as an appendix to his books of poems, Viel Temperley insists that he is not a religious poet, by which I think he means that he is not espousing anything. This is investigative work, full of shades and mysteries and questions rather than assertions or claims to visions. So for me his poetry does not require tolerance, it elicits desire –– it is full, after all, of hookers and pregnancy and sex. The strangeness comes from the unity of desire and sanctity, passions we are not accustomed enough to describing in the same breath. But think of someone like Judee Sill, or St. John of the Cross, whose embodied, nervous Christianities are forms of mysticism. Also, art, like mysticism, is designed to topple any sense of right and left.

 

PSC: I love Herbert, too, particularly because I think he is trying to convert me, a condition I tolerate (1) because he’s dead and (2) because he lived in a world very, very different from my own. No matter how hard I try I cannot replicate the degree of faith Herbert possessed, and so I find him interesting specifically because of how differently he organizes his passion.    

 

SK: Essentially I think that what separates the bad Bible-thumpers from the good ones is the presence of hubris. The best poetry dismantles hubris. If you can preach me your God and make me feel the debilitating and dwarfing sense of the arbitrary that even the archest atheist must also share, then I will pull up my chair and listen. That said, I disagree about the intentionality of Herbert’s poetry. He was trying to convert himself, which is a different thing. Herbert, like Wallace Stevens, for instance, lived at the precipice of disbelief but could never quite throw himself over. In the poetry he challenges God –– actually I think he tries to throw himself over, but each time a gust in the shape of a hand or a poem puts him back up on the cliff. Regarding living proselytizers, I have a distinct weakness for Christian-period Bob Dylan, so perhaps I’m not the best person to judge here. I was also going to mention the Ol’ Dirty Bastard of songs like ‘I Can’t Wait,’ but then I remembered that he too is no longer with us. Doesn’t seem possible.

 

PSC: Despite the formal range of contemporary American poetry, there’s a few topics that dominate: the self, art for art’s sake, the trap of language, etc. and when a book breaks out of this theoretical vortex, it immediately becomes recognizable. I feel that way about Viel Temperley and his Christianity—is that part of what drew you to this project?

 

SK: Yes, what you describe is very much part of what draws me to Viel Temperley’s poetry. Perhaps not his Christianity per se, though that too, but his spiritual openness; the willingness to put real faith up against original formal structures; the over lit, beachy surrealism, its visionary reverberations; the sense that this man was writing for his life, not out of despair or desperation, but out of ecstatic sensitivity to the potential for the world to be miraculous. The work is also full of humility: this is what might set it apart more than anything else. I won’t go so far as to make sweeping judgments about American poetry, except to say that among poets there are too many artists and not enough practitioners of radical and generous humility. That said, God, or at least divinity, appears in some of the most interesting poetry being written in the United States. I’m thinking of people like Dorothea Lasky and Ariana Reines.

 

PSC: Reines is a great comparison. “God” is a very complicated character in her work, and certainly mixed up with desire. Do you see any specific affinities between her and Viel Temperley?

 

SK: For me they’re two poets who are current ‘favorites’ in the sense that Elizabeth Bishop describes in the stunning fragment called “Writing poetry is an unnatural act…”: “…not [necessarily] the best poets, whom we all admire, but favorite in the sense of one’s ‘best friends’…” Interestingly, one of Bishop’s ‘best friends’ was Herbert. In the same piece, she says that the three qualities she most admires in poetry are “Accuracy, Spontaneity, Mystery.” (Italics are hers.) That seems about right to me; Viel Temperley and Reines have these. Bishop’s “The Roosters” is a great Christian poem, by the way.

 

PSC: Speaking of “best friends” versus “best poets,” there’s a certain sexiness to those “undiscovered” poets and to “lost” books in general. Why is that?

 

SK: It’s important to note that amongst poets in Argentina these books are not lost. Thanks to the people at Ediciones del Dock, who were also supportive of this project, the complete works were brought out in 2003. So Viel Temperley is read and known. Poetry being poetry, most poets are in some way undiscovered. But of course there’s a thrill in being able to introduce a writer to new audiences, for whom he’s certainly undiscovered because they can’t read the language he wrote in. The sexiness must come from the happy feeling that there was someone doing something you care a great deal about, even though you didn’t know about it. It’s like they were thinking of you without having met you, which is like hearing from a friend that a person you find attractive has been mentioning your name. In this case the translator and editor are that gossiping friend.

 

PSC: Do you find these books to be formally inventive? If so, how? And if so, why is that important to their value? For instance, could you talk about the organization of “Crawl” and its relation to Viel Temperley’s passion for swimming?

 

SK: Yes, I think the books are formally inventive. Particularly Hospital Británico, in which Viel Temperley makes use of self-appropriation in a way that feels inevitable and necessary. But for the reasons discussed above, they don’t rely upon formal invention. In some basic way poetry at its best is about the integration of both accepted and idiosyncratic forms. The idea that one might take lineated verse, haul it over the line into the world of prose, and then use it to built this stunning edifice that allows you to reassess the way you lived and wrote your life––it’s a quietly radical and iconoclastic thing to do. Crawl too is quite particular, formally speaking. As you note, Viel Temperley was a dedicated swimmer. He arranged the lines on the page, and the breath of the poem in sonic terms, according to the rhythm of swimming the crawl. I think he was interested in placing his experience of his body, in action, in the midst of the poem. The book’s refrain (‘I come straight from communion and I’m in ecstasy’), however, suggests a more profound reason for using the breath as a structural element. For Viel Temperley, a single moment of ecstatic revelation can be repeated in the framework of poetry. Each time he revisits this moment, it leads him through a different chain of images. As I mentioned earlier, Viel Temperley was not interested in a definitive religious experience. Even a standalone instance of communion with God had to be reimagined and relived. Formal innovation allowed him to do this. 

 

PSC: In the short bio of Viel Temperley you mention that he never gave readings, yet the poems sound gorgeous when read aloud. Do you know if he ever composed aloud? 

 

SK: In the interview Viel Temperley describes the composition of Crawl, part of which involved laying fragments of text out on the floor and standing on a chair to see how they looked and felt from above. And Hospital Británico is such a readerly act of literature. This leads me to believe that his mode of composition mostly involved written text.

 

PSC: “…water so blue that the moon / entered into it and breathed.” Despite being gorgeous, this line struck me as descriptive of the writing of poetry itself, or rather, how poets themselves feel about it: that if we can just get the words to be clear enough we can live inside of them and thereby, they’ll save us. Was ars poetica one of Viel Temperley’s concerns?

 

SK: Inasmuch as he recognized the difference between poetic and religious experience, yes. In other words, there was something particular to poetry that he felt it was crucial to enact. Given that he included religious imagery and sentiment in his poetry but went out of his way to assert that he wasn’t an explicitly religious writer, he must have felt that the attention to language brought about by poetry itself added something important to his life. I don’t get the sense that he thought poetry would save him, just as I don’t think David wrote the Psalms to avoid God’s wrath. If poetry spares us pain, it is only because of its role as entertainment. And in the array of entertainments available to us, certainly poetry is one that has been historically linked to the divine. But that’s just because it entertains God too. When Leonard Cohen sings ‘I’ve heard there was a secret chord that David played, and it pleased the Lord, but you don’t really care for music do you?’, I think the you he refers is the Lord, who can take the chord or leave it, even though he does find it pleasing to hear.

 

PSC: There are a few very strange figures in Hospital Británico, including a dwarf and a character named “Christus Pantokrator.” Could you explain their presence in the poems?

SK: If we take Viel Temperley at his word, the dwarf is a surreal figure who functions momentarily as his guardian angel because he allows him to see a crusader (it’s only the dwarf’s ring) making his way through a spiritually destitute world. As I explain briefly in the introduction, Christus Pantokrator is a depiction of Christ often found in Byzantine churches. As opposed to the wounded Man of Sorrows, the Pantokrator is understood to be omnipotent; he is often shown holding a book, so he represents knowledge too. This is a stern, hyper-masculine Christ, so he fits in with the boxers and sailors that populate Hospital Británico.

 

PSC: What were the technical challenges in translating Viel Temperley?

 

SK: I don’t think the poems presented any severe technical challenges. I was grateful for the luxury of time––I’ve been working on drafts of these poems since I was a student at Bard College in 1999––as well as Arlo’s collaboration and close reading, which allowed me to develop ever-clearer translations in many passages. I was surprised to note that as I read and reread the poems over the last decade, each time they felt plainer, simpler, and more forthright. I’m thinking particularly of Hospital Británico, which is the work of a dying man coming to terms with his vanishing place in the world. So I wanted to make sure  my translations reflected that evolving sense of the work as nothing more than writing. I found myself stripping away ‘creative’ or ‘poetic’ solutions that had some whiff of my own invention attached to them. I feel that the current vogue is for translations that tend toward the literal, and I agree with it (Lydia Davis is the most eloquent recent proponent of this). I am adding nothing to the conversation by saying so, but I want to point out that even the literal has its limits, and, though I tried my best to avoid them, there are numerous instances in which I was forced to rely on my creativity to render the text fluently in English.

 

PSC: Tell me about the poet Cecilia Pavón assisted in this book, and how Argentina itself plays into the narrative.

 

SK: Cecilia is a great friend, an excellent poet, and a professional and gifted translator. So her assistance was indispensable. There is nothing like having such a person show up as a convenient green dot in the chat feature of Gmail when you are racking your brain over a translation problem. Not only can you discuss the problem immediately, but it’s fun and collegial, and it often leads to delightful conversation about any number of other topics. I also relied on the advice and knowledge of Francisco Garamona on many occasions.  He knows Viel Temperley’s work inside and out, owns all of the rare first editions, and is himself a poet and editor, as well as the publisher of Mansalva, in my mind the best Argentine literary imprint. Soledad Viel Temperley, the poet’s daughter, was a great resource, and answered many of our questions about his life and the way he worked. A project like is a great way to collaborate with far-flung friends and make new ones. It provides an excuse to travel. In this sense, Argentina is everywhere in this book. In terms of Argentine writers in general, Viel Temperley is atypical, but exceptions prove the rule. With regards to Cecilia in particular, it’s interesting to think about Viel Temperley as an important precursor to the mysticism and spirituality that appears both in her own poetry and in the collaborative Belleza y Felicidad project she shared with Fernanda Laguna. God appears in their work with some frequency, and though it’s not the Christian God that Viel Temperley evokes, their willingness to confront the divine in explicit terms would probably have intrigued him.

 

PSC: Tell me about your upcoming projects, and the future of Sand Paper.

 

AH: The next book is Belleza y Felicidad, a collaboration between Fernanda Laguna and Cecilia Pavón, the two Argentine women Stuart was just talking about. It’s a sort of anthology, with poems, stories, and other texts, and is loosely modeled on a zine that Cecilia and Fernanda put out called Ceci y Fer. The two are close friends and frequent collaborators—the title draws from the name of a gallery they ran together for several years in Buenos Aires which is also the name of the small press they run (an outfit that publishes tiny photocopied editions of incredible Argentine writers, including César Aira). They often reference one another as characters in their poetry and fiction, both of which have an amazing transparency and directness. I think this book is going to be pretty revelatory for people. We were talking about Ariana earlier, and I think there’s a parallel between her work and theirs—in terms of putting the heart into it, and of restoring the idea of direct communication to lyric poetry. It’s also a very fitting project for Stuart and me, as it was the Viel Temperley book that brought us into Cecilia’s and Fernanda’s orbit in the first place. So it’s a manifestation of what I was saying in the beginning, about using the work as a starting point for new relationships.

 

Beyond that, the first thing on the horizon is a book of essays by poet Christopher Stackhouse. Beyond that, who knows exactly? We’re in conversations with a few other people but nothing’s for sure yet. We take the books one or two or three at a time—Stuart and I both work full-time in addition to the press, and we both have busy lives, friends, a fiancée, a girlfriend, the 162-game baseball season, etc., so it’s an ongoing struggle to strike the right balance. But we’ll be here making books for years to come, so long as we both may live, I hope. Sand Paper is what we do; it’s who we are.

 

 

Translator Stuart Krimko is the author of three collections of poetry, including The Sweetness of Herbert (Sand Paper Press, 2009) and Hymns and Essays (Mal-O-Mar, 2012).

Arlo Haskell is the publisher of Sand Paper Press and the author of the poetry collection Joker (2009), as well as a director of the Key West Literary Seminar and author of their online journal and podcast series.