Sunday, August 3, 2014

Liz Robbins on "Under Pressure"

"Under Pressure" springs from an exercise I give my undergraduates, one appropriated from Charles Bernstein's "Experiments" called "homophonic translation." I hand out a packet consisting of several Tranströmer poems in the original Swedish, an ode of Neruda's in Spanish, and a couple of Rilke's short poems in German, requesting that if a student has proficiency or fluency in Spanish (sometimes), German (rarely), or Swedish (never), that he/she choose a poem that is not in that language. Then I demonstrate how to "translate," which is simply substituting English-sounding words for the foreign words (no matter how nonsensical or absurd-seeming). So, for instance, this first line from Tranströmer's "Under Pressure":

Den blå himlens motordån är starkt

might become something like this,

Den blah hemlines motoring are stark

or, if working more toward sense and structure (not necessarily a better thing at this stage),

The black Himalayans, motoring and stark.

As students begin working through a translation, I encourage them to voice aloud challenges they encounter; often, their main difficulty is getting past the discomfort in making something either divorced from meaning or wildly divergent in meaning from line to line. At this point, they can't anticipate an end, which, after weeks of mostly writing poems that follow a linear narrative toward an epiphany, feels either like a silly, pointless game or an insurmountable task. After they've completed their first draft, I ask them to revise it into a poem of their own, with the most successful efforts being ones that keep as much of the original translation as possible (no dropping lines, for instance) and also make an argument of some kind. I recommend they find a familiar abstract idea around which they can begin to mold meaning (fear, work, love). In my "Under Pressure," for instance, I use the idea of work, work for pay, which then segues into the idea of working for love.

Many students find this exercise to be the most difficult of the term, and the ones who take it seriously often produce from it their best poem. The strength of their results often lies in the unexpected freedom in the first part of the exercise, where they are not having to depend on their own subjective experience, not using "I" (or, at least, not their own) or linear narrative: some fragmentation will be unavoidable, even in the revision stage, their lines leaping from one idea to the next, without their needing to work too hard to join them. Freedom from their own perspectives and from the glue of linear narrative keeps them from the dreaded "drain-circling" (the revisiting of the same idea in different forms throughout a single poem) and pushes them instead toward Charles Olson's Projective Verse injunction: one perception must immediately and directly lead to a further perception, and/or into seeing how, like metaphor, unlike ideas jammed up against one another not only can make sense, but can make the best sense.

With my "Under Pressure" poem, the greatest challenge was to keep a real translation from bleeding through. I don't know Swedish at all, but from what I understand, its grammar is similar to English and its vocabulary to German (in which I have a small amount of reading ability). I allowed occasional indulgences, especially in subsequent drafts when doing so seemed to support the subject matter. For instance, Tranströmer's second line reads,

Vi är närvarande på en arbetsplats i darrning

which I translated to something like,

and our nirvana of the workplace, its daring.

I recognized the German verb for work, "arbeiten," in "arbetsplats." English versions of Tranströmer's poem translate "arbetsplats" to "work-site," which is so close to "workplace," that in later drafts, I kept "work," but dropped "place."

The poem began to take shape with the revelatory moments in the final lines, when I discovered I was writing about the human condition and, specifically, the cause-and-effect ripple pattern it can contain: where, for instance, an unsatisfying reality in the workplace might lead to constant self-questioning, which then might create a cynical perception of life, leading to choices that push love away, keeping one essentially alone.

Here's another indulgence for the sake of subject matter: the last line of Tranströmer's poem reads,

Samhällets morka skrov driver allt längre bort.

Literal translation: "Society's dark hull drifts further and further away."

My final version: "And how we'd move on, drivers in our long sculling boats."

Tranströmer's entire last stanza is about boats, but I indulged my translation of "skrov" into "scull," as a long, narrow boat for one was too perfect a metaphor for a lonely life.  

Friday, July 4, 2014

Randi Ward on Tóroddur Poulsen and Planks

Nearly thirty years have passed since a Faroese work won the Nordic Council Literature Prize. Following his fifth bid for the prestigious prize, Tóroddur Poulsen wished to be spared the inconvenience of losing again: “It’s really irritating that I keep getting nominated,” he vented during an interview on Radio Denmark’s literature program, Skønlitteratur, in 2011. “I’d rather be left in peace.”

The Faroe Islands, a self-governing archipelago under the sovereignty of Denmark, has consistently nominated literary works for the prize since 1985. This in itself is no small feat considering that the remote North Atlantic islands are home to 48,500 people whose standard orthography only just began taking shape two centuries ago. The first book published in Faroese was a transcribed collection of heroic ballads. A year later, in 1823, a translation of the Gospel of Matthew made its way into Faroese households but found little, if any, approbation; many considered it sacrilege to translate holy scripture into the vernacular. Faroese, long mistaken for a mishmash of Icelandic and Danish, was not officially recognized as the principal language of the Faroe Islands until home rule was established in 1948.

Last October, Tóroddur Poulsen blazed a new trail for Faroese literature when he became the first Faroese poet to have an English translation of his work honored by The American-Scandinavian Foundation. The award-winning collection, Fjalir (Planks, 2013), subsequently earned Poulsen his sixth nomination for the Nordic Council Prize; at present, he doesn’t seem inclined to forgo this latest nomination.

Planks consists of thirty-three poems, each of which is dialogically presented alongside a reproduction of one of Poulsen’s woodcut prints. The original Faroese title, Fjalir, connotes “boat, sloop” and “the front/back covers of a book” in addition to the literal “planks” and “to hide, disguise.” Among other things, Fjalir is a meditation on creative agency and the historical / ideological / cultural realities ingrained in language that structure subjectivity and experience. Poulsen’s conspicuous use of metaphorical plank motifs throughout the collection—bearing in mind that his homeland is devoid of timber resources—evokes dimensions of the national-cultural identity his people have engineered from selectively imported and remanufactured discourses. Moreover, Fjalir’s cover art illustrates Poulsen’s conviction that fanatic nation-building has had dreadful consequences in the Faroe Islands.

The self-portrait we encounter on the collection’s cover is so planked-up as to be nearly indistinguishable from its staged background. Still, it is with a depiction of his perceived self that the artist initially manages to confront the insidious dynamics responsible for his repression. This reflexive rendering serves as the collection’s point of departure. Poem by poem, xylograph by xylograph, the Faroese narrator pries his way back into the infrastructure of his consciousness to reconstitute himself amid nightmarish manifestations of fabricated consensus. Using the very agents that have thwarted him, he works his way through a stifling symbiosis of society, language, and self toward artistic and spiritual autonomy. Black and white geometrics gradually give way to more colorful prints, and the collection concludes with a poem entitled “Salvation.”

Bear with me, dear readers: this brief introduction to Tóroddur Poulsen and Planks is my way of contextualizing “Spoor” and “The Silence and I” (BPJ, Summer 2014) in anticipation of an upcoming blog post. Both of these poems appear in Planks and provide further insight into the collection as well as into formative influences on Poulsen’s pithy, thought-provoking poetics. I’ll be sharing examples of Poulsen’s pioneering poetry, music and art throughout July while occasionally offering my interpretations and translations of his work. Who knows? We might even be able to lure Poulsen into the Beloit Poetry Journal’s forum.