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.

Sunday, June 1, 2014

Michael Broek on "The Cloud and the Counterpane"

“The Cloud and The Counterpane” poems began initially with what are now “The Cloud” pieces, and specifically with Samar Hassan. Hers was the portrait, shot by the photographer Chris Hondros, that became one of the most recognizable images of the American war in Iraq. Hassan and her brother were the lone survivors when her parents’ car was raked with bullets at an American checkpoint.

Hondros was later killed covering the “revolution” in Libya. Hassan’s brother, who was rehabilitated at a hospital in Boston, was eventually killed in a bombing after his repatriation. The entire absurdity struck me. I had marched, futilely, with those who had opposed the Bush/Cheney/Rumsfeld war of American Exceptionalism, that sputtering effort at the onset of the new millennium to enjoin John Winthrop’s Puritanical vision of a “City on a Hill.”

Then I had also experienced my own very minor crisis. Hurricane Sandy hit my New Jersey county, just outside New York City, and for thirteen days my family adjusted to life with no electricity, no heat (there was a snowstorm that very week), no hot water, gas lines, food lines, and uncertainty. I knew the lights would come back on. We all did.  And yet it was a crisis in the fabric of our lives, a crisis that profoundly impacted many of my students at the community college where I teach—students who, many of them, were already living on the edge of sustainability.

When I began to conceive of these poems, I hit upon the Arecibo message, that radio message, which Carl Sagan had collaborated on, sent out into space that contained information about what it meant to be  “human.” I also turned to history, the cyclical nature—in the Yeatsian sense—of dissolution and tragedy.

So “The Cloud” poems included a wide range of allusions, including the fact that the NYPD’s warehouse of DNA evidence at Greenpoint, Brooklyn, was inundated by the hurricane. The human genome was one of those pieces broadcast into space by Sagan, and it certainly was relevant to Samar Hassan. The DNA the police had collected related to both victims and perpetrators, and Hassan’s story (and her photo in particular, the little girl spattered with blood) was connected to both.

“The Counterpane” poems came slightly later; they are love poems that take the material fact of the quilt—the counterpane, as it is referred to in Chapter 4 of Moby-Dick—as a guiding trope. What I wanted were poems that telescoped to the personal, that concerned how one person can penetrate another, the lips and hips, desperation and desire, that connect the two. These poems were to counterpoint the more wild and abstract “Cloud” poems.

What connects both “The Cloud” and “The Counterpane,” I hope, is the fact of the “cit-y,” which for me is where the intensely personal and the horribly public collide.

Aesthetically, I had been on a George Oppen (Of Being Numerous), Charles Olson (The Maximus Poems), and H.D. kick (the first book of Trilogy). And also end to torment, H.D.’s memoir of her relationship with Pound.

The whole sequence  will be forthcoming in the book Refuge/es, from Alice James, in the spring of 2015

Thursday, May 1, 2014

Leeya Mehta on "The Abduction"

At the beginning of “The Abduction” I construct a personal image of war. As I am writing this note to accompany my poem, I believe we are again at war for the idea of India.

“The Abduction” begins among the spires of Oxford University in England, where I was a student and first heard about India’s nuclear tests in the Pokhran desert. Some of the images in the poem are from my life at Oxford. My bedroom overlooked a crabapple tree. I rode my bicycle over Magdalen bridge, under which boats passed on their way up the Cherwell River.

Other symbols in the poem are specific to my own cultural heritage as a Parsi Zoroastrian. Zoroastrianism predates Judaism and is considered to be the first monotheistic religion. My ancestors came to India from Persia fleeing religious persecution from Islam. In the poem I refer to some of those lost ancestors, who never made it to safety in India, and whose skeletons lie at the bottom of the Arabian Sea. The first Parsis landed on the beaches of Gujarat, the birthplace of Gandhi as well as the controversial Narendra Modi, India’s likely next Prime Minister. In India, Parsis found religious freedom and great economic opportunity.

The vision of India that I grew up with was deeply influenced by my socially liberal family and the school where I spent twelve years from pre-K through tenth grade. I came to see India as a special place with transformative ideas: democracy, non-alignment, ahimsa or non-violence, non-proliferation and religious freedom.

Fissures began to appear in this utopian landscape around the time I went on to a new high school. It started with the destruction of the Babri Masjid in 1992 and Hindu/Muslim riots in Bombay. When the carnage began, a school friend dismissed it saying, “Only twenty Muslims have been killed so far.” A Hindu friend said of a fellow Muslim student, “Why doesn’t she just go back to Pakistan, where she belongs?” I remember saying, “But she was born here, she’s never been to Pakistan. This is her home.” A new cycle of violence had begun, and in 1993, Bombay had one of its worst terrorist attacks by the Muslim underworld.

In “The Abduction” I make a reference to the Gujarat pogrom against Muslims in 2002, after the Godhra train fire, which killed Hindu pilgrims and was blamed on Islamic terrorists. Muslim artist friends had to flee to neighboring states because they could not find sanctuary anywhere in Ahmedabad, the city of their birth, as hundreds of thousands of Muslims became internally displaced, lining the roads leading out of Gujarat.

Each time we repeat this cycle of violence, I am concerned that we are returning to that time when India was partitioned. Pakistan was partly created because Muslims believed that a Hindu India would not provide equal opportunity to its minority Muslim citizens. Muslim families were uprooted and went to Pakistan; Hindu families fled to India. A million people perished in this bloody cross-migration. In spite of this, India continues to be home to nearly 180 million Muslims, the second largest Muslim population in the world.

In “Watching the Fifth War,” a short story set after the Indo-Pak conflict in Kargil in 1999, I wrote about how a Hindu and Muslim family inadvertently exchanged homes after India’s Partition. I was interested in the way we inhabit the same space as simultaneously interlopers and brothers. In “The Abduction,” a similar dual nature is personified by twinned figures representing my inner battle between conscience and an alter ego, which in turn represents nationalism and a need to belong—to a country, to a parochial history tied to blood and religion. The Asho Farohar that the narrator wears around her neck is the Zoroastrian guardian angel symbolizing the soul’s battle between good and evil.

I visited Pokhran, where India's nuclear tests were conducted, shortly before going to Hiroshima in Japan. There it became even clearer that it made no sense to own what you will never use. If you have an atom bomb, you may, in fact, use it. For the narrator in “The Abduction,” the cycle of violence must end with her. This personal renunciation of blood nationalism is not an act of helplessness or futility even if she feels an overwhelming sense of loss.

The idea of India has always been contested. I fear that with the ongoing election there we might be heading into a dark period. This can perhaps be avoided if enough of us go through a struggle similar to the narrator's in the poem—one which Gandhi saw as an allegorical battle between our higher selves and the allure of blood. 

Thursday, April 3, 2014

Nate Marshall on "Chicago high school love letters"

When you can’t love in public: the black boy’s plea in “Chicago high school love letters

I’ve been trying and failing to write this essay for a month. Watching the blinking of a blank Microsoft Word document in front of me I froze up each time, unable to proceed. This, perhaps, is the best explanation or rendering in prose of my poetic sequence “Chicago high school love letters.” They are poems that exist, quite simply, because they are not something that I feel confident I can say well in any other format.

“Chicago high school love letters” began as the connective tissue for a series of poems that explored the effect of violence on young people in Chicago (or any other locale where such a reality is common). As I approached these poems I was moved to include the “love letters” in order to ask a question to myself. Are young people still young people in the face of hard and complicated circumstances? What I experienced while growing up on the South Side of Chicago offered me a fractured answer to that query. Often, the emotions that I could not freely express in public were those that revealed vulnerability. Love, grief, and fear were unwelcome in the world of young black boys who had to prove their manhood to each other, often without any language or critical idea about what manhood might entail.

In thinking back on that time it makes sense to me that, in order to approach the psyche of young men denied a public outlet of vulnerability, the idea of “letters” would prove invaluable. Those private notes shared between a guy and his lady often acted for us as a haven for feeling. I also enjoyed using short vignettes and fragments to mirror the moment at which I came into adolescence. At that time cell phones and text messaging were just beginning to be widely available. In those days before unlimited texts my homies and I had to be judicious and specific in our crafting of information to lovers. I still remember that to stay under my 200 texts a month budget I had to average about 6 texts a day (and make them count).

The numbering of the sequence is meant to mirror actual numbers of deaths at specific dates in a specific school year (my senior year of high school). This seemed important in order allow the other forms of tenderness often denied young black men to creep through. Fear, grief, love, need for emotional validation are central to the desires that the speaker in the sequence reveals. The speaker needs love and needs it with a specific urgency as he moves through a world where so many of his people are being murdered.

Saturday, March 1, 2014

Kevin Heaton on "Mississippi Crossing"

I have crossed the Mississippi River bridge at Memphis many times: in earlier years, with my wife and young son on semiannual trips from Oklahoma to a newly constructed Disney World; more recently, as a grandfather living in South Carolina commuting to and from Oklahoma on family visits. It is impossible to cross the Mississippi and not be awestruck by her immensity, boundless persistence, and slowly evolving constants, ever resistant to new directives, silt-laden and barge-weary, faithfully toting her heavy payloads downstream, each ocean-bound sea crate hunkered down in sultry basin fog awaiting errant wisps of Gulf breeze.

Her vast watershed backfills the Delta with fluvial sediments and fertile river foam that replenish farmed out bottomland on both sides with nutrient-rich pay dirt. I have jogged the Delta’s section line back roads on countless daybreaks to the steady thrum of air-conditioned pickers flossing weevils from between their oversized eyeteeth with boll cotton. I have driven past dilapidated rows of stilted sharecropper shanties precariously clinging to their shade-porches. I have worshipped on the front pew of the local AME church while the choir sang “Meet Me in Jerusalem” and thought myself an interloper in a hallowed place well off without me. I love the Delta; the musicality of it, “a psalm—a hymn, in a tongue for every color, distant but resounding: own-rolled, scored with folklore and cipherings.” 

My hope is that for you, “Mississippi Crossing” will acknowledge this region’s slave-owning history aptly, for what it was—but more importantly, that it laud the tenacity, oneness of spirit, and perseverance required to rise above its devastation. That the poem aptly celebrates the restoration of a worthwhile land to all her people, and vividly captures the place where “Jubilee began as a prayer” then returned to the people the pride and self-esteem they longed for. 

Saturday, February 1, 2014

Michael Bazzett on "The Field Beyond the Wall" and "The Differences"


Clannish primates have lived on this planet for a while. A quick check at the Smithsonian confirms Homo erectus was crafting tools, building hearths, taking care of the old and infirm, and eating plentiful amounts of flesh and bone marrow well over a million years ago. 1.89 million years ago, to be rather preposterously exact. My grandfather taught me how to shoot a pellet gun, enjoyed a good steak, and was capable of becoming quickly wistful while playing Satin Doll on the piano. He died about four years ago. I remember how the pauses between his ragged breaths grew longer until the final silence came, a pause that continues to this day. When I read recently that young bonobos manage their emotions in much the same way humans do, it struck me that the sadness I felt at their seemingly imminent extinction was sharpened by the fact that we somehow all shared it. The apes, my grandfather and me.

I write because of weird symmetries like this. Odd little moments that flicker like sparrows through the undergrowth. Whether these moments are observed or constructed doesn’t really concern me much. I never found it particularly soothing to be told that something troubling was all in your imagination. I doubt many people do. Because it is all in our imagination. That’s the only place we’ll ever live.

When I’m writing and I follow a poem into the woods, I have only its tracks. Sometimes the path seems clear: footprints in fresh snow. Or there’s blood spoor. Other times it loses me by doubling back at the river. It’s smarter than I am. And so I can never quite offer up the thing itself but merely evoke the chase. I believe we’re eternally surrounded by poems. Like the coyotes that have resettled so densely among suburban houses yet are rarely glimpsed. Perhaps we’re distracted. Or not looking.

When I revisited an early draft of “The Field Beyond The Wall” while considering this essay, I noticed that, as happens with so many of my poems, the seed that started it was one of the last things cut. One doesn’t eat the pit of the fruit, I guess. So at the heart of the poem is this absence:
          The wall is a good wall
          and we will sweetly dream
          our dreams tonight.

The idea was hardly new: the complacent become the complicit. I was reading Zbigniew Herbert’s travelogue, Barbarian in the Garden, in a hotel room in Boston and started writing notes on the back of an envelope. Herbert was writing from a walled city. Siena, I think. The not unpleasant dislocation of reading about his travels through Italy in 1962 intermingling with my own travels fifty years later spurred thoughts of how much I enjoy sleeping in my own bed--and what a dangerous thought that love-of-home was to the 20th century. (It was certainly dangerous to the rat I killed with a metal bucket in the kitchen of my first house, that later made an appearance in “The Differences.”) Then woman with the roasted corn walked into the poem from the central Mexican town where I lived for a year, and I suddenly found myself inside the imaginary city where so much of my work takes place.

In these two poems at least, it is a somewhat disturbing place. But if the alternative is complacency, let’s get deranged.

Wednesday, January 1, 2014

Carol Ann Davis: On Surrender—"Eva Hesse #1: (Blank as Faces)"

I’ve been thinking a lot about the concept of surrender. I even wrote a long essay on it recently that took me from Rumi to the ocean shelf I swam out to and back from as a child to the bus-stop surrender I experience routinely as I wait with my sons (increasingly shivering with them while we wait in the near-dark and cold). A quick I love you and a few steps up and their bus takes them around the curve and down the hill to school where I can’t see them anymore or protect. 

For poets, surrender is everything. At first, like the closing of the bus door and its pulling away, surrender hurts a little. It’s terrifying. But it’s the name of the game to let the language control you, to begin to move, willingly or unwilling, in its current, to float on its surface, the ultimate water-bug. Writing is like so many other aspects of life: fight it and it fights you back. Let it take you and it bears you toward all kinds of unexpected wonders.

My three poems in this issue of the BPJ are examples of the difficulty of surrender and its rewards; they enact in their fashion the push/pull struggle of each and every letting go. I found Eva Hesse in the dark days after a terrible tragedy struck very close to my home: 20 children and 6 adults, all gunned down in a school a mile from where I live. By the time I began reading about Eva Hesse, in January, 2013, she had been dead forty years, but I responded the story of her childhood trek from Nazi Germany to Washington Heights and her earlier time on the kindertransport (Eva Hesse #1), her process-heavy, complaint-filled journals written at mid-life (Eva Hesse #6) and her later paintings (Eva Hesse #7). Perhaps I read about her in order to disengage from the immediate shock of more recent events, but somewhere in the deluge of detail about Hesse I indulged in I began to find a way through the immediate trauma of Sandy Hook and back to who I was as a poet and a mother. Surrendering to the poems, I found my way back to the bus stop.

Something might need to be said about the form of the poems, but I’m cagey about saying it, partly because I can’t offer much insight. I like not to know why I do the things I do in a poem, and so the forms of these poems are not planned, or explicable in any significant way. The form of #1 and #7 is one I’ve used for several years now; it helps me to compress language and to follow the language where it feels as if it wants to go. The form of #6 was improvised to accommodate Hesse’s own words along the left-hand margin. Where there are two voices I tried to show that with italics, though the voices bleed and talk to each other in ways I found pleasing in the writing. I think all the lines can be read across, and where the poems become unusually opaque or difficult to parse in linear terms, hopefully there’s some sign from me that I know that and have made it as easy as I could for the reader while still riding that current in the language that bears all things along.

Still, currents are treacherous. Sometimes they hide rocks, deep wells, underwater canyons.  Language holds within it all past experience and offers that history to us inside the present moment; we’re left with the wreckage of limited comprehension that such accrual creates. In the end, Eva’s words, drawings, and the reality of her life crash and break (think of my childhood waves or of Nicelle Davis’s lovely plates in the December blog essay) inside the present moment of the poems in ways that refract history, childhood, crime, and sacrifice—the better to get through this instant, the better to feel it. And this instant. And now this one.