Tuesday, June 26, 2012

An international poetry festival is a little like one of those lab experiments that science students are forced to perform. Take a creature that does one thing well – make art with their language – and put them into a container with other creatures who seem similar enough, but lack that one key common element – a mutual language. The possibilities are more or less obvious, and the folks in Rotterdam earlier this month were blessed with the fact that all 19 of their on-site participants¹ were actually nice people. One of the festival officials joked that this was an “innovation” they were trying this year, and that it had not always been the case in prior years.

It’s not an accurate statement that the poets lacked the same language. Eighteen of the 19 spoke at least some version of English, and four of us – Karen Solie of Canada, LK Holt of Australia, Sascha Aurora Akhtar of Pakistan & Britain, & I – use variants of it for our writing. With language, of course, history comes encrusted. When Moosejaw-born Karen Solie lists manufacturers of tractors in her work, US companies like John Deere turn up. And I heard Australian Lucy Holt asked on at least one occasion if she was British

My own English remains very much a West Coast working class variant – like so many Californians I flatten out imported vowel sounds so that San rhymes with Sam & Rafael is pronounced rəf-fĕl with the emphasis on the second syllable, one less than exists in the infinitely more melodious Spanish. I even do this with words like sauté which always sounds wrong to me pronounced as tho it were French. I was taught Spanish & a smidgen of Latin in high school during the Kennedy administration, but have hardly used either since then. And, frankly, the teaching of languages left a lot to be desired 50 years ago, especially for students like myself who were not necessarily being viewed as “college material.” Once I did get to college I took a year of German from a language teacher who himself learned the language in the military. My motivation then was that I had learned to read the language briefly as a child, when a nanny hired during one of my grandmother’s psychotic periods was appalled that a bright kid of four wasn’t reading yet – since she was a German war bride², it was the language she was capable of teaching & I soon was looking at the same nursery rhymes as her sons. I can still muck around in a simple-seeming text of German or Spanish, but the idea that I speak either language is laughable. The idea that I could even pick up a nuance in either language is itself a hallucination.

Having only one tongue is a form of confinement, the prison house of language indeed. I’ve used my German just once, in Russia 23 years ago, after a theater critic & I got into two days of intense conversation that depended on the great good will of the poet Ilya Kutik to translate for us until, on the third day, we realized that we each had some German and could make a little progress in that. In Rotterdam, I used my Spanish more than I had any time since high school because Chus Pato, the great Galician poet, was the one attendee who did not speak English (or, for that matter, Dutch, the actual language of Rotterdam).

The Dutch themselves speak excellent English, but one has to wonder what that means to them in practice. It is, after all, not their language, even as it acknowledges the enormous amount of commerce the port city of Rotterdam carries on with ports in Britain and the US. Further, Dutch is not identical with Flemish, the variant spoken in Belgium just an hour to the south. When we read in Antwerp, Jan Lauwereyns gave a short performance of the opening of my poem Sunset Debris in what he characterized as Antwerpen, the dialect specific to his home town. If Dutch, with 28 million speakers worldwide, seems infinitely divisible, what is one to make of English, or of any of the many world languages that have only minority or regional status, languages without armies?

One of these present at the conference was Malayalam, the regional language of the state of Kerala in India, which K. Satchidanandan uses. Another is Pato’s Galician, the majority tongue in her province in the northwest of Spain, deriving not from Spanish but from Old Portuguese. More people read and speak Malayalam than do Dutch, by about five million, but only three million people read & speak Galician, two-thirds in that single province. Tho they are very different poets, I think it is unquestionable that Pato & Satchidanandan are two of the best writers of our time – that their work should largely be confined to linguistic communities so much smaller than that available to any MFA student in the USA is one of those situations that reminds you precisely of what the differences are between the imperial center of the global world system and that of any of its peripheries. Pato has had the good fortune to have four of her books translated into English by Erín Moure and more of Satchidanandan’s work is available in English because English is one of the languages of India – and a history to that as well. But if there are any courses available in contemporary Galician or Malayalam poetics in the US, I have yet to hear of them.³

Traveling with Pato & Lauwereyns to Antwerp on Thursday, Chus speaking to me in Spanish, and to Jan in French, I had the feeling that in the same city or country, the three of us would be fast friends & great comrades. Our aesthetics have many things in common, the sense that language is not “native” or “natural” being one of them. As a neurologist at a Japanese university, Lauwereyns has his own complicated relationship to languages – his scientific work is distinctly English, for example. But his sense of nation may be very different from that of Pato, who comes from a land that has been separate, linguistically & politically, since the days of the Suebi and the Visigoths, distinct from Portugal, distinct from the other regions of Spain. The US “solved” these questions by simply murdering the people who lived throughout North America when “we” arrived, and by waging one of the bloodiest civil wars ever to keep it that way. Corporate and individual mobility continue to mute regional identities in the US.

Walking back from a boat tour of the Rotterdam harbor, Tomaž Šalamun tried to figure out if his surname and my own might not have a common root somewhere, possibly as variants of Suleiman. The Sillimandi, however, lived in northern Italy until they were invited out at the wrong end of torches for their failure to adhere to Catholicism in the 14th century. They may have been Waldensians. It was the sons of Jean-Jacques Sillimand, by then an old Swiss name, who dropped the new terminal “d” before they came to America in the early 1600s. And it wasn’t until 1891 when my paternal grandfather, Ambrose McMahon, was adopted in Minneapolis and outfitted with a new name, Emerald Ambrose Silliman, in the process. Tomaž’ heritage is no less complicated (not to mention the history of Slovenia & its predecessor states). We were so absorbed in the conversation that we never realized that everybody else had taken a different route back to the theater.

Language is inescapable from the barnacles of history – race, religion, literature hardly any less so. An Israeli translator asked me if I’d be interested in coming to her country to read. Najwan Darwish patiently explained the importance of the ongoing boycott of Israel. Umar Timol writes in French, the literary (but not the legal) language of Mauritius. Nor is it the creole of everyday life on that island nation, some of whose residents were displaced from Diego Garcia in the 1960s & ‘70s in much the same way as Palestinian residents were in the 1940s or indigenous tribal peoples from their homes in the US in the 18th & 19th centuries. Mauritius didn’t even have residents when the Sillimandi were being expelled from Lucca – the Mauritius coat of arms includes the dodo bird that was resident there when Dutch and other colonists first settled in.

One might argue that the universalizing aspect of celebrating poetry across linguistic & national borders might represent a sentimentalizing abdication of the political if only the poets themselves were not so painfully conscious of how these divisions & usurpations make us who we are today. At the same time the compression of the planet by means of the internet, to cite just one example, is hardly language neutral. If European poets roll their eyes at the Who’s Your Dada aspects of contemporary conceptual poetry in the US, it’s worth keeping in mind that poets in sub-Saharan Africa may well be worrying about the implications of flarf. The composition of deliberately bad verse implies a confidence toward the language & its attendant social structures that can only occur within a particular political context, one that is not shared universally. Dmitri Prigov demonstrated that conceptualism can be both political & oppositional, but it’s worth noting that he did this from the center of the Soviet empire – house of cards that it might have been – not from Central Asia, Cuba or Central America.

Educating oneself about the poetry of other societies is one thing. Translation is another, but not all translations are equal. There is still that tendency in American letters that takes translation to be a step in the refinement of sensibilities, exactly the colonial tradition that has had dire consequences for centuries. And translating from what to what matters – Erín Moure translating from Galician is very different from yet another version of Bonnefoy or Brodsky or Rumi.


¹ The 20th participating poet, Dolores Dorantes, who is seeking asylum in the US after receiving totally believable death threats in her native Mexico, was not permitted to travel overseas by the US immigration authorities.

² Her first husband had been killed in Russia.

³ You bet that is an invitation to be educated otherwise!