Interview on Poetry as Transformation up at Menacing Hedge

Menacing Hedge features mini-interviews with Women Write Resistance poets Kathleen Aguero, Elliott batTzedek, Ann Bracken, Maria Luisa Arroyo and their WWR poems.

“If at the end of a poem you are who you were when you started the poem you have not dared to dwell in poetry nor dared to let poetry dwell in you.” – Elliott batTzedek


On Translating “Bluetooth” from an essay by Art Beck

Want to understand the mysteries of translating cultural idioms? A friend sent me this wonderful essay from the journal Rattle, “The Deep Pulse of Idiom.” Go mark the page and read the whole thing when you have time, but for now read about how some future translator will try to deal with the image of Bluetooth device in a 21st Century Poem:

IV: King Harald’s Blue Tooth

In our world everything is accelerated, and the blurring process can happen quickly. Most everyone knows—at least in passing—what “Bluetooth” does. It allows wireless connection of various electronic devices.

As a bit of background, the electronic protocol was negotiated by a consortium of major manufacturers to enable any Bluetooth device to “talk to” any other without regard to different individual software or competitive formats.
But why the name Bluetooth? Because the consortium of competitors named it after the tenth-century Danish King Harald Bluetooth, who “united warring factions.” Even knowing this, who thinks of King Harald when they use a Bluetooth device? Not even the most nerdish among us, I’d guess.

In the nature of things, Bluetooth, like VHS and Beta will, sooner probably than later, pass into the graveyard of old technology. But let’s say that before that happens, one of us became inspired to use Bluetooth in a poem. Maybe a love poem entitled, say, “Electricity”:

… our fingers didn’t need to touch,
when we glanced, our eyelashes were already entangled.
Your whisper was Bluetooth tickling my tongue.

Well, I pulled those lines out of my butt, but say they were better and that something came of the poem, that it got good enough to be anthologized, and some fifty or a hundred years from now someone wanted to translate it into German or Chinese. Let’s say five hundred years from now, long after the minutiae of today’s high tech is as obscure as the highly engineered parts of ancient racing chariots. Think what fun a 26th century translator might have with “Bluetooth.”

Think how impossible it would be for someone in another culture and separated by five hundred years to get it right. In the context of accelerating change, the average educated reader knows more about the minutiae of the Classical world than the seventeenth or eighteenth century, mainly because up until that time our ancestors had longer cultural memories and wrote all this stuff down. If change keeps accelerating, how could someone five hundred years from now hope to research a technology that probably will last less than ten years?

So think how many ways there might be in 2610 to get the Bluetooth whisper wrong. Was Bluetooth a drink? Obviously. Some sort of vodka, no doubt. No, a type of oyster, ergo a late twentieth century euphemism for a forbidden sexual practice.

An intuitive poet-translator might simply finally choose to ignore “Bluetooth” and, taking a cue from the title, emend the line to “your whisper was electricity tickling my tongue.”

In fact, saying that, I’m thinking that “Bluetooth” might make a better title for the poem than “Electricity,” and electricity is better than Bluetooth in the line. But then translators could argue about the title. Is “Bluetooth” a woman’s name, perchance? A disease? Some sort of dental tattoo?

But what if, five hundred years from now, a translator did stumble on not only the definition but the etymology of Bluetooth? And what if that translator decided to utilize the image implicit in Bluetooth: King Harald uniting the warring factions.

Then, we’d have something like: “your whisper was a truce tickling my tongue.” On the one hand, maybe a more interesting, more complex poem—and a better poem? But if so, isn’t the translator mining something that wasn’t really there? Adding an embellishment that wouldn’t have occurred to any twentieth century reader.

But why not, if it adds to the 25th century translation? If it produces a real poem that resonates with 25th century readers, what harm’s done to the long since worm-eaten original poet? To the competitors who coined the word, Bluetooth was, above all, a productive detente. A format that avoided expensive, needless product wars. To its users, Bluetooth, with its strange alliterative name, evokes a sort of magic, an electronic ESP. A glowing tooth of sorts. Cool electricity. But these are the kind of resonances that will be hopelessly lost five hundred years from now. If the hypothetical Bluetooth poem is somehow resurrected in that hypothetical future, other—as yet unimagined—resonances will have to replace them.

NaPoMo 2013 – my opening salvo – On poetry and transformation

I have a deadline to meet later this week, 500-700 words on “why poetry is transformative.” Here’s my start:

On Poetry and Transformation

Words don’t flow from meaning—meaning flows from words. Shift a syllable here or there, free a phoneme, dare to let the music choose its own lyrics, and what you know and what you feel veer out of the orderly lines and dart across the border beyond which There Be Dragons.

And honest poetry is the language of dragons translated into human tongues, or how human tongues speak Dragon.

Or maybe poetry is the place where I get to be a dragon.

Or poetry is what my Dragon-self and I create together, turning words into fire and flight.

As a poet, I try to turn experiences and emotions that exist outside of language into songs my people can sing. Like how I started this small essay a few inches above this line, determined to be smart and profound and deep, to craft carefully each syllable, until lines led to across led to border led to beyond which led (through a childhood soaked in fantasies of escape) to Dragons and now here I am, no longer a poet but a vast leather-winged beast with a voice that shatters stone walls and breath that burns walled cities to ash.

There is in every poet such as beast as mine—my Dragon-self, nostrils flaring, smells friend worth dying for or foe worth the fight. Most I think sport wings and armor or claws large as tree roots or eight sets of legs to dance an army off a cliff.

And for all of us poetry is our compromise between destroying the world and loving it. Or is the power of destruction transformed into love. Or love translated into the power to destroy.

A poem that is only what it seems to be is not poetry. Nothing is poetry until you catch a scent that makes you shiver, until what your brain reads and what your body knows diverge, until you catch out of the corner of your eye a shadow that strikes the nerve that knows you might yet be prey.

If at the end of a poem you are who you were when you started the poem you have not dared to dwell in poetry, nor dared to let poetry dwell in you.

understanding my connection to Shez’s poetry

As I’ve been doing final (for now) edits on my translations of Shez’s poems, I keep feeling a kind of haunting—some of her words could be my own; I could definitely interweave the translations and my poems into a single, unified text. Sometimes I even dream about having my work translated into Hebrew and then doing a combined work in both languages, of letting our voices flow together like that.

The project, after all, is definitely the same—to replace the silence of the terrified girl with words that are strong, forceful, even violent enough to break the choke hold that sexual terrorism imposed on her. Which is why, even as I struggle with most of the subtleties of her Hebrew, I understand the poems, feel them deeply inside of myself, and know how to give them new voice in English.

With this always in my thoughts these days, I started reading Edith Grossman’s why translation matters, and came upon this quotation from a letter William Carlos Williams wrote to Nicolas Calas:

If I do original work all well and good. But if I can say it (the matter of form I mean) by translating the work of others that also is valuable. What difference does it make?

There is a silence that must be ended. At the end of my long sequence of poems called “Wanting a Gun” I declare: “I am writing, writing, writing.” In a poem addressed to her father, Shez declares, “You will not erase me off the page.”

The difference that is made is that now I know Shez. And soon all of you can know her, too. And hey, my hard work has made that difference. Rare enough that I let myself celebrate my own work, but today, after a couple of weeks of being trapped in some dank and musty emotional cave, I’m feeling celebratory.

on Adrienne

from Hugh MacDiarmid’s manifesto “The Kind of Poetry I Want,” quoted by Adrienne in her speech/essay “Poetry and Commitment.”

A poetry the quality of which
Is a stand made against intellectual apathy,
Its material founded, like Gray’s, on difficult knowledge
And its metres those of a poet
Who has studied Pindar and Welsh poetry,
But, more than that, its words coming from a mind
Which has experienced the sifted layers on layers
Of human lives—aware of the innumerable dead
And the innumerable to-be-born…

A speech, a poetry, to bring to bear upon life
The concentrated strength of all our being…

Poetry of such an integration as cannot be effected
Until a new and conscious organization of society
Generates a new view
Of the world as a whole…

—A learned poetry wholly free
of the brutal love of ignorance;
And the poetry of a poet with no use
For any of the simpler forms of personal success

Poets on Poets

Vladimir Khodasevich writing about Marina Tsvetaeva:

Poets are not born in a country. Poets are born in childhood.
What, then, is Russian about Marina Tsvetaeva?

Tsvetaeva understood audial and linguistic work that play such an enormous role in folk song. Folk song is for the most part a litany, joyful or grieving. There is an element of lamentation, an element of tongue-twister and pun, there are echoes of spell, incantation, even exorcism in a folk song—there is a pure play of sounds—it is always partly hysterical, near the fall into tears or laughter, and partly zaum (refers to the pure play of language, “beyonsense” ).

Novels vs. Poems

more from Sarah Maquire’s essay “‘Singing About the Dark Times’: Poetry and Conflict”, this time on the difference between the novel and poetry:

But it is only in the past three hundred years, initially in Europe and then later in its colonies, that prose, specifically in the form of the novel, has taken over from poetry as the dominant language-based art form – though we should bear in mind that, for most of the habitable world, poetry continues to retain its primary status.

The ‘rise of the novel’, as the literary critic, Ian Watt, called his ground-breaking book of that name, is congruent with the rise of capitalism, with the development of individualism, personal life, privacy, the Protestant notion of conscience – all the things that we now think make us who we are. It is the novel’s job to articulate and instruct us in those values. It is through novels that we learn how to be ourselves, how to find our place in the infinite complexities of the world around us.

One of the reasons, I think, that poetry provokes such anxiety in contemporary western society is that it resists fulfilling that role of instruction upon which the edifice of the novel rests. As Plato recognised, real poetry unsettles us, it stirs our emotions. Adrienne Rich once called poetry ‘a wick of desire’: ‘It reminds you’ she said, ‘where and when and how you are living and might live'[34]. And in all this, it is something about the form of poetry that is so provocative.

Thank you, Mr. Barnstone

When, among a group of translation students, I got to have a long and winding conversation with Willis Barnstone, he said many many smart (as in genius-level) things about translating. One of those has become not only my favorite, but my guiding mantra for poetry:

When it seems impossible, try a little harder and it will be easy

Tonight, working on a chapbook manuscript that was utterly flat and awkward, I tried that little bit harder, opened my mind a little farther, and, sure enough, it got easy.

Nu – if that advice worked for him translating the New Testament and Sappho and the Gnostic gospels and Greek and Chinese and Spanish and who knows how many other languages, how could it not work for me?

April 1st – On the difference between a good poem and a great poem

(fess up time – I’ve been working on various drafts of this for a while now, but it finally solidified in re-visions this week, so I’m counting it as my first poem of the month)

(2nd fess up – it may actually be prose. or a lyric essay. or a prose poem. it feels like poetry, and that’s good enough for me.)

On the difference between a good poem and a great poem
Elliott batTzedek

A line, like the tightrope between the twin towers, the one with the Frenchman all mania and magic—the line between a poem that’s good and a poem that’s great.

Words teeter along the balancing point, the tipping point, the moment the puppet becomes a real boy, the moment form’s armor becomes living skin you find you must reach to touch, the clay at the moment it lumbers off golem, immense forehead branded with the single perfect letter that bestows a soul,

the moment a soul is bestowed upon words.

A soul you can almost measure in its depth and heft and opacity and there is a solid pleasure to be able to take the measure of a good poem, but then other times you find yourself inside a soul looking back out at yourself at your world and that is a great shock.

A great shock, too, to be driven over words so sharp that reading across them makes eyes bleed.

Great is not a question of good and then a little more so. Good poems raise and answer questions, as image or metaphor or objective correlative, but to raise a question and leave it hanging, knotted into a noose of words that makes you both hangman and hanged, to refuse questions that beg answers that beg for a question, to give the truth but not what it means, to have a how so urgent that the why is unnecessary,

to have these is to have words that justify the brain having ever evolved language.

Highly quotable lines, lines that make sense of the world, that get cited and copied and sent as email signature lines—hallmarks each and all of solid poetic goodness. Quotable lines, so much prettier than the pale quivering jelly that is a line from a great poem ripped from its shell.

Show, don’t tell, what any poem does to be good. But every rule can be shredded over the greater of poems that tell exactly whatever the hell they need to tell and show only the how of the why of the needing.

The poetic line, the sharpened distinction between a careful architecture rising toward the sky and the sky birthing from itself its self.

Making a Manuscript—Structuring Intuition

Inspired by Michelle Ovalle’s description of her process, a few notes on my own, up to this point. I’ve no idea where the manuscript as it exists will go as I revise over the next few months, but at least I feel now there is something there, some key structural element.

When I started last August, I pulled together way too much of everything and let it overwhelm me. I started making piles, which wasn’t helping. Then, on my friend Kim’s suggestion, I bought and read Ordering the Storm: How to Put Together a Book of Poems, edited by Susan Grimm. That gave me a great swirl of ideas, including these few favorites:

I think all good books of poems must have drama-something at stake, a larger meaning, and the feeling that the book, while perhaps composed of smaller stories, is at the same time telling a larger, overarching story. (Liz Rosenberg)

The most important thing is not “imposing” an order, but discovering the relationship between the poems and letting that suggest an order (Beckian Fritz Goldberg)

Reading a good book of poems is like traveling unknown terrain at night, glimpsing in each lightning bolt a swatch of vastness (Philip Brady)

So I gathered all this stuff and thought hard about categories. Last spring I’d helped poet Dane Kuttler arrange her manuscript, which coalesced around Hillel’s three questions. Remembering that, I found my four categories—earth, water, fire, air. The working title was then “Earth My Body” from a pagan/wiccan/Peace Camp chant. Those categories gave a clear way to organize most of the poems, but then a subset didn’t work so I invented a floating fifth category of poems about loss.

But that was first draft. With a strong push from my mentor, I abandoned, for now, the poems in earth (about coal mining) and water (about rivers, oceans, the disaster in the Gulf) and started again on the remaining work. New themes arose: loss, sex, desire, surviving sexual abuse, a sequence that combined surviving sexual abuse with past lives and desire and drowning. I was writing new poems, too, in part because there were clearly holes in what the bigger story was telling and in part because the poems were pushing themselves out of me.

I knew I wanted sections in the manuscript because the poems were distinct and because, as a creator of ritual, I wanted to build an emotional arc that made sense to me. But I also knew I didn’t want something too direct, too obvious. I’d been reading such astounding poets, especially poets whose books had some kind of conscious narrative far beyond being a “collection,” and I wanted my own work to feel anything remotely like how these books made me feel. At some point in November I had the PERFECT arrangement, based on how Toi Derricotte, in her collection Tender, created sections that were not meant to be read in order but to exist as spokes in a wheel around a central poem. In a fury of work and insight I pushed my poems into shape around the concept of a labyrinth, with sections representing the four quadrants and a section representing the center. I arranged the table of contents so the sections were not in numerical page order, to push the idea that the poems were meant to talk back and forth to each other, the way that, when walking a labyrinth, you move from side to side, close to far, winding around in no straight way to the middle.

“Perfect!” I thought.

Until the next day, when my Beloved pointed out that the whole concept of “labyrinth” was imposed order unconnected to my poems in any way and that a labyrinth has an extremely clear, directed path—one does not wander, but moves along a determined trail. Shit. Back to the drawing board.

But from that idea I did pull vital elements of my final form, mainly a sense of repetition, mirroring, circling back. I realized I could build the sense of ideas, lines, images in conversation with each other by how I structured and titled the work, so suddenly three different poems had the same title and opening line, two other poems also shared a title and opening image, and the title of one poem was the title of a different section. From my friend Carol Burbank I received a structural idea for how to encapsulate a complex idea in a simple structure, and let this also recur throughout the collection to pull the poems together.

And so to enter into my body was created. It’s not nearly settled. Poems are being edited and more will be written and some removed. The final two sections might be switched. A section that is a single long poem called “Headwaters” (a very very unfinished long poem) might be cut completely, for the poem is so rough and also maybe unnecessary; it was part of a vital conversation in my head about the connection between the survivor poems and the sex poems, but the manuscript might not need that philosophical argument at all. The poems themselves, flashes of lightning, will make the connections they make without my trying to force narrative or explanation on them, and I should shut up and let them do so.

And while I read several essays cautioning against having a title poem that stands alone before the first section, for it becomes so fraught with meaning and significance and if not perfect can scare off judges and editors, I have exactly such a poem, one that, for me, speaks to all the themes but also stands on its own. And because the final poem of the last section summed up only that section but not the book, I also added a closing poem. Someone I read this fall had the same poem at beginning and the end, which was perfect because the poem now meant something completely different after the journey through the book, and I loved that idea, but couldn’t pull it off with anything I’d written. So I added something I’d written last year, a piece more prose than poetry, but that felt like it fit. Readers so far feel like it fits, and that is really the clearest description I have of why it’s there.

Maybe the best advice I have so far, with an MFA manuscript but no book published, is that the process is one of structured intuition, with the latter ruling the former.

Which is why I chose to enter an MFA program and not a Ph.D. Intuition for me does create structure, rather than the other way around, and the rigorous intellectual critical analysis I was pushed to do during that ugly year in UCIrvine’s PhD in critical theory felt too much like shooting, gutting, and draining poems of all their blood instead of entering them, grateful for the invitation into their world.