The past few months I’ve been reading and re-reading the little chapbook His Days Go By the Way Her Years by the young Taiwanese poet and filmmaker Ye Mimi – and translated beautifully by Steve Bradbury and published beautifully by Anomalous Press.
A few months ago, after she came back from the Hong Kong poetry festival, Aase Berg wrote to me that she had come across an amazing poet: Ye Mimi. (Apparently YM appeared with a very impressive guitar player as well.)
That is funny because when I first read Ye Mimi what came to my mind was a somewhat controversial article Aase wrote in Expressen after Tomas Tranströmer won the Nobel Prize the other year:
I have already begun to view Tranströmer’s poetry – purely internally, in my brain – as kitsch. That makes it easier for me to communicate with it because I see kitsch as something generative: banality and surprising intelligence in unexpected union. The idea of Tranströmer’s images as kitschy allows me to associate to other images, instead of getting stuck in an image mysticism which may seem chokingly water-tight.
Ye Mimi’s poems are wonderful in that way: as “banality and surprising intelligence in unexpected union.” In fact they read a little like Tranströmer poems in which the metaphors flip out, go off in tangents. And a Tranströmer poem in which the tenor of the metaphor is not privileged – not over the vehicle, not over the “banal” everyday stuff (pink hoodies, telephone booths etc).
My favorite Tranströmer poem is “To Friends Behind a Border”
To Friends Behind A Border
I wrote so sparsely to you. But what I couldn’t write
swelled and swelled like an old-fashioned zeppelin
and drifted at last through the night sky.
Now the letter is with the censor. He turns on his lamp.
In the glow my words fly up like monkeys on grille
rattle it, become still, and bare their teeth!
Read between the lines. We are going to meet in 200 years
when the microphones in the hotel walls are forgotten
and finally get to sleep, become orthoceras.
Part of what I love about this poem is how lovely and ridiculous his famous metaphors are here: the letters become monkeys (like in a Disney fantasia), the spy-microphones becomes fossils.
This element of goofy-brilliant metaphors are all over Ye Mimi’s work:
but he is bored to pieces and has to have a smoke
a ghost nods off beneath the blackboard tree in a punitive gesture the kittens are made to crouch in tummies
we are mortified at vomiting a layer of sea
the skin of which could not be whiter
(from “And All the Sweat is Left There”)
One big difference is that Ye Mimi’s work is more flippant, following the odd metaphor off in different directions, creating an effect like Exploded Tranströmer.
I’ve meant to write down a few thoughts about Kristen Stewart’s poem published in (or recited for) Marie Clarie Magazine a couple of weeks back and the ensuing controversy. I think this discussion says a lot about taste, mass culture and poetry.
* I don’t know Kristen Stewart’s acting career very well but I saw her in a movie in which she was wonderfully paralyzed in the face. I also know that she was in the vampire movies, Twilight (which later turned into that S&M novel fan fiction).
* It’s interesting to see what kinds of people said what about KS’s poem. Marie Claire and the celebrity, mass culture magazine all seemed to repeat the line that KS herself used to introduce the poem: she said it was “embarrassing.” A celebrity sites seemed to merely repeat that word “embarrassing”. We can take that as a sign of their laziness, sure, but I think it says something else: Poetry – even though it’s supposedly “high culture” is – seen from the point of view of “mass culture” – embarrassing. Always embarrassing.
I think Ravel Galvin’s response to Cal Bedient’s essay “Against Conceptualism” is very thought-provoking. In particular, I am interested in her depiction of “lyric shame” in modern and contemporary poetics:
I’d like to add to Yankelvich’s observation by arguing that casting authorial intent as an “embarrassing indulgence” is symptomatic of the very dynamic that Gillian White identifies inLyric Shame: Producing the “Lyric” Subject of Contemporary American Poetry. This embarrassment congregates around poems seen as offering abstracted, “personal” expression—particularly Romantic, Confessional, and “mainstream” poetry—belonging to what is assumed to be the transhistorical genre of lyric poetry. From the twentieth century onward, such poems have been criticized by scholars, critics, publishers, and writers for their “expressivity,” which is understood as narcissistic and often politically conservative. White tracks how being associated with lyric poetry has become a source of shame in many literary circles. It is disparaged for being monological and oppressive, for relying on a lyric first-person speaker (a coherent “I”) to guide the reader and articulate the perspective of her single subjectivity, or for offering closure. The lyric poem is accused of being so directive as to put the “author” back into “authoritarian.” White argues, however, that such lyric poetry doesn’t actually exist as a form or a genre, but rather is called into being through reading practices. She persuasively explains that the dynamics of shame, and lyric-expressive reading (nineteenth-century constructions of lyric codified as reading methods by twentieth-century critics), have combined to denigrate some poetry as “retrograde, politically conservative, self-indulgent.”
While affect studies have become fashionable across several disciplines (anthropology, psychology, literary theory), “lyric shame” has continued to thrive, and Goldsmith has brought Conceptual poetry to the White House and to The Colbert Report. At the same time, in academia, the question of whether the lyric may be considered a transhistorical genre is producing influential reflections (such as in the work of Virginia Jackson, Yopie Prins, Jonathan Culler, Meredith Martin, White). The entry for “lyric” in the new Princeton Encyclopedia of Poetry and Poetics, written by Jackson, specifies thatsince the eighteenth century, “brevity, subjectivity, passion, and sensuality” have been associated with lyric poetry, but that “lyric” has not always named the same thing throughout history. She writes, “The story of the lyric charts the history of poetics.” The current conversation about conceptualism is part of this larger-scale history of poetics. It has struck a nerve with poets and critics alike, because we are at a moment of category fracture, when it is clear that the old terms won’t do, but we don’t have any new terms yet. Where are we to go after Hegel’s assertion that lyric poetry expresses personal feeling, and John Stuart Mill’s idea that poetry is an utterance overheard? And should poets also be activists? Commentators? Outsiders? Visionaries? Media mavens or PR wizards?
Today’s conceptualism debate is not really about constraint or procedure and their relative merits for writing poems, although that is the way Bedient’s piece leans. It is about the fraught notion of the lyric, the “lyric I,” and the possibility of emotional sincerity in art. It is predicated on polemical distinctions between sources of poetry (rational and planned, or “method” poetries versusirrational and “inspired” poetries), which all derive from a metaphysics of origin. Today’s debate once more asks the fundamental, mystifying questions, Where does poetry come from? How is it made?
We have four new books from Action Books for sale now at www.actionbooks.org: Wet Land by Lucas de Lima, Sorrowtoothpaste Mirrorcream by Kim Hyesoon, Rain of the Future by Valerie Mejer and Only Jesus Could Icefish in Summer by Abe Smith:
“Lucas de Lima’s stunning book affected me so profoundly at all the stages of reading it, encountering it—before it was a book and afterwards, when it was. In the work of this extraordinary writer, the fragment is not an activity of form. It’s an activity of evisceration.”
- Bhanu Kapil
Sorrowtoothpaste Mirrorcream by Kim Hyesoon (trans. Don Mee Choi):
“Her poems are not ironic. They are direct, deliberately grotesque, theatrical, unsettling, excessive, visceral and somatic. This is feminist surrealism loaded with shifting, playful linguistics that both defile and defy traditional roles for women.”
- Pam Brown
Rain of the Future by Valerie Mejer (various translators):
“Valerie Mejer keeps writing poems that, in their disconsolate perplexity, disclose a sweeping prospect in which biography, landscape, memory and dream erase their respective margins, making clear to us that what we come to call existence is simply a modality in which we claim our right to weakness, defeat, hemorrhage, because only through radical vulnerably can the urgency of love arise.”
- Raúl Zurita
“Abraham Smith carries greatness like a splinter in the lining of the heart. He carries it like a poison drunk up in infancy, a bone shard that traveled from a smashed rib or a flint of exploitation that was planted there by a bad friend or a wasted economic system. Yet music pours from Smith like blood, cheap wine, car-radio and bird song. Abe is an ecstatic, standing outside himself and singing to himself, the whole pulling-apart yet encapsulated pageant of Keats’ Nightingale played out in the person of one poet.”
- Joyelle McSweeney
“Things brought together by violent chance/ that could be stitched-up with a word” astutely describes the latest from Mexico City–born Mejer. In this collection of translations edited by Wright, reality and dream are carefully stitched to form a different fabric of sense: “I have a chest broken as a broken bone/ I have a home broken as a broken hand/ I have a bird broken as a broken chest/ I have a girl broken like a broken pencil// And no one gives me assurances because no one can.” These dreamscapes, infused with nightmare throughout the book’s four sections, subvert symbol and sign to reestablish new meaning—some in tight lyrics (“Today the roofs wear water./ Tomorrow I will have died:/ This is the rain of the future,/ humidity that returns to the country of eyes”), others in short prose (“But a nightmare is a single mare in the night or the night turned mare. Here they breed and a giant trembles in all of his leaves. The next day was as tall. The next day was like a son, even taller”). Andre Breton famously wrote “Beauty will be convulsive or will not be at all”—Mejer convulses steady as a beating heart. (Feb.)
As most readers of this blog know, one of my pet peeves about contemporary poetry discussions is the “too much argument”: some critic or poet (usually with a strong reputation that allows him or her to address the rest of poetry from an elevated position) denounces contemporary poetry for being “too much.” We have heard this critique from Kenny Goldsmith and Marjorie Perloff, but also from Tony Hoagland and countless conservative types.
As Joyelle described it in her reframing of this debate, “The “Future” of “American” Poetry:
“Too many books are being written, too many books are being published by ‘inconsequential’ presses, there’s no way to know what to read anymore, people are publishing too young, it’s immature, it’s unmemorable, the Internet is run amok with bad writing and half formed opinions, there’s no way to get a comprehensive picture”. Exactly. You just have to wade through the plague ground of the present, give up and lie down in it, as the floodwaters rise from the reversed drains, sewage-riven, bearing tissue and garbage, the present tense resembles you in all its spumey and spectacolor 3-D.”
Right now I’m reading Jacques Ranciere’s wonderful book The Emancipated Spectator, in which he takes issue with the idea – very prevalent in American poetry and leftism – of people “passive” spectators in a society of the spectacle, the idea that they have to be made active, that the images have to be overcome.
In one section he gives a kind of historical background to this kind of thinking, a background that links the “too much” criticism to the “society of spectacle” rhetoric, and links them both to a very old-fashioned form of elitism. He find the root of both of these rhetorical tropes in the second half of the 19th century – with science’s discovery that the brain worked by nervous stiumuli, not through a soul, and also with the simultaneous proliferation of mass produced images.
Notice how the criticism Ranciere calls attention to seems to be almost the same as the one heard in today’s poetry discussions:
“It was in this context that a rumour began to be heard: too many stimuli have been unleashed on all sides; too many thoughts and images are invading brains that have not been prepared for mastering this abundance; too many images of possible pleasures are held out to the sight of the poor in big towns; (continue reading…)
I just wrote this on my facebook update:
Seems like a lot of issues of translation has come up recently: Don Mee Choi’s not that she – the translator – wasn’t mentioned in the review of Kim Hyesoon’s All the Garbage; the Lucas Klein post I linked to below; C. Dale Young discussion about the claim that American writers are insular and don’t read work in translation (judging from the commentary to that link, they’re not only not reading works in translation but also totally unwilling to have a discussion about them not reading things in translation); and Coldfront Magazine’s “top 40 poetry books of 2014″ which didn’t include a *single* work in translation (there’s no ethical responsibility to read works in translation, but lets think about what it means that you think all 40 best books of 2013 were by Americans!). I guess I’ll have to write something about this… Just when I thought Lawrence Venuti was outdated…
Where to go from there? I’ve been writing about translation so long now that I don’t even know what to say anymore… To begin with, I don’t think all Americans want to ignore things in translation. America has a really rich history of engaging with works in translation (Pound etc). As I noted in this post I wrote for the Poetry Foundation, there is quite a bit of interest in translation, but it’s mostly in the small-press universe. Kim Hyesoon’s All the Garbage of the World Unite! (in Don Mee’s translation!) has received an incredibly amount of positive feedback. Overall, the two Kim Hyesoon books have probably received some 20 substantial write-ups and her work is not being translated into a whole bunch of languages. So not all people hate works in translation…
So who does hate translation? (continue reading…)
Like a mad scientist throwing together unexpected chemicals, Göransson delights in coupling divergent concepts, seeing which combinations smoke, sizzle, or explode. Just a few examples: “luxuriant pupils,” a “soundproof pose,” a “molested parade,” a “garbled hand,” “authenticity kitsch.” Entrance is an experiment in syntax; synesthesia is the rule rather than the exception. Its characters speak in simple thoughts and grammar, like children: “I had trouble eating the food”; “Foreign bodies must be studied”; “I cannot do the Twist”; “Passengers cannot be trusted”; “I am not here”; “We want to teach him how to speak.” The relentless subject-verb-subject-verb progressions make the book a simultaneously difficult and easy read. Beneath the words there is an undulating rhythm, at first comforting, then unnerving, then both simultaneously. Layered over familiar syntax, startling images are made more startling still.
It’s not only these pattern-shattering juxtapositions and relentless syntax that create this effect of strangeness. It’s also the way the trite phrasing, basic grammar, and clichés come down with a clank against the backdrop of linguistic madness. As Göransson’s characters soliloquize on their diseases and infestations, they forefront the diseased and infested nature of the clichés and banality that infects all communication. Tried-and-maybe-not-so-true combinations like “barely legal,” “murderous instinct,” and “kiss and tell” suddenly ring false against other, less customary language. The contrast between the unfamiliar and the familiar exposes the familiar in the unfamiliar and vice versa. Göransson asks: Where do we get our lines, the words that go into our ears and come out of our mouths? And to what degree do they get us?
- See more at: http://makemag.com/review-entrance-to-a-colonial-pageant/#sthash.45RalGhu.vJBJSRLR.dpuf
Stephen Crane is one of my all time favorite poets. He’s better known as a journalist (he’s said to have written Black Riders and Other Lines on little scraps while out reporting) and a prose writer, the naturalist author of Maggie: A Girl of the Street and Red Badge of Courage (the poems might suggest some interesting revision of Realism). But for me the poem are very evocative – at times his free verse seems so lazy that they’re about to fall apart (and this is also part of their amazing radicalness when you consider that they first poems were published in 1895); they are “lines” according to Crane, barely even poems. They are little parables or allegories. In many ways they remind me of Henry Parland’s poems from thirty years later and across the Atlantic (I suspect the connection is French poetry).
According to one legend, Crane was inspired to write them by hearing William Dean Howells read Emily Dickinson’s poetry. And there’s definitely something to that story, but Crane’s poems are quite distinct from Dickinson, they never seem loaded but instead on the verge of collapse.(Thomas Wentworth Higginson, Dickinson’s editor, wrote a negative review of the Black Riders when it was first published, claiming it was mere “novelty” and, stunted, would never grow into real poetry.).
One more thing: I went to a talk about Crane’s articles attacking the treatment of Native Americans, and his descriptions of the genocide of Native Americans, and one thing that struck me was how a lot of the same words and phrases re-occur in the poems. So whether or not this is true (probably no) or some fancy daydream on my part, I see the poems as kind of “cut-outs” or erasures of polemics against genocide.
Here are some poems from Black Riders and Other Lines:
In the desert
I saw a creature, naked, bestial,
who, squatting upon the ground,
Held his heart in his hands,
And ate of it.
I said, “Is it good, friend?”
“It is bitter bitter,” he answered;
“But I like it
Because it is bitter,
And because it is my heart.”
Yes, I have a thousand tongues,
And nine and ninety-nine lie.
Though I strive to use the one,
It will make no melody at my will,
But is dead in my mouth.
Once there came a man
“Range me all men of the world in rows.”
There was terrific clamour among the people
Against being ranged in rows.
There was a loud quarrel, world-wide.
It endured for ages;
And blood was shed
By those who would not stand in rows,
And by those who pined to stand in rows.
Eventually, the man went to death, weeping.
And those who staid in bloody scuffle
Knew not the great simplicity.
I stood upon a high place,
And saw, below, many devils
and carousing in sin.
One looked up, grinning,
And said, “Comrade! Brother!”
A god in wrath
Was beating a man;
He cuffed him loudly
With thunderous blows
That rang and rolled over the earth.
All people came running.
The man screamed and struggled,
And bit madly at the feet of the god.
The people cried,
“Ah, what a wicked man!”
And “Ah, what a redoubtable god!”
Many red devils ran from my heart
And out upon the page,
They were so tiny
The pen could mash them.
And many struggled in the ink.
It was strange
To write in this red muck
Of things from my heart.
“It was wrong to do this,” said the angel.
“You should live like a flower,
Holding malice like a puppy,
Waging war like a lambkin.”
“Not so,” quoth the man
Who had no fear of spirits;
“It is only wrong for angels
Who can live like the flowers,
Holding malice like the puppies,
Waging war like the lambkins.”
As friends and colleagues of the poets and activists Fateme Ekhtesari and Mehdi Moosavi, we want to call your attention to the fact that they have been missing from their homes in Iran since December 7. On Christmas Eve it was confirmed that they are in the infamous Evin Prison in Teheran.
During 2013, Fateme Ekhtesari, born 1986, has been part of the literary exchange, Resistance At My Writing Desk, through which six poets from Iran and six poets from Sweden together translated the Persian poets’ work to Swedish. The collaboration culminated in a special issue of the journal Kritiker devoted to contemporary Persian poetry, as well as appearances by the Persian poets at the poetry festivals in Stockholm and Göteborg this past September. Upon returning to Iran, Fateme was arrested and interrogated for hours. Her Facebook account was hacked and her blog was shut down.
On December 6, Fateme was supposed to travel to Turkey with her writing teacher, the poet and activist Mehdi Moosavi, born 1976. At the airport they were both informed that they had been placed under travel bans and were instead summoned to an interrogation. They chose not to appear at the interrogation, but within a few hours they had disappeared. Since then, nobody has heard from them. On Christmas Even, sources from the Evin Prison confirmed that they were there.
We hope you will use whatever channels and forums you have access to in order to spread the word about the situation of these poets. The families of Fateme and Mehdi are trying to call attention to their situation. Please contact administrators to spread the news. Share the information about the event in every possible way.