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Kathleen Heil
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Gustavo Barrera Calderón. Dear Readers, As many of us process the results of the 2016 U.S. presidential election with anger and sadness, I hope that Gustavo Barrera Calderón's words might be a small source of light and strength. When I read his response for the first time yesterday, I was deeply moved and heartened by the grace and fortitude of this man who spent his entire childhood living under Augusto Pinochet's military dictatorship. (His poetry is remarkable, too.) The text in Spanish is posted below. Thanks for being with me this week. I wish you well-- Yours, Kathleen ----------- Gustavo Barrera Calderón (Santiago de Chile, 1975) has published eight books of poems, and received fellowship support from the Neruda Foundation, among others. I am currently translating his 2010 verse novel, Cuerpo perforado es una casa [Punctured Body Is a Home], which I first encountered while visiting Santiago in 2014, when I was struck by the direct, unadorned beauty of his poems, the way the seemingly straightforward language of Calderón's lines reveal much deeper emotional, familial, and political complexities. Excerpts from his book in my translation have been published in Issue 13 of SAND, and are forthcoming in the Issue 26 of Two Lines. This week we exchanged emails to discuss identity and the process of generating poetic material. KH: You've mentioned to me before that, while working with Gabriela Mistral's manuscripts in the Biblioteca Nacional de Chile, you came across many letters from the Cuban poet Dulce María Loynaz to Gabriela, which always began with “Cara Poetisa,” “Dear Poetess.” Although the poems in Punctured Body stand on their own, the book reads as a verse novel as well, since the arc of what's recounted is as important as the individual poems. There's also an epistolary quality to the book, written as it is in conversation with Dulce María's Jardín, that lends it an intimate, tender tone, as though the reader were listening in on a private exchange. You even lifted a handful of lines from her book as a way structuring your own. Could you tell us a bit more about how Punctured Body […] grew out of your engagement with Dulce María's voice, and how you arrived at the poetic voice of your book? GBC: As you say, I became familiar with Dulce María’s work thanks to her letters to Gabriela Mistral. I found the formalities and way in which she began her correspondence amusing: ‘Cara poetisa’ is already a dated expression, the word cara having been supplanted by querida or ‘estimada’; and ‘poetisa’—in Chile, at least—fell out of use at the request of female poets in the 1980s, who considered it a pejorative term. They felt that the word ‘poeta,’ ‘poet,’ should apply equally to both men and women, because language—especially in Spanish, which assigns all nouns a gender—is where discrimination and omissions originate (collective plurals in Spanish are all masculine—for example the word ‘children,’ ‘niños,’ refers to both niños and niñas). In my writing, I look to... Continue reading
Posted Nov 11, 2016 at The Best American Poetry
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Gustavo Barrera Calderón (Santiago de Chile, 1975) ha publicado ocho libros de poemas y ha recibido el apoyo de becas de la Fundación Neruda, entre otras. Actualmente traduzco su novela en verso Cuerpo perforado es una casa, que encontré por primera vez durante una visita a Santiago en 2014 y me sacudió por la belleza de su lenguaje directo, sin adornos; por la forma en que el lenguaje aparentemente sencillo de Calderón revela complejidades emocionales, familiares y políticas muy profundas. Extractos de su libro traducidos por mí han sido publicados en el número 13 de SAND, y serán publicados en breve en el Número 26 de Two Lines. Hemos intercambiado mensajes de correo electrónico para discutir los procesos de identidad y la generación de material poético. KH: Me has comentado que, mientras trabajabas con los manuscritos de Gabriela Mistral en la Biblioteca Nacional de Chile, encontraste muchas cartas de la poeta cubana Dulce María Loynaz a Gabriela, y que éstas comenzaban siempre con la frase Cara Poetisa. Aunque los poemas en Cuerpo perforado es una casa funcionan por cuenta propia, el libro se lee a la vez como una novela en verso, ya que la trayectoria de lo que se relata es igual de importante que los poemas en sí. El libro tiene también un timbre epistolario que le da un tono íntimo y tierno, como si la lectora escuchase un intercambio de palabras privadas, dado que el texto dialoga con el Jardín de Dulce María. Tomaste incluso un par de frases de su libro para configurar el tuyo. ¿Podrías hablarnos un poco más sobre cómo Cuerpo Perforado es una casa nació de tu fascinación con la voz de Dulce María, y cómo llegaste a desarrollar la voz lírica de tu libro? GBC: Como bien dices, mi encuentro con la obra de Dulce María ocurrió gracias a las cartas escritas a Gabriela Mistral. Me resultaba gracioso en un comienzo el modo y las formalidades de su correspondencia, Cara poetisa es una expresión ya en desuso, cara, fue reemplazado por querida o estimada, y poetisa, al menos en Chile, se eliminó como término a pedido de las poetas de la década de 1980, que consideraron peyorativo el uso de la palabra poetisa. Consideraban que poeta se debía aplicar tanto a hombres como a mujeres sin distinción, porque el lenguaje, en especial el español, que atribuye género a todos los sustantivos, es donde se origina la discriminación y las omisiones (los términos plurales en español son todos masculinos, por ejemplo al decir los niños, estás queriendo decir los niños y las niñas). En mi escritura recurro a formas neutrales, me interesa que el texto se mantenga en un territorio ambiguo, indeterminado, que admita más de un significado. Eso también me ocurre con los géneros literarios, mi poesía transita hacia lo narrativo y mi prosa es lírica, en muchos textos intervienen personajes que dialogan y hay descripciones de escenas propias del teatro, es algo que podría llamarse transgénero literario. Volviendo a la relación... Continue reading
Posted Nov 11, 2016 at The Best American Poetry
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Martha Graham & Erik Hawkins. Photo: William Eugene Smith Dancing is an affirmation and assertion of our humanity. Here are five poems that translate dance experiences into poetry with verve and ingenuity: Ben Belitt, "Dance Piece": Belitt's poem, an homage to Martha Graham, is an ekphrastic after her 1947 dance "Errand into the Maze," seen here performed by the company in 1990. Belitt writes: "Emblem, the heel’s blow upon space, / Speak of the need and order the dancer’s will. / But the dance is still." In five quatrains with shifting a/b rhyme schemes, he captures the iconic, sculptural quality of Graham's choreography with words that, like Graham's dances, are schematic and chiseled. Rita Dove, "American Smooth": The title poem of Dove's 2004 book embodies the push/pull tension of ballroom dancing, written in short lines as restrained yet sexually charged as the style of dancing she describes; they pull the narrative forward and back around to the stanza's center, two short sentences swinging out and back to stillness at the end. Dove writes: "I didn’t notice / how still you’d become until / we had done it / (for two measures? / four?)—achieved flight, / that swift and serene / magnificence, / before the earth / remembered who we were / and brought us down." James Merrill, "Farewell Performance": This poem is an elegy to Merrill's friend, the writer and critic David Kalstone, but it is equally beautiful for the way in which Merrill weaves the metaphor of performance through the arc of life as for the way it speaks to the human need to be sustained by performance— for we are merely players, hungry for the moment when Art, as he writes, "cures affliction. As lights go down and / Maestro lifts his wand, the unfailing sea change / starts within us. Limber alembics once more / make of the common / Lot a pure, brief gold." Interestingly, Suzanne Farrell, at the time a principal dancer in New York City Ballet, dedicated a performance of Balanchine's Mozartiana (1981) to Kalstone. Babette Deutsch, "Ballet School": Deutsch's pithy poem is a delight for the way it moves through and takes on several different classical ballet archetypes — the swans of Swan Lake, the flitting moth-like Wilis of Giselle, the flowers of The Nutcracker, and Firebird's flame — she writes: "The bare bright mirrors glow / For their enchanted shapes. / Each is a flame, and so, / Like flame, escapes." Deutsch captures the fleet-footed, ephemeral nature of dance training--namely, that it is a practice that takes on, and always runs up against, the inevitable forward-rush of time. Mark Turbyfill, "A Lost Dancer": Turbyfill, a neglected twentieth-century poet, visual artist, and dancer who worked with Katherine Dunham, among others, captures the frustrating moment of 'stuck' that can happen in artistic composition with this poem. What artist, in any medium, doesn't know this feeling? He writes: “Above the profound park / She sees the frozen satellite / Reveal its wrinkled face, / Waits,... Continue reading
Posted Nov 10, 2016 at The Best American Poetry
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Arthur Mitchell. Photo: Columbia University Archives History teaches. America is made great by the spirit and talent of people such as Arthur Mitchell. That spirit perseveres. Marianne Moore's poem "Arthur Mitchell" captures the fine finesse of the dancer's "peacock-tail," seen here in a pas de deux with Allegra Kent from Balanchine's Agon, which City Ballet premiered in 1957. Naturally, the language in a poem paying tribute to a dancer will stem as much from the aesthetic imperatives of the poet herself as it does from those of the dancer, but when it works, it works: and Moore, with few words, succeeds in giving the reader a sense of what it's like to watch Mitchell dance by embodying rather than explaining his confident, elegant way of moving, comparing him to a "dragonfly / too rapid for the eye / to cage." This poem and the others featured here stand on their own as works of art, whether or not one is familiar with the dancers named; still, it's fun to seek out videos of them doing what they do best. Here are four more favorites honoring iconic dancers: Ed Ochester, "Fred Astaire": Ochester's poem translates Astaire's everyman brilliance into language as everyday-sublime as the dancer he describes, who "looked like a bus driver who could dance." And "doesn't Fred look a bit like Carlos Williams, who also talks plain without ornament, just like Astaire when he's singing," just as Ochester does when reading his poem? Charles Olson, "Merce of Egypt": In this propulsive poem about fellow Black Mountain artist Merce Cunningham, "The ankle / is a heron" and Cunningham is as well. He has the same alert, lithe quality, a stop/start way of moving both liquid and staccato. Olson's poem spins out from there: "the ball of my foot / on the neck of the earth, the hardsong / rise of all trees, the jay / who uses the air. I am the recovered sickle / with the grass-stains still on the flint of its teeth." I love, too, that this poem embodies Merce's voice in a figurative sense by speaking each stanza from the 'I.' George Seferis, translated from the Greek by Edmund Keeley and Philip Sherrard, "Nijinski": Frank Bidart's "The War of Nijinsky" may be better known, but Safaris's prose poem, honoring the man who people say was the greatest male dancer of the twentieth century, is a stunning and perfectly distilled two-page arc that captures the dancer's charisma and descent into madness; with ingenuity, Seferis leaves the reader feeling sure she knows something of Nijinsky's essence, while at the same time challenging that certitude: "He held in his hands a large box of red matches which he displayed to me like a conjuror taking an egg out of the nose of the person in the next seat. [...] Though I was witnessing an agonizing struggle, I had the feeling that I was better, that I’d triumphed over something. Before I could draw breath I saw him, fallen full... Continue reading
Posted Nov 9, 2016 at The Best American Poetry
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Warhol & an unidentified breakdancer in his Factory, early 1980s. Photo: Paige Powell The connections between painting and poetry have long been explored—Ut pictura poesis and all that good stuff—yet it seems to me that the closest cousin to poetry is not painting or music but dancing. Utilizing breath, syncopation, and space (as a field through which to carve the articulation of language, whether with words or with the body), dance and poetry move to keep things whole. Zadie Smith gets it; exploring the compositional relationship between writing and dance is a rich but neglected realm. So what I'd like to do this week is investigate and celebrate the possibilities inherent in collapsing the false Cartesian distinction between the writing mind and the dancing body. Part of my interest in collapsing these distinctions lies in the fact that, though I have been both dancing and writing since childhood, the mechanisms by which I create in either context still feel all too compartmentalized in my own body. I don't necessarily feel present in my dancing body when I write, and I am usually trying to get out of my own meta-cognitions when I am composing in a dance space. So, in the past few years, I've been “seeking the feet” in my artistic work, to borrow a phrase from the twentieth-century poet and dancer Mark Turbyfill; I'm trying to get grounded, to let the nervous system, bones and muscle tissue, the head and heart work in concert with each other, to avoid prioritizing the imperatives of one aspect of the creative body over another. Maybe it's a matter of opening ourselves up, of trusting that, in the moment of composition, our faculties will be present in the way we need them to be—that, in seeking the feet, we can become more connected to what's within and without. Naturally, it's also a matter of just showing up to do the work, even when it doesn't work. On Sunday I attended an evening of three instant composition pieces here in Berlin. Two worked, one didn't. The relative success of each piece didn't have anything to do with the movement vocabulary used, it had to do with “being inside time,” as Berlin-based movement researcher Jan Burkhardt says. Of course, failure is as instructive as success, and in watching the two dancers and one musician improvise outside of time, fussily moving about the space in an attempt to be interesting, in the guise of personas removed from their personhood, I began to understand all that had gone wrong with my approach to a novel manuscript I worked on for several years: there we were, performing toward our idea of an idea, end-gaining, imposing rather than composing, our ambitions impeding the possibility of being present. We needed to stop describing what we wanted the moment to look like and embody it instead, to be brave and risk vulnerability, to be humble and allow what needed to happen to happen. In recent years, I've also been engaged... Continue reading
Posted Nov 8, 2016 at The Best American Poetry
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Jake Schneider is a Berlin-based editor and translator from the German, born in 1988 in New Jersey. The incoming Editor-in-Chief of SAND, Berlin's English-language literary journal, his literary translations have appeared in Circumference, Washington Square, and the Massachusetts, Chicago, and Boston Reviews, among others. I recently exchanged emails with Jake over his forthcoming first book, Fragmented Waters, translations from the German of poems by Ron Winkler. Winkler, the author of four collections of poetry, has had his poems translated into twenty languages, and has also translated from the English books by poets such as Billy Collins, Denise Duhamel, Forrest Gander, and Sarah Manguso, among others. KH: You worked on the poems in this book over the course of a decade, starting as a freshman at Sarah Lawrence College, and are still, to date, the youngest translator to ever receive an NEA Translation Fellowship, at the ripe young age of 23. Now that you're the ripe young age of 28, can you tell us what was it like to cut your teeth on translation so early? Has your voice as a translator of Winkler's work changed in the intervening years? JS: I always credit the poet Jeffrey McDaniel, whose work Ron has long been translating into German. At eighteen, I was sitting in his office at Sarah Lawrence, trying to convince him to let me into his workshop, and during our conversation I mentioned that I spoke German. He pulled out a copy of Ron’s first book, and asked me to tell him about the first poem, curious about his translator’s own work. I was baffled by it, but I took the book home and gave it a shot. I’ve been translating Ron’s poems, on and off, ever since. I think maturing as a translator means seeing the text in larger and larger units. As a novice who had spent all of a month in a German-speaking country, I was too preoccupied with Ron’s chemically synthesized neologisms and compounds (which I couldn’t find in any dictionary) to capture the flow of the lines. After moving to Berlin and listening to German in its own habitat, I began to understand better how Ron plays with the conventions of conversation and the absurdity lurking in ordinary stock phrases, both now and in the vanished East Germany of his childhood. He merges a memorized punctuation rule with a Cold War imperative—“a comma / always belongs between subordinate countries”—and, fast-forward to the age of CD-Rs, he sets fire to friendly music-sharing in a poem about the forest: “I can burn it for you, no problem.” KH: In your translator's note, you explain that words in Winkler's poems often serve as double agents, “animalating” their environments, as in “animalated poem,” with multiple meanings: meteorological, morphological, metaphor-ological; the poems are rich with weather, flora and fauna that transmute on the noun-edge: “Lake Nonsense,” “birdbrackets,” “goose prairies,” and the “liquigevity of fish” for example. Can you tell us a bit about the process of arriving at these inspired... Continue reading
Posted Nov 7, 2016 at The Best American Poetry
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Nov 7, 2016