This is Bob Holman's Typepad Profile.
Join Typepad and start following Bob Holman's activity
Join Now!
Already a member? Sign In
Bob Holman
Recent Activity
Language Matters with Bob Holman is now available to stream on PBS Video. There’s a new Language Movement in town. I remember when Charles and Bruce began publishing L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E, how their writing made me think of language in a new way. Whether I’m in Australia, or on a reservation in South Dakota, when people say they are talking “in Language,” what I know is that they’re talking in their Mother Tongue. To these folks, English is not Language, English is the way you get along. Language is who you are, words that have been passed down through generations. “Language Matters” is the first nationwide media recognition of the Language Crisis, which is not just about languages, but cultural diversity. It’s about global homogenization, the Pringleization of society, about cultures being steamrollered under globalization. The growing call to action for language preservation is a drive to see the cultures of the world through a lens of understanding and respect, of seeing the world through a cultural lens, not just a political one. The problem is that in this era of the consciousness of literacy, in this world of hard science, endangered languages and cultures are disadvantaged; if you don’t have the quantification, the metrics, you don’t really have something to say. Quantifying languages is complex (I’d like to say impossible, but I can’t). This is where the poets come in. Four years ago, when we started “Language Matters,” people were saying there were 7,000 languages in the world. Now there are 6,000, not because we’ve lost that many languages, but because now that these numbers are really starting to count for something on the political table, linguists are beginning to hedge. It’s hard to know exactly how many languages there are, and harder to enumerate speakers. It’s not like counting the number of pandas. In the prologue to the motion poem “Khonsay,” where each line from a different endangered/minority language, we split the difference, say there are 6,500. And the reason I used the “endangered/minority” construct is because linguists also disagree on the at-risk level of many many languages. When I was in Wales asking people if they spoke Welsh, there were people with a junior high level of vocabulary who were quite proud that they could speak Welsh. Others, who were absolutely fluent, said they couldn’t really speak it. They were hanging out with people who were born into the language, who knew more slang. The only thing everyone agrees with is that huge numbers of languages, languages that have been around, usually, for millennia, are dying out right now. When I tell people we’re losing half the languages on the planet by the end of this century, unless we do something about it, they never ask “how many languages is that, exactly?” Instead, their reactions are always “yes, let’s do something about it.” And again, this is why I think that participating in the Language Movement, helping to protect all languages, is part of the job of the poet... Continue reading
Posted Jan 23, 2015 at The Best American Poetry
Language Matters with Bob Holman is now available to stream on PBS Video. Charlie Listens Put earbud in west ear Put other earbud in east ear Charlie listens Clapsticks, didj, now your voice Recorded yesterday, Mt Borredale, In Amardak, you’re the Last Speaker Hear? Your voice doesn’t sound so good You sang good, but the recording was no good Could you sing now, Charlie, please? Charlie nods. Charlie listens Clapsticks, didj, now your voice, please - Now Charlie listens Now Charlie listens OK Charlie, we need you to sing Now Charlie nods and listens Now Charlie listens Cue Charlie – listens Get Jamesy Jamesy tells Charlie Charlie listens Get headphone splitter Jamesy puts on headphones Charlie and Jamesy listen Clapsticks, didj. Charlie’s voice Jamesy sings a little Jamesy looks at Charlie Charlie looks at Jamesy OK? Charlie listens OK, Jamesy now speak Iwaidja with Charlie OK, Charlie listens, Charlie nods OK Jamesy looks at Charlie OK clapsticks in fingers OK Charlie listens, didj OK now. Now Charlie sings Ma barang! Asking Charlie Mangulda, the Last Speaker of Amurdak, to overdub his performance from the sacred site of Mt. Borradale, was one of the most complex and unnerving directorial moves—to me, not to him—I’ve ever had to do. John Tranter, our local sound guy, is just a dynamite practitioner. But recording Charlie’s voice, two, cracking clapstick players, and a bulbous didgeridoo on a cave’s platform under an ancient painting of a Rainbow Serpent, proved to be too much for our top-of-the-line digital equipment. This poem tells the story. I won’t repeat it. I won’t even tell you what Ma barang! means, I’m sure you already know. And if you don’t know, then you really do already know. What I do want to talk about, briefly, is the opening lines. In Amurdak, Charlie’s language, is one of the very few instances where you can actually see a difference in consciousnesses between languages. The idea that some languages are more primitive than others is simply cultural prejudice: you can say anything in any language, and every language has a full syntax and grammatology. But in Amurdak, Charlie doesn’t know his left from his right. This concept, which until the 1960s was thought to be universal, actually doesn’t exist in a few languages. The way Charlie designates direction is simply and solely through cardinal directions. And it’s been shown that it doesn’t matter where speakers of these languages are placed, they are automatically oriented to the compass points, so that they can say of the choices, “I’ll take the one on the southwest.” Now, you could infer from this that Amurdak people don’t see themselves, each one, as the center of the universe, where left and right is always and only consistent to the person speaking. Instead, the Amurdak people—or in this case, Charlie, the Last Speaker—is simply a point standing somewhere on Earth. But that’s just an inference. Or maybe a poem. One more thing before we close. When Charlie was translating the... Continue reading
Posted Jan 22, 2015 at The Best American Poetry
Language Matters with Bob Holman is now available to stream on PBS Video. “Foneddigion a Boneddigesau! Fy llinell gyntaf o gynghanedd!” The Welsh is slow and halting, pried off the page, the performance knowing and with flair. If I do say so myself. I am saying it myself. It’s me. On stage. Stomp, 2012, Vale of Glamorgan, Cymru (Welsh for “Wales”). The Stomp (Y Stomp, in Welsh), is the National Poetry Slam of Wales. It is part of the annual Eisteddfod, the national cultural festival of all things Welsh. As I say in “Language Matters,” “It’s a lot like the state fairs in the US, except that instead of prizes for pies or pigs, the prizes are for poetry.” The first Eisteddfod was in 1176, when Lord Rhys invited poets and musicians from all over the country to compete for a seat at his table. You could sing for your supper, and then get fed. Winning was an entree into the house of the Lords, and a golden meal ticket for the winning poet. The chair you pulled up to the table was a special Bard’s Chair, and to this day, the prize for the winning poet in the Formal Category is a Chair. Hand-carved by an artisan, the winner gets to take the Chair home, sit in it, and write more poems. In Welsh. For me, as usual, the whole thing started at the Bowery Poetry Club, when we hosted readings by Welsh poets as part of the Peoples Poetry Gatherings, 2002-03. That’s where I began to feel the intensity around this ancient Celtic language. Whenever I bring up Welsh in New York, the response is invariably, “Well, what about Irish?” While the Irish fought and gained political independence, they did so in English. The Irish language is now much more endangered than Welsh. The Welsh never fought for independence, but rather cultural parity, and today Welsh is considered the only endangered language to have come off the endangered language list. It’s a success story by any metric, which is why it got its place in “Language Matters.” One of the poets I met at the Club is Grahame Davies, who writes in both Welsh and English, and whose work and being was crucial in my decision to study Welsh. Grahame lives the fire and rigor needed to keep this ancient language alive. The fire is contagious, and to prepare for the film, I flew to Wales and began my own formal and informal study of the language. Grahame picked me up at the Caerdydd (Cardiff) Airport, and we headed for breakfast with Elinor Robson of the Welsh Language Society. I confessed my dream to them, and we all laughed over a full Welsh. What? I, who didn’t even know enough to fly to Manchion (Manchester) to get to Gog Gymru (North Wales), who couldn’t say Blaenau Ffestiniog (the slate-mining town where I live in Wales), let alone spell it, who hadn’t even met Dewi Prysor! was proposing that... Continue reading
Posted Jan 21, 2015 at The Best American Poetry
And so I made my first trip to Hawaii. It’s a long way from everywhere, specks of black lava, folded green jewels in the middle of the largest body of water on the planet – you will now know that, Hawaii is the further from a continent than any other on the planet. No wonder the creation story here, the Kumulipo, begins underwater, with the creation of fish, coral and octopus, and rises up with the spirit of Pele, the Goddess of Fire, a real place—the active volcano in the center of the Big Island. Pele is a real person, too. I met her many-times-Great Granddaughter, Pele Harmann, a teacher at Nawahi, the K-12 immersion school outside Hilo where I spent many a day hearing No English. It’s an honor to be allowed to step inside someone else’s culture. Tread lightly. As Pele said to me, “To you it’s a myth. To me it’s my genealogy.” This is what you learn. That unlike the rest of the world’s crises, the Language Crisis has a seemingly simple answer: Respect Mother tongues. Let the children born into minority languages live there as much as possible. They will get plenty of the bully language as soon as they walk out the door, as soon as they turn on the TV. Today there are Hawaiian language immersion schools on every island, but back in the 60s there were none. The number of speakers had shrunk to about 400 with most of them living on the tiny island of Ni’ihau, which was owned (still is) by a single family who allow no non-Hawaiians to set foot there. So the native population lives on in a kind of time capsule of pure Hawaiian. When Larry Kimura, the godfather of the Hawaiian language, and his Hawaiian language students at the University of Hawaii Manao came to the conclusion that just speaking Hawaiian with each other for hours a day was not making the kind of substantive change necessary to keep Hawaiian culture alive, they decided the way forward was to start schools where children would learn Hawaiian the way all children learn languages – by hearing, by mimicking, by conversing. By spending time in a place where the sound environment was always the flowing lilt and glottal stops of Hawaiian. This was the beginning of the punana leo, a language nest. Here children would spend hours daily in a protected place—a nest of Hawaiian. Parents must accompany their little ones (3 months to 5 years ) here, and parents too are bound by the rules. So they end up learning baby Hawaiian, just to keep up with their child. I’m sitting there and a toddler purposefully approaches and starts speaking to me—in Hawaiian. Wants me to read him a book in Hawaiian. I oblige—I may not know all the meanings, but I can read the words, and I’m learning, like he is. But I don’t speak Hawaiian! I’d said to the teacher. Not yet, was her reply.... Continue reading
Posted Jan 20, 2015 at The Best American Poetry
Alice Quinn, in all her ebullience, “Bob, this is Eve. Eve Grubin. She’s David Grubin’s daughter! She’s a poet.” This in the sunny, energized Poetry Society of America offices—what a great meeting. Eve was a young poet with a new job. Her dad, a renowned PBS producer/director, had just created “The Language of Life: A Festival of Poets” hosted by Bill Moyers and shot at the Geraldine R. Dodge Poetry Festival. My own PBS series, “The United States of Poetry,” had been broadcast at the same time. There’s so little contact between poetry and television—seemed like David and I were the only people in the universe uniting these two opposites. But plenty of people thought David and I represented two different camps of poetry – academic and street/spoken word. But David had had me be in his film and – oh, this was so marvelously complicated! But it was terrific meeting Evie that day at PSA, thinking of David also as a father, like I was with my daughters. And now we could say hello at parties! Who knew where this might lead? The story begins The Poem’s new forms in the dawning of the Era of Digital Consciousness. In the beginning, (1980?), I knew television to be the Enemy. TV was why nobody was coming to my readings! They were all at home in front of the Cyclops in the Corner. But then, by luck and friends and a certain proclivity, I had the opportunity to get poetry on television—on WNYC-TV, before Giuliani sold it and it became NY1. For the six years that I produced “Poetry Spots,” television became just another way to transmit the poem. Funny what a little power will do. I’d learned from Walter Ong that Orality is not a precursor to writing, but a separate and equivalent consciousness. This factoid changed my life. Television became just another platform for poetry to make nothing happen. For tens of thousands of years poetry was solely an oral art. Then came writing, famously followed by print. Now we have digital: film/video/internet. The medium of transmission may change, but the poem is always The Poem. This interest in Orality is what led me to my fieldwork in Africa, searching for the roots of hip-hop. And I knew that if I were to make this expedition right, led by my guide, mentor and friend, Alhaji Papa Susso, I’d need a couple of cameras and a soundman. Luckily, this kind of realistic insanity is shared by my good buddy, Ram Devineni, who produced these explorations of oral traditions into a three-part series on LinkTV. As soon as we had DVDs of the imaginatively-titled “On the Road with Bob Holman: Africa and Israel,” I immediately sent one to my PBS doppelgänger, David Grubin. It had been 20 years since PBS did poetry. And so it was that we found ourselves at a pleasant boite on the Bowery, discussing poetry over lunch. David liked “On the Road”! Well, I said, I think... Continue reading
Posted Jan 19, 2015 at The Best American Poetry
Bob Holman is now following The Typepad Team
Jan 19, 2015