Monday, July 25, 2005

Exercise: Homophonic Translation

EXERCISE*: Take a poem, or part of a poem, in a foreign language and translate it word for word according to what it sounds like in English. Try this with a language you know and then with one you don't know. Don't use a dictionary, just rely on what your ears hear and go from there.

This exercise is courtesy of Charles Bernstein from p. 126-8 in The Practice of Poetry, ed. by Robin Behn & Chase Twichell.

The source poem I chose is "Negro Bembon" by Afro-Cuban poet, Nicolas Guillen. For your convenience, I'll post the text here:

Negro Bembón

¿Po qué te pone tan brabo,
cuando te dicen negro bembón
,si tiene la boca santa,
negro bembóm?

Bembón así como ere
tiene de tó;
Caridá te mantiene, te lo dá tó.

Te queja todabía,
negro bembón;
sin pega y con harina,
negro bembón,
majagua de drí blanco,
negro bembón;
sapato de dó tono,
negro bembón.

Bembón así como ere
tiene de tó;
Caridá te mantiene, te lo dá tó.

Following is the homophonic translation I came up with. It's a rough draft, but it definitely succeeded in making me look at language differently:

Nigger of my bones

Poor, okay. Tea? Pour nothing. Pray boy.
Wonder. Tea the ice, Nigger of my bones.
See the tiny, lost boa constrictor,
Nigger of my bones?

My bones, I see you coming over the air.
To any, to
carry the tea. A man, to any. Tea low? There is no

Tea. Cage & tow the beer,
nigger of my bones.
Sin. Pay God. Come, hurry now,
nigger of my bones.
Ma’s hog is washed this day - dry & blond,
nigger of my bones
Sow, Pa told us that day, There is no
Nigger of my bones

My bones, I see you coming here
today, to
Carry that tea. In the meantime, the tea is low.

The day, too.

Monday, July 18, 2005

Day in the Life of a Low-Res MFA Student (2.3)

FRIDAY, 30 JUNE 2005, 2:30 p.m.
LECTURE: MIHAELA MOSCALIUC “Translation: The Art of Treason”

MOSCALIUC'S LECTURE ON THE art of translation was fascinating - mostly because, prior to the lecture, translation of poetry was virtually uncharted territory for me - at least until last semester.

(As an aside, last semester I did a unit on Spanish language poetry with Anne Waldman and, when I decided to read Neruda, she asked, "Whose Neruda?"

My internal response was, "Well, Pablo Neruda, of course!"

It was only when I dug in and started making comparisons between different translators' versions of the same poem as I was trying to memorize "Love Sonnet XII" from One Hundred Love Sonnets in which I saw line 6, for example, variously translated as:

with smothered air and abrupt storms of flour (Steven Mitchell)


of suffocating air and brusque storms of flour


with drowning air and storms of flour (Stephen Tapscott)

- that I realized the nuances of translation - that I realized what a difference a single word could make - that I realized that translating poems is as much of an art as writing them.)

Moscaliuc began with a rather colorful etymologyical history of the word, translation, which set the tone for the lecture as being inviting and pliable as opposed to being insular and rigid - i.e., that translation is as much an art as it is a science.

Yes, she gave us plenty of technical jargon - SL (source language) vs. TL (target language), intralingual (from one dialect to another dialect within the same language) vs. interlingual (from one language to another langauge) - but in a tongue-in-cheek fashion which was refreshing and which said that translating could be fun!

Moscaliuc raised several key concerns of the modern translator starting with the premise that it is an impossible art: "Nothing in poetry is accidental. In this way, a poem is untranslatable," and also "Translation is a utopian dream - there is no such thing as a perfect translation."

A translator must make decisions what to keep and what will be lost - what will be sacrificed. Maintain meaning at the sacrifice of... music? Maintain syllabic consistency at the expense of... rhyme?

For instance, a sonnet which rhymes in Italian is not the same sonnet if it loses its rhymes in the 'carrying over' to English. And if the rhymes are kept, then - no doubt - some of the subtleties in meaning will be lost. (How tragic!)

(As another aside, on the second-to-last day of the program, senior student, John Rippey ,gave me a captivating one-on-one talk about the challenges of translating poetry into English from Japanese. He demonstrated how, in moving from the Japenese kanji (ideograms) and hiragani (phonetic symbols) into English, double entendres and ironies can only be imitated, and are impossible to carry over in their original form.)

Moscaliuc showed that there is a human side to the translative art - that translators inevitably bring their own personalities into the translation. Which, for me, immediately raises the question: Are there many people who look like me who translate poetry? Are there any people who look like me who translate poetry? At what level do the translator's personal politics censor what information I receive as a reader? At what level do the translator's personal prejudices inform what poems even get translated?

Furthermore, the translator faces the decision of domesticizing versus foreignizing, something which I'd never considered. Does the translator translate in a way to reflect the values/aesthetics of the target language culture, or to retain the values/aesthetics of the source language culture? For instance, Joan Larkin's extremely liberal translation of Sor Juana de la Cruz's Love Poems would no doubt have been handled differently by, say, a religious scholar in Nigeria. (The religious scholar may decide to omit all poems containing lesbian references, or may decide to rewrite them in a way to reflect heterosexual love.) Is censorship, then, a form of translation?

To further demonstrate the impossiblity of translation, Moscaliuc noted that if one translates a poem into a language, one would typically end up with a different source text if one translates it back. Which reminds me of irreversible reactions in chemistry. Yuck!

Toward the end of the lecture, I asked Mosaliuc how she would handle a particular intralingual to interlingual translating dilemma: How would one translate the African-American dialect of English into her native language, Romanian? (I think, in particular, of Langston Hughes, who is the most prolific - and possibly most widely-read - of all African-American poets. I think of Hughes' his "Madam fo You" series - "Madam and the Rent Man," "Madam and the Phone Bill," etc. How would one translate the blues sensiblity of the stanza:

I'm mad and disgusted
with that Negro now.
I don't pay no REVERSED
charges nohow.

The presentation here is essential blues - the dialect, the rhyming, the peculiarity of the syntax. It would be difficult, even to do an intralingual translation of this stanza to a different American dialect. The simultaneous humor/sarcasm/sadness/music are what make it bluesy. And losing any one of these elements is to lose the blues of it.)

I didn't ask the question necessarily because I thought she'd have an answer, but more to see if she had ever considered it. Based on her answer (and I appreciated her honesty), it appeared that she had not, in fact, considered it. (She did approach me at lunch the next day to say that it was something that she thinks is important and something which she will definitely be thinking about in the future. Two points!) But when she confirmed what I believed - which was that she had not thought about it - suddenly I saw the importance and, dare I say, the need for me as an African-American poet to invest in learning the skills of translation. If I don't do it, then who will?


The most priceless moment in the lecture came when Moscaliuc recounted a story, decades ago, of a certain American translator who, in translating a French love poem into English, was confronted with translating the French word, cyprine.

It turns out that the literal English translation for cyprine is… cervical mucus. Yes, cervical mucus! As in, cervical snot! Aside from creating a syllabic issue (5 syllables instead of 2), cervical mucus sounds disgusting! Not to mention infectious!

Word has it, the translator decided to take it upon himself to use the word, gleet, which sounds equally disgusting in itself and is downright repulsive if you read its full definition. Not sexy!

Which again demonstrates the importance of translators and the need for diversity among translators (for example, no woman would have ever translated that word as gleet!)

Thanks, but no thanks, mister. I'll be taking my cyprine straight.

Friday, July 15, 2005

Check out Damali Ayo's

Hilarity to the 10th power. This is truly a woman after my own heart!

Thursday, July 14, 2005


“Mama, I’m hungry,” I complained one afternoon.

“Jump up and catch a kungry,” she said, trying to make me laugh and forget.

“What’s a kungry?”

“It’s what little boys eat when they get hungry,” she said.

“What does it taste like?”

“I don’t know.”

“Then why do you tell me to catch one?”

“Because you said that you were hungry,” she said, smiling.

This is what did it. The first time I felt it.

8th grade. Miss Villenauve. American Lit. This excerpt from Black Boy by Richard Wright. I will never forget it.

Specifically, it was the word, kungry - light while dark, laughing while crying, improvised yet all too familiar - the linguistic equivalent of blues. A blues which I recognized, yet a blues which, after months of ingesting pages of Poe, Hawthorne, and Hemingway, I had never seen before. I wanted more of it. I wanted to make it. And so I sought it.

Though I knew what the passage said, I read it over and over trying to figure out how it said it. I tried to pull it apart - to see the gears inside.

There seemed to be nothing special about the language. These were all words I'd seen before... except one. And this word, kungry, meant nothing when taken out of the context of this passage, yet it meant everything within it. It had the minuteness, yet the boundlessness of nuclear reaction. In such a small space, it said so much. I didn't yet have the word for it, but it was poetic.

And then there was this organic rhythm to the banter between Mother and child. I recognized its echo from the halls of my Father's house. And though we students were each reading this passage to ourselves silently, my heart audibly thumped, my tongue wettened, my throat tightened: I could not wait to go home and read it out loud.

Indeed, It was music; It was poetry; It was theatre. And It would be my start...

The above entry, It, is my output after completing the first exercise in Robin Behn's The Practice of Poetry: Writing Exercises from Poets Who Teach. This exercise, called First Words, was to try to recall the first moment in which written language
struck you, and was supplied by Ann Lauterbach.

Wednesday, July 13, 2005

I JUST TOOK the Which 20th Century Poet Are You? test.

(I wonder what it says that I came back as a 63 year-old White woman from San Francisco.)

You are Sharon Olds, master of the everyday,
explorer of the female body and family.

Which 20th Century Poet Are You?
brought to you by Quizilla

Tuesday, July 12, 2005

Day in the Life of a Low-Res MFA Student (2.2)

TUESDAY, 28 JUNE 2005, 9:30 p.m.

FROM THE MOMENT I ENTERED THE DOORS of the NEC MFA in Poetry, I struggled with this dilemma: Do I leave my slam performance history behind me, or do I drag it with me inside the door? (Furthermore, would it even fit?) Prior to my first residency, my concerns were slightly alleviated when I learned that Tara Betts, who also had a history in slam, would be entering with me in the same class. Ah, a kindred spirit!

During the January residency, once we were alone, Tara and I had a long conversation about the stereotypes of slam - especially within academia. One might be surprised at people’s misconceptions - particularly those who’ve never even attended a slam! Some of these:

"I thought the poets ad-libbed their poems on the spot"

Or "Doesn’t slam mean that the poets put each other down?"

Or (gasp!) "I really liked your rap!"

As I began to hear these sort of things coming out of the otherwise-well-educated mouths of my fellow classmates, I saw it as an opportunity to shed some light on this black sheep of contemporary literature. And so, an army of five - Tara, Misha (Melissa), Lea, Regie, and I - brainstormed during lunch as how to best go about dispelling some of the myths.

One thing we all had in common: We wanted the student body to understand that the craft elements of the writing were as important as the more in-your-face elements of the performance - more specifically, that these craft concerns are not very much different than the craft concerns we discuss daily in our workshops for quote-unquote "work-on-the-page."

(This would be validated in my next day’s workshop as Jeff Friedman gave us handouts on rhetorical structures - anadiplosis, gradatio (climax), and parallelism - in which he cited examples from our slam performances.) We also wanted to show, indirectly, that performance isn't just relevant for one particular type of poem, but that performance applies to all types of poem - narratives, lyrics; ballads, villanelles, sonnets - especially when considering that poetry's origin is as an oral art.

As a plus, Tara and Misha came up with the excellent idea of providing a handout giving a history of slam and explaining the rules of competition. As not quite a plus, Regie seemed concerned with being "labeled" as a slam artist. So my work as emcee: to (hopefully) provide the student body (and faculty) with a brief background on slam, to showcase the diversity of slam, to clarify that slam refers to the competitive format and rather not to the writing, and to ensure that the performers - most notably, Regie - felt comfortable with the way they were being presented - as poets first and performers second. Whew! (Now that I list everything, it’s no wonder I blanked out in the middle of one of my poems! I was quietly devastated.)

Since none of us wanted to compete against each other, we decided to perform without the score cards and timekeeper, but decided to pull names from a hat to determine our order of performance to give a pinch of the drama of a slam competition. We would perform two poems each.

When I asked the room the question, "How many of you have never been to a poetry slam?" and three-quarters of the room raised their hands, I think all five of us were surprised - at least I was. And so, in fact, we weren't just performing, but we were educating. Which made me suddenly feel a lot better.

If the attendees were disappointed that we didn't hand out scorecards and give an all-out slam, they didn't show it. The presentation moved along quickly and, despite the length of the day, the audience remained attentive - enthusiastic, even!

Perhaps against his will, I decided to 'out' Regie as a former national poetry slam champion. I wasn't sure how he would take it. But he lived.

Overall, I felt the performances went pretty well - diverse in content, delivery, and length. Regie is otherworldly. The audience asked thoughtful questions and seemed genuinely appreciative afterwards. And most importantly of all, they seemed to enjoy our words. Now that we've unveiled the mystery and now that most of the pressure is gone, maybe next residency, we can open it up to all of the students and have a real slam!

This is an excerpt from a residency journal I was required to keep as part of the low-residency MFA in Poetry program at New England College.

Monday, July 11, 2005

Day in the Life of a Low-Res MFA Student (2.1)

SATURDAY, 25 JUNE 2005, 2:00 p.m.

"READING AN ENTIRE BOOK of Lucille Clifton's poetry may take as little as ten minutes," said Michael Waters to open his lecture, The Light of Lucille Clifton, "which may lead some to dismiss her work, believing that it has little substance..."

And over the course of the next hour, Waters would take on the task of illuminating the deceptive simplicity of the poetry of Lucille Clifton.While I was moderately familiar with Clifton's work, I will have to count myself as one among the 'some' to which Waters referred, one who at one point dismissed her work as a little too plain and a lot too uninteresting. It was only in the last five years, when I came to her collection, Blessing the Boats, that I, having matured as a reader, came to a greater appreciation of her aesthetic - of the power in the leanness of her work, akin to the novelist, Ernest Hemingway's. And so, already partially converted, I eagerly awaited what Waters had to say.

Quoting Lucille Clifton, Waters said, "I am a Black woman... and I sound like one." (Which took on an added dimension of humor coming from a White man’s mouth. The room chuckled.)

Waters demonstrated how this tone was an essential element in Clifton’s poetry - matter-of-fact and deceptively straightforward, which allowed her to be earthy while often engaging the most unearthly topics - directly addressing her Dahomey ancestors and conversing with her dead mother.

As examples, Waters provided Clifton’s "i was born with twelve fingers," "at the cemetery, walnut grove plantation, south carolina, 1989," "homage to my hips," "poem to my uterus," and "dreamchild."

"i was born with twelve fingers" and "at the cemetery…" demonstrated an aspect particular to Clifton’s poetry, which Waters called ‘spiritual vitality,' combining elements of conjuring and incantation, similar to the phrasings of a preacher in a Black church. To further demonstrate, Waters read aloud a section of "at the cemetery…" in call-and-response fashion:

WATERS: "Some of these honored dead…"
CONGREGATION: "…were dark"
WATERS: "Some of these dark…"
CONGREGATION: "…were slaves"
WATERS: "Some of these slaves…"
CONGREGATION: "…were women"

Incidentally, having grown up in a Black church, I can testify that it did indeed remind me of a Black church! (That is, of course, if you ignore the White leader.)

Waters also spoke on how Clifton’s poems are a call-and-response between the worlds of the living and the dead - again, in "at the cemetery" and also in "i was born with 12 fingers…" - with the use of nouns like "ghosts," "bones," and "blood" invoking the incantatory quality of which Waters spoke.

In discussing another aspect of Clifton’s poetry, Waters quoted D.H. Lawrence, "The best poetry is nobly disheveled," which is an interesting aesthetic premise, especially considering the atmosphere of the typical MFA poetry workshop where the attitude is to cut-cut-cut, until a poem is finally axed down and loses its life, decomposing into its most essential elements (do I sound bitter?) - where the very naturalistic notion of dishevelment would cause some workshop leaders to break out in hives. But in Clifton’s poetry, this intentional imprecision is part of what makes her poetry work - it’s what provides the earthiness that makes it ring with veracity.

Waters concluded the lecture with a moving anecdote regarding Clifton’s mother, who aspired to be a writer herself. As the story goes, the mother wrote poems and asked her husband if she could publish them. He forbade her, and so she threw the poems into a fire, never to write again. Which becomes intriguing when one considers the notion of lineage as a theme in Clifton’s work - from daughter to mother to grandmother unblinklingly descending into the grave and into the realm of the unliving. All in all, I enjoyed the lecture and can now count myself as one of the converted to the church of Lucillology!

This is an excerpt from a residency journal I was required to keep as part of the low-residency MFA in Poetry program at New England College

Thursday, July 07, 2005

30: A Year of Personal Firsts

As I approach my 31st birthday on July 23, I've gotta say that 30 has been - to use my favorite word - transformative, a year of firsts. In my opinion, much of this has to do with goal-setting, but it has as much to do with surrounding myself with beautiful people like yourself who constantly elevate me. So, thanks to you all, elevators!

And if you recognize yourself on this list, then I owe you lunch! Take me up on it, seriously.

1) 1st trip to Africa

Thanks, Fulton County Arts Council!

2) 1st painting

Thanks, Peter Cl__ke!

3) 1st safari

Thanks, M____m and _oz

4) 1st word in Zulu

Sawubona (Which means I see you), G__isile!
5) 1st pedicure

Thanks, B__e!

6) 1st time installing track lighting

7) 1st time performing poetry in a cemetery

Thanks, B__e!

8) 1st time performing poetry for Republicans (or is that the same thing?)

Thanks, __t!

9) 1st time I saw someone else perform one of my poems

Thanks, J_n!
10) 1st time seeing the Indian Ocean

11) 1st vocal lesson

Thanks, _a__i_!

12) 1st year of keeping a blog

Thanks, C_llin & B__e & K__t_!

13) 1st time I got __d on a balcony

Thanks _o_!

14) 1st time I floated on my back

Thanks, K__t_!

15) 1st time I swam the length of a pool

Thanks, K__t_!

16) 1st time I ate food growing in the wild

Thanks, V_nani!

17) 1st time attempting to give myself a haircut

18) 1st time I had cheesecake from Junior's of Brooklyn

Thanks, T__sa!

19) 1st time I've owned a cell phone

Thanks... but no thanks!

20) 1st time memorizing a poem that was not my own

Thanks, New England College MFA program!

21) 1st time I composed a Curriculum Vitae

Thanks, M_lcolm!

22) 1st time I performed a poem for my family - I mean the whole family - all the aunts & uncles & cousins and dem

Thanks, Pops!

23) 1st time producing a limited edition print

Thanks, M___om!

24) 1st time writing a poem longer than 3 pages

Thanks, Anne W_ldman!

25) 1st year in grad school

Thanks, T___sa!

Tuesday, July 05, 2005

Lauryn... Lauuuuuuryn? Lauryn?: Last Letter from Your #1 Fan

Dear Miss Hill:

I'm sorry, I just can't hold this any longer. As President of the Lauryn Hill Fan Club - Western Hemisphere, I've been waiting for your comeback for Godknowshowlong. I've held my breath well beyond turning blue. Now, I'm black... and bitter... and BELLIGERENT!!!

To prevent any further heartache (on my part), I'm sending you this final notice. I'm calling it QUITZ! SAYONARA, BABY!!! YOU'RE GONNA MISS THIS GOOD THING, MISS THING! Find yourself a new number one fan, cause this number one fan has HAD IT! HAD IT!!! {in as high-pitched and neurotic a voice as possible} HAD IT!!!!

But before I say so-long forever, here's a brief recap of what pushed me over the edge:

First, there was the two-hour acoustic tragedy on MTV Unplugged, which you had the nerve to try to sell as a double-CD for $20. Three chords for two WHOLE hours. Should I tell you how I bought a back-up VCR to make sure I could record that trash? Should I tell you how I turned off all of my lights, closed my blinds, unplugged my phone, drew a long bath, lit candles, prepared a dinner - all to set the perfect mood for you! Should I also tell you how many times I watched and rewatched that sh*t to try to convince myself that I was watching virtuosity, when in fact, I was watching UTTER CATASTROPHE.

Then, there was the sham of a website peddling blurry autographed polaroids of yourself for five hundred dollars! Five hundred dollars?

QUESTION: Do you know what happens to a man who has wandered in the desert for weeks?

ANSWER: If you placed a pot of piss in front of him, he would drink it!

How dare you leave that out there for us! And you still haven't taken the site down. Five hundred dollars. Hmmmph. You oughta be paying us for sticking with you! You psychoderanged biyotch!!!

And let's not even start on your most recent... er... performances:

The Kool NuJazz Concert series in Atlanta - one of only two scheduled performances in the whole world for all of 2004: You called in sick. A no-show. Do you know how far people drove to see you? How they planned? The babysitters? The rent-a-cars? The planes? The hotels? The thousands of cleared weekends? Do you hear us, Miss Hill? Can you hear us?

We'll just pretend that you weren't even billed for an appearance in Berlin for the Live 8 concert last weekend. Disappearance was more like it.

And we won't even mention the robotic poetry reading last month on HBO's Def Poetry Jam.

But we will mention your opening the BET Music Awards and that horrendous mushroom wig. What the HELL was that? Obviously, your wig is flipped!

And what about the VIBE MusicFest, also in Atlanta, in which your bizarre performance neither dazed nor amazed, but rather confused? Upon your arrival (which, I might add was 4 hours late), you demanded that all people backstage either 1) be banished from your queendom or 2) turn their noses into the corner, so as not to gaze upon you as you passed. I wish I woulda been backstage. I wish you might ask me to turn my back on you...

So, here I am, turning my back on you. I would say it's been great knowing you, but apparently I don't know you at all!

So, adios, ciao-ciao, good-bye to WhoEverYouAreYouImpostorAlienWitch-



To read one man's unabridged account of her collapse, read here.