NEIL LEADBEATER Reviews
Cross Worlds: Transcultural Poetics – An Anthology edited by Anne Waldman and Laura Wright
(Coffee House Press, Minneapolis, 2014)
This generous selection from Coffee House Press contains some 35 essays on a wide range of topics drawn from artist-poets, novelists, hybrid writers, playwrights, philosophers and translators “speaking” from many different languages, geographies and cultural standpoints. Contributors include Tom Pickard, Cid Corman, Nina Zivančević, the late Akilah Oliver, Lorenzo Thomas, Linh Dinh, Cecilia Vicuña, C. S. Giscombe and Jen Hofer. The word “essay” is used in the broadest sense since some of the contributions come in the form of conversations with audience participation, never-before-collected archival material and Socratic raps from the luminaries of the Beat Generation. Essentially they are offerings from the now legendary annual summer sessions at Naropa University’s program in poetics where writers gather from all over the world to teach, challenge presumptions, especially in relation to the status quo, advise on courses of action, read and take part in panel discussions. The contributions date from 1975 up until 2012.
The book is edited by Anne Waldman and Laura E. Wright. Waldman is a poet, professor, performer, editor and cultural activist. She founded the Jack Kerouac School of Disembodied Poetics at Naropa University with Allen Ginsberg and Diane di Prima in 1974 and, among many other things, has helped to direct Naropa’s study abroad program in Indonesia. Wright has been a poet, librarian, volunteer firefighter, musician and occasional adjunct faculty member at Naropa University and, for a number of years, she curated the left Hand Reading Series in Boulder. Biographies of all the contributors are included in the book.
The size, range and subject matter of this book is of such magnitude that any review has to be selective in its approach. The essays cover everything from the ethics of poetry, Arabic poetics, hip-hop culture and the female shamanic tradition to how to be an Eastern European poet in America today. For me, personally, it has offered up many riches and a good deal of informed commentary on the subject of social commitment and political engagement, writing and translation. My aim is to share some of these insights with you, the reader, in the paragraphs that follow.
Essays abound on the need for the poet to be actively involved and engaged in the world. History bears witness to the long tradition of the poet as cultural activist: a tradition that can be traced back as far as Ovid. In more recent times, luminaries such as Osip Mandelstam, Rainer Maria Lorca, Wole Soyinka, Nâzim Hikmet, Pablo Neruda and César Vallejo and many others all come to mind. Joanne Kyger, the late Akilah Oliver and Anne Waldman all offer interesting perspectives on political engagement through protest in the modern world today. Kyger longs to go beyond the media hype and the soundbites that permeate the news so that we can focus on the real issues in depth. Oliver focuses on the work of graffiti artists and how they find a means of expression and the extent to which their work impacts on the public imagination and the state. Behind every piece of art there is a story waiting to be told. Waldman asks “Is there anyone under that burkha?” She cites images of women from Iraq, Afghanistan, Palestine, Israel mourning the death of their matyr sons. Should they shake off the burkha or rest comfortably inside it? She ends her essay with these words of hope and affirmation: When you have two choices, always choose the third. Maybe that’s the direction for your work. Always choose the third song.
Andrei Codrescu takes a hard look at the way in which it is possible to infiltrate the mass media and manipulate it to political ends in his penetrating insight into the chilling events which he witnessed at first hand in Romania when he returned there to do some investigative journalism just two days after the execution of the Ceauşescus in 1989.
From the standpoint of the theatre, Judith Manila and Hanon Reznikov give a fascinating account of the The Living Theatre (which started in 1951 in New York and is now something of a world-wide phenomenon). It was founded on the principles of total theatre and commitment, derived essentially from Erwin Piscator and Bertolt Brecht, and has sought over the years to actively encourage audience participation –often on stage – but also in any public arena including such places as Times Square in an improvisatory or partially scripted way as a means of, for example, public protest in the face of intractable government policy. The idea is to activate the audience by creating theatrical situations in which they can act, speak, perform, change the ideas that have been presented, refute them, overthrow them or bring new ideas into being. Manila says that art is there to strengthen our hope that we can live the way we really want to live. Engagement vitalises and transforms writing in the theatre.
Lorenzo Thomas explores the relationship between literature and identity and American society as we understand it today. He highlights the distinctions that have been made between Asian American culture, Latino culture and African American culture and how these distinctions can sometimes divide us rather than unite us. Is inclusion, he asks, another way of reaching toward homogenization, or is it another way of disguising the conflicts of interest groups?
Anne Waldman and Laura Wright ask Jerome Rothenberg what the role of poetry is today. In his response, Rothenberg considers how the role has changed over the past decade and points out that careerism or something very like it has been encouraged by MFA programs, competitive awards and prizes.
In Nothing I Withhold: A Socratic Rap, the American poet Cid Corman gives good advice to would-be editors of poetry magazines. He also offers some sound advice to poets: “What I do, I write a poem and I put it away for a year, at least. Because there is what I call a “halo effect.” When you write something it always seems a little better than it really is…So I put it away until I don’t recognize the poem when I come back to it. I have to find out if it moves me, if it does anything for me, if it works, simply. If it doesn’t, and I find nothing there, I throw it away. Otherwise I may find something there that I may be able to work with, that stimulates me either to improve it, or to take off and do a different poem altogether, or that rare, lucky thing when it turns out I did O.K. and I’m satisfied with what I find.”
Several essays expound on the art of translation and its attendant difficulties. Dennis Tedlock ponders the problems inherent in translating Mayan languages and other Mesoamerican languages from the distant past. Sawako Nakayasu looks at self-translation – the poet as translator of his or her own work into another language and the way the improvisatory nature of interpretation and performance can lead to subtle changes in meaning bringing about yet another kind of translation.
A panel on prose translation offers up words of wisdom on the difficulties of translation from one culture to another. Robert Frost’s dictum that something is lost in translation is pitted against Pierre Menard’s view that all translations are great and beautiful when unfaithful. In practice, Nina Zivančević –one of the panelists- believes that the truth lies somewhere in between, between the beauty of the untranslateable work of art and the beauty of a worked-upon or altered translation. She goes on to say that the problem is a big one because you always feel in a way you are deceiving the original; you know in a way you are creating an independent work of art. She also points out that every poet has his own poetry’s poetry that cannot be translated.
Throughout the book, definitions are proffered on the meanings of such terms as ethics, poetics and po/ethics. Waldman defines this last term as referring to a poetics and an ethic accountability of owning the word, of standing by the word; a sense of how one might live as a writer, the role one might play as a citizen of a literary, as well as a social, community. in a way, this definition, with its emphasis on belonging to a social community, sums up the ethos of this book: the need for writers to be actively engaged within their communities, questioning and challenging the big issues that affect all of us in the world today.
This is the fourth published account of material from the summer sessions at Naropa University and the strength and depth of the discussion is as vital and engaging as ever.
Neil Leadbeater is an author, essayist, poet and critic living in Edinburgh, Scotland. His short stories, articles and poems have been published widely in anthologies and journals both at home and abroad. His most recent books are Librettos for the Black Madonna (White Adder Press, Scotland, 2011); The Worcester Fragments (Original Plus Press, England, 2013); The Loveliest Vein of Our Lives (Poetry Space, England, 2014), The Fragility of Moths (Bibliotheca Universalis, Romania, 2014) and Sleeve Notes (Bibliotheca Universalis, Romania, 2016).