Gene Tanta on "ESL Poets" and "Radical Banality"

by on Jun.26, 2012

[In response to the recent discussions about Sincerity, Gene Tanta sent me the following text to a talk he gave a while back in Chicago at the Green Lantern Gallery.]

Radical Banality: No Things but in Text

Identity and the Horse you Rode in on:

I invite you to sit awhile and stretch out the full length of your body in a grassy pasture between private cliché and public cliché. To strategically essentialize based on my experience, I would agree that ESL poets (Gertrude Stein, Luis Zukofsky, William Carlos Williams, Carl Rakosi, Claude McKay and contemporary ESL poets such as Rosmarie Waldrop, Charles Simic, Linh Dinh, Nina Cassian, Vladimir Nabokov, Joseph Brodsky, Bertolt Brecht, Charles Bukowski, Czeslaw Milosz, Ana Castillo, Juan Felipe Herrera, Pat Mora, Heberto Padilla, Miguel Pinero, Wole Soynka, Chris Abani, Chinua Achebe, and Bei Dao) see and hear English from the outside as a strange and awkward medium because learning to communicate with a new language demands more sensitive attention to its materiality than it does for native speakers.
The shock of the idiomatic phrase delights the foreign tongue because the foreigner hears (as does John Ashbery) in the wisdom of slang and cliché the horded culture of a people, a zeitgeist or an essence of a place in time, a myth of origin. The foreign poet takes delight in these loaded everyday dictums and listens with his tongue.

I’m sure that growing up in the Socialist Republic of Romania (1974-1984) under the Ceausescu regime has influenced the content/form of my imaginative work, but how could I discern the degree and kind of influence my biographical circumstances may have had on my poetry (without tapping the figurative modes of memory and imagination)?

Language is the Object that makes us Subjects:

It takes emotional (not just intellectual) courage to translate effectively because a science (of reading, history, etc.) is objective only to the extent to which objectivity is useful to people.
Walter Benjamin’s thinking in The Task of the Translator, “translation … ultimately serves the purpose of expressing the central reciprocal relationship between languages,” (72) provides a solid and useful platform for this interactive discussion. If Benjamin is right and “[t]here is no muse of philosophy, nor is there one of translation,” (77) must translators only think or can translators feel as well? Later in this essay, he writes: “… translation, instead of resembling the meaning of the original, must lovingly and in detail incorporate the original’s mode of signification, thus making both the original and the translation recognizable as fragments of a greater language, just as fragments are part of a vessel.” (78) How does one “lovingly … incorporate the original’s mode of signification?”

For example, Slavoj Zizek’s accent, when he says a word like “nomenclatura” in Latin to an Anglophone audience, performs Walter Benjamin’s task of the translator in that Zizek “lovingly … incorporate[s] the original’s mode of signification” “recognizable as [a] fragment of a greater language.”

Toward the end of The Task of the Translator Benjamin offers a solution to the problem of mutual illiteracy: “[t]he basic error of the translator is that he preserves the state in which his own language happens to be instead of allowing his language to be powerfully affected by the foreign tongue.” (80-1) To allow one’s “language to be powerfully affected by the foreign tongue” requires emotional and intellectual courage.

Langue is the Home of Being

Speaking in clichés, other people tend to complicate how we understand the site of self in poetry. Speaking in clichés, I wish to point to the radical negative capability of the simple fact that location is a metaphor. Speaking in clichés, let me tell you about what I do for a living.

Let me tell you a story about being text online.

I teach online so I spend a good deal of my time as text online. I don’t mind being text because text has a body and that body has a language. Since the audiences for the performance of the subject-I-position as a textual being online are quite different in backgrounds and prospects, this is a radical little dance between identities. For example: the subject-I-position enjoys putting its persona into play in one social and linguistic context when teaching for the City College of Chicago and in another social and linguistic context when teaching for the UC Berkeley Extension Post-baccalaureate program. Thus, my being-as-text online moves from one social and intellectual context to another social and intellectual context: I hope this motion of the subject-I-position suggests the reasons for my interest in situational ethics. This motion between subject-I-positions, as a textual being among other textual beings, offers me the privilege of seeing how much of what I mean depends on audience, occasion, and purpose.

To end, it seems to me, the question worth our time about the virtue of a shared literacy is this: how does a deconstructed individual (or a post-humanist, a global citizen, a critical thinker) create a relevant common usage of “democracy” without having it become an ideal in the name of which people permit themselves to hurt others? Perhaps we may expand our shared literacy through open interactive online textual communication? Or perhaps poets can make “democracy” through language play by pointing to the instability and relativity of subject-I-positions? Perhaps translators can make “democracy” by immigrating words from language body to language body? Perhaps linguistic playfulness, because it has the power to render our identities relative, can work toward putting into practice a global sense of empathy? Perhaps dislocating language out of its comfy private and public clichés through translation can work toward creating a sense of open and trusting neighborliness? Perhaps being texts online can work toward yet another utopia of friendship?

Works Haunting this Text:
Austin, J. L. How to Do Things With Words. Cambridge: Harvard UP, 1962.
Benjamin, Walter. Illuminations: Essays and Reflections. NY, Schocken Books, 1968.
Butler, Judith. Excitable Speech: A Politics of the Performative. NY, Routledge: 1997.
Deleuze, Gilles, Felix Guattari. Brian Massumi (Tr.) A Thousand Plateaus: Capitalism
and Schizophrenia. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1987.
Hess, Herman. Ursule Molinaro (Tr.) Narcissus and Goldmund. NY, Picador: 1968.
Open Culture:
Roy, Arundhati. Democracy Now. March 22, 2010.
Slavoj, Zizek. Democracy Now. October 15, 2009. (Online Interview)
Wolfreys, Julian. Derrida: A Guide for the Perplexed. NY, Continuum Books, 2007.

5 comments for this entry:
  1. Michael S. Begnal

    Don’t forget Jack Kerouac, who grew up in the “Little Québec” neighborhood of Lowell, Mass., and who didn’t learn English until age 6.

  2. Johannes

    I love the word “ESL”. I as in ESL class when I first came to the US and it was super interesting. My classmates were all Vietnamese and Chinese immigrant and one of the running issues was what they’re names were supposed to be. Seems like most of them took American names from soap operas. Like one Chinese girl called herself “Sue Ellen” after the Dallas character. But then she got sick of it and wanted to go back to her Chinese name, but other classmates really liked “Sue Ellen” etc. That’s what ESL makes me think about.


  3. Gene

    Michael: whether physical or linguistic location should take precedence as a defining marker of how one is permitted entry/exit is a thing I go back and forth on. It’s a nice little two-stepper.

    Johannes: your Dallas anecdote hits the heist on the noggin. Really, that is all there is to being an ESL poet: coming into and going out of a name. This identity crisis aborts and feeds the needy. We are all in need of knowing who we are, yet who we are won’t sit still long enough so the photo can be snapped. The new/old in/out of the intertextuality of an ID is enough to sensitize a subject to the jellied frictions of speaking/listening in tongues.

  4. Michael S. Begnal

    Gene and Johannes — Not too keep harping on Kerouac too much, but he really plays into what you’ve both said. Is he Ti Jean, or Jack? Is he the quintessential American, or the outsider consciously creating an American identity? Or both.

  5. The Seminar in its Bounds: Location/Location | The Lantern Daily

    […] Unfortunately we don’t have the ability to publish all the papers and talks that were given. Gene Tanta’s presentation was recently published on Montevidayo (hooray!). If you are interested in listening to a digital recording of the symposium, email me and […]