Is the Foreigner Baroque? (Haroldo de Campos and Yoko Tawada)

by on Apr.30, 2014

In response to Steve Burt’s “Nearly Baroque” article, Lucas and Joyelle wrote posts questioning the exclusion of the foreign, and in particular the Latin American engagement with the baroque. Lucas suggested that this “nearly baroque” not only omitted the Latin American poets, but that in fact it was a way of dealing with the threat of the foreign (fully baroque).

For me this is a key issue. One of the volatile aspects of translation is that it asks us to question what might be domestic tastes and conventions. I am fond of stating that translations cause problems because they generate too many versions of too many texts by too many authors. And as we know from the “too much” trope that has become increasingly common in contemporary US poetry discussions, this excess is tightly intertwined with the idea of taste. Taste saves us from the too much, the “plague ground.” It’s in fact because of the too much that we need taste. (See for example my Ranciere post from a while back.)

As I wrote in my last post, “baroque” is a kind of tastelessness, a kind of excess. The tasteless art that is seduced by the artistic, causing it to write too much, to put too much into the writing/art.
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Is the “Baroque” Tasteless?

by on Apr.29, 2014

There has been some discussion here and on facebook about Steve Burt’s article on the “Nearly Baroque.” And not surprisingly, there has been a lot of focus on this “nearly,” a word that suggests both an open-ness to this baroque, and a restraint, an an ability to control this (possible dangerous, decadent impulse). It’s “extravagant” but not *that* extravagant.

I agree with Lucas’s (and Joyelle’s) suggestion that it has to do with a defense against the foreign, that the “fully baroque” may not even be a particular foreign poetry, but a more general foreign-ness. Lucas asserts:

“The exacted inexactness of Burt’s ‘nearly baroque,’ his ‘almost rococo,’ thus indexes a certain allergy and attraction to the foreign, a certain anxiety over the loss of canon control.”

I am interested in how Burt’s “nearly” plays into a dynamics of Taste, a sense that I think is enhanced by Burt’s standing as an arbiter of taste. For isn’t the most obvious meaning of baroque in fact “tasteless”? The word was first used as a derogatory term calling attention to an excess of ornamentality (which equals crime, thanks Modernism). And this is largely how Burt uses the terms as well. With this important change: the poets he writes about are “NEARLY” baroque.

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Strange Tongues: Arielle Greenberg on Aase Berg and Kim Hyesoon in APR

by on Apr.01, 2014

In the new issue of American Poetry Review, Arielle Greenberg has an essay on the state of translation in contemporary poetry:

“Nonetheless, as new poetry books have been arriving on my doorstep over the past couple of years, I’ve been deeply heartened to see so many weird, wild, exciting works – both modern and contemporary – in translation…”

Arielle Greenberg

Greenberg goes through some of the anxieties about translation – how she doesn’t have access to the cultural context, the original etc – but concludes that she nevertheless thinks it’s important to read foreign works in translation:

“… since many of the literature that have avant-garde American poetry originated on other soil, it behooves us to have a more complex sense of the ways in which idea and art intersect and develop across cultures and tongues…”

She then goes on to discuss Graham Foust and Samuel Fredrick’s translation of Ernst Meister, Tomaz Salamun’s On the Tracks of Wild Game (translated by Sonja Kravanja), Lidija Dimkovska’s pH Neutral History (translated by Ljubica Arsovka and Peggy Reid), my translation of Aase Berg’s Mörk Materia and Don Mee Choi’s translation of Kim Hyesoon’s All the Garbage of the World, Unite!.


This is how Greenberg describes Dark Matter:

“Dark Matter is, as its title suggests, a relentlessly macabre collection of prose poems in sections (though certain landscapes and characters seem to melt from one into another), informed by imagery from sci-fi and horror movies and video games: black shells, glowing castles, radioactive lemurs, crystal germs. The whole book feels LCD-screen-blue in a blacklighted cavern, and in true Gothic mode, the body is itself the site of horror: “I haul myself,” the speaker with a gashed-up mouth laments in “Life Form”…

Greenberg’s method throughout is to draw connections between American and the translated poets:
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Exploded Tranströmer: On Ye Mimi and Translation

by on Feb.25, 2014

The past few months I’ve been reading and re-reading the little chapbook His Days Go By the Way Her Years by the young Taiwanese poet and filmmaker Ye Mimi – and translated beautifully by Steve Bradbury and published beautifully by Anomalous Press.

You can read some of the poems here.

A few months ago, after she came back from the Hong Kong poetry festival, Aase Berg wrote to me that she had come across an amazing poet: Ye Mimi. (Apparently YM appeared with a very impressive guitar player as well.)
That is funny because when I first read Ye Mimi what came to my mind was a somewhat controversial article Aase wrote in Expressen after Tomas Tranströmer won the Nobel Prize the other year:

I have already begun to view Tranströmer’s poetry – purely internally, in my brain – as kitsch. That makes it easier for me to communicate with it because I see kitsch as something generative: banality and surprising intelligence in unexpected union. The idea of Tranströmer’s images as kitschy allows me to associate to other images, instead of getting stuck in an image mysticism which may seem chokingly water-tight.

Ye Mimi’s poems are wonderful in that way: as “banality and surprising intelligence in unexpected union.” In fact they read a little like Tranströmer poems in which the metaphors flip out, go off in tangents. And a Tranströmer poem in which the tenor of the metaphor is not privileged – not over the vehicle, not over the “banal” everyday stuff (pink hoodies, telephone booths etc).

My favorite Tranströmer poem is “To Friends Behind a Border”

To Friends Behind A Border

I wrote so sparsely to you. But what I couldn’t write
swelled and swelled like an old-fashioned zeppelin
and drifted at last through the night sky.

Now the letter is with the censor. He turns on his lamp.
In the glow my words fly up like monkeys on grille
rattle it, become still, and bare their teeth!

Read between the lines. We are going to meet in 200 years
when the microphones in the hotel walls are forgotten
and finally get to sleep, become orthoceras.

Part of what I love about this poem is how lovely and ridiculous his famous metaphors are here: the letters become monkeys (like in a Disney fantasia), the spy-microphones becomes fossils.

This element of goofy-brilliant metaphors are all over Ye Mimi’s work:

but he is bored to pieces and has to have a smoke
a ghost nods off beneath the blackboard tree in a punitive gesture the kittens are made to crouch in tummies
we are mortified at vomiting a layer of sea
the skin of which could not be whiter

(from “And All the Sweat is Left There”)

One big difference is that Ye Mimi’s work is more flippant, following the odd metaphor off in different directions, creating an effect like Exploded Tranströmer.
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Publishers Weekly on Valerie Mejer, Rain of the Future

by on Feb.06, 2014

Publisher’s Weekly on the new Action Books book, Rain of the Future by Valerie Mejer:

“Things brought together by violent chance/ that could be stitched-up with a word” astutely describes the latest from Mexico City–born Mejer. In this collection of translations edited by Wright, reality and dream are carefully stitched to form a different fabric of sense: “I have a chest broken as a broken bone/ I have a home broken as a broken hand/ I have a bird broken as a broken chest/ I have a girl broken like a broken pencil// And no one gives me assurances because no one can.” These dreamscapes, infused with nightmare throughout the book’s four sections, subvert symbol and sign to reestablish new meaning—some in tight lyrics (“Today the roofs wear water./ Tomorrow I will have died:/ This is the rain of the future,/ humidity that returns to the country of eyes”), others in short prose (“But a nightmare is a single mare in the night or the night turned mare. Here they breed and a giant trembles in all of his leaves. The next day was as tall. The next day was like a son, even taller”). Andre Breton famously wrote “Beauty will be convulsive or will not be at all”—Mejer convulses steady as a beating heart. (Feb.)

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The Violence and Invisibility of Translations

by on Jan.25, 2014

I just wrote this on my facebook update:

Seems like a lot of issues of translation has come up recently: Don Mee Choi’s not that she – the translator – wasn’t mentioned in the review of Kim Hyesoon’s All the Garbage; the Lucas Klein post I linked to below; C. Dale Young discussion about the claim that American writers are insular and don’t read work in translation (judging from the commentary to that link, they’re not only not reading works in translation but also totally unwilling to have a discussion about them not reading things in translation); and Coldfront Magazine’s “top 40 poetry books of 2014” which didn’t include a *single* work in translation (there’s no ethical responsibility to read works in translation, but lets think about what it means that you think all 40 best books of 2013 were by Americans!). I guess I’ll have to write something about this… Just when I thought Lawrence Venuti was outdated…

Where to go from there? I’ve been writing about translation so long now that I don’t even know what to say anymore… To begin with, I don’t think all Americans want to ignore things in translation. America has a really rich history of engaging with works in translation (Pound etc). As I noted in this post I wrote for the Poetry Foundation, there is quite a bit of interest in translation, but it’s mostly in the small-press universe. Kim Hyesoon’s All the Garbage of the World Unite! (in Don Mee’s translation!) has received an incredibly amount of positive feedback. Overall, the two Kim Hyesoon books have probably received some 20 substantial write-ups and her work is not being translated into a whole bunch of languages. So not all people hate works in translation…

So who does hate translation? (continue reading…)

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Calling all contammo-fiends & beauty brats! TYTTI HEIKKINEN is in the house!

by on Jan.14, 2014

Johannes Göransson is in the cryer this morning because not enough ppl are reading Tytti Heikkinen’s THE WARMTH OF THE TAXIDERMIED ANIMAL + + + + + How can this be, ppl??? I SLEEP DROOLING ALL OVER THIS BOOK, WHICH I NIGHTLY CRAM IN MY MOUTH. + + + + + These wild, search engine-based poems make Flarf look sooooo totally last decade.

Because I feel morose when Johannes weeps and because I think Tytti Heikkinen is the best thing since radioactive fat lozenges, I’m putting up a sampler of her poems here.

All translations by the amazing NIINA POLLARI! You can buy the book here.




Fuck i’m a fatty when others are skinny.
Also Im short, am I a fatty or short? Wellyeah
I’m such a grosss fatty that it makes no sens…
My Woundedness has let the situation get
this way tht the fat squeezes out etc. Now I’m
putting distance btwn me and everything, because I’ve been so
disappointed in my self, cause from the word “greedy”
I think of a greedy fatty and then I get mad. Panic
rises in my chest, a tremor. Everything is so terrible
, outside its wet and icy , It’s cold when I
lay here and im an undisciplined fatty. (continue reading…)

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Borzutzky’s Data Bodies

by on Jan.11, 2014


Daniel Borzutzky has a new chapbook called Data Bodies. Daniel is of the Montevidayoian stripe through and through: his work is visceral, theatrical, political without being self-righteousness, and often moves with a frantic energy. His last book, The Book of Interfering Bodies (Nightboat Books), was a fascinating exploration of the political brutality that underlines so much neo-liberalism. Borzutzky is well-known for his translations of Raúl Zurita’s work, and Bodies seems to take into itself both the horrors of Pinochet’s Chile and the corporatism of modern-day America, though places and people go largely unnamed in the work. The new book is, as the title suggests, about data, information, surveillance, networks. It is also about bodies and shit and hair. As one of the opening lines says, “We harbor data and we harbor the carcasses and we try to keep the two sets of information separate.”

But Daniel’s chapbook is about merging the two, dramatically. There’s always a Foucault-ian element to Daniel’s work: for him, history is about how bodies are controlled and regulated and sometimes brutalized. As he writes in “Non-Essential Personnel,” “We sit in our cubicles and sanitize our hands.” This is a very lively chapbook, full of an anarchic, comic spirit that’s a good reminder political poetry doesn’t have to be leaden and humorless. The book is out from Holon, a sister publication to The Green Lantern.

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Translation & Biocultural diversity

by on Nov.20, 2013

I am intrigued by “ecolinguistic issues in translation studies” (Phil Lynes): that translation can help think through ecological relations between and ecological impact of languages (and this is a beautiful amplification of biocultural diversity‘s claim that languages encode endogenous knowledge, including ecological knowledge).

The ecology of translation is one thing; what excites me about the idea of “ecosystemic translation” is the translation of ecology: “the embodied practices through which linguistically constructed patterns of sustainable living with other life forms are translated into our dominant paradigm and interrupt their hegemony.”

—knowing and remembering that it is not the job of any non-dominant pattern to be translatable/translated into our dominant paradigm, even if to interrupt it—and that the goal of translation is not to make available any kind of universally accessible knowledge or monocultural reality.

& yet. We are aware that our dominant paradigms are severely in the need of being injected with dynamic, participatory knowings and practices unfolding in interaction with other species, temporalities, the earth, ancestors. Precisely because we are at the risk of losing this diversity that must be nurtured and celebrated.

So how may we invite the “minor” languages or (linguistic) practices to help? Lynes recommends Michael Cronin’s translation ecology, with its metaphor of the network, for its honoring of particularism and place. To cite Cronin:

Firstly, a network is by definition open-ended and therefore capable of being extended indefinitely … As a result, new elements can lead to restructuring without collapse. Secondly, … [t]he potential openness of the network does not mean it is open to all. Thirdly, the logic of the network is greater than the power of its individual nodes. In other words, the connectedness of nodes is what permits their flexible and dynamic response to changing situations but it is shared goals, values and end, which allow for a level of structural coherence in the network itself.

These are some beginning thoughts about strategies for translation in the midst of ecological crises, shedding of old stories, eco-awakenings.

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Some Comfortable Thoughts: Inger Christensen’s Alphabet as Kill List

by on Oct.17, 2013

This new Kill List poem by Josef Kaplan is easily the best work of conceptual poetry I’ve seen in a long time. I’m an expressionist, not a conceptualist. But let’s face it, conceptualism, as Inger Christensen would say, ‘exists’. This particular conceptualist poem works for me because it invites us to consider an idea, and invites us to turn that idea over and over for as long as the idea interests us. Then it invites us to delete the idea. This is a great poem for FaceBook, for conversations heatedly engaged upon and then abandoned because other pressures such as the need to sleep or shop or nuke a burrito became more compelling. The deleting is part of the ‘reading’. This concept will self-destruct. Unlike a drone.

A Multipoint Array

As for the concept: we are introduced to the phrase Kill List, which for most nice liberal American poetry readers will conjure ideas of drone warfare or revolutionary violence or the opposite of a no-kill shelter or some kind of fatal indexing. Then the poem presents us with 68 pages of alphabetized poets’ names, grouped in sets of four, each identified as ‘rich’ or ‘comfortable’.  Like, ‘Caroline Bergvall is rich’ and ‘Jim Behrle is comfortable’.

One senses that this ranking of the poets into the dubious bourgeois or ultra-bourgeois categories is the bait we’re supposed to gobble up. And yet. I just read Inger Christensen’s Alphabet, in Susana Nied’s translation, last week with some students, and I can’t help but focus on that ‘is’.

‘Kill List’ could be read as a litany, it could be reading off a library shelf. The indexical adjustments of ‘comfortable’ and ‘rich’ have a nice, well, ‘comfortable’ sixties feel to them, a now- out-of-touchness, a vagueness. Like ‘don’t trust anyone over thirty’– as expressions of acute political crisis, kind of sweet. In our current context, these could be financial terms or refer to perceived social assets or even how interested the author feels in these poets–or it could be random. As 2 goes into four (ie the binary of rich/comfortable into the 4 line stanza), there is also the alphabetical order itself. Sweet old alphabetical order. Humans made you, and humans love you. But nothing humans make is innocent. Not even orders of knowledge.  Moreover we are invited to read these 68 pages as a computer would, scanning for names (names are the only element that changes), data mining an index for names we recognize. Like a drone-operator or a drone. Attention or recognition here is itself weaponized.

This is where I link Kill List to Inger Christensen. Re-reading Alphabet, I was very taken by the poem’s smoothness. It has the smoothness of a big fat bomber high up in the strangelove sky. As it glides, we glide, we can see the whole horizon line of the earth, cities and species and chemicals all becoming visual in the reading-scape of the poem. [nb, I think Kill List is a very retinal poem, since consuming its well-designed pages, its nicely serifed, landscaped font, is so very easy. It’s so easy to consume this book, to be an early adaptor of the predator’s visual viewpoint. After all, computers as we know them were developed in the 20th c. for work on the H-Bomb, for calculating shock waves. The Internet, as we know, is a military installation]. As each noun in Christensen’s poem comes into view, the poem remarks it ‘exists’. But I also felt this word ‘exists’ could function as meaning the opposite– each of these things ‘exists’ at the exact moment it leaves the planet. Alphabet is as much a cold war poem, ‘existing’ in the split second between the dropping of a nuclear bomb and its impact, as Kill List is a drone war poem. Both invite us to think about how poetry ‘exists’ under the aeriel penumbra of war.  Both make us realize how puny ‘existence’ is, how puny ‘is’ is.  The incommensurateness between the title’s reference to the supposed ‘inhumanity’ of drone warfare (I think drone warfare is humanity itself) and the poem itself might be the point of this poem.

No order of knowledge is neutral because it is tainted with human’s killer instinct. We like to call ourselves ‘sapiens’ because we draw up the very best kill lists and the very best robots or enlistees or acolytes to carry them out. As the very smart J. Robert Oppenheimer remarked, “I am become death, the destroyer of worlds.” Or, nuclear bombs exist. I myself am drone.

Maybe Adam’s MFA thesis in the garden of Eden, naming all the animals, was the first Kill List in western culture. Everything that can be brought into the order of human knowledge is also on the demolition list.

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“intransigence is my calling card”: Interview with Uche Nduka

by on Sep.24, 2013


Johannes: OK, great. First a basic question: Can you tell me about your background? Ie how/why did you end up in the US? From what I can tell, you’re from Nigeria but lived for some time in Germany.

Uche: I was born in Nigeria in a family of christian priests. I was four years old when the Nigerian civil war began.I am Igbo and belonged to the Biafran side of that debacle.Many children of my age perished in that war through starvation.Till date some Igbo men and women and children are still being massacred in that country,particularly in the Northern parts.Sometimes for religious reasons and at other times for political reasons.Recently some members of the Igbo nation were deported to the East(Igboland) by the government of Lagos State.There are those who believe that after the civil war which ended in 1970 Nigeria resumed being one united nation.What crap! My generation nationally accepted the country but the nefarious actions of both military and civilian regimes that had piloted the country since the end of the civil war have given us cause to doubt a real Nigerian nationhood.Those civil and political injustices that led to the civil war in 1967 are still there.Now the problems of Nigeria are compounded even more by a sham democracy.For me the scars of living through Nigeria’s darkest decades are still here,and can never be forgotten. The Biafran War left a vicious gaping wound in life and art in Nigeria. I lived in Germany for about nine years and taught and wrote and explored that country.I lived in Holland for three years.I have been in transit in all the countries i have lived in since 1994 when i left Nigeria through the award of an Arts Fellowship by the Goethe Institute.I remain grateful to the Germans. I left Nigeria to free myself from organized idiocy and repression. I arrived in the United States Of America in 2007 to reunite with my parents and siblings who are naturalized Americans and who I did not manage to see throughout the twelve years i lived in Europe. At the moment I am a naturalized American: Nigerian-American.
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The Sugar Book: On Nazism, Kitsch, Saul Friedlander and Lars Norén

by on Sep.20, 2013

So I’m in Sweden reworking The Sugar Book, my next book of poetry (to be published next year). I’ve come to Malmö in fact to work on the book, to complete it by working through my fascination with certain aspects of aspects of art: its violence, its pointlessness, its manipulativeness, its necroglamour, the way it blurs the boundaries between life and death, art and life, private and public. It’s an unwieldy book: several hundred pages and growing. I can’t contain it. It’s also about being homeless, so that’s why I’ve returned to my home, to Sweden: if I can’t contain it here, I can’t contain it anywhere.


While writing this new draft, a few things have influenced me: Sweden’s obsession with Lars Norén’s diaries, Saul Friedlander’s book on Nazism and kitsch (“Reflection on Nazism”), a book of Francesca Woodman’s photograph (I found in Martin Glaz Serup’s apartment in Copenhagen), Raul Zurita’s poems and performances (cutting himself, writing in the sky, being rewritten as a fascist pilot by Bolano etc), and the use of the word “pornography” as applied to art that may or may not contain naked bodies (for example “ruin porn”) but which almost always betrays an iconophobic attitude about the intensive visuality of some art. This hot-spot of ideas is really fueling my re-drafting of The Sugar Book because that’s what it’s about. But I thought I would also do a little Malmö-blogging for the folks back home…


For those of you not from Sweden: (continue reading…)

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The Threat of the Foreign: The Role of Other Nations in the Princeton Encyclopedia of Poetry

by on Sep.05, 2013

A while back, Kent Johnson sent a link in one of the comment section to a review of Marjorie Perloff’s entry on “Avant-Garde Poetry” in the Princeton Encyclopedia of Poetry and Poetics. So I picked up the encyclopedia and read through it. I think that the encyclopedia brings up questions that are essential in thinking about the relationship of American poetry to the poetries of the rest of the world, but also to my recent discussion of the role of scholarship in contemporary poetry, and the definition of poetry as a “field” that we as academics can “master.”

While Johnson commends the overall encyclopedia for included entries on other national literatures, he argues that Perloff’s entry for the term “the avant-garde” is too American-centric, that it excludes not just individual poets (such as the great poets Cesar Vallejo, Raul Zurita and Alejandra Pizarnik) but that the definition, the conceptualization of the term “avant-garde” does not account for writers that are not American or European (by which he means French, German, Russian basically, she doesn’t draw on examples from less central European countries either).

I actually think Perloff’s essay is very good in that it does what it sets out to do: it gives a short, very canonical overview of the term. It doesn’t trouble the term with movements from foreign countries because the entry is not supposed to be a theoretical re-consideration of the term “avant-garde,” but an encyclopedia entry that defines “the Field” of “the avant-garde” in a manageable way. She didn’t have too much space and she crammed it with stuff.

However, it’s exactly this “manageability” of the encyclopedia that I have a problem with, based on what I wrote a couple of days ago. The encyclopedia in itself is based on the idea of knowledge as a field you can master.

Based on this element of encyclopedic mastery, you can perhaps see why I disagree with Johnson about the inclusion of other national literatures in this encyclopedia. Of course you can’t say anything worthwhile about a whole national literature in just a little encyclopedia entry. We find out for example, that the hugely important Swedish poet Ann Jäderlund combines rhythm and image. And that the hugely influential Kim Hyesoon is a woman’s writer in the confessional mode. We don’t in other words find out anything at all about the rest of the world. Other nations are just reduced to some pointless summarizing.
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