Transpoesis Riffs

Kenneth Sherwood


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1.) Transpoesis. This coinage has significant resonance for me, even as a nearly mono-lingual writer. The pregnant quality of the figure--poetic making as the act of carrying over--informs the first, English-only, versions of Rif/t. In name, Rif/t was meant to suggest the possibility of carrying poetry into a space from which it was notably, perhaps disturbingly, absent. What constituted the rift, what barrier seemed to impede such a carrying over?

2.) The flickering possibilities of the 'Riff' (without the stop) suggest, as Benjamin Friedlander later observed, a cagey skirting of the problem (the question of origins, what lies to the left of the back-slash,) by suggesting a continuous version, re-version, and repetition--a sidesteping of the question of beginnings by subsitution of the image of cyclic 'riffing' for 'origin'. An equivocation, but perhaps a tactical one.

3.) There is a rift within the lute that translation wants to bridge, the impeding 'backslash' of language's specificities de la lengua en particular the home and horror of a poetry that wants to bring some WHAT to some WHOM. For many outside of poetry (those not receptive to it,) that poems should communicate something to some-bodies is both their most obvious obligation and their most trite ambition. Indeed, in the technologized communication climate of MTV, CNN, and the Weather Channel, of which Rif/t obviously forms a part (however minimal), the space and necessity for a poetry will seem at once desperate and doomed.

4.) As David Antin observes in an improvised talk-poem (thinking perhaps of Wittgenstein)--we use words in an extremely loose fashion. So my 'pain' is almost certainly not your 'pain'; only, out of generosity, (or is it the compromise of practicality) we tune out this noise, surviving in the 'seeming' of the gap bridged. The drama of a poem's making--in native tongue--is its engagement with the same burderns as translation: the shaping of words into forms intelligible in and for these worlds of ours.

5.) Talking/writing outside of their home languages, Cecilia Vicuñ, Jorge Guitart, and Dubravka Djuric remind us that language (or the poem) is 'agon' and not, however much it seems so, a form within a transparent medium. However instantaneously these words appear on this screen (at the click of the proverbial icon even), they are implicated in the devouring electric hum and industrial noise of Lima, Peru as Vicun~a describes it. The intrusion of the P.A. system into the performance of her poem registers this repeated rift:

     so ahhh 
     i will not repeat the kinds of things 
     that i was saying 
     because they are better

6.) It is difficult to say what is being carried over when one translates a poem, in the traditional sense, bringing it from Spanish into English. If the poem is its language, its image nexus, its sounds, its shape on page or screen, its past and future performances-- there can be hardly be a stable sense of the 'what' which we have brought across or what even there could have been on the backslash's left side that would have been susceptible to being carried.

7.) In the carrying, in the riffing movement of 'whatever' to 'wherever', we open up the possibilities for poetry, a bounty of readings, which may begin to suggest that poems exist not simply in their artifactual forms but in the kinetic of their makings, remakings, and readings. Some of the poems in this special issue of Rif/t are translated in a non-traditional fashion, one which will disturb many an seasoned poetaster. The fidelity of many is not so much to an original--since carrying over the poem, if poem is conceived in a full sense, is impossible--as to an ethic of transpoesis. That the carrying should be acknowledged as an act of making, an act of poetic intervention rather than representation, is not the apologia for the typical 'compromises involved in translation' except insofar as the very fact of making a poem out of 'words', the limited tools of one's own lexia and of language structure, should itself also be seen as a failure.

8.) We have then translations by Guitart, Howe, Bernstein and others inspired by an extreme materialism; and we have the materially inspired poems in translation from the extremes of Haiti, France, Italy, Argentina, China, Korea and the former Yugoslavia. Spinelli's Satie poem and Cecilia Vicuña's transcribed talk-poem remind that the problems and poesis of translation extend beyond transfer from the German page to the English page. The work of Jerome Rothenberg, Dennis Tedlock, and David Antin (as precursors) might be acknowledged here, for its attention to the poem's body, its sounds, performance qualities, and social context--crucial reminders, as is Vicuña's joke on whites carrying notebooks, that the poem-as-print-object is the anomaly in the larger history of poetry.

9.) Some readers will no doubt be troubled by the liberties taken in the more free translations. No definitive translations are presented here (though many are accomplished enough that in other spaces such authority would be claimed for them); instead we have a dialog of texts, an ice-breaking conversational game with few rules. Unable to offer any 'get-out-of-jail-free' poems, the editors of Rif/t urge you to roll; if you Pass Go, collect $200.

10.) An Irish poet recently wrote, "I want a poem to die in." Call this the Grecian Urn aesthetic, and publish it always in red-leather bound volumes with gold filigree. Dubravka Djuric's poem, (which she gave Rif/t before returning to her Beograd home last year,) requires daily translation if one reads with radio news in the background:

                              THE MURMUR
                                   OF THE WATER
               differently from other languages
          Strange is the connection
               of the consonants and vocals
                    the word
     Strange is the memory of
                              the beginning
                             To break the sense of
                                   THE WORD

Strange is this town
                    But I haven't revealed yet
                    the nature of the connection
               between myself and the word
               between name and name


          --from Dubravka Djuric's "XXX"

11.) All true poetry is made through a process of translation, and in the seemingly contradictory belief that words are ultimately untranslatable. Both, at once--reading words as if they were not substitutible by any others, but in themselves constituted the poem. Is there a use in the distinction between prose and poetic language? "Poem" is a family of words believing it is like no other. Otherwise it becomes the Judas of its own denial, mere words. "You must not think that you do not understand it because you cannot say it. . . in other words." (Gertrude Stein)

12.) This poetic=(obdurate untranslatability) needs to embrace a wide range of words: "I have seen young men, my townsmen" "lecture on nothing" "not merely one of hegemony" "UPI--Thursday, April 20" "Set keel to breakers" "O, but lightly." Even the "jargon of post-structuralist thought," because it cannot be 'said' otherwise; so whatever poetry has that is desirable must take those forms, is fated to this physiognomy of particulars (sound shape and style). And these translations, these many poems aim to "work the same street, as it were, without loss of coherence or particularlity. . . ." (Robert Creeley)

13.) In America, anyone who buys more books than clothes qualifies as an intellectual or a poet. "Much that has been questioned as difficult in poetry has to do with just such matters." (RC)

RIF/T: An Electronic Space for Poetry, Prose, and Poetics
Editors: Kenneth Sherwood and Loss Pequeño Glazier
ISSN#: 1070-0072
Version 4.1 Spring 1995

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