Monday, November 19, 2007


Looking at this photo I am reminded of a conversation about poetry. In the conversation I talked about poetry being ostensive (in the Wittgensteinian sense of an ostensive definition) --I said that poetry points to something. The "I" of the poem points to memories, concepts, "mind stuff" inside the reader.

Pictures do the same thing. The criteria used to distinguish good photographs are the same criteria used to distinguish good poems. Now, a good photograph isn't just one that is clean; it is good because it points to the right event in the viewer's personal and cultural memory. I am no photographer, and from the technical perspective this photo might be seen as a failure, but ostensively it points in the right direction. Obviously I am biased, but I think that even if I were to come upon this image randomly I would pause for a moment. The composition reminds me of Gustav Klimt, and the profile reminds me of Anna Akhmatova. These two sparks are enough to make me stop and think: "Who is she?" "Why is she smiling?" "Where is all this taking place?" My attempt to answer these questions is the poem created by the image. It is like that moment when Walter Pater encounters the Mona Lisa in Studies in the History of the Renaissance.

I find it odd that people still talk about Adorno's saying about poetry after the Holocaust, but rarely raise the possibility of poetry after Dickinson or Eliot. For me it seems just as much a challenge, and every poem for me has to be audacious enough to say: "me": "I am just as, or even more, worthy".

The poem must point to the right place inside the reader. In this sense a poem is a sort of field marshal. It does not try and coax its readers, but orders them to attention, and proceeds to give precise instructions to get the job done. Which is? Which is that near impossible task of showing an individual a "better" way of thinking. How does the poet convince someone to think "better"? Here you were reader, thinking your thoughts and now I, the poem, propose you listen to me, because I think better for you. This is absurd, and this is precisely why poems are almost never read anymore, and also why the few readers still left are incredibly passionate. If a poem does actually manage to make us think "better" it is a profound experience in our time. Readers (American readers especially) are recalcitrant --they have their own "opinions". A poem is a field marshal; it is not a piece of fiction which coaxes the reader into a kind of docile pleasure. Good fiction beguiles the reader like an experienced odalisque. It is no surprise that fiction should do so much better in a world where the "consumer is always right".

A poem doesn't have time, it only has one chance to point in the "right" direction. The problem with most poems today is that they don't point anywhere, but unlike fiction they don't beguile either. Poems have seceded the job of marshaling, but are still too proud to take a job in the brothel. No wonder no one reads poetry anymore. It's not that there are more forms of media. It's that all the good poets don't think they are good anymore. People still read books, and in fact the poem is more fitting for a century built upon sound bites and youtube clips. It's just that the poets have stopped being poets. There is no authority in poems! What is the point of writing more poetry if it isn't better than what's already been written! Why should a reader follow the words of an inferior commander? One can definitely settle for a less than perfect whore, but one cannot be so compromising when it comes to choosing the right generals. If there are no more generals among our poets then poetry really is hurting in a bad way.

Now I am not saying that any poet is really better than say Denise Levertov. I am saying that a poet shouldn't bother writing if she doesn't believe she is better than every poet before her; she must feel best suited to lead the minds of her contemporaries. The good poet must feel as if she were a superb leader of minds --she must move the mind of the reader to ask the important questions.

Tuesday, November 13, 2007

Translation Projects

It has been over a month. I've returned from the ALTA conference with the impression that there is a lot of work to been done.

At ALTA I spoke with Olga Slavnikova, Jim Kates, Marian Schwartz, Aliki and Willis Barnstone, Susan Harris, Dwayne Hayes, Garrick Davis, Bill Johnston, Susan Bernofsky, ok there are too many people to name. Adam Sorkin is possibly my favorite person of all. Idra Novey's work was the only thing I read during the conference, and if made me write. Doug Unger and Guiseppe Natale had a great panel in terms of putting forth a very practical MFA purpose for translation. So...

Let me say that if all goes well there will be much more about all this business in the future. For now I am thinking about putting together a translation project connected to the Russian Debut prize. Each year the Debut Foundation awards a $5000 prize in prose and a poetry. The prize also funds the publication of the Debut anthology which includes the shortlisted writers for that year. The prize has become a magnet for some of the most talented young authors writing in Russian today. My plan is to take the best of the Debut prize in poetry and fiction, and to help put forward two anthologies in the U.S. I believe such a project would be a great window into contemporary Russian literature. I've read the anthologies sponsored by Debut and it would be easy to select good authors for a translated anthology, the hard part would be deciding who to leave out.

As I finish up the semester I will also be looking at grants, and figuring out how to best put this project into motion. So many questions... How should I apply for a grant? Should I try and apply myself, or with a set of collaborators? Who would be most interested in such a project? etc. etc.

Also, I understand I haven't been posting as much as I should be, and that I really haven't followed through with my plan to write on a weekly basis about the contemporary literary scene in Russia. Hopefully I will find more time in the future. Something I might do is start writing for other blogs interested in what I have to offer. One place I might start blogging is Absinthe.

Here are my references for now.

Check out:
Zephyr Press
Words Without Borders

ps. i made a complete fool of myself during ALTA's closing ceremony. the song i think best expresses my mood is this.