DRUNKEN BOAT, ISSUE 9, Winter 2007-2008

Over fifteen years ago, poet and critic Dana Gioia published a widely read and disseminated essay in The Atlantic Monthly, “Can Poetry Matter?,” in which he compared poets to “priests in a town of agnostics,” pushed out from the mainstream of cultural life in America, into ever-more hermetic enclaves where no one, save other poets, had any interest in the art form. This movement towards virtual obsolescence was at the same time being accompanied by a paradoxical boom in the poetry business. The number of graduate programs in poetry writing, the number of poetry titles published per year, even institutional markers such as state laureateships in poetry were all increasing while the general readership of the genre was in an out-and-out decline. Gioia attempted in his essay to discern the reasons for this simultaneous diminishment and expansion, and provided six proposals for poetry to regain its relevancy, items like “when poets give public readings, they should spend part of every program reciting other people’s work.”

Now into the new millennium, we thought it useful to revisit the question and so Drunken Boat is offering its first folio on Poetics. In the elapsed time, the situation Gioia, now the head of the National Endowment of the Arts, described, if anything, has magnified. Poetry is as marginal as ever, still not reviewed widely in mass-market periodicals, still not selling well, and outside of a handful of poets or the thriving slam-scene, recited to a small, insular crowds composed of other writers. Nonetheless the number of graduate programs, books, journals, festivals, conferences, websites and blogs dedicated to the genre continue to proliferate at a mind-boggling rate. This contradictory movement of simultaneous diminishment and augmentation is described well by Octavio Paz in his collection of essays The Other Voice, where he ends on a positive note “as long as there are people, there will be poetry.” We can also consider Auden here, in his poem “In Memory of W.B. Yeats”:

For poetry makes nothing happen: it survives
    In the valley of its making where executives
    Would never want to tamper, flows on south
    From ranches of isolation and the busy griefs,
    Raw towns that we believe and die in; it survives,
    A way of happening, a mouth.

Then, at Drunken Boat, we decided to embark upon a resolutely non-scientific study: to ask ten astute, literate, indeed literary, individuals (the group comprised novelists, a playwright, a science writer, a landscape architect, and a professional conversationalist) to respond to a dozen poems from this issue (Sandra Beasley’s Orchis, Jeffrey Skinner’s Theory of Escape from the Old Country, Nathaniel Tarn’s Johann Sebastian Summoned to the Royal Court, Robin Beth Schaer’s Swarm, Brian Johnson’s Luxury Appointments, Ron Padgett’s Mortal Combat, Dennis Nurkse’s A Night at High Spur, Camille Dungy’s Maybe Tuesday Will Be My Good News Day, Michael Snediker’s Angel of Bethesda I, Lisa Russ Spaar’s This is Not a Bill, Jeet Thayil’s Spiritus Mundi, and the audio of Geoff Brock’s Phototaxis). The premise and mandate were fairly specific yet with ample room for invention. To quote from the invitation, “use the twelve poems specifically as the basis for your comments, but feel free to range around from there to any variety of topics. You'll notice that we have left the poems unattributed, so that anonymity is preserved and you can write on the poems themselves without the added encumbrance of knowing the authors. Again what you write can be positive, negative, ambivalent, polyvalent, revelatory or digressive--really, it's up to you.” The results are published, along with works from forty contemporary poets working in a variety of modes, in the Poetics folio and the essays run the gamut from suspicion to zeal to out-and-out animosity. Some of the essays engage directly with the poems, others digress considerably and still others refuse to address even a single poem; we’ll leave it up to our readers to draw any larger conclusions. 

This issue also includes the remainder of the finalists from our inaugural PanLiterary Awards, the first installment of which was published in our last issue. The award ceremony was held at the New Britain Museum of American Art on April 26th, 2007, as part of the “Recharging the Sensorium” conference. Among many other memorable performances, the event included a hilarious pre-recorded acceptance speech by Jason Nelson, Matthew Burtner playing an electronic saxophone articulated with the tones of a Tibetan bowl, Christiana Langenberg passing out a blue book to go with her award-winning multiple choice story, Erik Bünger flying in from Sweden to present a surround sound rendition of his “Variations of a Poem by Allan Ginsberg” and an electro-acoustic concert by musician and composer Robert Black. We will be posting snippets of video from the multimedia performances on our MySpace Page, <http://www.myspace.com/drunkenboatlit>. Check this space occasionally to see updates and announcements for forthcoming events, including a collaboration with McSweeney’s and the Dalkey Archive to bring members of the OULIPO to New York City.

Finally, the last component of this issue is one that will be refreshed in a few months time: the first wave of our mis/Translation folio. There’s perhaps no trope as apt as translation to describe the situation of online literature—words turned to points of light, pixilated and dispersed rhizomatically around the world. If to translate is to remove from one place to another, then every expedition, from medium to medium, from language to language, brings with it an immeasurable loss, an ineluctable gain. The scale between fidelity and treason is perhaps less graduated then one might imagine. The most accurate rendition of someone’s work from one language to another in time will slip, will lose connotation, while the most irreverent appropriation of someone else’s work may verge closer to originary intent.

In this folio, we use the slash to indicate the ways in which translation can move from straight to skewed, from literal to playful. Editor Sina Queyras first became aware of the slippery powers of translation upon encountering a fragment of Sappho that she first read in translation by Mary Barnard. The fissure that opened up upon seeing Anne Carson’s version, in which inhabited the role of both creator and conduit, expanded into grand proportions. Working backward, Queyras realized that Mary Barnard, in conversation with Ezra Pound, had taken similar liberties in offering us a “modernist Sappho.” That fissure deepened when she encountered Steve McCaffery’s homophonic translations of Gertrude Stein, and grew more complicated with Sheep’s Vigil for a Fervent Person, Erin Mouré’s transelations of Fernando Pessoa. In Rational Geomancy, Steve McCaffery and bp Nichol set out to uncover what is gained from “a break with the one-dimensional view of translation…” the idea that one is capable of translating in “real terms” a work of art from one language to another. What the reader is left with is the endless possibilities inherent in the act of translation.

Think of Jorge Luis Borges’ Pierre Menard, Author of the Quixote, in which this fictitious French writer in his attempt to go beyond mere translation, ends up recreating Don Quixote word-for-word in the original 16th century Spanish, a version which, according to our reviewer is superior to the original, because it must be read against all that has transpired since Cervantes’ time. As Menard has written to the narrator, “To compose the Quixote at the beginning of the seventeenth century was a reasonable undertaking, necessary and perhaps even unavoidable; at the beginning of the twentieth, it is almost impossible. It is not in vain that three hundred years have gone by, filled with exceedingly complex events. Amongst them, to mention only one, is the Quixote itself.”

Or think of the phrase for false cognates in French, faux amix. Literally, false friends. But not false friends. False friends are words in two distinct languages that look or sound similar but have different meanings, while false cognates are words that look or sound and mean something similar in two distinct languages but actually do not share a common linguistic root. Like the Bangla word for cut (kaata) or the Russian word for strange (stranno).

Indeed, how much of our cognitive faculty is not infused with some kind of mistranslation? Think of Wittgenstein’s beetle in a box, where everyone possesses a small box where they keep a beetle, except no one is allowed to look in anyone else’s box. Over time the word “beetle” comes to represent what’s contained in each person’s box, though there’s no basis for comparison, and ultimately, it becomes irrelevant whether or not the beetle exists. If all we have at our disposal is language to articulate the world, its precision and meaning, in abstract form, how do we reconcile the stance that dialogue is nothing more than the congress of arbitrary conceits?

Obviously languages do not bend well to translation. Each has its own cadence, context, and forms of syntax. The translator’s goals: to capture the dynamicity of the original, while reestablishing a mirror in another language; or to curve the line of something to fit their own quiver. Think of Frida Kahlo’s response to Sigmund Freud’s Moses and Monotheism, where one of his precepts is the interdiction against graven images. What does Frida decide to do in her Moses? She paints a picture, one of a pantheistic vision that includes Gandhi, Mao, the Buddha, Egyptian and Native American gods. What we call mis/translation here in this first wave and in the wave to come might be intentional or accidental, extruded or shattered, but either way, a circumscription of a new circle of influence. You will find, in this folio, a sample of those possibilities. Whether it is self-translation, homophonic translation, transelation, or an attempt to recreate the original as closely as possible in a new language or form, the work included in this folio of mis/translations reminds us that there are no rules in the game, only potential.

Finally, we'd like to dedicate this issue in memory of kari edwards, one of our contributing editors, who died on her birthday, December 2nd, 2006. Her memory lives on in these pages.

Editors, Drunken Boat 2007/2008