Thursday, October 30, 2008

Poets on which I've stumbled

So I'm wondering about the book I ordered — the book of poetry (what has gotten into me?): has it shipped yet? when will I get it? And I discover: no, it has not been shipped. But the publication date was days ago! What kind of shoddy customer service is this?! It occurs to me to check the publisher's website; maybe publication has been delayed.

And I stumble across this name that rings a bell. A bell-ringing name. Peter Cole. And I remember that he was supposed to be speaking at Concordia this week, and I'd thought about going. According to the publisher of his latest work, that would've been the other day. And I curse. But according to Concordia University's website, it's this day. So I plan an extra long lunch break in order to be able to check it out.

Peter Cole is a 2007 MacArthur Fellow, and he has amazing hair. Really. I can't get over the hair. Check out this picture — the hair is... is... remarkable.

He's a great speaker. The 20 or so of us in attendance were captivated. He's perhaps better known as a translator. He was sincere in explaining the pleasure (as opposed to the problem) of translation, and talked mostly about what it is to live in a space between languages. His fluency in another language and living in another culture created a crack in his English, through which light was introduced, transforming his own poetry.

He addressed some of the difficulties that arise when you're both poet and translator.

On the perils of being a translator: In gaining familiarity with various forms and voices, one may become nothing more than a technician. In breathing another's atmosphere, one may starve one's own poetry.

But ultimately, the acts of translating poetry and writing poetry — that mystical place to which one is transported — are for Cole indistinguishable.

"Improvisation on Lines by Isaac the Blind," from Things on Which I've Stumbled, begins like this:

Only by sucking, not by knowing,
can the subtle essence be conveyed—
sap of the word and the world's flowing

that raises the scent of the almond blossoming,
and yellows the bulbul in the olive's jade.
Only by sucking, not by knowing.


I like this poem, but, on the whole, the poems Cole read (recited, performed?), those he'd written as well as those he'd translated, did not speak to me.

I don't remember the last time I heard poetry, other than inside my own head. Or watched it unfold (that is, I see poetry revealed to me everyday; I mean the recitation of a poem). This was a strange experience.

Cole's voice took on a different timbre; he assumed a persona. The speaking of the poem was a deliberate and affected act. I've witnessed this at many readings. With poetry, it is more pronounced. I'm not convinced it should be this way.

(I firmly believe the words should speak for themselves. How can any writer, particularly poets, convey the breathing, the tone, the rhythm, the sum total effect they intend their work to have if not by relying on the words themselves. But attend any reading and it's clear the authors have intentions incompletely conveyed on paper.)

When Cole became a Poet reciting his verse, he removed his glasses and held his book like it was Yorick's skull. His right hand punctuated the verse, describing every beat of his orchestration, driving or being driven by the words, reluctant even to break rhythm by turning a page, rising in crescendo and slurring legato, urging his inner resources for more, to hold, to ease away.

Cole must be a marvelous teacher. He spoke candidly and with humour in response to all questions put to him. On practical matters, like learning another language, getting published, collaborating with authors to perfect a translation; on different schools of thought, in poetry, translation, linguistics (Cole takes some leeway in translation — essence more important than the words); on life — for example, there's no sense in working at translating poetry you don't feel.

Everything is translation after all. We translate every bit of our external world into the context of our own exeperience.

So this maybe is genius. Stumbled upon.
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