Recently Aldon Nielsen noted that the choice made by Kwami Dawes and Chris Abani to include Tsitsi Jaji’s Carnaval in the box-setedition of Seven New Generation African Poets (Slapering Hol Press, African Poetry Book Fund; 2014) indicated that she has joined “the burgeoning number of poet-critics who are now working in our best universities . . . who are doing some of the most memorable work both as scholars and as poets.” Indeed, the concerns of the poems in Carnaval are the concerns of Jaji's recent critical book, Africa in Stereo. The poem “Preambule” is written across the Zimbabwean ground (“lightly / loosening the soil’s death rattle”) as its theory of listening derives from a transnational circulation of classical music (lines inspired by Schumann’s Carnaval, Op. 9, which the poet herself has performed), African-American double consciousness (W.E.B. DuBois) and musicological migration (“The piano originated in Africa,” per Abdullah Ibrahim).
Kristín Eiríksdóttir and I sit with her new book of poetry, Kok (Icelandic for Throat). The book is penned in Icelandic, and Kristín has performed a preliminary Icelandic-to-English translation of the text to accompany the book’s launch. Kok partners Kristín’s visual art with her meditation on relationship. The long poem touts simple diction in repetition, occasionally confronting syntax shift, and an unexpected end-before-the-poem-ends that wrenches the reader’s heart through her gut via quick sucker punch. Kok is poignant, bare, driven. It captures exactly that moment when a body becomes struck with what’s stuck.
We sit with her English translation on screen and an Icelandic print-out in hand. The computer and print-out cycle between our hands, fluid reference points as we compare her translation with the original. Several times we confront Icelandic words too difficult to translate.
Those of us who teach know that the various cultural debates around multilingualism worm their ways into our classrooms. At the K-12 level especially, bi- and multilingual education have specific consequences for funding: the fear is that English Language Learners (ELLs) will lower schools’ test scores, resulting in a punitive drop in already meager funding. In higher ed, many universities are getting rid of foreign language requirements (although they’re still promoting study abroad as a great resumé-booster and as the ticket to success in an increasingly globalized economy). At all levels of education, of course, there are many students who are second-language (or third- or fourth-language) speakers, and students speak varieties of English other than the ones that are privileged in traditional education. Many of these students want to improve their use of Standard English, but that doesn't mean they should be made to feel as though there is an "English Only" sign on the classroom door.
It may seem a bit beside the point to bring these educational and cultural debates into a conversation about poetry, but I think that the relative openness to multilingualism that is readily visible in so many poems can serve as a helpful corrective to the transparent and univocal conception of language that reigns supreme in most educational settings.
Thanks to the archival and digital work of Chris Mustazza, who is the editor of this new material, we at PennSound are now able to announce a new page of recordings of James Weldon Johnson. Most readers who might otherwise know Johnson's work well have never heard the man's voice. The recordings Chris located, researched and digitized were made on December 24, 1935, at Columbia University, recorded by Barnard professors George W. Hibbitt and W. Cabell Greet, lexicologists and scholars of American dialects. PennSound wishes to thank the staff at Columbia's Rare Book & Manuscript Library, especially Thai Jones, Jennifer Lee, Devon Maeve Nevola, Jane Siegel, and Karla Nielsen, for helping us to make these recordings available.We acknowledge permission from Jill Rosenberg Jones and the James Weldon Johnson estate to present these recordings for free to anyone.
“The recordings here were originally made on aluminum platters,” writes Chris in his editorial note. “They were subsequently dubbed to reel-to-reel tapes by the Library of Congress in the 1970s. These digitizations are made from the reels, which are stored at Columbia University. I made the decision to present the recordings in the order in which Columbia numbered the aluminum platters, which may or may not be the same sequence used by Johnson and Hibbitt, except for where I reordered them to keep parts of the same poem together. Sequence numbers, as well as record numbers, are available in the file names.”