Commentaries - June 2011

Jackson Mac Low reads Stein's "Tender Buttons"

an audio recording newly available

On October 11, 1990, Jackson Mac Low read from Gertrude Stein's Tender Buttons for seven minutes. You'll hear the voice of Charles Bernstein as he and others (members of Bernstein's class at Buffalo at the time) scramble to find a copy of the Stein. Then Mac Low spent a few minutes discussing the "Objects" section.

Translation is a form of following

Words have no home, and it is there our home is located

pague ahora, llore después

Pasaje Rodríguez, across from the Grafógrafo Bookstore (Tijuana)

What happens in the space between languages, between minds, between distinct modes or moments of perception, different ways of understanding and articulating those perceptions? What is made possible in the many shifting spaces we inhabit as we move through an exchange or transfer of brain waves, sound waves, ideas carried by breath, without alighting too long in any one particular position?

trans     positions. 


San Ysidro

Zoom in:
                un gigante
extranjero en tu pupila
                     y un gigante
nativo que te incrusta
uñas negras
en la otra
            y un instante
tu rostro
es una crispación
de lenguas muertas

Zoom out:
                   luz verde
que te enrola en el cardumen de los otros
mientras cruzas
la Línea


San Ysidro

Zoom in:
       a gigantic
foreigner in your right
        and a gigantic
native who embeds
black fingernails in you
in your other
          an instant
your face
is a convulsion
of dead tongues

Zoom out:
         green light
that enlists you in the shoal of others
as you cross
la Línea

The longer I spend wandering the galaxies of translation, the more I experience what is perhaps the inverse of the process I suggested in my last post as a way to locate kindred spirits in other languages, with an intent to read or an intent to translate—to read widely and follow the pleasurably circuitous routes toward writers whose work most piques your interest. Alternately, you might encounter a writer through mutual friends or shared interests; in the case of Román Luján and myself, the mutual friend was Cristina Rivera Garza (with whom you can read a great interview here), and the shared interests began at the Laboratorio Fronterizo de Escritores in Tijuana and quickly extended far beyond the literary. As in Román’s and my case, you might be friends and informal readers of each other’s work and co-orbiters in literary space for years before beginning to work collaboratively and co-conspiratorially on translations of other writers’ work before finally bringing that process home, as it were, into the friendship.

Román’s new book is titled Drâstel, published recently by Bonobos Editores. When I asked him about the title, he responded somewhat flippantly: there’s a poem in the book with that title. I’d read the poem, of course, but figured perhaps after the closer-than-close reading translation entails, I’d feel more specifically illuminated.


Words will come to interfere
Michael Palmer

Si digo esto no pienses en aquello,
no importa cuán remota o vieja amiga

mi voz aún te parezca. Si digo esto
usa mis pechos bifocales, mis ardorosas

lágrimas, mi sombra engarzadora
de nadie y tierra y humo y divorciado

polvo. Si triste lazarillo no rescribas
los raudos torbellinos de Noruega.

No voy a arrebatarte el miligramo
de la espalda, ahora que has andado

por muros y cristales bocabajo, ahora
que has pulido la oscura transparencia.

Si digo esto no quiero, aunque pudiera,
complacerte en aquello que exigía

tu aliento, musa fosca, el herrumbroso
engranaje del amor. Nunca la sangre.



Words will come to interfere
Michael Palmer

If I say this don’t think of that,
no matter how remote or like an old friend

my voice still seems to you. If I say this
use my bifocal breasts, my ardent

tears, my hook-and-lure no-man’s
shadow and earth and smoke and divorced

dust. If sad lazarillo you don’t rewrite
the tempestuous whirlwinds of Norway.

I’m not going to snatch that milligram
from your back, now that you’ve gone

along walls and windows face down, now
that you’ve polished the dark transparency.

If I say this I don’t, though I might, want
to please you precisely as was demanded

by your breath, surly muse, the rusty
mechanisms of love. Never blood.

In the process of corresponding about the translation, I commented: “I have to confess that even after reading this poem intimately enough to translate it, I still don’t understand the title. Mightn’t you be willing to talk with me a bit about it?”

Román responded:

Frankly, I don’t know how I landed on that title. I might say it appeared to me in my dreams, or in the midst of some bilingual delirium.

I was translating Palmer—I think it was the poem “I Do Not”—and as I am so very fond of that poem, I told myself  “voy tras del poema, voy tras de él, tras de Palmer, tras de su poesía, pero como no la entiendo, en realidad voy detrás, voy dras te él, voy drastel”.

In other (less sonically apt) words: “I’m following along behind the poem, I’m following him, following Palmer, following his poetry, but since I don’t understand it, I’m actually following behind, followind him, I’m followim.” So, perhaps, if I were to venture a transposed title for Román’s book (rather than simply using the term drâstel), I might use “Followim,” to combine “following” and “him,” or “Followind,” to combine “following” and “behind,” though it would be easy to critique both of those terms as too soft-sounding in comparison to drâstel, not drastic enough.

I keep wanting to be able to make of the term drâstel something like César Vallejo’s trilce—triste (sad) and dulce (sweet) inseparably combined, and yet at the same time a singular, unique term, meaning nothing other than itself (both vast and specific). Being a pronoun—él, him—or being a direct object—el, the—is perhaps a drastic state. Translation, particularly in the case of Spanish and English, is also a trans     positioning of language gendered in a particular way toward language gendered in a very different way, though gendered nonetheless. What might a genderqueer translation look like? I’ll leave that question in the air for now; like most worthwhile questions, it’s one whose responses, I suspect, will take a lifetime to percolate.

Román continued:

Later, in the poem “Traspié” (“Blunder”) I included these two lines:

detrás de ella de él dras tel me herí
detrás de mí de ti tras del mi hurí

There’s the key. I think.

I’m not ready to translate these lines quite yet—the title alone is daunting, as a traspié is a stumble, blunder, or slip-up (either physical or verbal), yet also contains a bit of the idea of being “behind” someone or something (tras) as well as the idea of following in someone’s footsteps (pie is foot)—but regardless they provide a sense of Román’s extension of the multi-directional following at the heart of relating (as translation is also—inextricably—a form of relating) and the repositioning of pronouns and bodies.

trans     positions.

More and more, as he lives and works in the spaces between Spanish and English, in the different refractions of being Mexicano and being Latino and being Spanish-speaking in an English-speaking world increasingly Spanish-inflected, Román’s writing embodies a bilingual consciousness. Spanish and English are not separate worlds for him; rather, they cohabitate in the space of the poem in much the same way that they cohabitate in many places outside the poem: sometimes segregated, but more often overlapping in cacophonous jostling, ever ready to renegotiate what the act of listening—or speaking—might entail.

Here's Román, speaking a poem I've translated below.


Hay alguien más. Sonríe. Hay otros tú sin ti. Uno que se escondió en las comisuras. Otro que está llorando tinta adentro. Uno más que te observa en microscopio. Pueden ser varios meses. Te busca en puerta ajena y sin modales. Disecciona retratos en la alfombra. Te escucha respirar. Ojo que te recorre. Corroído. Saliva de otra sed. Hace de cada esquina un andén doloroso. Ahora el pulgar derecho. Uno dos tres por mí. Nosotros te llamamos. Aparece en las costras de la pronunciación. Hay uno que deshebra. Mejora tus versiones. Lame tus garabatos por corregirte el pulso. Documentos. Compagina los rasgos en tus fotos. Las fechas en tus labios. Desentierra lunares que olvidaste. Parecidos. Tu nombre en rojo oscuro. Convierte los secretos en ascuas de papel. Sonríe. Tus llagas no concuerdan. Espera a que aclaremos esa mancha en tu voz. Dos palabras. Guijarros. Pueden ser varios meses. Pasa a la fila cero. Sé la mano que imita y no repite. Ahora el pulgar izquierdo. Descubre sin mentir las siete diferencias. Pueden ser varios meses. Uno dos tres por mí y por todos mis abrojos. Hay uno que celebra tus deslices. Escancia tu basura. Otro que te respira bajo el agua del sueño. Pasa sobre estas líneas con devoción de oráculo. Sonríe. La firma en rojo oscuro. Dos palabras que riman. Se agusanan. Detrás de la caricia por favor. Una aureola de larvas sobre una fecha antigua. Capaz de duplicarte. De esperar a que llegues. No habrá paso que des sin encontrarlo. Nosotros te llamamos. No sabrás si eres tú.



There’s someone else. Smile. There are others of you without you. One who hid in the junctures. Another who’s crying inside ink. Yet another who’s observing you under a microscope. It could be quite a few months. Looks for you in at another’s door and with no manners. Dissects portraits in the carpet. Listens to you breathe. Eye scanning you. Corroded. Saliva from another thirst. Makes each corner into a painful platform. Now your right thumb. One two three for me. We’ll call you. Emerges through the scabs of pronunciation. There’s one that shreds. Improves your versions. Licks your doodles to correct your pulse. Documents. Collates the features in your photos. The dates on your lips. Unearths moles you’d forgotten. Similar. Your name in dark red. Turns secrets into paper embers. Smile. Your sores don’t match. Wait while we clarify that stain on your voice. Two words. Pebbles. It could be quite a few months. Move to line zero. Be the hand that imitates without repeating. Now the left thumb. Find the seven differences without lying. It could be quite a few months. One two three for me and for all my burrs. There’s someone who celebrates your slip-ups. Scrutinizes your trash. Another who breathes you beneath the water of dream. Go over these lines with an oracle’s devotion. Smile. Signature in dark red. Two words that rhyme. Teeming with worms. Behind the caress, please. A halo of larvae over an ancient date. Able to duplicate you. To wait for you to arrive. You won’t take a single step without finding someone. We’ll call you. You won’t know if you’re you.

In the process and space of translation—and, I’d venture, in the process and space of all forms of trans-being or being-between-and-among (and here I could write an entire essay describing what I think I mean by these terms)—we don’t know if we’re us, and at the same time we are made acutely (and hopefully astutely) aware of precisely what it entails to be us at this moment in this place, in this body. It is possible to be one thing and another at the same time; I’m not sure it’s possible, in fact, not to do that.

The poem “Procrastination/Procrastinación” begins:

No sé cómo se dice pero suena. Esa palabra es llama. Rada también.
I don’t know how to say it but it sounds. That word is flare. Blaze and boil too.

I asked Román which meaning of the word “llama” (flame, to call or name, and the animal) he might want me to privilege, since there is no word in English that encompasses those three very distinct meaning-fields, and I also asked him to explain what he meant by the word “rada” in this context. He wrote:

I think it’s going to be impossible to reference the word “llamarada” (llama/rada)—a sudden blaze or flare-up. “Llama,” as you rightly note, has all those connotations (fire, to call or name, the animal), but the one that most interests me here is “flame.” As for “rada,” I was thinking of “bay” or “inlet” or “cove,” that is, a maritime space, to create an allegorical duality/relationship between fire and water. Or something like that.

When I sent him the next version of his poem, I wrote:

Let’s see... I opted (for the moment) to use “flare” because it has more meanings than “flame”—though we lose a lot, regardless. The only way I could get to a relationship between fire and water is “boil”—but I also wanted to add “blaze” for its alliteration. I don’t know why, precisely—it just sounds right to me (“I don’t know how to say it but it sounds”) and to establish a link with the flare.

trans     positions. A different language: a different position, positing something different. "There’s no way to say it without moving our here."

The word “procrastination” doesn’t exist in Spanish (though I’m quite sure the concept does!!). We tried every alternative we could think of, none of which worked, and finally ended up with what we call a “traducción bastarda” from English into non-existent Spanish to signal Román’s English-language title: "Procrastinación," which is only legible to someone who knows something of English, as is the case with the title of the poem in Spanish (“Procrastination”)—a serendipitous congruence. False cognates (“embarrassed/embarazada,” to mention a famous and particularly embarrassing one) are colloquially known as “false friends.” Does that mean that a false word—a neologistic translation—is a true friend?


No sé cómo se dice pero suena. Esa palabra es llama. Rada también. Es rueda sin el tren. Si vuelvo se disuelve. Disoluta. La oreja se impacienta. Somete quien la dice. Ríspida en el crujir sus años muertos. Sus caricias. Como decir sedicia o ser deicida. Quise decir desidia. Decídase de sí. Deshágase. Como decir. Oreja la palabra. Boca el verso. Ojo tal vez la estrofa. Nariz de mis naufragios. La palabra que duele traducir. Reaparece en la punta. Flor dentada. Pendular. Sedienta de mi sien pero no cae. Al menos eso dice. Resuena como tren defenestrado. Arrójala al desierto. No es celoso. Sélo de maldecir cuando te ignores. Sed la palabra oreja, su impaciencia. Díselo si lo sabes. Y a todo esto cómo se dice no. Te digo que es aquello. Olvídalo. No hay forma de decirlo sin mover el aquí. No quiero que regrese.



I don’t know how to say it but it sounds. That word is flare. Blaze and boil too. It’s a wheel with no train. If I come back it dissolves to black. Dissolute. The ear grows impatient. Whoever says it submits. Prickly in grinding its dead years. Its caresses. Like saying seditiousness or deciding deicide. I intended to say desultory. Decide for yourself, yourself. Undo yourself. So to speak. The word is ear. The line mouth. Eye, perhaps, the stanza. Nose of my nosedives. The word that hurts to translate. Reappears on the point. Serrated flower. Pendular. Hungry for my head but doesn’t fall. Or declares that, at least. Resounds like a defenestrated train. Fling it into the desert. It’s not jealous. Be that, swearing when you refuse to recognize yourself. Hunger the word ear, its impatience. Say it to it if you know it. And to all this how to say no. I tell you it’s that one. Forget it. There’s no way to say it without moving our here. I don’t want it to come back.

Complete works

Image by Noah Saterstrom

This playlist includes recordings of authors reading the entirety of a book or chapbook. I find that longer recordings allow me to become immersed in the textures of the work, to register the ambient sonic environment, and to perceive other small shifts and variations within and between pieces. I sometimes listen to one long recording that allows me to settle into a particular mode of listening and then follow it by listening to another recording that suggests another form of attention. I like the feeling of becoming engrossed and hypnotized by a recording and then using another recording to snap myself out of the experience so that I can see the initial recording with more critical distance.

While listening to the following recordings over the last few weeks, I was reminded of Christine Hume’s review/essay “Carla Harryman’s Baby: Listening In, Around, Through, and Out” published in How2. Hume’s piece not only provides an insightful, nuanced reading of Harryman’s work but it also compiles a vocabulary, from various sources and disciplines, for talking about modes of listening, such as Negatively-Capable Listening, Gestalt Listening, and Analytic Listening. Without ignoring the specific context of the essay as a review of Harryman’s book, I’d like to keep Hume’s sense of the multiplicity of listening modes in mind with this set of recordings.


Dana Ward’s Typing “Wild Speech” (Summer BF Press, 2010). Recorded live at Canessa Gallery in SF, 2009.

Barbara Guest’s Quill, Solitary Apparition (Post-Apollo Press, 1996) via Kootenay School of Writing Audio Archive. Recorded live at the KSW, 1999.

Susan Howe’s Singularities (Wesleyan, 1991). Assembled from three separate live readings: Segue Series, 1986; Kelly Writers House, 2007; SUNY Buffalo, 1995.

Summi Kaipa’s The Epics (Leroy, 1999). Recorded live at University of Hawaii at Manoa in 2000.

C.D. Wright’s Deepstep Come Shining (Copper Canyon 1998). Studio recording made in Port Townsend, WA in 1999.

Farid Matuk’s This Isa Nice Neighborhood (Letter Machine, 2011). Recorded for Jacket2 and PennSound at the author's home in Dallas in March, 2011. [Segmented version forthcoming.]

HR Hegnauer’s Sir (Portable Press at Yo-Yo Labs, 2011). Recorded for Jacket2 and PennSound at the author's home in Denver in June, 2011.

Clark Coolidge’s Polaroid [divided into part one and part two] (BIG SKY/Adventures in Poetry, 1976). Recorded by Michael Kohler at University of Connecticut in 1974.

I would suggest downloading and listening to some of these back to back or in different combinations, for example, listening to the gradually unfurling and intertwining micro-narratives of Dana Ward’s Typing “Wild Speech” alongside Barbara’s Guest’s more gestural, atmospheric Quill, Solitary Apparition. Something about Ward’s voicing/intonation patterns make the poem feel like it is being written while it is being read. Even though Ward is reading from a text, the self-questioning aspects of it allow the performance to seem new and immediate. The piece seems to create itself out of an impulse to question its own development. At one point, Ward asks something like “Did I just write a blurb?” and the question, though hilarious, is also amazingly  profound because there’s a real sincerity about the shock of how one often finds oneself, unconsciously and involuntarily, in the middle of a new discourse.

Barbara Guest’s book is more concerned with the glancings of language and the residues of reading. However, by pairing these recordings together one might more readily attend to the ephemeral streaks of sound and image embedded in the more speech-oriented, narrative, essayistic approach of Ward’s chapbook and to the less pronounced, more textual subjectivity of Guest’s work that is so intricately tied to the act of reading as a practice of manifesting presences, conjuring apparitions. I’m also interested in the ways Guest performs the space of the page and certain visual elements that might not be readily apparent in the audio recording. Here, you can see how Guest work appears on the page.

Susan Howe’s recording of her book Singularities was a single file that I assembled from several distinct readings of different portions of that work. I am interested in the ways Howe renders the pages that twist and turn the text around on the page during the “Thorow” section. Like Guest’s recording, this aspect of Howe’s reading, the necessity of creating a sonic interpretation of spatialized text, complicates the idea of the “complete” work.  

In Summi Kaipa’s introductory comments on her chapbook, The Epics, she describes the work as “more overtly about my own identity and what I consider to be multiple selves.” The following passage provides a sense of the abrupt transformations and striking juxtapositions alive in the piece: “Please excuse my gratuitous anachronism. As in Hinduism, when the eight planets align, the apocalypse is said to arrive but doesn’t. Someone purposefully avoids me because of the intelligent company I keep, or Barbarella is the greatest movie ever made. The leading antagonist in the story is Duryodhana, who is envious of Krishna’s kinship to his cousins. Most of us can sympathize with blood relations. My brother, Sami, is looking for a high-paying job in the computer industry and my cousins are in medical school. Am I concerned that I will be rich? No. Someone’s child, unborn, is already burping the alphabet.”

C.D. Wright’s Deepstep Come Shining creates a music of place by weaving a number of voices, field notes, allusions, public and private histories. You can read an excerpt from the text on Jacket 15  and see a review of the book written by Mark Nowak in Rain Taxi online.

Farid Matuk’s This Isa Nice Neighborhood was recorded in its entirety for Jacket2. Unlike Wright’s book, the work is comprised of individual poems, but what I love most about this recording is the way hearing all the poems together, especially the poems with identical titles, creates its own internal echoes and transfigurations. Like Kaipa’s chapbook, Matuk’s book might be described as an investigation of multiple selves, and like Wright’s book, it might also be considered, at least partially, as a reading of the complexities of place. However, hearing this book of more or less discrete poems against the backdrop of more continuous work by Kaipa and Wright allowed me to attend to its horizontal movement. In a similar way, I was able to recursively pay attention to some of the subtle pauses, breaks, and brief silences within the other works on the playlist.

HR Hegnauer’s author’s statement on her chapbook Sir (via Portable Press at Yo-Yo Labs) reads:  “SIR is an attempt at thinking about what it means to be a human alongside another human, especially as we age. I've been writing through what a memory can be and how to preserve it; how to keep it, lose it, and try to retrieve it over time. This project wonders how to grieve the loss of memory at the same time as the loss of life, while trying to keep in mind that we are living right now. I am indebted to my grandparents who have inspired the characters of Sir & Mrs. Alice.” I was lucky enough to join a small group of listeners including Andrea Rexilius and Danielle Vogel in hearing Hegnauer read this newly published work in the author’s Denver home. I was struck by the clarity and power of the work when read aloud, how its compelling series of vignettes focus the listener’s attention with such intensity.

Clark Coolidge’s Polaroid might suggest a very different approach to listening because of its length and the level of abstraction at work in the language. However, after listening to Hegnauer’s recording I tried to listen to Coolidge’s more ambient work with the same quality of absorption. A PDF of Polaroid is available on Craig Dworkin’s Eclipse Archive. I found that reading along with the text, something I tend to avoid doing, was helpful in staying close to the experience of listening.

More work by Noah Saterstrom

Notes on inexpert investigation

Kaia Sand

Inexpert investigation in poetry opens a space: what is left open is left open. “The highly rewarded entrepreneurial strategy of forging ahead with an air of mastery no-matter-what spawns impatience for the point or gist,” Joan Retallack writes in The Poethical Wager. What get lost are “values that encourage the necessarily inefficient, methodically haphazard inquiry characteristic of actually living with ideas” (51).

Enter inexpert investigation. A poet can bring fanciful fortitude to her investigation without commandeering it. After all, the poem need not serve as the final word, but rather, as an opening up for others to engage. A poet might be attuned to unlikely connections. Situational rhymes. An alchemy of juxtapositions.

This inexpertise involves responsibility—via responding. Listening.

Bay area poet David Buuck describes his process of creating his poetic detours, Buried Treasure Island, as

listening to the materials instead of imposing one's narratives upon them, and letting the symptoms proliferate into new forms of understanding--the telling itch, the site-specific discharge, the rash judgments, and above all, the "black spot" where the no-go zones meet flesh--one could open up the terrain for uncanny encounters with the site and its hauntings. (Buried Treasure Island 13)

David Buuck leads Buried Treasure Island

Walking on a island toxic from years of naval testing, Buuck documents his investigation with a language of ailment. His own body was altered by the investigation. He also describes how he listened to people around him:

For instance, when the window opened behind me and the voice hailed me with her version of events, to be narrated in a kind of speculative poetics that the guidebook had yet to accommodate, the feeling was not of surprise as much as the recognition that this encounter was meant to happen at exactly this juncture in the field work. (13)

Poetry already involves participation because the stuff of poetry, the language, is patched together by other people long-ago and as-we-speak. Sonorous syntax is social. But eschewing an authoritive stance, the poet conducting an inexpert investigation might make participation more explicit, actively listening to passersby, soliciting ideas from fellow walkers. Or perhaps the participation comes through documents, the investigative poet elbow-deep in archives.

While an expert stance will stultify the poem, an emphasis on participation is not sloppy, not anything-goes. The poet creates a dynamic form, gathering language into significance.

An inexpert investigation might be cast as a book, as performance, as walk, as encounter–but each enactment, each artifact, is quickening, is ready to be recast should some passerby slip a note into the poet's hand, should a naysayer mumble audibly and helpfully, should the poet look down instead of to the side, to the side instead of up…

Against Expression

New York Launch at MoMA

Against Expression: An Anthology of Conceptual Writing, ed. Craig Dworkin & Kenneth Goldsmith,
New York Launch, June 16, 2011, Museum of Modern Art library. Great punch. (& more on this book anon.)