Commentaries - November 2013
From Bohemia to Conceptual Writing: Literary Publishing and Printing in California from 1890 to The Present
by Johanna Drucker
On October 9, 2010, I convened a symposium at the William Andrews Clark Jr. Library, accompanied by a small book fair, that was designed to put a number of different communities together, even if only for a day: scholars, poets, publishers, artists, librarians, and graduate students in the MLIS program at UCLA. A part of the UCLA system, the Clark Library was established in the 1920s as a private collection that focused on 17th and 18th century literary and scientific works, late 19th and early 20th century fine press, British Arts and Crafts printing, and the work of Oscar Wilde. These strengths remain the core of the Clark’s holdings, and among them are an extensive collection of the work of the fine press community that developed in California in the early 20th century. Clark knew the figures in this community personally, and commissioned work from them for unique editions of classics for his library, such as a number of volumes designed for Clark in the 1920s by John Henry Nash, the San Francisco fine press printer. The deluxe approach appealed to Clark, and though not all the works in his collection conform to the same code of production values, the term “fine press” is defined by the use of handmade paper, handset type, and elegant bindings of large-sized volumes. The contents of these books are more often drawn from the classics than from the work of contemporary literary figures, and the symposium was meant to address (or redress) some of the tensions that have put fine press printing into dialogue with independent publishing, artists’ books, and other innovative, experimental, and conceptual works over the last century.
The UCLA librarians who became the stewards and curators of Clark’s collection also knew the small circle of Southern California printers who saw themselves as the direct continuation of the fine press tradition. Ward Ritchie, a charismatic figure in the circle of Los Angeles printing, first learned to use a press at the Grabhorns. Nash’s slightly younger contemporaries, Edwin and Robert Grabhorn, assisted by Robert’s wife Jane, were known for their generosity and mentorship, and through their informal apprenticeships trained another generation. Their tastes were middle-brow and eclectic, and remote from the radical work of Futurism, Dada, or other major modern movements shaping print and poetic aesthetics in Paris, Milan, London, and New York at the time. Adrian Wilson, also acquired printing skills and design knowledge in the Grabhorn shop in the mid-1940s. Wilson, and his wife Joyce, had strong connections to the theater, where the modern texts of Ionesco, Beckett, and others were among the repertoire. But modernism was an import, not an export, for the California literary scene until Lawrence Ferlinghetti’s founding of City Lights in 1953 put San Francisco on the map as a site of innovative beat publication.
Lawrence Clark Powell, Ritchie’s childhood friend from Pasadena, became a scholar and librarian, writing on the work of Robinson Jeffers, a poet whose hand-made stone house on the California coast and proto-eco sensibilities marked him as an idiosyncratic figure in American modernism, but one with a national profile that the local culture could claim as its own. Powell’s personal connections and professional interests left their mark on UCLA’s libraries (including one that bears his name) and the traditional tone of his literary and aesthetic tastes seemed suited to carry on Clark’s legacy. The codes of material production, rather than literary credentials, have tended to be the criteria on which the collections have been built. The rich history of literary life in California, particularly from the 1950s onward, is barely represented in fine press publishing, and the symposium and fair were meant to suggest that this dimension of cultural history might usefully be brought into the Clark’s purview. The collecting of artists’ books is a more recent development, though in my opinion, very few artists’ books are in active dialogue with either the literary or art mainstream, and their isolation from trends of critical aesthetic activity makes them a kind of intellectual backwater. The observation does not hold universally—but among the many artists who make books, only a handful have a reputation outside this limited community. While we might say the same of the literary figures in conceptual writing or experimental poetics, the critical, scholarly, and academic interests in their work broaden the audience and circulation networks beyond the precious realm of special collections’ vaults. Contemporary fine press creates a trade in fine leather, exquisite binding, and concentrated production value for a luxury market, rarely one that troubles its consumers with writing from the world we live in. Material codes signal the class lines of taste, in classic demonstration of Pierre Bourdieu’s sociological parameters, and the contents of the books across these various categories in the spectrum of fine press, artists’ books, small press, and independent publishing conform to similarly distinct domains. So my project was to suggest more synthesis, more dialogue, more cross-pollination. Even for insiders, the tasks of judging the relative merits of different strains of contemporary writing are difficult, and charged with politics of a scene and its players. Would Clark’s literary and aesthetic tastes have evolved? After all, he brought Merle Armitage to the LA Symphony, and appreciated the designs of Alvin Lustig, two of the most advanced graphic designers in America at the time.
The holdings at the Clark contain archival resources as well as fine press books. Together these offer insight into the way fine press publishing served as one instrument for community formation and creation of identity for Los Angeles, particularly, at a time when the region was emerging as a cultural center. Ritchie’s studio was situated at one point near to the Disney studios, and hard as it may be to reconcile the esoteric world of fine press with the burgeoning industry of film and fantasy, Ritchie’s archives contain evidence of direct connection in the form of the publication titled Mousetrap, with its irreverent humor and mocking tone. At another extreme, accounts of the young John Cage, a fellow Pasadena resident, pounding away at a piano in the corner of Ritchie’s shop while the presses are running, intriguingly points to an encounter with another, very different, dimension of contemporary art. Suspended between industrial production and radical avant-gardes, though partaking very little of either, the fine press tradition made a local contribution to the varied strands that comprised mid-twentieth century California.
Printing arrived in California in the 1830s with the Spanish governors when Agustin Zamorano set up a press in Monterey to print political tracts and government documents. Utilitarian printing of all kinds supported the boosterism essential to a growing economic region. Newspapers in Spanish and English, some in bilingual editions, as well as the usual job-shop fare of public notices, business forms, commercial advertising and other ephemera proliferated in the 19th century. The first work claimed by afficiandos of fine print, Edward Bosqui’s 1877 Grapes and Grape Vines of California, was produced under the auspices of the California State Vinicultural Association. Beautifully printed and illustrated, it detailed regional agricultural bounty with lush and sensuously colored images.
In the 1890s a small band of imaginative pranksters in San Francisco helped create a spirited, if belated, Bohemian literary movement. Calling themselves “Les Jeunes,” the group around Gelett Burgess produced witty and often irreverent imitations of works by well-known figures such as Aubrey Beardsley in England or Will Bradley in America. They addressed their publications to a literary audience that was au courant or “in the swim,” to use the language of the day. Their pages were filled with in-jokes that depended on current trendy references. Though Bohemianism was already a nearly defunct cultural trend by the 1890s, Burgess was a wit who made his living writing popular humor. The literary journal, The Lark, was shortlived but lively, and part of a large international trend in which small magazines fostered modern poetry, prose, and critical exchange within the social media of their day. If Burgess was quintessentially middle-brow, so was Nash, though his pretenses and aspirations were towards Brahmin status. He began printing in San Francisco in the 1900s, his aspirations were to emulate the work of William Morris and Thomas Cobden-Sanderson and their conception of the “ideal book.” Printing in the mode in which he practiced was an art, he asserted, not a trade, and the volumes were prized by a wealthy clientele who perceived the elegant bindings and exquisite press work as markers of cultivated taste. Designed with type fonts and page proportions copied from the great humanist printers of the Renaissance, his productions showed their allegiance to venerable bookmaking traditions by reproducing texts of canonical writers.
Book design and small press publishing in Los Angeles might have followed the same path of humanistic revival that had formed Nash’s taste had Ritchie not been gone to Paris to pursue training with the remarkable printmaker, François-Louis Schmied. Ritchie absorbed lessons about modern book design that were more recent than the Arts and Crafts artists notion of the ideal book, but still remote from the avant-garde. A number of exceptional artists helped shape a regional aesthetic. Valenti Angelo, Paul Landacre, Mallett Dean, and Mary Fabilli worked within the conventions of figurative and landscape traditions, but in a modern idiom. Literary tastes in the fine press world stayed close to the mainstream, while engagement with book form and formats kept to a book-club sensibility meant to appeal to a subscription list. Robert Louis Stevenson and Edgar Allen Poe, not D.H. Lawrence, James Joyce, or the Bloomsbury crowd—let alone André Breton, Tristan Tzara, or Wyndham Lewis—were the authors whose texts populated the lists of books boasting hand-set type and printed end-sheets.
Through the 1950s and 60s, beat poetry and pop art became major cultural movements with strong communities in San Francisco and Los Angeles. The publications they spawned were distinct in character from those of the fine press. Slim chapbooks and the ubiquitous broadsides printed letterpress flourished alongside a growing number of self-published projects using mimeo machines, or the local copy shop. When Ed Ruscha published Twenty-six Gasoline Stations in 1963, he could not have realized that the small offset-printed book would come to be seen as the founding instance of artists’ books in the conceptual vein. Traditions of hand composition and fine presswork remained constant through the 1960s and 1970s, most often linked to conventional literary values, but the underground press and alternative publishing flourished from the 1960s onward. The graphic designs and aesthetic sensibilities of feminist works, activist journals, underground comix, and the street press (tabloids, newspapers given away for free on the street) diversified the range of writers in print.
The creation of a print shop at the Woman’s Building in Los Angeles in 1973 had national repercussions. A few years later, in 1975, the West Coast Print Center was established in the Bay Area to provide low cost printing services for the literary community. Its offset presses and photographic darkroom, platemakers and light tables, were industrial, not craft, equipment. Language poetry flourished, along with procedural writing and conceptual work in the experimental tradition. A steady stream of chapbooks, magazines, and small press publications gave evidence of the vitality of literary activity that connected the Bay Area art, literary, and performance scenes to those of Southern California (Beyond Baroque and other sites) as well as to a national network of activities in New York’s alternative spaces (Franklin Furnace, The Kitchen, Printed Matter) and beyond. Many literary presses came, went, or endured, from the 1960s onward including Black Sparrow, Tuumba, Turtle Island, Sun and Moon, Oyez, and others that sustained the literary scene through their varied printing activities. Well-made books, meant to serve as respectful presentations of work their editor-publishers deemed important enough to bring to the public, the volumes of these publishers reflected the vibrant literary life in many communities across California. A full history of this publishing history and its impact on larger cultural spheres has yet to be written, but if and when it is, the faultlines that divide the strata of publishing activity will be markedly clear.
All of these strains of activity continue. The legacies of aesthetic positions imprint themselves, taken up by each generation, and sometimes questioned, sometimes not, sometimes engaged with self-consciousness and other times merely imitated, like manners, in order create work that looks just like its author/publishers think it should. Thinking a book or publication and bringing it into being is always an argument for what a book is, could be, and how it works and circulates in the media and aesthetic ecologies of its conception. My own aspiration is to see more dialogue with vital poetics in the production of books to come, and less adherence to codes of production for their own sake or marketing purposes. More concept, less product—the statement is not a prohibition against fine work, elegant design, or engagement with traditions of printmaking, photography, aesthetic traditions of all kinds, but it is a caveat against mistaking form for content in the valuation of a work, and for taking seriously the literary dimensions of work curated and collected. The formal innovations that artists bring to books, and the commitment to the craft of production that are central to fine press publishing, both have a role to play in the creation of innovative literary works, but most likely these will arise through partnerships, and not in isolation. I don’t know if anyone left the symposium that day with a sense of new possibilities, or merely left with a reinforced sense of justification of their own position, but at the very least, the chance for the students to see the range of work being produced and to participate in its discussion and recognition provided an opportunity, all to rare in graduate school, to have a direct connection to ongoing artistic and literary activity.
The sorrow & shock of the Ghanaian poet Kofi Awoonor’s death among the nearly 100 killed in this September’s Kenya Mall bombing & massacre is still another horror to live with. Kofi was our friend & comrade in the early 1970s, a fellow poet & contributing editor to my magazine, Alcheringa Ethnopoetics, & a companion & guest at our dinner table in New York. His magnificent translations from Ewe oral poetry (“Poems & Abuse Poems of the Ewe”) appeared first in Alcheringa & in Technicians of the Sacred, & his presence among us was warm & his council invaluable, his accomplishments many. While there is more to be said about the madness that took his life, my tribute to him now is to show him writing through two of the Ewe oral poets that he translated, along with some comments of my own from Technicians of the Sacred in acknowledgement of the continued relevance of the traditional “abuse poetry” that he revealed to us. The first poem, below, is almost a memorial in itself.
by Henino Vinoko Akpalu (b.1888)
I shall sing you a song of sorrow.
When my turn comes, who will sing for me?
There is silence, earthly silence.
This way they said is how the poet dies.
Alas for someone who will bring him over the gulf
and he will come bearing along his voice
Only night shall fall; another day will dawn;
he will sing a song of sorrow.
The skull proclaimed: it is my mouth that sent me.
In the desert the rain beat me
soon the brushfire shall roar Over me.
Folks came asking for song.
Akpalu the poet asked: what song
shall I sing for you?
If I threw a long rope, night will fall.
Let me cut it short.
When you have a short sleeping mat
you do not nod in an easy chair
nor do you sleep on the earthen floor.
We are the owners of song.
Call the poet, call Akpalu from Anyako
he will cut it short, cut it very short for you.
There are guns; those who want to bury me.
To them I say when we meet I will step aside for them.
We know them in life, those who say:
"Die that I may bury you. "
Those on whom I had been counting
to look after me when evil matters fall,
when I meet them I will step aside for them.
I thought I had a child called "all is well behind me. "
Another, I thought, was called "to whom shall I tell it?"
The third was called "I am spread. "
Alas my children turned out to be my songs
that is how things have gone with me.
Let everyone know them, those who say:
"Die that I may bury you. "
Those on whom I had been counting
to look after me when the end comes
there are guns, those who want to bury me.
When I meet them I will step aside for them.
I was made by a great God.
I was made together with other poets.
You call yourself a poet, can you sing with Akpalu's voice?
Who deceived you? I was made by a great God.
I was made together with other singers.
The song of the drum, I do not sing it merely,
It was from old men I heard it;
a child who thinks he understands so much
cannot understand Agoha.
Agoha cannot die.
You may understand the top but not the deep words.
Anagli is going to bark.
You say you are a singer, can you sing with Akpalu's voice?
Who deceived you?
Is there any poet who can sing with Akpalu's voice?
I was made by a great God.
I was created together with other poets.
by Komi Ekpe (b. 1897)
Poverty moved into my homestead
Can I be this way and earn the name of a great singer?
Shall I fear death by song
and refuse to sing?
Hm hm hm. Beware,
I will place a load on Kodzo's head.
Nugbleza informed me that
it is the women of Tsiame
who goaded Kodzo into my song.
Questioners, this became the evil firewood
he'd gathered; his hands decayed
his feet decayed.
I am the poet; I am not afraid of you.
Kodzo, winding in the air, his asshole agape
his face long and curved
like the lagoon egret's beak.
Call him here, I say call him
and let me see his face.
He is the man from whom the wind runs,
the man who eats off the farm he hasn't planted
his face bent like the evil hoe
on its handle. Behold, ei ei ei
Kodzo did something. I forgive him his debt.
I will insult him since he poked
a stick into the flying ant's grove.
Amegavi said he has some wealth
And he took Kodzo's part.
The back of his head tapers off
as if they'd built a fetish hut on his breathing spot.
His face wags, a fool with a white ass.
The money opened his asshole
in display to the owner of the farm.
The lion caught a game, alas,
his children took it away from him.
Kodzo’s homestead shall fall, shall surely fall.
Questioners, let evil men die
let death knock down the evil doer.
If I were the fetish in the creator's house
that will be your redemption.
Kodz0, this imbecile, evil animal
who fucks others' wives fatteningly
his buttocks run off, his teeth yellow
his penis has wound a rope around his waist
pulling him around and away,
his backside runs into a slope
his eye twisted like the sun-inspector,
he has many supporters in Tsiame
his mouth as long as the pig
blowing the twin whistle.
Something indeed has happened.
A devotee offended Yewe
and the owner of guns did not fire.
The Creator sent me along this way;
I am all alone. He is not very wise.
I joined a cult whose shrines I cannot build.
Komi Ekpe says his deity lingers in a brass pan.
The beautiful children are in rebellion.
My mother in tears passed the poet on the roadside.
Whence did you pass before entering this world?
Did you fuck a deital virgin still on her way home?
Or did you receive the power of witchcraft?
No. I went acourting, and I was forced
into marriage. My murderers swore an oath.
If I say something please understand it.
I was about to sing so I called my Creator in abuse.
I became the offender of my Creator.
Slowly, I shall go home.
I shall question him closely
for he knows not that I shiver
from companions’ cold.
My enemies, I beg you,
do not eat salt till your heart hurts.
I will die soon. And this town will be empty
for you to crawl over one another.
Questioners, what ancient laws did I break?
The royal palm fruit comes down when it ripens.
The salt lagoon says the strong wind touches
not the tender shoots of the royal palm.
The earth is empty of my loved ones.
Even this bare life I lead annoys.
The palm eating bird soon goes blind.
Kill me, and I shall die.
My life is empty.
You who seek my death
at the eating and drinking place
and seek my death so passionately
I have moved my feet away.
It is man who passed the judgment of death
upon me. If the elders call me
I am corning.
If death's messenger arrives,
I shall go. I shall go.
I cannot refuse to go.
Kofi Lisavi, raise the shout over my head.
The elders have called me
I cannot refuse to go.
She with the jaw-bone of a cow
falling upon her chest like sea egret's beak,
her waist flat,
earlobes hanging, oversize intestines,
it was you who took my affairs to Sokpe
and asked him to sing against me.
I do not refuse;
I am not afraid of song.
I shall stay at home; if anyone likes
let him come; whatever he has
let him say it;
I shall listen.
I was far up north
when Kunye of the mad ram's face
carne and insulted me.
There is no one. I shall tell
a little tale to the slave;
let him open his ears wide and listen.
They heaped slave-insults upon Aheto’s head
and he swore a lengthy oath
full of boasts and boasts
that he was not a slave.
Atomi came and said it
We caught him, sold him to Zogbede
Zogbede bought him with his own wealth.
Your grandmother was taken from Yosu
from there she came to Tsiame.
You people of Dagbame, do you wear underclothes?
A small pair of underpants was put upon your grandmother
and she burst into tears.
It was the bird that sent
me into the night; I went away
with good deeds
Adzima boys, the beautiful ones cooked
for their husbands
This destiny is mine.
I salute you.
The needle follows the string
The Creator himself salutes you.
Salutations! The collapse of a town
is my divination.
The gun shall leap into the forest!
A fruitless effort, the owner of cloth
is the spinning wheel.
Monyo is nobody. I cannot marry him.
I shall wait and marry a priest
So he will give me a priestly child
The priest did not know I will survive
The priest Awoonor did not know
I will survive.
I cannot walk the walk
of little infants.
The animals begat twins,
But the lion begat only one.
Why has it become a matter of such anger
I want to climb and untie the fresh leaves of the Ago palm
But I walk the walk of flesh eating birds
It fell upon evil for me.
[A NOTE ON THE HALO OR ABSUSE POEM AS REVEALED BY KOFI AWOONOR. Centered on public events such as wakes & funerals, the halo contests between poets remind us of traditions as diverse as Eskimo song battles, the flytings, etc. of pagan Europe, & the more recent African-American “dozens.” A reminder too that good-feelings per se have rarely been the central aim of a poetry derived from the workings of shamans & sacred clowns engaged (more often & more like ourselves than we had previously imagined) in traditional rituals of abuse & disruption. (J.R.)]
As a child attending a Catholic primary school in the western suburbs of Sydney my only exposure to poetry arrived via pop music and fiction. I don’t think I even knew there was such a thing as poetry but the words to California Girls and WonkaVite were never far from my lips. In fact, the six lines that begin ‘Those rolls of fat around your hips’ remain the only bits of verse I have ever committed to memory. This commitment to never straying far from the grid remained throughout my twenties where, as an undergraduate, the only poems I allowed myself to read came from The Norton Anthology. Again, song lyrics took up the slack. It wasn’t so much the anxiety of influence that kept me focused, I think, but a kind of nervousness about losing track of the few poems that I felt pinned me in place somehow.
Many of the works in The Best Australian Poems 2013 deal with this anxiety of influence – you could say it comes with the ‘Best of’ territory. In organizing the poems alphabetically rather than randomly or in order of a poet’s surname, the editor, poet Lisa Gorton, has expertly managed the potential for anxiety and dissolution by implementing what I think of as a metaleptic structuring device.
Metalepsis is a notoriously difficult trope to define. Harold Bloom has called it ‘a metonymy of a metonymy.’ An early definition comes from the Roman rhetorician Quintilian who dismissed it as ‘by no means to be commended’ and mostly of use in comedy. ‘It is the nature of metalepsis,’ he writes, ‘to form a kind of intermediate step between the term transferred, having no meaning in itself, but merely providing a transition.’ As Fischlin recounts, Quintilian’s contempt for the Grecian trope was ideologically motivated and formulated as part of an ongoing project to maintain the ideal of a “perfect orator” in order to sustain the Institutio oratoria that itself worked to maintain Roman nationalism. ‘We need not waste any time over it,’ he writes.
In The Arte of English Poesie, the sixteenth century rhetorician and notorious lady-hater George Puttenham endeavoured to keep the tradition alive: ‘the sence is much altered and the hearers conceit strangly entangled by the figure Metalepsis, which I call the farfet, as when we had rather fetch a word a great way off then to vse one nerer hand to expresse the matter aswel & plainer.’ For Puttenham, the user of this figure has ‘a desire to please women rather then men: for we vse to say by manner of Prouerbe: things farrefet and deare bought are good for Ladies’. Despite Puttenham’s dodgy feminist credentials, it’s hard not to love the example he provides from Medea:
Woe worth the mountaine that the maste bare
Which was the first causer of all my care.
Puttenham critiques what he perceives to be the kind of excessive feminine strategy that eschews straight talking – ‘she might aswell haue said, woe worth our first meeting … and not so farre off as to curse the mountaine that bare the pinetree, that made the mast that bare the sailes, that the ship sailed with, which carried her away.’ As Fischlin points out, Puttenham conveniently sidesteps the Renaissance connotation of “farfet” as meaning ‘rich in deep strategems’.
More recently, the quest for a manageable definition of the metaleptic trope has proven similarly and understandably circuitous. Literary theorists such as Gerard Genette have trade-routed intricate systems between the ports of its many worlds. Metalepsis, in short, has been characterised as ‘the paradoxical transgression of boundaries’ and, more optimistically, productive of a “heterarchy”, a structure distinct from hierarchy in that it possesses no single “highest level”.’
So, when Gorton writes of the anthology as offering ‘an experience of time that is now, and now, and now – instants that replace each other’ we can hear the metaleptic at work, and find as we attempt to navigate the anthology examples of a poetics of belatedness. Jennifer Maiden’s majestic “Diary Poem: Uses of Frank O’Hara” provides a model of what is at stake – ‘I would like to read you, but / of course now there is my current worry / that influence might be retrospective’. If you enjoy reading poems more than once but are against dog-earing anthology pages you’re going to have to change your ways. Or do what I did and discover a canny method for routing out a poem’s whereabouts. Anti-spoiler alert: I won’t reveal my strategy.
Part of the fun of this anthology lies in the ways it seduces you into thinking differently about how you’ll read poetry. If you’re after something in particular it challenges you to be inventive about how you’ll go about getting it. If you don’t know what you’re looking for it will unobtrusively lead you away from the language grid and put you in clear sight of the sails of the farrefet. Andy Jackson’s “Edith”, ‘immured in a contraption of steel’ finds that one way to break free is to ‘speak / loudly about poets and composers, as if / your heart was not left there beside that road’. For a poem such as Peter Minter’s “The Roadside Bramble” you need to negotiate the labyrinth in order to become envisioned by what you’ve left behind, ‘A mercury pool shimmering in the wind / The whole reflected world shuddering.’
Jessica L. Wilkinson’s excitable “Jivin’ With Bonny Cassidy etc.” supposes that a cut dress might make for a quick getaway – ‘i cut it off / i los t control—’ while Melinda Bufton’s “Did you mean iteration” suggests it might be more pleasurable to give in to the trance algorithm and allow the mind to take off ‘in some various syntheses’. Certain poems seem to have influenced each other, effecting the transgression of boundaries that is the calling card of latter-day metalepsis. The ‘Napoleonic washbowl’ of Nguyen Tien Hoang’s “Summer” seems to arrive at once before and after Jaya Savige’s ‘Duchamp’ (“On Not Getting my Spray Can Signed by Mr Brainwash”) and the ‘pre-revolutionary glass’ of Sarah Holland-Batt’s “Last Goodbyes in Havana”. “Women in Classical Chinese Love Poems” by Debbie Lim binds themes of imprisonment, art and death in the figures of waiting women, ‘Sitting, standing, reclining … From girlhood they have known /grief must be sung, all hope / arrives on a west wind.’
The figure of metalepsis is one that is apt to drift. I frequently forget its name and have to think for a long time to recover it. When I’m working to reclaim it I’m drawn to Anne Carson’s translation of Celan’s Matiere de Bretagne
inside it is evening, the nothing
rolls its seas toward devotion,
the bloodsail is heading for you
Admirers of Lisa Gorton’s own intricately wreathed poems will be pleased to discover that this anthology has been formed, in part, ‘with the exactness peculiar to foreboding’ (“The Storm Glass”) that was a feature of her recent Hotel Hyperion.
Outside & Subterranean Poems, a Mini-Anthology in Progress (59): Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz, Two Dialect Poems, with a note on Sor Juana & the Pitfalls of Translation
Translation from Spanish & related dialects or faux-dialects by Jerome Rothenberg & Cecilia Vicuña. Originally published in the blogger version of Poems and Poetics & later in The Oxford Book of Latin American Poetry, edited by Edited by Cecilia Vicuña and Ernesto Livon Grosman, reprinted here for Jacket2. Final publication of the anthology of outside & subterranean poetry is scheduled for 2014 from Black Widow Press.
from VILLANCICO VII – ENSALADILLA
At the high & holy feast
for their patron saint Nolasco
where the flock of the redeemer
offers high & holy praises,
a black man in the cathedral,
whose demeanor all admired,
shook his calabash & chanted
in the joy of the fiesta:
PUERTO RICO – THE REFRAIN
tumba la-lá-la tumba la-léy-ley
where ah’s boricua no more’s ah the slave way
tumba la-léy-ley tumba la-lá-la
where ah’s boricua no more is a slave ah!
Sez today that in Melcedes
all them mercenary fadders
makes fiesta for they padre
face they’s got like a fiesta.
Do she say that she redeem me
such a thing be wonder to me
so ah’s working in dat work house
& them Padre doesn’t free me.
Other night ah play me conga
with no sleeping only thinking
how they don’t want no black people
only them like her be white folk.
Once ah takes off this bandana
den God sees how them be stupid
though we’s black folk we is human
though they say we be like hosses.
What’s me saying, lawdy lawdy,
them old devil wants to fool me
why’s ah whispering so softly
to that sweet redeemer lady.
Let this saint come and forgive me
when mah mouth be talking badly
if ah suffers in this body
then mah soul does rise up freely.
THE INTRODUCTION CONTINUES
Now an Indian assuaged them,
falling down and springing up,
bobbed his head in time and nodded
to the rhythm of the dance,
beat it out on a guitarra,
echos madly out of tune,
tocotín of a mestizo,
Mexican and Spanish mixed.
The Benedictan Padres
has Redeemer sure:
amo nic neltoca
quimatí no Dios.
Only God Pilzíntli
from up high come down
and our tlat-l-acol
pardoned one and all.
But these Teopíxqui
says in sermon talk
that this Saint Nolasco
mi-echtín hath bought.
I to Saint will offer
much devotion big
and from Sempual xúchil
a xúchil I will give.
Tehuátl be the only
one that says he stay
with them dogs los Moros
impan this holy day.
Mati dios if somewhere
I was to be like you
cen sontle I kill-um
beat-um black and blue
And no one be thinking
I make crazy talk,
ca ni like a baker
got so many thought.
Huel ni machicahuac
I am not talk smart
not teco qui mati
mine am hero heart.
One of my compañeros
he defy you sure
and with one big knockout
make you talk no more.
Also from the Governor
Topil come to ask
caipampa to make me
pay him money tax.
But I go and hit him
with a cuihuat-l
ipam i sonteco
don’t know if I kill.
And I want to buy now
Saint Redeemer pure
yuhqui from the altar
with his blessing sure.
A NOTE ON SOR JUANA & THE PITFALLS OF TRANSLATION
The centrality of Sor Juana to the poetry of the Americas is by now unquestioned, the great summation coming in Octavio Paz’s epical biography: “In her lifetime, Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz [1651-1695] was read and admired not only in Mexico but in Spain and all the countries where Spanish and Portuguese were spoken. Then for nearly two hundred years her works were forgotten. After  taste changed again and she began to be seen for what she really is: a universal poet. When I started writing, around 1930, her poetry was no longer a mere historical relic but had once again become a ‘living text.’”
In the translation, above, another side of her work emerges – one of less concern to Paz than to the present translators: her experiments with a constructed Afro-Hispanic dialect & with the incorporation of native (Nahuatl) elements into her poetry. Here the translation question comes up as well, not only the issue of political aptness, which may also be raised where the class & status of the poet & her subject are at odds, but something at the heart of the translation process as such. For it is with dialect that translation – always a challenge to poetic composition – becomes or seems to become most elusive. Though many dialects approach the autonomous status of languages, there is always the presence behind them of the official, dominant language, which can make them, in the hands of a poet like Sor Juana (as with a Belli or a Burns in a European context), an instrument for the subversion both of language & of mores. Their particularity is nearly impossible for the translator to emulate, even while bringing up similar particularities in the dialects or faux-dialects into which he translates them.
The wordings in the villanicos (carols) presented here are faux-dialects with a vengeance, while their intention (or hers, to be more precise) seems obviously liberatory in practice. We have chosen therefore to approximate both the measure in which the poems were written & the spirit of invention & play through which the dialects were constructed. For this our principal models for transcription & composition come from nineteenth-century American & African-American dialect poetry & practice, much of it as artifactual & inauthentic as our approximations here. Our view, like that of Sor Juana four centuries before, is from the outside, looking in.