Studying by talking
Students interview three poets
Note: I am a professor in global liberal studies at New York University, a new four-year BA program that, wanting to be known for its teaching, indulges its faculty in their pedagogical experiments. In spring 2012 I put together a seminar with the loud title Poetry and Globalization. The one thing my seminar was emphatically not about was poems about globalization. Rather, I meant to study the encroachment of modern Western poetics into societies where poetry depends on technologies other than print, and performs other functions than it does in the West. In other words, it was about the relativity of values, about the way values are deformed in translation, about the roles of performance and of social context. The professor — namely me — having grown up between two poetry systems, the Russian and the American ones, has experienced firsthand the localness of poetic forms, observing how poets of one system, no matter their education, could never really leave its values, could never fully alienate themselves into a position that was not, from some other position, blinkered and provincial. Poetic values, I thought, are never universal, even though each bearer of local values will consider all or some of them, unconsciously, to be universal. Hence, values need to be taught with the help of anthropology, or to be more precise, ethnography.
So we studied not only foreign poetic systems, such as Bosnian oral epic as recorded by Milman Parry and Albert Lord, the Chinese transition to vernacular poetry, and Turkish modernism in its political and linguistic context, but also anthropological writings on poetry, like those by Clifford Geertz. We went to readings downtown — events as disparate as the (very raucous) American Sign Language Poetry Slam at the Bowery Poetry Club, the cool sessions of avant-garde writing at the Poetry Project, and even those held by professional creative writing people at NYU itself. Several poets and translators kindly visited us in the classroom; the Spanish-language poet and performance artist Ernesto Estrella Cózar even declaimed with such gusto that the class next door complained. In April we organized a colloquium with six poets and publishers from different countries. Open to all, the event proved not boring, and ended with a huge and edifying argument over translation strategies between Dmitry Kuzmin (Russia) and Murat Nemet-Nejat (USA).
Early in the process of planning for the seminar I gutted the traditional idea of a seminar paper. I wanted a project that would be more versatile, that would prepare students to write for magazines as much as academic institutions, but that would also let them experience poetry in its natural habitat. I put each student in contact with a different New York–based poet of my acquaintance. The choice of poet was dictated by what I knew of the student’s interests. The student was supposed to interview the poet, with the covert aim of figuring out what values inform her poetry, and eventually to learn to read the poet’s work through the lens of the poet’s values. Three out of four assignments that students carried out — and that we workshopped in class — came out of their interviews. Here are several such interviews in their transcribed, excerpted, and edited form. — Eugene Ostashevsky
Students (below, left to right): Francesca Federico, Maria Khimulya, Catalina Cantolla Gallardo.
Poets: Marcella Durand, Genya Turovskaya, Elizabeth Zuba.
‘As though it were any place’s details’: Marcella Durand with Francesca Federico
Francesca Federico interviewed Marcella Durand, an important practitioner of ecopoetics, a type of new “nature” writing that attends to the environment of a subject treated as an observer. Durand’s books of poetry include Area (Belladonna) and Traffic and Weather (Futurepoem). Francesca writes that Durand works “in a deliberately fractured way, creating ‘stanzas’ that build and bend to reveal their own architectural form.Traffic and Weather is one poem in sixty pages, and follows some person — Durand’s narrator — as he or she experiences life in a city from sunrise to dusk. Her narrator loses itself in its environment at several points, both physically and emotionally, for it is the city itself that plays the most active role in the book. The intimacy of the light hitting a building, and the ephemeral wind stirring hanging ropes are just two examples of how Durand creates an otherworldly atmosphere within the city’s concrete boundaries … The intentional shifts between what is experienced and what is emotionally felt, as well as the scientific way of seeing the world results in an extremely multifaceted work … The effect on the reader is profound; Marcella seems to have encapsulated in sixty pages, in one poem, the very essence of what living in a city is, its confusions and its splendor.” Francesca Federico is a junior in global liberal studies at NYU, studying operatic vocal performance. She is spending her junior year in Paris, working for an artistic management agency that represents contemporary classical artists in London and Paris.
Francesca Federico: I’m wondering how you came to be a poet, because what you write about isn’t really typical of other poets. And it seems you have a lot of influences from astronomy, and architecture, and that kind of thing. Have you been involved in those fields?
Marcella Durand: When I went to college I was originally going to be a geologist [laughs], and I was always interested in science but I was terrible at math. And then I got completely seduced into poetry. I had a great professor, who was totally passionate about poetry, and we didn’t work the same aesthetically at all, but his passion for it got me interested in it. And then, when I was living in France, I was living with musicians, and I didn’t have a job. So they would get up at eight in the morning, and start practicing like crazy, and I decided to start trying to write. They were putting being an artist into their schedules, so that’s where I saw how serious people were about being creative. And I wasn’t worried about having a job or anything, I was really just isolated in the suburbs of Paris.
Federico: Would you say that the French language itself influences your English poetry?
Durand: Oh, definitely. It’s a much more lucid language, more precise. It’s really helped me see how French is more, denotative? They have an exact word for everything, and English is much more connotative. So it’s helped me be a little more cognizant of what I’m using in connotation, and when something isn’t precise. And I have this sense of otherness.
Federico: Do you feel that way about any other languages? Or is French the one?
Durand: French is the one. A lot of the French writers are the ones I feel most inspired by, rather than English or American ones for the most part. The person I’ve been chewing on and translating for the longest time is Michèle Métail, who is a contemporary French woman poet. I just love her work, but it’s very difficult to translate. It took me five years to translate one page.
Durand: Yeah, because it’s written according to a constraint. It’s a poetic geological history of Marseille, and it’s written in twenty-four lines per page and it’s forty-eight characters per line. With no punctuation!
Federico: Oh my God!
Durand: It’s so fabulous, but you know, English is much more concise. So I’m writing it twenty lines a page, trying to pump it out.
Federico: Your book Traffic and Weather seems like one big narrative. It doesn’t really have delineations of when each poem ends. How did you decide to do that?
Durand: It is one big narrative. I had a space with a wall (at the Lower Manhattan Cultural Council) where I could post the poem as I was writing it. So each day I would go back to the beginning of the poem. I tried to have a circular, diurnal structure so that the poem would almost begin in early morning and end at sunset. There is this kind of rough “day” passing, and through the day you’re seeing light move across the skyscrapers.
Federico: When you write your poems about different places, do you have a specific place in mind, or can they be loosely interpreted as being any place?
Durand: I’d rather that they be loosely interpreted. I know it’s a contradiction, being that I write very specifically. I wanted to see how specific I could get with Traffic and Weather, how closely I could get to the physical details of a place. But at the same time I didn’t want it to be “New York City, 123rd and Broadway.” I wanted it to exist universally as well, as though it were any place’s details.
Federico: Traffic and Weather changes so rapidly from one kind of, I don’t know, outline? And you have really big spaces between words sometimes.
Durand: My work is so dense that I did want to give a lot of aired space to the poem, to make it easier for people, not so dense. I just wanted to leave a lot of space and air.
Federico: But you don’t do it by ending a line and just beginning another line. You put it in one big rectangle and then, selectively take out spaces?
Durand: It was just where I felt the line needed a breather. Or if it was shifting geographically.
Federico: So do you ever view the lines as a visual entity? As, perhaps, a piece of architecture? Because I felt like that sometimes, like the foundation of a building that you would see rising up.
Durand: Oh absolutely. I hated having narrative forms, so I did break into the verse as much as I could. But some parts were just so clearly narrative.
‘Being between worlds’: Genya Turovskaya with Maria Khimulya
Maria Khimulya interviewed Genya Turovskaya, a Russian-American poet with a number of beautifully made small-press chapbooks, like Calendar(Ugly Duckling Presse) and Dear Jenny (Supermachine). Maria writes, “Dear Jenny is a book about dislocation. This theme is evident in the individual poems and in the book as a whole. On the most literal level, it is the dislocation of characters in space; on the level of structure — dislocation among states of mind, between reality and dreams, past and present; on the level of the overall meaning of the book — dislocation in identities … Narration in the poems constantly shifts from description of the present to memories, and from memories to feelings and emotions, and from that to addressing Jenny — dislocation is embedded in the poems’ structure … The development of themes throughout the book is very subtle; and when the reader feels that he has traced a tendency, like the narrowing of space from poem to poem, it abruptly changes; but as the questions and oppositions of the book are summarized in the ninth poem, some of them are resolved in the last one, where all the characters, all the identities are brought together; for the first time the literal focus is not on the narrator’s memories or emotional experiences, but on the ‘options’ of the addressee, Jenny. The last narrator, whoever he might be (perhaps one of the many identities of Jenny), locates her in space — it is New York; and tells her that she can escape all the traps of mind and memory that she got into in the book, ‘emptying [herself] of all the cities [she] willed into being,’ ‘spinning herself into being,’ and ‘feeling the way out.’ Each ‘option’ hints at the other poems, bringing together all the narrators and identities, and therefore ending the dislocation.” Maria Khimulya completed the liberal studies program at NYU and is now majoring in art history. Currently studying at NYU’s Florence campus, she aspires to be a curator.
Maria Khimulya: You say that that there is poetry that’s interested in knowing, and poetry that’s interested in not knowing, and that right now you are interested in the poetry of not knowing, of the process as opposed to the product. How does this apply to your already published works, like Calendar, for example?
Genya Turovskaya: Calendar was the first longer piece that I had published. I was in my twenties at the time. It was the first time I had set out to write a series of poems as opposed to a poem. I wasn’t sure when I began what I wanted to do, but did know that I wanted to do something broader than a single poem. I wanted to explore my experience of immigration, which happened when I was very young, at a time when I couldn’t mentally process the scope of what was happening to me. Because I was so young, immigration was not a personal choice that I had made, but one that was made for me. It was partially traumatic, and partially world-expanding. As I got older, I started to understand how big of an impact immigration had on me — developmentally, emotionally, and as a writer — and how that always, whether foregrounded or not, is the subject of my work. It was always about dislocation, displacement, being adrift, being at sea. The Tides, which came out in 2007, touches on that too. The subjects that I found myself gravitating towards again and again were outer space, being at sea, being between worlds — emotionally, culturally, and linguistically.
Khimulya: How did Russian influence your poetry? Do you think that translating Russian poets influenced your poetry?
Turovskaya: My English is better than my Russian. English is my primary language now. I didn’t speak Russian very actively — only at home, with my family — until I became an adult. I had to rediscover the Russian language for myself. That said, I think that I — in my body, in my rhythms, in my tones — carry these roots. Russian was my first language; it is the first language that I experienced poetry in. So I think of it as an influence I am not always consciously aware of. I don’t feel like a fully American poet, because I was born elsewhere, started my life in a different language. Also, as a translator, I think that whether you want to or not, you absorb the poets that you translate. You have to allow that poet’s voice to pass through you, your mind, your body. You may not be able to specifically say what the influence is, but you are certainly changed by the experience.
Khimulya: Can we talk a little bit about Dear Jenny? If I understand correctly, the speaker is male?
Turovskaya: I think that we are gender-complex, and that we all have feminine and masculine parts of ourselves. I have always been interested in this aspect of myself, as a woman, my masculinity. I was also trying to imagine what some of the people whom I have encountered in my life would have said if they could speak honestly. That was a starting point. But also, “Jenny” is the name that I was called for a brief period. Well, not so brief: in high school. “Jenny” was an Americanized version of my own name. I think that the Jenny poems were a way for me to reenter my American self and my American life. I was reorienting my location back to the US after having spent quite a few years on and off going to and from Russia. I had spent a month in Montana, and another month in New Mexico, and some time in Colorado and Utah. The poems were a part of the process of my locating myself in that American experience. Much of the landscape in the poems is an American landscape. The first poem starts in the American West, in the mountains, and the last poem ends in Grand Central station, which is one of my favorite places in New York City, a point of arrival, of coming home. Also, I started writing those poems before I went to the NYU School of Social Work and got my training to be a psychotherapist, and they end after I completed the program and started working in the field, so these poems are also concerned with the mind, what the mind is, with empathy, intimacy, waking and dreaming states and the spaces between them, and with thoughts and feelings and emotional states that may be considered unspeakable, unsayable.
Khimulya: Do you think that the letter form helps you in that?
Turovskaya: It is a very immediate, intimate form. It is also, in a way, conversational. That direct address was very important to me. It can be read as one part of the self addressing another part of the self, or as a recognition of an otherness within myself. But I wanted these poems, as personal as they are, to be able to connect to whoever reads them, so it is not so simple as that.
‘Trying to un-name things’: Elizabeth Zuba with Catalina Cantolla Gallardo
Catalina Cantolla Gallardo interviewed Elizabeth Zuba, an American poet and translator of Spanish and Argentinian poetry. Zuba also served as coeditor and cotranslator into Spanish of La familia americana: antología de nueva poesía de Estados Unidos, published in Madrid by Antonio Machado Libros. Catalina writes, “Zuba’s poems are mostly about the striking images left in our heads long after we have put the text down. Given that the poet has a background in physics, it is not surprising that these images are often scientific and cosmological … We often find in Zuba’s poems that there is a change in tone or an interrupting voice that comes in and out of the piece. Another interesting feature is the use of questions; sometimes rhetorical and sometimes directed at someone … These poems require you, as a reader, to make connections between and within them, and to ultimately find your own personal interpretations … She opens a space which urges us to change our perspectives and rethink everyday things.” Catalina Cantolla is a psychology major at NYU, with a minor in creative writing and coursework in liberal studies. Originally from Chile, she has just returned from a year in Florence, Italy.
Catalina Cantolla Gallardo: Do you place more value on your original work than on your translations?
Elizabeth Zuba: I don’t. But again, I am working hard not to. There is still the Romantic notion of authenticity — how important authenticity and individualism and authorship are to what we value. I’m actually, I think, more comfortable and confident about my work as a translator than my work as a writer. But I think the public values authenticity, and values my writing more than my translations. It is really entrenched as a fundamental tenet of the US, which was founded on the Enlightenment, on individualism.
Gallardo: And it appears in all of the “intellectual property” issues we’re having.
Zuba: Yeah, it comes from the romantic ideal that started with the Enlightenment, but it’s primary to the way Americans think and understand everything. But I have to say I don’t see it that way. I think my writing and all arts are incredibly valuable in a really big nebulous way, in a long-trajectory way. But I think that translation is immediately valuable to how we understand ourselves and other cultures, other ways of thinking, how we interact.
Gallardo: If you could sum up your writing in a couple of sentences, what would they be?
Zuba: That is a hard question. [Long pause.] I think my writing comes from a place of circumventing, from a place of estranging myself out of socialized or cultured consciousness. I try to be aware of all of the other nodes of thought, or axes of sensibility that I’m experiencing that are not currently defined — given a space, or given a language in our everyday thinking and talking and experience.
Gallardo: Would you say that in writing you put a lot of value into awareness of your thoughts, feelings? You seem to be very aware of the way you write.
Zuba: But I don’t think I’m aware of the way I write or the things I write. What I try to be very aware of is the way I live and the things that I experience.
Gallardo: And that experience translates —
Zuba: Yeah, that translates into how I’m writing. A place from where I’m writing is to try really hard to dwell on whatever my expected processes, or relationships, or experiences, or sensibilities may be, and to be more aware of a direct, more receptive dialogue or communication between them. That acts more in a quantum-like way than it does in a space-and-time way. Does that make sense?
Gallardo: Kind of.
Zuba: I think that what makes it hard is there is no vocabulary for what I’m writing — which is why I’m writing it — so it makes it hard to articulate. But that said, I think that I come from a place where I am very aware of the fact that every word has so much more multiplicity and simultaneity. I also have a physics background, so I come from a place where every particle has multiplicity and simultaneity. So this desk here, while it may look like a desk, is in fact moving all over the place. It’s not only moving all over the place, it’s moving in all these other potential dimensions and that’s all very silly unless you study solid state physics, in which case it makes a lot of sense. So I think that is where I’m coming from when I’m writing, and it’s probably evident in my writing there’s a fundamental rift between the way we see the world and what’s actually happening. So I think that would be my answer. I think there’s lots of stuff going on all at once. And relationships are really important. Because the reason this table looks like a table is because of its relationship with its physical surroundings. So I think what we tend to do in our partisan, typical language and culture is to say, “This is what it is because I can see it and that’s what it is and I’m naming it.” And so I’m definitely not a namer. I think I’m more … I don’t have this Adamic poetry that names things. I think I’m definitely trying to un-name things.