About Writing, Poetry, rumination

Language, Translation, Connection, and Everything The Storm Blew In

Driving home through Crawford Notch then through Franconia Notch last night, I had to take my time, take care to pay some extra attention with my aging eyes and slowing reflexes. The wind was gusting up pretty badly, and rain which might not have been so bad had it been left simply to fall was hurled, hissing and rattling, against my Honda. It was dark, and the roads were fairly empty and of course wet, and very foggy in places — so strange to drive up into the White Mountains and not see the White Mountains! Temperatures were also up around sixty-five degrees — a bit out of character for Halloween in Northern New England.

Weather forecast alerts about gusts of fifty miles an hour in the notches were actually what sent me out into the crazy weather — an event I was up north for was ended early due to those warnings, and I live south of the notches.

I was lucky enough to be a participant in an event connected to Poets Bridging Continents IV — a live reading of work in translation (English and Mandarin) by both New Hampshire and visiting Chinese poets. Two of my poems had been translated in advance — and I had English translations of two poems by a visiting poet, Yue Qui.

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When I first saw my poems in Mandarin I was startled. Startled at the visual differences between English and Mandarin, sure, but also I think startled at myself. Startled at how moved I was, looking at those versions of my poems I couldn’t decipher. I actually got a little choked up. As far as I’m aware, none of my poems have been translated into another language before. The act/art of translation felt like such a generous and intimate thing in that moment — so personal! So patient! So enlarging — literally, an enlarging of the potential readership of my two poems but of course, and maybe more importantly, an enlarging of the poems themselves, into new linguistic territories, and maybe, somehow, I could follow my poems there?

Before the reading, our host and organizer Rodger Martin had organized a family-style dinner at the reading venue, the AMC Highland Center. As I arrived, Rodger greeted me by letting me know that “one of your students is here!” I was more than a little surprised — it was, after all, Halloween, and I hadn’t really mentioned this event to my students because I knew they’d be otherwise occupied — and it’s a bit of a haul — an hour’s drive north from the university. Who could it be?

It turned out that Emily, one of the staff helping with our group dinner that night, was my student — an English major from several years back. What a crazy delight to see her! She had taken my Poetry Workshop four years prior,  before graduating and heading off to earn her M.A. in Environmental Arts and Humanities at Oregon State University. She was just recently back home in New Hampshire after completing some post-grad work in Arizona. She was working, so we didn’t get to catch up properly (it’s in the calendar now!), but we did talk briefly about an assignment for poetry workshop that she remembered.

Each fall, after I’ve had a chance to get to know the work and personalities of my students a bit, I select for each of them a book from my own poetry shelves. I like pulling a chair up to those shelves, scanning the titles and authors, holding each student (as I have come to know them) in my mind, selecting a book I hope will engage that particular student as a reader and a writer, maybe nudge that student further in their own writing, whatever that might mean. The set of assignments (annotation and sharing of a poem, imitation of a poem, paper responding to the book) has been largely successful over the years, as students seem interested and ready to respond to a collection of poems that has been selected, individually, for THEM.

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To Emily, whose interests in the environment I was aware of at the time, I loaned Charles Goodrich’s A Scripture of Crows. I had met Charles the year before at the Playa Artist Residency program in Summer Lake, Oregon and became a fan of his work. When submitting her paper about this book, Emily wrote: “Thank you so much for sharing his work with me. I don’t know how you knew it, but I think it was a perfect match for me. I will be looking into more of his work.” Emily ended up out in Oregon — meeting and working with Charles. Wild, huh?

That very day, about an hour before I’d headed up north for this dinner and reading, I had just distributed this year’s selected poetry collections to this year’s poetry workshop students. And among them, as it happens, was A Scripture of Crows, which I loaned to a student whose interests/priorities include environmental sustainability and food justice. Coincidence. Connection across the years and miles between three poets — four if you count me, I guess! — a poetry collection doing some serious traveling. How to articulate this circuit of individuals, poems, interests, fellowship? Look at what can happen!

Most of my students’ lives probably aren’t dramatically life-changed by connecting with these books/authors. I do find, though, that most of my students, even some years later, REMEMBER “their” poet’s name and work, and do so fondly. I just met with one student from poetry workshop a couple of years ago who remembered his work with his assigned book by Marcus Wicker as a meaningful reading and writing experience.

Driving home, the wind and rain were certainly at high volume against my car, in my ears. But also — the music and cadence and expression of “my” (?) poems read aloud so well by Yue Qui was still in me, and I wanted to hold on to that reading, that sense of connection and also, a kind of lovely, brief estrangement from my own sense of my own poems? A moving distance. A reintroduction to the strangeness of any language? I am not sure. I am blogging in the rough, people, trying to capture some things before the wind that is STILL raging down here this morning manages to knock the power out.

Here’s one of my two poems from last night — I recited it as the wind was really kicking up around the Highland Center, and the reading of the translation (photo above) was the cut-short evening’s final reading before we scattered in the wake of the threatened nastiness in the notches.

Outage

When the power fails, the room goes dim
in winter’s ashen afternoon. The hum
of the fridge, the sweep of second hand, all pause.
The breathing of the ancient furnace stops
mid-heave. The well-pump won’t draw water
and in each toilet just one flush remains.
The screens that manage our commerce with the world
blink shut. The cordless telephone is mute.
And so we power down ourselves. We slow
our scurry, quieted like the other major appliances
inhabiting this house. We speak rarely
and in dim whispers; move slowly and then
not at all, stalled and sort of thankful for it;
stranded, darkening, waiting to be re-lit.

from Beating the Bounds (Hobblebush Books, 2017)

The power held while we read. Maudelle, one of the other New Hampshire poets translated and featured at the reading, pressed her card into my palm and urged me to give her a call if it seemed too nasty to get through, that I could crash at her place that night. Everybody said rushed goodbyes, photos were taken, cards exchanged. I wish we’d had more time to finish and then to just talk and be together.

But instead we all drove out into the strange, humid, gusty darkness. The poets and translators and others in the group were staying nearby. I drove home, alone, but also full of thoughts of my students, those bookshelves, the generous and strange and impossible art of translation, the music and difficulties of all language — yeah, just a few light thoughts. I drove home down through the invisible mountains I knew were still up there, and poetry was with me.

1 thought on “Language, Translation, Connection, and Everything The Storm Blew In”

  1. Great posting! Do please keep on “blogging in the rough” for us! [I, of course, especially like your description of “the generous and strange and impossible art of translation”– which is also, I guess, the writing of poems (like your brilliant evocation of the power down in “Outage”)…] Thank you!

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