Sunday, October 24, 2010
I’d like to go for a walk, but right now I’m too busy with work and project obligations. I can’t catch up during the day and evening, so I’ve let that seep into my morning, my before-light writing time.
Half a decade ago, I worked on a year-long project with the poets Ryan Walsh and Sebastian Matthews: the project, Walking the Morning Line, required that each of us write several lines every morning, either on a theme or threaded out of something we had read, seen or heard the day before. We emailed the lines to each other, typically in the morning after a walk, or at least the first cup of coffee, but before we started the day and all its subsequent crap began to filter into our observations. Often, the first email would set the mood for the other two. No matter where we were in the world, no matter how busy we were, we wrote our lines—we felt the obligation to each other and to the intention of the project. This project led us into a daily practice, necessary like brushing your teeth, or getting dressed to go to work. Here’s a sample I sent from Spain:
It's 7.30 in the morning and here I am, thinking about this blind kid I saw the
other day, and how he sticks in my mind more than any beautiful woman or man I've seen on the streets here, and how that seems to make sense to me, that a typical, normal person should stay with us over the less ordinary, extravagant beauty.
Although part of the project intended to keep us in communication, another part intended to allow us room to meander through ideas, compose some phrases or fragments that would eventually lead us to something specific: a poem or piece of prose. It reminded us to fix our attention on the world around us, to be awake to our observations, even if those lines took months to develop into something else we wanted to work on. The above lines later turned into the beginnings of a poem, a little more specific, though not yet the poem it might become:
Give me a choice—a sexy lady
with so much hair and breast
and sweet perfume, or a boy
blind, weeping and crossing
a street, and I'll choose him.
I need a little more angle
walking in my life, and horn
blare, a man at my side
tapping my shoulder
as I careen toward traffic,
on-coming and rude. Beautiful,
round-faced boy confused by the light
pole he can't walk through, his cheeks
flushed red and his eyes, worthless
and hazel, rolling up, into his head.
This project didn’t really end, but the space for it started to fill, for me at least, with another method of focusing on my own writing. Instead of walking around and thinking about how I might revise a poem, I began to wander about in the poems I was reading in Spanish, thinking about how those poets were crafting their lines and rhythms in my second tongue. Perhaps the transition was a natural one, to move from living abroad to recognition of and meditation on linguistic idiosyncrasies. I don’t think one has to live in another country to be concerned with or invested in translation. It’s an act we do constantly when we see and talk or write about what we see or hear—also, remember, metaphor is translation; in fact, in Greek it means to move; you see the word written on moving vans all over Greece. But for poets at least, translation from one language to another seems a necessary act; it brings us closer to the language of our poems by requiring that we break through the surface and sub stratum of our observations, emotions, thoughts, etc.. It’s like something my archeologist friend Chris Witmore has to do when he’s surveying a new area for a dig: he reviews satellite images taken of the terrain, and then compares that data to what is on the ground in front of him, a practice called Ground Truthing. In theory the collection of ground-truth data enables him to adjust what he knows from afar, or in my case, what I know about my own language through the evidence and layers of another. I know the Spanish language has its rules of syntax, and I know there is more than one meaning for a word. The oddity of the Spanish syntax and how I’m often pushed to a dictionary to look up even the simplest word, reminds me on a certain level that I need to slow down in my own writing practice, dig a little, get my hands dirty. This also reminds me that my poems can benefit from a recognition of what is a natural form and structure in this other language, but is uncommon—though not grammatically incorrect—in my own.
Although the following poem (by the Spanish poet Juan Antonio González-Iglesias) has no surprising syntactical quirks, its easily recognizable gist in the original title, even if you don’t have a vast knowledge of Spanish, will lead most readers to think of the Ars Poetica form.
Si no quieres quedarte a mirar la tormenta
Yo la miro por ti.
If you don’t want to stay and watch the storm
I will watch it for you.
But as an exercise, we might also think of a literal translation (an easy one even the newest beginner might do with a dictionary):
Yes/If no you want stay you to look the storm
I it/her I look for you
Juan Antonio would kill me if he saw this, but my point is that even the most basic study—and incorrect if you use “Yes” instead of “If” (yes would be sí)…—of the individual words of this poem can set a poet off down a track that might lead to the beginnings of a poem that may become a new ars poetica.
As I mentioned earlier, translation is about moving. I’m concerned with how my poems evolve, shift and expand. Another approach connected to my practice of writing poems is how I work into them through prose. I still write letters by hand—though I’m cutting back on that because my friends tell me they have a hard time understanding what I’m saying—and correspond frequently with family, friends and other poets and artists. Part of this comes from my need to maintain a connection to friends who are living all over the world; but another relates again to how I enter into language, dwell in a space and siphon from it the workings of a poem. These prose pieces are often quick, written with one person in mind, though perhaps sent to several friends as dispatches; they’re like conversations, but ones that require that I wait for a response. The waiting is quite important for me; it requires that I slow down, that I think intensely about the subject for a while, and then that I return to it again through the lens of the response from my correspondent. The following is an excerpt from a piece I wrote last summer in response to a friend who was traveling in eastern Europe, who had written me responding to an observation I had sent him about looking out my apartment window.
Train Lines, Thinking of Hikmet
It’s 2010, early June and I’m sitting by the window on the Sevilla-Granada train. It’s a Sunday, mid-day and hot. The heat is a glare that hurts the eyes. I never knew I liked to squint. There’s a word in Spanish—hincar—that means to look upon someone or some thing with great attention, as if hooking or attaching one’s eyes to the object. I like the sound of that word and squinting is what I’m doing with this dry, flat landscape. As if looking away from it, as if looking down at the paper or the work waiting for me in my bag would be some sacrilege I don’t know how to regret, that I might miss something important out there, and my eyes know this. I like how my eyes hook the tossed-away bottles under graffitied walls as the train leaves Santa Justa and heads east, passing through Dos Hermanas and clattering by stretching fields of apartment blocks. I forget that I love looking at these tall, vast buildings until I’m pulled by their rows under the force of an engine, but my eyes glean the windows and balconies for color, for someone looking out on this train passing by, like I would be, because I also love to watch trains, almost as much as riding them. I think of my friend who wrote a short note recently, telling me he had just taken a nine hour bus ride to Sophia—one can only write short notes on buses—and I wish he could have taken a train because it’s so much easier to let your eyes wander when you can stretch your legs and use the restroom; even the grime and trash along the tracks, the squalor around the station, seen from a stiff vinyl upholstered seat is a lovelier sight than what we can see from the plush comfort of the bus. And who likes to watch busses pass by anyway? No one has to stop and wait for a bus crossing; no child stands at the roadside and gestures to the bus driver to honk his horn. At least not here.
Reading this again, that trip comes back—the rhythm and noise of the train as it dislocated me from one city and hurled me into another, the frame of those windows, the murmur of conversations around me. Though the geographic distance (and cultural…and social) is vast between West Texas and my homes in Spain, if I can tap into that energy and give myself the time…I can write something—poetry or prose—that can take me back there, even if only briefly, or push me in a different direction.
Days have passed since I first wanted to leave the house for that walk, since I’ve been able to dwell in any place creative. I know there’s an interesting view from my office at the back of the house—light must be coming into the yard, defining the leaves, the utility poles, a cat on a branch over the neighbor’s garage—and I know I only need a little space to crawl through to wander into the rest of the day, that I need to shrug off the obligations for only an hour, write some lines to friends. Out of them I’ll find my way into a poem, or down some other, unexpected path. A little time; that’s all I need. It’s not so hard.
Curtis Bauer has published and has poems and translations forthcoming in Fulcrum, The Dirty Goat, The American Poetry Review, Circumference, The Cortland Review, and Barrow Street. He has been a finalist for the New Letters Poetry Prize, The Willis Barnstone Translation Prize, and The Glimmer Train Poetry Open. He won the John Ciardi Poetry Prize for his first poetry collection, Fence Line, published by BkMk Press in 2004. He teaches Creative Writing and Translation at Texas Tech University and is the publisher of Q Ave Press Chapbooks.