Category Archives: Favorite Poets

Last Night of the Year, 955 Years After Mei Yao-ch’en’s Death

Last Night of the Year, 955 Years After Mei Yao-ch’en’s Death

 

I tie my hiking boots tight before I step outside to watch the year fall.
I am not afraid I will float away on Star River; my heart is 400 miles

upstream already. My family scattered. Just the cats and dogs here
to nibble water crackers with. Any year’s last hours are crumbs on a plate,

forgotten on the kitchen counter. For once I wish to be in a crowd
in a loud living room, my heartbeat adding to the temporary chatter.

Walk out with me, old friend. There will be snow in the year’s first hour
at the head of the trail, and I cannot finish this wine alone.

Readings Recorded: Robert Okaji at Malvern Books in Austin TX

If only Len had stopped by on his way from Turkey to pick me up in his private jet, I might have made it out to this reading in Austin a few days ago. Luckily, the poet was recorded sharing his work with a responsive crowd. There are too many great lines and great poems squeezed into fifteen minutes for me to quote, but there is talk of snail sex, love darts, spreadsheets, rain forest bridges, wind, trust, love, and the moon. Thanks to all the folks at Malvern Books who I will never meet for recording the reading and posting it here. Robert’s own website, O at the Edges, is also well worth traveling to. Enjoy!

For Tomas Tranströmer

For Tomas Tranströmer

The ice on the road sees us with our own eyes
and is no better than we are at helping ourselves

as direction changes. In a winter far south of here,
the edge of still water is guarded by cypress knees,

like a tired army that lay on their backs for a nap
and never found a reason to get up. Beyond them

I heard the bellow of a bull alligator claiming the world.
By a cold spring corn field a thousand miles

away, watching the storm’s wind sprint across
before it could be heard or felt, I know everything

can be claimed, like these memories—are the endless
chances to say hello merely a shout over the slumbering?

Is the wind with its violence finally hearing us with our ears?
I will sit here with you for awhile and see what comes.

*

Re-posting this in light of the news of Tomas Tranströmer’s death. I consider it a privilege that this poem actually found its way into the poet’s hands earlier this year. See here for the translation of this poem into Swedish by film-maker (and Tranströmer’s longtime friend) James Wine, done spontaneously as he and Tomas read the poem together.

I could say a million things this night, but Elin Thor (@elinmiothor) said it best on Twitter today:

Saknar ord.

 

Revisiting “For Tomas Transtromer” (in Swedish!)

stones A few stones shine like full moons. –Tomas Tranströmer The name of this site is based on the idea that even the poems we write in our native language are translations of a kind, coming to us through a process which must transform source material from a language with no words, to borrow a phrase from the poet Tomas Tranströmer, into the words of our own language. I’m happy to report that the site now will actually include an actual “translation from the English”—what follows is a translation of my poem “For Tomas Tranströmer,” written on January 14th, rendered thoughtfully and also somewhat spontaneously into Swedish by James Wine—as he was showing the poem to Tranströmer himself, just twelve days after its composition… Plenty of back-story below, but first here’s the poem in Wine’s Swedish translation, followed by the work in its original English:

For Tomas Tranströmer

Isen på vägen ser oss med våra egna ögon och det är inte bättre än vad vi är på att hjälpa oss själva som riktningsändringar. På vinter långt söder om här, vaktas den stilla vattnets kanten fortfarande av cypresser knän, som en trött armé som låg på ryggen och tog en tupplur utan att hitta en anledning för att stiga upp. Långt borta hörde jag vrål av en tjur alligator som hävdar världen. Genom en kall vår majsfält tusen mil bort, stirrande på stormens vind springa förbi innan den kunde höras eller kännas, jag vet att allt kan begäras, som dessa minnen–är de oändliga chanser att säga hej bara ett rop över slumrande? Kan vindens våld äntligen höra oss med våra öron? Jag kommer att sitta här med dig ett tag och se vad som kommer. * The ice on the road sees us with our own eyes and is no better than we are at helping ourselves as direction changes. In a winter far south of here, the edge of still water is guarded by cypress knees, like a tired army that lay on their backs for a nap and never found a reason to get up. Beyond them I heard the bellow of a bull alligator claiming the world. By a cold spring corn field a thousand miles away, watching the storm’s wind sprint across before it could be heard or felt, I know everything can be claimed, like these memories—are the endless chances to say hello merely a shout over the slumbering? Is the wind with its violence finally hearing us with our ears? I will sit here with you for a while and see what comes. (If you go to Google translate you can hear the sound of the Swedish, at least as well as the Translate robot can figure out free verse poetry… you can also see that the translation, re-translated into English, renders pretty faithfully.)

The Astor-Piazzolla-like Nature of Time

Readers of this site know that I’m an admirer of the poetry of Tomas Transtromer. You see a line of his on the site’s banner, and I have also posted an appreciation for his work here. I’ve been reading Transtromer for over twenty-five years; I first encountered his work in 1989 in the Cambridge Public Library, stumbling across the Ecco Press collection of his work edited by Robert Hass and including translations by a nearly a dozen different translators. I can still remember standing in the stacks and reading the opening lines of “Prelude,” the first poem in TT’s first book from 1954, and thinking how that poem had waited 35 years from its first publication to reach me but flowered immediately in my mind as if it were being written while I stood there, somewhat dumbfounded, that such a great poet could exist without me knowing about him (as someone fresh from a university tends to think), and read it again and again. Twenty five years later and exactly a month ago from this evening, film-maker James Wine wrote me to let me know that he was releasing a film of Transtromer’s poem “Baltics,” read by the author himself in 1990. The film never usurps the author’s voice, instead furnishes images of the landscape of the poem without intruding on the marvelous effect of the writing itself (subtitles in English are the translation of Mr Wine and a group of friends). Mr Wine contacted me because he’d found this site while searching the web for traces of Transtromer’s global following, which is indeed large, to help pass on news about the film. I viewed the film and wrote about it here, and have since watched the film a few more times—there seem to be more wonderful lines in that one poem than many poets find in a lifetime, and the film provides local context for some of the imagery in the poem while at the same time managing not to diminish anything; rather than explaining, it amplifies the wonders of the poem. Seeing the film inspired me to write the poem, although I did not send it to Mr Wine. It was discovered by one of his colleagues, and he wrote to me a week later, saying he’d like to show it to the poet himself. You can imagine, given the above, how excited I was (and still am) to know that this poem reached the poet himself, and in such short order. In fact, I felt the accordion-like nature of time contracting in a whirligig musical crescendo which might be comparable to finding oneself thrown into a scene in a Thomas Pynchon novel, re-created in a film by Fellini, with a soundtrack by Astor Piazzolla: thirty-five years between when Transtromer wrote “Prelude” and when an awkward American grad student first encountered it; twenty-five years of avid reading followed; then, after an out-of-the-internet-blue email from Mr Wine, a mere twelve days between when I composed a poem honoring my favorite poet and when the poet himself saw it in English, and heard it in Swedish thanks to the work of Mr Wine. As he wrote to me later, “We had a good time with the translating!” *

So, Translate this poem!

That line from Mr Wine gave me an idea. I know many of this site’s readers are also writers and poets; and many of you visit here from lands quite far-away from the Blue Ridge mountains here in Virginia—from China, from Turkey, from Manila, from Spain and Italy and even from Boston, where I know from experience the English language is just a little bit different… So why don’t you take a shot at translating this poem into your own native language? If it creates one more reader of Tranströmer as a result, you’ll have done a great deed. And I’m curious, from a somewhat philosophical perspective as a writer, what the problems and rewards are of translating one of my own works into another language.  I’ll put up a new page on the site’s banner where any new translations can be posted and compiled, and would like to hear from any intrepid souls who attempt this exactly what the experience was like. I know the poem itself, as well-meaning as it is, is much more a stone than a full moon; but seeing it translated into Swedish, and knowing that it reached its intended audience, made it shine a little bit brighter to me. My great thanks and appreciation to James Wine, not only for bringing this poem to Mr Tranströmer’s attention, but also for providing his translation for me to post here.

New Film of Tomas Transtromer’s “Baltics”

As you can tell from the quotation on the banner of this site, I’m a huge fan of Tomas Transtromer, and have been ever since I stumbled across a selection of his poems in the Cambridge Public Library back in 1989, while looking for a volume of Fernando Pessoa’s poems.

I have written about Transtromer and his work here, and I guess this was just enough of an online presence to be luckily found by James Wine, who has created a beautiful film of Transtromer’s poem “Baltics,” in which the poet reads his own poem in his native tongue and which can be viewed with English subtitles. The link to the film is below—hopefully this method of sharing works; if it does not, I have also linked to it on my Twitter account @jeffschwaner.

Magically enough, the filmmakers once lived very much in this part of the world, outside Front Royal for a few decades before moving to Sweden. So at a time when poets are preparing to gather at Bridgewater for the poetry festival next week, here comes a film of a most moving poem by a Nobel Prize winning writer who, long before he’d won any prizes had already won the hearts of so many readers, in a film created by folks with roots right around the corner. Please check it out, and enjoy.

The (Translated) Poetry Process Blog Hop, aka Poet’s Tag

Note: Thanks to Robert Okaji for making me “it” in this virtual game of poet’s tag. He discussed his writing process a few weeks ago here, and now it’s my turn. 

Here’s how this game of poet’s tag works: I will introduce you to three writers (really four, but that’s a footnote to a complication to an exception to a rule I did not read) whose work I admire. I will then answer four questions about the writing process. I will do my best with the answers, but the reason I took up the challenge to do this process blog hop was really to talk about the poets below.  The “tag” is that these fine poets will have to do a post of their own like this in a few weeks. But enough logistics! Here are the poets!

Leonard Durso (leonarddurso.com)

LDursoLeonard Durso is a native New Yorker, once owned a literary bookstore in Los Angeles, ran English language programs in New York and Istanbul and once, in a city far, far away, was a scoutmaster, which means he’s pretty good at tying knots, building campfires, finding his way out of the woods, and is also loyal, trustworthy, helpful, etc.

 

I’ve been following Len’s site since I first started this blog a little less than a year ago. Leonard regularly posts a stimulating combo of his own poetry and poets who’ve inspired him. When I saw his post of the work of a T’ang dynasty poet, I knew I had met a kindred spirit. He is my go-to guy for the heart of the matter, and his style is reminiscent of certain Beat and New York school poets like O’Hara and Koch, whose work is characterized by honesty, modesty, and the wisdom of experience, all set through a sieve that has worked out the needless and ornamental till there’s only pure strain of thought left in the tumbler. Leonard’s biographical statement reads that he’s good at tying knots; as a poet he’s also good at untying them, or at least escaping from them.

I’m not trying to hint at Leonard’s age here (though he’s the only poet in this group with more gray hair than me), but at a certain period in one’s life as a writer one stops trying to build fine-mesh butterfly nets that capture every flying thing, and instead turns to building kites. This is just one of the areas in which I am constantly the scout and Len the scoutmaster. And in his poetry and his other posts he really is helpful and trustworthy and has helped me find my way out of the theoretical woods more than once.

A famous passage from Chuang Tzu (translated here by Burton Watson) goes like this: “Words exist because of meaning; once you’ve gotten the meaning, you can forget the words. Where can I find a man who has forgotten words so I can have a word with him?” Chuang Tzu, you just need to meet Leonard. And dear Reader, so do you.

 Dana Martin (This Life, Designed)

DMartin Dana Guthrie Martin lives in the Kansas City area with her husband and their beloved Chihuahua. Her work has appeared in numerous journals, including Barrow StreetBoxcar Poetry ReviewFailbetterFenceKnockout Literary Magazine, andVinyl Poetry. Her chapbooks include In the Space Where I Was (Hyacinth Girl Press, 2012), Toward What Is Awful (YesYes Books, 2012), and The Spare Room (Blood Pudding Press, 2009). She was a finalist in the 2013 New South Writing Contest, judged by Marilyn Kallet, and a semi-finalist in the 2013 River Styx International Poetry Contest, judged by Terrance Hayes. As of last year, Martin stopped seeking publication for her work and is instead sharing it exclusively on her site, This Life, Designed, where she is currently sharing new work, as well as serializing a full-length collection titled No Sea Here.

In March of 2014, Martin was diagnosed with a rare genetic immune deficiency called common variable immunodeficiency, also known as CVID. She recently took on the role of research ambassador for Patients Like Me, an online data-sharing platform and social network for those with medical conditions. Martin also serves as founding editor of Cascadia Review, an online poetry journal dedicated to showcasing the work of poets in the Cascadia bioregion.

Powerful and immediate, Dana’s work is often direct and penetrating rhetorically but the language of her poems does not shy away from a more elusive complexity, depth and rhythm and texture and the non-linear shapes of experience. You will find lines and thoughts that are disturbing, challenging and beautiful, sometimes all at the same time.

I feel lucky every time I get to read one of Dana’s poems, like I’m witnessing something important, elemental and integral to the world, emerging in its full maturity but still in its brand-newness. And that’s a bit humbling and energizing. Please visit her site and check out poems like “Breathe,” “Testimony,” “Praying Mantis” and see what I mean.

 Michele and Kiki’s sofreudian haiku site

Michele.

Michele. Or, her feet, at any rate.

I first came across the sofreudian site because I regularly check out the #haiku feed on WordPress. Among the seemingly thousand new haiku that show up each day, one writer’s work, jarring at first, kept sticking with me. The site is actually maintained by two writers, Michele and Kiki, a dynamic duo of sharp wit, innuendo, social commentary, pop culture reference, and sometimes just plain dirty language—it’s funny that it takes far more than seventeen syllables to even begin to describe what you will find in the haiku on this site. Poems that read like dialogue from a 1970s-era unevenly dubbed martial arts film, complete with dashes jammed in at just the parts where the translation goes awry—or changes directions—ha, your problem with translation, not mine busta!

Kiki. Clearly not a Patriots fan.

Kiki. Clearly not a Patriots fan.

It was this ability to play with surface gestures and then drop into the abyss without warning that first hooked me, as well as this feeling that I was actually reading a translation of some kind, of my own ignorance at times. Michele’s poems regularly eviscerate the more mundane aspects of existence, vaporize fake chumminess, and yes, detach entire armies of sharks-with-laser-beams-mounted-on-their-heads against the pious and preoccupied. Then, without warning—and sometimes even without the standard-bearing em-dash—comes a beautifully searing line of pure longing.  Call it the Beatrix Kiddo Syndrome, but the combo is hard to pull off—kiss your baby goodnight then go out and fight a duel to the death. Oh, and win. Most people cannot do this. Michele can.

 

moscowmule

Moscow mule, in proper Copper.

Sans authenticated biographical material, I can tell you this much about Michele, the main contributor to the site—she went to college in California and still lives there. She does design and editorial work for authors outside of a demanding professional design job. She’s an Aquarius, likes sour cherry jelly bellies, and her favorite drink is a Moscow mule ONLY if a copper mug is available. (Without a copper mug, it’s a greyhound.) She maintains a fairly eclectic reading list and writes reviews for goodreads. And she was once the Queen of the Swallows Parade in San Juan Capistrano, CA. I believe that day was an important one for her—wearing the crown, being carried by her Swallows Parade court contingent, and overseeing the blossoming buzzsaw of a sky full of tiny road warriors returning home, maybe she saw those birds turn into words, felt the freedom of the small soarer, and decided to write haiku. Oh, and to keep the crown while she was at it.

Regarding Kiki, and quoting an un-named source: Kiki has skills as a ninja, lawn mowing, pie eating, and she loves to hide in a closet after posting her haiku. Again, the author of this post does not claim to have verified any of these details. But you may verify the authenticity of the poems themselves by visiting sofreudian.com …before the swallows return.

Poetry Process

I’m pretty sure this is the longest blog post I have ever written. So let’s keep going! Below are the questions about process, and my answers:

What am I working on?

PoemsofMasters_coverFor the past seven months I’ve been at work on a project called The Drift. In a nutshell, here’s the backstory:

1. For Christmas my wife gave me a translation of one of the earliest anthologies of Chinese poems, most dating back to the T’ang and Sung dynasties– Poems of the Masters, translated by Red Pine. Originally the anthology was ordered by its subject matter–twelve or thirteen categories that might seem somewhat odd to the modern reader, including trees, insects, public occasions, seasons, etc. A few hundred years later the contents were reorganized into four sections– the four main styles of “regulated verse” in which the poems were written, with the poems placed in chronological order within those forms. It is in this format that the Red Pine translation is set out. As I read through it, I wondered how different the experience of encountering these poems might have been in the original anthologist’s order.

2. Over the course of this year I’ve written poetry in what I call “unregulated verse,” not attempting in any technical way to adhere to the original forms of regulated verse, but to choose a few formal elements (writing in couplets, writing mostly poems of either 4 or 8 lines but some up to 32 lines long) and themes to investigate, symbols to use, and stick to those. These poems are being published as blog posts in pretty much chronological order, but will also fall into specific categories. The idea is to have a book at the end of the year in which, by virtue of multiple formats, or via an app, or simply through the use of tags on WordPress, the poems can be seen in more than one order of content, and the interplay of the difference of order may create some additional contexts and meaning around and between the subjects of the poems. I haven’t begun investigating the functional requirements of this for the final publication; if anyone knows a great epub functionality or app that can do this, please let me know. I’m not talking about a book that shuffles its contents; but rather one in which the contents drift contextually or chronologically, like our own lives’ experiences and memories, providing a different sense of things.

3. Mei Yao-ch’en. My edition of Poems of the Masters contains a visually pleasing format–all poems appear on the right-facing page in English; on the left-facing page is the poem in its original Traditional Chinese characters, as well as a brief bio of the poet, discussion of the traditional symbols in use in that poem, and other contextual background, provided by the translator. For a somewhat equivalent or parallel effect, I have brought into the future as my traveling companion the Sung dynasty poet Mei Yao-ch’en, and am in the midst of a series of poems in which Mei, transported rudely from the 11th century to the present day at roughly my age, stays with me through four seasons as my house guest and writes poems about his experience of this world. These Mei poems will appear on left-facing pages, along with some prose poems, which hopefully will add a narrative and personable dimension to the more static meditations in my  homespun “unregulated verse.”

4. The Drift… the theme of the drift, or of drifting, is examined throughout these poems. The drift of memory, the drift of time, the drifting of friendships, love, loss, the change in feeling that a drift in context can produce, and so on. As well as the basic idea of, well, getting the drift of something.

How does my work differ from others of its genre?

Uhh, I don’t know anyone else crazy enough to try to write the book described above? Does that work as an answer?

Why do I write what I do?

Taking my cue from my teacher A.R. Ammons, I’ve always operated under the idea that a poem is a walk. For Archie, a walk was the basic perambulation with the stuff of the world, the interaction with the elements and experience, sky and mind, necessary to write. Writing a poem is taking a walk in my mind, amid the driftwood of the day. It’s a way of figuring out where I stand in relation to the world.

How does my writing process work?

I always have a piece of paper in my back pocket, and a pen. I usually capture opening lines, or ideas, or things I have seen and want to write about later.

Then I write almost every night.

Often the nudge to write is just that, a nudge, and the poem that develops does it its own way, often with no regard for the original idea or image that started it.  This is why I’d never suggest that you wait until it’s the “right time” to write, or when your desk is clear, or your problems are few–you never know when the right time to write is.

It is unlikely that the poem you write tonight will ever be written again, even tomorrow. Once it’s written, you have opened up a door to a house with many rooms; in one of them you may find the actual poem, no matter how despondent the original doorway was. If it’s not written, that doorway disappears before you were even aware of it.

When it is time to put poems into a book, they may go through some small changes or even massive overhaul; by that time I have enough distance to know how the poem works on its own, apart from my need at that time it was written; and also how it may work as part of a collection. Mostly this involves wholesale chopping of parts of a poem rather than tinkering or tweaking lines or words.

Having written all this, I think process has a lot to do with circumstances. And circumstances change. So in closing this piece, I’d advise this: don’t be patient with your process–it can change any moment, when your computer breaks, when you move, when you change jobs–but be patient with your poems. Your poems are very patient with you. They take what you give them and wait. So be patient with them.

Two Poems About the Moon, one mentioning the moon six times and the other not mentioning the moon at all [new translations]

Two poems about the moon, one mentioning the moon six times and one not mentioning the moon at all

 

Sky Dream

Li Ho (790-816)

In the sky, that cold toad’s eye weeps.
Between towers of cloud its clarity slants, unstuck,

a jade wheel rolling anew in each drop of dew, glinting
off imaginary immortals on the fragrant path as they meet

and watch dust and ocean trade places beneath the Three Mountains
and even as they blink a thousand years run by like horses. Meanwhile,

way up there, to the toad the great nations are nine wisps
of angry mist and the wide ocean of sorrows a small spilled cup.

 

Still Night, Thoughts

Li Po (701-762)

Moon’s so bright before my bed
I mistook it for frost glowing on the floor.

I lift my head, and old hopes, to that moon,
then back down, eyes full of a dream of home.

 

–translated by Jeff Schwaner