Friday morning I flew back to Chicago, in order to participate in the university's International Writers Day, a series of events coordinated and hosted by the Center for Writing Arts and Center director Reg Gibbons. He and Assistant Director Stacy Oliver got things going that morning when they brought the six visiting writers, Nirwan Dewanto (from Indonesia), Hamdy El Gazzar (from Egypt), Ksenia Golubovich (from Russia), Lawrence Pun (from Hong Kong), Aziz Nazmi Shakir-Tash (from Bulgaria), and Lindsay Simpson (from Australia), to meet with poet Robyn Schiff's advanced sequence creative nonfiction class, and my advanced fiction class. All of the writers are currently residence at the University of Iowa's International Writing Program, and were in town for events at the university and in Chicago, at the Chopin Theater. After introducting themselves and their work, they conducted a discussion with our students, who had read their work and came prepared with sharp questions about their backgrounds, their work in genres, the role of politics, and related topics.
Golubovich's responses really struck me. She spoke about being a writer from different countries, a writer living in and on borders; an ethnic Yugoslavian whose family had fled Tito after World War II, she was born in the Soviet Union and lived now in a different country, and had a British stepfather who, from her 15th year, expected her to speak and be smartly amusing in English. (Her English was excellent, but then all five of the non-native Anglophone writers were fluent.) Her work, she said, faced the "idea of the border," and one of her challenges was the question: "how do you make yourself whole?" She continued by noting her and other writers of her generation's work redeeming language from its abuse by the state, and suggested that in writing there's always politics, and if not, "it's bad writing." In response to a subsequent question, she spoke about how she and another writer had engaged in the task of translating one of Bruce Chatwin's travel works, heavily influenced by one of Russia's greatest poets, Osip Mandelstam and his wife Nadezhda, back into Russian, and how this "double process" (Russian-->English-->Russian) created a new Russian, something--and language and idiom--that had not existed before. In effect, it changed and enriched her Russian. She pointed out that the Russian translation of The Catcher in the Rye in the 1960s had been fundamental for a generation of writers; the idiom it created influenced these authors as much as and perhaps more than any native Russian works or culture.
I also was taken with Aziz Shakir-Tash's statements about being of Turkish ancestry in Bulgaria. Though Turks were once the majority there, during the Ottoman Empire, after the First World War and Bulgaria's independence, Turks became a minority and it was in this context that Shakir-Tash grew up. As it is, he not only writes in Bulgarian and Turkish, choosing the latter in part because of the much larger pool of readers (70 million+ vs. 8 million), but also English (and he read some droll micropoems later that day) and Arabic, for which he was one of a few translators in his country. He felt that in light of the historical closeness of Bulgarians and Turks, who in a nationalist fervor that is well known across the globe, now hate each other, literature might serve as a bridge by revealing their shared history and experiences, and above all, humanity. "If they know each other they won't fear each other." If only this were true, though I admired his conviction (and hold it, against reality, unfortunately, myself).
After the class concluded, we headed to lunch, and were joined by the most of the rest of our creative writing faculty. It was great to break bread with the visitors, and I had an opportunity to chat a little with Golubovich, primarily about music; Pun, discussing films, particularly those of Wong Kar-Wai (though I confessed to him that Tsai Ming-Liang was perhaps even more of a favorite); and El Gazzar, who gave a colleague and me the names of some of Egypt's best younger fiction writers. I had to run to an afternoon class, my introductory fiction course, so I headed there and after we conducted a scheduled story workshop, we headed to the writers' reading and question and answer session, some of which I photographed below. Though I was exhausted by the end of the event, I also felt tremendous energized, and only wish that it were possible to have more of these sorts of events taking place all the time, particularly with creative people who were so open.
Pun reading his short story "What Exactly Did I Lose?"
Golubovich reading from a project that constituted a tribute, in part, to her British stepfather
Shakir-Tash and Golubovich listen as Dewanto (center) answers a question
El Gazzar, Simpson and Pun ponder a question after the reading
Yesterday afternoon, I was still beat, but I got up and after spending time doing some cleaning and shopping, and also reading student work, I headed down to the grand Harold Washington Library (the main branch of the Chicago Public Library) to catch Rosmarie and Keith Waldrop, exemplary poets, critics, translators, and publishers, as part of the Chicago Poetry Project's yearlong reading series dedicated to translation. And who better to launch such a series? They are extraordinary figures in the world of contemporary American literature, particularly experimental writing (talk about people deserving of MacArthur Foundation Fellowships!) and through their Burning Deck Press publishing house have published a wide array of US authors, from Walter Abish and Robert Coover to Marjorie Welish and Xue Di, while also bringing out numerous works in translation over the years. They're also two of the most welcoming people I've ever met, gentle, sage, full of knowledge lightly offered, encouraging, witty, and great storytellers. I can still recall vividly a story Rosmarie told, while I walk around with a few Keith's apothegms in my head as well. Like a number of writers I know, I think of their literary activism--which it is--as a model, and try not to miss them when they pass through. (I met Rosmarie and Keith during the year I taught in Providence, where they've lived for nearly 40 years, where Keith has trained generations of writers and artists at Brown University during that period, and where together they've run Burning Deck Press, one of the signature small presses, for decades.) Poet John Tipton (whom I sketched at his reading last fall) introduced them pithily, and then they read, Rosmarie first, then Keith. Below are a few photos, both of the reading and the library, which is one of my favorite spots in Chicago. (How often do you hear someone say that about a library?)
Rosmarie Waldrop, who started by reading some quotes by Edmond Jabès, whom she translated and knew well
Rosmarie Waldrop, holding up a copy of Curves to the Apple, published by New Directions in 2006; it brings together three of her most acclaimed volumes, The Reproduction of Profiles (1987), Lawn of Excluded Middle (1993), and Reluctant Gravities (1999)
Keith Waldrop, reading some of his translations of Baudelaire's poems from Flowers of Evil and Paris Spleen
From the mezzanine level, looking at the main floor of the Harold Washington Main Branch of the Chicago Public Library
Descending the escalator at the library
After I left Keith and Rosmarie's reading, I headed to the Fall Out Against the War Anti-War Rally, which was at Federal Plaza, just a few blocks away. It followed an early-afternoon staging and rally at Union Park, from which participants marched downtown. The Federal Plaza Rally was one of 11 regional marches and rallies; the others were in Boston, Jonesborough (Tennessee), Los Angeles, New Orleans, New York City, Orlando, Philadelphia, Salt Lake City, San Francisco, and Seattle. One of the speakers noted that perhaps 30,000 people were present (the crowd was vast, and people with placards were visible on streets many blocks away), though I overheard a cop scoffing that the speaker had "smoked too much pot" and that the crowd was about 10,000, which was what the traditional media (both the local TV news and NPR) announced. (Maybe they read straight off the script that cop had seen.) The wall of cops was incredible; in addition to the Chicago Police Department contingents, there were traffic cops and what I guess were details from Cook County (the county containing Chicago, Evanston, and few other suburbs) and who knows where else. There were probably even federal and state entities there, for exactly what reason who knows. I doubt it was to protect the marchers and rally participants. I got to hear several of the speakers, and they spoke not only about the ongoing disaster in Iraq, but about the looming threat of a US military attack on Iran, which increasingly seems possible given the worsening rhetoric coming out of the White House and Congress. I kept thinking that despite thousands of people out there in Chicago and more than a hundred thousand at other rallies, and despite the widespread sentiment, quantified by polls, against continuing Iraqmire or attacking Iran, if the people in power are set on doing this, they will. They are unconstrained by the popular will and have been since they seized power in the 2000 election. I know this sounds cynical and defeatist, but I'm not sure what else to say, at least at this point. My faith that the leading Democratic presidential candidates, like the Democratic Congress, will do anything to stop this craziness, is at an ebb. Congress seems to keep falling all over itself to do George Walker Bush, Dick Bruce Cheney and the Military-Industrial Complex's bidding. Nevertheless, it was encouraging to see so many people, from all over the Midwest, and from all points on the political spectrum, converging to express their collective hope and determination to ensure that we follow a more peaceful road than the current belligerent one.
Chicago's famous Federal Plaza, the site of the rally, with the Alexander Calder "Flamingo" stabile sculpture, and buildings (Everett McKinley Dirksen Building; the John C. Kluczynski Building; and the Loop Post Office) designed by one of the greatest modernist architects, Ludwig Mies van der Rohe
The stage from a distance (the speakers were barely visible unless you got close, though you could hear them blocks away)
The stage, and some of the signs (note the Alfred E. Bush/George W. Newman) Impeach sign)
A "peace" standard bearer (and behind her, one of the many people carrying a Ron Paul sign)
Lots of buttons for sale
People milling about during the speeches
On my way back north, crossing the Chicago River
On my way back I encountered this lone protester highlighting another issue; take note!