Friday, April 25, 2014

First Review of Hilst Translations

A few posts back I mentioned that the somewhat altered and edited version of an online roundtable discussion about Hilda Hilst was now live on the website Music & Literature, but I had not realized that in early April, in preparation for the roundtable, writer and critic Adam Z. Levy posted an insightful, well-considered and very praiseworthy review both of my translation of Hilda Hilst's Letters from a Seducer (Nightboat Books/A Bolha Editor, 2014) and of scholar Adam Morris's recent superb translation of Hilst's earlier novella, With My Dog-Eyes (Melville House, 2014) about a mathematician whose eyesight and consciousness are disintegrating.

Some quotes from Levy's review (which heartened me tremendously when it singled out my rendering both of Hilst's seemingly inexhaustible lexicon of terms for sexual organs, as well as of the multiple registers of idiom and discourse in the character Karl's letters, effectively capturing their often absurd--and I do mean absurd--humor):

If the abnegation of traditional values and hierarchies runs through Hilst’s life, her attempt to find a literary analogue becomes clear with the arrival in English of two more of her novels: With My Dog-Eyes (published in Brazil in 1986, and this month in Adam Morris’s translation) and Letters from a Seducer (translated by John Keene). Letters from a Seducer is the third book in her “pornographic tetralogy,” which solidified her notoriety upon its Brazilian release in 1991. Included in the quartet are a book of poems and three novels (O Caderno Rosa de Lory Lamby, Contos D’Escárni / Textos Grotescos, and Cartas de um sedutor). Though Hilst’s later writing is considered radically different than her earlier work, the break represented by the tetralogy is merely an intensification and deepening of themes Hilst had long explored. Her “pornographic” books are united by the violence with which she works to undo the grammar of systems of confinement—language, gender, sexuality, and form—and the tenderness and comedy with which she scours the bleakness of circumstance for something that an optimist might call hope.


There is an Ouroboric quality to Kéres’s descent from genius to madness, concurrent with the novel’s own formal descent from coherence to chaos. Many of the pleasures and challenges of reading Hilst’s fiction can be found in this loop. By the end of the book’s sixty-two pages, Kéres has fractured and dissociated almost entirely from himself. Hilst renders this with a mix of first- and third-person narration, with Kéres hovering over himself—and over the text—as an intermediary between the reader and the professor’s thoughts:
Amós Kéres. From here I can hear him comparing the lucidity of an instant to the opacity of infinite days, I can hear him thinking of the various manners of madness and suicide. The madness of the Search, which is made of concentric circles and never arrives at the center, the obscuring, incarnate illusion of finding and understanding . . . From here can I hear him thinking how should I kill myself? or how should I kill in me the various forms of madness and be at the same time tender and lucid, creative and patient, and survive?
As Kéres fractures and becomes increasingly diffuse, Adam Morris does an impressive job handling the sudden shifts in perspective and the disorienting rhythms of the text. Toward the end, it is almost impossible to know whom to attribute various lines of exposition and thought, as though Kéres himself were a poem emptied of signification, and Hilst seems to ask whether this is liberation or the essence of madness itself.


In the back of my book, in a column that carries over to a second page, I noted the following euphemisms that Hilst uses for penis: catfish, pole, blunt, harmonica, banana, pod, thrush (as in “to pluck one’s thrush”), piece, club, table leg, rosy mallet, bat, tombstone, creeper, strap, box, nib, basket, and gourd. There is also starfruit-loquat-hole, rosy pulp, poompoom, dove, hairy cavern, butterfly, chocha, and petunia, where female genitalia are concerned. 
But the pornographic nature of the novel reaches further than the physical. The three short sections that constitute Letters from a Seducer are narrated by two men: Karl, the seducer of the title, and Stamatius (Tiu, for short) an impoverished writer who is resentful of Karl’s money and manner. Karl’s letters are the most accessible and the most enjoyable, although enjoyment and accessibility are categories of which I imagine Hilst herself would be suspicious. The letters are lustfully written to Karl’s forty-year-old sister, Cordélia (named with reference to King Lear), who lives alone in the country. “Cordélia, my sister, come out of your cloister / The countryside ages women and cows,” one of Karl’s teasing lyrics goes. Karl’s own cloister is his family’s estate in an unnamed Brazilian city, where he lives with two German servants who putter about the house, muttering passages of Jean Genet by heart. Karl’s voice is arch and affected, often to the point of hilarious parody, but Hilst endows him with a clever self-consciousness and serial seducer’s charm. That John Keene’s translation captures the humor of Karl’s constant suggestiveness and change in register is a remarkable achievement of its own.

If you haven't picked up either book--they're short!--please do, and also do not forget the brief, enthralling The Obscene Madame D, the first of Hilst's works to appear in book form in English, translated collaboratively and with great panache by Nathanaël and Rachel Gontijo Araújo (Nightboat Books / A Bolha Editor, 2012)!

Wednesday, April 23, 2014

Poem: James Baldwin

One of the treats of this year's Inter/National Poetry Month is the publication of a new collection of poems by James Baldwin (1924-1987), one of the greatest figures in 20th century African American and American literature and culture. Baldwin was an exemplary essayist, social critic and public intellectual whose vision and insights, nearly three decades after his death, still provides a vital lens for understanding our society, and a talented, pioneering fiction writer and playwright, whose courage in tackling subject matter, especially racism and white supremacy, and the complexities of black and queer lives, and whose lyrical voice, sometimes achieving a condition not unlike poetry and song, enshrine him as an important author always worth returning to.

Like many writers of prose, Baldwin loved and wrote poetry all his life. From my perusal of his 1983 volume Jimmy's Blues, I would say that he saw poetry as a way to memorialize not just moments but people, and thus among his oeuvre are some famous occasional poems, including "Sweet Lorraine," a tribute to his friend, another great, pioneering writer, Lorraine Hansberry (1930-1965). For him poetry often served as as a way for Baldwin to register the rich currents of personal and societal feeling, flashes of intellection, in and as language, without the systematic approach a writer choosing poetry as her primary mode of expression might follow. Nevertheless his poetry, as Nikky Finney argues persuasively in her introduction to Jimmy's Blues and Other Poems (Boston: Beacon Press, 2014), Baldwin's poetry merits our reading. Its rewards are multiple. To quote Finney, excerpted on the Poetry Foundation's website Harriet:

James Baldwin, as poet, was incessantly paying attention and always leaning into the din and hum around him, making his poems from his notes of what was found there, making his outlines, his annotations, doing his jotting down, writing from the mettle and marginalia of his life, giving commentary, scribbling, then dispatching out to the world what he knew and felt about that world. James Baldwin, as poet, was forever licking the tip of his pencil, preparing for more calculations, more inventory, moving, counting each letter being made inside the abacus of the poem. James Baldwin, as poet, never forgot what he had taught me in that seventeen-hundred-and-seventy-six-word essay — to remember where one came from. So many of the poems are dedicated back to someone who perhaps had gone the distance, perhaps had taught him about the rain: for David, for Jefe, for Lena Horne, for Rico, for Berdis, for Y.S.


When the writer Cecil Brown went to see James Baldwin in Paris in the summer of 1982, he found him “busy writing poems,” quite possibly these poems. Brown reports that Baldwin would work on a poem for a while and then stop from time to time to read one aloud to him. “Staggerlee wonders” was one of those poems, and “Staggerlee wonders” opens Jimmy’s Blues, the collection he published in 1983. The poem begins with indefatigable might, setting the tone and temperature for everything else in this volume, as well as the sound and sense found throughout Baldwin’s oeuvre. “Baldwin read to me from the poem with great humor and laughter,” Brown wrote in his book Stagolee Shot Billy.

Here is one of the poems from the collection, which I am reprinting from, which originally ran three. Enjoy!

“MUNICH, WINTER 1973 (for Y.S.)”

In a strange house,
a strange bed
in a strange town,
a very strange me
is waiting for you.

it is very early in the morning.
The silence is loud.
The baby is walking about
with his foaming bottle,
making strange sounds
and deciding, after all,
to be my friend.

arrive tonight.

How dull time is!
How empty—and yet,
since I am sitting here,
lying here,
walking up and down here,
I see
that time’s cruel ability
to make one wait
is time’s reality.

I see your hair
which I call red.
I lie here in this bed.

Someone teased me once,
a friend of ours—
saying that I saw your hair red
because I was not thinking
of the hair on your head.

Someone also told me,
a long time ago:
my father said to me,
It is a terrible thing,
to fall into the hands of the living God.
I know what he was saying.
I could not have seen red
before finding myself
in this strange, this waiting bed.
Nor had my naked eye suggested

Tuesday, April 15, 2014

Thinking Its Presence: Race and Creative Writing

Sometimes conversations about changing the world, or at least about interventions that might spark real change, can lead to tangible outcomes with potential powerful, long-range effects. One example of this occurred this past weekend, at the University of Montana, in Missoula, at the inaugural Thinking Its Presence: Race and Creative Writing Conference. Organized by acclaimed poets and critics Prageeta Sharma and Joanna Klink, the conference arose out of conversations about institutional racism, aesthetic and critical blind spots, and the necessity for writers and scholars teaching creative writing to convene to hash things out. It also served as a public launch for scholar Dorothy Wang's superb new monograph, Thinking Its Presence: Form, Race and Subjectivity in Asian American Poetry (Stanford University Press, 2013), which explores these and other crucial issues specifically in relation to 20th and 21st century Asian American poetics and poets, but also within the larger American literary, aesthetic and cultural fields.
The opening panel
The conference, which ran for three days, comprised panel discussions, readings, talks, pedagogical presentations and papers, and a keynote address by Dorothy. Scholars, writers, students, alumni, and staff from the University of Montana, among Montana's president, Royce Engstrom, and from points all over the US and overseas attended, as did people from throughout the local Missoula creative community. A number of nearby businesses, including Submittable, the online submission software company that is based in Missoula, served as sponsors, and one restaurant, Plonk, provided a special discounted menu for the duration of the gathering.

There were many highlights, beginning with the opening panel, which featured University of Montana scholars, among them David Moore, George Price, Quan-Manh Ha, Benedicte Boisseron, and Dylan Suagee, each of whom not only gave provocative papers that provided conceptual and thematic frames for the rest of the event. Price, a local historian and lecturer at Montana of Wampanoag, African-American and Euro-American ancestry, opened his talk with a Wampanoag greeting, before posing the question at the center of his paper: "Equally What?" He suggested that historically oppressed people's quest for equality had often been presented and resulted in a push for material, and more specifically, consumerist equality, but pressing questions of social, political and economic equity, as well as attentiveness to the landscapes around us, still awaited a response from the larger society.
The Naropa-based writers Sarah Richards Graba,
Ellie Swensson, and Amanda Ngoho Reavey
Equity vs. equality proved a recurrent theme throughout, as did Suagee's point about writing by people of color being a political act always, and his emphasis on the necessity of crossing boundaries to gain knowledge, power and capital to take it back to share with our home communities. This flowed into his discussion of mobile identities and identifications--intersectionalities--and of "communitism," or the merger of community and activism, which he saw his and others' work striving to achieve. One final point that Suagee also broached was that we recognize that "assimilation" was not the goal; as he noted, for many Indians who had gained resources through oil revenues, they were becoming more Indian, not less. That idea of not sacrificing difference in the face of liberal--and now neoliberal--assimiliationist discourse and policies also reappeared throughout the conference.
Monica Mody's Skyped participation
Another key moment was Dorothy's talk, which reprised part of her study's chapter on poet Mei-mei Berssenbrugge, while ranging more broadly to encompass contemporary criticism about poetries by poets of color. A thread throughout her talk was to disarticulate the concepts of the autobiographical, the universal, the abstract, and the experimental. The questions she fielded were sometimes pointed. One questioner, in an effort to bash "identity politics," a misreading of Dorothy's point about how minority poets, especially ones working in a formally experimental vein and producing work that is not racially marked, wielded what I call the "Hegel" card, which is to say, using European philosophy and critical theory as a trump to make his point, but she was as sharp and spirited in her response, and basically put him and Hegel in their place(s).
Don Mee Choi
After Dorothy finished the Q&A, we took a short break, and Sherwin, an acclaimed Diné poet from the Navajo Reservation in White Cone, Arizona, and I read in succession. He presented both new work and poems from his most recent collection, Flood Song (2009), the former performed almost as though being projected onto an imaginary screen in front of the audience. For my part, I read a new story inspired by a link to minstrelsy sheet music Dorothy had discovered and sent last fall, which led me to look into the life of Bob Cole (1886-1911), who, I learned, was a major figure in the development of African American vaudeville cultural production. Cole committed suicide while on summer vacation, and my story explored his final hours, weaving in not only snippets of his songs--among which number the still well known "Under the Bamboo Tree," performed by Judy Garland in her 1949 film Meet Me In St. Louis, a personal favorite--but also a structural chiasmus in which one song he wrote based on a famous Negro spiritual cross, with a reprise of yet another series of lyrics unfolding in rapid fashion at the end of the story. At any rate, I think it went over very well, and it will be part of a collection, Counternarratives, which is on its way next year.

Elizabeth Eslami, Michelle Naka Pierce,
Tisa Bryant, Heather Cahoon
There were so many excellent panels and readings I'll just mention a few. One was by young writers studying at Naropa University (Jack Kerouac School of Disembodied Poetics). Chaired by Naropa professor Michelle Naka Pierce, a superb poet in her own right, the panel featured Ellie Swensson, Sarah Richards Graba, and Ngoho Reavey, each of whom explored distinctive aspects of the panel's theme, "Engaging Urgency: Articulation of the Polysemous Self." I have to mention Ellie's neologism "omniantichronology," which she articulated, if I recall correctly, as a way of showing the plasticity of temporality. Themes and practices involving the body, language and multiplicity in terms of form, genre and platform ran through all three of their presentations, with Sarah noting that "to return to the place [where violence occurs] even in your mind creates violence," but she, like Ellie and Ngoho, was interested in the "wound of the return." As Ngoho pointed out, which underlined a number of presentations all weekend long, "English is always a site of translation," and she mentioned the untranslatability of a Tagalog term which a body in relation to all other bodies, which she was looking at in some of her recent work. During this panel, an exchange involving one of the white audience members and Ellie unfolded around white privilege, in which the panel mistook Ellie's mention of privilege as saying that she'd "overcome" it (which the audience member also linked to her own "pain" and burden as a result of that privilege), leading Tisa and I to offer our thoughts, and while the issue was not fully resolved, I felt like there was an open exchange.
Lillian Yvonne Bertram reading
Another memorable event was Jess Row's talk, "White Flights," a version of an essay he'd previous published, in which he spoke about the quest among many white American writers of the last 30 or so years for "deracination," which is to say, both "derace" themselves, submerging their racial identity into a normativized universal American (middle-class) subjectivity, but also uprooting themselves from the increasingly racially, ethnically, religiously, and class-diverse urban and suburban spaces of late 20th and early 21st century America. This "white flight" thus has involved not only a flight from racialized others, but from racial identification itself. Among the writers and works he cited as part of his nuanced, enlightening critique were Marilynne Robinson in her famous novel Housekeeping, Anne Beattie's stories, and Pulitzer Prize-winner Richard Ford and his Frank Bascombe trilogy. Jess noted that since the 1960s, a "decoupling" now linked to an absorption with the landscape depopulated of its original and current peoples, with this liberal abstraction turning into a generalized feeling sublimating racial and social guilt.

Jess Row
Among the many ironies Jess pointed out, this sublimation, abstraction and submerging has been frequently--regularly--characterized as "realism," though it is evidently quite different and distinct from the realism of 19th century European and American literature. In reading Ford and others, he also spoke about the "invisible capital," especially in terms of real estate, to use George Lipsitz's terms, that gets passed on generation after generation by white people, citing the massive loss, in the double digits billions of dollars African Americans have faced by being cut of out the Homestead Act and subsequent legislation, and noted that in over the last four decades we have witnessed a massive "reinvestment in whiteness" in our literature, either by a literary focus on suburbia or exurbia, or on rural settings. There has been an impulse, he stated, "towards erasure and avoidance," with the controversial HBO show Girls representing a metastatization of this spatial deracination. I.e., Brooklyn with the black and brown people!

Tisa presenting at one of the
pedagogy panels
Throughout a host of readers presented their work, including featured authors Kimiko Hahn, Mena Alexander, and Kathryn Shanley, as well as Lillian Yvonne Bertram, Tisa, Heather Cahoon, Teresa Carmody, Don Mee Choi, Biswamit Dwibedy (in electronic form), David Micah Greenberg, Farid Matuk, Monica Mody (by Skype), Tracie Morris, Michelle Naka Pierce, Metta Sama, Aja Sherrard (who was also taking photos throughout)Leihua Taitano, David Witzling, and many more, and the conference concluded with a stellar reading by Montana's very talented and poised MFA students. 1913 Press and Les Figues were especially visible presences throughout.

One bizarre moment occurred when someone attending a Montana state Republican gathering--was it a state party convention? a caucus?--at the Holiday Inn where the conference was occurring decided to act out, in response to the slogan "Minorities with Grievances" (from Dorothy's book) that graced the conference's beautifully designed (by Lisa Jarrett) book bags, towards the people at the Thinking Its Presence table. They received a(n unexpected?) firm and polite response and left, though it was clear that the conference participants present were a bit startled by the unprovoked attack. I heard later that officials from the state party convention did apologize for the imbroglio, and as far as I know for the rest of the conference, attendees to both events came and went without incident.

Montana GOP posters all
over the Holiday Inn atrium
The manageable size of this conference compared to the usual literary ones I attend (like the Associated Writing Programs Conference, for example, which by its very nature has to keep expanding) and the racial, ethnic, gender, class, and sexual diversity were refreshing, as was another key difference from nearly every literary conference: the vibrant participation of Native American writers, artists and scholars. Both led to broader and richer conversations, especially ones going beyond the black-white dynamic and involving a broader spectrum of issues (often similar, but distinct given the US's history) that people of color face, than I usually hear. In general, too, the openness of participants to dialoguing across differences and disagreements was invigorating, and should happen far more than it does. (I do hope there are more participants working in playwrighting/drama and performance next year.) Prageeta and Joanna achieved something quite significant with this conference, and I am eagerly looking forward to next year's event, again at Montana, which will no doubt build upon this year's excellent pilot gathering.

Farid Matuk
Meena Alexander and one of the Montana students
David Micah Greenberg
Anna Maria Hong
Julie Rouse, one of the talented
Montana MFA students reading

Monday, April 14, 2014

Poem/Translation: Hagiwara Sakutaro

So busy these recent have been that unlike in prior years, including 2009, when I was in Cuba, I have been able to post a daily poem from National/International Poetry Month. I will strive to post a few more before April flows into may, but for now, here is one by Hagiwara Sakutaro 萩原 朔太郎(1886-1942), the late, acclaimed experimental Japanese poet, whose volume The Iceland, translated by Hiraoki Sato, will be published this summer by New Directions.

The poem below, which appears with two others on Asymptote journal's website, displays the quintessence of Hagiwara's work: its use of free verse, rather than traditional Japanese forms (which he also employed during his career); its mixture of linguistic registers, including lofty poetic speech, everyday language, and philosophical discourse; and oscillation between pedestrian and psychologically dark imagery. Several previous volumes of his work, including Howling at the Moon and Blue (Green Integer, 2001), translated by Hiraoki Sato, and Rat's Nest: The Poetry of Hagiwara Sakutaro (UNESCO, 1999), translated by Robert Epp, have previously appeared, as has Hagiwara's Principles of Poetry: Shi No Genri, from Cornell University Press in 1998.

The Tiger

It's a tiger
wide and vague as a giant statue
you sleep in a cage in the uppermost floor of a department store
you are born no machine
you may tear apart and eat meat with your fang-teeth
but how can you know human reasoning?
Behold, under the orb sooty smoke flows
from the roofs of a factory-zone town
sad whistles rise and spread.
It's a tiger
It's a tiger

It's an afternoon
the ad-balloon rises high
in twilight-close city sky 
on this high-rise building sitting in the distance
you are as hungry as a flag.
When you scan vaguely
you make the worms crawling along the streets
your live food dark and depressing.

It's a tiger
on the roof of prosperity in the midst of Tokyo City
where elevators go up and down
wearing an amber striped fur
you suffer solitude like a wasteland.
It's a tiger!
Ah it's all your afterimage
a useless total view of a void.

Copyright © Hagiwara Sukitaro, translated by Hiraoki Sato,from The Iceland,
New Directions Publishing Corporation, June 2014.

This poem appears on the website of Asymptote Journal. All rights reserved.

Friday, April 11, 2014

Montana Scenes

I'm currently out in Missoula, Montana for the inaugural Thinking Its Presence: Race and Creative Writing conference organized by poets and critics Prageeta Sharma and Joanna Klink, and featuring a wide array of amazing writers and scholars, including keynote speaker, scholar and critic Dorothy Wang, after whose study the conference took its name, and Sherwin Bitsui, Jess Row, Meena Alexander, Kimiko Hahn, and Farid Matuk, among many others. I'll post more about the conference over the next few days, but here are some photos of Missoula and its necklace of hills and mountains. Big sky, yes, but also, gigantic, very nearby mountains. And I've also included the photos of the herd of white-tailed deer we came across as we were leaving an event on campus. They were so close, so gentle, and did not flee but slowly moseyed away, grazing and periodically glancing back at us, as we headed for the bridge and trail to downtown.

A view across the Columbia River,
famous for Norman McLean's collection
 A River Runs Through It
A view of the nearby
mountains to the South
The Holiday Inn, where
part of the conference took place
Looking north along Higgins Road
in downtown Missoula
The hills looming just in walking
distance of downtown
Looking west along Broadway,
downtown Missoula
Public artwork, Missoula
Public artwork, Missoula
Those mountains!
More hills and mountains,
downtown Missoula
The campus of the
University of Montana
On the footbridge across
the Columbia River
Looking along the Columbia
The Milwaukee Trail, Missoula
Young white-tailed deer, grazing
at night--they were only steps
away from us and didn't scatter,
but kept munching away until finally
they proceeded down into
the parking-lot area
On the Higgins Street bridge
River and mountains
Some of the rapids near downtown

Wednesday, April 09, 2014

Hilda Hilst Online Roundtable

The young Hilda Hilst
Over the last few months I participated in an online roundtable about Hilda Hilst, whose sublime and sublimely perverse novel Letters from a Seducer (Nightboat Books, 2014) I translated last year. Organized by critic and author Sarah Gerard, the roundtable, which comprised questions posed by Sarah (and translator Caroline Aguiar), and responses by authors, translators, scholars and publishers including Alex Forman, Rachel Gontijo Araújo, Adam MorrisNathanaël, Stephanie Sauer, and I, does give a deeper sense of who Hilst was, and what she was up to. The conversation is now live at Music and Literature.

One unfortunate aspect of the conversation, however, is that it appears to have been reordered and edited, with some errors inserted, after the fact--by Music and Literature or someone else I'm not sure. Nevertheless, it reflects our real-time online exchanges, and for the most part (or at least my part) did not receive any subsequent polishing. Were we onstage, bodily as opposed to virtually, this is the sort of conversation--without the remixing--you might hear.

One highlight:

Caroline Aguiar: Hilst was willing to explore the limits of language while going deep into aspects such as God and immortality. At the same time, she was deeply connected with the very core elements of human existence, such as passion, comradeship, life, and death, often finding inspiration not only in philosophical books but also books on biology, physics, anatomy, and math. How do you interpret the fact that the public is now more interested and prepared to embrace Hilst’s view of literature than any time before? 
Nathanaël: This seems a recasting of the first question of our conversation. As I think a number of us have indicated previously the question of the timeliness of these translations seems to mislead the apprehension one might have of Hilst’s work; John has underscored the degree to which this is already an Anglo-centric question, since Hilst arrived in other languages well in advance of these efforts here; so perhaps the question is one, if it does indeed need to be asked at all—and I’m not personally convinced that it does—of the English language’s belatedness and hitherto lack of receptivity. And the way in which borders between languages are more or less passable. On the occasion of the U.S. film release of Macunaíma in 1968, the U.S. public’s ability to receive the work was, according to one critic, limited by its impoverished understanding of Brazilian specificities and political realities within a larger South American context, with which it was somewhat more familiar. It would seem to me, though, that this kind of limitation is a consequence of a kind of deliberate ignorance. And I am concerned that the same kind of short-sightedness can lead us to congratulate ourselves misguidedly for identifying a particular moment as a zeitgeist. Literature has no time and articulates itself reiteratively with a reader. 
Alex Forman: Caroline makes an important point about the elements of the metaphysical in Hilst’s literature, ideas brought over from other fields such as philosophy, math, and science. And though I don’t immediately see the math, I do find biology, and I want to think more about this… I do see a predominant focus on literature itself (the notion of Literature) in a sort of meta-textual writing and the Metaphysical. In the books I have read, there are monster narrators who eat little children; we have children whose living uncles turn into great authors of Brazilian literature (in a game of smoke and mirrors) and narrators who speak from beyond the grave. We have multiple interior voices—some, like John mentioned earlier, come from Hilst’s fascination with recording seance-like encounters with spirits, while others seem to be simply the “voices in our heads” at play in her fascination with mental illness. So many of these elements are in communion with Brazilian culture. They end up being the manifestation of a cultural reality, a stream that runs permanently beneath the surface here, so much so that it is never described but simply permeates daily rituals. Hilst works it all into her literature as fantastical and absolutely natural, absorbed and accepted by her characters in such a way that we, her readers, come to accept it too.

Tuesday, April 01, 2014

40x40@40: C. S. Giscombe on Seismosis

Many thanks to Tisa for forwarding to me and others a very fine mention of Seismosis (1913 Press, 2006), the collaborative project I worked on with artist Chris Stackhouse. Small  Press Traffic is currently running its "40x40@40" series, about which SPT says:

As part of looking back and mapping what the amazing feats of the SPT community have been since 1974 [the year of its founding], we asked 40 writers to contribute one short text each celebrating—describing, anatomizing, remembering an encounter with, meditating on, shouting out to—a single book published by a small press between 1974 and 2014.

We’re interested in having writers reflect on a book that palpably shifted their perspective, startled their aesthetics, changed their life; a book they always recommend to others; a book that they would place in a time capsule. The one small-press publication that has obsessed them: cult classic—difficult pleasure—creased-cover favorite—out-of-print masterpiece…

The 40×40@40 list will, hopefully, sketch a 40-part haphazard history of independent publishing and ardent reading across these four decades.
How wonderful then to learn that out of many libraries' worth of compelling experimental texts published over the last 40 years award-winning author C. S. Giscombe, author of Giscombe Road (1998), Prairie Style (2008), and other important works of poetry and criticism, and professor of English at University of California-Berkeley, selected Seismosis as his pick.

Here's a snippet of what he writes:
Seismosis, John Keene’s collaboration with Christopher Stackhouse, moves and moves in more than direction.  From the title—which suggests the motion of earth and the motion of liquid—onward the book celebrates mix.  As the back of the book tells us, the text samples work from a variety of writers and performers (Guy Davenport, Leonardo da Vinci, DJ Spooky, Charles Olson, Marjorie Perloff, and Cecil Taylor, among others) and here, in that act, is the mix of languages that makes poetry—here Keene and Stackhouse have taken their collaboration outward and, in so doing, have brought the world into it.  The very end of the book, the one-line poem called “Process,” is signal and also, playfully, serves a summary function—“In the mark we choose and lose signature.”  
He concludes his short post by noting that
Here I feel the book coming again not to “a still but not deep center” (Roethke) but to a statement (via re-statement) of its collaborative project.  I’m struck, throughout the book, by the play of collaboration. The book seems to me to be an examination of what collaboration might look like if it crossed borders.  And here, in Seismosis, with its implicit ruptures of earth’s crust and violations of membranes, borders are being crossed.
Many thanks to Cecil and to SPT, and do visit their site to check out some of the other works they've selected, including works by Dennis Cooper, Elaine Equi, Bernadette Mayer, Karen Brodine, and Heather Fuller. There are a little over 30 more or so works to come!