The Jerome Rothenberg reading over at Wesleyan was terrific. Rothenberg read from his new book Writing Through: Translations and Variations, from Wesleyan University Press, which contains a selection of translations from various anthologies he has done (including New Young German Poets, Technicians of the Sacred, and Shaking the Pumpkin), in addition to some explanatory notes and essays which discuss his translation process (most notably the essay "Total Translation" which appears here as an appendix). Rothenberg read works from various poets he had translated, including Celan, Lorca, and Neruda, as well as some fascinating works of his own that he refers to as "otherings," in which he uses the notion of translation as a way of "writing through" or "being written through by others" in his own poems. This includes techniques such as "collage, appropriation, cut-and-paste, found poems, cut-outs" etc, using aspects of other voices he has translated. Rothenberg himself describes these "otherings" as a way of calling the writer's ego into question: "Once translated they were mine and simultaneously not mine. And if this was the case with translation, was it not also with all language as it entered into my mind and mouth?"
Rothenberg read with a wonderful half-sincerity (I mean that as a compliment); he seemed to be both inside the work feeling it emotionally and outside it peering in, delighting in the oddness of the emotion in something not quite written by him. The overall effect was somewhat dry, an atmosphere illuminated at times by bemused or urgent rhetorical moments. One memorable piece for me was a poem by Picasso, "15 November XXXV," (describing the Guernica?) which was very chaotic and strange, a deranged ekphrasis which at times seemed to verge on word salad. I wondered how one translates such a text, and how much is lost in the process of doing so. The other memorable piece was a Navajo horse song, from "The 17 Horse Songs of Frank Mitchell," which Rothenberg had translated with the intention of retaining some effects of the original's purposeful distortions of the Navajo language. Here's a quote from part of the poem:
(Nnnnn N ghan) because I was the boy raised ing the dawn & nnnn but some there are mine all (ghan) & some (gwing) there 're mine there
(Nnnn N ghan) & in the howse the bluestone home & mmmrrrr but some there 're mine all (ghan) & some (gwing) there 're mine there
(Nnng N ghan) & in the howse the shininggwingNdghan & some there are mine all (ghan) & some (gwing) there 're mine there
As he read this, Rothenberg sang the passages according to a pattern of repeating tones, some of which contained slides or indistinct notes (the "gwing" always a downward slide, for example, which sounded more like an interruption or percussive effect than an actual word). I can't speak with any further authority about the story behind the poem or how the distortions of language & sound effects functioned for the Navajo, but this piece was certainly riveting to listen to.
It occurred to me during the reading that Rothenberg has constructed his own language, "ethnopoetics" being one of his key terms, for engaging the notions of origins and derivation, the question of where poetry comes from. I found Rothenberg's critique in Sulfur of Harold Bloom's "Anxiety of Influence" theory (thanks to Dan Featherston for recommending this article) to be extremely helpful in working through notions of poetic origins, or even "lateness," if we can use that term without accidentally stepping into a Bloomian war trench and finding ourselves once again embroiled in that Oedipal agon that he calls "influence." On the contrary, Rothenberg's reading of influence has more to do with his work as a translator and poet, with "writing through" and the process of "otherness" which writing inevitably involves. Less concerned with forming a literary canon, Rothenberg's task has been to complicate the process of canon-building by reminding us that no one owns language and that we all engage with it as material. He would rather introduce new voices (in the model of Ashbery's book Other Traditions) than trace a top-down, hallowed aesthetic lineage down its paternal line. And at the moments when he does make a stab at establishing such a lineage (as in Poems for the Millenium, edited with Pierre Joris), he contradicts Bloom's deterministic theory by setting up Blake as his impetus -- more specifically, an interpretation of Blake in opposition to Bloom's own. Instead of a rarified poetry of "quality," with Rothenberg we have a poetry that acknowledges the presence of real factors in the world such as ethnicity, specificity of place, and language use. And by comparison, that feels pretty liberating.