Place: New York City

Todd Portnowitz on Music, Language, and Italian Literature

Ultimately I end up translating most of what I write into Italian, as a way of workshopping my own writing.

Todd Portnowitz is a poet and translator from the Italian, and the recipient of the 2015 Raiziss/de Palchi Fellowship from the Academy of American Poets which allowed him to translate the work of Pierluigi Cappello (featured in the Asymptote Winter 2015 issue). In this interview, he converses with our Educational Arm Assistant, Anna Aresi, about how his love for language and music converge in the writing of poetry and how speaking a foreign language can make you a better poet.

The following interview was conducted via email and over Skype.

Anna Aresi (AA): You work as a translator, poet, editor, and musician. I was wondering how all these are related for you, especially if and how your work as a musician affects your writing.

Todd Portnowitz (TP): My sense of music determines my syntax, where I choose to break a line, what vocabulary I use—sometimes I grope for a word by its syllable count or shape. This is particularly useful in translations of poetry, where a definite syntax and vocabulary are already there before me in the original text and hunting for the right words and rhythms is the central activity. Writing poems, translating poems, editing poems—all are an art of decision making, and music best informs those decisions. What a writer has read of others’ work, her knowledge of cultures, histories, languages, politics, family, love, death, faith, all of that comes to a terminus in the language, the sequence of words chosen—music best reflects the sum of that knowledge in verse.

Apollo could slay/flay on the lyre for good reason. Not every poet has to also be a musician, but a poet with an untrained ear, with no cultivated sense of phrasing or meter, is like a basketball player who has never practiced dribbling: able to shoot, but immobile.

AA:  What sparked your interest for Italian literature? What has your journey been like?

TP: My interest in Italian literature began with an interest in the Italian language. I took Italian 101 my sophomore year of college, and the language made immediate sense to me, most of all the pronunciation: the purity and regularity of the vowels, the value of every consonant on the page (penne [pens] is by no means pene [penis]). I was writing songs and singing for a band at the time and Italian expanded my cultural knowledge, my linguistic knowledge (in English as well, because of the Latin roots), my historical knowledge—all of which helped with lyric writing—while also challenging my vocal abilities, cleaning up my vowels, forcing me to roll my r’s and make whatever you want to call the sound that “gn” makes (as in gnocchi). It was fun, in other words. After a study-abroad in Italy, the decision to stick with Italian got easier. I got a minor in Italian and took as many classes as I could. When I graduated, the department named me Italian Graduate of the Year—one of those awards that might look banal on a CV but that has since determined the course of my life. Maybe this is what I’m best at, I started thinking. READ MORE…

A Dispatch from The World in Words: From Ainu to Zaza

"The loss of language implies the loss of people. But before it dies, a language halts, gets stuck in the mud..."

A young man from a mountain village in Tibet arrives in Texas to study. He is alone and isolated. A Ford Mustang is parked on the street-the racing horse on the grill with MUSTANG embossed below prominently featured. His heart rate spikes and a smile spreads across his face, a sign from home! A Texan woman with blond locks and Daisy Dukes gets in the car and drives off. The moment of excitement flips to complete loneliness. Mustang is the mountain village he calls home where his small community speaks Mustangi, a little-known language on the verge of erasure, “one of those village languages.” The man flees Texas for Jackson Heights, Queens. Among the great diversity of languages spoken in the neighborhood, he unexpectedly finds a small community of Mustangi speakers (and fewer Ford Mustangs)—the true home a long way from home.

Aline Simone told this story at a live taping of the podcast The World in Words at the New York Public Library on June 21st. In the episode, “From Ainu to Zaza,” Hosts Patrick Cox and Nina Porzucki focused on endangered languages and the people fighting both to preserve them and to keep them alive. In the conversations, stories and music of the evening, the guests and hosts kept coming back to this question of stories. Cox began the episode with a discussion of Ainu (he has reported on the language before). Ainu has no linguistic relatives. Linguists can map neither the origins of the language, nor of its speakers. Ignored by the government and universities alike, the dominant culture erases the history of the language and its people. Few Ainu speakers remain and yet fewer use the language in conversation—as an active, used language Ainu has all but dissolved.  READ MORE…

Conversations in Absentia/Invisible Voices: the 2015 Indo-American Arts Council Literary Festival

"It creates a desperately needed space to discuss, underscore, and broadcast South Asian writing in one of the world’s largest literary capitals."

The first thing one notices at the venue of the 2nd annual Indo-American Arts Council Literary Festival is the number of Indians in various gradations of “Indian Attire”—from the skimpy Bollywood sari, to the elegant Kanjivaram, to the ubiquitous sherwani with a baseball cap. Such South Asian exuberance against the drab backdrop of Hunter College’s linoleum floors, dubious escalators, and gray dry-wall is enough to pique anyone’s interest, let alone a bunch of homesick Indian bibliophiles waiting to take selfies with their favorite writers.

An ambitious attempt on the part of the Indo-American Arts Council, led by director Aroon Shivdasani, the Festival gathers together prominent Subcontinental voices as diverse as Salman Rushdie, Suketu Mehta, Meena Alexander, Padma Lakshmi and Mira Nair, as well as emerging writers like Sharbari Ahmed, Raghu Karnad, Manreet Sodhi Someshwar, Mira Jacob, and Tanwi Nandini Islam.

Only two years old, the Festival is in its nascent stages, and perhaps that is why the panel discussions at times felt disjointed, as did its choice of panelists. The topics often veered sharply from the literary into an ersatz representation of South Asian identity—India’s rich, politicized literary landscape got less than its proper share of attention in what is supposed to be a festival of literature. The opening panel comprised of Salman Rushdie and Suketu Mehta in conversation with Amitava Kumar, although brimful of witty lines and pictorial anecdotes, often detoured from a discussion on writing by these accomplished authors into scattered riffs on their pasts, their political affiliations, and their sense of belonging to the “Old Boys’ Club” of Bombay writers. These digressions not only alienated younger audience members but also missed the opportunity to center the discussion on the writers’ craft. To make matters worse, there were not enough checks and balances to prevent an audience member from indulging in frivolous and self-promoting questions, only to waste precious panel time. Also, conspicuous by their absence at the Festival were diaspora writers such as Vandana Khanna, Srikant Reddy, and Nalini Jones, just to name a few, who would have added greater value to the panels, but who were, for reasons unknown, not included.

READ MORE…

An Uncommon Event: A Dispatch from the Compass Translation Award

A dispatch honoring Russian literature and translation

On January 17th—just as the country was getting ready to celebrate MLK and his legacy—a swarm of Russian poetry fans hosted a celebratory (and yet very uncommon) evening of its own. The twofold event, which combined the Compass Translation Award ceremony and the launch of the long awaited 4th volume of Cardinal Points journal, an event occasioned under the auspices of the the StoSvet literary project as well as the Mad Hat Press and the Russian-American Cultural Center.

Set in Manhattan‘s venerable Poets House, the event commenced by honoring two major literary figures that both passed away in recent months: George Kline and Nina Cassian. Hailed as one with an “impeccable ear for translating Russian poetry,” particularly that of Joseph Brodsky, Kline’s multi-decade work made Russian poets better known to the English reader.

He was remembered by Larisa Shmailo, as well as by Irina Mashinski, the event’s main organizer. Furthermore, Nina Cassian, a Romanian poet and translator, who lived in New York City since the late years of the Ceaușescu regime, was honored by her husband, Maurice Edwards, who read two of her recent poems.  READ MORE…

Don’t Trip. “Sidewalks,” by Valeria Luiselli—in Review

A look at Valeria Luiselli’s excellent essay collection Sidewalks, translated by Christine MacSweeney for Coffee House Press

Prose and I are having a moment.

I don’t mean this in the glamorously ephemeral, André-Leon-Talley sense; I mean this in the emotionally fraught, tightlipped-dinner-party sense. I just can’t seem to enjoy it as much as I have in past twenty-odd years of my life. I find myself bored by the contrivances of exposition; I roll my eyes at narrative inventiveness, and quote-unquote characters and their grievances simply exhaust me.

READ MORE…