Computational poetry is possibly one of the most exciting literary developments of our technology-reliant age. Using algorithms and machines, digital poetry is a product of our modern world, its history stretching only as far back as the mid-20th century. In this essay, Asymptote’s Editor-at-Large for Romania and Moldova, MARGENTO, tells us about an even more radical anthology. “US” Poets Foreign Poets brings together the world of digital poetry with more traditional, page-based poetry, finding connections between wildly different poems, expressed in graphs as well as two languages (English and Romanian). Joining MARGENTO are three contributors to the anthology, as well as the anthology’s publisher, who reflect on the publication and the implications it has for translating, and for making digital and page-based poetry comprehensible and connectable to each other.
What is digital poetry? Simply put, it is poetry that fundamentally relies on digital media for its ‘composition’ and ‘publication.’ What do we mean by ‘fundamentally’? This refers to the fact that the (sub)genre would not be possible, would not exist if it were not for the digital. ‘Traditional’ poetry, also known as ‘page [or page-based] poetry’ could still be written (even if virtually nobody does that anymore) by ‘putting pen to paper,’ whereas digital poetry would simply not be around without digital technology.
But things—and distinctions—are not really as simple as they may seem, and (as is often the case with definitions), when looking closely these definitions actually branch out into both elemental and complex ‘undefineds’ or undefinables. The many questions above are only a crude testimony to all that (and it can only get worse, as you’ll see in a second). What does, for instance, ‘composition’ in our tentative definition above stand for? In digital technology, it has more to do with algorithms and machinic procedures than the imaginative and ‘original,’ or deeply ‘personal,’ human use of language. It is about manipulating a (mathematical and operational) language behind the ‘natural’ language that is thus artificially (re)generated.
Daniel Hahn’s Ask a Translator column, in which he fields questions about his craft posed by Asymptote readers, kicks off at the blog. What should have been a happy occasion (our fifth anniversary, celebrated in New York, London, Hong Kong, Ottawa, Chicago, and Belgrade) is marred somewhat by a quarrel with one of our partner institutions. I should first note that the success of the past year (2015) has been a true double-edged sword: although it has bestowed greater visibility (which has in turn brought us partnerships with hitherto-undreamt-of international reach—all the better, I suppose, to catalyse the transmission of literature), our own team members are more coveted by other organizations as a result. Since these are paying organizations (either non-profits with institutional backing or for-profit companies with commercial viability), Asymptote can’t compete. With success also comes assumption that our coffers are being filled to the brim by sponsors and we should be spreading the wealth around. Yet, we are essentially still going it alone; I’m still working full-time without pay and channelling funds raised into web development costs, translation contests, and marketing the work that we’ve been entrusted with. Someone from a partner organization turns down an invitation to moderate our New York event for fear of being interpreted as endorsing our policy of not paying contributors; he demands that we start doing so. Should implies can, but the reality isn’t so. Still, it’s wonderful that translators have such a fierce advocate in this person; I wish editors at publications like ours also had organizations and movements behind them too. Here to introduce the Winter 2016 issue is Assistant Editor Lindsay Semel.
I was recruited as one of Asymptote’s Educational Arm Assistants in January of 2016, just around the time this issue launched. What I want to share now is a story about my first weeks with the journal and my reckoning with the Winter 2016 issue that is ultimately a defense of inefficiency and the impostor syndrome.
Even two-and-a-half years later, I still know this issue more intimately than any other, because when I came aboard as a recent undergrad (it’s not atypical for Asymptote team members to be a bit green) I felt I’d been given two unique gifts. The first, bafflingly, was the complete confidence of our editor-in-chief, Lee Yew Leong. As far as the Educational Arm was concerned, I was free to take on whatever naïve dreams I could imagine—as long as the final product met the standards of the journal. My first spicy taste of impostor syndrome—now a familiar one when negotiating Asymptote assignments—came from the simple fact that I wasn’t a teacher. I could identify with Yann Martel when he said in his interview: READ MORE…
The post-symbolist Russian poet Osip Mandelstam, as dazzling and immediate as he is daunting and complex, is best known in English for the early formal work of Stone (1913) and Tristia (1922). Mandelstam would mature into a poet of visionary modernity in the late 1920s and 1930s. Translator Alexander Cigale is working on an as yet unpublished new volume of selected works by Mandelstam and considers himself part of a Silver Age of Mandelstam translation, after the Golden Age of the 1980s and 90s. While earlier translations established Mandelstam’s reputation in English principally through Tristia and Stone, Cigale chooses to render many of the middle-period “Moscow” poems by Mandelstam, written in the late 1920s and 1930s, and heretofore less well-known in English.
Cigale has also translated Daniil Kharms, a contemporary of Mandelstam and a poet of nonsense and absurdity akin to Lewis Carroll and Samuel Beckett, a poet who seems, at first blush, almost diametrically opposed to Mandelstam in temperament and aesthetic. Both Mandelstam and Kharms have become pillars of Russian twentieth-century poetry. Since publishing a volume of selected works by Kharms in 2017, Cigale seems poised to become an esteemed translator of the greatest Russian poets of the twentieth Century—and, perhaps, of the twenty-first, since Cigale is also at work on the contemporary poet Mikhail Eremin thanks to an NEA Fellowship in Literary Translation.
As a longtime reader of Mandelstam and Kharms, poet Alexander Dickow asks Cigale about the difficulties and rewards of scaling the highest peaks of Russian poetry, and especially that of Mandelstam’s glittering verse.
Alexander Dickow (AD): Alex, you just published in February 2017 a new translation of selected work by the OBERIU (Russian absurdist) writer Daniil Kharms, Russian Absurd: Selected Writings, from Northwestern University Press. Your latest project is a volume of selected poems by the celebrated Acmeist Osip Mandelstam. I’d like to start with a question about the historical situation of these writers who both reached their poetic maturity in the late 1920s or early 1930s. Kharms and Mandelstam were both destroyed by Stalin. How do you think this manifests differently in these poets’ work?
Alexander Cigale (AC): Stalin was cognizant of and acknowledged the genius of Mandelstam (in a phone conversation with Pasternak). I’m not sure Kharms was on anyone’s radar. He outlived most of his friends because the authorities dismissed him for a madman.
I fell in love with the poetry of Milli Graffi in 2008, when I was seeking authors to include in a dossier for Aufgabe on “poesia ultima e della ricerca,” or the latest Italian poetry of research. It was immediately clear to me that we had heroes in common—Lewis Carroll and James Joyce in particular.
There’s a section in Finnegans Wake on Anna Liva Plurabelle in which Joyce speaks of “loosening your talktapes.” When he translated this passage into Italian, Joyce himself rendered this phrase as “scioglilinguagnolo,” a translation that likely reveals the matrix of the original notion he had in mind: in English, we speak of tongue twisters, or what we might render in Italian as attorci–lingua, while in Italian one uses the term “scioglilingua,” or tongue-dissolvers, tongue-thawers, tongue untiers. The Italian idiomatic expression might very well have been the origin of the “loosening” that ended up in Finnegans Wake, a book in which all languages converge in tangles of phonemes and roots.
I discovered this point of correspondence in a book of English exercises that Milli Graffi edited for Paravia publishers, aimed at high school students—because Graffi, unstoppable champion of the avant-garde that she is, chose this mind-twistingly complex passage for the teaching volume. When we got together this summer in Milan to prepare for a public chat on translation, on a sultry heat-thickened afternoon further stultified by a city-wide transit strike, Milli told me that she had used the word in a poem, and I knew that I had to try translating it.
The work was published in Mille graffi e venti poesie, 1977-78 (Geiger, 1979), and I soon found that Graffi had rendered Joyce’s phrase even more Byzantine, because she transformed scioglilinguagnolo into sperdilinquagnolo, turning the action of loosening embedded in the original Italian phrase into loss (sperdersi refers to losing oneself; sperdere means dispersal, scattering), and lingua (“tongue; language”) into linqua, some sort of calque tending toward the English “linkage” while containing the heavily deictic “qua” (Italian “here”; Latin “what; as; in the capacity of”). I took other necessary liberties while working with this poem: my translation of ambiscia is a calque of ambassador and ambush, and so on. A proper gloss would proceed word by word, but I’ll leave it up to readers to discover some tripwires of their own.
With Asymptote you can be sure to have the latest reading recommendations. True to form, we bring you a selection of the exciting new books this month. Which one is going to claim a place in your bookshelf?
Kholin 66: Diaries and Poems by Igor Kholin, translated from the Russian by Ainsley Morse and Bela Shayevich, Ugly Duckling Presse.
Reviewed by Paul Worley, Editor-at-Large, Mexico
English language readers already enamored of poets such as the Roman Catullus or the more recent Charles Bukowski will find a similarly humorous, difficult, and enthralling companion in the pages of Russian Igor Kholin’s (1920-1999) recently translated Kholin 66: Diaries and Poems from Ugly Duckling Presse. An autodidact whose experiences in the military included a near-death experience in World War II, Kholin in many ways perhaps serves as a vital counterpoint to the American Bukowski insofar as both writers, despite the fact that they are writing throughout the Cold War between their respective countries, cast an unrelentingly critical gaze on the societies they inhabit, bearing witness to abuse, the dirty, and the neglected, and rendering these as poetry. The translators note that although Kholin’s “occasionally unrestrained misogyny” may rankle the sensibilities of many readers, they nonetheless felt compelled to leave his attitude in their translation as “it seems to constitute part and parcel of his self-positioning and character” (9). Along those lines and, in tandem with Bukowski, one also wonders about the extent to which the writer’s misogyny is not a gendered version of a broader misanthropy from which the poet does not even exclude himself. After all, the poetic Kholin muses on the possibility that thinking he is “a creep…It’s not such a leap” (80), as well as understanding he is one for whom wine is “made” and shit is “laid” (85). As he criticizes his social circle for their faults and flaws in his diary, a passage written in a friend’s handwriting takes on the subject of Kholin himself, claiming the poet is “intellectually limited” (46) and that his “advice on writing is naive” (48). Perhaps unsurprisingly, marginal notes in the poet’s own hand describe these as “the best thing Yodkovsky [the friend] has ever written” (49).