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   Jacket 32 — April 2007        link Jacket 32 Contents page        link Jacket Homepage

   Feature: The Poetry of Response link Contents List

Christopher Kelen

in a wood where things have no name:

introducing the poetry of response feature

This piece is about six printed pages long.


In the third chapter of Lewis Carroll’s Through the Looking Glass, Alice travels through the wood where things have no names. In this a-semiotic space we find an apt metaphor for the situation of the foreigner who, entering a new culture, has lost the name for everything s/he knows. In this wood Alice meets a fawn with whom she has a curious conversation. There is immediate rapport between these creatures who can name neither themselves nor each other. Pressed by Alice to divulge his identity, the fawn promises to do so if Alice will come along with him a little further. ‘I can’t remember here,’ he says. The two progress together lovingly, Alice’s arms around the soft neck of the fawn, until they come out of the woods and, in the moment of recognition, the fawn flees at top speed. Terror for the fawn is in the truth words convey to the visible world. Alice is saddened by her companion’s departure but comforted to remember who she is once more.

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Between Alice and the fawn is a dialogue which notionally cannot begin because no one knows who or what his/her interlocutor is. Yet there is a dialogue, there is rapport and even affection. The circumstances of Alice and the fawn are exemplary for those of us who work with poetry in the fleeting space between languages. Collected for this issue of Jacket is a set of articles aiming to explore the range of engagement in such a space between poetries foreign to each other – from close translation to vague influence, via adaptation, variation, response. It’s best left to the reader to decide whether these alternatives lend themselves to theorisation as a continuum or whether interest lies in discontinuities suggested. In every case some kind of conversation is indicated with what might called an ‘original’, or at least a precursor, text.


In contrast with earlier epochs’ bolt-from-the-blue myths of inspiration and the idea of poetry’s ineffable sources, it is something of a postmodern truism that the text has antecedents – generically, thematically, however. In the articles featured here we find poetry avowing an origin (though not an ultimate source), and probably likewise denying a destination. Favoured rather is the open-endedness of dialogue and hence a resistance to the product orientation (and focus on ownership) associated with publication and canonisation. The emphasis instead is on meaning as animated. In this case the meaning is made with words which favour us with the instability of crossing – in conversation between languages. It’s through these means the words remain alive.


So what – more specifically – is this ‘poetry of response’? It is foremost a poetry of practice, a poetry in process. Oana Avasilichioaei and Erin Moure’s write in (and of) their piece ‘C’s Garden’: ‘We talk, utter, move, provoke each other with text, voices, our different ideas about text and origin and voice.’ Their hope as mine is that the reader be compelled in reading to perform the work.


This collection of meditations commences with Peter Riley’s essay ‘Quotation: “It don’t mean a thing”’. Riley asks us to consider what ‘echoic tropes’ go into making a personal vocabulary, the material of the self. Riley provides a range of useful metaphorics, helping the reader to theorise a continuum in quotation – commencing with the reminiscence or ‘subsumed response which can no longer carry any indebtedness’, shading into forms and degrees of allusion. Riley writes of fragments broken off, ‘clutched in passing, their messages reconstituted in a new discourse, like fragments of pot and bone excavated from the earth’. In this conception of poet as bricoleur, quotation/allusion is not about agreeing or subscribing to an oeuvre or an ethos:


What finally is the status of these borrowing, stealings or findings of things which fell off the backs of lorries...? In one sense they have no special status or need to be distinguished in any way from the currency of the whole work. And yet they sit there in the text like an antique brick in a modern wall, and you know they got there in a different way from all the rest.


Take out that ‘not/just another brick in the wall’ and we gaze onto a wider vista which takes in poetry’s role in and as cultural capital and specifically its participation in debates re intellectual property. If poetic discourse is on the way, made on the way, then what will be the consequences of owning the journey? A personal ethic/caveat closes Riley’s piece – if you don’t want a response, don’t publish. At stake here – liberty with and of the poem.


Tony Barnstone’s piece, ‘The Cannibal at Work: Five Discourses on Translation, Transformation, Imitation, and Transmutation’, offers graphic alternative visions of the creativity in and associated with the translation process – the Sausage Factory, Readymades, Frankenstein and finally Cannibalism. In an earlier draft of this piece, Barnstone asks rhetorically – ‘What good is a translation that doesn’t voyage through the chaos of the uncreated and make a pact with discord and confusion in order to discover a new chord and a new order?’ In his working cannibal piece, Barnstone reminds us of the dangers that go along with stealing fire from the gods. Continuing with (and foreshadowing more of) the Chinese interest, to follow the Barnstone piece, is included a sample of Gary Blankenship’s work, after Wang Wei’s Wang River poems.


Forrest Gander’s essay ‘The Strange Case of Thomas Traherne’ rescues a timely voice from a burning heap. Traherne’s is a voice appearing and re-appearing just at the right moment. Gander’s treatment finds an ethical dimension, embodying the quotational mode through phenomenology. Here response is proof and practice of intersubjectivity. For Gander, Traherne’s ‘Commentaries of Heaven...’ implies identity as relational, ‘developing out of a collaborative involvement with others, world, and God.’


In his piece ‘Imitation, Traduction, Fiction, Response’, Kent Johnson historicises the confluence (or blur) of related activity (and personae) implied by his title. Johnson speculates in kind on poetry’s return to fiction as an old and forgotten home. He cites ‘Petrarch’s lovely epistle on imitation to Boccaccio’ – ‘we must write as the bees make honey, not keeping the flowers but turning them into a sweetness of our own, blending many different flavors into one, which shall be unlike them all, and better.’


The remaining pieces in the feature focus on poetry of response projects more or less in process up to the time of writing. Working with unfinished (perhaps unfinishable) text, Oana Avasilichioaei and Erin Moure’s ‘C’s Garden’ presents an intensive conversational engagement across languages with the poetry of Paul Celan – translating and re-translating a single fragment over a period of months. Moure and Avasilichioaei write that in this process ‘the poem pulls sideways, opens to other lexicon, is traversed by phrases from outside the poem, returns... then tears free into a lexicon only it can imagine. We watch language and translation “take place” in the act of performance itself, the performance of the page, of the writing hand, of the voice, of the body.’ Through this process, for Avasilichioaei and Moure, ‘the space of the poem becomes a garden, a field, constantly renewing itself; the act of listening, an act of watering.’


‘Corespondencias’ and its ‘Post-Data’, are documents of a somewhat complex collaborative project involving Chus Pato, Andrés Ajens, Zacarías Alavi, Jen Hofer and translators Michelle Gil-Montero and Román Antopolsky. Gil-Montero writes in her notes on the project:


Ajens’ text weaves its argument through Galician and Castillian. The instability of its form is intrinsic to its content; its tangle of languages, of author/other, is essential to its denouement (and to its play, its art, its not/knot).


Accounting for her and Antopolsky’s efforts to create a text adequately equal in English, Gil-Montero explains:


Part of our challenge was to find an equivalent relationship in English, and a relationship that both establishes and problematizes difference visually, in the word, and also in the history of the word. Castillian has much of its history dispersed, in surviving dialectical forms, such as Galician. But I find that English has swallowed/buried many such traces – taken them on within itself. There are different dialects of English, to be sure. But these language forms are either (a) too new and/or racially/socially charged (and thus would distract/deflect Ajens’ argument to another place and time) or (b) too far removed from modern English on the concrete level to be recognizable (e.g., other languages; say, Frisian). Many other dialectical forms are too slight and would hardly show up enough in translation to do justice to Ajens’ play of the fantastically allusive, tricky, borders between the two languages. In my reading of the text, the tension between two forms had to be visually notable, and at times, confusing, confounding. So, we chose to invent an English form – our choices informed by etymology and orthography, which resulted as a mixture of borrowings mainly from older forms of English. The choices were replenishing the strangeness and otherness of English. This decision was intended to (a) leave the political/historical issue to the Galician-Castilian relationship without complicating it by adding an equivalent British relationship and (b) recreate the pleasure of visual/orthographical difference in the original text (which also serve the argument by creating ambiguities in words that complicate the idea of authorship, originality of language in terms of meaning, etc.).


This lucid account of relationships between texts the reader may find independently difficult helps I think to explain the kinds of issues faced by translators and others who move creatively between languages in the hope of making experimental poetic works. How many boundaries can one poetry project comfortably cross? Andrés Ajens, Chus Pato and their team of collaborators provide the reader with what I think we could call a state of the art testing of these limits. The object of the translation exercise, if indeed we can call it translation, as Gil-Montero avows is one which would sit well with every imaginative effort related to translation – ‘to take up the spirit of the original with original play.’


Lastly my own piece accounts for half a dozen related collaborative projects, each with the goal of responding to a particular Chinese poet. Responses are shown here to the work of Tao Yuanming, Meng Jiao, Li He, Li Yu, Xin Qiji and Nalanxingde.


The hope in each case is to sustain a productive conversation with canonic (and not-so-canonic) minds and texts of another tradition. Also included are responses to the work of contemporary Chinese poet, Yao Feng.


Translation – the thing we’re all not quite doing here – is a process of never arriving. There is something unconvincing about it. Hence the desire to assert some imaginative distance from what reads as a bald presumption – the putative a = b of texts foreign to each other. The more you know of the other side the less convincing the idea of an ideal ‘same out there’ becomes. Something like what Lyotard calls a differend will always remain between the idioms from and to which the ideas are carried. The idea entering one culture from another will always be somehow stuck like Kafka’s man from the country – never able to get through a gate the function of which is to conceal the law one is hoping to approach. Perversely perhaps, poetry’s is an analogous process – that of making one’s own words foreign. The mistakenness, the noise, the static, the not-quite-rightness, of every way between languages, is a home of poetry and one well-rehearsed: the place of exile.


Between languages, in the betweenness of language, is the critical space for poetries, if only because we know nowhere but in language to be between subjects (subjects becoming in language). In Merleau-Ponty we read the reversibility of conversation and its relation to the subject as a kind of blurring, in which they become impossible to pick apart: ‘the conversation pronounces itself within me. It summons me and grips me; it envelops and inhabits me to the point that I cannot tell what comes from me and what comes from it’.


Is a conversation between languages/cultures possible in poetry? Here in the wood where things have no names, I think we need to take any answers offered as provisional. The words are still finding us and the work is necessarily on the way, therefore experimental. To play in the space between texts, languages, subjects is to engage the indeterminacy of genre, text, of method – to see how these fold in and out and on, in the manner of the spoken chain. There’s plenty of coining in the process. When I queried Oana Avasilichioaei and Erin Moure’s use of the words ‘transleap’ and ‘poemleap’, I received this very satisfactory response:


transleap and poemleap... these are words so tentative for the movements in translation we are exploring, we both feel we can’t yet pin them down with definitions, don’t want to reify what is in fact a flux, a gesture, a motion over a threshold that keeps thresholding... it is such a strange and lovely and different movement, movements, that to refer to it as moving from translation to creation would insult both those domains, so these new words came to us...


We were happy to agree that ‘indefinition’ was the right direction with these terms, at least for the moment. I think such a decision is valid at this point for the poetry of response project more generally. And so I would like to take this opportunity to declare the project open and ongoing and to call for contributions – theoretical, practical, pedagogical, and above all in the form of poetry – for what will hopefully be a wider exploration, perhaps to be published in various forms (including print).


To this end then, allow me to repeat a little of the original call, to which the present collection of voices responded.


The objective of this call is to gather contributions for an anthology of poetry responding – across cultures and across languages – to poetry already written (or to poetry in process). Through example and discussion (more or less formal, more or less dialogic) it is hoped to explore the continuum of response from translation to conversation. While influence is commonly well accounted in the case of famous works, the process has been under-theorised from the practitioner’s point of view, and the reader has rarely been offered living examples of the work in progress or anything to indicate what the state of the art of poetic response might be.


The hope of this project is to engage present practitioners of poetic response in conversation with each other and the world – by having them show their methods and their wares, and by discussing these as they see fit. For the purposes of the project the conceptual range of ‘response’ should be taken as including translation (especially of the kind thought ‘loose’ or ‘free’), variation, adaptation, formally structured allusion, acknowledged inspiration, conversation, various overlaps between these categories and various categories yet to determined.


A range of ethical issues presents in relation to these processes, concerning for instance, on the one hand, originality and, on the other, appropriation. If the activities concerned are classified as ‘not translation’, then questions arise as to how normative determinations are made with regard to textual identity across languages. ‘Is this my poem, translated here into a language I know, or don’t know? In what senses, is it, or is it not, mine?’ There are issues here about how ideas and images travel, about how the poetic travels and who has the right to travel it. If we are permitted to think in terms of a ‘source to target’ progression, then which kinds of move should be considered as re-contextualising, as opposed to de-contextualising?


It’s easy to say ‘not translations but...’; the list above (translation to conversation) belies the fact that there are various continua in operation and under negotiation here and it is far from easy to say where translation ends and where ‘response’ kicks in, where respectful imitation shows that a tradition is understood and even being added to, as opposed to the place where the wheels are rutted or even the accusation of plagiarism might stick. Working with or from a classical source, one asks how much of the original ambiance should be maintained, to what extent the thinking in the poem venerated may be modernized or subjected to anachronism, to what extent these might just be cheap tricks.


Important as the ethical concerns are, the more pressing need is to show examples of the work itself and to get to know how the practitioners understand it. Working in and around the translation of texts which inspire them, the hope is that the poets involved will engage these and the many more issues and questions to be generated, that they will offer practical examples of – and helpful commentary on – their work, and along the way, help the reader to consider poetry’s affinity for the experience of foreign languages and of language as foreign.


My hope is that readers of this feature may be moved to join a community for the ongoing work outlined above. That would be a community in the wood where things have no names.