Global Connectivity and Multiculturalism in Publishing
A Roundtable Chat With the Editors of Chattahoochee Review, Waxwing , and Manoa: A Pacific Journal of International Writing.
Facilitated by Alicia Cole.
What is the importance of artwork such as creative writing in terms of global connectivity?
Michael: The globe seems to get smaller and more interpersonal every day (air travel, the Internet, the loaded symbolism of the “share”) and simultaneously more throwaway and transient (texts, Tweets, on demand, the decline of the personal letter). And while we seem to be more aware of each other than ever before, the news (Ferguson, Missouri; Syria; Israel and Palestine) continually reminds us that our understanding of each other leaves a lot to be desired.
The Chattahoochee Review takes its title from a river, and the journal’s motto is “Exporting the South, importing the world”: give and take, conversation, river-flow. We may never step in the same river twice, but we can account for the river we are in and attempt to do justice to it. Writing, as all art does, serves as a beginning toward plugging some of our gaps. It is a way toward the light. It helps us see, it helps us question, and, with luck, it helps us dismantle borders.
Sara: Michael is spot-on when he says "It helps us see, it helps us question, and with luck, it helps us dismantle borders." We now have easy access to global information, but without access to international literature, we'd have little to no understanding about the complex lives lead among all of that data. I, for example, have been inundated about news from Iraq since I was a teenager. But it wasn't until I interviewed Jon Davis, the translator of Iraqi poet Naseer Hasim, that I really began to ask the harder questions-- the kind that lead, when lucky, to the dismantling of borders. What is living in Baghdad as a poet like, for instance. Asking hard questions lead me to asking even harder questions: What about my American perspective is tempted to read these poems as news? As a lens into a city that has been tormented by a war lead by my country? Me, my, me, my.
The conversation I had with Davis actually helped me articulate my goal as International Editor at Waxwing: It's not to bring an international "flair" to the magazine, and it isn't solely to bring an international perspective on current conversations—though that is certainly welcome, and needed. My bigger goal is to connect artists here to artists they otherwise might not be connected with—as artists and as humans, not merely as readers connecting with stories. If we're seeking "global connectivity" in any real sense, we should be trying to learn about others' complex lives and the art they create as they live them.
Frank: First, thanks to Alicia for starting this conversation and bringing us together. Manoa: A Pacific Journal of International Writing, which I founded and still edit, has been publishing for over 25 years, twice a year as a journal and also as a book that’s released as an original paperback from the University of Hawai’i Press. We emphasize work from Asia, the Pacific, and the Americas, in part because we are located mid-Pacific, in Honolulu, with access to those regions, and in part because we feel that Asia and the Pacific in particular are underrepresented in the foreign literature that trickles into the U.S.
I agree very much with Michael’s comments. And like Sara, I agree with the way he describes our mutual mission as dismantling borders, and “importing the world.” I also appreciate Sara’s statement that literature is the much needed means for us to understand the complex lives of others, especially as we are inundated with data, shallow news reports, and superficial depictions in the media of other nations and peoples. The Internet potentially allows us to know so much, but is actually detrimental when it makes us believe we know everything when all we’ve done is look things up on Wikipedia.
This may be getting ahead of things, but I would stress that good (thoughtful, well written, well translated) international literature has the potential to address the most important undertaking of our time: the reconciliation among the diverse nations, individuals, and tribes. I mean that people everywhere need to hear stories about our human, universal capacity for forgiveness, self-examination, and compassion; stories of people who are trying to overcome resentment, hatred, and anger that has lasted for decades and even centuries. How can we recover our humanity unless we have stories that tell us---and imagine for us---how it can be done, and also make vivid the consequence of failing to put aside vengeance, pride, and exceptionalism, whether as victors or victims? I'm not speaking about didactic or “feel good” literature with happy endings of overcoming the odds, since any stories of the sort I mean must powerfully describe the root causes and events that have led to contentiousness and lasting hatred, and the lives of complex individuals.
Going back to what Michael and Sara say: In an article on the influence of popular media on national perceptions in India and Pakistan, Saumya Gupta wrote “Nations are necessarily exercises in remembrance and forgetting: they remember through ritual commemoration and forget through collective amnesia.” I would add that they also remember through storytelling, and that excellent stories can change the narrative that individuals and peoples tell not only to themselves, but also to the peoples and individuals that are “on the other side.”
What is the place of writing in terms of cultural dialectic?
Michael: In response to Sara's "big nasty" question, I say that being human is 1) recognizing and cherishing our individual uniqueness and 2) recognizing we're not that unique after all, that we're part of something bigger. We're alone and we're together. Call it culture, the world, the cosmos: we're all in this mad forward drive together and we'd better learn how to endure and thrive. Bakhtin writes, "Truth is not born nor is it to be found inside the head of an individual person; it is born between people collectively searching for truth, in the process of their dialogic interaction." It's near impossible to imagine Mary Shelley writing Frankenstein without having been in the ghost-story-telling company of Lord Byron and Percy Shelley. Harold Bloom argues that without Shakespeare we'd have no Milton; without Chaucer, no Shakespeare; and on up the line. Nature, therefore writing, abhors a vacuum; what we write in turn writes us.
I find power in Sara's suggestion that the author is both a unique dialect and a collection of other unique dialects. The Chattahoochee Review taps into the heteroglossia of dialects each year in our two issues. What fascinates me as a genre editor is how the chosen pieces always manage this sort of dialogic exchange with one another, yet how often we don't fully see it until the issue is in our hands. A poem about the end of the world might lead into an essay about the birth of a child, which might lead into a short story about taxidermy: all about life, all about death. The experiences are both apart from each other and a part of each other. So cultural dialectic is part of the purpose of writing, yes: to argue what culture is, what purpose it serves, whether it should be celebrated or sassed or dispensed with. Writing helps illustrate this tension among dialects and tries to find a way through it, to where meaning (hopefully) resides.
Sara: Wow, this is a question I turn over again and again in my head. I can't offer a direct answer, but I will say this: In my own life, I feel like I'm wound up in multiple and competing (and often conflicting) dialects. When I write poems, I'm usually working through the tensions that these voices' living in such close quarters can cause. What should I do with my Granny's echo, floating around in my head in all her cast-iron seriousness, her slow and purposeful Appalachian drawl? And what with my aunt Margaret's boisterous and straight-forward southern humor? These voices aren't mine; mine has been molded by another, stranger East TN community, by the environment of a private liberal arts college-- where to say y'all was to all but claim a lower IQ, by settling in the southwest. But those strong female voices are inherently part of that bramble-bush of my identity. And what's more, they do more than comfort me or offer a safe nostalgic retreat: They help me recognize myself outside of myself, connect me to something more sturdy than my tenuous consciousness. I find I have to revel in those tensions in order to ask myself those harder questions we've all just mentioned in this conversation are crucial, crucial because they help us poke at the big nasty: what is it to be human, beyond being one's self?
As a reader of poetry in translation, this is often what I'm most fascinated about: no one's poetic voice is the poet's voice alone, but a unique heteroglassia (I couldn't help but use Bakhtin's term). So how do you translate the competing dialects of a culture in which you probably have a limited literacy? I don't know. But talented translators do it every day; seeing it happens always astounds me, feels like a kind of magic. Translators have to really revel in those tensions caused by competing voices-- and, I think, to recognize a parallel fight going on in their own lives to understand it. That level of recognition is what allows translators to bring something completely new into the target language/culture.
I hope this helps open the conversation up—I can't wait to see where it goes from here.
Frank: This question is really too big for me to do justice to it. If I think of it as asking about conflicting social forces and arguments, and how to synthesize them globally, I’m lost. But if we narrow it to the practice of literary translation, I have some not-so-original things to say, not as a theorist but as writer and editor. And very much what has already been said.
Through language art we attempt the impossible, of course, by trying to make the invisible visible then invisible again, and the unspoken spoken then unspoken again (Rilke said something like that). A writer attempts the same impossible things with translation, while also attempting to inhabit the voice, culture, history, influences, anatomy—and the artistic creation—of another writer, dead or alive. No one in her right mind (except perhaps someone who is an excellent poet in both the source and target languages) would claim the linguistic/cultural authority to do that. However, an excellent poet in English may claim an “artistic authority.” An excellent literary translator will create something that is not (can never be) precisely faithful (?) to the original, but instead something faithful in its own way as an English-language poem—its quality will always be in question; it will always fall short; the demands on the writer (and reader) will be enormous. Prayer is as needful as skill and intuition.
Yet we have to believe there is a poem inside a foreign-language poem that can be “realized,” though not duplicated, in a target language—otherwise, on an over-crowded planet, we are doomed.
Finally, attentively reading poems (and stories) in translation is a choice to be influenced, altered, and broadened, in hopes of becoming more aware of our own habits of mind and ways of being in the world, and to deliberately overcome them. As readers and writers (and global citizens) we try to think with a different brain, culture, history, gender, rhythm, and so on—to have a double consciousness, to be wiser, more cosmopolitan Selves.
As literature can be a powerful force for change, what works of writing have you published and/or read that have had the strongest positive impact on globalism?
Michael: If we define globalism as we have above--dissolving borders, recognizing a common human joy and struggle, recognizing that oppression and subjugation have often been part of it, recognizing the human element underneath it all--then many of the translations The Chattahoochee Review has published speak directly to globalism. Two come to mind. Alexis Levitin's translation of Santiago Vizcaino's poem "De Profundis," which appeared in our 2013 "animal" issue, is majestic and moving and unsparing. The poem's speaker is a messenger from a direr dimension, but the message he delivers is oddly comforting in its resignation:
I have come from a place where the
flames are like the sad swaying of the lime tree.
I have fallen short like a stone heading for a turtle dove.
I have slept beneath the shade of a wild carob tree.
And I no longer have the bitterness of the first day.
I no longer see through vagabond eyes in desert sands.
My old room awaits me, its belly like a snail shell.
There is something forlorn even in the water I drink,
but I cannot forget my promise,
my yearning to depict the sorrow of the lotus.
I fear this city like a child abandoned in a park,
like the last wolf on highland moors gazing at the dawn and lying down.
I’m afraid of women and their moles like eyes.
I’m afraid to ask forgiveness as I go upon my way.
I have come with my skin stuck to my neck bone.
I carry hunger like a kangaroo its young.
I feed on putrefying deer.
I have come from an arid valley cramping in the light of day.
I pretend to be just another inhabitant,
a refugee from the sun.
I have come with the murmur of my youth on my shoulders,
but I fear the faces that gather
to gaze at me like an exotic animal.
I am so alone not even suicide would be a great event.
As alone as a wounded owl,
as a mare dying while giving birth,
as a vulture gazing at its prey, a little girl,
as a little girl who does not see the vulture.
I have come.
And I bring the consolation of those without hope.
Andrew Wachtel's translation of Anzhelina Polonskaya's "Poetry," which appeared in our Spring 2013 issue, offers a similar sort of anti-consolation but also ends on a note of redoubled faith:
He said to me: “If it weren't for your poetry”
while looking at my teeth like at a horse at the bazaar.
A mare should give birth and not sprinkle
syncopations. I did not reply.
The years will pass, and I—vivacious, quick, passionate, ready
to give up everything and anything, unable to live properly, having walked
the path from shouting to silence—will disappear. Poetry is like a bluebird,
the best thing that could happen to anyone.
We read literature for many reasons, but I hope we read it for the experience--of going somewhere else, of being in someone else's place, of feeling someone else's feelings, of seeing someone else give voice to living through language, in all its complications and shadings. If there's a shared experience to be had, surely this is it. And if globalism is like poetry, hence also "the best thing that could happen to anyone," then I believe The Chattahoochee Review is helping to shape this shared experience.
Sara: Waxwing is a young magazine, and I've been selecting translations for all four of our released issues. While I solicited a portion of them, many of them have found me— largely through our excellent co-editors, Justin Bigos and Bojan Louis. Each time one of our featured translations entered my world, my world expanded—imagine your chest as you take in a full breath. When Justin sent me translations by Fady Joudah of Maya Abu-Alhayyat’s poems to consider for Issue Four, for example, I walked around repeating lines from “Elegy for the Desire of Mothers" for days:
While I bathe a body the size of a palm
remove green boogers from soft noses
untangle a hair that chocolate and lollipops
and apricot jam have invaded…
The poem begins “I’ll remember,” but the above stanza delays what the speaker insists on remembering. Joudah’s translation rolls incessantly down the page in a syntax that prolongs the tension, makes us wait, ensures we spend the body of the poem with the apricot jam and boogers, and the finally the child’s touch “by mistake” of “body parts that no longer function" before our suspicions/expectations are confirmed about what's dead, exactly.
So for days I went envisioning the apricot jam and the body the size of the palm; my mind would churn, and I would then be thinking, of course, of my own childhood—of grape jelly, actually, and my own infantile boogers. Of my own mother, of her desires, of the “mothers with jaundiced eyes” that I’ve seen. Would somebody write an elegy for them? Or actually: Is this elegy for some of them, too?
That's part of the human connection we’ve been searching for: The ability to relate, to reflect back on one's own life while considering the imagery, the syntax, the content, the context of a poem. I've just recently watched the Burroughs documentary, wherein he describes this kind of reaction to art: "One very important aspect of art is that it makes people aware of what they know and don’t know they know. . . ." And I certainly felt that way while reading Joudah's translation— almost like I was uncovering a thought I'd forbade myself from thinking before. That’s why I wanted to publish the poem! But that's just part of it. Art (and especially literature in translation, I'd argue) also makes you aware of what you know you don’t know. The best do both.
Frank: Your questions are very hard, Alicia. Editors like to think that everything they publish has a positive influence globally (even a tiny influence). But, that aside, a valuable thing Manoa does is to publish writers from countries and communities that are almost totally off the radar in the US. I think in particular of volumes we published by contemporary writers from Cambodia, Tibet, Nepal, Papua New Guinea, Tahiti, Malaysia, and other such places. Manoa was, happily, the first American journal to devote entire issues to these countries. We continue to believe it makes a difference for readers to know that there are writers across the globe who are producing interesting, intelligent, excellent literature that should be read and acknowledged. Further, as we’ve all said to you, in reading this literature we empathically experience the lives of people in those countries and communities in ways that other kinds of writing and art cannot provide us.
At the same time, there are writers and communities just down the road whose stories, when heard, are as vital to our humanity as anything over the horizon.
Words on a page are passive and quiet. They don’t announce themselves with neon lights, pinwheels, and Hollywood train wrecks. Readers have to seek them out, and then bring them to life with their own efforts and their own abilities, usually in solitude. But a single poem in an obscure journal, read by a particular person at just the right moment, can have an enormous present or future impact, I think. We editors don’t really know the ripples we may have started by making a literary work available to be read. We indulge in magical thinking, and it keeps us going. That is, we magically hope that something we have helped to release into the world may, at some point, have a real importance we cannot predict---whether in the life of a single person or far beyond. It’s crazy, but why else do it?
What do you hope to accomplish with your respective journals? What external and internal walls are you hoping to break through? Are there any you have already broken through?
Michael: TCR's overarching goal remains similar: to publish the best writing we can get our hands on, local and global, national and international. We have successfully broken through the wall of exporting the South. Now we want to work more on importing the world, and we would like to get our hands on more good translations: poetry, fiction, non-fiction. We realize and appreciate that translation may be the slipperiest of arts: we want writing which has the ring of the native tongue but also comes alive in translation. So often the former is true but not the latter. We have recently signed on a translations editor to help us toward this end. Our next issue is centered around the theme of migration--submissions are being read now!--and we anticipate some compelling translations.
Other walls to break through? We have worked hard on re-establishing and upping our presence after a few dormant years. We have put out nine issues of TCR in the last four years, and we do one double issue every year--about 700 pages a year. We have a blog, a Twitter presence, a Facebook account. We know we have an audience of some size; we always seek to make it bigger. Yet like the good humanities people we are, we still thrive on human connection: networking with our peers, meeting our contributors, participating in discussions such as this one. Sometimes when we're working remotely on our respective computers, we forget we need this--as Sara terms it, the absorption of our own private worlds into the larger world. If TCR can contribute to this mission, we will have helped dismantle the tallest wall of all.
Sara: My goal as Translations Editor is always pretty simple-- I hope to learn something, to discover a new voice, to introduce myself to the creative energy somewhere outside the few cities I've been able to call home. That's pretty broad, but it's what keeps the work exciting for me; I don't necessarily think of it as curating, but rather as an intense kind of reading. Being able to share what has delighted me or challenged me, made me think-- that's the end goal, of course, but really a bonus for me, personally speaking. I suppose it’s both internal and external, but it always starts from within.
I break through to this goal each time I accept a new piece! Most recently, I was knocked-over by a set of poems by Ioulita Heliopoulou, translated from the Modern Greek by Melissa Buckheit. Knowing so little about contemporary Greek poetry, I was a bit intimidated by my role in selecting, conversing about, and presenting the poems (look out for them in Issue 5, by the way, which was released this month). But that’s the thing: I hope I’m challenged by every conversation I have about accepting translations, and in the long term, that will remain my ultimate goal.
Frank: I’m very grateful to have been part of this conversation, to know that we share so many goals for translation. At Manoa journal, as we continue to translate and publish work from Asia and the Pacific, we are reaching out this year and next to Singapore, Indonesia, and Korea. Singapore is a breakthrough for us, because until now we’ve never featured writers from there. A number of obstacles have stood in the way, among them is that the literary community has seemed to us outsiders to have been first rate but rather small—that is, I don’t think literature has been a high priority. But this year we discovered many younger Singaporean writers including a dynamic community in New York. Singapore is an interesting case in terms of translation because it is a city/state with four official languages, but everyone is urged to learn English as the first language. Some writers, for their own good reason, write in a native language rather than English. The cultural makeup of Singapore is also very diverse. So, all in all, it is the sort of place and situation that we hope to continue to bring to the attention of American readers. We are also publishing a volume of plays from Indonesia, in time for the Frankfurt Book Festival, where Indonesia is the featured country. We’ve found that a good way to get attention for our journal and its mission is to look for opportunities such as Frankfurt, when a nation or community is wishing to promote its literary culture abroad. Likewise, China has an ongoing program to export Chinese literature and is supporting translators and journals in the US and elsewhere that have projects. Something similar is happening in Japan and Korea. But a journal doesn’t need to try for big goals; it’s just as worthwhile to find writers locally or nationally who are translating from a particular language, and give them a platform. As Sara says so well, good writing makes you “aware of what you know you don’t know,” whether it’s in your own heart or in the heart of Southeast Asia. It keeps us humble and eager to wake up every morning. What could be better?
Michael Diebert is poetry editor for The Chattahoochee Review. He teaches writing and literature at Georgia Perimeter College in Atlanta, where he also co-facilitates the Writers’ Forum, a writing critique group. He is the author of Life Outside the Set (Sweatshoppe Publications, 2013); other recent poems have appeared and/or are forthcoming in drafthorse, Kentucky Review, and The Comstock Review. Michael serves as vice-president of the Georgia Poetry Society.
Frank Stewart is the author of four books of his own poetry, for which he received a Whiting Writers Award; he also received the Governor’s Award for Literature of the State Hawai’i for lifetime achievement. He has edited over a dozen anthologies on the literature of Asia and the Pacific, including The Poem Behind the Poem: Translating Asian Poetry into English (Copper Canyon). As the editor of Manoa: A Pacific Journal of International Writing since 1989, he has published over fifty volumes of contemporary Asian, Pacific, and American literature, often in translation.
Sara Sams is a poet, translator, and editor from Oak Ridge, TN. While she writes about Appalachian lore and the local legends of her hometown (the Manhattan Project’s “Secret City”), she found she needed to travel far from home in order to better explore her own region’s history. To that end, she has taught English in Granada, Spain and creative writing at the National University of Singapore. She currently teaches composition for second language learners at Arizona State University and works as Translations Editor for Waxwing Magazine. Sara lives in Phoenix, where she promotes the literary arts with la Phoenikera Writers’ Guild (laPWG).
Alicia Cole, a writer and editor, lives in Lawrenceville, GA, with a menagerie of animals. As well as writing literary, speculative, YA and children’s poetry and short fiction, Alicia works for Rampant Loon Media as a copyeditor and proofreader, and volunteers at WonderRoot, an arts advocacy organization in Atlanta, GA. She has written for motionpoems and Bitch Magazine. Updates on her writing and editing can be found at: www.facebook.com/AliciaColewriter.