Category Archives: Translation

David Ulin and “Wide Awake”

January 1, 2016 — Top Ten Picks of David Ulin; The Monolingualism of American Literature

LA Times Book Critic David Ulin has edited several anthologies himself, a fact that deserves underlining when he includes Suzanne Lummis’s Wide Awake: Poets of Los Angeles and Beyond as one of his ten favorite books published in 2015. One doesn’t have to have edited an anthology of poets to gauge the value of such an effort, but it certainly tends to make one a more judicious reader of anthologies. Lummis, too, is a veteran of this kind of editorial project; she co-edited an earlier anthology with almost the same subtitle back in the early 1990s. The high marks that Ulin gives Lummis’s latest anthology are much appreciated in the Los Angeles poetry community, if only because L.A. poets have not always had a smooth ride in the L.A. Times. In particular, one can recollect that Robert Kirsch once anointed my first anthology, The Streets Inside: Ten Los Angeles Poets (Momentum Press, 1978) as an indication of a “golden age” of Los Angeles poetry. Unfortunately, not everybody who worked at the LA Times Book Review agreed with Kirsch’s assessment, and poets were regarded as cultural orphans of their own success. I’ll put it simply: it’s nice to be appreciated again. Ulin implicitly suggests the exponential growth of the diverse scenes here by pointing out that Wide Awake is “magnificent” both in quantity (it contains “the work of more than 100 poets”) and quality (it “reveal(s) the depths and power of the city’s poetic sensibility”). That David Ulin appreciates the efforts of the diverse communities of poets in this city enough to award Lummis’s anthology a top ten pick is very gratifying, and I hope Suzanne Lummis is savoring the acknowledgement.

The last paragraph in Carolyn Kellogg’s end-of-the-year commentary in the LA Times is also worth further consideration. In referring to the choice of a Russian writer for the Nobel Prize in Literature this year, Kellogg cites an article that appeared back in 2008 in which a member of the Nobel selection committee commented that American writing is “too insular.” The charge is true, I’m afraid, though the full quotation I’ve been able to dig up is even more revealing:

“The U.S. is too isolated, too insular. They don’t translate enough and don’t really participate in the big dialogue of literature,” (Horace) Engdahl said. “That ignorance is restraining.”

The real gripe that the Swedish academy has with American writing lies in the evidence of its insularity: “They don’t translate enough.” This could be translated, so to speak, as “You don’t care about us; so why should we care about you?” Fair enough, and it brought to mind how I recently found that my most widely distributed posting in this blog for the entire year of 2015 was “Against the Monolingual Torture of Writers,” which was originally posted back in early September. For some reason, it took off in December, and had over 300 pageviews, with 161 human visits, of which 149 were new visitors to my blog. My post was firmly on the side of the Swedish academy, and perhaps it caught the attention of someone in Europe who was surprised to find an American writer at odds with his peers.

Fortunately for me, my blog is not dependent on American book publishers for advertising in order to keep itself going. If it were, I could see retribution heading my way lickety-split. Believe me, I’ve seen it happen. The announcement earlier today of the death of Natalie Cole recoiled with references to “Unforgettable,” a song that her father had made famous and which the daughter reprised by having a version in which her voice was blended in a duet with his. Back when the father-daughter version was soaring up the charts, the newspaper I was working at as a typesetter started running cartoons with a slightly satirical edge to them about the music industry. The publisher must have thought it would make his paper “different” from the other trade papers. What he didn’t count on was that you can only get away with making fun of something that everybody shares a dislike of (i.e., politicians). The music industry takes itself very seriously, and when the front page ran a cartoon of Natalie Cole saying to a skeleton figure of her father, “Hey, Dad, you’re stepping on my lines,” (or something similarly sarcastic), the music label that released Cole’s remake let my paper know that it wasn’t just cancelling advertising of that particular song in the next issue or the issue after: all advertising by that label was forthwith cancelled. Or at least that’s the version that I heard in the hallway. I do remember some rather tense editorial and salespeople faces walking past me for a week or so until the crisis was resolved. The first thing to go, of course, was the contract with the cartoonist, nor was a replacement sought.

So, yes, once again, it would make American literature more interesting if the writers here asked themselves at some point if what they are writing would at all interest someone who can only read Spanish or Chinese. Are you saying something profound enough or insightfully witty enough to merit the travail required to translate it? I do appreciate how hard it is to attain that level of writing. My first book of poems in another language has only been published after over 40 years of writing. Surely, though, those poets who have won so many more awards that I have during that time have some explanation for why their work does not seem to make a transition beyond the wall of American monolingualism.

International Poetry at Avenue 50

(Against Monolingual Torture of Writers, Part Two)

Closing night -- San Luis Potosi Literary Festival. Standing center: Jorge Humberto Chavez; sitting center: Bill Mohr; to my left: Rocio Arellano. Photo credit: Julieta Garcia (c) 2015.

Closing night — San Luis Potosi Literary Festival. Standing center: Jorge Humberto Chavez; sitting center: Bill Mohr; to my left: Rocio Arellano. Photo credit: Julieta Garcia (c) 2015.

Sunday, September 6.

Late yesterday afternoon, Linda and I drove to Avenue 50 Gallery, where Jorge Humberto Chavez was the featured reader. Jorge was the major organizer of the San Luis Potosi International Literary Festival this past August, and I was very pleased that at least 30 people turned out to hear his poetry. I was among the half-dozen poets who read short introductory sets, and I was especially pleased to look out at the audience when I got up to read and see Phoebe, Ron, Chrissy, Liz, Rachel, Carol and Ted. (Carol Colin’s very fine exhibit of aquarium paintings was still up, and I hope to get one of her watercolors.) I started off with a poem that was very popular in my tour of Mexico, “One Miracle,” which is dedicated to Bob Flanagan. Then I recited “Big Band, Slow Dance” and read “Milk,” which is Jose Rico’s favorite poem in Pruebas Ocultas. I finished with “Why the Heart Does Not Develop Cancer,” which caused Nylsa Martinez to jump up and say, “Let me read that in Spanish.” Her rendering of the poem was quietly eloquent and added another layer of deep listening to the poem’s journey since its first publication in 2002. Nylsa’s “acoustic” version of “Heart” made me feel as if I were back in Mexico again, hearing my fellow poets amplify my readings to the audience. I especially appreciated how several people in the audience at Avenue 50 (Tschka Moran, who is a photographer, and his friend, Gustavo; Martha; and Lupe Carranza) talked with me afterwards about the poems.

Jorge read very well, and Anthony’s translations and renderings of the poem made even those of us whose Spanish is limited feel the solemn undercurrent of Jorge’s honest grief. His choice of a poem that invokes WC Williams’s trip to El Paso and Juarez was a brilliant way to end his presentation. Thank you, Jorge, for making this trip to Los Angeles, and thank you Jessica Ceballos for setting up this event. Other readers included Anthony Seidman, David Shook, Mandy Kahn, and Gloria Edina Alvarez, each of whom read work that directly or indirectly addressed issues of translation. In particular, Mandy Kahn read a poem that suggested how much translation is like quilting in the sense of contiguous collaboration. A splendid evening!


Against Monolingual Torture of Writers (Part One)

Against Monolingual Torture of Writers (Part One)

Here is a list of books published in the past few years in Mexico that would be worth the attention of anyone interested in writers working or being published in the immediate vicinity of the United States. In addition to these titles, I would also recommend a set of anthologies published by ELB – Cielo Abierto that interweave poets between two cities or countries. These collections include Relampago/Lightning: Contemporary Poetry from Latin America and the U.S.; Enemigos/Enemies: Contemporary Poetry from Mexico City and London; and Centrifuga: Poesia contemporaranea de Guadalajara y Dublin.

In the introduction to Centrifugal, Christodoulous Makris quotes John Holten to the effect that “a good form of torture for any serious writer would be to deny them reading anything other than works produced in their own language or country” (from an interview by Karl Whitney in 3 AM Magazine, October 27, 2011). Several of the writers whose books are listed below are available in translation. Those of us who are serious writers should make room on their desks for at least two or three of these books, and if anyone can’t read Spanish, find a friend who can and work on translating the poems yourselves.

Hugo Lazaro Aguilar — La Casa en Llamas (San Luis Cultura Municipal)

Luis Alberto Arellano – Grandes Atletas Negros. Luzzeta Editores (Guadalajara, 2014).

Rocio Ceron – Imperio / Empire. Translation by Tanya Huntington. Motin Poeta, 2009.

Jorge Humberto Chavez. La ciudad y el viaje interminable. Antología personal, edición en inglés y español, 1980-2000 (The City and the Endless Journey. USA, 2003)

Jorge Humberto Chavez. Te Diria quq Fueramos al Rio Bravo a Llorar Pero Debes Saber Que Ya No Hay Rio Ni Llanto.  (Premios Bellas Artes de Poesia Aguascalientes 2013).

Jorge Humberto Chavez. Angel. Mantis Editores. 2009.

Pura Lopez Colome – Lieder. Bonobos Editores.

Alberto Enriquez – Que La Muerte Llegue a Despertarnos. La Casa del Tiempo (2011).

Alberto Enriquez – Poemas para una conejita nocturna sucia. La Casa Del Tiempo. May, 2015.

Ferreira Gullar. Las Cosas de la Tierra: Antologia Poetica. Seleccion, traduccion y prologo: Jose Javier Villarreal. (Bobobos Editores, 2015)

Julian Herbert – Pastilla Camaleon. Bonobos Editores.

Bjorn Kuhligk – La Calma entre el Cero y el Uno. Traduccion de Daneil Bencomo. Bonobos Editores. 2015.

Antonio Malpica – La maquina. Alfaguara, 2013.

                                    Soldados en la Lluvia. Norma, 2013.

No nos extranara el sistema, Editorial SM, 2014.


Luis Armenta Malpica – Voluntad de la luz (Light’s Volition) – translation by Lawrence Schimel. Mantis Editores/BookThug

Angel Ortuno – Perlesia. Bonobos Editores

Luis Paniagua – Maverick71. Premio Literal de Poesia 2013. Literal Publishing.

Jose Luis Rico – Blanco. La Dïéresis, 2012.

        Duna.  Tierra Adentro, 2013.

Juan Jose Rodinas – 9 Grados de Turbulencia Interior (Mantis Editores)

Leon Plascencia Nol – Revolver Rojo. Bonobos Editores, 2011.

Leon Plascencia Nol – El Lenguaje Privado. filodecaballos. 2014.

Vicente Quirarte – Ciudad de Seda. Bonobos Editores. 2009

Vicente Quirarte – Melville en Mazatlan. Ardiente Paciencia (2015)

Stefano Strazzabosco – TT ZZZZZ: Cantos de Las Hormigas.

Hernan Bravo Varela – Realidad & Deseo Producciones. Bonobos Editores.

Alfonso Reyes. El nino en el voladero. (Illustraciones: Claudia de Teresa.



Rocio Arellano – El ritmo oculto – Ediciones sin nombre (2012)

Criseida Santa Guevara – La Reinita Pop No Ha Muerto (The Little Queen of Pop Is Not Dead). Literal Publishing.. Premio Literal De Novela 2013.

Jazmina Barrera Velazquez – Cuerpo Extrano (Foreign Body). Literal Publishing (Premio Literal de Ensyo, 2013).

Liliana V. Blum – No Me Pases De Largo (Don’t Pass Me By). Literal Publishing. Premio Literal en Cuento  2013.

Three Poems by Bill Mohr in Spanish

The original cluster of poems that Jose Rico and Robin Myers translated in 2014 for the book project that eventually became Pruebas Ocultas contained a fair number of recent poems, none of which ended up being included in the book. However, a magazine that operates as a blog-in-progress called Transtierros has published three of the “deleted” poems. My thanks to the editor, Luis Eduardo Garcia. These poems were originally published in English in the following magazines: CarnivalPoolOR. My thanks to the editors of those magazines, too.

Here is the link to my three poems:

Here are some links to the poems of the editor, Luis Eduardo Garcia, as well as interview with him.

POEMS BY LUIS EDUARDO GARCIA!ENTER-POES%C3%8DA-Luis-Eduardo-Garc%C3%ADa/cmbz/55a5db9d0cf286eab0233ab6




The Origins of Language

Sunday, June 1, 2014

Doren Robbins recently sent along a link to a half-hour television program entitled Descendants of the Imagination, produced and directed by his wife, Linda Janakos. This particular program features Stephen Kessler as well as Doren Robbins. The host of the program, Dennis Morton, has a voice with a timbre that mildly echoes Charley Rose and Bill Moyers, and he seems at ease in keeping the conversation moving along between readings of poems.

Morton asks them where they think poetry came from, and Kessler responds by quoting Merwin’s proposition that poetry started when humans acquired the ability to make use of consonants. The problem with Merwin’s conjecture is that it leaves out any sense of motive, either rational or irrational. If language is a form of displacement, it originates in the incredulity of dreams; specifically, the need to form consonants, as a modulating mechanism that could describe nocturnal consciousness, probably reached a crisis point when a woman encountered her dead mother in a dream, which was so palpably real that the only way to convey this knowledge to her companions was an utterance akin to lava pouring from a volcano: the living stuff of earth itself. When it cooled, we had vowels and consonants for the gardens of our languages.

Stephen Kessler’s comments on translation are particularly worth consideration. He argues that it’s a form of “impersonation” that involves a certain level of “forgery.” “I’m tricking the reader into believing it was originally written in English.” I suppose that one test of a translation would be to ask a fluent translator to look at a translated text and then without any reference to the original, translate it back into the original language. How close would the translator come in the reverse current?

At one point, Doren says that “When the cart stops, I am the man who whips the cart and not the ox.” Ah! A reversal that tricks me into believing it was originally thought of just now, for the first time, as indeed it was when he wrote those words. And yet there is something elusively timeless about that metaphor, as if it were the lesson that Job had learned after all of his suffering.