“Translating Brecht” and other thoughts on contemporary America

Fifty years ago, the first issue of Bachy magazine was published by Papa Bach Bookstore. At the age of 23, I had been appointed its first poetry editor, and critiquing and choosing the poems was like running a poetry workshop. I had, in fact, started attending a poetry workshop at Beyond Baroque in Venice, which was at the time located on West Washington Boulevard (now called Abbot Kinney Blvd.), and begun meeting some of the poets who would become the authors I published when I started Momentum Press.

Unlike Bachy, which published fiction and photography, another Los Angeles-based magazine, INVISIBLE CITY, was devoted just to poetry and poets. INVISIBLE CITY was already well established by the summer of 1972, when its sixth issue appeared, Bachy‘s first issue came out at the same time as the sixth issue of Invisible City, featuring the work of Antonin Artaud, as translated by Jack Hirschman, arrived for sale at Papa Bach. Two friends who had met as undergraduates in San Francisco, Paul Vangelisti and John McBride, had started their magazine a couple years earlier; the knowledge of poetry that they brought to Invisible City easily made it even at that point a major resource for working poets on the West Coast.

Among the poems in Invisible City that directly spoke to the political context of the United States in the early 1970s, it was a translation of a poem about translation (“ars translatio”? / “ars transferendum?”) that most impressed me. Franco Fortini’s “Translating Brecht” caught the haunted tenor of being a poet in a country that would overwhelmingly approve of Richard Nixon’s viciousness in prolonging the Vietnam War. I would note, however, that my admiration for Fortini’s poem was not out of hero worship of its subject. I knew and admired both Brecht’s poems and his plays, but not uncritically, thanks in part to the bracing lesson of a play about Brecht’s life in East Germany after World War II, “The Plebeians Rehearse the Uprising.”

I am always amazed at how few contemporary poets know Fortini’s poem, but I truly shouldn’t be surprised or caught off-guard by American poets’ preference for their familiar, home-grown poetics. As Willis Barnstone says in a recent interview with David Garyan, contemporary poetry is largely “a circus,” and the publication-contest prize game has proved to be a debilitating distraction for too many aspiring poets.

Here is a link to the interview with Tony and Willis Barnstorm as well as Fortini’s poem.


‘Translating Brecht’

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