Getting Lost in Translation

Towards the beginning of this semester, I was asked to do a translation for Gandy Dancer; that is, to pick a German poem and translate it into English. It felt at the time (and still feels) like a daunting task, even some months later, after I’ve wrestled it into some workable English form. Like the punctuation exercise we did, I think part of the difficulty lies in feeling like I’m trying to step into another author’s shoes. I’m translating Bianca Döring’s poem “Allein” (you can find the original here) and in the way of German poetry, it’s straightforward and powerful in its conciseness. There’s a good number of what we American poets would call “abstractions” but a complex layering of what’s simply understood by a word in German. For example, the last line reads “der Liebe sind verbrannt and tun nur weh.” The word “wehtun’ in German literally means to “to do one pain”–and even translation, literal as it is, isn’t doing full justice to the German word. My first translation read: “the love is burned and hurts,” but “wehtun” is a very active word, something not quite captured by “hurts.” Additionally, “verbrannt” is a much more complex word than simply “brennen”–both at their most basic level mean “to burn”, but verbrennen has a more twisted or violent connotation to it, because of the suffix “ver-.” Adding in the complexity of German grammar–depending on the dative or accusative case being used, the meaning also changes slightly again, it’s a welter of various dictionary tabs and texts to German friends asking, Are you sure there’s no other weird colloquialism associated with _____?  No? Rats. Okay, well what about ____?
If you couldn’t tell, I’ve spent the last couple of weeks feeling like I’m chasing my tail.

In addition with “borrowing” someone else’s words, there is of course, the fear that I’m interpreting or changing the poet’s original meaning. I don’t want to do her the violence of taking her words and completely changing them. (This terror is only heightened because the poet requested I send her my translation when it’s finished. I half wanted to write back and go I’m only twenty-one and I have no idea what I’m doing, I’m so sorry if I eff your beautiful poem up. Although I’m not sure how that panic would get translated into polite, formal German.) Our styles of writing are very different and the abstractions like “bright” or “night” make me twitch every time I read them and I just really, really, really want to muck around with white space and punctuation more than I already have, while still trying to stay true to her original poem.

Dr. Smith suggested I just take a look at the English version I’d managed to squeeze out of the German poem and consider it from that perspective. If this was to be workshopped, what would I change? What precise tightening of the language could I do? Would the addition of a word here or there reinforce the overall tone of the poem or the feeling of the line, even if it wasn’t in the original poem? What about taking out some words? (I gleefully cut a few of the “ands.”) Translation is an interesting process for sure, and one that has made me think of language in a much different way. It also astonishes me how many things are simply understood by speaking the language–all the nuances and complexities that are simply assumed by speaking that language and understanding those connotations.

Have any of you thought about doing translations? What are your worries if you have done/are thinking about doing a translation?

Punctuation as Noise (and White Space as Silence)

After reading Amy’s poem for workshop, I realized that the quadruple colon (::::) created a kind of noise for me by the end of the reading. Since the speaker was making a telephone call, the recurring :::: sounded like static. Plus, Katie brought up in class how the it could symbolize a “double mirror” since we like to think of the double colon as a mirror in all its glorious symmetry. This brought me to the conclusion that a double mirror could suggest the reversal of roles. Who is really making this phone call? Who else could possibly be speaking besides the father?

So, upon hearing that static in the quadruple colon, I began to look at all punctuation as noise. I say noise instead of sound because I figure that the words work as sound in poetry, poetic phonetics if you will.

If punctuation were to function as noise, what would the reader be hearing in your most recent poem? What does a comma sound like in comparison to a period? An em dash? And does this mean poems with a lack of punctuation are necessarily more quiet?

Just some food for thought that where there’s punctuation, there’s lack of space, which makes for a lack of silence! What sounds do you hear most?


So I was thinking about writing a post dealing with the differences between writing music and poetry. For me it’s easier to write poetry than it is to write music, and I have no idea why that is. I think it’s something to do with the feeling that I find a lot of freedom on the page, but that everything amazing in music has already been written (I mean come on: Beatles, Stones, Dylan, Springsteen–it doesn’t get better, at least for me). I know there’s freedom in music too, but I’m still having a hard time working it out. Anyway, that’s not this post.

I wanted to talk about the band “mewithoutYou” in this post, and their ridiculously impressive lyrics and projects. They’ve been pegged as a Christian band, but I think that was the work of some pretty shortsighted music critics, because their lyrics use Christian, Muslim, and Jewish images and stories to explore themes about the self and relationships to the rest of life. They also take stories and images from the Bhagavad Gita, and historical events. Their album “Ten Stories” focuses on a traveling circus train that crashed in Montana in the late 1800s, and every time I listen to it, I find more and more to love about the lyrics.

Grist for the Malady Mill” is the second song on the album, and my favorite because of the rhythm of the lyrics, and the intense images they use. Give it a listen if you’re curious, it’s pretty intense (especially that intro), but if you listen for the lyrics, I hope you’ll see the brilliant images involved in a simple story about animals fleeing from the train crash. My favorite lyric comes in the chorus “rail spikes rip like the seam on a wineskin”– it’s just the perfect image, the perfect amount of alliteration, that nice long e in wineskin. Enjoy!

Music & Poetry

Something that caught my attention about the Gallaher reading “A Line Is a Hesitation, Not a World” in A Broken Thing is a line in which he says, “I dislike hearing someone mention the ‘music’ of the line just about as much as I dislike hearing someone speak of the ‘poetry’ of things that aren’t poems” (97.)  I understand this sentiment in context to the idea that the “music” of poetry can lead to someone reading a poem in a way that feels too “poet-y,” but I feel like this view is a little short sighted.  From an anthropological/historical perspective poetry is interesting because the written form was born out of an oral tradition (at least in North America; I’m not confident enough to say this is universal, although I feel like it would be.)  If we look at poetry this way the music in the words is unavoidable.  Although I don’t know much about music, and I tend to always view poetry as literature, I do find that the way the poem sounds out loud is important to me.  I always read poems I write out loud to try and hear the sounds and rhythm better.  Has anyone gone to a reading a felt a certain way about a poem after they heard the poet read their work aloud?  I know this happened to me when I watched videos of Ilya Kaminsky reading his work after we read his collection Dancing in Odessa in Poetry last fall.  Has anyone else thought about this?  When you write poems do you pay attention to the sounds out loud, or have we forgotten the oral tradition of poetry?

QuickType Poetry

The first half of this semester has taken its toll on me, and so, devoid of any idea for a decent blog post, I lazily googled “Poetry” and clicked on the News tab and clicked on the first thing that came up. It led me here:

The link will direct you to a brief article by Susie Ochs about iOS 8’s fancy Big Brother keyboard that predicts what you’ll type before you finish typing it. One implication of this technology is weird, autonomous poetry. In a way this QuickType poetry reminds me of Christina’s post, “Bot or Not,” which delves into computer generated poetry and the eerie resemblance it can have to human generated poetry.

I don’t find any of the poems in this article that impressive or coherent, and I’m bothered by Ochs’ glibness toward poetry (“Your phone might be a poet and you don’t even know it.” Cringe). Still, it’s worth a quick look.

Is our ever-increasing intimacy with technology a detriment to our creative impulses or a useful tool for uncovering them?

because starting poems is hard

For me, starting a poem at the beginning is entirely daunting, and something I have almost never done successfully. In other words, I struggle with both ending and beginning poems. Most of my poems tend to grow around themselves–I’ll think of an image or line that I’m really set on, and construct a poem off of that. The poetry exercises we do each week have actually been really helpful in pushing me to begin a poem without staring at my laptop or a notebook for an hour, entirely devoid of useful thought. Apparently what I was really missing was some sort of skeleton for my poems. (As someone a bit too interested in diagrams and maps and charts, I think in terms of shapes and order.) In being able to start by replacing images or words in poems from the reader, I’ve found that once I have a decent shape or skeleton to start with, I can write a poem inside of it without all the trouble of worrying about where to start or end. Over break, I hope to experiment with this a little more by writing my first drafts of poems inside of a shape or a silhouette, and then around the edges of a shape. I’m hoping this will help my uncertainty with where to start and end, but also push me to experiment more with line breaks and length, and white space.

Playing Poetry Games

This week during MiNT Magazine’s weekly meeting we decided to host a creative writing workshop to get some ideas flowing. I was in charge of thinking of some different exercises to play with the group, and I was so delighted by the task at hand. “This will be so easy.” I thought. I’ll Google some games, present them to the group, and then be forever loved and adored by the masses.

Sadly I am not yet that admired, but the games we played were pretty darn fun. What I love about doing these exercises is that you never know what will actually help you or not! One fun poetry game we played was arranging groups of words in different ways to get all different types of meanings. Another game we played was shouting out themes and then trying to match obscure words to them. While they were entertaining and silly I truly do think they were helpful.

Sometimes it is just so hard to start a poem. Even if one has an idea in mind, what words should come first? What lines should be in the beginning, and which in the end? Every now and then simply just sitting at one’s computer with a blank page staring back will not produce work. Sometimes people really need to try different methods to at least dip their toes in the water.

Sad Poetry

Today I was in a really good mood and wanted to write a poem. I expected it would somehow reflect my mood, but instead it turned out to be sad. After reading it to my suite mates I bemoaned that I could only ever write sad poetry – or at least, only ever write good poems that were laced with melancholy. My one friend said that she preferred poems like that, because they seemed more real, whereas happy poems tended to seem too unrealistic and optimistic. This same friend is a self proclaimed cynic, which probably effects her opinions, but when I tried to think of all of my own favorite poems, this rang true.

Poetry isn’t sad by nature, but I don’t think poetry is inherently happy, either.  I know that growing up, I would write when I was in a bad mood, and most likely accidentally trained myself to only write sad poems. So how can I un-train myself / still be able to write well in a happy poem? What are all of your thoughts on happy vs sad poetry?

The Perils of Punctuation

Punctuation in poetry is like a whole different language. I remember during Poetry I, people suggested I use em-dashes or colons in place of words like “but,” “because,” “then,” etc. It was a way to earn yourself extra words in a line, complicate the meaning of a line, and reduce wordiness in poems. It was something I had never really considered before. Needless to say, I got incredibly enthusiastic about punctuation, and it was a good class in which to do so, with a large number of advanced poets to introduce me to new forms (like the em-dash-colon combination and double colons).

However, the exercise we did on Thursday got me thinking about how many different ways we interpret punctuation. For example, I tend to use colons to define something, while I know others use colons as a mirror. What I really want to speak about is the double colon, which has made a grand entrance into poems in the last couple of weeks & it’s something I (& a lot of others, I think) struggle with. The poem I’m submitting for workshop this week has a double colon in the title & I’m still not 100% sure that’s the correct usage, but we’re going for it. I frantically Googled “double colons” and re-read some poems from This Coalition of Bones (Cori Winrock), where double colons can be found aplenty. I found a useful hint on how some authors use a double colon (thanks to a poetry collection review) and Dr. Smith sent me a section from The Poetry Handbook he’d found.

In the review, Phillip B. Williams comments on how the poet’s double colons “function as a sticky board of allegorical possibilities, both defining conditions and labels and effectively confining such definitions to signifiers that carry an unconscious cultural and historical legacy.” (You can find the complete review here; the collection itself looks fabulous.) The Poetry Handbook suggests that in “maths (double) colons express (compound ratios, ‘punctuation’ : words :: cartilage : bone’ (punctuation is to words as cartilage is to bone).” Over the summer as I wrestled with double colons, Lucia told me she saw double colons acting as a mirror/”having your cake and getting to eat it too.” In other words, the poem is enhanced/complicated/furthered by both sides of the double colon, but the poem could function if you took one side away. All things to consider and struggle further with when contemplating tricky punctuation.

I wonder if our different interpretations of punctuation influence how we read/critique each other’s poems. Is there a real standard in poetry, where boundaries are constantly pushed & re-shaped? What new punctuation can we introduce in our poetry? Over the summer, I used inequality signs (<>) in a poem as a visual guide for the reader/a different way to create white space. Has anyone else played with unusual punctuation or punctuation combinations in their poetry? What’s a punctuation mark you’d like to further explore?

I’m Scared of Poetry! Help!

Some of you know that poetry is relatively new to me. In fact, I began to write poetry consistently just before I applied to the Creative Writing track. In other words, I wasn’t even expecting to be accepted into this workshop. Yet, in the few weeks that I’ve had workshop with you beautiful people, I find myself discovering more about my own particular voice by analyzing everyone else’s. I specialize in Fiction, and for most of my life I’ve been developing my voice in my short story writing. I’ve come to a complete halt now, resting with the techniques of Raymond Carver, Ray Bradbury, and Cormac McCarthy. Yet, my voice in my poetry is completely different. I like to be wordy and abstract in my poetry. I like to play with margins and line-breaks (something I’ve never done before this class). Yet, for some reason poetry still confuses and scares me. I can’t wrap my head around poetic interpretation and understanding which has recently affected my urge to verbally participate in workshop. Is my interpretation of so-and-so’s piece valid? Will I look stupid? Are the suggestions of an amateur even worthy of recognition? In my years of reading and writing fiction I’ve noticed a pattern in a majority of works: A produces B, and in turn B produces C. This is the natural flow of prose writing if you think of “A” as the beginning, “B” as the middle, and “C” as the conclusion. Yet, poetry can completely break free from these rules. In poetry time and space don’t necessarily have to be defined. And this renunciation of the rules of short story writing that I’m all too accustomed with scares the shit out of me. A short story about a boy riding his bike to the corner store sounds simple, but with added parallelism and metaphors the story will become well defined; the interpretation can be made obvious. Yet one poem can mean a thousand things to a thousand people. Then again, I could be completely wrong about everything I’ve just said. In any case, I need everyone’s help! Help me to not be scared of poetry anymore!!!!!!