P&W Prompt: New Language

This time last year, when I made the, what some might call “radical,” decision to leave my lucrative, work-from-home, Assistant Professor of English position at Ashford University to take a lectureship offering half of my Ashford salary and requiring a move to deeply conservative Texas, I had high hopes for what that decision would mean.  I’d been with Ashford for four years, and for four years, I’d been swept up into the most corporate, insane, fast paced, high pressure gig I’d ever experienced in my career.

And I hadn’t written a thing.  Not. One. Thing.  

I didn’t know my students, whose faces I never saw and who appeared and disappeared so quickly I barely had time to learn their names.  I spent almost no time teaching and almost all of my time working on proposals and initiatives that were “urgent” and that would evaporate into thin air the moment all that hard work was completed and just in time for another “urgent” change in course to come along.  I was forgetting who I was, academically and creatively speaking, and I was increasingly dissatisfied with my work.

Today, I woke up and made a list of things that needed doing.  This list included creating new course proposals, developing a plan for a new creative writing speaker series we’re developing at TAMU, reading through some Harry Potter literary criticism for a class I’m teaching, and, yes, writing a new poem.  As I looked over that list, I thought, not for the first time, “Yes.  You made the right decision.”  My work, not even a whole year later, is made up almost entirely of thinking, building, creating.  I have students that I adore (and whose names I know!) and, as of this moment, I’ve already written 13 new poems this year.  Worth a 50% cut in pay and moving to College Station, Texas?  You bet it is.  Money isn’t everything, and Texas has amazing weather (not to mention year-round fresh guacamole).

And so it seems fitting that this week’s prompt from the Poets & Writers‘ series, The Time Is Now, would have to do with translation.  It’s a little known fact that when I arrived on the campus of the University of Mississippi (go, Rebs!) in the summer of 2004 as a new PhD candidate, my focus was in translation studies.  I’d intended to work on identifying Latin American poets whose work had not yet been translated into English and compiling and translating a collection of their work.  The first classes I took that summer at Ole Miss were, in fact, not in the English department at all, but in History and Foreign Languages.  Of course, a semester later, along came Joe Urgo and Willa Cather and the rest, as they say, is history.  But this week’s prompt harkens me back to that year when I had just completed my MFA in poetry and thought my whole world would be poetry, forever and ever, and I’m reminded that it can sometimes take a girl 13 years to get back on track.

Here’s this week’s prompt:

“For the first time, I agreed last year to cotranslate a book from a language I don’t speak at all…. It was an opportunity for new kinds of thinking but also new kinds of failure,” writes poet, novelist, and translator Idra Novey in her essay “Writing While Translating.” Many contemporary writers have expanded the art of translation by experimenting with form and content: Mary Jo Bang filled her translation of Dante’s Inferno (Graywolf Press, 2012) with pop culture references; David Cameron used spell-check and word-association methods for Flowers of Bad (Unbelievable Alligator/Ugly Duckling Presse, 2007), his “false translation” of Baudelaire’s Les Fleurs du Mal; and Paul Legault’s The Emily Dickinson Reader (McSweeney’s Books, 2012) is a translation of Emily Dickinson’s poetry into one-line renderings, from English into a different version of English. Try your hand at translating a short series of poems from one language to another. Use your knowledge of another language, slang, dictionaries, or any unlikely source to explore the elasticity of language while considering how new kinds of failure might inspire a refreshing direction for your writing.

I love this prompt for so many reasons, not the least of which is my enduring love for the practice of translation (despite the fact that it’s been years since I’ve worked in translation).  I also love it because it just so happens to coincide with a visit by Jennifer Clement we were fortunate to have this week at Texas A&M as part of the Brazos Valley Reads initiative the English department funds and organizes (yet one more reason to be grateful for my “radical” departure from online learning).  I’ve been thinking a lot about one of her poems, “Making Love in Spanish,” because it pays attention to one of my favorite things about the Spanish language: everything has a gender.  Pencils are masculine, pens are feminine.  I don’t know why, and that’s part of what makes it so wonderfully weird and magical.

I’m going to take a departure this week and not write a new poem in this space.  The truth is, between Clement’s visit and this prompt, I’m all jazzed up about translation again, and I want to take some time with it.  Besides, I’m planning a trip to Ecuador and am thinking that maybe that’s the place I need to go to find this “short series of poems” the prompt is asking me to translate.  Who knows?  Maybe I’ll finally get around to doing that project I envisioned back in ’04.

In the meantime, I’ll leave you with Jennifer Clement’s beautiful poem:


When I make love to you in English
the objects in the room have no gender
and I only hear our voices.
But when I make love to you in Spanish
the chairs – – those little girls – – chatter,
and our shoes
want to step, with adoration, on the body
of light, lamplight,
that falls across the floor.
In Spanish the tangled sleeves of our sweaters
sigh with soft womanly voices,
and fall like long vines
around an armchair
that has become their master.
The roses bathe and bow
filled with desire for the clock
and the fragile windows
want to break into the mirror.
Here, your pockets worship
my stockings.
Here, the white walls worship
the white moon.
In the dark,
I give you my feminine mouth.
In the dark,
I give you my masculine eyes.



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