Wednesday, February 13, 2019

Great Writing Stirs the Whole Body

My literary mentor was June Jordan, the most dynamic reader of poetry I’ve ever heard. June was a poet, essayist, opera librettist, and political activist. Listening to June recite her work was a physical experience—I laughed, I fought back tears, I literally got goose bumps of excitement.

June Jordan (1936–2002)
I think the Greek philosopher Aristotle was referring to a similar feeling in his Poetics when he talked about catharsis, the sensation that the audience experiences in watching a tragedy in the theater. The word catharsis comes from the ancient Greek verb kathairein, meaning to purge or to purify or to cleanse. When we experience deep tragedy on stage or in a movie, our entire body feels wrung out, cleansed—but in an uplifting way.

Interestingly, the word catarrh in English, meaning a cold with phlegm, derives from exactly the same Greek verb. I still remember when I read the tragic ending of Ernest Hemingway’s antiwar novel A Farewell to Arms as a teenager, I spontaneously burst into tears, and I had to blow my nose many times. It was a direct physical sensation.

Great literature can also evoke laughter, which is very much a physical sensation. There is certainly something cathartic about humor, the way it releases what’s bottled up in us. Maybe laughter is the way that we let go of grief. I remember as a young man attending my grandfather’s funeral. After the ceremony at the gravesite, the family drove in several cars to my uncle and aunt’s house for a reception. This is going to be the saddest event of my life, I thought. What actually happened is that family members told one funny story after another about my grandfather—in between the tears. The humor helped us all to feel close again to my grandfather and to recover from the loss. The same is true in literature—laughter is a way for the body to release the grief locked in our bones and tissues.

You could say that the reader also feels erotic literature in the body. That’s certainly another type of physical response to writing. Reading Pablo Neruda’s poem “Barcarole,” is an erotic experience for me, for example. But just because a poem is arousing doesn’t necessarily make it great writing.

This points up an interesting aspect of all writing that affects the body—feeling literature in the body is a necessary but not a sufficient condition for great writing. It also has to be well crafted and use language in a way that artfully transfers meaning. But there’s no mistaking the best literature, because we feel it in our whole body.

How to Get Published
Getting the Most from Your Writing Workshop
How Not to Become a Literary Dropout
Putting Together a Book Manuscript
Working with a Writing Mentor
How to Deliver Your Message
Does the Muse Have a Cell Phone?
Why Write Poetry? 
Poetic Forms: IntroductionThe SonnetThe SestinaThe GhazalThe TankaThe Villanelle
Praise and Lament
How to Be an American Writer
Writers and Collaboration
Types of Closure in Poetry

Friday, February 1, 2019

Is It Important to Visit the Places That Great Writers Have Frequented?

I’ve been reading Patti Smith’s book Just Kids, about her relationship with photographer Robert Mapplethorpe and her start as an artist in New York City in the late 1960s and early 70s. It’s a fantastic memoir, I highly recommend it for its mesmerizing story of how Patti Smith went from being a homeless, teenage arts wannabe to a highly accomplished songwriter, performer, and author.

Robert Mapplethorpe and Patti Smith
One thing that stands out to me about Patti Smith’s recollections of her early days as an artist is how important it was for her to stand in the places other artists had stood:

“My friend Janet Hamill had been hired at Scribner’s Bookstore, and she found a way of giving me a helping hand by sharing her good fortune. She spoke to her superiors, and they offered me a position. It seemed like a dream job, working in the retail store of the prestigious publisher, home to writers like Hemingway and Fitzgerald, and their editor, the great Maxwell Perkins. Where the Rothschilds bought their books, where paintings by Maxfield Parrish hung in the stairwell.”

I share Patti Smith’s love of locales that artists, and writers in particular, have lived in or visited. I’ve made a pilgrimage to Walt Whitman’s house in Camden,New Jersey, where you can still view his signature floppy, gray felt hat. I’ve hiked to Dove Cottage in the Lake District of the United Kingdom to see where Wordsworth and Coleridge had their literary commune. I’ve walked across the bridge in Trieste, Italy, that James Joyce crossed each day on his way to work.

The author with the statue of James Joyce in Trieste, Italy
I’m as much of a literary groupie as anyone. There is something thrilling for me about visiting these places and seeing objects that my writer heroes touched. In the presence of those places I become like a true believer who hopes to experience the healing power of a saint’s metatarsal bone displayed in a gold monstrance. Maybe I’m subconsciously hoping that gazing up at the plaque on the house whereElizabeth Barrett and Robert Browning lived in Florence will somehow help me to harness the power of their art to energize my own. If only it was that simple!

Part of me remains deeply suspicious of artistic hero worship. After all, almost no one knew who James Joyce was when he crossed the Ponte Rosso in Trieste every day in 1905. He wouldn’t publish his first book of fiction, Dubliners, till nine years later. That bridge became famous because James Joyce did the unbelievably hard and inspired work of writing the great stories that make up Dubliners. The way to make your reputation as a writer is not to imitate James Joyce or to drink a Hugo aperitif near his statue in Trieste, as lovely as that is.


Yes, living la vie bohème and being near artists and their haunts may seem glamorous. But art is like sports: watching other people do it is not the same as taking part. There’s no substitute for the hard work of the artist.

How to Get Published
Getting the Most from Your Writing Workshop
How Not to Become a Literary Dropout
Putting Together a Book Manuscript
Working with a Writing Mentor
How to Deliver Your Message
Does the Muse Have a Cell Phone?
Why Write Poetry? 
Poetic Forms: IntroductionThe SonnetThe SestinaThe GhazalThe TankaThe Villanelle
Praise and Lament
How to Be an American Writer
Writers and Collaboration
Types of Closure in Poetry

Saturday, January 5, 2019

Picking the Right Work for a Literary Translation

One part of the art of the literary translator that is rarely talked about is the hunt for the right work to translate. For most translators, extensive research and digging goes into selecting poetry, fiction, nonfiction, or drama to translate. It’s not unusual for a translator to read forty poems by a particular writer just to find one that s/he wants to translate. A translator might also read multiple biographies of an author to discover which novel or play by that writer to translate.

But where do you begin? Finding the right work to translate is like being a detective on a case with few leads. You have to look at everything about a writer to see if anything is slightly out of place, searching for something that stands out. Sometimes you have to interview people who know the literature of a particular language, probing for ideas that might work for you.

I was researching the poet French surrealist André Breton when I came across this description almost six hundred pages into Mark Polizzotti’s definitive biography of the poet:

“Far more consequential was Breton’s meeting in 1954 with the twenty-six-year-old poet Joyce Mansour.…it was other aspects of her personality—the dark, frenzied eroticism that emerged in her poetry; her unconventional public behavior—that had most drawn Breton. Soon after she joined the Surrealist group, a legend sprang up that Joyce lived exclusively on oysters, hot water, and cigars…”
Mark Polizzotti, Revolution of the Mind: The Life of André Breton, pp. 589­–590.

André Breton and Joyce Mansour, 1959
That reference intrigued me. A woman poet in a literary movement known mostly for male writers, and she came along decades after the surrealists had made their initial splash in the 1920s.

I starting looking for Joyce Mansour’s Oeuvres complètes, her complete works. It wasn’t an easy book to track down in the United States—the least expensive copy is currently selling for $463 used on amazon.com. Interlibrary loan is often a good way to obtain a hard-to-find book of this sort.

When I did find the book, I realized that there were many gems among Joyce Mansour’s poems. I looked quickly through the 600 pages in her complete works—not reading every page, just skimming at first, searching for a style and themes in her work that spoke to me.

Joyce Mansour (1928–1986)
Once I settled on several of her poems that I liked, I started to do rough drafts, looking for poems that would work in English. Sometimes that’s not the same as a writer’s best efforts. There are factors that make a piece of literature work in another language, and factors that have the opposite result. Writing that brilliantly uses local dialect, for example, may not be as effective in translation, since there is often no equivalent in the target language for that particular style of speech.

I was also conscious that some of Mansour’s work had already been translated into English, and I was prospecting for poems that had either not been translated, or where the translation stopped short of conveying the “dark, frenzied eroticism” that Polizzotti described.

In fact, what I found in Mansour’s poetry was somewhat different—eroticism, yes, but permeated with compassion, wisdom, and honesty about intimacy. It was those qualities in Mansour’s writing that I wanted to try to recreate in English. I was seeking poems by Mansour that touched me personally, and there certainly were several where I hoped that I could add something by translating them in my own way.

That is also part of the translator’s quest. What is it that you as a translator have to contribute that is unique to you? You want a project where the work of another writer matches up with your own sensibility in a way that gives you insight into how that author should sound in your own language. Ultimately, you are looking to become a vehicle to convey that writer’s personal style and subject matter to readers of your own language.

Here’s a poem by Joyce Mansour that I translated, to give you a flavor of her writing:

            Joyce Mansour

“Do you still know the sweet scent of plantain trees…”

Do you still know the sweet scent of plantain trees
Familiar things can seem so strange when someone leaves
Food can seem so sad
A bed so insipid
And cats
Do you remember the cats that screeched their claws
That yowled on the roof when your tongue ransacked me
And that arched their backs when you dug your nails into me
They vibrated when I yielded
I don’t know how to love anymore
Those painful bubbles of delirium have dried on my lips
I’ve thrown away my mask of leaves
A rose bush agonizes under the bed
I can’t wiggle my hips anymore in the midst of all this rubble
And the cats have fled the roof


translation © 2019 by Zack Rogow 

Another post on how to choose the right work for a translation project, focused on George Sand.

Other recent posts about writing topics: 

How to Get Published
Getting the Most from Your Writing Workshop
How Not to Become a Literary Dropout
Putting Together a Book Manuscript
Working with a Writing Mentor
How to Deliver Your Message
Does the Muse Have a Cell Phone?
Why Write Poetry? 
Poetic Forms: IntroductionThe SonnetThe SestinaThe GhazalThe TankaThe Villanelle
Praise and Lament
How to Be an American Writer
Writers and Collaboration
Types of Closure in Poetry