Posts Tagged ‘David Shook’

Come to Mi Alma Gardens, 4016 Santa Monica Blvd., Los Angeles, CA 90026, at 2.00 PM this Saturday 13 November to see live literary performances sponsored by Molossus. The event will feature Los Angeles poet Mandy Kahn reading original poetry, British music journalist Sophie Heawood and her bear companion Whitey reading from their seedy memoir about the underbelly of contemporary music, and David Shook performing “The Flyswatter,” a prose poem by Hugo Hiriart, translated by Shook and accompanied by Adrian Wong and Sarah Harball on viola and Olga Volozova directing a collaborative shadow puppet show. Limited editions of MOLO EPH double-fold broadsheet “The Flyswatter” will be available for $5, beer will be on tap from Firestone Microbrewery, and the music should be good too.



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Mexican Poet David Huerta

These photographs were taken by British cult author Travis Elborough, author of The Bus We Loved: London’s Affair with the Routemaster, The Long-Player Goodbye: The Album from Vinyl to iPod and Back Again, and a forthcoming book about the British seaside. Elborough, the Poetry Translation Centre’s Mexican Poets’ Tour Manager, shoots with a 35mm Lomo camera with no flash—more details forthcoming—and retains all copyrights to the images here.

The Poetry Translation Centre‘s Mexican Poets’ Tour traveled through London, Manchester, Leeds, Oxford, Grasmere, Glasgow, and Edinburgh, featuring readings by David Huerta, Coral Bracho, and Víctor Terán, alongside their respectice translators Jamie McKendrick, Katherine Pierpoint (with Tom Boll), and me, David Shook. For more on the tour, listen to short programs on Deutsche Welle or Radio Netherlands.

British Poet-Translator Jamie McKendrick with David Huerta

Poet Katherine Pierpoint, British Poet-Translator for Coral Bracho

Isthmus Zapotec Poet Víctor Terán

Molossus Contributor Sydneyann Binion with Me, David Shook


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I’ve now been reading a book of poetry a day for over 100 days, and an update on the project is long overdue. I’ve been more consistent than I expected, catching up quickly when I lag a day or two behind (like now). The 140-character review quickly led to my addition of its 140-character excerpt counterpart, in which I try to allow—as much as possible—the poets’ work to speak for itself. In practice, it’s nearly impossible to generate anything more meaningful than a back cover blurb. (Kwame Dawes suggested the experiment would be excellent training for a future career as book blurber.) 140 characters is just enough to comment on a book in most general sense or to comment on one more specific feature, seldom both. Likewise, it’s nearly impossible to include both the positive and negative aspects of a work.

What then, is the value of the Twitter review? It is, I suppose, the value of a single, hopefully singular observation about a book of poetry. The relationship between criticism and marketing is ever murkier as both move online, and the Twitter review can be viewed as a subversion of a social marketing application for the purpose of social criticism or as a corruption of more traditional criticism for the sake of marketing. More realistically I think it is probably something of both.

While I continue this project I hope to write more, citing specific examples from actual tweets to demonstrate the difficulty and nuance of the task. In the meantime, I’d like to introduce next week’s selection of books. During my processing I began to wonder what it would be like to review a book that I knew more intimately than one I had just read that day—as that is, especially for a poetry review, somewhat of an unusual time constraint. So rather than choose from the new collections I gratefully receive from their publishers, I decided to select a week’s worth of collections I know well. These have been selected arbitrarily, from a single shelf in my office, and don’t particularly represent my taste beyond the fact that I own and have read them at least once. Though most of these poets are American (most men, most white, as well), I suggest that the diversity of the greater list, available here, better reflects the international character of Molossus.

Here’s the list of old friends:

136. Time and Materials, Robert Hass. (Ecco, 2007) $22.95
137. Without, Donald Hall (Mariner Books, 1999) $13
138. On Purpose, Nick Laird (Faber & Faber, 2007) £9.99
139. What the Living Do, Marie Howe (W.W. Norton, 1999) $11
140. the book for my brother, Tomaž Šalamun (Harcourt, 2006) $16
141. Rose, Li-Young Lee (BOA Editions Ltd, 1986) $14.50
142. The Singing, C.K. Williams (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2003) $20

Thanks for following Year of Poetry on Twitter and Molossus. I’ll continue to discuss the project here in the near future.


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Homeland, Nina Berman (Trolley Books) £24.99

Homeland collects photographer Nina Berman’s last seven years of exploring the way fear has manipulated American culture since the beginning of the Homeland Security Era. Her photographs do exactly what the best social commentary does: they capture the essence of things elegantly and succinctly. She’s done a good job of depicting cross-generational changes, though her photographs are mostly set in the Midwest and South of the United States. My favorite photographs are those of massive Home Security training exercises, complete with paid extras, elaborate sets, and fake blood. These, it seems to me, are a quintessentially American response to fear. Other favorites include her shots of parades and celebrations, all tainted with pro-military marketing. Propaganda has always been an art form, and Berman captures the influence of popular advertisement on its latest manifestations.

Together with her photographs, which I can easily imagine becoming emblematic of early 2000s America, Berman has written short commentaries from the point-of-view of her subjects. From one, entitled “Prepare”:

I belong to the Homefront Security Patrol, a volunteer program that lets me wear a uniform and carry a radio and drive  in a police car with a partner three mornings a week. We patrol our streets, public buildings and tennis courts, looking for anything or anyone suspicious – bombs, terrorists, and whatnot…

And from another, titled “Believe”:

I live in a country uniquely blessed. I feel this when I enter my church and see our Christian flag next to our American flag.

I feel it on God and Country Sunday when members of our military march down the aisle. I’m proud and humbled to have a pastor who is so close to Christ, our warrior, and also to our President.

In her artist’s statement Berman writes that these should be considered seriously, suggesting that they are more than satire. That, in my opinion, is easily believable. My issue with the commentary is that it is not fully contextualized. It’s true that a large percentage of Americans would agree with some of her statements, but looking at them only in that way can have a liberal, de-humanizing effect; it can exoticize. That said, it is true that the commentary focuses on the subject at hand. Still, it might be more generously presented if it had been collected from actual speakers, something I believe possible with the collection of oral histories. Michael Shaw’s articulate note, which also follows the photographic text of the book, suggests too much, and it’s fortunate that it appears only after the photographs. Though I am mostly  in agreement with him I feel he is perhaps more aggressive than necessary for a commentary on the arts, too Adbusters for this context.

In her note, Berman discusses the recent etymology of the word “homeland,” as the space we Americans now “occupy and define.” Her photographs have begun the impressive work of offering a definition. In some sense Homeland is a coffee table travel book about a land we’ve been living in all along, without realizing it fully.


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Mark Schafer is an accomplished translator and visual artist. His latest translation to be published is a selection of David Huerta’s poems, Before Saying Any of the Great Words (Copper Canyon Press, $20). A longtime friend of Huerta, the project was long anticipated, and truly makes a significant contribution to English-language poetry’s dialogue with Mexico. Belén Gopegui’s The Scale of Maps, his next available translation, will be published by City Lights in 2010.

Mark and I corresponded by email. In the postscript to each of his emails there appears a quote by Rilke, in which the poet writes, as part of his advice on how to live, that we ought to “try to love the questions themselves.” That, it seems to me, is a pretty precise description of what the best literary translators do, and over the course of our exchange I think that Mark proved that that’s what he does, too.


I’m interested in the way that translators come to the poetry that they translate. How did you come to Huerta’s work?

Most of my translations originate in personal connections, and my translation of David’s poetry is no exception. I first met David Huerta in Mexico City in 1987. At the time, I was translating the first novel of another Mexican author, Alberto Ruy Sánchez, and reading the poetry Efraín Huerta, David’s father. I didn’t know David’s work at all, but he was very friendly to me, and he recommended that I translate the short stories of another Mexican writer, Jesús Gardea, which I did. Nine years after that, David asked Alberto to recommend a translator for some new poems, and Alberto recommended me, David contacted me, then sent me a batch of eight poems or so, and I got very nervous. I hate saying no to writers with whom I already have a relationship, but neither do I like to take on new projects unless I feel drawn to the texts, unless I have a sense that I want to inhabit them in Spanish and make a house for them in English. When I finally read the poems David had sent me, I felt great excitement and relief: I found them fascinating and started translating them. That led to my reading and translating a larger selection of his poems for an anthology edited by Mónica de la Torre and Michael Wiegers for Copper Canyon Press: Reversible Monuments, published in 2002.

Two years later, I was invited to the inaugural session of the Banff International Literary Translation Centre, and that is when I committed to producing an anthology of David’s poetry. I started by reading nearly all of his published collections of poetry in chronological order, making a rough list as I read of poems I wanted to translate and possibly include in my anthology. It was only when I began reading his monumental, nine-part, 389-page poem, Incurable, that I had to stop reading before I got swept away altogether. It would be another three years before I came back to that book, ready to dive in and swim/be carried along its length.

Comparisons across language and culture are never entirely accurate, but they are interesting. Who’s English-language poetry do you think especially dialogues with Huerta’s work?

This is a particularly interesting question when talking about Huerta’s work, because from the very start, from his first book of poetry, published when he was only 22, he was a world citizen of poetry, a voracious reader of poetry across continents, languages, and centuries. Just in terms of the contemporary poetries in English that his early poetry is manifestly in dialogue with, there is a range from Eliot and Pound to the Beats. At the same time, his poetry has always been in an intense conversation with language itself—with words and the way they mirror the beauty, joy, sorrow, doubt, connection and disconnection with the world that we humans, who have made them and now awkwardly try to wield them, embody ourselves. So, rather than perceiving Huerta’s poetry as wrapped in conversation with a few specific English-language poets, I’d say that one of the inter-literary conversation his poetry participates in is with the work of poets who consider language itself a conversationalist and at the same time a substance as essential to human life as DNA or colors. On the other hand, perhaps I just haven’t read enough! I’d be very interested to hear which English-language poets readers of Huerta’s poetry consider conversationalists with his work.

Tell me about your process, from selection of individual poems to finished translations. Do you work one poem at a time, perfecting it, or do you translate a selection of cribs, later polishing individual poems?

The particular process I used for this book was defined by my residency at Banff. Anticipating working on a new translation project—which in my case, involves so many full and partial revisions that I usually lose count—and preparing to work far from home, I bought a laptop. But just before I left, for reasons I can’t recall, I decided to jettison the computer altogether and instead bought a 14” x 11” spiral-bound artist sketchpad with blank pages, a bunch of black pens, and a bunch of colored pencils. As a poet, I’ve never been able to write first drafts on the computer; I have to write them by hand. I found this project demanding that I do it by hand as well. Perhaps it had to do with David’s loving relationship with the written word. The idea of writing and revising a poem on a large, blank sheet of paper had lain dormant in my mind ever since I heard Elizabeth Young-Breuhl describe doing this—so as to be able to revise outward into the margins in any direction—in college. I had another goal in working this way: to document my movement from first draft through subsequent revisions in an aesthetically beautiful way.

I wrote the first draft of the translations I began at Banff in black ink, then my second draft revisions, thoughts, and notes in blue pencil, then my third set of revisions—after working on the translations with David, who came for the third week of the residency—in red pencil.

How many poems would you work on at a time?

I translated the poems in batches of three to six at a time, starting with the poems I liked the best or felt most compelled to try my hand at them in English. As I started firming up the final list of poems for the book, I reviewed critical literature on Huerta’s poetry and started filling up some holes in my selection; also David suggested a few poems that he felt were important to include. In the end, my selection reflected my own preferences balanced by my desire to present an overarching panorama of David’s poetry that was, in turn, weighted toward the last fifteen years of his published poetry, as of 2007.

So how long did the entire collection take you to complete?

From start to finish, the whole process lasted eleven or twelve years. I am not a fast translator. My modus operandi was to read each poem in Spanish several times, then annotate them using two bilingual dictionaries, a few monolingual dictionaries in each language, and a thesaurus in English. Then I’d write my first draft, often including various options for words or even lines in English. I find that I need time before I can come back to my translations with a fresh eye, better ideas, more accurate readings. Even late in the game, I would read the poems in Spanish and understand things that had escaped me over the course of many readings and drafts.

Over the years, as I accumulated batches of poems I’d translated and revised a few times, I would gather together my questions and send them to David, then incorporate his responses into my next draft. Four or five times over that period, I got together with him and read my most updated drafts to him aloud as he followed the poems in Spanish, then we would talk about both, and afterward I would produce a final or near-final draft of each translation. My final revision took place over the course of two days, shortly before I handed in the complete manuscript to Copper Canyon. Taking my cue from my first editor, Juan García Ponce, I sat on a park bench facing Boston Harbor and read the whole collection aloud to myself (in the absence of anyone I could think of reading a whole collection of poetry to.) I could read the poems as loud as I pleased and repeat them as many times as I wanted without worrying about looking any stranger or more dangerous than the next nut declaiming poetry in a public park. That was the final revision stage.

You’ve translated a wide range of Huerta’s poetry. How does their variation affect your translations? Were any time periods easier than others to translate?

Certain time periods were easier than others to translate, in two senses: the chronology of David’s writing on the one hand, and the chronology of my translation of his poetry on the other. I found Huerta’s early poetry at times harder to translate than the poetry he wrote later. I found some of his early poetry to be a little more formal and traditional, his language a little stiffer than in the poetry he wrote later on. Perhaps another way of saying it is that in some of his earlier poetry I sense that he is conversing with Poetry, whereas later on he is talking with Language. I definitely feel more comfortable participating in the second type of conversation than the first. But I don’t think I can divorce my experience of translating his poetry from my initial point of entry, which was the poetry he was writing in the nineties: playful-serious poems constructed around images, filled with references to other texts, and showing more than a touch of surrealism.  From there, I moved both backward and forward through his writing, and as I inhabited it more, I started to find my voice for his poetry in English. By the time I translated the fifteen excerpts from Incurable, considered his most difficult work, I found myself virtually bodysurfing down the torrential flow of his poetry, with a bit of the feel an interpreter has as she or he rides the momentum of the speaker’s thought as structured by language and the speaker’s particular idiolect, style, tone. So, I cannot tell to what extent the ease or difficulty for me of translating David’s poetry was due to his development as a poet and to what extent it was due to my relationship as a reader and translator of his poetry.

I do remember wondering to what extent my chronological reading of David’s poetry was imposing a retroactive or perhaps ‘foreshortened’ view of the living, growing body of his poetry, which I suspect is much more complex and complicated than that defined by linear concepts of development. I do know, however, that when I told him that I was planning to structure my collection of his poetry into “Early” and “Later” poetry, divided by “Incurable,” he liked the idea a lot.

Who else are you translating? What other translations are you reading?

My translation docket is all over the place. I recently finished—once again, more than a decade after beginning it!—my translation of La escala de los mapas, the first novel by the Spanish author Belén Gopegui. It is completely different from Huerta’s poetry, but at the same time, another great conversation with language. City Lights will publish it next year as The Scale of Maps. I am hoping eventually to translate the remaining untranslated short stories of the astonishing Cuban author Virgilio Piñera, which I hope would lead to the republishing of my first translation, a collection of Piñera’s stories titled Cold Tales, which has been out of print for years. Next year, for something completely different, I plan to translate a book documenting a wildly successful project of radical educational reform in Mexico: Gabriel Cámara’s Enseñar y aprender con interés: logros y testimonios en escuelas públicas. As with the poets and fiction writers I’ve translated, I can’t wait to get the word out in this country of the inspirational work being done in education in Mexico, as described and documented in this book.

But one of my great pleasures in translating authors I like and know is, after the book has come out, to go on the road with them, albeit briefly, to present our work in person to live, poetry-loving audiences. This past April, David came to the East Coast and we read from Before Saying Any of the Great Words in Boston, New York, Pennsylvania and Washington, D.C. (Links to videos of our reading at the Library of Congress—and much more!—are available at www.beforesaying.com.) Currently, I’m working with Copper Canyon to arrange a series of readings in Washington, Oregon, and Northern California in January. The website will have more information on these readings. I’ve come to really love David, so I will take any excuse to spend time with him.

As for translations I’m reading, a reading I attended recently by my friend and colleague Jim Kates, put two of his recent translations into my hands as I travel around Boston by bus and subway: When a Poet Sees a Chestnut Tree (poetry by Jean-Pierre Rosnay) and Say Thank You (poetry by Mikhail Aizenberg.) Rosnay was the youngest member of the French Resistance when he joined at the age of 15, and in fact his poetry reminds me a bit of David’s, the way it mixes our political and emotional lives with a loving and skeptical attachment to language, and to poetry in particular. I have just sent the Rosnay to Huerta, who translates from the French, to see what he thinks. The Aizenberg is fascinating to me for other reasons: his bleak humor matched to Kates’s and the fun of trusting an able translator like Jim when I can’t even spell out the en face poems in Russian Cyrillic.

Are there any Mexican poets that ought to be translated into English that haven’t been?

I confess that, appearances to the contrary, I’m not the best person to answer this question. My reading habits, while wide-ranging, are also haphazard and provincial. Ask Jen Hofer, Mónica de la Torre, C.M. Mayo, or Forrest Gander.

November 2009

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Molossus is proud to announce the official debut of the Poetry Machine, a 1964 candy vending machine converted to sell poems. Though its design is not yet complete, the Poetry Machine appeared on the street at 3320 Sunset Blvd., Los Angeles, CA 90026 for the 13th annual Silver Lake Art Crawl.

The machine sold nine different poems by category—from Love Poem to Food Poem to Poem to Help You Get Laid—including work by Amatoritsero Ede, Armando Celayo, Ryan Van Winkle, Elizabeth Aamot, David Shook, and Víctor Terán. Several poets sold out.

You can follow the progress of our machine on our forthcoming Poetry Machine page, as well as on Twitter, at http://twitter.com/poetrymachine, where you can find information on where the machine will next appear.

Special thanks to those who made this possible: including 2-Bad Echo Park, Project Lacuna, the Apiary, Molossus contributors Sydneyann Binion and Geoff Gossett, and Project Designer Laura Peters. We are grateful indeed to the Ileostomy Arts Foundation, whose generous grant enabled the idea behind this project to take root in the concrete of Los Angeles.


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David Shook

amatoritseroAmatisoritsero Ede, born in Nigeria, has been a Hindu Monk with the Hare Krishna movement and worked as a Book Editor with a major Nigerian trade publisher, Spectrum Books. His first collection of poems, Collected Poems: A Writer’s Pains & Caribbean Blues, was published in Germany and Nigeria. His work has appeared in seven anthologies in Canada, England, Germany, and Nigeria. A second poetry collection, Globetrotter & Hitler’s Children (New York: Akashic Books, 2009) just came out. He has won several awards for his poetry, and was the 2005-2006 Writer-in-Residence at Carleton University, Ottawa, under the auspices of PEN Canada’s Writer-in-Exile Program. He edited Sentinel Online Poetry Journal from 2005-2007, and is the publisher and managing editor of the online Maple Tree Literary SupplementHe lives in Canada, where he is SSHRC Fellow and Doctoral Candidate in English at Carleton University.

We engaged in this conversation with a series of emails; over the course of our correspondence Ede proved to be intelligent and generous, often responding late at night.

Tell me about your experience as a Hare Krishna monk. Was that in Nigeria? Does that spiritual background affect your writing?

Yes, I was with the Hare Krishna Movement in Lagos, Nigeria. I was 24 at the time. I was dealing with too much existential angst and needed solitude and withdrawal, the better to self-study. I had tried all forms of spiritual contemplation–Christianity particularly, only to discover that Biblical teachings are too literarily understood and disseminated by the clergy, and that it was merely “religion” with all the regimentation and unquestioning acceptance of dogma that that implied. I simply had too many questions and the church little or no answers. So as Dambudzo Marechera would have said, “I picked up my bag and left” that House of Hunger. I left, especially as I witnessed the overt commodification within–particularly–the Pentecostal “prosperity churches” that were beginning to mushroom at the time.

Growing up within the traditional Yoruba worldview of accommodation, religious and otherwise, as emphasized by Yoruba traditional religious pantheism, I also did not understand such fascist utterances like, “Jesus is the only way” and, “No one comes to the father except through me.”  I guess they presume the father is your ubiquitous next-door family man, and did not grasp the esoteric importance of  “father” as deployed in any scripture. And to expect that a father would put the child in hell, say a bakery oven—let me mimic the clergy’s own literal (mis)understanding of scripture—for being a sinner beat me too. The Bible did say that He gave us free will to choose from good and bad. Why does He not just make everyone do what He wants, if that is His will? Many questions; no answers.

It seems like a lot of your struggle with Christianity in particular seems to stem from interpretation of texts, from issues of language.

You can see how language must have taken over the process of interpretation–of hermeneutics–and reads the people who are supposed to be reading for meanings. In retrospect, there is also the problem of translation from original biblical source languages into target languages. A lot of metaphorization must have been lost or watered down in that globalizing process. Where then are “the errors of the rendering” as Christopher Okigbo says? Beyond metaphor, there is also the question of the esoteric significance of any scriptural language. For the lay clergy, it is all mostly literal–not all the time, but mostly. So when there is mention of “hell,” clergy and laity alike take it literal and tremble in fear thinking of a bakery oven. With a mention of “prosperity” ‘people of God’ think of Gold like Aaron at the foot of the mountain waiting for Moses to come down with the Ten Commandments. I am coming to the significance of all that to Vaishnavism–the Hare Krishna Movement–in a minute. Many question and little answers.

More confusing for me was the fact that this religion, Christianity, has been responsible for, or complicit in, a lot of atrocities historically; its investments in slavery, colonialism, and capitalism is all too well known, even if often ignored in analysis or on the pulpit. Part of the arrogance of this religion is that it never apologizes for anything. Not for the Nazi gold scandal, not for the crusades, not for pedophilia in the church, not for excesses like psychopathic pastor Jim Jones in Guyana and many more. Definitely not for slavery or colonialism and the “civilizing” mission. So you see the transliteration of scripture is then taken to an extreme and misreadings occur, which allow psychotics to hijack such transliterations for their own warped uses.  As Shakespeare has it, “the devil cites scripture for his purpose.” At some point earlier I was a Muslim, though that was due to an adult’s prodding to get us young rascally boys out of the way. I did it by rote. I found there were—still are—a lot of misreading of the Koran as well–literal misinterpretations of what should properly be esoteric and not so mistranslated as it often is.

So it was out of curiosity and the continuous search for something beyond my immediate grasp that I ran into the Hare Krishna folks dancing in downtown Lagos. I loved the sound of the mrdanga (the oblong drums), conch shells, and cymbals. And they did look weird. So I approached to find out what the ruckus was all about. And they began to explain the Krishna philosophy and religious thought to me. It was deep and not the usual literal slant I had experienced with Christianity particularly. The esoteric nature of the musings also struck a cord with my yearning for a deeper or higher explanation of things. I was in the face of the esoteric. I had toyed with the esoteric growing up; reading books like 14 Lessons in Occultism and Enter the Silence, books of palmistry and astrology. Lets us say I had a yearning and an affinity for the esoteric. Christianity took all of that away with its jealous ways. I got “born again” and burnt all my esoteric books, which were “of the devil”! When I got out of the church I was mad as a hatter! I cannot find some of those books anywhere. Hinduism–that’s what Krishna consciousness is–is pantheistic like the traditional Yoruba religions I grew up with. Hinduism in my experience is not as jealous as Christianity and Islam. These religions, younger by far than the traditional African and most Eastern religions, are very narcissistic. So I listened to the saffron-robed, bald-headed Prabhuji and decided I would go to their temple later and find out more–case the joint if you like! I went in and didn’t come out for a long time. I shaved my head too and wore a doti.

The Hare Krishna experience is one of a kind. You are supposed to drop all attachment to material life–family, friends, books, habits – good and bad. In short you renounced material life and lived a spiritual life of austerity and self-denial. Even food is not a big necessity. At some point you are supposed to conquer the tongue enough to need maybe just a piece of fruit a day. I never got that far–because again, I picked up my bag and left! The discipline was good but unearthly. You went to bed at 9 pm, woke up at 3 am; if you don’t wake up someone douses you in a sprinkle of water or rings the morning bell right into your eardrums. To further aid your wakefulness you take a cold shower, then mark your body (solar plexus, navel, forehead, shoulders, and so on) with tilak, which is clay from the Ganges, wear your doti and go into the Temple by 4 am to begin morning devotion with songs: Samsara dava dana lida loka trayana karuna ganagana twam, praptasya karlyana  dana lolu paysa vande guru sri ca na ra vindam. That is Sanskrit. Don’t ask me what it means because I don’t remember; there is a book where all the songs are translated. I loved those songs and still miss the temple if only for their resonance and the accompanying mrdanga and cymbals. It was bliss I can tell you: meditation, concentration and contemplation all in one. It definitely was consciousness- changing for me. Then the morning sermon–well, not really a sermon as such, but a meditation read (in Sanskrit) from the Bhagavad-Gita, then translated and explained by a more senior devotee–like the temple president. All, very very esoteric and mystifying for a bhakta–a new devotee.

The evening singing lifts you bodily and you are slapped flat like Spiderman against the ceiling for the next one hour at least, dancing in spiritual ecstasy. It was better than weed or cocaine! That’s why Hare Krishna thrived in the USA during the flower power, punk and hippie eras when even prominent figures like John Lennon were members. If you needed drugs simply “chant and be happy.” That was the drug! Chant the Hare Krishna maha mantra,

It was great experience but tough, so one day I picked up my bag and left. It was a tough decision to leave; it was difficult to go. But poetry and other matters called. I left.

That spiritual background does not affect or influence my poetry in a direct way but rather in the roundabout fashion that I insist on the truth as an ontological phenomenon; calling a spade as spade, as I see it. I do not play the mind games with self that people like to play. If someone is deceiving me at least I won’t deceive myself. “I am finely attuned to my own psyche” as Soyinka says in The Interpreters.

There are a lot of contemporary poets from a vaguely Christian tradition—I think of many of the Japanese haiku poets as well—that conceive of poetry as a sort of prayer. Does that at all resonate with you?

You are right about the idea of the poem as a prayer. The Jesuit Priest Gerald Manley Hopkins–early modernist and precursor of a full-fledged modernist movement–did just that with his poetry, pray. Is all of Rumi not one long prayer to the psyche? But to be more specific, religion has sometimes been an impetus for devotional poetry or literature generally. The critic G.H. Vallins in his The Best English has an elaborate analysis of how the Bible has been a model for early English poetry or prose. The Psalms of King David could be considered as free verse, praising the Christian God.

Have you read any of the recent translations of the Psalms, focusing on their poetry and the Hebrew poetic devices employed rather than, say, their sanctity as holy texts? I’m thinking specifically of Robert Alter and David Rosenberg.

No I have not read that. That would be an interesting read. I will definitely look out for the Literary Bible when it comes out. But to get back to Hopkins… What Hopkins, like King David of the Psalms, does is to praise God with his idea of inscape and instress. “By ‘inscape’ he means the unified complex of characteristics that give each thing its uniqueness and that differentiate it from other things, and by ‘instress’ he means either the force of being which holds the inscape together or the impulse from the inscape which carries it whole into the mind of the beholder”₁ And that instress is the God in the thing, the object; it is the creative essence, which reflects the workings of a supernatural supreme personality of Godhead. In that way his poems are eternal prayers. But he wrote in secret. Poetry was considered too secular a preoccupation for a Jesuit priest to indulge in. It was seen as almost a sinful self-indulgence. So none of his work was published in his lifetime. Talking about which the spiritual background of Hare Krishna does not appear in my public poetry directly because I was almost forbidden to write poetry in the temple unless it had something to do with the religious, focusing on Krishna, the supreme personality of Hindu Godhead. I did write some poetry in that fashion and they were published in a journal we produced at the temple called transcendence. But otherwise you won’t find any directly spiritual poetry in my oeuvre. I could not not write poetry of all kinds. I felt restrained by the ecclesiastical demands of writing to form. So I picked up my bag and left. Now I am retracing my steps into traditional African religion and my patron saint, the Yoruba Trickster God Esu, is very liberal. “I write what I like.”

Obviously your relationship with Germany—political and personal—has had something to do with your poetry. It’s found its way into your subject matter; have there been any other, deeper ways its affected your poetry? What about the German poets?

There are no particular direct stylistic ways the German poets influenced or affected my poetry. This definitely has to do with the fact that I was a finished poet by the time I moved to Germany from Nigeria.

A finished poet? What, exactly, do you mean? Your fundamental sense of aesthetics had already been developed?

By a finished poet I mean that I was already largely formed in my stylistics and aesthetic predilections, yes.  And importantly I had already serviced my apprenticeship. I had written my juvenilia. I remember presenting Wole Soyinka with a notebook of handwritten poems when I first met him as a teenager of 18. He was kind enough not to say anything but just, “it is coming up; it is coming up!” None of my juvenilia is published at all. I can’t even find them, or I unconsciously lost them. Later on, I belonged to a group of poets at the University of Ibadan referred to in Nigeria as the Thursday People because we (the poetry club) met informally on Thursdays. That group was a spawning ground for good poetry and cross influences. It is the same group that Niyi Osundare belonged to–more and more in a fringe sense as he grew up and away as a poet.  Others include Harry Garuba, Chiedu Ezeanah, Remi Raji, Uche Nduka by affiliation, the late Sessan Ajayi, Sanya Osha and many more. I particularly had a close poetic relationship with Chiedu Ezeanah for his rigor, and we critiqued each other’s work honestly and without rancor. Such frank and no-nonsense criticism within the group generally helped me hone my craft. I am amused how in North America, despite the proliferation of creative writing schools, no criticism goes on at all. What passes for criticism is usually the unalloyed praise of the blurb writer. Writing blurbs has become a profession in itself and the unspoken ethic of it is that you praise the book to high heavens, deploy hyperboles couched in comparatives like “the best,” “the greatest,” “the most accomplished”— In comparison to what? one wonders. Even though I have left Nigeria, Chiedu still electronically sends me his poems from time to time to critique. He knows I will not call a spade a fork. The result of North American political correctness is that critics, both academic and lay, are petrified and refuse to do their work. Everyone is so sensitive; egos are so frail that you don’t dare offend their testiness by saying a poem is bad! You are supposed to simply praise. Why was it that the Romantic poets cut off the public and formed an inner group to critique their works? Wordsworth, Coleridge, and others at some point refused to follow the demands of the rabble about the direction their work should take. It led to a rejection of the age-old patronage system and the relationship of the Romantic poet to the public was then mediated through the market–especially with the increase in the English mercantile class and expansion of the middle class. Today, the general public and the critic behave like Wordsworth’s uncritical, unholy rabble. What you have out there is a lot of badly, hastily written poetry. There is also the desire to “popularize” poetry with things like slam and the “prose poem”—what an (oxy)moron! I think Derek Walcott recently frowned at that expression in a public talk. I can’t remember the circumstances now. These days everyone wants to be a poet. I wonder why. Poetry might be the queen of the arts but it is a beggar queen, you don’t make money with it. I suppose perhaps that some think writing poetry is easy and fast and does not need the patience, diligence, discipline, and long-suffering of prose. This view is far from the truth. The art requires more rather than less discipline. My own litmus test is this: if you can replace any word in any of my lines with another word, without causing a major breakdown in the very essence and structure of the poem, then I did a poor job in the first place! With me if at the syntagmatic level something is removed you will discover that it affects the whole paradigm. One word replaced and everything goes to hell! The rhythm and cadence–what Seamus Heaney refers to as that “ta-dum-ta-dum” in his The Government of the Tongue–the imagery too would probably go to hell, especially with me. I am an informal imagist.


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