What Counts

I recently ran into one of my former poetry professors, someone who had a profound impact on my development as a writer, and a reader, of poetry. I’m a notoriously lousy contact, so we hadn’t seen each other in a while, and he was happily surprised to learn that I was just starting an MFA in poetry. He was very surprised that I was at Brown.

I am, according to him, the first creative writer from my undergraduate institution, UMass Boston, to be accepted to Brown. And this doesn’t really surprise me that much, given the overtly experimental leanings of the Brown program, and the relatively traditional interests of the UMass undergraduate curriculum (at least, when I was there). He seemed surprised, given this disparity, that I would even want to go to Brown.

Of course, my world exploded a few years ago when I started in the translation workshop at Iowa and started being confronted with questions about what counts. What counts as translation? Does homophonic translation? How about collage translation? Or intentional mis-translation? Or pseudotranslation (when you invent an author whose work you purport to translate)? Where are the limits of what we are willing to accept as works of translation? And of course that isn’t even really the question. The question is why?

Why do we privilege translations that prioritize ‘native fluency’ in the translation, a “work that reads as though it had been writing originally in English”? Why do we privilege meaning? The semantic content of words and the idea that meaning is a stable, unchanging thing that can be understood within the same language, much less from one to another.

Asking these questions opened up a whole world of possibilities for exploring language, which is after all what I’m interested in most as a writer. And though my own translation remains fairly traditional, for the most part, I delight in experiments, innovations and projects that help expand the possibilities for translation as an art form, and raise important questions about normative hegemonic literary discourses.

So no surprise that my own work would take up these kinds of questions. And when my former professor expressed his surprise at my interest in “experimental” writing, I began to think carefully about that. And I realized that what I like most about writing that is considered “experimental” or “innovative” or “progressive” (though I agree with Joyelle McSweeney’s caution against this idea in part 6 of her post on Bug Time) is that it is not as exclusionary as some more traditional poetic movements are. The lyric confessional, for example, not to name names.

Traditional forms have something to defend, something at stake. The cultural caché i.e. monetary value i.e. fame & fortune of realness. When poetry is real it can be bought and sold. It can be valued. It can be traded for publication and for tenure and for compensation and for time to write more real poetry that will continue to define what real poetry is and should sound like and does. Maintaining the insider/outsider, the exclusiveness of the institution restricts access to the rewards, the tiny tiny pieces of monetary pie we scrap over in the arts. There is a (in-)vested interest (ha!) in the gatekeeping function of realness.

Oh, but of course it works the other way around, right? Make it new, the constant push toward newness, originally, inventiveness, when of course there is nothing new. Yes, that extreme is the same kind of problem. Newness for the sake of it and nothing more is an empty gesture, of course.

But here, in the land of experiment that I’m living in, tradition is important too. It’s not one or the other, it’s all. It’s a glorious glut. We gape to take it all in, and fail, and can’t encompass it all. But the joy is in the trying. That’s what I’m after.

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