The AWP of Bubbles, Balloons, and Lonely Hipsters [Some March 2014 Translations]

Last weekend, over 14,000 writers, publishers, agents, translators, reviewers, professors, and readers swarmed the Washington State Convention Center in Seattle for the annual Associated Writing Programs conference—four days of heavy drinking, pot-chocolate (it’s legal in Washington!), endless craft panels, a bustling exhibition hall, and the most awesomely awkward dance parties ever.

Put a huge number of book people in any one place and shit is bound to get weird. And when a huge percentage of these book people are young, struggling writers? Weird plus neurotic. Good thing Bubble Man was at the entrance to greet everyone with some love.

Over the past decade, AWP has grown to be one of the largest and most important book events of the year. No longer just a place where mediocre poetry is belted out to the accompaniment of crushing depression and a strummed guitar, AWP is a crucial sales outlet for a lot of presses. (Especially poetry presses, who, due to the decline of other outlets and the increase in AWP attendance will sell $3,000+ worth of books over the weekend.)

Personally, I think this was the best AWP I’ve ever attended. We broke all our sales records—thanks to a few superfans who bought books and brought friends over to buy all the rest of the books—had a great time with local friends George Carroll, Jay Weaver, Don Mee Choi, and Owen Rowe, enjoyed all the Elliot Bay Book Company experiences, danced a lot too much, and threw an epic (and soon to be annual) Open Letter Happy Hour.

That said, this blog isn’t really about happiness and stability . . . So, here are a few observations and jokes to give you a better sense of AWP and to lead into this month’s translation highlights.

1) Someone really needs to do a book entitled The Hats and Beards of AWP. AWP is like Williamsburg on steroids. There can never be enough beard and skinny jeans! Also, George Carroll’s lovely wife kept referring to AWP—usually pronounced as three distinct letters, “a,” “w,” “p”—as a single word: “Awwwp.” Which is a way cooler way to say its name, and which led to the conference-long game of trying to identify the “Wizard of AWP.”

2) What the hell is this, and what is it advertising?

3) Please stop with the endless poetry readings. I know everyone that’s part of an MFA program wants a chance to read their work out loud, but some of the events are 4+ hours long. That’s just insane and mind-numbing. Especially given the fact that more than half of the poets read with the same annoying cadence. I went to one poetry reading, and left after texting this imitation to a few friends:

And then. I read.
Read a poem.
Poem of poem.
I believe. AWP is. Is. Is.
A place. Pleasant place.
AWP IS. It is.
It is a place of performance.
Performance place.
We. We perform.
AWP. AWP performs.
Me. Me. Writing.
Me. Poetry
AWP. Me.

4) Why does everyone come home from AWP with a wicked, neverending cold? Are writers inherently dirty and germ filled? CLEAN YOURSELVES NEXT YEAR. My sinuses can’t take this shit.

5) Every night from 10-midnight, there is an AWP dance party. And yes, it is filled with as much awkward as you’re envisioning. Thankfully, there is free beer and wine for the first hour, and the DJ specializes in playing Rap for White Girls (e.g., Nelly’s “Ride with Me”), so by around 11, there’s a lot of normally self-conscious people on the dance floor moving in ways that sort of resembles dancing. In other words, it’s totally awesome. (Somewhere there exists a video of me and Scott Esposito dancing to Joan Jett’s “I Love Rock ‘n’ Roll.”) It’s non-judgmental—because, well, look around—truly all-ages, and a pretty fun release after 10 hours of bad poetry and the worst indoor lighting imaginable.

But this year, the Saturday night dance party was a bit of a train wreck. It all started off with one douchebag lonely hipster doing a methodical hip thrust in the middle of the dance floor. Wearing only a wife beater and more hair grease than Cristiano Ronaldo. I’m not sure if he thought he was being ironic, or simply performing some sort of desperate mating call, but he managed to piss off most everyone there. And then, because “hipsters” of this sort just can’t embarrass themselves enough, he actually got on stage, had a friend join him, and even lost the wife beater . . . before someone official threw him off—an unsavory 45 minutes later. We spend most of the night hoping, for his sake, that he was tripping balls—even though that wouldn’t change the fact that he was the worst person there ever. And because this image is scarred on my brain forever, I figured I’d share it with all of you. You’re welcome!

OK, now on to this month’s interesting translations!

Trans-Atlantyk: An Alternate Translation by Witold Gombrowicz, translated from the Polish by Danuta Borchardt (Yale University Press)

I love Gombrowicz, but have never gotten around to reading this book about a penniless Polish writer who escapes the Nazis and moves to Argentina—much like Gombrowicz himself. When I was in Argentina a few years back though, we were taken on a literary walking tour and if memory serves, we went by the bar where Witold used to hang out and rant about how much Borges sucked. Apparently he had a thing against JLB, and liked to tell EVERYONE about it.

One evening, a friend challenged him on this by asking what Borges stories Gombrowicz had read. His very Polish response: “None! Why would I ever waste my time reading that crap?”

God I love Polish writers.

Killing the Second Dog by Marek Hlasko, translated from the Polish by Tomasz Mirkowicz (New Vessel)

Sticking with that same theme, I would read anything written by this guy who, according to the New Vessel website, was considered to be the “Polish James Dean.”

Add to that picture the fact that this book is about two Polish con men trying to swindle an American widow, and I’m completely sold.

Stone Tablets by Wojciech Zukrowski, translated from the Polish by Stephanie Kraft (Paul Dry Books)

A few months back, I found out that basically all of my ancestors on both sides of my family are from the area surrounding Gdańsk/Danzig. More specifically, my dad’s side is made up of Pomeranians and my mom’s is all Kashubians. This is one reason why I got into The Tin Drum right from the start—one of the main characters in the opening section is a Kashubian arsonist. Fire AND Poland! (Actually, taking this character as representative for larger Kashubian characteristics explains a lot about my personality.) Anyway, later on in the novel, there’s a great speech by Oskar’s Kashubian grandmother:

“That’s Kashubes for you, little Oskar. Always getting hit on the head. But you are going where things are better now, and leaving old Granny behind. Because Kahsubes don’t move around a lot, they always stay put, and hold their head still for others to whack, because we ain’t really Polish and we ain’t really German, and Kashubes ain’t good enough for Germans or Pollacks. They want everything cut and dried.”

Also, Stone Tablets is about a Hungarian diplomat in India during the Hungarian Uprising. But let’s be honest—I’m mostly including it here because the author is Polish.

Rambling On: An Apprentice’s Guide to the Gift of the Gab by Bohumil Hrabal, translated from the Czech by David Short (Karolinum Press)

Sticking with Eastern Europe . . . There are two Bohumil Hrabal books coming out this spring: Rambling On this month, and Harlequin’s Millions in May. If you haven’t read Hrabal, you absolutely must. Too Loud a Solitude, Dancing Lessons for the Advanced of Age, I Served the King of England, these are all fantastic novels that embody Hrabal’s idiosyncratic style that is joyful, conversational, and instantly engaging. Here’s Adam Thirlwell’s description of it from his wonderful The Delighted States:

In Czech, there is a word for Hrabal’s style. This word is Hrabalovština. Hrabalovština is a comic display of vocabulary, of headlong words and invented syntax—it is a system which is forever trying to put off its own demise. But Hrabal’s own word for his style was palavering, and palavering is a much more useful and precise concept for this style, this new invention in the art of the novel. Palavering is an art, and it is committed to deferral, to a comic refusal to be polite, and stop talking. It is, according to Hrabal, “my defense against politics, my policy in fact.” And this word policy is important. It shows how considered and meditated was Hrabal’s apparently natural style. Because the truest poetry is also the most feigning. Against the direction and drive of ideas, Hrabal offer the more vulgar luxuries of digression, and of free association.

Hopefully this collection of short stories and Harlequin’s Millions—and other celebrations and articles related to the centennial of Hrabal’s birth—will help spawn a new group of Hrabal fans . . .

I Remember You by Yrsa Sigurdardottir, translated from the Icelandic by Philip Roughton (Minotaur)

Here’s a bit from the opening of the review of this novel in the Independent:

Leaving aside the literary merits of I Remember You, residents of Iceland were thoroughly terrified by the book—but, ironically, for its jacket, featuring a pair of intensely staring eyes that (for some reason) deeply disturbed—and even obsessed—many Icelanders, and occasioned a slew of complaints.

Why didn’t Minotaur use this cover instead of that crap up there? And why can’t I find an image of this? I want to know how intensely these eyes are staring!

Speaking of Iceland, I really wish I could go to the Secret Solstice Music Festival in June. Scratch that. I wish I could just move to Iceland and spend the rest of my days tending bar and floating in the Blue Lagoon.

Also, one other random thing: Unless I’m missing something, there are only three books by women coming out in translation this month. That’s embarrassing.

A Curse on Dostoevsky by Atiq Rahimi, translated from the French by Polly McLean (Other Press)

This novel—the fourth to be made available in English from Afghani writer Rahimi—sounds really fun:

Rassoul remembers reading Crime and Punishment as a student of Russian literature in Leningrad, so when, with axe in hand, he kills the wealthy old lady who prostitutes his beloved Sophia, he thinks twice before taking her money or killing the woman whose voice he hears from another room. He wishes only to expiate his crime and be rightfully punished. Out of principle, he gives himself up to the police. But his country, after years of civil war, has fallen into chaos. In Kabul there is only violence, absurdity, and deafness, and Rassoul’s desperate attempt to be heard turns into a farce.

Given how Other Press has been killing it lately, I won’t be surprised if we’re talking about this next year as a potential BTBA 2015 longlist title . . .

Decoded Olivia by Mai Jia, translated from the Chinese by Olivia Milburn (FSG)

We never seem to receive galleys for the “fun” books in translation that presses bring out. A tragic, complicated novel about World War II survivors? Perfect for Post. A thriller about code-breaking and an autistic math genius? Seems more Flavorwire that Three Percent. Shit! I want code breaking! I like math!

But seriously, although I’m sure this isn’t as interesting as the jacket copy makes it out be, it does sound like a good escape from the “heavier” stuff that I feel like I’ve been reading this year. Actually, right now, to balance the more traditionally “literary” stuff I’ve been reading (and will be reading after the BTBA longlist announcement), I’ve been reading Arkady and Boris Strugatsky’s Roadside Picnic. I’m not quite halfway done, but I’m really enjoying it . . . It’s very entertaining, and although I’ve never seen the movie Stalker or the S.T.A.L.K.E.R. video games, both of these things make sense. I also have things to say about the “meaningfulness” of “entertaining” books, but I think I’ll save that for next month.

On Leave by Daniel Anselme, translated from the French by David Bellos (Faber and Faber)

By contrast, On Leave is a bit more serious . . . One of the few novels about the French-Algerian War, On Leave is a book about three soldiers who, on a 10-day break from the fighting, realize that they don’t really fit into society anymore. It was published during the conflict (in 1957; the war ended in 1962), and was read by almost no one. This truly is a lost classic, and kudos to David Bellos for translated it and Faber and Faber for publishing it.

Also, extra-thanks to the Faber publicity department for using a blurb from Paul Doyle’s Three Percent review on the press release. I’ll never forget the first time Grove pulled a blurb from one of my reviews, and I still get giddy when Three Percent pops up in places like this.

Falling Out of Time by David Grossman, translated from the Hebrew by Jessica Cohen (Knopf)

Of all Grossman’s books, this is the one that sounds the most intriguing to me, mostly for it’s genre-bending nature:

In Falling Out of Time, David Grossman has created a genre-defying drama––part play, part prose, pure poetry––to tell the story of bereaved parents setting out to reach their lost children. It begins in a small village, in a kitchen, where a man announces to his wife that he is leaving, embarking on a journey in search of their dead son. The man––called simply Walking Man––paces in ever-widening circles around the town. One after another, all manner of townsfolk fall into step with him (the Net-Mender, the Midwife, the Elderly Math Teacher, even the Duke), each enduring his or her own loss. The walkers raise questions of grief and bereavement: Can death be overcome by an intensity of speech or memory? Is it possible, even for a fleeting moment, to call to the dead and free them from their death? Grossman’s answer to such questions is a hymn to these characters, who ultimately find solace and hope in their communal act of breaching death’s hermetic separateness. For the reader, the solace is in their clamorous vitality, and in the gift of Grossman’s storytelling––a realm where loss is not merely an absence but a life force of its own.

That’s all for this month. Check back in on Tuesday, March 11th to find out which books made the longlist for the 2014 BTBA in Fiction. And April is LOADED with great translations, including one of the best Open Letter books of 2014 . . .

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