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Death by Poetry and The Lies about Me

I have a litany of reasons for why I’m combining a few posts here and writing a shorter, more condensed, straightforward post than most of the others. Baby (always an excuse), other obligations—such as the Best Translated Book Award longlists announcement and a bachelor party in which “what happens in Boiceville, stays in Boiceville, especially if what happens is a bunch of aging dudes sit in a living room getting drunk and talking about books and movies for two days,” and the never-ending assault of reading for my international fiction class. It’s also too cold! And we have a translator arriving for their residency and two author visits over the next two weeks. Phew.

So this piece is going to be a bit shorter. That’s OK. It’s poetry month, so I’ll embrace the brevity.

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Poetry is actually where I want to start. On my monthly roundups on the “state of translations,” I’ve been mostly ignoring poetry collections and only making comparisons about how many works of fiction are being published. (Spoiler: Not as many as past years.) So let’s take a quick look into the numbers for 2018 and see what’s going on.

Number of poetry collections published, January-April by year:

2015: 28
2016: 33 (+18%)
2017: 43 (+30%)
2018: 21 (-52%)

What the shit is going on in 2018? This is crazy. I just went through SPD’s catalog and every translation publisher from 2017 and I got this. How disappointing.

I could try and break this precipitous fall-off down by publisher, language, country, translator, etc., but why bother. Either we’re missing something major, or the bottom is falling out and the boat is sinking. Regressing to the mean. Playing like the Cardinals. Whatever.

When it comes to translation statistics, 2018 is the worst. Like, literally.

Let’s just move on and check back in when there’s good news to share. Instead, let’s talk about actual poetry!

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My plan for this month was to read a work of fiction and a poetry collection and talk about them every week. I have four April collections already picked out—which represent almost 20% of the poetry in translation published so far this year?—and the first one up is Stormwarning.

 

Stormwarning by Kristín Svava Tómasdóttir, translated from the Icelandic by K.T. Billey (Phoneme Media)

I feel like a terrible hypocrite.

For years I’ve advocated for the idea that anyone can read international literature, or “difficult” domestic literature, or, well, anything—you just had to dive in, give it a chance, let the book guide you and explain how to read it.

At the same time, I’ve written on this blog (and said on our podcasts) that I don’t read poetry. That I don’t get it. There are a bunch of “good” reasons I could trot out here about time and attention and my literary upbringing, and so on and forth, but if I’m being honest, I don’t read much poetry because it’s “beyond me.” I have none of the vocabulary to speak with poets or academics (not sure how much those vernaculars actually differ), I haven’t read nearly enough to feel confident in making my own connections (which I can do with fiction), and I don’t know what to say about it in a post (which is all that matters since I’m self-centered, like most people).

That last one is probably the most real. If I can’t figure out a fun way to write about/talk about a book, it’s dead to me. This is my way of engaging with the text—using it as a launching pad for other ideas, or going deep into it with my students or friends. When I try to write about international poetry, I feel like I’m way out of my depth and likely sound like an idiot. (More of an idiot, I suppose.)

But how shitty is that? How can I advocate for crazy, semi-experimental international fiction for the masses and then blatantly ignore a whole category of writing? Hypocrite.

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So let’s give it a try. It’s insane to think that I could develop a reasonable set of ideas and approaches to talking about poetry over a single month, but maybe by doubling down on this, I can at least find some sort of foothold—however tenuous it might be.

One place to start is with the immediately visceral: Did I enjoy reading the poems in Stormwarning? I did! Since I’ve more or less sworn off jacket copy—I only judge a book by its front cover—I had no idea what to expect. Poems about Iceland, I assume, since Kristín Svava Tómasdóttir is Icelandic. But that’s as far as that idea went. (Although betting on some environmental/nature poetry slant would’ve seemed a safe bet given the title.)

Joy is a slippery term though. One I try and force my students to get past. “I really enjoyed reading this” doesn’t really signify anything concrete. What did you enjoy? The linguist puzzles? Fantastic descriptions of Quidditch matches? The humor? Sorrow? And isn’t this whole “I enjoyed it” a way of hiding the fact that you don’t really have anything else to say?

“Being Positive”

Go mountains!
Go clouds!
Go moss!

 

I enjoyed that. That sort of playful narrative voice—which, in my opinion, is both honest and ironic at once through the juxtaposition of esteem-centric cheers with natural objects that require no encouragement—is the thing I gravitate toward in poetry. Usually. I want my poetry to be understood on first pass, probably because I’m lazy and always trying to move on to the next book.

Another example of this from Stormwarning (and please, go buy this book from Phoneme so that they don’t shut me down for raiding their content):

“Passé”

Once everyone wanted to get to the moon.
It happened in the summer of 1969.
Then no one longed for the moon.
The moon is empty and abandoned.

 

Again, a bit ironic, a bit true, a bit humorous. Humor will get me most every time. That and poems/sections about aging. Especially if there’s a little seasoning of nostalgia. Like this bit from “In the Nursing Home”:

the dissolution is here
everything is
afloat
the self
the memory
the built-in locating equipment
we are all here
but also other places
and no one knows what happens next

 

Still, there’s a difference between pointing to something you like, and explaining what makes it good. I can’t do that with poetry, which is unfortunate, since listening to smart people talk about poetry in smart ways can be really entertaining.

I was hoping to find more reviews of Stormwarning to help guide me, but I’m honestly not even sure where exactly people review poetry collections in translation. I mean, there are reviews in Publishers Weekly and Modern Poetry in Translation, in places like The Brooklyn Rail, and in various academic journals, but that still seems kind of thin. I’m 100% sure these conversations are going on elsewhere, so please do @ me and let me know what to pay attention to!

For now though, with regard to Stormwarning, I’m going to leave it at this: I like the tone, I like the plain language. I also love these lines:

The day tomorrow will be worse
but that does not mean that the day today is not bad.

 

It’s a start.

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Let’s be honest though. The best poem of 2018 are the lyrics to “Unlovable” by Chad Post.

 

Yeah this can’t end well
When the flames feel like hell
Put me on a pedestal
But you’ve been lying to yourself

And if that’s how you act
Then yes I would take it back
Memories that we had
Must hurt so bad
Don’t throw your hands up like that
Save the tears your bags are packed
Because it’s too late now to ever go back

It’s all because you said I was unlovable.

 

I feel ya, Chad Post! And check out the video:

Actually, don’t. This song feels like it was written by Apple’s “predictive text” technology, including that one inexplicable blip in the prediction that leads to some odd statements. (See lyric about “stole all my hair.”) And he pronounces words in ways that no other human being pronounces them. I can barely understand any of this, and it’s not just because I’m twice his age and my ears never stop ringing.

Instead, I would recommend reading all of the comments. Scratch that. I’d recommend reading this comment:

Judy Hages
1 week ago
This is one of the best music videos I have ever seen……….and I am 75years old!! Wow! Everyone associated with making this video should be incredibly PROUD!!! Wow!! Woo Woo and YIPPEE!! Judy Hages

But like a good infomercial—WAIT, THERE’S MORE.

Over at Amazon you can find this little book of Chad Post’s poems entitled, Death by Poetry and The Lies about Me. This is more gold like an Axe body spray commercial. (If I’m ever drinking around you when this commercial comes on—take cover. I loathe this commercial, especially the gif ending with the woman making impressed hand gestures at that turd who stands there smug as . . . UGH. For me, this is the visual representation of the BuzzFeed aesthetic.)

Here’s a couple of Chad Post’s poems:

Every time you give
your heart the chance
to break you give your
soul the chance to fly.

chad post

 

And, one more:

The two things you need
most in life are
happiness and confidence
and both of those are
choices.

chad post

 

Yes, every poem ends with his name. No, I have no idea. Yeah, totally possible that you read that one in the dentist’s office last week. Sure, yeah, I’m glad to stick with my day job as well.

And here’s the thing. It’s only a matter of time before every Google search for me is replaced by this:

 

Given that he has <1,000 plays on Spotify and an EP coming out soon, I’ll give it a month before my image is swept away in the Unlovable Chad Post of it all . . . Hey, maybe I’ll get some cool new Twitter followers!

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The Emissary by Yoko Tawada, translated from the Japanese by Margaret Mitsutani (New Directions)

There was a moment around page 60 of Yoko Tawada’s The Emissary when I started asking myself if this was actually good, or bad, or something that’s neither and just a book that I’m supposed to like. It was almost a moment of crisis, as if I had been secretly drugged with something that made all words lose their meaning.

Which might actually be an aspect of the book and the future it posits:

Soybeans and buckwheat were still grown in the “Far West” of Tokyo, along with a new strain of wheat, but not enough was produced to export to other regions, and besides, these were crops that could be grown elsewhere. Long ago, the words “something new from Tokyo” brought to mind a plug attached to a long tail called a cord, but things like that didn’t sell anymore. Electrical appliances had met with disapproval ever since electric current was discovered to cause nervous disorders, numbness in the extremities, and insomnia—a condition generally known as bzzt-bzzt syndrome. Newspapers carried reports of chronic insomniacs who slept soundly at camping grounds in the mountains where there was no electricity. A popular writer published an essay on how the sound of the vacuum cleaner drove all thoughts of the novel he was writing out of his mind.

Back some weeks ago, I predicted this would make the National Book Award for Translation shortlist. I’m still going to back that idea, although it’s not my favorite book. The lightness of the tone and writing will likely appeal to a lot of readers, as will its fable-like qualities.

I was left with one major question though: This is set in a world that’s all divided up, dysfunctional following an undefined major disaster. Society is ordered by a whole new set of rules, old people can’t die, young kids are incredibly weak, there are all sorts of random holidays (like “Green Day” and “Red Day”), etc. And yet, in a world devoid of electrical appliances and, well, most foods, Yoshiro is still working as a novelist. I’m not sure if that’s supposed to make me feel hopeful, or like this book is just trolling itself.

Unfortunately, this book just isn’t for me. To be completely honest, I’m not sure if any of Tawada’s recent books are for me. I’m not into Memoirs of a Polar Bear (like that Axe ad, don’t get me going on books with talking animals), but I know a lot of people who are. I don’t want to take any potshots at her, her fans, her translators, or anything, since the sum total of my opinion about her last couple novels is an exaggerated shrug.

In some weird way, I ended up feeling like I have more to say about a book of poetry than about a novel that I should probably like. But I guess that if there’s a point to this filler post—aside from bringing the amazing (though unlovable) Chad Post to your attention—is that it’s OK to give something a try and then quit it. Trying makes the quitting OK.

I do want to write more about the difficulties in simply not liking a popular book—about the anxieties over the potential backlash, the idea that our group of people values books and reading at a total stratospheric level compared to most other people, about the need for works that are neither “the greatest!” or “the worst!”—but this is a filler post. More on that some other time.



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