The new issue of PEN America, PEN’s literary journal, came out during last week’s World Voices Festival. As always, it’s loaded with good stuff, including excerpts of Marcelo Figueras’s Kamatchka, Andrzej Sosnowski’s Lodgings, Herve Le Tellier’s erotic as hell The Sextine Chapel, and Quim Monzo’s Guadalajara. (BTW, the Monzo story, “Literature,” is absolutely amazing.)
Additionally, this issue contains a lot of pieces from the 48th Congress of International PEN, which took place back in 1986, and became the basis for this year’s Festival since it “explored how writers use their imagination naturally and gracefully to speak to one another across boundaries, and the way governments, too, are capable of using their vision to improve the world’s troubles.” Included in this issue are pieces by Kurt Vonnegut, Toni Morrison, John Barth, Salman Rushdie, Kobo Abe, Danilo Kis, Adam Zagajewski, Gunter Grass, Margaret Atwood, etc., etc. (Really looking forward to exploring all this.)
But the main reason I’m writing this post is to praise “The Good Books: A Forum.” Basically, this grew out of the idea that all the writers at the festival could bring a book they love and swap it with the Gideon Bible in the hotel where they were staying. (BTW, DO IT!!! This should become common practice among all.)
Instead, PEN put together this feature in which scads of authors recommended the one book they would bring to some sort of mythical “book swap.” The Book of Disquiet by Pessoa was recommended any dozen number of times, and Don Quixote got plugged a couple times. The whole list is interesting, but for obvious reasons, the one that caught my eye was Karen Russell’s The Ambassador:
Bragi Olafsson’s English language debut, The Ambassador, is the strange, hilarious, and brilliant story of Sturla Jon Jonsson, a building superintendent who also happens to be a venerated Icelandic poet. He’s on his way to Lithuania to represent his nation at a literary festival, opening the door for all kinds of scathingly funny insights into the “situation of the writer.” It’s a tricky book to paraphrase—boozy, literary Icelandic black comedy? Icelandic picaresque? No “elevator story” exists for it, according to the book’s publisher, the fabulous Open Letter. It’s unlike anything else out there, anda joy to read. Sturla gets into all sorts of jams over the course of this short, weird novel, from being accused of nicking his latest poetry collection from a dead cousin to losing his overcoat, the only piece of clothing with a high thread count that this starving artist has ever owned. Kafkaesque yuks and keen insight are brought to you by the badass genius translator Lytton Smith—one of my favorite poets and author of the acclaimed debut The All-Purpose Magical Tent—and he uses all his creativity and rigor here, as well as his deep knowledge of Icelandic culture. Sturla’s inimitable voice can now infuriate and delight an American crowd.
You can purchase your own copy of The Ambassador by clicking here, and you can get PEN America right here. (FYI: this post is so on top of things that the new issue isn’t even available for sale yet. But it should be up there momentarily.)
As some of you might know, Bragi Olafsson’s new book — The Ambassador — released a couple weeks back. It’s an incredibly fun book centering around the journey of Icelandic poet Sturla Jon Jonsson to poetry festival in Lithuania where he loses his overcoat, steals someone else’s, is accused of plagiarism, and gets drunk a lot. While he’s there, he also receives The Season of Poetry, a small book featuring poems from the various festival participants.
In the novel, this book is referenced, and a few of the festival-goers are described, but not very many, which is what led translator Lytton Smith to come up with the fun idea of having American poets and translators recreate this poetry collection. Each of the participants invented a poet, and a poem by that poet that they then supposedly translated into English . . . In other words, this is a collection of fake poets, falsely translated, and plays off of the themes of truth, fiction, and plagiarism that run throughout the novel. (There was a panel at this year’s ALTA on imaginary translations, which this would’ve fit into perfectly.)
Click here to download a PDF, EPUB, or Kindle edition of the collection, which features “translations” from such writers as Sawako Nakayasu, Jason Grunebaum, Idra Novey, Eliot Weinberger, Jesse Ball, Matthew Zapruder, and Becka Mara McKay.
There’s also this playful intro from Lytton himself:
From the mystified pop culture references of Argentine poet Silvia Plata to the almost intangible tracings of Danish-Yogaslavian-Croatian poet Lørpsliç Bierkegårt, from the deeply personal lyrics of Greek poet Ioanna Theodorou to the distressed political writings of Hindi poet Radhika Matiyani, the selection of poems before you, translated by English-language poets from America and the U.K., offers a rare glimpse into the world of translation.
These poems originate in a strange volume, titled The Season of Poetry. _The Season of Poetry apparently gathered poems by writers from across the world who had come together in Lithuania for an International Poetry Festival one October. Based in Vilinius and the spa town Druskininkai, participants in the festival shared their verses, met one another face to face, and attended talks covering topics including “the work of German poet Günther Meierhof” and “references to overcoats in European modernist poetry.”
I stumbled across this book online—and how nice it is to still be able to stumble across a book in this digital age—via a series of chance hyperlinks in a salvo of blog comments about poetry readings and academic conferences. The only document I could find surving from this festival was a fragmentary PDF scanned from an unidentified archive. As far as I can tell, the original, assembled and edited by one Gintaras (his last name was nowhere recorded), contained the poems in Lithuanian translation and, on the facing page, in the source language.
Struck by the beauty and happenstance of this unusual assemblage of poets, all of whom had somehow escaped my notice, I contacted a number of writers and translators to see if they would bring these poems into English. My hope was to honour the original volume’s desire to spread the word about international writing, and in the process to encourage readers to discover international poets as yet unknown to them. Since each poet at the festival was asked to recommend one other poet, we now have, despite the partial nature of the PDF, a set of reading suggestions to which we might turn after this book.
Little else can be ascertained about the project. Gintaras did write a foreword, which promisingly began by explaining his desire to “assemble a poet from every corner of the globe, as though the globe has more than just four corners,” with the hope that “we will have poets we could pin onto an atlas like noticeboard pins, brightly colored and one per country.” However, the foreword soon digresses into a tirade about the pressures of organizing an international poetry festival when the organizer is faced with having to arbitrate between American and Icelandic poets and antiques dealers over the theft of items of clothing from restaurants. The reference (possibly to some work of European or Scandinavian literature?) is confoundingly mysterious.
One poem from the volume surviving as that fragmentary PDF is not translated here: a poem called “The Lesson” (or, in the original Icelandic, “kennslustund”). The poem, a meditation on how much life one is allotted on this earth, would have made a lovely addition to this translation of The Season of Poetry. Sadly, however, there was some debate as to the original author (was it really Sturla Jónsson?) and some question of plagiarism lurking around the text. While my own opinion hovers over labelling this as a case of ‘influence’ rather than literary theft, I decided to omit the poem from the current document in order that everything presented be nothing less than entirely upfront and aboveboard. Should readers be curious about the details of this literary theft, which makes for an intriguing story, they can be found in the book The Ambassador by Bragi Ólafsson (Open Letter Books, 2010).
Lastly, I hope this small pressing of poems might, like some form of rhizome, hypertext us all to other poems. May I suggest as a starting place the other poetry translated and written by the translators who have kindly given their time to this project, a list of which can be found in the Translators’ Bios at the end of the volume?
As you may already know, Bragi Olafsson’s new novel, The Ambassador, is releasing next month. It’s an awesome, hilarious, fun novel about an Icelandic poet who attends a poetry festival in Lithuania, where his coat is stolen, where he gets pretty wasted, and where he meets a bunch of eccentric poets (surprise?). (Read an except by clicking here.)
Anyway, we have a really cool promotion for this in the works (some of you already know about this, but I’ll officially announce and explain it later), and in addition, Bragi’s going to be giving a few readings over the next few weeks. Specifically:
Book Talk with Bragi Olafsson
Thursday, September 30th at 6:30pm
Scandinavian House, 58 Park Ave. (at 38th St.), NYC
The World on Our Bookshelves: The Import of Literature in Translation
Saturday, October 2nd at 9am
Pages & Places Festival
ArtWorks, 503 Lackawanna Avenue, Scranton, PA
Reading and Discussion at 192 Books
Tuesday, October 5th at 7pm
192 Books, 192 Tenth Ave. (at 21st St.), NYC
(please RSVP by calling 212.255.4022)
I’ll post more about the Pages & Places Festival separately, but for now, here’s the basic info. And I hope you can come out to at least one of these.
To celebrate the release of this book (Bragi’s second with Open Letter, you should also check out The Pets), we’re giving away 10 copies. Simply go to our Open Letter Books Facebook Fan Page and click “like” or leave a comment on the “giveaway post.” We’ll select the winners on Friday . . .
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