This post is giving away something about the make-up of the ten “Best Translated Book of 2008” poetry finalists . . . But whatever, there were four great poetry anthologies that came out this past year that deserve a bit of extra recognition, so in advance of tomorrow’s announcement, here are a few extra books worth checking out:
It is difficult to get beyond the novelty inherent in the New European Poets project. Its remarkable scope, breadth and depth show-cases 290 poets representing 45 nations, all bridged by nearly 200 translators and directed by 24 regional editors. Every contributing poet’s first collection was published in or after 1970. The motivation behind the project is two-fold, reintroduce and reengage American readers with European poetry and express how the borders of Europe have been redrawn in recent decades there by altering its regional identities along with its identity as a whole. And what is contemporary Europe anyway?
This is a mammoth book, and a necessary one for anyone interested in contemporary European poetry.
Belonging: New Poetry by Iranians Around the World is edited and translated by Niloufar Talebi, and features a range of contemporary Iranian poetry. Peter Conners reviewed this for us and had this to say:
After reading her introduction and the first few sections of Belonging, I realized that Talebi had accomplished perhaps the greatest service that a translator of Iranian poetry for American audiences can provide: she made the Iranian poetic landscape feel familiar. Not only familiar, but modern, full of laughter, rich with wonder, completely joyful and terrible and worthy of revisiting multiple times. Without being able to compare it to the original Persian, I can only say that the poetry in Talebi’s translations is lucid, rich with music, and highly accessible.
In addition to this anthology, it’s worth checking out Niloufar’s Translation Project as well. She’s doing a lot of great things for Persian literature as a whole, and the blend of text and performance is unique and very compelling. (In fact, if you happen to be in San Francisco next week, you should check out the 2nd Annual Iranian Literary Arts Festival that the Translation Project is putting on.)
Part of the NEA’s International Exchange program, Contemporary Russian Poetry is an ambitious undertaking. Edited by Evgeny Bunimovich and Jim Kates, it features forty-four Russian poets, all born after 1945. It also features dozens of great Russian translators as well.
(As a sidenote, one of the books I’m looking forward to in 2009 is Best of Contemporary Mexican Fiction, another NEA project that Dalkey is publishing. Edited by Alvaro Uribe and Olivia Sears, this looks like a great round-up of the current literary scene in Mexico.)
Edited and translated by David Hinton, _Classical Chinese Poetry is another book that, if for nothing else, deserves some praise for its enormous scope:
With this groundbreaking collection, translated and edited by the renowned poet and translator David Hinton, a new generation will be introduced to the work that riveted Ezra Pound and transformed modern poetry. The Chinese poetic tradition is the largest and longest continuous tradition in world literature, and this rich and far-reaching anthology of nearly five hundred poems provides a comprehensive account of its first three millennia (1500 BCE to 1200 CE), the period during which virtually all its landmark developments took place. Unlike earlier anthologies of Chinese poetry, Hinton’s book focuses on a relatively small number of poets, providing selections that are large enough to re-create each as a fully realized and unique voice. New introductions to each poet’s work provide a readable history, told for the first time as a series of poetic innovations forged by a series of master poets. From the classic texts of Chinese philosophy to intensely personal lyrics, from love poems to startling and strange perspectives on nature, Hinton has collected an entire world of beauty and insight. And in his eye-opening translations, these ancient poems feel remarkably fresh and contemporary, presenting a literature both radically new and entirely resonant.
Our latest review is of Belonging: New Poetry by Iranians Around the World, edited and translated by Niloufar Talebi.
Niloufar is an extremely talented translator and performer, and runs the very impressive Translation Project, which promotes contemporary Iranian literature through a variety of media. A great example of what they do is the Icarus/Rise performance, videos of which can be found on the site.
Peter Conners, the author of Of Whiskey & Winter and Emily Ate the Wind, as well as a forthcoming memoir entitled Growing up Dead: The Hallucinated Confessions of a Teenage Deadhead. He’s also an editor and marketing director at BOA Editions. More info about all his projects can be found on his website.
Peter’s review of Belonging is very enthusiastic:
Let’s start with a disclaimer. I am in no way qualified to discuss Iranian poetry as it relates to the country’s larger social, historical, or literary culture. The sad truth is that the number of critics in America who are qualified—fully, truly qualified—to critique a translation of Iranian poetry is miniscule. However, I was comforted when I came to this passage in the introduction to the new anthology, Belonging: New Poetry by Iranians Around the World: “In 2002, when I began my research for this book, my goal was to discover and explore Persian poetry created by Iranians living outside Iran who had left because of the 1979 revolution. Aware that the rich tradition of Persian literature can be intimidating and difficult to penetrate, I embarked on this journey with a sense that I was already behind.” [. . .]
After reading her introduction and the first few sections of Belonging, I realized that Talebi had accomplished perhaps the greatest service that a translator of Iranian poetry for American audiences can provide: she made the Iranian poetic landscape feel familiar. Not only familiar, but modern, full of laughter, rich with wonder, completely joyful and terrible and worthy of revisiting multiple times. [Click here for the rest.]
Let’s start with a disclaimer. I am in no way qualified to discuss Iranian poetry as it relates to the country’s larger social, historical, or literary culture. The sad truth is that the number of critics in America who are qualified—fully, truly qualified—to critique a translation of Iranian poetry is miniscule. However, I was comforted when I came to this passage in the introduction to the new anthology, Belonging: New Poetry by Iranians Around the World: “In 2002, when I began my research for this book, my goal was to discover and explore Persian poetry created by Iranians living outside Iran who had left because of the 1979 revolution. Aware that the rich tradition of Persian literature can be intimidating and difficult to penetrate, I embarked on this journey with a sense that I was already behind.”
It seems that even the editor and translator of this outstanding anthology, Niloufar Talebi, is daunted by the deep history and major role that poetry plays in Iranian culture. And she is an Iranian who grew up surrounded by poets, most influentially Ahmad Shamlou (1925-2000) who Talebi describes as “one of Iran’s greatest thinkers and cultural icons, an artist considered a national treasure to Iranians everywhere.” In her introduction, Talebi describes the literary salons that her parents would host where Talebi—a small girl, eavesdropping from the other room—would hear the strains of classical music as Shamlou held forth on lines of poetry by “Nima, Lorca, Neruda, Hafez, Akhmatova, Antoine de Saint-Expery, Langston Hughes, Baudelaire, Hedayat, and Farrokhzad.” As Talebi’s interest in literature grew, Shamlou provided her with books and guidance.
After reading her introduction and the first few sections of Belonging, I realized that Talebi had accomplished perhaps the greatest service that a translator of Iranian poetry for American audiences can provide: she made the Iranian poetic landscape feel familiar. Not only familiar, but modern, full of laughter, rich with wonder, completely joyful and terrible and worthy of revisiting multiple times. Without being able to compare it to the original Persian, I can only say that the poetry in Talebi’s translations is lucid, rich with music, and highly accessible. It is useful to know that all of the poets included in this collection are “79ers” which means that they immigrated after the 1979 Iranian revolution. This knowledge gives extra resonance to a poem such as “To a Snail” which reads in its entirety:
To A Snail
Oh you little home-on-your-back!
Weren’t you afraid that my huge foot
Would sweep you away?
Last night, under the rain,
You slid into my sneaker
You return to your green birthplace
Leaving me covetous, longing for mine.
Even without knowing that “To a Snail” was written by a “79er” in exile from his homeland, this poem can be appreciated for its purely poetic merits. The clear, simple language matches the slow, simple movements of the snail. The short, finely tuned line-breaks move the poem forward with subtle, steady propulsion. The pining first word “Oh” in praise of the snail along with a first line punctuated by an exclamation point reminds us that this ode to nature has its roots in the spirit of Romanticism. In short, this is a finely wrought, lovely poem, regardless of its lineage. In fact, learning that its author, Majid Naficy, had more than ten of his relatives—including his brother—executed in Iran before he fled the country via Turkey in 1983 freights this little poem with more baggage than it deserves. Then again, what tremendous heart to write such a delicate poem of praise after suffering such wrenching loss. Indeed, the brief biographies that Niloufar Talebi includes before each poet’s selection are illuminating and illustrate the geographical fracturing of Iranian poetic culture. However, I am tempted to urge you to skip those biographies on first read; to simply go through the book enjoying each poem as its own pure creation. After that, go back and read the entire book again, including the informative, often heartbreaking biographies. On the first reading, you will come away with a memorable poetic experience. On the second, you will come away with a deep understanding—and profound respect—for the hardships these poets have suffered and the incredible hearts that they have to keep creating their art. You will also come away with a truth that runs through all countries and runs counter to all oppression: you can’t kill poetry.
I had the pleasure of spending a couple of days with Niloufar Talebi at an American Literary Translators Conference in Montreal a few years back, when she was still translating the poems for Belonging and looking for a publisher.
(To be frank, I knew immediately that I was going to like Niloufar, when, after an ALTA dinner, she came up to me and said that she’d always wanted to meet me since coming across a Reading the World display in City Lights. Flattery from an attractive member of the opposite sex about one’s literary activities goes a really long way . . . )
Niloufar is incredibly energetic and ambitious. In addition to editing and translating Belonging: New Poetry by Iranians Around the World, (just out from North Atlantic Books) she runs The Translation Project, which is dedicated to bringing Iranian literature to the world through a variety of activities, including an Iranian Literary Arts Festival and ICARUS/RISE a multimedia theatrical performance. (The link above goes to a few YouTube videos of the performance.)
We’re planning on running a review of Belonging in the not-too-distant future. In the meanwhile, it’s great to see the book—and Niloufar—receiving some good attention, such as this interview by Omid Memarian of the Inter Press Service.
She says this anthology reflects the great stylistic variety among expatriate writers. “In my research for the anthology, I was able to find 140 poets living outside Iran and reciting in Persian. No doubt this is a partial list, from which I translated about 35 poets, and eventually featured 18 in ‘Belonging,’ six from each of the three generations reciting. [. . .]
“Bottom line, the literature in translation has to find readership in order to have presence and impact. So the questions to ask are whether enough work appears in translation, whether they are the ‘right’ works for the readiness of the receiving culture during a particular historical and aesthetic period, and whether the translations are effective. Then there is the question of the editor/publisher’s willingness to publish and invest in works of translation – which compose only 0.3 to 3 percent of books published annually in the US.”
Talebi feels this is a particularly good time for a volume of expat Iranian poetry to appear on the market, evidently for reasons unconnected with the ongoing political tensions between the American and Iranian regimes.
“Immigrant or exiled writers who continue to write in their mother tongue don’t always have the opportunity to communicate their work to readers in their host countries, since language is the tool of their metier,” she said. “‘Belonging’ opens a channel of communication between readers of English and Iranian poets who live outside Iran and recite in Persian.
The collection is beautifully produced and looks fascinating. In addition to the poems themselves, one of the features I really like is the “Partial List of Iranian Poets Around the World” that can be found at the back and used as a sort of guide for future reading. In fact, I wish more anthologies had something like this. It would help build a wider context for international authors.
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To have watched from one of your patios
the ancient stars
from the bank of shadow to have watched
the scattered lights
my ignorance has learned no names for
nor their places in constellations
to have heard the ring of. . .
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