4 April 11 | Chad W. Post | Comments

Starting this week, we’ll be highlighting the five finalists in the poetry category for the BTBA. Similar to what we did for the fiction longlist, these will be framed by the question: “Why should this book win?”

Click here for all past and future posts in this series.

Today’s post is by poetry committee member Kevin Prufer.

The Book of Things by Aleš Šteger, translated by Brian Henry

Language: Slovenian
Country: Slovenia
Publisher: BOA Editions
Pages: 92

Why This Book Should Win: The poems in Aleš Šteger’s The Book of Things focus with nearly comic intensity on an array of everyday objects—an egg, a coat, a toothpick, a stomach. Here, a potato recollects the soil it came from. Or a hand dryer speaks a windy language we can’t quite understand. Or a doormat forgives us all. But Šteger’s poems go far beyond mere comic description, personification, or metaphor. Rather, his objects reflect our own strange complexities—our eagerness to consume, our rationalizations and kindness. Our many cruelties and our grandiosities.

Each of these fifty poems (the book includes seven sections of seven poems plus one introductory “proem” titled “A”) fixates with obsessive detail on a different, focusing on the turnings of its imagined mind. A loaf of bread “asks you to do him harm, for you to stab him / To shred him to pieces, consume his still warm body.” “Yes, yes,” Šteger concludes, “he loves you, that is why he accepts your knife. / He knows that all his wounds crumble in your hand.” Or, of a pair of windshield wipers, he writes: “Both of them hide something, / That is why they move in such harmony. / Like two serfs in black rubber boots.”

At times playful or grimly serious, the effect of these poems slowly gathers until one has the sense not of looking at everyday objects anew, but of being looked at anew by the once inconsequential objects that surround us. And, reflected in their many, multifaceted eyes, we do no fair well.

Šteger’s The Book of Things is harrowing and hilarious, unnerving and weirdly familiar—and, most of all, ambitious in its attempt to look anew into our all-too-human darkness. And translator, Brian Henry (himself a poet of significant talent) renders these poems beautifully into an English that is both colloquial and disconcertingly plainspoken.

26 February 10 | Chad W. Post | Comments

Over the next six days, we’ll be featuring each of the ten titles from this year’s Best Translated Book Award poetry shortlist. Click here for all past write-ups.



Scale and Stairs by Heeduk Ra. Translated from the Korean by Woo-Chung Kim and Christopher Merrill. (Korea, White Pine Press)

This guest post is by Kevin Prufer, whose newest books are National Anthem (Four Way Books, 2008) and Little Paper Sacrifice (Four Way Books, forthcoming). He’s also Editor of New European Poets (Graywolf Press, 2008) and Pleiades: A Journal of New Writing.

The speakers in these carefully crafted poems are, first of all, keen and imaginative observers. One sits in a cafeteria watching a workman eat boiled rice until the grains “carried by the chapped hand / . . . gather and scatter like clouds between the blistered lips.” Another stands outside at night observing the moon, telling us how “I turned around / and caught her furtive eye, her soiled feet. / Blushing, as if she were being watched, she hid behind a cloud / and reappeared in the distance.” A third narrator stands in a hospital corridor listening to the agony of the others, “a judge of cries,” teasing stories out of pain. “Every cry is singular,” she tells us,

            like a bird’s feather,
so that even without touching the trembling shoulder
you can tell if the crier has just learned the name of his disease,
or if he has been sentenced to death,
or if he weeps over a cold body.

Heeduk Ra’s poems, set in Korea’s cities (a hospital elevator, a church’s back stairway) and natural landscapes (where graves become boats and falling snow becomes feathers, flowers, rice), are filled with intricate detail, surprising turns, and moments of sadness, transcendence and breathtaking grace. Here, the daily minutia of Korean life are rich with imagery, reflecting not just their own details, but the brilliant and unpredictable mind that would tell us about them and, in so doing, imbue them with deeply personal turns of phrase and sharp, often witty, metaphors.

In one of the book’s most lovely poems, the speaker contemplates renting a room, finding in the mundane task a deep connection with Korea’s history and the lives of others:

To rent a room in Damyang or Changpyung,
to visit it like a chipmunk,
I looked in every village I came across.
Walking past a place in Jasil,
I saw common flowers in the yard
between the traditional Korean house and a modern annex.
When I entered through the open gate,
a man was sharpening his scythe on the grindstone
and his wife’s scarf was wet, as if she had just returned from the fields.
“Excuse me, I wonder if I could rent a room.
I’ll stay here two or three nights a week.”
When I pointed at the traditional house
she smiled. “Well, our children moved to Seoul,
so we live in the annex. Yes, the main house
is unoccupied, but we hold it in our hearts.
Our family history lies there.”
Listening to her, I saw the clean wooden floor
on which lay day’s last light.
I didn’t press for the room, I left,
wondering if the couple knew
that I’d already rented it, was living in their words—
that in their hearts they lived in the vacant house.

Heeduk Ra, born in Nonsan in 1966, is widely regarded as one of Korea’s preeminent younger poets. Woo Chung-Kim and Christopher Merrill’s plainspoken, moving translation makes it clear why. Distinguished for their graceful sensibility, rich imagery, and subtle intelligence, these poems will hopefully bring a wide English language readership to this valuable poet.

25 February 10 | Chad W. Post | Comments

Over the next seven days, we’ll be featuring each of the ten titles from this year’s Best Translated Book Award poetry shortlist. Click here for all past write-ups.



K.B. The Suspect by Marcelijus Martinaitis. Translated from the Lithuania by Laima Vince. (Lithuania, White Pine Press)

This guest post is by Kevin Prufer, whose newest books are National Anthem (Four Way Books, 2008) and Little Paper Sacrifice (Four Way Books, forthcoming). He’s also Editor of New European Poets (Graywolf Press, 2008) and Pleiades: A Journal of New Writing. We’ll have another post by Kevin tomorrow . . .

Who exactly is K.B. the suspect? Is he a sort of Post-Soviet everyman, wandering the streets of Vilnius, bewildered by the rapidly changing city? Or is he something more sinister, a character who, according Marcelijus Martinaitis, was not a member of the KGB, but could have been, had he been asked? Is he a symbol for all Lithuania, or merely an alter-ego of the poet who created him?

He is, of course, all of these things. In Martinaitis’ brilliant poetic sequence, K.B. emerges as both a distinct personality and a slate on which recent Lithuanian history might be written, interpreted, or erased. “The reader does not know for certain what K.B.’s background is and never finds out,” translator Laima Vince writes. “Similarly, in Lithuania today people do not know about their neighbors’ or colleagues’ pasts, and even if they did, there’s nothing they can do about it.”

But for all these poems’ historical and political ambitiousness, K.B. comes across memorably and vividly, quick to make keenly insightful (and sometimes absurd) observations, a loner perpetually cut off from others, commenting on their actions both nervously and analytically. Often, he addresses the beautiful Margarita, who suggests for him both perfect aesthetic beauty and our human inability to achieve transcendence. (Once, he observes her taking out the trash, making “little noble aristocratic steps” among the dumpsters.) Or he comments on the creeping Western influences of commodification and commercialization, at one point interjecting into his narrative an advertisement for Colgate Toothpaste:

I repeat—
the safest thing of all
is the toothpaste Colgate.

I’d also like to remind you
that by using this toothpaste daily
your teeth will remain healthy
a hundred years after you are gone.

All around him, he senses a sort of amorphous danger—perhaps it is Lithuania’s recent past waiting to re-emerge, perhaps it is only nerves—so K.B. keeps to the shadows, observing, fantasizing, and writing it all down. “My documents,” he tells us,

are in order. I haven’t been tried.
I’m without my gun and almost without any thoughts.

Only parasites, all manner of insects,
flies and worms creep across my face,
crawling into my mouth, my nose,
they suck my blood.

Any direction I turn someone is hiding, fleeing,
staring suspiciously, cowering, collaborating, keeping silent:
I could catch them all, crush them under my feet, end it.

Finally, these complex, paranoid poems create for us a sort of shadow-world of the Post-Soviet Eastern European consciousness, a world brought harrowingly to life through Marcelijus Martinaitis’ startling sense of character and Laima Vince’s fluid, witty, and deeply engaging translation.

14 January 09 | Chad W. Post | Comments

If only teleporting was cheap, and, you know, possible . . .

Friday, January 23, 2009
7:00pm – 9:00pm
Housing Works Bookstore Café
126 Crosby Street
New York, NY

Panelists Esther Allen, translator, former co-director of PEN World Voices, author of International PEN report on Translation and Globalization; Yvette Chrisianse, South African poet, novelist, professor; Elizabeth Macklin, poet, translator from Basque of Uribe; Jill Schoolman, Director of Archipelago Books; Karen Emmerich, translator of NBCC award finalist Miltos Sachtouris, among other Greek writers.

Moderator: NBCC board member and poet Kevin Prufer (National Anthem), editor of Pleiades and coeditor of “New European Poets” (Graywolf).

You can find out more (and RSVP) on the Facebook event page.

4 November 08 | Chad W. Post | Comments

Our latest review is Margarita Shalina’s piece on New European Poets, a mammoth, important anthology recently released by Graywolf and edited by Wayne Miller and Kevin Prufer.

As Margarita (who works at St. Mark’s Bookshop and translates from Russian) writes:

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?

Read the rest here.

4 November 08 | Chad W. Post |

Where is that wild and endemic high-heeled shoe Europe . . . ?

— Branko Cegec
(translated from the Croatian by Miljenko Kovacicek)

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?

Is it the landmass whose topology begins at the Atlantic shore, expanding north to Scandinavia, south to the Mediterranean then eastward, coming to a halt at the Ural Mountains? Is the EU contemporary Europe? Is Iceland? Is Turkey? Is Russia a European nation? Are the endangered languages of Sami and Romani European languages? Europe is a patch-work quilt of a continent, comprised of mutually exclusive diverse ethnic identities and languages. In these many Europes—nationality, ethnicity, culture, people, language and poetry are absolutely idiosyncratic, particular to themselves. The opposite is also true as Europe is now more open than it ever was during the bulk of the twentieth century. Traveling by train through Western Europe it is not unusual to hear a young person’s voice come over the loud speaker making mundane but fluent announcements about the dining car hours in 5 different languages. Then again, the further east one travels the more complicated things become. Poland and the Czech Republic now consider themselves Central, as opposed to Eastern, Europe no doubt making a political statement while simultaneously acknowledging national trauma. The parts and pieces of the former Yugoslavia and the shards and slivers of the former Eastern Bloc are further testament that the term “nation” is not a static one. As New European Poets is a Herculean undertaking toward celebrating and promoting poetry, it is also an inadvertent definition of what contemporary Europe has become as expressed through the singing of its bards.

We open with the quivering dramatic neurosis of Portugal’s Adilia Lopes as she laments “once I was beautiful now I am myself” in Elizabeth Doesn’t Work Here Anymore (with a few things borrowed from Anne Sexton). We shift northward to William Cliff of Belgium and his exceptional Ballade of the Mouse (After Charles d’Orleans) “I stopped appearing in the spots/where once I used to perch my puny/build, they made a grave pronouncement/I hereby trounce as tactless jive/this little mouse is still alive.” We move into Central Europe, into Germany, with the über-contemporary Recovery Room written by Uljana Wolf, translated by the author and Christian Hawkey:

                                —and if there were
no borders that could again define us in

these fields in post narcotic sniffling—
we would stick very close to this our i

Willfully and fearlessly contributing to the destruction of Adorno’s edict “To write poetry after Auschwitz is barbaric,” Senadin Musabegovic, representing Bosnia and Herzegovina, in her poem Dawn at Auschwitz writes “. . . and the officer’s shining badge from which/the eagle with spread-out wings / plucks out pieces of my flesh / enter me / like darkness enters / a child’s eyes.” Poland, having disappeared from the map of Europe in 1795, reappearing only to tragically run smack into two World Wars has emerged to establish itself an uncontested literary and poetic powerhouse. Ewa Sonnenberg writes, “My funny little poem I’ll warm you in my hands / we’ll tell life we’re sorry for writing not living / your naïve and tender efforts to spy on naked words . . .” Finally, as intrinsic climates shape each country’s identity as much as politics, culture or war, Sweden’s Eva Runefelt beautifully relays in her bleak, cold and quiet The Slowness “like the chill from a half-open window, from foot to neck / There is space enough in the finger moving along a back. / How far in does the slowness go?”

Douglas Adams’ Hitchhiker put a Babel Fish in his ear which enabled him to understand every form of language. Rightly in keeping with the dedication of the anthology which reads “to all who translate” the contributing translators of New European Poets have brought across the poetry of their European counterparts in the lingua franca, English, for an American audience. These translators include, Anselm Hollo, Rosemarie Waldrop, John Ashbery, Wanda Phipps, Paul Muldoon, Charles Simic, Christian Hawkey, Derek Walcott and Cole Swenson to name a few. Beyond the role of “translator” it should be noted that these are the proliferators of contemporary poetry being written in the English language today. They are our poets, our native poets, our immigrant poets, our nation-of-birth-hyphenated-American and international poets. They are individuals who write in the English language, teach in the American Universities and are the recipients of major American literary awards. In many cases, these are individuals who were born in Europe but who live and work in the United States and who inadvertently maintain the ongoing conversation that is both contemporary American and European poetry through the duality of their identities. This added element of cultural exchange to the project makes it a nearly perfect undertaking.

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