21 December 15 | Chad W. Post | Comments

Before getting into today’s list, I want to point out a new trend in the Great Listicle Explosion of Book List-Making of 2015™: the “overlooked list.” This has probably been going on for as long as people could count to ten (a prerequisite for list-making), but I had overlooked it (yes, groan) until I saw Lit Hub’s list of overlooked books of 2015 followed by Lit Hub’s list of overlooked books of 2015 by women back-to-back on Facebook.

First off, the main (?) Lit Hub list contains two books on my Translations Everyone Was Talking about in 2015 list, and the rest are basically from major commercial presses. Such as Aleksandar Hemon’s latest! In what world is Hemon “overlooked.” Sure, this book didn’t get the same amount of love as his last one, but here’s a review of it in the NY Times. It was also reviewed in The Guardian, LA Times, Chicago Tribune, Slate . . . (The list of overlooked women is better, although it includes a book on the general “overlooked” list and one by Jeannette Winterson. So unknown!)

It’s clear from these lists that the word “overlooked” can mean basically anything. Which, to be honest, is philosophically accurate. Who “overlooked” these books? Lit Hub? The general reading public? All of the literati at last week’s swanky lit party? Your mom? The mainstream media? Booksellers? God?

Anyway, to join in on this trend of flippant and marginally important list-making, today I’m going to post tne poetry collections I would’ve read and loved, if I read poetry. Based on my general knowledge of publishers, translators, and titles, I’m pretty much positivie that these are the best collections I should’ve read this year.

Just so you know, I do have three serious lists ready in my mind for the rest of this week, but since I’m extra-pressed for time today (in case you weren’t aware, Arsenal and Manchester City are playing at 3pm), these descriptions are going to be pretty thin. I’ll make up for it later, trust me.

Science Not for the Earth by Yevgeny Baratynsky, translated from the Russian by Rawley Grau (Ugly Duckling)

To be honest, I’m just including this one because I really like the title. That and it’s from Ugly Duckling Presse and they’ve never steered me wrong before. Plus, there’s this blurb: “Baratynsky is an oddity.“—Joseph Brodsky

Minute-Operas by Frédéric Forte, translated from the French by Daniel Levin Becker, Ian Monk, Michelle Noteboom, and Jean-Jacques Poucel (Burning Deck Press)

I actually did read a few of the poems from this collection. They are insane and wonderful. Here’s an explanation from the Burning Deck website (another poetry publisher with incredible taste):

Frédéric Forte’s Minute-Operas are poems “staged” on the page. A simple vertical line of 3 inches separates what Forte calls the stage and the wings. The poet explores the potential of this form with multiple typographic games, calling on different registers of the language, different poetic techniques and, in the second part of the book, by “fixating as minute-operas” 55 existing poetic forms (come out of various poetic traditions or more recently invented by Oulipo, the famous French “Workshop for potential literature.”)

Rilke Shake by Angelica Freitas, translated from the Portuguese by Hilary Kaplan (Phoneme Books)

I said above that I don’t read much poetry, and to be completely honest, that’s absolutely true. I read the collections we published (selected by Jennifer Grotz), anything by Kim Hyesoon, and whatever makes the Best Translated Book Award longlist, but that’s about it. It’s not that I don’t respect poetry as a form—it just rarely seized my attention at night when I finally get to sit down to read a bit for myself (instead of for work). What I like most about poetry are poets explaining what they’re up to (that heady mix of theoretical art school terminology and total bullshit is really amazing to read and listen to), and poems that are funny.

gertrude stein has a big butt slide over gertrude
stein and when she slides it makes a great noise
as though someone dragged a wet cloth across
the huge glass window of a public building [. . .]

but gertude stein is a charlatan thinks it’s fine to let one
loose under the water eh gertrude stein? it’s impossible
that anyone could so enjoy making bubbles

Wild Grass on the Riverbank by Hiromi Ito, translated from the Japanese by Jeffrey Angles (Action Books)

In case you haven’t figured this out yet, most of the books on this list are from a handful of presses—the ones that have earned a reputation for publishing the most daring, interesting works of poetry in translation. Seems to me that when it comes to poetry publishers, branding and reputation are even more crucial than they are for presses doing mostly fiction.

Anyway, from a review in Vice:

The 96-page tract demonstrates the author’s shift from verse to a more continuous, genre-bent experience, knitting a full narrative across its many still-fragmented parts. The work follows the travel of a family of many children, their mother, and a father who is both alive and dead, through fields of insane fauna, dystopian wasteland landscape, eerie haunted temporary homes, refrains of song fragments, skin plagues, and breakouts.

Reminiscent of the plunging-network narratives of Alice Notley’s Descent of Alette and Amos Tutuola’s My Life in the Bush of Ghosts, the book goes into both the multivalent psyches of the human landscape and the ground we walk on, forging between them a trek that is by turns spiritual, spasmodic, romantic, furious, contemplative, and insane.

October Dedications by Mang Ke, translated from the Chinese by Lucas Klein (Zephyr Press)

Lucas Klein is a really stand-up guy who does a lot to promote Chinese poetry. He’s also been a judge for the PEN Translation Prize, and been mistaken for me at several ALTA conferences. (I don’t know that we look all that alike, except that we both have dark hair, are white, about the same height, and smile, but this happens more than you would expect.)

He also likes to get all up in my shit about mis-alphabetizing Chinese authors in my various lists and posts. This is totally my fault, although it’s not always that easy to figure out . . . Zephyr Press doesn’t even have this book on their website (which is woefully out of date), but even if they did, it probably wouldn’t be listed as “MANG Ke” or “Mang KE,” which would immediately make clear which is the surname. Wikipedia doesn’t do this either. I did some Googling and since “Mang” is a common Chinese surname, I think this should be under “M.”

The beauty of this list that I’ve put together though is that, even if “Ke” is his surname, this book is STILL properly alphabetized. I CAN NOT BE BEATEN TODAY.

Selected Poems by Silvina Ocampo, translated from the Spanish by Jason Weiss (New York Review Books)

Silvina Ocampo was an amazing writer and literary figure in Argentina (married to Adolfo Bioy Casares, friends with Borges, sister to Victoria who ran Sur) who, thanks to NYRB, is finally getting some of the attention she deserves from English readers. I’ve not read her poems (yet!), but if these are half as good as her stories . . . damn. I’d recommend buying both of her NYRB titles: this one and Thus Were Their Faces.

Hit Parade: The Orbita Group edited by Kevin Platt, translated from the Russian by fifteen different translators (Ugly Duckling)

The Orbita group is a creative collective of four poets—Sergej Timofejev, Artur Punte, Semyon Khanin, and Vladimir Svetlov—who live in Riga, Latvia and write poetry in Russian.

In part, I’m including this book because of Kaija’s Latvian heritage, although I know that Latvian Latvians have some mixed feelings about Russian Latvians . . . Anything Russian tends to bring up bad memories of that whole occupation and Soviet thing.

Regardless, this group sounds really interesting, and a few paragraphs from introduction makes this all clear:

These poems were written in Russian, yet they are not simply Russian poems. For one thing, they are written in free verse, and Russians are a bit particular about rhyme and meter. [. . .] For another thing, the primary context in which this poetry shoudl be seen is that of Latvia. The poets of Orbita participate actively in a bilingual cultural scene drawing from the multiple literary traditions of an intimately multinational society. [. . .]

Which is not to say that this is not Russian literature, too. Orbita has made a name for itself in Russia over the past decade or so with its sui generis texts that [. . .] push the boundaries of “mainland” Russian poetic traditions and expectations, charting out new possibilities of Russian literautre in the context of twenty-first-century “transnational Russian Culture.” This is Russian poetry out of bounds. [. . .]

Since the collapse of the USSR, Russian cultural life in the Baltic has, on the whole, become somewhat attenuated and rather conservative—if not provincial. Being in Europe, as it turns out, is sometimes challenging for Latvia’s sizable Russian-speaking minority in the twenty-first century. On the whole, the majority of Russians in Latvia feel cut off from the cultural homeland of the Russian Federation [. . .] and marginalized in Latvia.

Worth reading for that cultural context alone!

Twelve Stations by Tomasz Rozycki, translated from the Polish by Bill Johnston (Zephyr Press)

I can’t remember where, but I’m almost positive that I heard Bill Johnston read part of this aloud . . . Maybe at Translation Loaf this past summer? Regardless of where I heard it, I remember wanting to grab a review copy of this when I got back to the office. Unfortunately, I can’t find it now to give you all a quote, so you’ll just have to take my word for it that this epic poem is really interesting.

Besides, it’s Bill Johnston. That man could translate scraps of MFA garbage and I’d probably read it.

Wild Words: Four Tamil Poets by Malathi Maithri, Salma, Kutti Revathi, Sukirtharani, translated from the Tamil by Lakshmi Holmstrom (HarperCollins India)

It’s pretty rare that HarperCollins India sells their books into the U.S. market. Almost as rare as it is to have access to poetry by a female poet writing in Tamil . . .

To explain why I’m including this here, I’ll just quote the beginning of this introduction:

In 2003, at a time when politicians and other establishment figures of Tamil Nadu were caught up in a surge of Tamil chauvinism, a group of men and women, setting themselves up as guardians of Tamil culture, objected publicly to the language of a new generation of women poets, particularly in the work of Malathi Maithri, Salma, Kutti Revathi and Sukirtharani. They charged the women with obscenity and immodesty.

These women poets came into prominence at the same time; their first collections of poetry were published between the years 2000 and 2002, when they were in their late twenties and early thirties. Though each of these poets is unique in what she has to say in her poetry, there are some themes which are common to all of them, notably the politics of sexuality and a woman’s relationship to her body. For the moral police, such language was not permissible for Tamil women. So the poets were condemned and vilified. The debate gained focus with the publication of Kutti Revathi’s Mulaigal (Breasts, 2002). The poets received abusive letters from individuals as well as literary organizations. The media had a field-day. A popular song writer for films gave a much publicized interview to a literary journal condemning women writers in general. This was followed by another film-song writer, Snehithan, who appeared on television declaring that these women should be lined up on Mount Road in Chennai, doused with kerosene oil and burnt alive.

This is horrifying and disturbing, and probably happens more than any of us want to know. Fuck those people; buy and read this book. The poetry looks fairly straightforward, lyrical, with a political undercurrent that rings true even if you’re not familiar with the particular situation in Tamil Nadu.

The Nomads, My Brothers, Go Out to Drink from the Big Dipper by Abdourahman Waberi, translated from the French by Nancy Naomi Carlson (Seagull Books)

I love Abdourahman Waberi’s novels, which is why I wanted to include this here. It’s got a great, fun title, and it will be the only collection of poetry from Djibouti that you’ll read this year. (Most likely.)

Translated by Nancy Naomi Carlson, Waberi’s voice is intelligent, at times ironic, and always appealing. His poems strongly condemn the civil wars that have plagued East Africa and advocate tolerance and peace. In this compact volume, such ideas live side by side as a rosary for the treasures of Timbuktu, destroyed by Islamic extremists, and a poem dedicated to Edmond Jabès, the Jewish writer and poet born in Cairo.

*

OK, now that I’ve put this all together, I’m thinking that in 2016, I should try and read more poetry. I think it would be more interesting to read these with a group of people—especially people who actually know shit about poetry. Maybe, and this is one of those momentary ideas I probably won’t follow through on, we could start a sort of “International Book Club” via Three Percent and feature a new work of fiction and poetry every month. Each week we could have a post on both of these—from me, or from someone who actually knows something—about the author, the themes, some interesting tidbits, whatever. Readers could join in on Twitter or the Facebook or, if you’re old school, in the comments section. This could be interesting . . .

6 May 14 | Kaija Straumanis | Comments

The latest addition to our Reviews section is by Christopher Iacono on Shiki Nagaoka: A Nose for Fiction by Mario Bellatin, translated by David Shook, and out from Phoneme Media.

Most people can appreciate high-quality writing with a good (literary) prank, and most people can appreciate a finely cultivated mustache. And when you have both, and it stems from these guys:

you obviously and absolutely cannot go wrong. Not much more needs to be said as an introduction for either Mexican author Mario Bellatin or translator David Shook, other than that both are incredibly accomplished, and another review of Bellatin’s work is here and David has the coolest mustache and reviewed for Three Percent before. So, without further ado, here is a bit of Chris’s review:

Nagaoka’s story begins with his birth, which was difficult because of his nose. The two midwives who assisted his mother thought his large appendage was a “punishment” for his aristocratic family’s “excessive enthusiasm that accompanied the arrival of foreign ideas.” At an early age, he wrote hundreds of stories (mostly about “affairs related to the nose”) and later experimented with writing stories in multiple languages. Besides literature, Nagaoka was also interested in photography. His combined love of literature and photography later resulted in the book Photos and Words, which “heavily influenced” Juan Rulfo, the real-life writer of Pedro Páramo. However, his early investigations into photography resulted in an unsolved murder which, according to a “certain Mexican writer,” is mentioned in the untranslatable novel.

Following that incident, Nagaoka joined a Buddhist monastery and lived there for 13 years. During this time, he attempted to write “a large novel” that was originally going to be a “masculine version” of Murasaki Shikibu’s The Tale of Genji but somehow ended up being a Japanese version of Marcel Proust’s In Search of Lost Time. At the same time, his nose became so big at one point that he needed someone to hold it up for him during meals. As if his troubles during mealtimes were not bad enough, the other monks, despite the rules of the novitiate, would taunt Nagaoka and play with his nose.

After being expelled from the monastery, Nagaoka set up a kiosk to sell rolls of film and develop them. One of his customers was a famous Japanese writer. Oddly enough, Nagaoka was not interested in this writer’s works but rather in his photographs of bathrooms. These photographs inspired Nagaoka to compose “his most solid work,” Photos and Words, which was popular enough to be translated into English by LIFE magazine in the 1950s.

For the rest of the review, go here.

6 May 14 | Kaija Straumanis | Comments

“I am honored to have ushered Mario Bellatin’s biography of the great Shiki Nagaoka, a writer and artist almost entirely unknown to English-language readers, into English for the first time, and it is my hope that this new translation begins to redress his under-acknowledgement as a major influence on contemporary world literature. Bellatin’s highly stylized study is the most important work on the author to appear since Pablo Soler Frost’s 1986 monograph, Possible Interpretation of [untranslatable symbol], notable for its pedantry, perhaps best evidenced by the average (mean) tally of semicolons per page: 47.”

This is how translator David Shook begins his preface to Shiki Nagaoka: A Nose for Fiction. However, Nagaoka never existed; Shook is just going along with a joke which, according to a New York Times article, originated at a writer’s conference years ago. When asked about his favorite writer, Bellatin answered that it was a Japanese author who had an unusually large nose and wrote a highly-influential novel in an untranslatable language. The audience members believed the Mexican writer, so Bellatin decided to write this “biography.”

Nagaoka’s story begins with his birth, which was difficult because of his nose. The two midwives who assisted his mother thought his large appendage was a “punishment” for his aristocratic family’s “excessive enthusiasm that accompanied the arrival of foreign ideas.” At an early age, he wrote hundreds of stories (mostly about “affairs related to the nose”) and later experimented with writing stories in multiple languages. Besides literature, Nagaoka was also interested in photography. His combined love of literature and photography later resulted in the book Photos and Words, which “heavily influenced” Juan Rulfo, the real-life writer of Pedro Páramo. However, his early investigations into photography resulted in an unsolved murder which, according to a “certain Mexican writer,” is mentioned in the untranslatable novel.

Following that incident, Nagaoka joined a Buddhist monastery and lived there for 13 years. During this time, he attempted to write “a large novel” that was originally going to be a “masculine version” of Murasaki Shikibu’s The Tale of Genji but somehow ended up being a Japanese version of Marcel Proust’s In Search of Lost Time. At the same time, his nose became so big at one point that he needed someone to hold it up for him during meals. As if his troubles during mealtimes were not bad enough, the other monks, despite the rules of the novitiate, would taunt Nagaoka and play with his nose.

After being expelled from the monastery, Nagaoka set up a kiosk to sell rolls of film and develop them. One of his customers was a famous Japanese writer. Oddly enough, Nagaoka was not interested in this writer’s works but rather in his photographs of bathrooms. These photographs inspired Nagaoka to compose “his most solid work,” Photos and Words, which was popular enough to be translated into English by LIFE magazine in the 1950s.

Still, despite the book’s popularity, Nagaoka lived in a modest house and didn’t take his writing career seriously, although he continued to write in notebooks, one of which had a giant nose on the cover. “At the end of his life,” the narrator writes, “he embraced the idea that, realistically, the size of his nose had determined his existence.” Some of these recorded memories appeared in a posthumous work called Posthumous Diary, which inspired a French cult-like group called the “Nagaokites” to further investigate his work. However, “in his final years, Shiki Nagaoka wrote a book that for many is fundamental. Unfortunately, it doesn’t exist in any known language.”

Bellatin is obviously having a lot of fun telling this story, and he never tries to hide the fact that it’s a prank. He also slyly pokes fun at the audience members who originally bought the story about Nagaoka. In one scene, while in a state of dementia, Nagaoka throws his manuscripts into a bonfire, which nearly destroyed a forest near the monastery. “Only the timely action of the rest of the monks, who were woken by Shiki Nagaoka’s anguished screams, reduced its consequences to a circle of singed forest. On that occasion, Shiki Nagaoka lied. He said that the fire originated from the passion he had put into his prayers.” Later, the narrator informs us that at the time, the monks didn’t question this.

Following the biographical portion of the book are 30 pages of photographs by Ximena Berecochea. While these photos appear in a section titled “Photograph Documentation of Shiki Nagaoka’s Life,” most of them consist of objects and locations mentioned in the book. Only three of them contain the author, but they were either manipulated to hide his nose or taken from a distance. In fact, the funniest photo is Nagaoka’s fifth grade graduation photo: Only a circle on the faded right side of the photo indicates Nagaoka’s appearance in it.

While it may appear that Shiki Nagaoka is a joke that has gone on for far too long, it is actually worth reading, thanks to Bellatin’s skill as a writer and prankster. Also, the actual text is only 43 pages, so that in one sitting you can also enjoy what the audience of the writer’s conference heard (and believed) so many years ago.

....
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