19 April 18 | Chad W. Post | Comments

Last week, the 2018 longlists for the Best Translated Book Award were released and were loaded with books translated from the Spanish. Eight works of fiction and one poetry collection. Nine titles total out of the thirty-seven on the combined longlists. That’s just a smidge under 25%. Twenty-five percent! One-quarter of the best books published in 2017 were originally written in Spanish.

As much as I love Spanish language literature—and always have, probably since reading Cortázar in college—this seems kind of incredible. Outsized. Statistically significant. I’m tentatively planning on writing about the regions that tend to be overlooked by the BTBA (Africa, Asia, India), and some of the reasons why (lack of eligible books being the biggest), but given the fact that I was already going to write about two Spanish books this week, we might as well take the time to dig into this situation and see if the prevalence of Spanish books on the BTBA lists is in line with current publishing trends, or if something else is going on.

Before moving on to other forms of analysis, let’s see if the dominance of Spanish books in the 2018 Best Translated Book Awards is unusual or just run of the mill. It’s probably going to turn out to be recency bias, but I have the sense that Spanish always represents on the BTBA. And wins. Like with Yuri Herrera and Diorama and other books. Like, hmm. Maybe I’m wrong.

As you may have noticed—and if not, take this post as a sort of public announcment—you can now search the Translation Database for all previous BTBA titles. You can get the longlist or shortlist for any given year, find out which books from which presses have made it, or, as befits this post, see how often various languages have been represented.

Of the 249 longlisted fiction titles in the database,1 56 are translated from the Spanish. That would be an incredible 22.5%. Or 5.6 a year. Not that far removed from this year in fact. To put those numbers into perspective, here’s a chart detailing the ten languages with the most titles to have made the longlists.



Unsurprisingly (?), French doesn’t lag that far behind Spanish in BTBA representation. But that’s for the longlists. Let’s see what happens when we narrow this down to the finalists.



The gap widens! I guess. But really, there’s not that much of a difference between Spanish and French on here, and when you think about the overall number of speakers—220 million French vs. 500 million Spanish—French seems like a bit of an underdog, despite their long history at the top of the European publishing scene.

I think we need to dig a bit deeper before making any sort of conclusion. Up to now we’ve only been looking at raw numbers devoid of context. Is it really that surprising that no Hindi titles have made the longlists? What if I told you that there have only been five eligible Hindi titles over the eleven years of the award? Compare that with the fact that only three Japanese books have made it—out of 221. I’m no where near smart enough figure out those probabilities, but I can totally crank out some charts looking at how likely it is for one of the three most-translated languages—Spanish, German, French—to make it to the BTBA fiction longlist.

Let’s start with the three-year averages for the number of titles published from these languages:



Two observations:

1) I don’t think I can explain the dominance of French fiction. I don’t feel like I can name very many French authors, and yet, it’s almost always the most translated language. I don’t think that I’ve included a French book as the impetus for one of these weekly rambles for all of 2018.2

2) What the fuck, German literature? If this chart was a year-by-year thing, I would write off that decline as a small sample, but theoretically, by looking at three-year averages, we should be filtering out most of the noise. Given the cultural investments, the raw number of German books written every year, the promotional publications, the Frankfurt Book Fair, the je ne sais quoi of German lit (sorry), this is surprising. Disconcerting. A trend to watch.

Now, given that baseline, here are the three-year rolling averages for the percentage of books from those same languages to make the BTBA longlist:



LOOK AT THOSE SPANISH BOOKS! I CALLED IT!

There’s probably a hot take to be written about 2013—the moment when Spanish surpassed French as the “most literary language.” It probably involves statements about “Bolaño’s lasting influence” and the Granta special issue and some U.S. demographics. I’ll bet you could unpack that shit into a PhD thesis with the right advisor.

OR, you could write a thesis about the ways in which the increase in the number of languages with at least one translation has impacted the Big Three and their stranglehold on the marketplace.

OR, you could check publication against proliferation (sales) and try and figure out if the Spanish trend was predictive—there were more books, then more sales—or responsive—way more sales for Spanish titles around 2007-2009, so let’s double-down on the trend—or random—there is no correlation and this situation just developed.

OR, is there something about the makeup of the BTBA jury—especially among the booksellers and translators—that tilts things in favor of Spanish titles.

There are so many options . . . This narrative doesn’t feel very fulfilling at all. Numbers are frustrating that way.

One more thing: At the top of this, I made an off-handed remark about Spanish books always winning the BTBA. Not true! Only three Spanish titles have won the Best Translated Book Award—Signs Preceding the End of the World by Yuri Herrera was the only work of fiction, with both Diorama by Rocio Ceron and Extracting the Stone of Madness by Alejandra Pizarnik winning for poetry. Perceptions, man. Perceptions and biases. It doesn’t matter what’s factual, it matters what you remember and believe.

*


I just had a text exchange with the “Beer Reporter” for our local newspaper. Which has zero relevance, except in the way that proliferation and quality aren’t always in sync.

Thanks to middle-age and trends, we have like 42 new breweries here in Rochester—all fine, none spectacular. They support each other and make sure that an excessive proportion of paychecks are spent on beer instead of other forms of cultural entertainment.

That’s totally fine, I think. But when it comes to our biggest brewery—Genesee—I’m a bit of a hard ass. Everyone knows that I’m a contrarian for life, but I honestly don’t care for or against Genny or Genny Light. It’s beer in the way most books are books. It’s functional. (Sorta.) If you drink a few pitchers, you’ll definitely feel it, like how if you read all five hundred John Grisham books, you’ll know words.

Here were the Rochester-centric jokes I came up with in our texting to describe Genny:

“It’s like a Xerox of Bud Light!”

“I Kodak, and never will, see what you see in that beer.”

“Something, something, Wegmans!”

“Genny is great. My parents and uncles love it, which is heartwarming, since old people also deserve beer.”

*


Let’s talk about poetry!



Letters So That Happiness”: by Arnaldo Calveyra, translated from the Spanish by Elizabeth Zuba (Argentina, Ugly Duckling Presse)

This is a very different collection from Stormwarning, the poetry book I tried to write about last week. (I do a thing with my kids where I pretend that I can’t remember the name of anything and invent word combinations like a living Queneau poem. Every object and location has about fourteen different names in the Post Vernacular, which is both semi-amusing and fairly confusing. If I were writing this for them—which I wouldn’t, unless the poems were on YouTube—I would’ve called last week’s collection “Stormblaster” or “Storm Soldier” or “Snow Warning” or some other dumb ass shit like “Winter Wonder Times.” I have done this bit for so long that I have literally torn apart my own memory and feel like most of my days are just highlights from the inevitable onslaught of early-onset dementia. Never buy into your jokes too much, kids, they’ll bite you in the “Blizzard Blaster” in the end.)

I still don’t feel like I have the terminology to talk about poetry. I set about this self-challenge with the simplest of ideas—if you read enough, and try hard enough, you’ll figure out a way to say more than uhhhh, that poem is funny! I’m only to weeks in, but I feel like poetry is all barrier. And I’m not even looking at poems that are confined by form, that are playing with some Alexandrine rhyme scheme or particular pentameter. (Not the right terms, I’m sure. Alliteration. Assonance. Enjambment.)

Without someone—or some piece—to unlock the key, I feel like I’m all surface when it comes to evaluating these collections. Like week I wrote about joy, this week I want to talk about unsettled language—the aspect of Calveyra’s poetry that’s so salient that’s it’s cited in the afterword as the singular reason for why these poems appealed to Borges:

What captivated Borges and Mastronardi in 1959 was Calveyra’s singular use of syntax and language. It is often said that Calveyra invented a new grammar that could release time and place from the stasis and confinement that words inescapably mark.


Yep. That. Which I completely agree with, and which can be found throughout. Here are a couple samples:

The boy came back by the mettle of the night. The military had taught him to steal and whistle for anything. Now whistling he forgot stealing. Feathered casuarina trees quieted to his step. But because they’d never met the winds that travel from a sadness to a happiness, there was no breeze to wake the nests sleeping in their fist: for them, he was returning, one of so many from the village.


And, from a different poem:

As if it were ever almost here this forever company in the cave of a shiverer’s winter, together with the dog we found your day, I jump up on the hill that hurries to take me back to bring you happy daisies.


This is all off-kilter and not pretentious—two qualities I gravitate toward. But where to go from there?

Setting aside any deeper analysis of the style of the poems, or the technical tricks Calveyra employs as being beyond my paygrade, I instead am drawn to the ways in which these feel like poems of childhood, of a sort of pre-linguistic way of encountering the world that allows for a possibility of happiness. The twists of his language seem a bit different than the Russian formalist conception of enstrangement to me, and are more like smudges of one’s worldview—a way of seeing and saying before everything is codified and has a “correct” way of being described.

Which sort of connects with the title, Letters So That Happiness. “Letters” is ambiguous—these aren’t proper letters, but some of this “smudging” of the world involves a few slipped letters—and “so that happiness” can what? Exist? Be recaptured?

The afterword talks about how Calveyra was trying to capture the language of Entre Ríos, his hometown, but I feel like it’s capturing that language through the lens of youth, of play. Here’s an example that’s probably a bit too on the nose, but demonstrates what I mean:3

Hopscotch singing rounds with one foot on the ground and the other without anywhere.

Coming! Coming! and already in the marrow sky, grace wobbling, life long. And let’s pick a square with all our names to stand one little afternoon minute resting flamingo gentle foot.

That afternoon when we all win, we’ll be watching each other from our resting squares and not stepping on the lines.

When the soles of your feet aren’t named anymore, named pebble anymore, named all back at the beginning anymore, the only foot of the little late afternoon will go on begging entry and already all back at the beginning-ginning again.


So pleasant, so much twist in the expected words. This collection has the feel of nursery rhymes reimagined through a rural landscape. I like the voice. The simplicity of the happiness. There is warmth here and I dig it. Also, there are exclamation points!

*




I want to give a quick nod to The Desert and Its Seed by Jorge Barón Biza, translated from the Spanish (duh and or obviously) by Camilio Ramirez for New Directions. Cool book! It’s like Tomb Song but with more acid and alcoholism. I think? I read a third and had to stop, but for you plotsters out there, it’s an autobiographical novel (I should end with “full stop” since that’s all anyone reads these days when they’re not reading YA) about a young man who takes care of his mom after his dad throws acid over her face. It’s legit fucked up, and although it’s now a cult classic, it was originally self-published, and that’s saying something. What it’s saying about art and commerce and originality and telling one’s life, I’m not sure, but something. Something for sure.

In November (I think), I’ll try and write a gigantic post—one that involves me drinking a plethora of whiskeys—about the position of auto-fiction, fictionalized autobiographies, non-fiction tinged fiction in today’s literary scene. There’s so much of it now (see Ben Lerner, see Knausgaard, who will obviously [and or duh] be the occasion for this post) that some readers see it as some new, hipster trend. There is a long history there, there are differences, there are—and this is what interests me—ways in which the approach ends up highlighting form more than content. There’s a lot to say. And Tomb Song and The Desert and Its Seed can be captured into that conversation.

Two other quick things, left unexplored:

1) Books about damaged faces. Kobo Abe’s The Face of Another. Lucy Grealy’s Autobiography of a Face. Others. The writing of skin. On skin. Skin-like. Replacement and reconstruction. The self as the image portrayed.

2) Self-published literary successes. There is the one? Sergio de la Pava? Who is literally not of this time and makes words fun by unconventionalizing the under-workings of words. Biza is different, yet the self is throwing its work into the ether. The cojones of standing by your works in relation to the gratitude, the admiration achieved in later years.

———————-


1 For the curious, there was a book that made the longlist one year, but wasn’t technically eligible. (It was a reprint.) We’re not going to repeal the BTBA designation—I mean shit, we’re not the NCAA or anything—but the title isn’t actually listed in the database. I’m sure you can sleuth it out if you’re really interested.

2 Actually, I have: The Perfect Nanny!

3 There’s not an assertion I can make about poetry that I can’t equivocate a sentence later. I know this breakdown is childish, simplistic, easy to dismiss. I don’t have this sort of public anxiety when it comes to fiction—I’m more versed, the hours with the form have been logged—although it may all come down to a famous poet telling me that my favorite poems from a particular collection were the “easy” ones. I’m gun shy. But trying!

17 April 18 | Chad W. Post | Comments

This morning’s entry in the “Why This Book Should Win” series is from BTBA judge and Riffraff co-owner, Emma Ramadan.



Before Lyricism by Eleni Vakalo, translated from Greek by Karen Emmerich (Greece, Ugly Duckling Presse)

I would happily and readily make the argument that of all the books on the BTBA poetry longlist this year, Eleni Vakalo’s Before Lyricism was without a doubt the most difficult to translate. Made up of six book-length poems, the poems in Before Lyricism get at a version of reality that can only be accessed by making someone hear and see an image through the written word.

The shape of the forest has
The shape of a jellyfish
That you catch in your hands and it slips through
As a wave
Pushes it out
Perhaps this happens
Because
It moves
Without
Opening seashores
That are white
And
The fresh ones glisten
While the others
Are white all through
You’ll find too the bones of the drowned


Now I’ll push out my heart
But no
Since jellyfish
Have no blood


If I pretended for so long to be writing poems, it was only so I could speak of the forest.

These poems don’t have a setting or a thread of movement. The most accurate thing would be to say that these poems are set in Vakalo’s mind and in our minds and nowhere else. Poems that seem to start out as straightforward descriptions peel apart in our hands as we read, every line taking another layer with it so that what we are left with is a series of jarring images that reverberate with an energy of abstraction. Her translator Karen Emmerich describes in an excellent interview for Tupelo Quarterly, “That’s what all of reading Vakalo feels like to me: being in the sea in a moment of utter calm, and then finding that the water I’m standing in is so many more things than I thought—and the calm of the sea and of me becomes host to an undercurrent, if not of fear, then of astonishment at the unfamiliar.”

At night people betray one another
And when the forest
Begins
To smother you
You cry out
As if
You were not in
The forest


Vakalo pushes the Greek language to its limits, stretching its syntax and playing up its room for ambiguity. As Emmerich elaborates in her translator’s note at the end of the book, “Before Lyricism is intensely inward-looking in its disruption of conventional grammar and syntax, which render it resistant to familiar modes of translation . . . Greek is an inflected language in which word endings indicate grammatical function . . . Writers can manipulate these elements in such a way as to push their texts to the limits of intelligibility . . . Vakalo does just that: she intensifies the particular forms of grammatical ambiguity available in Greek by recasting its syntax in unexpected ways.”

If this poem is filled with the beating of wings
It’s because you hear birds

                              You don’t just see them

Emmerich spent over a decade translating these poems. The difficulty, she says in her Tupelo Quarterly interview, is that “what Vakalo is doing in this regard simply isn’t something that English can do. The languages aren’t the same. In many places, given the tyranny of the word order in English, there are clear subjects or objects for my verbs, in places where there aren’t for hers. What I tried to do instead was just let other forms of ambiguity exist, syntactical, grammatical, interpretive . . . I wanted there not to be a clear image, always, but rather a sense of something . . . I just had to let myself go, mess with all the pieces and make something I thought was equally disturbing, mixing issues of innocence and guilt in a similar way of effacing the boundary between actor, action, and effect . . . Yet the cumulative impression is somehow still comprehensible. There’s a point, a thing to understand but not untangle.”

Striking the spider
The spasm as it falls
And its legs contract and tangle
In three closed corners
The whole spider shrinking
Death when it suddenly comes
With a swift pain from the strike
And that power you have in your hands
The image of these moments gathers
As passing you saw it on the wall
Creeping with its eight legs
In an odd rhythmic arrangement
The rapid change
In the scene, starting with the strike,
Transforms the innocent into intent.


Emmerich’s stunning translation is nothing short of miraculous in its ability to evoke the same feelings of both alarming confusion and immediate comprehension in her English readers as Vakalo was able to evoke in her Greek readers. This book shimmers with a new layer of reality, with new poetic possibilities, and it is a gift to English readers to be able to access both.

16 June 16 | Kaija Straumanis | Comments

The latest addition to our Reviews section is by Vincent Francone on Intervenir/Intervene by Dolores Dorantes and Rodrigo Flores Sánchez, published by Ugly Duckling Presse.

It’s been slow on the review and post end this summer, while we’ve been busy around the offices here and elsewhere, but we hope you’ve all been enjoying your summers, and of course enjoying the Copa and Euro Cup games!

But literature in translation is as important as ever—so here’s the beginning of Vince’s review:

It took reading 44 pages of Intervenir/Intervene before I began to get a sense of what Dolores Dorantes and Rodrigo Flores Sánchez were up to. Recurring throughout these 44 pages—throughout the entire book—are shovels, shovel smacks to the face, lobelias—aha! Shovels and lobelias; gardening, violence, flowering plants. Buried secrets and blossoming. There seemed a sense to it all.

Intervenir/Intervene is being sold as a book of poetry. That is true. But then again, this is not poetry that obeys the rules poetry are supposed to follow. I state this in the year 2016, long after free verse and post modernism have done their best to ruin formal poetry. Even in the age of facile “performance art” and hollow “experimentalism,” there is work that reminds jaded readers like myself that there is value in some of what stands under the all too wide umbrella of avant-garde. Intervenir/Intervene is that sort of work.


For the rest of the review, go here.

16 June 16 | Kaija Straumanis | Comments

It took reading 44 pages of Intervenir/Intervene before I began to get a sense of what Dolores Dorantes and Rodrigo Flores Sánchez were up to. Recurring throughout these 44 pages—throughout the entire book—are shovels, shovel smacks to the face, lobelias—aha! Shovels and lobelias; gardening, violence, flowering plants. Buried secrets and blossoming. There seemed a sense to it all.


Intervenir/Intervene is being sold as a book of poetry. That is true. But then again, this is not poetry that obeys the rules poetry are supposed to follow. I state this in the year 2016, long after free verse and post modernism have done their best to ruin formal poetry. Even in the age of facile “performance art” and hollow “experimentalism,” there is work that reminds jaded readers like myself that there is value in some of what stands under the all too wide umbrella of avant-garde. Intervenir/Intervene is that sort of work.


It’s easy to throw words together in an attempt to confound, to shock, or to demonstrate cleverness. Dolores Dorantes and Rodrigo Flores Sánchez are not doing the reader many favors, but they’re not simply engaging in empty experimentation. They have an impossible task: to articulate what often goes unsaid, the brutal, sanctioned violence of their native Mexico. Translator Jen Hofer calls this Mexico’s dirty war. How shocking to see this term applied to what so many of us might dismiss as political corruption, a term that seems insubstantial in comparison to “dirty war,” which is more often applied retroactively. But this is a contemporary, ongoing dirty war whose victims are largely unacknowledged. Since they cannot speak, Dorantes and Flores Sánchez do their utmost to give them voice and to blend those voices with those of the state, the killer, and the reader. Intervenir/Intervene is a polyphony of these voices overlapping, interrupting—intervening. Readers will likely be disoriented by the fragmented presentation, but the elliptical, overwhelming approach culminates in a sense of understanding. This is not an easy book, but neither is the subject matter.


Intervenir/Intervene surprises. There is the before-mentioned merging of voices, the seemingly free form style, but also, actually, structure. From the apparent chaos, a page of rather direct poetry emerges:


To my urn
To my museum
To my barking
To my pain
To my depth

I come

From a country of ash
From an ocean of blood
From another unfinished city
From my deserted head
From the mouth without its teeth


Here we have anaphora and fairly rooted lines and stanzas, a true oddity among passages like:



The effect is to disrupt the expectations of the reader, even after their expectations have been thoroughly disrupted. Anything is possible in this book, as in a country like Mexico, a place of immense beauty and tremendous suffering.


Intervenir/Intervene is a book of poems and a short study of translation. Jen Hofer ends the text with notes on her process, which are often as elusive as the poetry. It is a dual language book that subverts and embraces both languages. It is a political book coming partially from Dolores Dorantes, a writer in exile from Ciudad Juarez who once resisted her poetry being translated into culturally dominant English. It is a statement of the absurdity of communicating violence and the tragedy of keeping silent in its wake. Few works of art are able to succeed on so many levels.

7 April 16 | Chad W. Post | Comments

This entry in the Why This Book Should Win series is by Jarrod Annis, BTBA judge and bookseller at Greenlight Books, We will be running two (or more!) of these posts every business day leading up to the announcement of the finalists.



A Science Not for the Earth: Selected Poems and Letters by Yevgeny Baratynsky, translated from the Russian by Rawley Grau (Russia, Ugly Duckling Presse)

This book is a beast—it is a hefty, beautiful bulk that constitutes one of Ugly Duckling Presse’s biggest translation endeavors to date. The stately volume is justified by the work it contains—the most substantial selection of Yevgeny Baratynsky’s poetry to be available in English. Readers are also treated to a selection of letters and detailed notes, all compounding into a detailed portrait of a unique poet who was lauded by Pushkin, his great contemporary, and had a key influence on Russian modernists such as Akhmatovah and Mandelstam.

Reading A Science Not For the Earth, it’s hard not to feel a sense of disbelief at not having encountered the work before—how could it have slipped through the cracks? This surprise is perhaps due to Rawley Grau’s crisp translations, which render these nineteenth century gems in a language that feels contemporary and lively, despite beyond their nearly two-hundred years, while still honoring Baratynsky’s original forms. This is poetry that transcends ages, poetry which is not through speaking. As Baratynsky writes,

But why talk now of ancient times?
The poem is ready. Very likely,
as a register of who I am
you’ll soon find it will come in handy.


Don’t be put off by the size of this collection—we have Rawley Grau and Ugly Duckling Press to thank for a volume of poetry as fresh and elegant as the work it contains.

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 . . .

21 May 15 | Kaija Straumanis | Comments

The latest addition to our Reviews section is a piece by Vincent Francone on Miloš Djurdjević’s Morse, My Deaf Friend, translated by the author and published by Ugly Duckling Presse.

The chapbook itself is short—clocking in at 32 pages—and is yet another beautiful work of print done by Ugly Duckling. Here’s the beginning of Vince’s review, which tries to get a grasp on what to expect, or not to expect, from poems labeled as “avant-garde”:

There’s little to say about a series of prose poems that willfully refuse to identify pronoun antecedents. Or perhaps there are a million things. The poems in _Morse, My Deaf Friend_— the chapbook by Miloš Djurdjević published by Ugly Duckling Presse as part of their Eastern European Poets Series— will be confounding to those accustomed to poetry that holds its reader’s hand. These poems do not. They are elliptical and strange and offer very few concrete signifiers.

For the rest of the review, go here.

21 May 15 | Kaija Straumanis |

There’s little to say about a series of prose poems that willfully refuse to identify pronoun antecedents. Or perhaps there are a million things. The poems in Morse, My Deaf Friend— the chapbook by Miloš Djurdjević published by Ugly Duckling Presse as part of their Eastern European Poets Series— will be confounding to those accustomed to poetry that holds its reader’s hand. These poems do not. They are elliptical and strange and offer very few concrete signifiers. They contain poems like this:

if it opens it won’t take root and only then could you touch the facelessness, it drizzles in your ear, tapping, leaf drop at the first step, it spreads its fingers on the membrane, catches its breath to defend itself and walks on, down again, down again, because death is not here, wall-zone is air-zone is an obstacle, like a breach sunk flat, a second step

If this block of words seems like nonsense, well, you’re not wrong. But it could mean something specific. It’s the reader’s job to give it meaning. This may feel burdensome, but these poems are asking the reader to be their co-creator. It’s an obligation you accept when you continue to read them. In this duty, you are as important as the poet. There are clues, but you get to put them together. Lucky you.

Djurdjević’s poems are referred to as avant-garde, a label that seems both vague and lazy. His work does qualify as such, but to lump it in with everything else under the umbrella term doesn’t offer one much of an idea of what to expect. Then again, the term avant-garde might be enough to engage curious readers and weed out timid ones. Of course, Morse, My Deaf Friend will not likely win over new poetry fans. There are plenty of people who are comfortable ignoring poetry, and, to quote Frank O’Hara, bully for them.

Clearly Djurdjević is not concerned. Rather, he offers the adventuresome reader a chance to see what can be found in this puzzle. And who am I to say that my reading or yours or anyone’s is best? There’s a smidgen of loyalty we owe the text, otherwise it’s every man for himself. Read into these what you will. It’s part of the experience.

13 March 14 | Kaija Straumanis | Comments

The latest addition to our Reviews section is by Peter Biello on Commentary by Marcelle Sauvageot, translated by Anna Moschovakis (and introduction from Jennifer Moxley), published by Ugly Duckling Presse.

Peter not only runs the Burlington Writers Workshop, but is also a friend to Open Letter—we had the pleasure of meeting him in person at AWP a couple weeks ago, and saddle him up with some great books.

Commentary, as many of you will know, is one of the 25 books that made the 2014 BTBA longlist.

Here’s the beginning of Peter’s review:

Commentary is a book that defies simple categorization. Marcelle Sauvageot’s prose lives in the world of novel, memoir, and philosophical monologue as the narrator, a woman recuperating in a sanatorium, muses on the nature of love and examines her own crushed heart. Originally published in French under the title Commentaire in 1933, the book remains relevant precisely because the behavior of the man to whom these epistolary responses are addressed seems shockingly familiar.

Commentary is a deconstruction of an insensitive and condescending break-up letter that is sent to the narrator when she is spending time in a sanatorium. Her lover, who is only referred to as “Baby,” is in Paris, where he has made plans to marry another woman. “I am getting married . . . Our friendship remains . . .” his letter states, and from here, the narrator dives into the sadness and anger it provokes.

For the rest of the review, go here.

13 March 14 | Kaija Straumanis | Comments

Commentary is a book that defies simple categorization. Marcelle Sauvageot’s prose lives in the world of novel, memoir, and philosophical monologue as the narrator, a woman recuperating in a sanatorium, muses on the nature of love and examines her own crushed heart. Originally published in French under the title Commentaire in 1933, the book remains relevant precisely because the behavior of the man to whom these epistolary responses are addressed seems shockingly familiar.

Commentary is a deconstruction of an insensitive and condescending break-up letter that is sent to the narrator when she is spending time in a sanatorium. Her lover, who is only referred to as “Baby,” is in Paris, where he has made plans to marry another woman. “I am getting married . . . Our friendship remains . . .” his letter states, and from here, the narrator dives into the sadness and anger it provokes.

In her responses to different aspects of his letter, Sauvageot paints the portrait of a woman trying to understand not only a relationship that has failed, but also the nature of love in general. Baby says that it isn’t his fault she’s in a sanatorium; that he couldn’t have made her happy anyway; that friendship should be sufficient going forward. The narrator doesn’t let him off the hook. She writes:

You scoured the past for a sentence in which I seemed to say I no longer loved you: “You always told me that what you had loved in me was ‘Baby’ and you did not conceal from me that ‘Baby’ no longer existed.” And you shield yourself with this sentence without wanting to remember how you did not accept it. Now, you welcome it with glee, because it enables you to escape reproach for your infidelity. (67)

She goes on to say that, in his absurd justification for leaving the relationship, she sees “a petty salesman reneging on a deal he no longer wants to close.” (68) Her assessment of this man is honest, apt, and fair.

Along with her assessment of the relationship is her attack on the gender dynamics at play. “Is a woman in love not delighted when a man chooses her as a reward for her total love?” the narrator asks, with no small amount of snark. She goes on to say, in earnest, “what you are saying is the eternally idiotic, but eternally true, song of those who love and are loved.” (52) The narrator, in short, is critical of the superficiality of modern love—a criticism that remains relevant today.

In her introduction to this new edition, Jennifer Moxley refers to Baby as a “failed human being.” One could call Baby lots of things: insensitive, blind to his own male privilege, and self-serving to name a few. But to call him “failed” pronounces him dead, which he is not. The triumph of this book is that the narrator, while gravely wounded, sees through what Moxley would say makes him a “failed human being”—his weak attempts to justify his insensitivity. She knows him better than he knows himself. “I know you better, and that is not to love you less,” she writes (49). Could this narrator truly love a “failed human being”?

The story ends optimistically, with a dance. The narrator attends a dance party, finds a partner, and spends a lovely evening with him. “Lightly intoxicated by this rhythm, accompanied by my partner for the night, who by tomorrow will have forgotten this late evening, I slowly mounted the stairs to my door; and we took leave of each other after a kiss, without saying anything” (97). That kiss, after so much discussion of love, puts a cap of silence on a long meditation on the subject.

Why should we read this meditation in 2014? In a world in which social media encourage us to hide our flaws, this book attempts to remind us that those who love us because of our flaws, not in spite of them, are those who love us best.

27 April 13 | Chad W. Post | Comments

Over the course of this week, we will be highlighting all 6 BTBA Poetry Finalists one by one, building up to next Friday’s announcement of the winners. All of these are written by the BTBA poetry judges under the rubric of “Why This Book Should Win.” You can find the whole series by clicking here. Stay tuned for more information about the May 3rd ceremony.

Transfer Fat by Aase Berg, translated from the Swedish by Johannes Göransson, and published by Ugly Duckling Presse.

Jennifer Kronovet is the author of the poetry collection Awayward, which was selected by Jean Valentine for the A. Poulin, Jr. Poetry Prize. She is the co-founder of Circumference: Poetry in Translation.

Why this book should win: It amazingly makes English feel like a new language with visceral power.

I’m going to go out on a limb and assume that almost everyone reading this review here is interested in foreign languages. Although some books in translation may try to hide the very fact that they are translated, many of us turn to books in translation because they are that—a twisty relationship, a multi-dimensional trip, a dynamically charged confluence, language within language within language. Part of the engaging pleasure of reading contemporary Swedish poet Aase Berg’s Transfer Fat, translated by Johannes Göransson, is that one feels as though one is reading in a foreign language, and yet, has access to understanding the words as themselves.

Transfer Fat makes a world and puts us inside it to hear its language, to be subject to its laws and materiality, to be a citizen called upon to act and be acted upon. Articles are removed, new compounds words are made, and commands are given, and so this language feels like a paradigmatic example of itself, essential and new as it subverts expected idioms and means multi-directionally. This language is both highly prepositional and highly visceral; we are in relation and on top of relations and at relationships. With what? Whale fat, breast-gristle, hare-milk, glasswater, a fatcatatonic election promise, Hal, the hare Cosmos, and more nouns that seem pure thing and pure metaphor, Swedish and of my Midwestern backyard, political and inborn. These contrasts are productively disorienting. One learns to see this new language (am I beginning to think in it?) as one capable of bringing the body and the body politic together, and the body and the mind that charges it.

The first poem begins:

Cut the keel
in harebrood pool
cut fin in fat
fishtailborn

Right away the speaker asks us to perform a violence (as translators are often accused of doing) and in that violence, a new word is made, fishtailborn, and perhaps this new word is us, now composed of parts, of language severed and re-glued. After a large space on the page the poem continues:

Keep fat
let fat wait
keep time
let time go
let time rock calmly in hare
let fat build core in hare
in the hare Cosmos
time is shell

If we follow the speaker’s suggestions, follow the new language happening, we end up with a new feeling for how time works, a new metaphysics. The manipulations of language in the book never feel coy or like play for playing’s sake. Rather, through the thick scrim of foreigness, language is amplified as being viscerally of the body and of time, capable of leading us to bold ideas if we follow its permutations.

In the translator’s note, Göransson, a poet in English and native speaker of Swedish, writes that Forsla fett is “an ambient space where the Swedish language goes through all kinds of permutations: words, connotations, meanings letters are put into flux, combining and recombining continually.” Göransson notes that Berg brings parts of English-language texts into her poems which further “deforms the Swedish language.” Thus, the book is its materiality, is the way it moves in language, or rather, moves languages out of themselves. How does one translate such a text, when carrying over only the “meaning” of the words would be to lose almost everything? Göransson takes risks. He challenges and deforms English. He moves into the world of Forsla fett and practices the processes it demands on English, cutting and recreating, melting together and splicing, transferring and fattening and thinning, and we are left with the fat and the muscle of meaning, new language we can work with, that works on us.

4 March 13 | Chad W. Post | Comments

The latest addition to our Reviews Section is a piece by Will Evans (aka Bromance Will) on Kirill Medvedev’s It’s No Good, which is translated from the Russian by Keith Gessen, Mark Krotov, Corry Merrill, and Bela Shayevich and published by n+1/Ugly Duckling Presse.

By now, most of you know who Bromance Will is, but for those who don’t, he was an apprentice here last summer and is starting up his own publishing house in Dallas. (And I have to give a public shaming to University of Texas at Dallas for not snatching Will up and hiring him. Huge loss, UTD. Huge.)

Anyway, here’s the opening of his review of this really interesting sounding collection:

To call Kirill Medvedev a poet is to focus on only one aspect of his work: Medvedev is a committed socialist political activist, essayist, leftist publisher, and literary critic who lives in Moscow and who uses the medium of poetry as his artistic base for a broader discussion of art and politics, and the artist’s place in today’s global consumer capitalist society.

In 2004, Medvedev renounced the copyright to his own work and forbid any publication of his works via a LiveJournal blog post (included in this collection), announcing that any collected editions of his works henceforth would be pirated and published without the express permission of the author. Subsequently, a publisher in Moscow followed his advice and published a pirated collection of Medvedev’s works up to that point and fittingly titled it Texts Published Without Permission of the Author. Two of America’s best indie publishers, n+1 and Ugly Duckling Presse, have teamed up to present the first English-language pirated sampling of Medvedev’s works up to this point, It’s No Good: Poems/Essays/Actions, featuring wide-ranging excerpts selected from the first decade of his writing, including a well-curated selection of poetry to his most significant blog posts, along with lengthy essays on politics and art, descriptions and accounts of his political “actions,” and literary obituaries, all written between 2000 (the first cycle of poems published as It’s No Good [Всё плохо]) and 2012.

You don’t need to know anything about Russia today to read and enjoy Medevedev and, further, to identify universal themes within his work. This edition presents a potent mixture of Medvedev’s poetry and prose that, in his own words, explores the “link between politics and culture.” Medvedev breaks with centuries of Russian (and Western) artists’ attempts to create an apolitical world for themselves outside of the political and economic system in which they create their art: for Medvedev, art and politics are wholly inseparable, the artist cannot escape the influence of power and capital on their art.

Click here to read the full piece.

4 March 13 | Chad W. Post | Comments

To call Kirill Medvedev a poet is to focus on only one aspect of his work: Medvedev is a committed socialist political activist, essayist, leftist publisher, and literary critic who lives in Moscow and who uses the medium of poetry as his artistic base for a broader discussion of art and politics, and the artist’s place in today’s global consumer capitalist society.

In 2004, Medvedev renounced the copyright to his own work and forbid any publication of his works via a LiveJournal blog post (included in this collection), announcing that any collected editions of his works henceforth would be pirated and published without the express permission of the author. Subsequently, a publisher in Moscow followed his advice and published a pirated collection of Medvedev’s works up to that point and fittingly titled it Texts Published Without Permission of the Author. Two of America’s best indie publishers, n+1 and Ugly Duckling Presse, have teamed up to present the first English-language pirated sampling of Medvedev’s works up to this point, It’s No Good: Poems/Essays/Actions, featuring wide-ranging excerpts selected from the first decade of his writing, including a well-curated selection of poetry to his most significant blog posts, along with lengthy essays on politics and art, descriptions and accounts of his political “actions,” and literary obituaries, all written between 2000 (the first cycle of poems published as It’s No Good [Всё плохо]) and 2012.

You don’t need to know anything about Russia today to read and enjoy Medevedev and, further, to identify universal themes within his work. This edition presents a potent mixture of Medvedev’s poetry and prose that, in his own words, explores the “link between politics and culture.” Medvedev breaks with centuries of Russian (and Western) artists’ attempts to create an apolitical world for themselves outside of the political and economic system in which they create their art: for Medvedev, art and politics are wholly inseparable, the artist cannot escape the influence of power and capital on their art. As Medvedev states in his essay “Literature Will Be Tested” (evoking Brecht):

The metaphysical consciousness of the artistic intelligentsia is based, as I’ve said, on the idea that any product of nonmaterial labor exists outside its context and speaks for itself . . . “There is no freedom from politics”: this is the banal truth one must now grasp anew. Political passivity also participates in history; it too is responsible.

In his poetry, Medvedev uses a brutally simple free-verse style, rare among Russian poets, evoking a sentimental humanism in constant dialogue with the world around him, be it artistic, political, or wholly personal, reminiscent of a mixture of Vladimir Mayakovsky with Charles Bukowski, whom Medvedev has translated into Russian, and with whom he shares a “genuine contact” (24) that explores the collective aspect of human experiences.

(I remember this about myself:
when I was little I thought
that when it came time for me to die
that everything would be different
and that it wouldn’t be me anymore exactly
and so for me, in the form that I was then,
there was nothing to fear)
children think that
in the form
in which they now exist
they will live forever

In contrast to his poetry, Medvedev’s essays use simple language to explore complex political and cultural issues on power and art, whether it is the attraction of aesthetic appeal of fascism, or the hierarchies of power in the Russian poetry underground. In a long biographical essay on the underground poetry publisher Dmitry Kuzmin, with whom he’d had a falling out, Medvedev calls for a new form of socialist-democratic art, with the artist as a leading figure in creating collective political consciousness and inspiring direct action:

For a leftist art, there are no individuals: there is simply a single human space in which people exist . . . But no work of art is a thing in itself, as bourgeois thought claims, nor is it a divine reflection, as religious thought claims, but evidence of all society’s defects, including the relations of the dominant and dominated. The task of innovative art is to insist on the uniqueness of the individual while revealing the genuine relations between people, the true connections in society, and, as a result, to forge a new reality.

Throughout It’s No Good, in all of the literary methods and actions that he employs, Medvedev cycles through series of questions on the role of the writer as artist; the role of the artist as political figure; the role of art in politics, in general; the way art morphs and is shaped by money; the importance of leftist art in the fight against neo-fascist and capitalist hegemonies. Medevedev continuously evokes the work of political artists from outside of Russia who came before him, from Pasolini to Brecht, placing himself among an international tradition of artistic activism for leftist, socialist, anti-fascist political causes: “whereas I want—revolution / to change the face of everything, / to overthrow everything and everyone— / they want / a petty bourgeois revolution—”.

It’s No Good is presented in a beautiful paperback covered with Russian avant garde-esque art (Tatlin’s tower is evoked on the front cover, the back cover descends into lines floating in autonomous space), which segues nicely with Medvedev’s theories of art as political weapon, and recalls the intentions of the Soviet Constructivists in the post-Revolutionary period, when artists felt like they had the power to create a better place on Earth, a truly harmonious socialist society, through their art. The American publishers of It’s No Good are no strangers to leftist political thought: Ugly Duckling Presse puts out some of the best poetry and prose from around the world of a truly independent and radical nature, while n+1 published the first collection of writings on the Occupy movement, and publishes some of the best international literature in their journal, as a recent issue featured an excerpt of Mikhail Shishkin’s Maidenhair.

The impressive team of translators for It’s No Good include Keith Gessen, a co-editor at n+1 who helped translate Ludmilla Petrushevskaya’s There Once Lived a Woman Who Killed Her Neighbor’s Baby, as well as Mark Krotov, an editor at publishing behemoth-extraordinaire FSG. Two other translators, Cory Merrill and Bela Shayevich, combine with Gessen and Krotov to give Medvedev a powerful and sympathetic voice in English that is remarkably unified and direct, overwhelmingly sympathetic, and refreshing and enjoyable to read.

As a poet, Medvedev will appeal to the casual poetry reader as much as the avid chapbook hound, and his nonfiction prose will undoubtedly help It’s No Good land on many graduate student bookshelves for years to come. It is Medvedev’s unique mixture of poetry and prose, artistic and political at once, that gives It’s No Good a lasting power that immediately places him in the forefront of international activist art. While Medvedev delves into the complexities of art’s role in Putin’s Russia from his place within the Russian context, the American, and Western reader, in general, comes away not only with a greater understanding of the complexity of a political activist’s lot in Russia today, but burning with the universal questions about every society’s relationship between art and politics.

1 May 12 | Chad W. Post | Comments

With the Best Translated Book Award announcements taking place Friday, May 4th at 6pm at McNally Jackson Books it’s time to highlight all six poetry finalists. Over the course of the week we’ll run short pieces by all of the poetry judges on their list of finalists.

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

False Friends by Uljana Wolf, translated by Susan Bernofsky

Language: German

Country: Germany
Publisher: Ugly Duckling Presse

Why This Book Should Win: Ugly Duckling is one of the most consistently interesting presses (or “presseses”?) in the world, and Susan Bernofsky one of the greatest translators ever.

Today’s post is from Erica Mena and is actually a chunk of the review she wrote of this for the Iowa Review. Click here to support the Iowa Review and read her full piece.

False Friends by Uljana Wolf, translated by Susan Bernofsky, is a delightful foray into language and poetry. Even for someone who has no knowledge of German, the playful shifts between the English translation and the German hinted at behind it are enlightening: both Bernofsky and Wolf clearly delight in the slipperiness of language and sound.

Cognates and homonyms suffuse the poem, toying with seemingly straightforward sentences and twisting them around against themselves. Bernofsky sustains this density of sound against the lightness of the tone, a balance she creates through deft rhythmic and rhyming patterns. The rhythmic quality of the prose poems is striking. In much of the book, Bernofsky hits regular iambic meter, and the poems are stuffed with internal rhyme with equally surprising (because non-lineated) sentence-end rhymes. The bouncy rhythm and dense sounds drive the reader forward through sometimes nonsensical phrases, foregrounding the absurdity of language.

Many of these prose poems read as though they could be nursery rhymes for precocious, hyper-literate children:

he who has a hat has what? i ask. broad-brimmed, you say, a roof above one’s head, cornered, crushed, and most likely of felt—so you’ll feel sheltered till a gust comes blustering by.

But there is exquisite darkness in the images:

still, it would be sinful, you say, not to speak of swans: six is silence, seven love, and in the end there’s a one-wing surplus. seems silly perhaps, but fairy tales save us many a swan song. so i say: consider the woodpecker’s third eyelid sliding supportively across its pupil. with its help, you can strike home any point without eyes popping from sockets. and after that first flutter of hard knocks, the silence cannot hurt you at all.

This book moves deceptively quickly, thanks to all its brilliant poetics and puns. It’s worth a second, third, even a fourth read. It demands to be read out loud, in the way that good poetry does. The book is organized alphabetically (“a DICHTonary of false friends true cognates and other cousins” reads the text on the title page). Each letter gets a short, 6­–12 line block of prose full of alliteration and punning. The alphabet runs the gamut in English, then the second section of the book begins (on noticeably different paper, and printed differently, to accentuate the shift) in German. The original German poems have one obvious difference from the English: they are titled with words rather than listed under the letter of the alphabet. So “A” is, in German, “art / apart.” What especially stands out is that almost all the words in the German section that function as a title are English words—or at least, cognates to English words.

There are English quotes and phrases peppered throughout the German section as well. In “bad / bald / bet-t / brief” Wolf writes, “stattdessen morgens zu berg (take a bet?) und nachts out of bed (siehe ad).” The corresponding line in Bernofsky’s English reads, “standing on end instead (fake a bet?) and at night out of hand (see the ad).” Bernofsky takes the English embedded in the German and re-appropriates it to fit the rhythmic and sonic requirements of her line. “Fake a bet” is similar enough to “take a bet” at least in terms of sound, but it means something stranger, more open-ended. The same goes for “at night out of hand” rather than “out of bed.” The English that Wolf originally used would have made clear sense as a phrase in Bernofsky’s translation (though to a German reader in the original may have been somewhat more unclear). Bernofsky tweaks the phrases with inspiration to unsettle the poems. The project of the book is to toy with language and meaning, with things that sound similar and even the same across languages but mean strange, funny, unusual, and odd things. This is the joy of cognates, as any language learner will tell you—the surprise they can bring to the familiar. By defamiliarizing these phrases, Bernofsky brilliantly constructs an unfamiliar reading experience in English.

5 May 11 | Chad W. Post | Comments

I was going to wait until our manifesto was available online (PEN said it’d be up by last Monday . . . maybe I’m missing something?), but I’ll just jump ahead and tell a quick story or two about this panel that took place last Thursday.

As part of PEN World Voice’s first “Working Day,” Anna Moschovakis of Ugly Duckling Presse, DW Gibson of Mischief + Mayhem, David-Dephy Gogibedashvili, Sergio Chejfec, Eugene Ostashevsky, Jon Fine from Amazon.com, and myself all got together to talk about the forthcoming/ongoing “publishing revolution.” Our conversation was expertly guided by Joshua Furst, who can’t be praised enough for mostly keeping us on track and helping create our manifesto.

Just to provide a bit of background, the “Working Day” panels were limited to only PEN Members and were designed to address a particular issue and issue a Manifesto/Plan of Action.

So, our charge was to write the manifesto for the publishing revolution. Which is as quixotic as it gets.

Nevertheless, the panel was really interesting and evolved into a conversation about who owns the Internet the role of publishers now and in the future. I’m oversimplifying here (it was a fascinating, wide-ranging conversation that could’ve gone on for an additional 3 hours), but we ended up focusing on the role of the publisher as curator and as entity that helps connect readers with the right book out of the infinite number of books that will soon be available. (Very oversimplified.)

We talked a lot about the role of the Internet, not just as a conduit for distribution and publication, but as a place for developing communities of authors and readers. Richard Nash was quoted and alluded to.

What’s funny-awesome is that upon leaving, Sergio Chejfec (whose My Two Worlds is coming out in August) wandered over to the Housing Works Bookshop. He was browsing around, heard some guy talking to a woman about this book, this really cool book, this book he’s been carrying around all week, this book that she has to read, this book called My Two Worlds by Sergio Chejfec . . . Sergio walked over, introduced himself, and they ended up talking for a while. And to continue the series of circular circumstances, as it turns out, this reader is one of Josh Furst’s students . . . Such a nice ending to our mostly digital conversation. Something things happen in meatspace. Sometimes readers find writers in a totally coincidental fashion . . .

1 April 11 | Chad W. Post | Comments

Seeing that we already referenced Amanda DeMarco once today, it seems like the perfect time to mention Readux the new Berlin-based online literary magazine that she’s running.

Here’s how they describe the magazine on their about page:

Readux is a Berlin-based literary website with reviews, interviews, articles, and opinion on German and French books and events.

For you, reader, Readux is a precious source of English-language information by people engaged in local book culture. For us, Readux is a chance to talk about the things we find most interesting or troubling in our reading lives, literary therapy for the lingually displaced. Hopefully, everyone walks away entertained.

Better than that though, is Amanda’s personal statement on why she started this site:

I lead my literary life in Berlin, so I wanted a platform where I could write about the fascinating (sometimes, to an American eye, profoundly weird) book culture I’m immersed in, much of which is otherwise completely inaccessible in English. And I knew other people who were interested in doing the same. Voilà Readux. Context is often what brings books to life; we do reviews, but we also give a lot of space to critical reception, interpretations, events, etc. Readux’s goal is to provide vivid impressions of books and their organic connection to society, written by people who are deeply engaged in local literary discussions.

This hasn’t been up all that long, but already they’ve kicked off a tour of French Moroccan literature (which includes pieces on Moroccan newspapers, and the amazing bookstores of Radat), and reviews of a couple German books, including Robert Walser’s Answer to an Inquiry.

Speaking of the Walser book—they’re currently running a contest to giveaway a copy of Answer to an Inquiry. Click that link to see all the details and enter your name in the drawing.

Worth checking out on a regular basis.

28 March 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 BTBA poetry judge Jennifer Kronovet.

Geometries by Guillevic, translated by Richard Sieburth

Language: French
Country: France
Publisher: Ugly Duckling Presse
Pages: 80

Why This Book Should Win: Charming yet deep; sweet and funny; stimulating, challenging, and yet approachable; private, but easy to relate to, sexy. No, I’m not describing my perfect mate—wait, yes I am!—but I’m also describing the wonderful poems in Geometries, by Guillevic, translated by Richard Sieburth and originally published in French in 1967.

Each of these poems is based on a geometrical figure—presented in its Euclidian simplicity at the top of each piece. These poems bounce playfully, deftly, and philosophically between the unchanging fact of the simple, named form, and the nameless feelings and attitudes we have toward space, the way it shapes us, is us, and comes between us.

Some of the poems in Geometries are intimate addresses to the shapes, such as in “Ellipse,” which begins, “Listen, I know how hard it is/To achieve this kind of balance,//With everything pressing in/On each of your outer points.” These poems, by commiserating with forms, by sometimes chastising them, by truly conversing and engaging with them, reshape shapes from the physical to the metaphysical and back again. The condition of the body and the mind, minds that love and bodies that love—the troubling trouble of it all, is playfully illuminated. “Ellipse” ends “Two centers,/Either oblivious/To each other,/Or at war.” How like our own—my own!—sense of a self at odds with itself. I find I can relate to this ellipse. Who knew.

Many of the poems in the collection give a voice to these shapes, which speak to us out of their self-awareness and their striking personalities. These shapes are resigned to behaving as their dimensions demand—just as may know where the arc of our particular behavior leads us. The “Point” ballsily notes:

I am no more than the fruit
bq. Of an encounter.

I have nothing.

‘Get the point.’
bq. ‘Miss the point.’

What do I know?

Yet who would venture
bq. To erase me?

The cover of the collection says that these poems were “Englished” by Richard Sieburth. They are indeed. Sieburth captures in English the specific spokenness of the poems, their philosophical wit, their pathos (who would have thought shapes could have pathos!), without losing a sense of the inherent playfulness of the project. These shapes are foreign mirrors—yet astounding mirrors nonetheless. These poems are part game, part serious seriousness, and Sieburth stealthily draws the poems down that line into a wonderfully pleasing feeling that something true has been discovered in the oddest of ways.

15 September 10 | Chad W. Post | Comments

The Brooklyn Book Festival took place this past Saturday, and as always, I wish I could’ve been there. I was able to attend a few years back, and was really impressed by how many people were out browsing the stands, attending panels and readings, and generally getting excited about books. And from what I’ve heard the festival has grown every year since.

As covered in The Mantle, this year’s BKBF included a “Reading the World” panel featuring some of my favorite publishers and translators including Karen Emmerich, Susan Bernofsky, Ugly Duckling, and Zephyr. Here’s a clip from Shaun Randol’s write-up:

Great stuff all around, an excellently curated panel. Every single one of the works presented is worth purchasing (skip the library and give these people some money!). (Note to participants: correct me if you see a mistake! There were no Cliffs Notes for what we were listening to on stage.) Karen Emmerich (representing Team Archipelago) read the poetry and prose from the Greek writer Miltos Sachtouris, skipping us across Aegean waters from Greek isles to ancient Greece. And then . . . Ms. Emmerich read an outstanding piece of poetry on the life of plant, by the poet/author Helenē Vakalo. The Mantle audience pleads for an answer—what is this poem and where can we find it? This vegetative poetic genius!?!? Ms. Emmerich, if you are reading this, please put the information in the comments section below!

Next up, Susan Bernofksy (Team New Directions), reading from German author Jenny Erpenbeck’s Visitation. I have nothing written down in my notebook here. This is what happens when the story is too absorbing—you neglect your reporter duties. A complete blank because my eyes were closed and I just listened to the pitter-patter of her voice as she conveyed one of a dozen stories taking place in a single house over generations in what must be an exceptionally intricate novel penned by Erpenbeck. The house is/was real (it belonged to Erpenbeck’s family), so how much of the story is as well? Ahhhh . . . German intrigue . . .

Sounds like a fun panel—one of many that took place. Ah well. Next year . . . There’s always next year . . .

Aside from bringing some attention to this fair/panel, it’s worth spending some time looking around The Mantle. Embarrassed to say that this is the first time I’ve come across the site, which is dedicated to providing “a forum for the next generation of leaders to be heard—a space for opinions that are different from those found in traditional, established outlets.” It’s an interesting publication, with a very international focus, and an intriguing book review section. Definitely worth checking out.

10 March 10 | Chad W. Post | Comments

Approximately five minutes, the winners of this year’s Best Translated Book Awards were announced at a special celebration at Idlewild Books in New York City. Hopefully the party is raging, and the winners are enjoying themselves . . .

Competition was pretty steep for this year’s awards. The poetry committee came to a consensus rather quickly, granting the award to Elena Fanailova for The Russian Version, translated from the Russian by Genya Turovskaya and Stephanie Sandler and published by Ugly Duckling Presse.

On the fiction side of things we debated and debated for weeks. There were easily four other titles that could’ve easily won this thing. Walser, Prieto, Aira were all very strong contenders. But in the end, we gave the award to Gail Hareven for The Confessions of Noa Weber, translated from the Hebrew by Dalya Bilu and published by Melville House Press.

You can download the official 2010 BTBA Winners Press Release by clicking there. And you can visit these links for overviews of The Confessions of Noa Weber and The Russian Version.

22 February 10 | Chad W. Post | Comments

Over the next ten 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.



The Russian Version by Elena Fanailova. Translated from the Russian by Genya Turovskaya and Stephanie Sandler. (Russia, Ugly Duckling Presse)

For the poetry finalists, each of the five judges is writing about two books. Idra Novey—poet, translator, executive director of the Center for Literary Translation at Columbia University—is up first.

The Russian Version obliterates the stereotype of what Great Russian Poetry should sound like. Fanailova has the candor and compassion of Akhmatova and a gift for striking metaphor that might bring Mandelstam to mind, but she is also ruthlessly quick to fire “from the hip,” as she says in the title poem, and her aim is impeccable. In the ironic poem “(The Italics are Mine),” she writes:

In the era when poetry flowed
From human shortcoming,
When poetry was waiting
For dry remainders,
It did its best, I beg your pardon,
Like a hysterical bitch . . .

All of the poems in The Russian Version veer off in delightfully unexpected directions like this. What begins in sweeping historical statement often turns to sly aside or to some in-your-face metaphor. Turovskaya and Sandler do a superb job of keeping these shifts in tone in Fanailova’s poems palpable and surprising. Throughout the book, the voice in these translations are as lively and distinctive as in any poetry currently being written in the US, if not more so. To the credit of both Fanailova and her translators, the poems consistently come across as both alluringly raw and carefully honed. “Now you can say what you actually think,” Fanailova writes in “The Queer’s Girldfriend, “and not what Great Russan Poetry demands.”

Instead of striving for Great Russian Poetry, Fanailova tells of a “tired Petersburg,” a grandmother who sets an apple tree on fire and has the stained dress of a “perpetually slovenly cook.” In an excerpt from her 2002 collection Transylvania Calling, she writes of a woman off to an abortion clinic “like a soldier marching the familiar march” and in the next line of soldiers “fucking beautiful Uzbek girls/unbraiding bridles with their tongues.” Powerful juxtapositions like these, of a tired city and a tree on fire, or of a woman marching like a soldier and soldiers marching over women, crop up throughout the poems. Fanailova, never takes these moments too far or editorializes unnecessarily. Like the scars of the married couples she describes in the same poem, she lets her lines “speak for themselves.”

A well-placed silence is key to the craft of poetry and Fanailova is a master of such silences. In a poem earlier in the collection, she writes:

I love to keep silent,
And to guard the thin-walled, fragile things
I save in cigarette papers.

In the selections contained in this book, spanning nearly twenty years of work, Fanailova knows just when to quietly roll up a poem in cigarette paper and when to let it unfurl. Her version of Russia is one told through a “grease-paint made of crystals” and the result is mesmerizing.

20 November 09 | Chad W. Post | Comments

2010 Subscriptions to Ugly Duckling Presse are now available. They limit the total number of subscribers to 200 and usually sell out pretty quickly, so act fast. There are three levels of subscriber/donors:

At the BASIC SUBSCRIBER level ($150) you receive more than 20 books throughout the year, sent directly to your home, including new works of poetry, essays, and artist books by emerging and established writers and artists; and these books are all uniquely designed, with frequent use of letterpress, hand-sewn binding, and more, demonstrating “a philosophical curiosity about what makes a book a book” (Michael Miller, Time Out New York); and you get all this at COST, meaning the most affordable possible rate available to mankind today for providing you with great books.

At the SUPPORTING SUBSCRIBER level ($250), you receive the full subscription package described above, plus an invitation to a special UDP authors reception, to be held in Spring 2010, a unique opportunity to meet the writers, editors, designers, and board members who contribute their talents; and you receive credit for your meaningful contribution on our online list of supporters.

At the COLLECTOR’S CIRCLE level ($1,000), all of the above benefits, plus a new benefit for our highest level supporters: a one-of-a-kind book, designed and written by the UDP collective, printed and assembled at the UDP workshop, and personalized for the recipient; donors at this level are also credited on the acknowledgments page in the UDP print catalogue.

UDP does some excellent works of poetry in translation, and overall has really excellent production values. Definitely worth at least $150 . . .

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