Translation: Claudia Lars

Here’s my chapter on Claudia Lars. I found this a hard poem to translate. Though I could’t do it justice, I enjoyed trying. Vanguardist poetry is hard, in general. I think because it is built on so much symbolism from other poems, but is trying to break free of that dependency; it feels like shorthand. Sometimes the poems I like the most, or like the most to translate, don’t come out that well. Maybe it’s overthinking. I’d like very much to translate her little book on Laika the cosmonaut dog.

Of course, I am especially fond of Lars because of my love of feminist science fiction. She’s a little bit science-fictiony, don’t you think? And this is certainly a feminist response to patriarchal poetics — a description of “woman” in poetry, but not with the metaphors and language that describes women in terms that are disempowering. It is possibly a difficult poem for that reason too; because it is trying to evade something.

Claudia Lars

Claudia Lars (1899-1974)

Margarita del Carmen Brannon Vega is her birth name; she is also called Carmen Brannon Beers or Carmen Brannon de Samoya Chinchilla. She was born in El Salvador. She studied and lived in the United States, Mexico, Costa Rica, and Guatemala.

Her early work in the 1920s and 1930s was compared to Agustini, Mistral, Storni, and Ibarbourou. She lists as her early influences Cervantes, Fray Luís de León, Lope de Vega, Quevedo, Góngora, Shakespeare, Wordsworth, Burns, Coleridge, Whitman, Poe, Dickinson, Shelley, Byron, Yeats, Blake, and Darío (Barraza 142). Critics called her a lyrical postmodernist. Later, she was considered part of the Vanguard, writing in both formal and free verse.

Her books include Tristes mirajes (1916); Estrellas en el pozo (1934), and Canción redonda (1937). She also wrote poems and books for children, sonnets to famous women writers of many countries, and, later in the 20th century, she wrote a poem cycle on the cosmonauts of the United States and Russia–including the dog Laika.

“Dibujo” sets out a bold feminist vision of the future. The poem’s woman “que llega,” who’s coming, arriving now, or will soon arrive, transcends the usual gendered metaphors. Her ascension is not like flight, and not like the growing of a plant that is rooted in the earth. Instead, Lars describes a woman who stands up, who has agency and raises herself up with all her intelligence and power.


Dibujo de la mujer que llega

En el lodo empinada,
No como el tallo de la flor
y el ansia de la mariposa . . .
Sin raíces ni juegos:
más recta, más segura
y más libre.

Conocedora de la sombra y de la espina,
Con el milagro levantado
en los brazos triunfantes.
Con la barrera y el abismo
debajo de su salto.

Dueña absoluta de su carne
para volverla centro del espíritu:
vaso de lo celeste,
domus áurea,
gleba donde se yerguen, en un brote,
la mazorca y el nardo.

Olvidada la sonrisa de Gioconda,
Roto el embrujo de los siglos,
Vencedora de miedos.
Clara y desnuda bajo el día limpio.

Amante inigualable
en ejercicio de un amor tan alto
que hoy ninguno adivina.
Dulce,
con filtrada dulzura
que no daña ni embriaga a quien la prueba.

Maternal todavía,
sin la caricia que detiene el vuelo,
ni ternuras que cercan,
ni mezquinas daciones que se cobran.

Pionera de las nubes.
Guía del laberinto.
Tejedora de vendas y de cantos.
Sin más adorno que su sencillez.

Se levanta del polvo . . .
No como el tallo de la flor
que es apenas belleza.


Sketch of the woman of the future


Standing tall in the mud.
Not like the flower's stalk
and butterfly’s desire . . .
No roots, no flitting,
more erect, more sure
and more free.

Knower of shadow and thorn,
With miracle held high
in her triumphant arms.
With obstacle and abyss.
beneath her stride.

Absolute queen of her flesh
returned to the center of her spirit:
vessel of the celestial,
domus aurea, home of the golden;
clod where shoots burst forth into
maize and fragrant flower.

Forgotten: the Mona Lisa's smile.
Broken: the spell of centuries.
Conquered: the fears.
Bright and naked in the pure, clean day.

Unequalled lover
in enjoyment of a love so lofty
that no one today could predict it.
Sweet,
with controlled sweetness
that doesn't hurt or intoxicate the drinker.

Maternal still,
without the caress that holds back flight
nor tenderness that traps,
nor submission and giving in, that little by little, smothers.

Pioneer of the clouds.
Guide to the labyrinth.
Weaver of veil and song.
Adorned only in her simplicity.

She stands up from the dust . . .
Not like the flowering stem
that’s not so beautiful.
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Feminist research and anthologizing

Here’s the introduction to my anthology of some poems by women from Latin America, translated from Spanish to English. It explains my research methodology and the theories I developed while reading and translating.

* Introduction to Towards an Anthology of Spanish American Women Poets, 1880-1930 – HTML

* Introduction to Towards an Anthology of Spanish American Women Poets, 1880-1930 – PDF (154K, 42 pages)

Here are a few of my main points.

I considered poems by several different criteria; any one of them were sufficient.
* work of high literary quality by my own judgment
* work that was important in its time
* work is by a woman who was part of a known community of women writers
* work has a strong feminist message
* work is representative of a well-known category or type of poetry of its time and place
* work that was intertextual with other poems

I chose to use chronological juxtaposition, not by author’s birth date or publication of first book, but by when they were active in literary communities.

Some of the point of the anthology is to provide a backdrop for the more well known poets of that time and place. So, for instance, I believe that readings of Gabriela Mistral or Delmira Agustini may change when seen in context with the poems by their contemporary female authors writing in Spanish.

And,

Last but not least, I would like to shift the balance of gender in the practice of defining literary movements and other groupings of poetic styles. By re-presenting a broad range of women’s work from a particular time period, I hope to make it possible to refocus current definitions of literary quality. For example, modernismo as a movement was defined from men’s work, and then, in many cases, quality was determined from whether a poem and a poet’s life fit that definition of modernismo. Therefore, I feel it is a useful experiment to begin to define literary categories from a body of women’s work, from which it is possible to form other parameters of literary quality. To begin that task, it was first necessary to find the women’s poetry.
I began this project with the assumption and belief that there were women poets in Latin America 100 years ago who are worth reading today. My initial questions were: Which women were writing? What were their names? Where and how can I find their work to judge it for myself?

María Monvel
One more bit where I quote myself. (I am SO cheating.)

I noticed a common theme in many anthologies, including those which were promoting a feminist view: they hailed women’s recent work as if women’s poetry were a new phenomenon. As Adrienne Rich said in 1980: “Each feminist work has tended to be received as if it emerged from nowhere; as if each one of us had lived, thought, and worked without any historical past or contextual present. This is one of the ways in which women’s work and thinking has been made to seem sporadic, errant, orphaned of any tradition of its own” (11). Joanna Russ also pointed out this problem in How To Suppress Women’s Writing (1983); she calls it “the myth of the isolated achievement” (62). This isolation was especially apparent in short biographical notes in poetry anthologies, in which male poets were discussed in a context of other men, while women poets were presented as lone examples of excellence.

This bit about the “myth of the isolated achievement” is a pattern I see over and over again when women’s work is discussed — in literature, in poetry, in technology, in politics, or anywhere.

Look for it yourself in articles with a supposedly positive spin. Once you start to see it, and if you start looking at history, and women’s history, you will see the poison for what it is — the perpetual erasure of our history, and a tool that keeps us isolated from each other and from generations past and upcoming.

The time changes, but the pattern remains the same; not just in Latin American poetry, but poetry in general. And not just in poetry, but any genre of writing. Not just in writing, but in many, many fields. In poetry, a distant foremother is invoked, perhaps Sappho or Sor Juana. The lack of (significant) women is pointed out. Then a comparatively recent “appearance” of women is celebrated. The women appear, as if by magic or spontaneous generation. The crest of that wave of women’s achievement is always right now, or just about to happen.

You think you have achieved something in life? Made the situation better? Broke ground? Our daughters will be pointed at as if they were the first… over and over again. Unless we break through the wall, somehow, as I hope that the Net and blogging will help to achieve. Women have been achieving great things for as far back as I have ever tried to look.

Joanna RussDale Spender

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Poetry Month: Day 2, Enriqueta Arvelo Larriva

enriqueta arvelo larriva

Happy Poetry Month! Today I have been thinking about Enriqueta Arvelo Larriva, a Venezuelan poet from the 20th century (1886-1962). Her poems are small and odd, but huge internally, like a pocket universe captured and studied from all sides; a bit abstract and philosophical. This, at a time when it seems to me like the way to be a famous woman poet was to blaze passionately forth in a sort of meteoric scandal of words. Arvelo Larriva’s positioning of herself is at the same time very personal and connected to the specific landscape of the Venezuelan llanos, the central plains — a tropical prairie. But at the same time she positioned herself as a very abstract, analytical, point of human consciousness.

Arvelo Larriva began writing and publishing around 1920 that I can verify (but I have also read she was a poet beginning at age 17, much earlier). Most of her poems that I’ve translated were published in the 1920s, but I don’t have all the research done to know exactly when they were written.

I’d like to point out a pattern I have found in looking at the work of women poets in Latin America. Their poetry was often being published little by little in journals, the same journals as more famous men who were their peers, who were in their same literary circles. But the men became famous more quickly, had books published earlier. I think this is one reason that books of literary history tend to describe the women as footnotes, afterthoughts, imitators, or as not quite catching the wave of a literary movement. It appears from short biographical notes on Arvelo Larriva that she began publishing in 1939. This is not true — she was publishing as early as 1918, and certainly throughout the 1920s, and was part of the Generación de 1918; and was part of the Vanguard of the 1920s student movement as well.

Why do I care? Well, because histories talk about those movements – but leave her out, or only mention her 20 years after her vital, early work. The elision of 20 or more years of her publishing history means that she is also cut off from politics; her brother and others of her political circle were jailed in the 1920s. She remained in their hometown on the prairies. My feeling is that the story of her life might be quite interesting and complicated, but that complication is not represented in any descriptions I’ve seen — which just marvel at how she could write clever poems even though she lives out in the sticks instead of in the exciting capital.

Her work persistently reminds me of the somewhat better-known poems by David Rosenmann-Taub from the 1950s. I’ll talk about his poems later this month and connect back to this post on Arvelo Larriva. I also think of some of the short airy poems of García Lorca.

So, onward to a few poems. They might not be your cup of tea. But I get very excited over their depth and over how different they are from other poems of the time. They stand out to me. Also, since I have read a bunch of her work, I am able to see some things in a larger context. So if it seems that I am reading too much into a tiny poem, try to bear with me.

Destino

Un oscuro impulso incendió mis bosques
¿Quién me dejó sobre las cenizas?

Andaba el viento sin encuentros.
Emergían ecos mudos no sembrados.

Partieron el cielo pájaros sin nidos.
El último polvo nubló la frontera.

Inquieta y sumisa, me quedé en mi voz.

Destiny

A dark impulse burned up my forests.
Who is left for me from the ashes?

The wind roamed alone, meeting no one.
Echoes emerged, mute, unsown.

Birds without nests divided the skies.
The last dust clouded the frontier.

Anxious and meek, I dwell in my voice.

“Destino” can be read in light of the Venezuelan llanos and the prairie burn-off of the dry season. Yet, like many of her poems, it can be read as a political commentary. There is the “dry season” layer, specific to the geography of Barinas, where she lives; the tangled, thorny groves are burned with controlled fires in order to clear room for new growth for vast herds of cattle. The poem could also work as a personal one about philosophical and spiritual renewal. However, the “pájaros sin nidos” ‘birds without nests’ can also be read as the journalists, students, and poets who had to flee the country under the rule of Juan Vicente Gómez, after the 1927 student uprisings or other political clashes.

Enriqueta Arvelo Larriva

The creative act of the word, of poetry, is presented as a solution to the problems posed in “Destino” as in many of her other poems. I see her as writing with intense vitality about violence, revolution, politics. But as encoding those concepts within a sort of personal artistic framework, where the poet’s voice breaks out of everyday life, a jailbreak from reason and order.

To be honest here on my translation, I am not happy with those birds without nests. Well, how long can one stare at the page muttering, “homeless birds… birds without nests… nestless….. no, dammit” before one just goes with whatEVER. Sometimes, I will be driving down the highway and a line of a poem I translated years ago will pop into my head — one of this sort of line, where my English is clumsy and graceless — and the perfect, beautiful phrase will come to me in a flash. From what people say, this happens to all translators and that is why we are always revising. I can work very hard on a translation, and feel in the groove for 90% of it, but that other 10% that just wasn’t inspired, is a torment.

I am also fond of this poem:

Vive una guerra

Vive una guerra no advenida. Guerra
con santo y seña, con la orden del día,
con partes, con palomas mensajeras.

Guerra pujante dentro de las vidas.
No digo en las arterias; más adentro.

Ni un estampido ni un rojor de fuego
ni humo vago dan desnudo indicio.

Mas paz de tiza la refleja entera.

And I will give you the first bit, which I think is interesting to translate. Try it yourself as a challenge, if you like.

A war lives

A war lives, unheralded. War
with saint and sign, with the order of day,
with parts of things, with messenger doves.

War throbbing inside whole lives.
I don’t say in the veins; deeper inside.

“Vive una guerra” continues the internalization of violent metaphors, with war metaphors to represent existential and philosophical struggles.

Someday I would like to really do her poetry justice, and translate her first two books. Just the little bit that I do know about her family (which included many poets) and her life and about Venezuelan politics, history, and geography, illuminates the poems for me. If I could do the original research, find the journals where her work first appeared, read her poems in that context, I imagine that I could translate them better, explain them, present them in a context that would help other people see where the poems lead.

There is more to say about the ways that Arvelo Larriva was framed as a woman, and about the gendering of literary history as it happens and in hindsight. I guess I’ll go into that more in future posts as I talk about other poets and their lives.

Enriqueta Arvelo Larriva

What I truly wish for is the ability to get some good, lowdown, dirty gossip. I’d like to know the poets I translate, who have been dead since before I was born, in the same way that I know the poets who are alive now in my city; what do people think of them, really? What are they like? Would I have liked hanging around with Enriqueta? Was she rude, kind, radical, bitchy, boring, pedantic, vindictive, wise? Was she more interesting when she was young? What was the course of her life? With many poets, I do get a sense for the arc of their lives and careers. With Enriqueta, I barely know a thing. And am not likely to get it in this lifetime. Maybe I’ll find an old journal or two, or a letter; her letters with Gabriela Mistral and Juana de Ibarbourou. Just knowing those letters exist, changes everything for me.

Maybe someone who knows more will write a longer Wikipedia entry. More likely, some boorish great-nephew will write to me and go “My god! You’re talking about old Aunt Netty and her insane scribbling! I didn’t think anyone cared about that! Blah blah blah, all those poetry readings, grande dame of Barinitas… She smelled like dusty lavender and dead mice… But, she made good cookies.” I can’t romanticize my dead poets too much, because I always imagine out those great-nephews who have become excellent dentists and who have healthy lives and perspectives lacking in poetry, who knew only the human being and not the metaphysical point in space and time that was the free-floating philosopher poet.

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Women of the Left Bank

I’m still thinking about Paris Was a Woman and at the moment am listening to Ed Sanders reading “Hail to the Rebel Cafe”. I know a lot of Latin American women were in Paris or visited in the teens and 1920s, and I’ll look through my notes to figure out who. All my biographical information on these writers is going into a wiki, which for now is private while I set up the structure and the skeleton, but will soon be public and editable by anyone.

I need to get a copy of Women of the Left Bank and add them too.

Here’s some of the people I can list as literary women in Paris from the documentary: Djuna Barnes, Jean Rhys, Sylvia Beach, Janet Flanner, Alice B. Toklas, Colette, Janet Flanner, painter Marie Laurencin Berenice Abbott, Gisele Freund, Djuna Barnes, Natalie Barney, Sylvia Beach, Adrienne Monnier, Gertrude Stein, Ada “Bricktop ” Smith , Josephine Baker, Renee Vivian, Romaine Brooks, Marie Bonaparte, Elizabeth Bowen, Victoria Ocampo, Vita Sackville-West, Virginia Woolf, Bryher.

We could also add:

* Gabriela Mistral
* Emilia Bernal
* Léonie Julieta Fournier (Nirene Jofre Oliú.)
* Comtesse de Noilles – Anna de Noailles

Of course, what about now? Where are we? Are we documenting this? I’d like to expand my women poets/writers wiki to right this minute and my own hometown. Why not document the moment and ourselves? Think of the riot grrl history that is already lost or slipping away. Let it be recorded on heaven’s unchangeable heart or at least the internets, failing heaven.

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Nitpicking at Langston

So, I keep vaguely talking about Hughes’ editorial choices – what, of Mistral, he chose to translate and present to a U.S. English-speaking audience. Selecting poems to represent a poet’s work is a hard job! I respect what he did, and yet have many critiques of it. And how it was read – as critics and other poets and editors praised him for capturing the essence of Mistral’s womanliness. Leaving aside the problem of Mistral’s mystical womanliness – for someone so complexly genderfucked – I want to look at some of Hughes’ choices as a translator. Specifically, I want to nitpick a translation and in fact, I would go so far as to call it a complete misreading. A gendered misreading. (I have more to say about Mistral and race, and Hughes’ biography, and how here, Hughes wanted to see and believe in that nurturing mixed-race populist world-mother that in fact, Mistral represented herself as, and bought into. But this poem in particular struck me as Hughes’ mistaking of Mistral’s coolness and her radical position as a woman writing women.

Here is the poem in Spanish:

ROCIÓ

Esta era una rosa
que abaja el rociò:
este era mi pecho
con el hijo mío.

Junta sus hojitas
para sostenerlo
y esquiva los vientos
por no desprenderlo.

Porque él ha bajado
desde el cielo inmenso
será que ella tiene
su aliento suspenso.

De dicha se queda
callada, callada:
no hay rosa entre rosas
tan maravillada.

Esta era una rosa
que abaja el rocío:
este era mi pecho
con el hijo mío.

What is this poem *about*? Dew… But Hughes makes it about a son. He sees a Virgin Mary worshipping her son. Sentimentally and rather tritely. In my opinion, he misses something crucial in the poem’s voice and italics; it is written in two different voices! The mother (older) contemplating her own breasts and what they have done – in the bracketing stanzas in italics. And the middle 3 stanzas where her marvel at the act of nursing is described.

Here is Hughes’ translation:

Dew

This was a rose
kissed by the dew:
This was the breast
my son knew.

Little leaves meet,
soft not to harm him,
and the wind makes a detour
not to alarm him.

he came down one night
from the great sky;
for him she holds her breath
so he won’t cry.

Happily quiet,
not a sound ever;
rose among roses
more marvellous never.

This was a rose
kissed by the dew;
this was my breast
my son knew.

To nitpick further. The winds are not making a detour; if they were, they’d be “esquivan” not “esquiva”. So the winds are not the subject. I’m just saying. Rather: the rose and her petals avoid the wind, to protect *the dew*.

Here is my translation:

Dew

This was a rose
covered in dew
This was my breast
and my nursing baby.

She pulls in her petals
to hold the dewdrops,
and shies away from the wind
lest they loosen and fall.

Since the dew has descended
from infinite heaven,
she’ll have to
hold her breath.

At her great luck, she remains
hushed, hushed:
out of all roses, this rose
is so amazing.

This was a rose
covered in dew
this was my breast
and my nursing baby.

(disclaimer… I could improve on this if I fiddled with it for a while longer. That’s actually a first pass effort.)

Yes, she is marvelling at her baby. But first of all she is marvelling at her breastmilk! That’s the point! She’s stunned, quiet, amazed, holding her breath at the amazingness of the milk – not only at the fact of the baby itself! It’s way more like Inanna applauding her wondrous vulva than it is like a Hallmark card about a mom cooing over her babe that came down from heaven.

Yes, I do think I can grok a poem about breastfeeding better than some dude, no matter how cool he is. (And he is cool – I totally love him. But I do not really love his translations of Mistral! Oh, Langston! )

Just a little translatory rant to liven things up. I could pick apart quite a lot of that little Hughes book, in totally insane detail.

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damning with faint praise and no space

After two years of research, reading prefaces to anthologies of Latin American poetry and descriptions of women poets in literary histories, I’m a veteran of hateful sexism. You’d think I’d be inured to it.   But this sentence dripped with such venom I thought I’d share it and perhsps that would defuse some of its power:

“She acheived a sort of stark and uncompromising beauty that came very close to justifying the 1945 Nobel Prize she received at a time when Reyes, Neruda, and Borges were all still very active.”

Thanks, Rodríguez Monegal… *sarcasm*. Why not just say right out, “Mistral did not deserve the Nobel Prize” and then explain why you think so?

There’s another phenomenon I keep seeing. A critic will praise a woman poet’s work to the skies, but then won’t discuss it; instead, will briefly describe the woman’s life, family, and reputation, while giving all the critical attention (and lots of space) to male poets who are not better writers. For example, Anderson-Imbert called María Eugenia Vaz Ferreira “the nucleus of Uruguayan poetry” and of modernismo; he praises her high level of complex thought and her technical perfection; but then he wraps her up in two paragraphs, following up with five pages in detail about Julio Herrera y Reissig, whom he calls “not a great poet…” If he’s not a great poet and Vaz Ferreira is, why did she get two paragraphs and he got five pages?

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outrageously erased

Today in the library I meant to write up a formal description of my anthology project, but instead skimmed through biographical dictionaries.

I checked out several huge fat multi-volume dictionaries of Latin American authors, and some other Spanish-language Encyclopedias of Famous Women. It was interesting to see patterns emerge. Some encyclopedists knew a fair amount of Cuban women writers, but missed all the Chileans. Others got the Argentinians and Uruguayans, or knew about certain of my own favorites like the Venezuelan poet Enriqueta Arvelo Larriva, or massively famous feminists like Adela Zamudio, but missed the Cubans entirely except for Gomez de Avellaneda. *Everyone* was blind to the very strong groups of Guatemalan women writers. Some of the encyclopedias who knew the Matamoros-Borrero-Xenes circle still missed Emilia Bernal, or perhaps left her out on purpose for being too scandalous – I have no idea.

Sainz de Robles’ Diccionario de Mujeres Celebres, 1959, was strong on international and historical references. I’d enjoy reading all of it someday. If I found similar books from 1900 or so, and simply read them through, I’d understand these women’s poetry better. I’d see their references, just as reading a historical review of Sappho-myths helped me understand the poetry of Mercedes Matamoros and Nydia Lamarque. And just as my somewhat random knowledge of Norse mythology clued me into understanding Juana Borrero’s poem about Ran’s daughters.

Anyway, I studied patterns, took notes, xeroxed some things, and added considerably to the short biographies of many of the poets.

I enjoyed skipping around in Cesar Aira’s dictionary of authors. The appendices, which listed writers by country and then by birthdate, looked extremely useful. Though he missed quite a lot of the women I think are interesting. I like to think that he just didn’t know about them – rather than that he knew them but rejected their work as inferior.

Then I got into a terrible history-of-literature book, Literatura Hispanoamericana, volume 5 of an enormous and authoritative-looking reference series, Historia de la literatura española. It’s from 1969, and its author, Professor A. Valbuena Briones, included only one woman in his 600-page review of five centuries of Spanish-American literature, and it was… wait for it…. who do you think? There are only two possibilities and it is unimaginable to leave one of them out. It was Gabriela Mistral! He left out Sor Juana Inez de la Cruz. Fucking incredible… of all the people you’d think it would be impossible to erase. I kept looking through the index in dismay and finally flipped through the books’ opening chapters. Nope! No Sor Juana! I still hope I’m wrong. It keeps my faith in human nature going. The Valbuena B, he’s an amazing guy. I started having flashbacks to my classes 20 years ago in the Spanish department at University of Texas… maybe those old fossils had learned off that very book. Since The Valbuena had huge bibliographies that made it clear he had at least opened the flyleaf of many fine books that had women in them, we have to think that perhaps he is the distillation of many filtering layers of sexist anthologizing and critical reviewing, so that all the times that women writers were shunted off into the last paragraph of the last chapter of the book finally came to a head, like an enormous, gross zit, and popped, leaving nothing for Valbuena Briones to work with. He didn’t even have the obligatory section of “mention a couple of women while putting them down and lamenting that they aren’t better and there aren’t more of them” which I notice in so many literary doorstops of the 20th century.

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Fitting and not fitting

While I was doing my research I pretty much ignored Chile and in fact I have completely ignored Gabriela Mistral because I figure everyone else has written about her already, and she’s well known. Ultimately I have to go and read her poems and read something about her life – in fact, probably I’m being stupid and there’s a biography of her out there in English that would be easy for me to find, with pointers to lots of other good poets.

My poet this week has been Olga Acevedo, a Chilean born around 1895. Acevedo fits firmly with the other women I’ve been translating, all the ones who are “not quite modernists”. Well what if they’re not? Why not call them something else? Because there was definitely something. Why not call it a genre? For god’s sake.

My special favorite, Juana de Ibarbourou, doesn’t fit strict definitions of modernismo in her early work mostly because she’s not quite rigorous and formal enough. I read somewhere in an interview with her that until after her second book, she didnt’ even know what a sonnet was. She’d read plenty of them, and written them, but had never studied the rules of verse. (All the poets did not study the rules of verse, but the ladies DO roll their eyes.) She just DID it – but slightly “wrong”.

Back to Acevedo. I got very excited at her early poems. Acevedo mentions silence a lot. There’s a lot of not-speaking, and dot-dot-dot ellipses, ghosts and statues that can’t speak but who want to speak and paradoxically ARE speaking through the poem. The sort of poem that goes like this, “I’m totally mute, I’m a statue, I can’t speak! Oh, the sadness!” (Not an actual line.) It’s a beautiful rhetorical strategy that makes me aware of all the things they’re not saying. Despite my writing ALL THE TIME there is plenty I’m not saying and can’t say because of social convention or attempts to be private — and I don’t always feel comfortable with that. Show me a wall and I want to break it. Reflex! But these early 20th century women, their silent speaking statues are all talking to Rodó, in response to his essay “Ariel” in which a philosopher explains to his students (gatherred around a statue of Ariel) all about their duty as artists.

I wondered about the phrase “la tristeza de ser”, which was in quotes in Acevedo’s poem “Serenata”. Is it a quotation/translation from French? Or Kierkegaard? I could translate it as “existential despair” but I’m not sure if I want to be anachronistic if it’s an anachronism. If you’re going to say “sadness of being” you might as well say “existential despair”. Anyway, Acevedo’s angst is expressed thusly: She’s passionately addressing a ray of pure white moonlight as it streams into her room, and she wants to hide her face in its gauzy negligee and melt away into perfumed nothingness like a ravished bride. Hot stuff!

In other early poems by Acevedo, I noticed a lot of blue which is now a red flag, or really a blue flag, for me that something is going on about Art and Poetry with capital letters. Anything that’s blue, or anything about fountains or swans, and the poet is definitely talking to/about Darío and “Azul” — and so is addressing the ideas of modernismo; the poem should be read in the context of modernismo whether you “count” it or not in that genre. Pure art, inspiration, beauty — Beauty — as a way of being. These women, these adherents of maenidismo, saw themselves as living their lives as art. I feel like the more I read, the more I am in their dream-world. Edith Södergran is there — and the Comtesse de Noailles — and I’m sure so many more from other countries and languages. I want to put my Latin American women together with them in a lovely anthology, someday, to show the connections.

My own dreamworld is still this imaginary, beautiful data structure of all the texts in the world. I want it to be easy to see relationships between books. I want people to be viewable as nebulous clouds of text-production and consumption or maybe those are the wrong words; texts and people have conversations and relationships.

How much happier I am to be putting all this out into the world, instead of just in private notebooks! And not to be a lonely super-reader autodidact freak anymore. I mean, I still am, but the value of it is different once I’m not talking to the air.

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It’s poetisas all the way down

You know that dumb story about how the universe rests on the back of a turtle and then the turtle is standing on another turtle, and it’s turtles all the way down?

People tend to take a particular rhetorical stance when talking about women’s writing. Even I do this. Even critics I admire the most. I was just reading this wonderful excerpt from Vicky Unruh’s book which will come out next spring. Take a look! The preface is titled “The “Fatal Fact” of the New Woman Writer in Latin America, 1920s-1930s”. Fifteen years ago, Unruh wrote a book called “Latin American Vanguards” in which women appear in one sentence – a sentence that denied they fit properly into the Vanguard genre. Now she’s writing this book, which I can’t wait to read, about women writers in that same era! In the preface I think she is circling dangerously close to saying that women only in the 20s just started literary life… But she completely avoids saying that, and instead talks about women as choosing to occupy a particular position in a performative, public, literary conversation. The book looks great. I am never going to hit this level of scholarly academic articulation, maybe. Yet I’m writing the same sort of ideas, and what’s more, I’m acting on them. I’m sharing that set of assumptions and theory, sharing that critical stance, and putting them into practice, as a poet, translator, critic, and editor.

Since I am researching the conversations not just of the 20s but of some decades earlier I am extremely wary of making claims about the Newness of anything – as people so often do. I guess what I’m trying to say is that- when people MAKE those claims, be very suspicious. I hope other critics follow Unruh; I hope it’s a general trend, and people will stop saying “Before this writer, women just didn’t write, and weren’t educated; how unfortunate” or “And here is the moment when love poetry began”. Acknowledge a little ignorance on your own part, instead. (I can’t tell you how many people think there was Sor Juana Inez de la Cruz, and then there was nothing for a long time because women were just so terribly oppressed, and then there was Delmira Agustini or Gabriela Mistral. Maddening! It’s okay not to know, but it’s not okay to claim you know when you don’t and to base a lot of assumptions on that.)

Here’s an example. Maria Monvel started off her 1930 preface to “Poetisas de América” by celebrating the huge numbers of Latin American women poets, and wondering with a dismissive shrug why Spain lacks them. She comes up with an elaborate explanation of why this is so, and then mentions the few exceptions Spain has in her opinion. Other than those three women she “lets in” to the club of Real Women Writers, it’s like there’s a blank. Maybe she didn’t know; maybe she was deliberately creating a blank space in history. Either way, it’s criminal.

I’m looking at some of my xeroxed pages from a book I found, from 1915, called “Antología de Poetisas Líricas”, a huge book in two volumes; it was published by the Real Academia Española. It’s full of poetry by Spanish women from the 16th and 17th centuries. (In fact I bet you could make a strong argument that what Cervantes was making fun of – was them and their romances. Classic “make fun of women’s popular successful writing” stance. Surely someone’s said this.) I feel like listing a few of their names:

Doña Isabel Corrca
Doña Juana Josefa de Meneses, condesa de Ericeira
Sor Ana de San Joaquin
Sor Gregoria Francisca de Santa Teresa
Doña Juana Teresa de Noronha
Rafaela Hermida Jarquetes
Doña María Josefa de Rivadeneyra
Doña María Hore
Doña Margarita Hickey y Pellizzoni
Doña María Nicolasa de Helguero y Alvarado

That’s just part of the first page of the table of contents of a 1000 page book. Okay? And the hundreds of Spanish women poets in there are just the few who got published in their time, and who survived the erasure of history. Think how many more their probably were!

Or if you read about French feminism and feminist writers and movements and poets … and you keep looking further and further back… you will finally get to the 18th century… and think you can say “And then it began.” But no. Keep looking and you find more. I have ceased to believe in a beginning.

It’s women poets all the way down!

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Anthologizing; standards of selection

I’ve been working on my anthology project for over a year. It’s of poems by Latin American women writers – well, Spanish America – and is focused on work published between 1880 and 1930. My goal is to give a fair representation of what was being published by women in that era. I’ve done a lot of research! And I could spend years expanding this project; it’s fascinating and there is a ton of material. To do this project right, I would need to go spend a couple of months in various big libraries. I’d like to visit the Benson Latin American collection in Austin; I’m familiar with it because I used to work in that library system. I’d like to go to big libraries in Buenos Aires and Uruguay and Cuba and Guatemala, to look at copies of women’s magazines and other literary magazines from the turn of the century.

For now, I have quite a lot to work with. I have good work from about 40 or 50 poets, and many more I haven’t yet been able to judge. I’ve translated a smaller core group of 21 poets, made short bios for them, and compiled lists of their work, where I could find that information. Most of these poets are not well known. You have your famous ones in roughly this order:

– Gabriela Mistral (Won the Nobel Prize)
– Delmira Agustini
– Alejandra Storni

I’d say that’s it for the “known” writers that you would expect from an academic who is a latin americanist, or is from Latin America. Storni, especially, was hip recently. And a few poets in the U.S. will have read selected translations of Mistral. Usually the dippiest and stupidest of her poems.

Beyond that, people seem to know Juana de Ibarbourou; Salome Ureña, Gertrudis Gómez de Avellaneda. Correct me if I’m wrong! The other writers are either little-known even to most literary people, or they’re known (or known of) by people from their own countries. This is not surprising; academia rewards specialization. People tend to become experts in a particular time, place or “literary movement”; even so narrow as to study a particular writer. The mindset of the ambitious anthologist must be quite different.

I find most of my “unknown” women poets only in anthologies that are country-specific, and often only in old anthologies from 1930. There is a certain sentimentality attached to them, as they might have been poems memorized in grade school for recitation…. again, the poems best known are not the best poems.

So what do I mean by “the best poems”? On some level, I have an absolute artistic standard, a very traditional “golden bookshelf” one, that I’m judging by. It’s elitist and snobby. I like density of language and meaning, a “leaping” quality, and intertextuality. I like a surprise. I value poems that are exciting to me as a poet – and value them over poems that might be more exciting to a general audience. This kind of discernment is good to have, but it can also be a liability or an obstacle to interpretive vision and judgement; it can be blatantly classist; it’s like wearing blinders. Steeping myself in non-elite traditions gives me other standards to judge by; like with literary genre, you can’t judge one sort of thing by the standards of another. In other words, I believe that literary critics, anthologizers, and teachers have to get over that sense, or not be limited by it.

On another level, I want to find “what’s interesting to people now” including anything that I think will be unexpected. If I see (and I do) that “latin american women’s writing” is being marketed in the U.S. as having a certain kind of eroticism, then I want to find poems that are metaphysical and abstract. When I read prefaces to other anthologies that say that women mostly write love poetry that’s overly sentimental and twee, and that men’s poetry is more important because it’s political, then I want to find some political poems by women. Whenever I make up my mind to look for something that I’ve read doesn’t exist, frankly, I’ve found it! That is very satisfying to my notions of feminism.

Overt feminist content often interests me in a poem, so while Adela Zamudio’s “Nacer Hombre” doesn’t make my snooty elitist filter, it is boldly feminist. It has also been an extremely famous poem for over 100 years. That alone gives it historical interest. And when I show it to people, they tend to respond with surprise and pleasure that such a poem was written at all in 1887:

Cuánto trabajo ella pasa
Por corregir la torpeza
De su esposo, y en la casa,
( Permitidme que me asombre).
Tan inepto como fatuo,
Sigue él siendo la cabeza,
Porque es hombre!

Actually, these sentiments were not so rare as people think. It is a sad symptom of the state of history, and of feminist history, that it should be so surprising.

I look for works that are representative of a particular kind of writing. Here’s a perfect example: Emma Vargas Flórez de Arguelles, born in 1885 in Colombia. I found a few of her poems in an old anthology of Colombian women poets. She never published a book, but had poetry in magazines and newspapers and was part of a family of poets. That’s all I know about her. If I could go to Colombia, or if I spent a week digging, I’m sure I’d find more about her life and more of her work. The poem I am including in the anthology is called “Manos femeniles.” It’s totally barfy. I’ll give you some of my English translation:

Professional hands that instead of a needle
take up the pen, driven by longing,
and instead of embroidery, shape verses;
you’re the busy secretaries of the soul,
that in happy times, peaceful, create
harmonious verses from honey and vinegar.

It gets worse. Lilies, mothers, children, Christ, butterflies, shy maidens, fragility, embroidery, stars, pearls, honor, and “holy obedience” all make cameo appearances and one is slightly tempted to think of the word “doggerel”. But then I think back to Longfellow and Tennyson, who are just as barfy and doggerel-prone and yet who are still judged to be “good” though out of fashion. If they were women they would disappear into the mists. How unfair! And Emma Vargas actually fits the stereotype of “women’s verses” that make people roll their eyes. Shouldn’t we actually take a long hard look at such poems before we judge them?

Indeed when I look deeper at “Manos femeniles”, it’s got something going on. I realize now, from reading a lot of poems like this, that there’s something similar to the U.S. women’s temperance movement going on; that Vargas is part of the feminism that thought of women as essentially holy and better than men; the famous “angel in the house”. The poem addresses famous men directly, challenging them to think of women poets as interpreters of a sort of fragile women’s dream-world, as if women are more directly in touch with the land of fantasy and imagination than men can be. In a modernist aesthetic, this is like saying that men can’t be good poets! They’re too sullied by gross impurity of the world and of just being men, apparently. Men sin a lot, and have battles and make a lot of noise. Women care for the wounded and for children, and are Christlike, while also sort of magically channelling poet-energy from the stars, from flowers, jewels, and from, you know… modernist fairyland. Then she winds up the poem with a rousing call to sisterly action:

Women of America, sisters of dreams,
for new songs, our hands together all
shall weave a laurel wreath,
and – united – we’ll add from our gardens
fresh violets, exotic jasmine,
leafy lilies, red carnation!

You have to admit that’s kind of cool! And while by my absolutist golden-bookshelf standards, I would sneer at it if it were written last year and read at a poetry slam, when I picture it in the context of its time, it’s interestingly radical.

This is getting to be a very long post. I will continue tomorrow.

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