April: National Poetry Month. Post 1: Nestor Perlongher in translation


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Originally uploaded by Liz Henry

I’m going to try to post every day in April on poetry and poetics. This blog has got some poetry in it, if you dig deep underneath the feminist eyerolling and disability rights and tech stuff.

In the last month, I’ve been going through my translations and poems from the last 10 years. My work schedule has been light – I am contracting, half-time. And there’s a huge backlog of writing which I just never bothered to send anywhere, and didn’t blog, figuring I’d send it out later. So, while I send these translations out to journals and publishers, I’ll be focusing here on describing work I like, or going through some of my own work.

That sounds boring I’m sure, but let’s start with a bang and talk about something super dirty. Let’s descend into the mire!

Today I thought about my translations of Nestor Perlongher’s poems. Nestor was an Argentinian gay rights activist, sociologist, and poet who died in the mid-90s. He lived in São Paulo for much of the 80s and 90s, and wrote in a mixture of Spanish, Portuguese, and Portuñol, with a little bit of gay street French thrown in. I have read a fair bit about the Argentinian Dirty War. A few years ago, I heard an mp3 of his long poem about the the disappeared, “Cadaveres”. It blew my mind. I translated that poem and looked further on the net for his work. Not much was available, but what I found blew me away even more. It was weird, radically messed up, dirty, and queer as hell. It was difficult, disturbing, and beautiful.

Someone said the word “untranslatable” in my hearing. You know what happens next!

Perlongher was a sociologist who studied gay and transsexual street hookers in São Paulo. Wow, did he ever study them.

I am somewhat aware of the activism and politics around global human rights for queer and transgendered people. For example I have read plenty about human trafficking from Brazil to Europe and the U.S. and about the questionable safety of some of the more risky surgeries you can get done in Brazil (and elsewhere in the world). And I am somewhat aware as well of the cultures and communities of trans and queer, transvestite, drag queen, cross dresser, intersex, genderqueer, transsexual, and all that sort of thing in the U.S. There are some interesting differences between how trans people are viewed here vs. how they are viewed in much of Latin America. I set out to learn a bit about that, and did some reading in libraries and on the net as a background to translating Perlongher’s poems. It seems to me in many ways that queer urban culture is more global than I knew or expected. Like house music, like the transcendence of Frankie Knuckles, Perlongher’s genderqueer hookers would be at home in San Francisco or Chicago, Paris or Bangkok, as much as in São Paulo. And you have only to be even vaguely queer, to listen to Perlongher’s voice reading “Cadaveres” in that mp3, to go pretty much instantly, “Okay, that is a gay man talking.” If you think about gaydar, going across languages, it is pretty interesting.

Meanwhile, I was reading a bit more about the neobaroque (neobarroco) and neobarroso movements in South America and Cuba.

The poems themselves. What do I mean when I marvel at their spectacular dirtiness? It is hard to describe. They are slippery and pornographic. If you are my mom or something, just stop reading now, because I am going to describe the poetics of cocksucking. There is a pervasive sense of shifting ground, of a moving frame. A phrase will link to the phrase above it and mean one thing, and mean something else on its own when your reading-frame hits it and isolates, and means something else when linked with the phrase that follows; and again in the context of the whole poem, as a flickering impression or kinematoscope, layers up to create a general atmosphere, so that without actually having said the word “cocksucking” or “cum shot”, you realize that is what you are reading about. Everything is sort of glistening and sticky. You think of glitter, flouncing, dive bars and back alleys and strip clubs. Celebratory sleaze. It’s all blowjobs in the rain with smoky eyeshadow, in some over-romanticized Frenchified movie.

Perlongher’s poetics go into the gutter and find amazing beauty – and often, beauty that ties sexuality to resistance to political oppression.

As perhaps you can imagine, the human rights of trans hookers on the streets are not a priority, say, to the police and government. If you are politically active in other areas as well, and you are gay in that context, there is not a lot of recourse for you legally and you are an easy target. But also, as a gay person in a straight world, you have particular survival skills and ways of acting collectively that come in handy during times of particular political repression. I think that is a good angle to keep in mind while reading Perlongher’s work. Perlongher was an openly gay activist in Buenos Aires and in Brazil for gay and transgender rights. He also was around in the 80s and early 90s to watch everyone die. He is writes in a way that shows me he is aware of the violence and power imbalances in pornography and in the sex trade.

You see why I have come to love him dearly in the way that translators can love their poets who they have never known.

In the mean time his poetry is also wankery in the other, academic sense of the word, as in Baudrillard wankery, of spectacle and illusion and semiotics, the elusive and illusive web of meaning that surrounds absence & signs.

So, onwards to a snippet of poetry.

My disclaimer here is that I am super aware that in places I might just be dead wrong. And, the nonlinearity of the poem means that even if you understand every word in Spanish, you will be staring at the page wondering what the hell it means. (And, I considered every word’s meaning in Portuguese as well, because he did double-triple meanings on purpose, or wanted words to evoke other words.) If you tell me I’m wrong and argue it and back it up, I will listen and be grateful for the help.

Consider this section from “Miché”,


la travesti
echada en la ballesta, en los cojines
crispa el puño aureolado de becerros: en ese
vencimiento, o esa doblegación:
de lo crispado:
muelle, acrisolando en miasmas mañaneras la vehemencia del potro:
acrisolando:
la carroña del parque, los buracos de luz, lulú,
luzbel: el crispo: la crispación del pinto:
como esa mano homónima se cierne
sobre el florero que florece, o flora: sobre lo que
florea:
el miché, candoroso, arrebolado
de azahar, de azaleas, monta, como mondando, la
prístina ondulación del agua:
crueldad del firmamento,
del fermento:
atareado en molduras microscópicas, filamentosos mambos:
tensas curvas

the trannygirl
sprawled on the springs, in her cushions
jerks the fist gilded with leather: in that
conquering, or this submission:
of that which jerks
elastic, refiningfined in earlymorning miasmas the vehemence of the colt:
refined:
meatmarket of the park, holes of light, lulu,
lucifer: the jerk: the shuddering of the pinto:
like how that hand homonym purifies itself
on the flowery florist that flowers, or blooms: over that which
flourishes:
the hustler, straightforward, blushing
with orangeblossom, with azalea, like stripping bare, the
pristine undulation of water:
cruelty of the firmament,
of ferment:
busybusy in microscopic moldings, filamentous mambos:
curves tense

Okay, so, just consider that for a bit. I would love to publish the rest but I’ll just wait on that for a while. But, if you were going to write a poem about handjobs without ever saying anything directly dirty, here is your model. If you read Spanish you may go and read the rest in the original. It is full of lube, pushing blunt heads, grease, drool, perturbing firmness, throats and petioles, oysters and curves, and shining above the grime and flesh, the sparkle and “authenticity” of gold lamé.

I’d love to talk some time about his poem about Camila O’Gorman. It seems to me to be a perfect encapsulation of a way that gay men see cinematic and tragic femininity. It is all melodrama and heroine and actress, mist and gauze, mixed with sex, death, and of course flesh and dirt. I read it and just can’t believe how evocative and weird it is. It makes me think of the scene in Bataille’s Blue of Noon where Dirty and the narrator are having sex and fall off a cliff in the muddy rain, or when they are messing with that priest’s eyeball. But actually, sort of, the poem is about a 19th century pregnant teenager facing a firing squad. Where the rats and candle wax and worms come into this, I can’t say, but they fit just fine.

I love reading Perlongher’s poetry. Translating it is like being in poetic free fall. It is outrageously free and wild. It is maddening in its elisions. I could go on and on about it for a very long time, burbling.

Happy Poetry Month!

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Long poems last for a long time

Lately, poetry is all coming in floaty long phrases. It’s all endless stretching introductions full of commas. I think it’s because I’m in a beginning, and don’t have the clarity to send down a full stop sort of root into where I’m going with the language and ideas. I need a whole day to travel and think very thinkily, to figure that out. The ocean is often too distracting. I write poetry best when I’m pulled over by the side of the road, after having thought out phrases and rhythm and a holistic vision in my head to the sound of the highway.

I worked more on the very long Homeric Hymn that has been around for a couple of years. Its first part is good, and I can see the 2nd and 3rd bits aren’t going to match it no matter how long I wait for lightning to strike 3 times. That’s okay. I can detach from the desire for it to all be as good as the best bit. There, the long unhinging of the first section rambles into personal memory. I can’t match Steve Arntsen’s sustained visions, often 20 minutes of digression and glory.

That might be true for the new long poems, that they will be a little bit about personal memory. There is one about the moon landing and another about spaceflight and mistakes; another called Information Manifesto that makes me especially happy. The other thing holding me back is that I can’t quite figure out where they go in relation to others; are they part of Mother Frankenstein or are they something else and something new? That can be such an illusion, as so many people’s careful arrangement of poems into books is pointless. It’s only worth it to care if there is driving unity behind it and not just “the poems that i wrote sort of together in time.” Meanwhile, the manuscript of artless is just sitting around. At this point, fuck it, I thought I’d put out a tiny book at a time, like Woodbird Jazzophone, keep Tollbooth Press alive, and fuck the idea of books. Of all of it, artless is the only one important to keep together bookishly, because it is a deliberate series and I thought it out as one thing with structure.

I hauled out my Alta booklets lately and went looking online for another that I had seen in the New York Poetry House library – and found it. I have always liked the stolid bulldozer of her in Burn This Memorize Yourself. And I got a new Maureen Owen book and again pulled out old ones (as I have rearranged my library and excavated through piles and piles of books, weeding and shelving and shedding an entire piano’s worth of worthlessness, to make room for Oblomovka). Lucky find, and lucky remembrance, also from my trip to New York last year with its unsatisfactory visit to the Bowery Poetry Club — but there, in a lonely shelf of used books that were utter crap that I laughed at with qatipay by my side, I found Untapped Maps and was riveted to the spot till I had finished the book (with some sort of Erotic Poetry Happening happening all around me). Reading Owen was horrifying because until then I felt pleasantly maverick. I read AE later and realized so many things in common, leaps of thought and language in parallel, similar tracks. The relationship built across time and unreality! So that’s horrifying, understand, yet beautiful and made me cry with happiness because I feel less alone (as a poet). The beautiful similarities to the long and short airy eddies from Elvira Hernandez — I would like to send Owen my translations — and then spinning off into curls of density — and then her moments of solidness ringing true as, say, Piercy’s don’t for me. The thought that I might be thought to copy her upsets me. At least it is better than people drivelling about “the female Ginsberg” not that I don’t love it but WTF… as if.

But that moment holding the battered 20 year old copy of Untapped Maps in my hands was beautiful also if you think of all the small books that are to some extent neglected and you might think what’s the point, or where do they go, or are they dead. No! They might be lighthouses in the fog, and a distant in time person will hold them and cry a little with relief that not all poetry is damned boringly all the same as all the other poetry of its time. As I felt with some of the issues of Alcatraz and especially Wanda Coleman’s stuff in there. Think of the mountain, the dead weight, of awfully dull magazines! Think how nice it will be when some future poet-eating woman cradles your quite unexpectedly excellent little book in her hands. Send out those time travellers!

I do think of Greg Hall and how much he would (and might already) dig this crazy chick, certain phrases in particular are very Dirty Greggie, and I want to call him up and get back in touch and send him a xeroxed sheaf with coffee cup stains added accidentally on purpose.

Meanwhile! I’m very excited that a friend introduced me to Maureen Alsop, another translator of Juana de Ibarbourou! I have around 100 poems of Ibarbourou’s, translated in varying degrees of done-ness. Maureen and I had both tackled the Diaria de una isleña, a long prose poem in umpteen sections; one of Ibarbourou’s later works, I think from 1968 or 1969. The arc of Ibarbourou’s writing over her lifetime went from those pantheic exultations, almost-sonnety droplets published in 1919, to her sonnets on Biblical characters, and prayers of the 30s as if to atone; to forays into the surreal in the 40s and 50s, and then grey complex elegies, mad-eyed and Norn-like, in the 1960s and 1970s. Maureen’s and my separate translations of Diary of an Islander felt complementary, and I hope we carry out our collaboration by the sea, and merge versions over endless cups of strong tea and the solace of knowing someone else has loved and inhabited the words we’ve loved by the act of translation.

That’s what’s going on with my poetry and translations; it’s been a while since I’ve said. The translations of some of Carmen Berenguer’s poems from A media asta aren’t out yet; publishing is always slow; maybe the magazine‘s in difficulty? Maybe the difficult typography of that flag poem broke their souls! I hope it comes out soon. No one took my translations of Nestor Perlongher; so again, screw it, I’ll publish them myself in little booklets; I know they’re good and compelling and there is no magic validation needed of some other half-assed clique to rubberstamp it good. Get it out into the world and move on.

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Reading tonight in Oakland

I’ll be reading tonight at the Nomad Cafe in Oakland…

It’s on Shattuck and 65th St., walking distance from Ashby BART. 7:00-9:00.

Serene will read a few poems, then I’ll read my poems and translations, and then a break and an open mike.

like to try a couple of my translations of Nestor Perlongher. They’re strange poems, and they don’t make a huge amount of linear sense, and they work by talking around the subject in baroque fractal image/wordplay digressions. So that the images will all be of starfish and rays of light and greasy film running through a projector and rayon shirts and feather boas, and every word has three meanings and interconnections to other words, but somewhere in the middle you are hit by a blinding realization that the poem is all about the metaphysics of cocksucking. They were VERY hard to translate and I would dig testing them out in front of people. I’ll read some of the short ones in Spanish, but most in English. I’d also like to read a sampling of my translations from the anthology I’m working on – Latin American women poets from 1880-1930.

If that sounds good, then I hope you show up!

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