some poetry, politics & what have you

Tuesday, August 23, 2005

Jonathan Ball, publisher of Martian Press, who in november will publish on stealing lips (there is coincidentally a major South African publishing house called Jonathan Ball), reacted to the phrase "& since I abandoned swedish as a literary language this spring" in an email I sent to him on another (but related) topic on august 8. On august 9 he sent this barrage of questions, which took me far into barely charted territory & thus took some long & serious (well, for me anyway) thinking. First his questions:

"I'm curious as to why you would abandon swedish as a literary language. I don't speak any other languages (though I will soon have to learn one to complete my PhD) & I am interested in what makes one language more "fit" for poetry than another. Or perhaps it is simply a case of your poetic interests best served by another language? Perhaps swedish is too utilitarian a language? I often think english is well-suited to poetry due to its bizarre nature, many complex rules which can be broken & played with, and its affinity for multiple meanings & odd compound structures."

The long & short of it is that my change of languages has a very practical reason. Writing the things I do in swedish leaves me without a hope in Hell of finding a publisher &, seeing how extremely centralised swedish book distribution is, in effect without readers, except those I meet face to face. It also has the more poetic reason (which I will return to shortly) of writing in a language I know fairly well but will always look into (from the outside). That was the short, email sized, reply, slightly revised.

I might also add that it was a perfect example of theory following praxis. Sometime in mid-june it struck me that I hadn't written one line of original poetry in swedish since sometime around the beginning of april (which makes the phrase Jonathan reacted to factually wrong, because in sweden, even way "south", it's still winter through april). The decision then had to be made whether to force my way back into writing in swedish or not. I could, can, see no reasons to do so.

Although you can do different things in different languages, I think no language (even german) in & of itself is "unfit" for poetry. Nguyen Chi Trung, a vietnamese poet living in Stuttgart (germany), who visited Malmö in 2004 during the annual international poetry festival, said that when he wants to be scientific & exact he writes in german & when he wants to be emotional & lyrical he writes in vietnamese. Those languages are far enough removed from each other to function in that way, when it comes to swedish & english (my two languages) the differences are smaller. There are some. For one thing: in swedish one constructs long winding words out of what in english would either be hyphenated compound structures or two, or more, separate words. Another is that swedish is more concerned with the gender of words than english. The potential for playing around with the language is also slightly different. English is a wonderful language for all possible kinds of full, half or what have you, rhyming, swedish for removing essential parts of the grammatical structures to make wild elliptical rhythms. English is traditionally a rounder sounding, more gently swinging language than swedish - at least it was until I got my hands on it. Well, Dylan Thomas & Ezra Pound could make english sound quite edgy & the first time I heard scottish, from way up north in Thurso, spoken it was incomprehensible until I made out the almost exactly swedish melody of it. When, much later, I had begun to learn the craft of poetry, it merged with the scottish singing, Pound (irish, never sterling), Dylan Thomas & the incessant disruptions of diction of a poet like Charles Bernstein to add up to english as a language possible to write poetry in, a language that might be fun to write poetry in. & so it was. Fun, in part because maybe, just maybe, I can see it from another perspective than someone who has been raised inside it. Fun because I don't have the same linguistic taboos as someone who was raised inside it.

At the very beginning of her essay Keeping it sounding real (strange) in the duration:poetics anthology towards a foreign likeness bent (ed. Jerrold Shiroma, Duration Press, 2005) Sawako Nakayasu writes: "Translation makes poetry strange. Poetry makes language strange. I never set out to become a poet, but I was writing and it was strange and so it was poetry. Born in Japan, I was speaking Japanese and then moved to the U.S. and spoke English and was writing in English and it was strange." When I ended Houston (forthcoming from Furniture Press) with a man returning to his (hotel) room to become a character, I didn't then think of a written character. In the language from which I enter writing in english that meaning of the word (which exists differently spelled & only partly overlapping in meanings) is virtually non-existent. I just thought of that a few nights ago, & it was strange.

My poetic interests, apart from language in itself & the (de)construction of meaning & (non)sense, involve wanting to create in the reader joy & confusion. These external interests are obviously best served by having a reader to delight & confuse & that depends upon the distribution of the text & that, because I am a conservative person, I like being done through print. Hence the need for someone who concentrates on the distribution of text.

If this had formally been written as an essay (it may be one day) it could have been titled Do or Dog. That would roughly be the words you get if you invert God or Gud (the swedish name for the vicious bastard). Dug is the imperative form - be good enough(!) - of the word duga - to be good enough - & is never used.

Maybe someone will think this an answer to some or other of the questions, I'm not sure I do, but I'll post it as it stands for now


At 1:31 PM, Blogger Jonathan Ball said...

interesting ... while reading it i was thinking it would make a good starting point for a creative essay ... and lo and behold, you then mentioned the same possibility. when i have more time i will have to start writing my own essays/manifestos about writing. i examine my process a fair bit but have not yet really done so in a formal way.

do you know what's funny about jonathan ball publishers in africa?? because i have a catch-all account i get a lot of email intended for them ... including book proposals, press releases, etc ... if people put .com on the end instead of .co.za ... one time i got a very racy personal email from a woman who had been sleeping her way through russia, intended for a friend working at the publishing house

At 1:40 PM, Blogger Jonathan Ball said...

ps -- check out the cool photos i just posted to my blog ... interesting stuff taken by a scanner-camera.

At 5:28 PM, Blogger Lars Palm said...

in the last year or so, i have been lured into thinking of my writing, more the text that comes out at the other end than the process. that has come about because of getting to know the sawako i quote, through translating some separate poems & playing around with turning her first book into some kind of swedish & from reading Ron Silliman's blog.
so when these questions came from you i knew i had to start trying to make some sense out of a small portion of what spins around in my head on the subject & there's still a lot to make sense of.
also this is the first text i've written that i feel even vaguely resembles an essay. oh well. when someone comes along & gets you started, i think you will find the time, i wait

yes, the photos, the first one was really cool, i tried printing it on the laser printer they have at the offfice & saw that a better printer could have made it look really good in black and white.


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