Tuesday, February 23, 2010

An Experiment in Collective Poetics: "For We Have Seen/We Build a World"

This past November, I led a group of war tax resisters, meeting in Cleveland for their national conference, in a "warm-up" exercise. I read two poems from COME TOGETHER ("The Story So Far" and "Jerusalem") and invited them to do two free-writes:

1) describe an image or moment of rupture or violence that you experienced or witnessed that has always stayed with you, that you carry with you, that motivates your war resistance;

2) describe an image or moment of resistance, reconciliation, peacemaking, healing, courage that gives you hope in dark times. Then, with a chorus, we shared our poem-moments. The first chorus was "For we have seen..." and the second "We work to build a world..."

The instant reading was quite powerful, in ways that the text below cannot dramatize, as a testament to individual experience and collective labor. I'd walk around the circle, and point to those ready to read their portion, and then bring us back to the chorus.

Mindful of that gap (poetry is what's lost in translation), I share the vestige of that collective symbolic action.

For information on what war tax resistance is, please see the www.nwtrcc.org

"For We Have Seen/We Build a World"
A War Tax Resisters Chorale

by the National War Tax Resistance Coordinating Committee meeting
Cleveland, Ohio
November 7, 2009

(note: the italicized refrains spoken by all)

1. For we have seen

For we have seen

The Guatemalan peasant shares the horrors of the massacre that left many buried, they know not where. Life goes on. The corn is planted; then the harvest. Yet sorrow remains entangled in its roots.

For we have seen

The father weeping inside holds his children
As their mother leaves for greener and richer fields.

For we have seen

A little joke, a play on words, expectation twinkling in her eyes

For we have seen

Their heads blown apart, crying, begging, but my hand came back from my face covered in blood. And for them I could do nothing.

For we have seen

She was deceived,
Then she was raped,
And the bond with her true love
Was not broken.
Now he lifts up her light
That others may discover
The truth about themselves
And pass on the light.

For we have seen

She struggled hard to live, her eyes closed slowly against the light, and all was dark. What now?

For we have seen

Shots crack the stillness. Sirens scream, a sea of green 70s police units. It’s a hideous colon and I don’t feel safe. Shooter still at large. Time to walk to school. “You’ll be fine,” my mother says, and “don’t be late.”

For we have seen

It was the night of my seventh or eighth birthday, when he locked the front door, pushing me out of his way, to top the window to scream and call my mother a bitch.

For we have seen

Numbers pulled from a jar cleaved a room of young men—a lottery of death that is our job to rescramble.

For we have seen

The heat bore down the blood flowed out of her leg and watered the plants. She who was left there.

For we have seen
Dusty Indian village in evenings cool untouchable side of town, sari-clad woman approaches, lifts infant to me and says (in translation): take him to your county and give him a good life.”

2. We build a world…

We build a world

By what right, she the angry one
Do you impugn the sacrifice
Of our brave?
And why don’t
You go back to
The country you came from
And the answer that came
I was here before your ancestors.
And my descendants shall carry on
When I am no more.

We build a world

The police officer, tired of her constant crawling through his legs, lay fingers in her hair and clenched then into a fist, and dragged her screaming across the Pentagon floor, twinkling eyes and all.

We build a world

From the knowing fear of dogs and baseball bats on Selma bridge to the triumphal march as far as one could see, front and back.

We build a world

He makes sense. He speaks truth. What a gift to the world. So rare.

We build a world

Swimming with the outboard motor, set adrift, not wanting to drop it and let it sink. Finally heave-ho aboard. Meanwhile, swim for your dinghy, which you didn’t secure to the main ship.

We build a world

It was when she was being dragged away and I, I was being pushed back, she was on the ground being choked and I was being detained when she pulled the cop down with her, and kicked him down. We escaped.

We build a world

Awaking to pre-dawn bomb and machinegun fire. It’s thanksgiving in the U.S.A. No more hiding in Guatemalan jungles for 13 years. The call goes out to “illumine all the lamps!” and show the U.S.-issue helicopter gunships where we are: civilian farmers and human rights witnesses standing in the open clearing as targets of strength.

We build a world

A young boy caught a fish and could not get the hook out. It was dying, the spiny fins stuck his hands. An older boy, a teenager, came along and simply said, “hold the fin backwards hard, and pull out the hook,” and calmly walked away, before the miracle of success.

We build a world

We exchanged war stories. Her ten years from age 12, insisting on being allowed a combatant role. Once so scared, she turned the gun with its last bullet toward herself until the danger passed. “So, how long were you there?” “Well,” I say, “the usual tour was a year. But I was wounded and spent months in the hospital” She stopped short and gave a sigh and a look of sorrow. “You were only a tourist.”

We build a world

Her eyes shining in the lungs of the world looked at us, in the Colombian rainforest, and said, I can’t believe you came all the way here to see me.


"Ode to the Maggot" by Yusef Komunyakaa

"Ode to the Maggot" by Yusef Komunyakaa

Brother of the blowfly
And godhead, you work magic
Over battlefields,
In slabs of bad pork

And flophouses. Yes, you
Go to the root of all things.
You are sound & mathematical.
Jesus, Christ, you're merciless

With the truth. Ontological & lustrous,
You cast spells on beggars & kings
Behind the stone door of Caesar's tomb
Or split trench in a field of ragweed.

No decree or creed can outlaw you
As you take every living thing apart. Little
Master of earth, no one gets to heaven
Without going through you first.

Monday, February 22, 2010

In Praise of Huwaida Arraf

In Praise of Huwaida Arraf, for what she does here. Co-founder of the International Solidarity Movement, with her husband Adam Shapiro. If you go online for more than a nanosecond, you'll see her and the organization defamed in various ways. Keep reading beyond the flak. Think for yourself.

Saturday, February 20, 2010

Talking Documentary Poetics with Ian Demsky

Ian Demsky and I, digital friends, have been having some conversations over documentary poetry, as we each investigate its possibilities and limits.

A recent email of mine begins:

--- On Mon, 12/21/09, Philip Metres wrote:

Thanks for your poem, which is doing some very interesting things with voicing the other, but also moving into more poetic language.

Apropos of this strategy, I'm going through another serious revision of SAND OPERA, which needs some help. I had a good talk with a friend and poet, an editor at a good press, and he wanted me to "cool down" the stridency of the work. In our talk, I got to the place where I could understand a dilemma of documentary/investigative poetry--that the poles are 1) objective and cold as Reznikoff, and 2) aestheticizing and exploitative, but self-consciously so, in a way that threatens to destroy the aesthetic impulse. I suppose that SAND OPERA began as an attempt to be #1, but rapidly has moved to #2, or at least alternates between those modes. In any case, if
it tries to split the difference, what happens is that you rely on documentary without moving beyond the facticity, or you exploit the documentary without questioning your own positionality...

Ian Demsky:


Happy New Year!

Revisited your PMLA article ["Remaking/Unmaking: Abu Ghraib and Poetry," October 2008] on the train -- and once again found myself pondering those same questions you raise. How can one document injustice without exploiting it or partcipating in it? (I'm thinking here beyond just war to any of the myriad corners an investigative poetics might explore.) I like the notion of a "disturbatory" art -- though perhaps one that makes real not a subjective reality, but that from which we turn away in the normal course of leading our Western industrialized lives... or, as you say, one that makes the invisible audible.

I'm still grappling with the proper relationship between documentation and creation, between artist and subject. It seems to me that the actual, real thing (event, injustice, etc.) is necessary to such an enterprise... but equally necessary is some artistic movement beyond it.

My wife found this quote in the book Remix by Lawrence Lessig which seems to address at least part of this issue -- he's quoting from Negativland's Mark Hosler on why the band uses sampled clips:

"We could have taken these tapes we got of Casey Kasem and hired someone who imitated Casey Kasem, you know, and had him do a dramatic re-creation. Why did we have to use the actual orginal... the actual thing? Well, it's because the actual thing has a power about it. It has an aura. It has a magic to it. And that's what inspires the work."

Clearly, these documentary artifacts we've been working with have a power of their own, a currency. What power then does the poet bring? (And what responsibilty?) How is that power different? What relationship do they have?

I'm thinking here of images like the following where cultural commentary, satire and further exploitation get blurred: http://www.elastico.net/archives/iraq_ipod3.jpg

I'm OK with not having immediate answers to these questions and letting the artistic process itself -- the search for the answers -- be enough for now.

Hope you're well.


More from Ian:

Date: Sun, 10 Jan 2010 15:48:44 -0800 (PST)
From: Ian Demsky

Rereading Brian Tuner's "Here, Bullet" after reading your essay and after reading "Poetry & Ethics: Writing About Others" by Natasha Saje in the December Writer's Chronicle, I'm hyper-sensitized to the projection onto and objectification of the Iraqi (and sometimes American) Other in many of the poems.

In my reading response notes, for example, I wrote:

Ethical questions raised by “In the Leupold Scope.” Turner (in the voice of the poem, at least) seems to not recognize his objectification of the woman viewed through the scope. The woman hanging laundry is “dressing the dead,” he tell us. “She is welcoming them back to the dry earth” as “[s]he waits for them to lean forward / into the breeze.” There is nothing here that betrays the soldier/narrator’s awareness that he is romanticizing the woman (her vulnerability, her poverty, her experience of war) even as he trains his weapon on her. The deadly power dynamic is not only unremarked, but seems beyond the conscious thought of the speaker. The disappearance of the I after the second line is too convenient and prevents the speakers from acknowledging his role/relationship to the (objectified) woman.

It is one thing to record the actions of others, to bring to life anecdotes and incidents. It is another to give voice to the other, to show them in the full depth and breadth of human lives, to pull them into relief in opposition to flat, objectifying portrayals (insurgents, etc.). But it is yet another for the outsider to impose romanticized, idealized, stylized thoughts and feelings on this other. The narrator stands in place of that person, fills them in, rather than standing in relationship to them. Is this not another form of Western hubris? Of occupation? In many of the poems, the role of the American observer in the misery and suffering he sees is deflected or unacknowledged.

My reply:

Ian, I couldn't agree more; because Turner accepts the frame of the "war poem," the poems from HERE, BULLET--even when they are beautiful, even when they are humanizing--nonetheless perform a parallel cultural labor to military occupation. That's not to say that they are the same as military occupation, but they do not worry the frame of occupation. Yes, we might need war poems, but I have never taught this book because it doesn't challenge the frame. (If you've read my critical book, BEHIND THE LINES, I discuss why I did not include soldier poets in my study--it goes along these lines).

Thanks to Ian Demsky for permission to reprint our conversation. Let's continue, and add some voices!

Thursday, February 18, 2010

Field Guides to Elsewhere: How We Read Languages We Don’t Read


this essay by Hilary Plum is in part a response to the recent essay in The New Yorker by Claudia Roth Pierpont about the Arabic novel--a piece of some interest, but not nearly as interesting as it could have been. Plum articulates why, at least in part--it's the literary equivalent of a travel guide. Though I am not an expert in the field of Arabic literature, I have read almost all the books she mentions, and she doesn't really add anything that Edward Said said ten years ago (except for the emergence of the new Arabic Booker phenomenon).

Check out Plum's fab quote about translation: "Literature in translation is a crossing of borders, but shouldn’t be thought of just as one of the easier border crossings—tourism, reportage, whatever sort of casual interest or genealogical research—but remembering the violent invasions and migrations that make up our real world and thus the theoretical field of translation. It’s useful to think of reading literature in translation not as a means of gathering “insight and information,” but as a means of experiencing acts of resistance that occur between languages, between cultures, “simply” between reader and writer."

Full text below:


Field Guides to Elsewhere: How We Read Languages We Don’t Read
Essay by Hilary Plum — Published on February 16, 2010

“There are, of course, newspapers to keep responsible Americans up to date when trouble looms, and public television or even the History Channel to inform us about the occasional historic battle or archaeological discovery or civil war. What else do we need?” Claudia Roth Pierpont frames her essay on the contemporary Arabic novel, published in the January 18, 2010, New Yorker, with this question, then presents a handful of novels to discuss, stating, “There is clearly insight as well as information in these books,” and that “what follows is an account of some novels that are worth reading now, and that may prove to be worth reading even when newspapers divert our attention to wars and prisons somewhere else.”

Who is the “we,” the American reader, Pierpont has in mind? Someone “responsible” enough to want to learn more about the cultures in which their nation’s foreign policy has involved them; someone who reads newspapers for this information, but recognizes that there are kinds of information newspapers can’t offer, but perhaps literature can—information, in Pierpont’s words, about “[t]he ways that people think and work and suffer and fall in love and make enemies and sometimes make revolutions.” These readers know they have a need for news from elsewhere and know this need can be answered, through convenient, commodified forms (the newspaper, the novel). When they need information from a new location—Haiti? Afghanistan? Iran?—it is assumed that will also be available to them. The urgency of this need is described as the urgency of an intellectual or possibly civic responsibility, but nothing more personal; these are not wars or prisons that claim our own loved ones, these are not our revolutions, although these may be our enemies.

The New Yorker essay, then, starts off somewhat curiously as not about Arabic literature per se, but about how American readers can answer their need for Arabic literature. Pierpont recognizes that the novel is not the primary literary form in Arabic, that poetry “has traditionally held wider prestige”; novels are a European form that has developed in Arabic primarily in the second half of the last century. But novels, not poetry, are what American readers like to read. “Is it possible,” Pierpont asks, “for anything like the grandly traditional novel of character development and moral nuance to emerge from societies in extremis, from writers routinely constrained and assailed?” A fair enough question, but also a question concerned with how our form fares in the hands of writers from elsewhere—What will they do with the novel? Anything we need to know about? Why begin a discussion of how Arabic literature traffics in the novel with an emphasis on whether the novels that result are recognizable, welcoming, or even of interest to American readers? That is, why begin an essay on what another literature is saying by first expressing what it is we are most interested in hearing?


I work as an editor at Interlink Publishing, publisher of two of the novels in translation Pierpont discusses. Interlink has been publishing literature in translation for over twenty years, with an overall focus on the Middle East and translations from Arabic; we also recently launched a new imprint, Clockroot Books, to expand our international literature list. Thus I work in the business of making the “insight and information” of foreign literature available. This is a very challenging and often very low-paying endeavor; I can confirm that until the events of 2001, Middle Eastern literature was of little interest to the broader U.S. culture—a situation that, as Pierpont reminds us, could occur again, when media coverage of U.S. involvement in the Middle East dies down.

Of course, even with her characterization of the novels under discussion as those that “may prove to be worth reading even when newspapers divert our attention,” Pierpont isn’t actually suggesting that Arabic literature would cease existing or being of interest—or that, if we momentarily agree with her idea of reading literature as means of civic responsibility, there would not still be ethical reasons to seek out Arabic literature—when the region has left the headlines. But it is fair to hesitate at Pierpont’s broader description of readers and of literature in translation, to hesitate at her accolade for foreign writers as having “the power to translate foreign histories into stories that we can make our own,” her conclusion that “it is unquestionably good to have stories that we hold in common.” Arabic novels, Pierpont says, “[offer] a marvelous array of answers to questions we did not know we wanted to ask.”

image credit: Beinecke Rare Book & Manuscript Library

Instead one could begin by arguing that the first necessary good is to know what stories we do not hold in common; to be concerned not with what we as readers need and can acquire, but what we do not need and do not want, and yet which is being urgently offered anyway—not offered to us for our convenience, but offered. What happens if we begin the discussion of literature in translation not as Pierpont does—as that of needs satisfied—but in the terms of this excess?

I’m not going to write an essay on translation theory, which is not my area of expertise nor necessarily a useful response to a general cultural/literary essay concerned with a conception of the general trade reader. The questions I want to raise aren’t new nor will they be expertly posed, and yet—as is regularly clear to those working in the business of literature in translation—they seem quite distant from, even foreign to, the wider culture. I don’t think it’s controversial to say that the wider American culture is not generally concerned about problems of translation. American culture is stereotypically—and statistically, amazingly so when compared to any European country—uninterested in works of literature from other countries; most of us speak only one language; and if even a publication as sophisticated as The New Yorker can publish an essay that quietly subsumes all problems of translation as falling under the mere mechanics of information conveyance, an essay that more problematically assumes that readers have a right to translation without needing to have an interest in it—well. The current landscape takes shape: in which newspapers themselves struggle, increasingly finding it difficult to fund foreign correspondents because even as people rely on and feel entitled to that content, there seem to be fewer ways by which they can be relied on to pay for it. Americans seem to become interested in news from other countries either through personal connection—heritage, academic study, passion—or acts of violence or disaster that get their attention: September 11, the sales of Haitian literature occurring in the wake of the devastating earthquake. All of which reinforce the idea of the reader as an individual with expectations and needs, needs that some combination of outside forces will meet—a reader who expects what she wants of the broader international world to be accessible. This seems a particularly capitalist conception, perhaps also a willfully innocent one.

The small press publishing literature in translation would seem to have a stake in this idea of accessibility—what we do is make literature from other countries available to readers of English. But how translators and publishers negotiate the problems of “accessibility” is a central, defining challenge. Most people are familiar enough with the general circumstances in the publishing industry: that the current preference is to promote authors rather than individual works, and one cannot do that when publishing an author who is not available for tours, because she lives abroad, doesn’t speak English, or is a canonical writer never before translated, but now deceased; editors themselves speak few languages and there are naturally many obstacles to signing works in languages one doesn’t read; there is a general attitude of distrust toward translation, with readers feeling they’re receiving a lesser version of a work, and a disinterest in translators as artists of equal interest as writers; it is usually more difficult to get reviews, because of review venues’ sense of the general apathy toward translations and because reviewers are often hesitant to comment on translations for which they can’t read the original. I’ll offer a few case histories as illustration of the difficulties.

One of Clockroot’s authors is Margarita Karapanou, whose first novel Kassandra and the Wolf was published by Harcourt, Brace, Jovanovich in 1974. In fall 2009 Clockroot reissued Kassandra while releasing for the first time a translation of Karapanou’s third novel, Rien ne va plus; Karapanou’s second novel The Sleepwalker, is forthcoming in translation in fall 2010. Kassandra and the Wolf had what would be considered a fair amount of success for a debut—praised in The New York Times by John Updike and Jerome Charyn—but fell more or less into oblivion, and none of Karapanou’s subsequent work was translated into English until now (Karapanou passed away in 2008). Kassandra is not a “traditional” novel: it’s made up of 56 fragments, ranging in length from a few paragraphs to a few pages, in which its six-year-old narrator guides us through a range of sexual encounters, or rather molestations, a birth and/or an abortion, familial madness and suicide—the novel’s stunning, childlike language skipping vividly, playfully, through an extremely dark adult world.

Kassandra was written under the military junta in Greece (thus was actually published in English before it was published in Greek; in fact the English and Greek editions differ), and its narrator belongs to an upper-class family friendly with “the General,” its servants mourning the defeat of the Left in the civil war. But what does it mean that I provide this last summary? Most reviews in English address this fact similarly—in a few sentences, attempting to include this as necessary background, to be useful guides to contemporary Greek literature without forcing a reductive political reading on the novel. I don’t actually know anything substantive about the junta or recent Greek history, nothing more than what’s provided by Wikipedia, a decade of newspaper-reading, and friendships with Greek writers and translators that have allowed me to enjoy conversations about their lives under the past forty years of changing political circumstances. Most of my sense of anything like the junta comes in fact from literature—the inverse to how Kassandra, for instance, would be read in Greek.

Margarita Karapanou

This isn’t to say that the novel provides insight into or information about Greek history; it doesn’t; it doesn’t have a realist novel’s concern with describing particular historical/political settings or events. All the same, it does have a concrete setting, and mentions in passing the names of military leaders, etc. But one can read any of this fairly well without much explanation (the translation includes some brief footnotes to decode more specific references). The momentum of the novel is not in its commentary on history, or its creation of psychologically realistic characters interacting against a historical setting, but in the narrator’s voice itself. One can read the voice as being upper class, in a militarized society, a society in which civil conflict has recently occurred, without knowing more; having read the novel four or five times, I am almost as ignorant about anything one could call history as when I hadn’t read it at all.

What the novel does take on is something much less easily summarized, something to do with its extraordinary literary qualities, to do with female sexuality and agency, with—well, there isn’t an easy way to describe without reducing; I would need a new critical essay. In her essay Pierpont, too, strains to describe this general difficulty, of interpreting “the relevance of fact to fiction,” concluding: “When reality is framed and shaped by imagination—in novels, as opposed to memoirs or histories—all the truth that we can vouch for is emotional and intellectual, and on the page.” But what does it mean to frame this truth as one “we” (necessarily, American readers) “can vouch for”? When it comes to experiencing art, an “I” or “we” seems natural enough, an expression of subjectivity, the process of personal taste. But when one considers literature from other countries, the stakes change, and the limits of personal taste are exposed. A overemphasis on “we” allows readers who are uninterested in or unmoved by a foreign work’s “emotional and intellectual” truths feel free to ignore it—because we are the standard, we can choose another commodity, one that suits us. That is, if a work doesn’t answer questions we are interested in, we don’t have to answer to it; we privilege our response over what is happening within the work. In this way we might disregard canonical works of other cultures or even entire literatures.

But the foreignness of foreign literature is an irreplaceable value, a value that translators and publishers continuously aim to offer. So perhaps we as readers, too, should be looking for ways to encounter “foreignness.” In other words, perhaps it’s better to think of literature in translation first as stories we can’t make our own, as truths we can’t vouch for. Otherwise we risk reading only what we already know how to read, privileging our personal taste and experience over everything the text offers—a text that, no matter where it was written and by whom, was never meant to reflect only ourselves, our readings. Otherwise we risk seeking out experiences in literature only as tourists who stay on the bus, see just the well-known sites.

Working in the field of international literature, one is accustomed to pitching works such as Kassandra and the Wolf and being turned down because the book “isn’t Greek enough,” “doesn’t feel Greek enough.” Why isn’t international literature allowed to be free of the burden of being a presentable ambassador from another land, here to provide local color and help us find common ground? Contemporary American fiction takes on such subjects as middle-class American life and its institutions: the marriage, the office, the prep school, you name it. We don’t refuse to read these books because we already know “about” these institutions; we “know” those subjects but also know that knowledge can be transformed, and we desire such transformation. We read these literary works looking for a literary experience. We do not demand that American literature be read as a proxy for history or political analysis, but it seems we often comfortably make this demand of other literatures. American literature is assumed to offer the “unquestionable good” of a literary experience, but for international literature to be worthy of our attention, it is asked to provide an extra-literary experience—to “feel Greek,” to teach us something useful about the Arab world.

This spring Clockroot will publish Touch, a novella by Palestinian writer Adania Shibli. Only 35, Shibli has received several Palestinian and Arabic literary awards, and her work has been translated into French, German, Italian, Hebrew, Korean. Touch was recently highlighted by the prominent trade magazine Publishers Weekly as one of ten spring debut fiction titles of note: an uncommon, nice bit of publicity for a small press such as ourselves and for a writer who doesn’t write in English. As publishers we were asked to offer a “pitch” for the novella that the feature could quote. Touch doesn’t have a conventional plot structure or really almost any events: it is narrated from the perspective of a young girl (no precise age given, which merited a query from PW) in a large family in a Palestinian village. What is singular about the novella is how the young girl’s sensory experience is rendered: everyday activities and sensations occur in slow, strange, precise detail, so that the tangible world becomes suffocating, somehow made alienating through extreme detail, while the outside world, the larger questions of the Palestinian setting and history, is merely sketched, left vague, distant. This makes the novella fascinating, generally challenging; it also makes it stand out among contemporary Arabic fiction, most of which deals with historical events and politics centrally and in realist terms, often to a point that can seem didactic or polemical to American readers (something Pierpont addresses, with her concern about how the novel fares in the hands of writers in societies in extremis).

Really, what made us sign Shibli immediately was her stylistic originality: her ability to achieve the extraordinary effects of sensation described above, through a spare, even blunt writing; her writing noticeably lacks the floweriness, the wealth and dramatic register of metaphor that characterize much of Arabic prose and which can make translating Arabic literature a particular challenge. In our current moment in American literature, where spareness and minimalism are set at a premium, Arabic prose can sound overwrought, heavy-handed. Shibli’s writing enters English more easily, on both micro levels (her sentences) and macro (the subtle, complex ways in which she lets violence cast shadows continuously on the narration, but always from a distance). She was thus an exciting writer to discover—young, but such a distinctive voice—and appealing in that one could imagine her writing, even as it is more “experimental” than “realist,” being as widely read as that of some of her contemporaries, because of her unusual, deft handling of politics. But none of this comes out to a pithy publisher’s pitch: the novel is most distinctive for stylistic reasons, not anything one could say it’s “about,” and those stylistic reasons have to do with the writer’s distinct innovations in a literature with which most American readers are unfamiliar. This “literary” context, then, is as difficult to summarize, for different but related reasons, as the historical context of Kassandra and the Wolf I discussed earlier.


Reviews or publishers’ presentations of works of international literature will usually include such simplified summaries of context as the ones I attempted above—imperfect, but useful. I want to call these “useful” not in that they can actually ever tell us anything substantial about another history, culture, or literature—but rather as an apt reminder of everything we don’t know. Such summaries grab us by the elbow and pull us for a moment off the path of our usual reading, to show us the look-out, the drop-off, the vista of all the readings of this work we can’t access. And yet, miraculously, there’s a book in front of us that we can read: a work that has a complex relationship to the “original,” a work that has somehow (through the artistry of translators and efforts of publishers) moved from that distant vista into our hands, and can be read and enjoyed as “simply” as anything.

This is not in fact a simple pleasure, but it is a simply literary pleasure—a pleasure related to the challenges of reading any great work of literature. How we read translated literature reveals what we value in all literature: how through literature families can become foreign; fictional places can become intimately known; phrases we have never heard before can take on rich emotional meanings.

To offer one last example: in the last few years a number of translations into English have appeared of Palestinian “national poet” Mahmoud Darwish, who was the major figure of Palestinian literature of the last generation, and passed away in 2008 at age 67. An excerpt from his poem “Silence for Gaza” (translated by Iraqi writer Sinan Antoon, whose novella I’jaam Pierpont discusses) maybe can itself suggest an alternative model for reading literature in translation. This poem does not fit easily into mainstream US politics; nor, with its overt politics, its emphasis on political over “poetical” expression, does it fit that gracefully into our contemporary poetry scene. Yet Darwish is a central figure of Arabic and Palestinian poetry, of Palestinian politics, and this poem should not be discounted:

[Gaza] does not care that much if we know its name, picture, or eloquence. It did not believe that it was material for media. It did not prepare for cameras and did not put smiling paste on its face.

Neither does it want that, nor we.

Hence, Gaza is bad business for merchants and hence it is an incomparable moral treasure for Arabs.

What is beautiful about Gaza is that our voices do not reach it. Nothing distracts it; nothing takes its fist away from the enemy’s face. Not the forms of the Palestinian state we will establish whether on the eastern side of the moon, or the western side of Mars when it is explored. Gaza is devoted to rejection… hunger and rejection, thirst and rejection, displacement and rejection, torture and rejection, siege and rejection, death and rejection.

[. . .]

It will continue to explode.

It is neither death, nor suicide. It is Gaza’s way of declaring that it deserves to live.

As a reader of international literature, I’d like to go ahead and replace the question “what else do we need?” with something more urgent and less reasonable: what is it to “deserve to live”? This of course is an impossible question, even irritatingly so—but nicely, it is also an essential American value that all words offered by all individuals deserve expression, that this is the necessary, difficult exchange on which society should be based. If we begin reading with the idea that all writers and their words “deserve to live,” rather than beginning with an account of ourselves and our desires, then we are taking these ideas of freedom and exchange less comfortably and more seriously—even in the everyday acts of picking up a newspaper or novel. We don’t even have to conceive of this as an ethical practice, but as a literary one. Literature in translation is a crossing of borders, but shouldn’t be thought of just as one of the easier border crossings—tourism, reportage, whatever sort of casual interest or genealogical research—but remembering the violent invasions and migrations that make up our real world and thus the theoretical field of translation. It’s useful to think of reading literature in translation not as a means of gathering “insight and information,” but as a means of experiencing acts of resistance that occur between languages, between cultures, “simply” between reader and writer. Literature isn’t offered to us in response to a need we know how to express, but perhaps as a fist is offered to a face, or vice versa—it’s just our good fortune to experience all this from the comfortable distance of the page.

Hilary Plum is codirector of Clockroot Books and an editor with Interlink Publishing. She’s presently an MFA candidate in fiction at UMass Amherst.

Wednesday, February 10, 2010

Joe Sacco on his new graphic novel, Footnotes in Gaza, 1956

Joe Sacco is one of the preeminent political graphic novelists of our time, whose previous credits include two graphic novels on Palestine.

Tuesday, February 9, 2010

Mark Doty's "Visitation": Two Projections on/of Nature


When I heard he had entered the harbor,
and circled the wharf for days,
I expected the worst: shallow water,

confusion, some accident to bring
the young humpback to grief.
Don't they depend on a compass

lodged in the salt-flooded folds
of the brain, some delicate
musical mechanism to navigate

their true course? How many ways,
in our century's late iron hours,
might we have led him to disaster?

That, in those days, was how
I'd come to see the world:
dark upon dark, any sense

of spirit an embattled flame
sparked against wind-driven rain
till pain snuffed it out. I thought,

This is what experience gives us ,
and I moved carefully through my life
while I waited. . . Enough,

it wasn't that way at all. The whale
—exuberant, proud maybe, playful,
like the early music of Beethoven—

cruised the footings for smelts
clustered near the pylons
in mercury flocks. He

(do I have the gender right?)
would negotiate the rusty hulls
of the Portuguese fishing boats

— Holy Infant, Little Marie —
with what could only be read
as pleasure, coming close

then diving, trailing on the surface
big spreading circles
until he'd breach, thrilling us

with the release of pressured breath,
and the bulk of his sleek young head
— a wet black leather sofa

already barnacled with ghostly lice —
and his elegant and unlikely mouth,
and the marvelous afterthought of the flukes,

and the way his broad flippers
resembled a pair of clownish gloves
or puppet hands, looming greenish white

beneath the bay's clouded sheen.
When he had consumed his pleasure
of the shimmering swarm, his pleasure, perhaps,

in his own admired performance,
he swam out the harbor mouth,
into the Atlantic. And though grief

has seemed to me itself a dim,
salt suspension in which I've moved,
blind thing, day by day,

through the wreckage, barely aware
of what I stumbled toward, even I
couldn't help but look

at the way this immense figure
graces the dark medium,
and shines so: heaviness

which is no burden to itself.
What did you think, that joy
was some slight thing?

~ Mark Doty ~

(The Paris Review #196)

Two Upcoming Talks on Peace in the Middle East

Sr. Paulette Schroeder, Franciscan Sister from Tiffin Ohio will be sharing her experience as a member of the Christian Peacemaker Teams in the West Bank of Palestine. She will be speaking at River's Edge at St. Joseph Center 3430 Rocky River Drive, Cleveland, Ohio 44111 on Tuesday, February 16, 2010 at 7:00 p.m.
Free and open to the public. You are invited to hear a unique story of the struggle to create peace in the West Bank of Palestine. For more information call the CSJ Justice Office at 216.688.3498

Cleveland Peace Action Education Fund presents Searching for Peace in the Middle East, a 35-minute film from the Middle East Foundation, followed by discussion facilitated by Alan Federman, psychotherapist & Isam Zaiem, President, CAIR, Ohio Chapter. - 7 P.M. at the Cuyahoga County Library, Brooklyn Branch, 4480 Ridge Road, between Memphis & Biddulph, Brooklyn, Ohio 44144. Program is free and open to the public. Refreshments served.

Peace Action is the nation's largest grassroots peace network, with chapters and affiliates in 30 states. Peace Action conducts educational campaigns and organizes and lobbies congress towards a more peaceful world.

Cleveland Peace Action's Middle East Peace Committee, established in 2006, is committed to enhancing public understanding of the longstanding Middle East conflict as well as the need for a lasting, peaceful, just and sustainable solution.

For more information contact: Cleveland Peace Action Education Fund Tel: 216-321-9201- e-mail: volunteer@peaceactioncleveland.org

Monday, February 8, 2010

In Support of the GLBT Protest at John Carroll University

I am so proud of these men and women, students of John Carroll, who took a courageous stand, in the face of all possible consequences, in solidarity with those who are vulnerable to discrimination. As a faculty member of this institution, I stand with them. I believe that we as an institution can (and must) do more to ensure equal protection under the law for all employees and students. I'm a little sorry that it came to this--that students had to rouse us from our collective moral catatonia--but I'm pleased to see that they have a little fight in them.

Here is the statement that accompanied the above video.
In light of the recent decision by the John Carroll University administration to not specifically include the protection of Lesbians, Gays, Bi-Sexuals, Transgendered, and Questioning students in its Anti-Discrimination Statement, we, the students, faculty, and alumni of John Carroll University choose to voice our support for those the university leaves without protection.

John Carroll's mission is to create people for others. That means support, protection, love, and understanding for all people without regard to color, creed, sexual preference, gender, age, or other personal factors. That's the goal of a Jesuit institution.

By not explicitly voicing its support of LGBTQ students, faculty, and alumni, John Carroll's administration is breaking those unspoken bonds of trust that make JCU a community.

It's time for those who have called Carroll home in some capacity to speak up and demand of the President, Board of Directors, and Administration the words that promise safety and security to those whose rights are so tenuous and often unprotected.

In short, we expect better of John Carroll University. We demand better. We are a gentle, angry people and we are singing, singing for our lives!!!

Thursday, February 4, 2010

new Breaking the Silence Testimonial Book

New Breaking the Silence Testimonial Book
Breaking the Silence presents 96 new testimonies by female soldiers about the situation in the occupied territories

"A female soldier who hits is a serious fighter, she has what it takes, she's hardcore"

“Did you kick him?

I kicked him in the balls. I took my foot, with my military boot, and I kicked him in the balls. I don't know if you ever got kicked in the balls but it sure looks painful. He stopped laughing in my face because it hurt. Then we took him to the police station and I said: ‘Uh-Oh, am I in trouble. He can complain about me and I will have a complaint against me at the Police Investigation Unit.’ It was in Modi’in. He didn't say a word. I was afraid and, I said I was afraid about me, not about him. But he didn't say a word. "What can I say, that a girl hit me?” And he could say that but, thank God, three years later, nothing happened to me and nobody knows about it. "

Breaking the Silence just published a book of testimonies by women who served in the occupied territories, from the outbreak of the second intifada until now. The book includes 96 testimonies and contains interviews with dozens of women who served as combatants, medics, scouts, officers, noncommissioned education and social welfare officers and more. These women join hundreds of male combatants who have already testified to the organization. Together they place a mirror before Israeli society.

This collection of testimonies presents for the first time the realities in the territories from the perspective of women who served there. The testimonies demonstrate that the tendency to keep the occupation as far away from home as possible blurs the role of the women who take an active role in it. The voice of the women who serve in the occupied territories is a voice that is not usually heard in Israeli society and their presence on the ground is hidden from the public eye. The reason for their silence stems from the fact that these women are placed in a military environment controlled by men. They have to prove they are worth just as much as the men and that they are "one of the guys." During their service they are afraid to speak, out of fear they will be even more alienated by their units. After they are discharged, many of these women feel that because they did not play a central role in their units, it is not their place to speak out. But mostly, they do not speak because the public does not really want to hear.

Dana Golan, CEO of Breaking the Silence, explains: "Israeli society does not want to think about our girlfriends, daughters and sisters taking an active role in carrying out the ‘occupation,’ just like the male soldiers. We want to believe that the female soldiers stationed in the territories are not as aggressive and that they do not get their hands dirty. But the women's testimonies prove that they are just as corrupted and it cannot be done any differently."

"What is a disruption patrol?

You just go into a village, where you know there are weapons and things like that, and you start doing things that make them wonder what's going on, who is getting arrested, what is happening. You just go into the village and start firing flares and blank bullets and creating an atmosphere of an IDF event to scare them and disrupt their daily routine. That is, so they don't understand what is going on. You go in at 3 AM and start firing flares."

3 AM?

Yes. They don't understand what is going on. Once a week we had to go on a disruption patrol, like it was on the schedule, an obligation to go on one disruption patrol a week. And every time it was at a different time, a different day."

Since the founding of Breaking the Silence in 2004, the organization has collected testimonies from seven hundred male and female soldiers who served in the occupied territories since the outbreak of the second intifada. The testifiers come from different backgrounds, served in different units and jobs and described the reality they experienced on the ground, whose characteristics run like a thread through all of the testimonies. The organization asserts that the violations of human rights in the territories are not the result of the exceptional behavior of a few rotten apples, but derive from the very fact of daily control over a civilian population.

Dana Golan adds: "Israeli society, encouraged by the senior military commanders, prefers to see the picture differently, and continues to claim that these are exceptional incidents, perpetrated by exceptional individuals or units. By doing so it effectively prevents a real civil discussion about the problems that arise from our presence in the occupied territories. We have made it our goal to present the voices of the male and female soldiers as they are. A society that sends its army on missions has to know what is happening on its behalf in its back yard. We hope that Israeli society chooses to listen to its daughters as well as its sons, even though the stories are not easy for the folks at home to hear."

download the book

Tuesday, February 2, 2010

From Steven Salaita's The Uncultured Wars

The following piece is one of the twelve essays in Steven Salaita’s latest book, The Uncultured Wars: Arabs, Muslims, and the Poverty of Liberal Thought. To find more of his work, visit his facebook page.

Of course, not all African Americans are lazy. Of course, not all Indians are alcoholics. Of course, not all Jews are stingy. Of course, not all Russians are whores. Of course, not all Mexicans are dirty. Of course, not all Pakistanis smell. Of course, not all Africans are bestial. Of course, not all Eskimos use 250 words for snow.

Of course, not all Asians are craven. Of course, not all Americans are ignorant. Of course, not all Japanese are kamikazes. Of course, not all Indians are stoic. Of course, not all African Americans are criminal. Of course, not all Arabs are angry. Of course, not all Maoris are premodern. Of course, not all Hawaiians are hula dancers. Of course, not all Aborigines are backward. Of course, not all Thai are gamblers. Of course, not all women are too emotional.

Of course, not all Mexicans are laborers. Of course, not all South Asians are swindlers. Of course, not all Appalachians are backwoods rapists. Of course, not all poor folk are tasteless. Of course, not all women are mentally inferior. Of course, not all Poles are stupid. Of course, not all Italians are Mafiosi. Of course, not all Spaniards are sleazy. Of course, not all Afghans are filthy. Of course, not all Hispanics are greasy. Of course, not all homosexuals are child molesters. Of course, not all Africans are nude and pagan. Of course, not all Sri Lankans deserve it.

“Of course, not all Muslims are terrorists”—Thomas Friedman, New York Times, July 4, 2007.


February 4th, 2010 at 7:00pm
Bertram Woods Branch of Shaker Library
20600 Fayette Rd. Shaker Heights

[Cleveland]--J Street, the political voice of the pro-Israel, pro-peace movement, is setting up shop inCleveland. Read article in Cleveland Jewish News.

The group, which has sparked conversation in political and Jewish community circles across the country about the connection between Israel’s future as a democratic Jewish homeland and achieving a two-state resolution, will officially launch J Street Cleveland at a public event on February 4th at 7:00 at Bertram Woods Branch of Shaker library, 20600 Fayette Rd. Shaker Heights. The kick-off will feature simulcast remarks by J Street’s executive director, Jeremy Ben-Ami.

J Street Cleveland‘s launch is part of J Street’s new national grassroots field program, which will both broaden and deepen the presence of the pro-Israel, pro-peace movement in communities across the country. The event in Cleveland will coincide with dozens of similar events in other cities.

“We’re thrilled that local leaders and activists in Cleveland will enhance J Street’s advocacy for strong USefforts to achieve peace and security in the Middle East,” said Jeremy Ben-Ami. “A grassroots network of pro-Israel, pro-peace advocates is an essential component of our work in pursuit of a two-state solution and a regional, comprehensive peace.”

J Street Cleveland will integrate the city’s Brit Tzedek v’Shalom chapter, and also aims to draw new supporters from J Street’s substantial netroots base in the area.

“By growing the pro-Israel, pro-peace movement in Cleveland, we aim to create the political space in our community for a vibrant discussion of how we best secure Israel’s future as a democratic homeland for the Jewish people,” said Alan Federman. “We look forward to engaging and mobilizing our community as effective advocates for a two-state solution and true peace and security for Israel.”

Cleveland host committee: Sherry Ball, David Berenson, Alan Federman, Goe Buchwald Gelles, Mark Davidson, Marty Gelfand, Bob Greenbaum, Dana Hercberas, Debra Hirschberg, Stuart Schultz, Sue Wolpert, Richard Zigmond.

J Street, billed in a feature story by the New York Times Magazine as “The New Israel Lobby,” was founded in April 2008 to promote meaningful American leadership to end the Arab-Israeli and Israeli-Palestinian conflicts. Its new national grassroots program and field operations fall under the auspices of the J Street Education Fund, Inc, an educational nonprofit which educates targeted communities about the need for a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, raises the visibility of a mainstream pro-peace, pro-Israel presence within the American Jewish community, and promotes open, dynamic and spirited conversation about how to best advance the interests and future of a democratic, Jewish Israel.

The J Street family of organizations also includes J Street and JStreetPAC. J Street, a nonprofit lobby, uses online organizing, advocacy and education to political and popular support for American leadership to achieve peace and security in the Middle East. JStreetPAC, a legally independent political action committee, works to demonstrates that there is meaningful political and financial support available to candidates for federal office from large numbers of Americans who believe a new direction in American policy will advance U.S. interests in the Middle East and promote real peace and security for Israel and the region.

CONTACT: Alan Federman
January 18, 2010