A couple Sundays ago at L’Etage in the Bella Vista section of Philly, Frank Sherlock had a book party for the release of his first full-length collection, Over Here, published by Factory School, which is one of the true standout presses today. Caroline said, after the reading had finished, that “Frank was like a rock star up there - you could see him thrashing at the guitar.” It was an energetic reading not only for Frank, but also for his reading comrades that evening: Steve Dolph and Sarah Dowling. As Ryan Eckes has pointed out on his blog, this year and next will be fine years for poetry in Philly.
Book parties, I think, are the best version of poetry readings because there is a celebratory feel that is often lacking at what might be called a standard reading (poet reading for the sake of reading to an audience). Don’t get me wrong, I’ve been to many mind blowing standard readings as well as a few mind numbing book parties. Perhaps I’m running on the high that one gets when one sees one’s friends doing well. Or, maybe I have a point.
At book parties I’ve noticed that everyone talks to each other a bit more, which, if we think about it, is one of the reasons we get together to hear poets read their work. Steve Dolph and I ended up having a great conversation about the last poem that he read. Everything that he had read except for the last poem, which is, or so he says, his first original poem, were translations of Néstor Perlongher work. Steve, who edits the sharp translation journal Calque with Brandon Holmquest, mostly works with translation, but came to translation from fiction writing because he said, “[Fiction writing] often made [him] feel alone.” He wanted to interact more with a text as if he were engaged in conversation. When thinking about writing a poem he said he approached it as if it was a translation because that’s what he’s comfortable with at this point. This is the type of thinking that I appreciate - having a go at something regardless of whether or not you know you can pull it off. What follows is his poem, which derives from Norte, a local newspaper in Ciudad Juárez:
armed commando pursues and kills man on street
7 february 2009
man killed midday yesterday, pursued for several meters by armed commando, it was reported deceased identified as marcelo núñez hernández, 30 years old, body left in road over Díaz Ordaz viaduct near Isla Jazu, in 16 de septiembre neighborhood event reported friday 12:35 pm where corpse of núñez hernández, 30 years old, found face down, reported Zona Norte law enforcement subcommision inspectors found victim with several wounds to both shoulders caused by bullets from a gun at location, crime scene investigation found five .22 caliber casings, embalmed for transfer to ballistic forensics lab for corresponding study corpse moved to medical forensics services where specialists to carry out legal autopsy to establish cause of death, it was reported
Here’s Steve’s statement of process that I extracted from him:
“armed commando” is a condensed translation of a story from Norte, a local paper in Ciudad Juárez–the city immediately across the US/Mexico border from El Paso, Texas–where the scene described is so typical of life in northern Mexico that it’s almost pedestrian. The idea for this kind of thing owes a lot to the late poet and novelist Roberto Bolaño, who catalogues the so-called crimes in northern mexico in the posthumous 2666, and to poet Ryan Eckes, whose Old News series has been an important influence.
What Steve and I ended up coming around to say in our conversation about his poem and process was that it’s crucial for us to find a way to understand the news. If you have a consciousness as well as a conscience - they don’t go hand in hand unfortunately - violent news such as the story that Steve works with provokes, or should provoke, a gut level disgust with how power manifests itself. It’s impossible to respond with aid in all cases or with the writing of a sound journalistic essay that denounces violent crimes. For Steve, “armed commando pursues and kills man on street” becomes his way of wrapping his head around the issue. It’s important to distinguish at this point, too, that I don’t think Steve’s rendition of this news story aims to capitalize on the drama of the armed commando, rather it’s a flat out critique that perhaps rings more loudly because he’s shifted his consciousness into the position where he can fathom the news. In a sense, his process makes the news more accessible on an individual level. All of this gets back to why Steve said he first turned to translation: he wanted his interactions with text to feel more like conversations. Typically, we read the news, but do not interact with it. We talk about the news, which is quite different and quite removed from what Steve is up to. I think Steve’s poem is a fruitful exercise that should move beyond mere exercise and into actual project.
In the next day or so I will post some of Ryan Eckes’ Old News - please stay tuned.