Metropoetica in Krakow, March 23nd-27th 2009
Sigurbjörg Thrastadottir, Ingmara Balode, Sanna Karlström, Elzbieta (Ela) Wojcik-Leese and Zoë Skoulding spent five days walking, writing and translating in Krakow, while reflecting on the connections between these activities, and on the city as an environment for their work. They were joined via Skype from Ljubljana by Ana Pepelnik, and on the final day by Julia Fiedorczuk. The following notes describe some of the week.
Day 1: Monday 23rd March
What has walking in the city got to do with translation?
A map of the city presents an overhead view, as if looking down from a tower or an aeroplane, a position of power from which we can read the city, understanding how all its different areas fit together. Walking through the city is a more chaotic experience – we rely on our senses to navigate and don’t always hold the whole city plan in our heads. We weave our own experience into city space; it’s no longer an abstraction but something lived through the multiple connections we bring to it (see Michel de Certeau’s essay ‘Walking in the City’).
In translation, an ideal of ‘transparency’ gives readers the sense that they own a poem in a language that they don’t speak, and the translator’s process of travelling through the poem is invisible. How might we find ways of translating that deal with the random and chaotic connections of sound and image that make poetry?
Ela lives in Krakow, and thinking about the centralized plan of the city, she said that she made the choice to live in the suburbs as a deliberate rejection of the pull to the centre, an idea echoed by Ingmara, who said that in Latvia the marginal tends to be a particularly valued space. Within the city, people look for the green spaces where they can live.
There is a process of mapping in the transmission of poetry too, for example in terms of how poets find their translators. Ingmara thought it was important that the translator finds the poet, and she also talked about the responsibility she feels for example in translating Polish poetry into Latvian, and ensuring that the scene is well represented. Is this a kind of mapping? Does the translator create the landmarks in a culture as it is seen from the outside? What different connections between poetries might be made by this project? We talked about the kinds of conversations that go on – or don’t go on – between writers and translators, and the level of control exerted by the writer.
Ela asked about the idea of competency in translation – the EU, for example, has published guidelines on what is considered competent translation. But what about poets – do they need to be competent? Or is writing poetry a kind of loss of control, in some ways? Do the activities of writing and translation differ in that way, even though we might agree that translation is writing, and is in a sense ‘original’? Chance procedures such as the derive might be seen as a means of losing control.
We then moved on to talk about the relevance of cities to our own writing. Sanna talked about her ‘Architect’ poems; like much of her work they involve taking on the voice of a persona, which she finds allows her to write more honestly. In these poems she takes the voice of a woman speaking to an architect who expresses his feelings through the abstractions of architecture; there is feeling and subjectivity in the poems but it is refracted through a particular perspective. Her language is apparently simple, and it’s for this reason, she thinks, that her translators have not usually contacted her about translations. However, Ela and Ingmara pointed out that such language in poetry is actually the hardest to translate, because it might often depend on subtlety of tone that comes out as flat and uninteresting in translation. Sanna’s poems are persistently concerned with place and space, and another feature she mentioned was that in every poem there has to be something that proves she’s been to the place herself, even if it’s an imaginary place.
Sigürbjorg’s 2000 collection has poems with place names as titles, and she has been to most of them, though she included three she hadn’t been to, just to break the rule. They range from names of streets to continents, with a few set in Italy, where she lived for a while. She showed us the book, in which the designer has shown the position of each place on a latitudinal ring. In a more recent book, she’s looked at the connection between the body and the map, for example the way in which the vascular system never runs in a straight line, unlike the city plans of Romans.
Ingmara expressed some irritation about being classified as an urban poet when her book came out, because she doesn’t write ‘about’ cities – she doesn’t write ‘about’ anything, but follows the connections of sound in the poem. While she might refer to places in the city where she lives, there may often be overlaid references to several different places. She has found that going to poetry festivals has encouraged her to write a simpler and more direct kind of poem that is more ‘translatable’. However, this results in a transmission of a slightly skewed version of the poetry in a particular culture being transmitted internationally.
My last book took the Situationist manifesto by Ivan Chtcheglov (Gilles Ivain) as a starting point for writing about the quarters of an imagined city. I’m also interested in how the city spreads into the countryside (is anywhere in the western world truly remote from the city’s reach?) and also how the natural world seeps back into the city, how eventually cities disappear and revert to nature.
In the afternoon we went for a walk using a pack of cards – it’s a Situationist-inspired approach for defamiliarizing the city, and perhaps working against its logic, or finding different kinds of logic within it. Different directions were assigned to particular cards (left, right, straight on and up); one meant that we would stop, wherever we were, and write, which we did, despite the almost horizontal rain.
Day 2: Tuesday 24th March 2009
“Sometimes you find gaps when you’re translating, like when you’re walking along and suddenly there’s a hole in the road.” Ana, via Skype, 9.15 a.m. There are plenty of holes in Krakow at the moment. What’s underneath, it’s hard to say.
The morning in Massolit started with a discussion of where we had got to so far, and some thoughts about homophonic translation – we’re writing sound-based responses to Ana’s Slovenian poem, and plan to write a multilingual renga based on Julia’s lines, if she’ll give us some, as she’s going to be joining the project. The rest of the morning was spent translating each other’s poems.
In the afternoon we walked out to Kazimierz, via the Planty, Ingmara noticing the way the rings of green make a boundary of civility (people walking and giving greetings) where there used to be a military boundary, the city as defensive mechanism. Once in Kazimierz, we started the card walk in the main square. Meandering left and right we made our way out to the river, stopping to write, although every time we did our fingers froze up. The crumbling textures of the walls looked like landscapes. In the window of the map shop we found a picture of mediaeval Krakow, with the river flowing between Krakow and Kazimierz. It isn’t there now. Do rivers just disappear? Or was it channelled to mark a clear blue line between the city and the ghetto? I was thinking of Sigurbjörg's book, in which the Icelandic is printed in greyscale and the English translation is black - someone said it was like blotting paper, an imprint of one on the other. Two languages create a binary and therefore inevitably a hierarchy, and the same goes for these two old towns, Krakow and Kazimierz, each imprinting the other with everything that it is not. The long history of the ghetto and its aftermath reminds me that translation is, among other things, an exclusion of difference, a taming, a violence.
Can you fail?
Have we failed? asked Zoë today, when we were standing by the old market-place in Kazimierz, after re-starting our game of a deck of cards giving directions. She was referring to one of the challenges presented by the cards, the one saying we should go upwards from where we were standing.
Regardless of the challenge – which we completed, in a way – the question stuck in my head for the next couple of streets. Can one fail, in walking a city? Is there a correct way of finding one’s way/the way, or is any imaginable attempt correct? Can you travel through a city in a wrong way, can you even lose your way in a wrong way? Those questions could well have been applied to our own walkabout, running into dead ends, cutting walks short because of rain, walking in circles, bumping into people, jumping, limping. Does anything go?
Isn’t there something called creative reading?Either that’s a fancy word for dyslexia, or it means that the reader can have flourishing imagination, too.
On that note, also referring to yesterday’s questions of competence, whose fault is a misreading of a (street) map – the reader’s fault or the map maker’s? (Note that ‘fault’ may be an incorrect term, the question may as well be: Whose accomplishment ...)
I don’t think we have failed, yet.
I saw two women fall, on the streets of Krakow, today. One put her shoe
through a water-filled hole in the pavement on a street-corner. The other
tripped on uneven surface by the river. Both stood up and continued walking.
That’s what people do.
Day 3: Wednesday 25th March 2009
The day started with describing yesterday's walk to Ana, who knows the city from a previous visit. She said that the shape between Kazimierz and Krakow made a figure of eight, infinity. Strangely, this was exactly what Ingmara said on our first walk. Krakow invites circles and more circles. Ana suggested that a translation is infinite too - language keeps changing so it's never finished in the way that a poem might be finished. We also talked about translation as a way of filling in the gaps, just as a reader does. In a homophonic translation we fill in the gaps made by a language we don't speak, but we also create more gaps.
After the morning's work we took the tram out to Nowa Huta, which has quite a different feel from Kraków. This steel town, where Ela went to school, was once an ideal city of the future, but now the concrete is stained and the old men don't have anywhere to sit but outside on the freezing street corners. Like Kazimierz it's also a kind of anti-Krakow, but in this case it was filled, after WW2 with working class people from elsewhere in Poland to counteract the influence of Krakow. It has a strange mixture of perspectives - broad avenues for parades but a labyrinthine structure of residential blocks planned around courtyards with arched entrances. The town could easily become a fortress, where entrances could be sealed off and any intruder would be seen at once. This was deliberately conceived as a defensive strategy against a possible NATO attack, but ironically it also made the area difficult for the government to control when the people who lived there rebelled. It's modelled on the classical Renaissance lines of central Kraków but repeated so regularly and on such a vast scale that the spaces have the dreamlike quality of a de Chirico painting
The photographs in the museum conveyed the enormous and hopeful enthusiasm that went into the planning of the town, but also the strategies of control ( for example, public lists of construction workers who were productive and ridicule of those who were not) that created and sustained it. It's one thing having a dream but it's quite another having to live in someone else's dream, especially when it is, in all senses, so very huge and concrete.
When we translate, or read poetry, do I inhabit someone else's mental architecture? Maybe, yet this doesn't usually feel like an oppressive or coercive experience, perhaps because a poem doesn't have the practical, enveloping consequences of architecture. The language of the poem comes into conjunction with everything else that I'm thinking and experiencing: I have to be active in completing the meaning of the poem as it is not complete in itself in the same way that Nowa Huta is. It's that sense of completion that is impressive but it seems as though it could be hard to live in as it leaves no possibility for change.
Thursday 26th-Friday 27th March 2009
The final two days of the workshop were spent intensively writing and translating, ready for a reading on the Friday night, but we found time to go to see a collection of book art, or texts in and out of books, at liberatura
The collection included Oulipo texts translated into Polish, B. S. Johnson, and many other book-architectures by different artists, including this one:
It's a novel in the form of a street by Radosław Nowakowski, Ulica Sienkiewicza
Liberatura home page: www.liberatura.pl
the same film with English subtitles on youtube:
Czytańce: films about particular books – click on a book picture on the
Radosław Nowakowski, Ulica Sienkiewicza (Sienkiewicz Street)
Zenon Fiefer’s e-poem:
(click on the start button at the bottom of the page)
in Polish: http://www.techsty.art.pl/magazyn3/fajfer/Ars_poetica_polish.html
in English: http://www.techsty.art.pl/magazyn3/fajfer/Ars_poetica_english.html
The Map of Massolit by Sigurbjörg Thrastardóttir
Metropoetica's working base in Krakow was Massolit, a labyrinthine English-language bookshop that offered customers a hand-drawn map to find their way around.
It’s like a treasure hunt map, it’s handmade. (The treasure could be a master-piece, a person, a nice cup of coffee.) It’s yellowish, like were old. Probably it’s really not old, but it’s still a map unlike other maps. It’s a “you are here” in the readable world of civilization.
And all map rules are broken.
East and west don’t work, the Jews are to the east, Asia northbound, Religion is only in the south and New Arrivals are outside the sphere, according to a drawn arrow.
The hierarchy of mainstream and marginal is turned inside out; the dominant concepts in the middle, the very first ones to catch the eye when glancing at the map are Gay& Lesbian, and Women’s Studies. Indeed. Old, White Western Men do not own a center, here.
There is a corridor of classics, you can choose what classics – is it classical interior design, is it a corridor crammed with classic literature, is it a corridor leading to classified books, is it a corridor for the regulars, the “classics”?
It is an amazingly organic map.
Poetry is marked with a swayed arrow that turns everything, as it were, upside down, or inside out; it is an arrow with a swing. It is in the nature of (map) arrows to point straight ahead, or straight to one side, they mark a one way, they can’t mark a whim unless they are u-turns (south becomes north becomes south again) Normally, though, signs are put up to ban u-turns, not encourage them. Arrows with a random bend are, then, rare – unless they’re handmade, unless they’re poetry. And how fitting, say the literary critics, for doesn’t poetry just do that, swirl your thoughts around, make a bend in conventional meaning, have you lose your way. Poetry is a whimsical arrow.
Economics, on the other hand, have a straight arrow on this map – fittingly arranged, some would say – in the bottom corner, pointing to some obscure future, out of the frame, right wing.
How can Economics even be a place on a map free of charge?
It is a map of utopian cohabitation. You have the Russians, the Germans, the French and the Spanish piled on top of each other, lying next to each other, lurking behind each other ... depending on how you read a map. Religion is their neigbour, their rival ... depending on how you read a map.
How do you, for that matter, read a map of a bookstore you have perhaps never been to? How do you even know it’s a bookstore? Best is pretending that you don’t know. On the map itself the word book is almost nowhere to be found, so you really can fill in with whatever you like. Jewish Studies can be studies the Jews made of car speed mechanisms. Psychology could point to therapy rooms: Go get your phychic psyche fixed, please. Women’s Studies could actually be a row of furnished studies, owned and inhabited by professional women in all fields. Rooms of their own. Photography could be the box you have your passport taken.
There is no no-smoking sign on this map. If you’d never been, you couldn’t know it’s a flammable place, made up of old trees made books. You wouldn’t know it’s an ancient forest, a textual world of textures, print, covers, paper moons. Practically only in the word cookbooks does the word book come up, but by then you’re already so swept off by imagination that you’re only thinking food and wine. (The only other word with books is guidebooks, ironically, if you still feel you’ve been misguided...) The adventure map of the Massolit forest has flowers interwoven in it, the plan is swaying, the outlines don’t resemble a building at all, it is a handmade map and it is surreal.
Yet, it is a highly real map, if you’ve been there. It makes perfect sense. It even makes more sense than the place itself, as is often the case with maps.
You get the big picture of the seemingly random piles of books and stuff and furniture. You realise that there are in fact no walls and no boarders, no boxes of categories, on the contrary, although the real place has shelfs that might seem like limits, orders, boarders, the plan reveals that all ideas coexist in interspacial dynamics, in transspacial communication. This is the history of civilization (from the (landless) Anglosaxonish point of view, true), an overview of the world of thought and inventions as transferred onto ink – this is how we live, how we think, in a semi-organized, floating, transparent and timeless sphere of intellectual dimensions.
There is an entrance but no exit, according to the map, and it’s true. Die in here. That is the reality. Read on and argue, lighten up, get very lost, add what you can, understand and stick around forever.