Voisine, Bassiri, Woloch, et. al.

Voisine, Bassiri, Woloch, et. al.
March 24, 2024 Plume

Connie Voisine on Translating Patron Henekou:

Patron Henekou’s Jazz et autres prières (Jazz and Other Prayers) engages with the late 20th and early 21st-century American poetic consideration of the personal as political, or as Henekou says, his is a personal poetry firmly located in the embodied self, where  “sensuality turns to challenge us both as a political concern, a social fact, and the wear and tear that remains our prerogative” as writers.[1] The assumptions of America’s traditions are sharpened by the poet’s gaze; subtle and not so subtle legacies of racism are drawn by this sensitive observer. Henekou often uses song when performing his work and says about this practice, “[t]here is a direct connection between poetry and song. In my language (Ewe) it is difficult to separate poetry from song and we have the same word for both, “ha.” So, when someone sings and reads a poem, it is the same.” Through this linguistic practice of “ha,” We read Jazz et autres prières (Jazz and Other Prayers) as a book of transatlantic movements of Africans past and present; of music and literature, and of fears and friendships.

These poems were written during the COVID lockdown, two years after Henekou’s return from Lincoln, Nebraska. In Togo and most West African countries, the cultural sector suffered much from the COVID pandemic. In a literary community like any other, cultural life depends on social gatherings, and the impact was devastating. As Henekou says, “…the pandemic also offered an opportunity for creation because we were the first to stay home. Staying home pushed us to more reading, and to more creation. I wrote my next book during the pandemic.” Jazz et autres prières (Jazz and Other Prayers) is a result, in part, of the disruptions of the pandemic, lending, perhaps, an urgency to the expression of these larger, poetic explorations.

As a translator, my collaboration with Henekou is equally unique. We met where I teach, at the US/Mexico border, thanks to the Fulbright program’s Outreach Lecturer Fund Travel Award. At our small, regional majority-minority university, he attended workshops, taught a theater class and led a conversation about oral traditions of Ewe people and participated in a post-production audience talk-back after a staging of Homer’s Odyssey. Born on the US/Canada border, I am part of a Francophone minority in the US. Our translation process is especially enriched by our two different French-Colonial linguistic histories. We are vehemently co-translators, meaning this project has been a translation of his poems by both of us. Professor and poet Kwame Dawes’s curation of this book for the African Poetry Book series (the only one like it in the US) points to the significance of the work, as well as Dr. Henekou’s position in African letters. As one of the founders of the series, Matthew Shenoda, describes, the poets selected are “the new generation, insistent that Africa itself is a global and malleable concept, a small thread always sewn in the mind and heart of the sojourner.”[2] The translation of Henekou’s Jazz et autres prières (Jazz and Other Prayers) adds an important transatlantic dimension to American poetry and poetries in English. It’s a necessary component of a full conversation about race and the possibilities of international community in America.

[1] http://revuedescitoyensdeslettres.org/profil/pluginclass/cbblogs?action=blogs&func=show&id=44 (translation mine)

[2] https://www.worldliteraturetoday.org/2017/september/verse-africa-malleable-poetics-some-contemporary-african-poets-matthew-shenoda



Kaveh Bassiri on Translating Fereshteh Sari:

Fereshteh Sari’s poems were a revelation when they began to be published in the late 1980s, a time of major transition in Iran. The Iran-Iraq War ended in 1988, and Khomeini died in 1989. At a time when the poetry of “Sacred Defense” championed martyrs and the righteousness of the Iranian cause, Sari was one of the first poets to write without preaching or exhortations, using observation and strong imagery to capture the consequences of war and its devastating impact on ordinary citizens. In her more recent poem “The City,” she continues to reflect the experiences of Iranians. We find the speaker stuck in an impossible place, at the crossroads of dream and reality, without a language or the means of explaining her situation. In translating this poem, I confronted the typical challenge of how to transfer the sound and wordplay. Another challenge came from her name, which she references in the last stanza. Those who know Persian would know that Fereshteh means “angel” and Sari means “running” or “flowing” like a current. I could have tried to add this information to the poem. But I have decided to leave the poem as is, not implying that she had identified the meaning of her name. I could have footnoted the information, but in this case, I decided to use this note to inform the reader.



Cecilia Woloch on “Honey:”

I remember well the genesis of this poem. Two things were happening: I was re-reading Emily Dickinson’s poems late one night, reading in that fully-immersed way that brings on a kind of haunting,  an invocation not only of the poet’s language, the rhythms of her breathing, her way of speaking and seeing, but of her presence; at the same time, my youngest sister was grieving the death of her dearest companion, a large dog named Honey that she’d raised from a puppy. My sister lives on an acre of wild land in Kentucky, and she had buried Honey there herself. So, my sister’s grief was with me that night, and I wanted to reach out to her in a poem.

Although my mentor, Holly Prado, had once warned, “No sad animal poems!” she had also said, “If you’re not going to at least risk sentimentality, why bother?”  I decided I’d give it a try, if only as an experiment, which is really the way I begin every poem.

So, my consciousness was moving along the tracks of Dickinson’s; I felt inhabited by her strange music, and by her. I had also read about her relationship with her own dog. I wondered what she might say to my sister to soothe her. And as I began to write, in Dickinson’s rhythms, and with her terseness, it occurred to me that Dickinson would be practical: she’d kneel beside my sister, she’d help her lift the weight of the dog’s body, and she’d help her to bury that beloved body, bare-handed, in the cold earth.

In some way, the poem wrote itself. The first draft doesn’t look, now, so different from the final draft, although there was a lot of painstaking revision along the way, which also felt sort of Emily-Dickinsonian to me.



Jennifer Martelli on “Pareidolia” and “Oloid”:


This poem’s original title was “My Dentist Has Abruptly Closed His Practice,” which is exactly what happened. He was a kind man who did horrific things to my mouth; there’s something so vulnerable about being a dental patient! Perhaps it’s because our faces are so close, yet we aren’t supposed to make eye contact. His office was wallpapered in a repeating ocean theme: boats, lighthouses, etc. This is common in my town, this ocean theme. I’d focus on the walls during my visits. As I was revising this poem, I read an article in The New York Times about pareidolia, the human tendency to see shapes or faces out of randomness. The sentence, “We’re constantly looking for one another out in the world,” had a lot of meaning for me—both sinister and comforting. I decided on tercets because of the balanced tragedy in the form.


This poem was completely inspired by Julie Chen’s “Chrysalis.” The artist created a 3D “oloid,” a shape discovered by Paul Schatz in 1929. I was obsessed with the idea of a shape being invented or discovered; one day, it doesn’t exist and the next, there’s the concept of the oloid. Chen’s construction of her chrysalis was a choreography: the shape splayed, the shape folded—a ballet! This concept of the suddenness of of the light (after dark winter); of recovery (from addiction); of forgetting (after knowing) is central to my forthcoming book. I settled on this prose form because I didn’t want to be constrained by the line; I wanted to move from one idea to the next with fragile connections between each section.



Martha Collins on “Practicing Eights”:

Early last fall, after I returned from a week in the hospital during which I was treated for life-threateningly low sodium, I went back to my desk and discovered that my handwriting was very shaky. I worked through the alphabet, lowercase and caps, and then turned to numbers and discovered the difficulties described in the poem. When I told my poet friend Fred Marchant that I was practicing eights, he said: That’s a title for a poem.

And so it is. Lines or thoughts about the storm and the blues were already in my mind; but being me, I turned to research and discovered a great deal more—including, it turned out, a solution to the problem of making eights.



Kate Northrop on “It’s Awful Plain” and “Train to Naples”:

“It’s Awful Plain” is, if not a cento, cento-ish.  I’d been re-reading, at night for a week or so last summer, Ed Roberson’s “Atmospheric Conditions” and Gary Short’s “10 Moons and 13 Horses” and copying down chunks of language from their poems (poems I love, admire, and live with).  In my morning writing, these chunks got moved around, maybe like shells in a shell game.  I wanted to impose a tight limit, to work within and (hopefully) create a sense of struggle with a stuck-ness.  Or maybe another metaphor: I turned the chunks, one way then another in the light, trying to find a way out?  I assembled 5 or 6 pieces; “It’s Awful Plain” is the one that seemed to ring.  And because I’d added words here and there, changed a tense or two maybe, I don’t think this poem really is a straight-up cento.  Also, the title comes from Elizabeth Bishop’s “The Moose.”

“Train to Naples” came from cento-izing my own writing, lifting chunks and phrases from notebooks and unfinished drafts and placing them side by side, sort of stitching, sort of leaving them alone.  In general, I have to struggle with my impulse to tidy, or to bend poems into obedience.  Cento work allows for surprise and movement.

Also, these poems are rooted in some great conversations in a writers’ workshop, spring 2023.  That semester, I remember we were all especially excited about centos, especially Cameron Awkward-Rich’s “Cento between the Ending and End” https://poets.org/poem/cento-between-ending-and-end and Kate Daniels’ “She-Poets Cento” from Plume Issue 50 https://plumepoetry.com/she/



Hoyt Rogers on “Jug”:

“Jug” was originally composed in red letters on a yellow background, though I’m just as happy to see it in black on white here. These verses are from a sequence called Colors, in which a non-binary, multiethnic Caribbean artist writes ekphrastic poems about her/his/their own works, and then paints over them. The poem is also connected to a series of rectangular chunks of “painted prose” entitled Canvases. These, in turn, arose from passages in my forthcoming novel, Midnight at Sea, the second volume of The Caribbean Trilogy (the first, Sailing to Noon, has already appeared). One of the main characters is a painter named Virgilio, who thinks in terms of rectangular canvases; sometimes he executes his conceptions, but often they simply remain suspended in his mind. In addition to his own works, he describes plates from The Taíno Codex, an indigenous manuscript from the sixteenth century. In that apocryphal tome, Obanex is portrayed as follows:

A picture shivered into many windows tells the story of Obanex, a dog without a single tuft of fur to mar his smoothness. Pink as the pigs of the Spanish aliens, he kneels to the left before his master, who tosses him scraps from the midday meal. In the main episode, a patchwork of yellows and greens, several clansmen hunt iguanas. On a sunny hill, they swing at their prey with hatchets; an iguana head rolls along the grass, a prize they award to Obanex. He jumps excitedly, chews the eyes and brain, and drinks some water from a stream. In another frame, he tastes a monkey his owner’s wife had cooked; she jerks his snout from the higüero-gourd bowl and trounces him. When her husband comes home, he slits the dog’s throat; his blood makes a wavy line along the bottom of the page. In the final pane, his gutted body roasts on a spit. Hungrily, the man pats his belly and smacks his lips.

In its primary version, this passage combines orange letters with a green background. In all forms—whether verse, prose poetry, or narrative—I’m exploring how a visual artwork can generate an ekphrastic depiction, only to pivot back towards a painting once again.



Frannie Lindsay on “Two O’clock” and “Stray”:

Both poems — one about the inverse sensuality of aging, one about invisibility and isolation versus communion and embrace — arrived unannounced. I may have been doing dishes, laundry, or putting away groceries. I had to stop all that and get them down quick.

It’s really the only way I write; I don’t have a daily practice. I envy poets who do. My writing practice feels more like what a good friend has called a blessed disorder: a sporadic and crazily pressing urgency. I receive my poems.

I didn’t belabor either first draft longer than about twenty minutes. Their initial readers commented that the images in both pieces were direct and eccentric in the right way, but the meanings were occluded. And I had difficulty with the final stanzas: both poems, one about loneliness and one about growing old — two topics amply encumbered — ran the risk of ending bathetically.

I arrived at the final versions of “Two O’clock” and “Stray” after several weeks spent hacking off this and that, eventually inviting a more dangerous and apt weirdness. But perhaps most importantly, prior to their final writing sessions, I stopped thinking much about either poem.



Daniel Tobin on Five Poems of Rilke

These five poems from Rilke are from a forthcoming book of my translations, entitled Late Songs. Most of the poems to be included appeared from 1911 onward, and the greater number after Rilke’s great monumental achievements, Duino Elegies and Sonnets to Orpheus. Many of the late poems especially have no titles in the German, though I have given titles to my versions with the idea of underscoring thematic motifs running through the chronology of Rilke’s work.  These translations are, then, versions in the fullest sense—my effort at taking a turn with, and on, Rilke’s originals.