Saturday, January 24, 2009

Peter Cole & Fat Ulu

This past Thursday I attended a lecture and reading by Peter Cole, who translates poetry from Hebrew and Arabic and runs Ibis Editions in Jerusalem. His talk centered on the work of Aharon Shabtai, a leftist Israeli writer of baroque and bitter poems, and on Taha Muhammad Ali, a Palestinian poet whose poetry is as indirect as one of his long, bent fingers. I was interested in Cole's work as a translator and publisher because Tinfish Press has published a chapbook about Shabtai and Cole's press, which concludes with a long poem by Leonard Schwartz (see Tinfish Press). To publish poems by poets on opposing sides of a conflict is an important task; Tinfish is not so much about conflict (although it often is) as about publishing writers generally not thought to have much to say to one another.

Among Cole's topics were the difficulties of translation, the problem of trying to “translate war into peace,” the subject of poetry and politics, and his sometimes heated relationships with the poets he translates. He structured his talk by creating categories like “leverage” and “humor” as a way to organize his ideas, but the poems proved to be stronger than the frame. He is a good performer, as well. To my question about publishing and distribution he responded that his primary distributor is in California (SPD) and that most of his readers live outside of the Holy Land. One hopes that more Israelis and Palestinians read these poems in the near future; people may not die for what can be found in poems, as Williams noted, but they are dying, and poems might help start a dialogue on the level of the person, if not the state (or the lack of one).

Today (Saturday) I attended most of a meeting for Fat Ulu's Statehood Project. Fat Ulu is comprised of poets who include most of those in Tinfish 18.5: The Book (Ryan Oishi, Sage Takehiro, Tiare Picard) and Kimo Armitage. They started their non-profit over a year ago after doing a directed reading course on publication issues with me. Since that time, they've organized an event at a local jazz club and begun work on this project on the fraught issue of statehood. I arrived late (my daughter had been playing soccer this a.m.) and heard the end of a presentation by Ron Williams, a graduate student in history, who has been doing research on responses to annexation and statehood by Hawaiians. What he has found is that, contra many, including Sen. Lamar Alexander of Tennessee on the floor of the Senate in 2006, Hawaiians did not favor statehood. According to a short essay that he handed out, “`Onipa`a ka `Oia`i`o: The Truth is Steadfast,” “people in Hawai`i were also limited in their options regarding statehood in 1959 because the ballot presented only two choices: continuing as second-class citizens in the American system, or having all of the same rights as Americans in the United States. It is impossible to know what the results might have been if restoration of independence had been an alternative on the ballot.” There had also been a presentation by members of Kumu Kahua Theater downtown, who will take what is written by participants in the workshop and make it into a two hour theatrical production over the course of many months. It's an exciting and timely project, geared toward the 50th anniversary of Hawai`i statehood.

This week my English 273 students (Literature & Creative Writing) made collages and then performed them in class. I hope to have them relaxed by the time we get to “meaning” as they know it, and to realize how embodied poems are; the inaugural poem by Elizabeth Alexander did not help the cause, as it seemed so abstract to them (the ones who heard it). Her discussion with Stephen Colbert, however, was valuable. In response to his provocations (“aren't metaphors just lies?” was one) she carefully explained some of the features of poetry that we struggle to convey in the classroom. I finally met my Poetry & Politics seminar, small but enthusiastic, and set up working definitions of “poetry” and “politics” with them. I spoke to both classes about the way in which Rev. Joseph Lowery collaged important texts into his benediction at the inauguration on Tuesday, beginning from James Weldon Johnson's poem (often called “the Negro's national anthem”) and ending with a riff on Big Bill Broonzy. And oh the inauguration!

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