Pandora at the International Literature Today Workshop
“Insomnia. Homer. Taut sails” begins Osip Mandelstam’s Poem 78 from Stone (1915) – his meditation on Homer, migratory cranes, Helen of Troy and the sea. The Brown and Merwin translation of course, from the 1970s – my touchstone when I was crying for poetry and did not know why I was crying.
Now, I might be crying for lack of sleep: a good start was had at 10.30pm, a dropping off easily into my diving suit of slumber – but as is usual here, snap! awake at 3am. Rather than feel sorry for myself I will write, and bless the graces that have led me here among so many translators and heroes who have to speak and perform daily in their second or third language: English.
Sometimes I could hate my Mother Tongue: an international bully language that moves around the world like a virus, infecting, colonising and destroying its smaller relatives.
But I can’t – that would be self mutilation – I am my language. I am words, as well as flesh and blood. The Word was made flesh and dwelt among us, yes – but word is prior to incarnation, a mystery I will spend a lifetime working out.
As well, listening to my friends here, writers from Burma, Pakistan, Uruguay, Iraq, Venezuela (and more) – I see what it means to them to have many tongues. They do not despise my language, they use it as one among many gifts.
Bilal from Karachi spoke yesterday in a panel of coming from a city of 18,000,000 people (incredible), of being “between languages, English and Urdu…and struggling with both” (if I heard him right). That tension is part of his gift.
Genevieve from the Philippines recounted how she had become reconciled to American colonial history in her country, in part through her access to English and therefore the US and a wider literary culture. These writers inspire me: they ask to translate my work, poems which have been trapped in English at the edge of the Southern Hemisphere may yet be born again into Burmese (Pandora) and Arabic (Gulala).
I feel both sleepy and delighted: “My weariness amazes me/I”m stranded on my feet…” as my hero and lodestone Bob Dylan sang into my teenage years long ago.
I message my wife this morning, in response to her comment that being here seems to be good for my writing already (how could it not?). I reply…
“Ho hum…tried to lie down and my head kept spinning. Anything I can think of will become an engine of insomnia.
The writing: yes, like that last metaphor “engine…” etc. It is flowing I know. The blog is actually very good for that, like bar exercises you are doing in public.
You know what: in spite of all these sleep and noise hassles, I finally feel like I am what I am. I am language. It’s a joy, not a burden, I don’t have anything to prove. Watching that “Dylan growing up in Hibbing doco” did something for me. As soon as I heard him in 1964, I heard a kindred spirit. It was like getting plugged in to the national grid.
It has taken me years to realise, but even when I was far from being myself in this writing mode, I could never get away from it. So being here, being treated like I belong, in jury of my peers, is just further strengthening of everything that’s been bearing fruit since I came back to study in 1997.
But I would never regret or disparage the “fallow years” when my earth seemed dead. I am always doing what writers and artists and all human beings need to do, really: being fully present in the world. I think sometimes we are too impatient and I am glad for all those false steps and seeming wrong turns I took to get to the actual writing life itself, the putting down on paper.
The sawmill, the shearing shed and psych hospitals, the garbage trucks, the newspaper reading rooms proofing the real estate ads and the football scores: they were my MFA class back then.”
OK: now let’s try and get through the day and expect some more magic.
Bilal Tanweer at the International Literature Today Workshop.