27 March 2017

Reading Multiple Translations

Phaeton woodblock print by Constance Brewer

I've been rereading The Iliad in bits and pieces. My translation is by Robert Fagles and while satisfactory, I find myself longing for the Shakespearean overtones of a more poetic interpretation. At least I thought I did. After poking about on the Internet, I found the verse versions translated by Alexander Pope and Ian Johnson, and the prose interpretation by Samuel Butler.

What's the difference? I think I bring different expectations to a poetry work than I do a prose work. It's not just that poetry doesn't fill the page, it's that poetry seems to depend on a richer imagery than a prose work. Poetry compresses thoughts to a narrower focus (perhaps that expectation thing) and the prose has a more leisurely build up. Every sound, every word in poetry is calculated for effect - or should be. I'm not as aware of this when I write fiction as when I write poetry. I think because my poetry is generally short, my longest poem is only seven pages. Maintaining tight focus and emotional resonance over a long poem can be difficult. Doing it over the course of the Iliad in Pope's translation always leaves me a bit awe-struck. (And twitching over some of the tortured syntax to get rhymes.)

Poetry is a souped-up Mustang driving past the police station with one tail light out. Prose is a Cadillac on the Interstate headed for a nearby town. At least that's how it seems to me. Although I love reading Shakespeare, some days the flowery language is just one more thing I don't want to wade through. I also don't care for modern day four-letter-word fests in my reading. So where does that leave me? Buying multiple translations of The Iliad. Because I don't own enough books, especially multiple copies of the same one.

Each translation offers a different interpretation of events. While essentially the same, they offer enough variation for a word fanatic to feast on for many a thought. Hence the occasional reread. It's the same with poetry, by giving myself distance from the work, I find new understanding as my experiences throughout the year color my interpretation. It seems like I'll be rereading the same books the rest of my life, an alternatively cool and scary prospect. How about you, are there books or poems you turn to for inspiration? Have you read the Iliad? Preferred translation? Is there a translation of something out there I should be reading? Besides Rilke, that is.

(Verse Form)
The Iliad, Book I
Translated by Robert Fagles

Rage—Goddess, sing the rage of Peleus' son Achilles,
murderous, doomed, that cost the Achaeans countless losses,
hurling down to the House of Death so many sturdy souls,
great fighters' souls, bu made their bodies carrion,
feasts for the dogs and birds,
and the will of Zeus was moving toward its end.
Begin, Muse, when the two first broke and clashed,
Agamemnon lord of men and brilliant Achilles.

(Verse Form)
The Iliad, Book I
Translated by Alexander Pope

Achilles' wrath, to Greece the direful spring
Of woes unnumber'd, heavenly goddess, sing!
That wrath which hurl'd to Pluto's gloomy reign
The souls of mighty chiefs untimely slain;
Whose limbs unburied on the naked shore,
Devouring dogs and hungry vultures tore.(41)
Since great Achilles and Atrides strove,
Such was the sovereign doom, and such the will of Jove!(42)

(Verse Form)
The Iliad, Book I
Translation by Ian Johnston:

Sing, Goddess, sing of the rage of Achilles, son of Peleus—
that murderous anger which condemned Achaeans
to countless agonies and threw many warrior souls
deep into Hades, leaving their dead bodies
carrion food for dogs and birds—
all in fulfillment of the will of Zeus.

(Prose Form)
The Iliad, Book I
Translated by Samuel Butler

Sing, O goddess, the anger of Achilles son of Peleus, that
brought countless ills upon the Achaeans. Many a brave soul did
it send hurrying down to Hades, and many a hero did it yield a
prey to dogs and vultures, for so were the counsels of Jove
fulfilled from the day on which the son of Atreus, king of men,
and great Achilles, first fell out with one another.

12 March 2017

Japanese Short Forms

Undercover gnome ponders Haibun.

Whenever I feel my poetry getting scattered or disjointed I delve back into some Japanese poetical forms – namely haiku, tanka and haibun. 

I like haiku for the rigid requirements it makes me place on myself – how can I say something relevant or profound in such a short space? The idea is to create an image and a response to that image in very little space. Just because the poems are short doesn’t mean they are easy to write. Same with tanka. Haibun is a new form for me, sort of a “what would happen if a haiku and a prose poem got together and had a child” kind of format. I've only written a few, and I'm not happy with them yet. It may be my discomfort with prose poems holding me back, or my liking of haiku standing alone. We will see if I can push past all that. In the mean time, I use haiku and tanka to reconnect myself with the essence of poetry. When poems come as small, quiet thoughts rather than big missives, haiku is the way to go. 

A refresher: 
Haiku – Japanese short form poetry of around 17 syllables that typically has a seasonal reference (kigo) and a ‘cutting’ word (kireji) or phrase.  The syllable count is a guideline since Japanese sounds are generally shorter than their English counterparts, and 12 syllables seems to be closer to the Japanese intent than the 17.  The seasonal word is a requirement for traditional haiku poets, not so much for more modern and English poems.  The kigo can use events, weather patterns, seasonal conditions and seasonal markers to clue the reader in to what season is being referenced. It’s also used as a shorthand way of cueing the reader in to an emotion connected with the season word. The cutting word or kireji is often used as a bridge to enhance the images used by the poet. It’s another one of those things that is distinctly Japanese and hard to translate to the English language.

The most famous haiku is from Bashō—

furuike ya kawazu tobikomu mizu no oto

old pond . . .
a frog leaps in
water sound

my favorite:
                Though I'm in Kyoto
                when the cuckoo sings
                I long for Kyoto

Another haiku poet is Kobayashi Issa

A tethered horse,
      in both stirrups.

In the cherry blossom's shade
    there is no such thing
          as a stranger

Tanka – The bad thing about trying to find a tanka (or even haiku) definition, is that in English, we seem to be hell bent on describing the poem form by how many syllables and lines it has, rather than on the spirit or intent. If you know anything about poets, you know rules were made to be bent, twisted, broken, and reformed, syllable count be damned.

Here is a definition from Wikipedia:
“Tanka consists of five units (often treated as separate lines when Romanized or translated) usually with the following pattern of onji:

The 5-7-5 is called the kami-no-ku ("upper phrase"), and the 7-7 is called the shimo-no-ku ("lower phrase"). Tanka is a much older form of Japanese poetry than haiku.”
From AmericanTanka.com: “A tanka is a five-line poem that evokes a single moment with vivid precision and emotional veracity.”

Tanka by Yosano Akiko

Goodbye my love
For a night at Fuzan spring
I was your wife.
Now until the end of the world
I demand that you forget me.

It was only
the thin thread of a cloud,
almost transparent,
leading me along the way
like an ancient sacred song.

Haibun definition from Wikipedia:
"Haibun  is a literary composition that combines prose and haiku. The range of haibun is broad and includes, but is not limited to, the following forms of prose: autobiography, biography, diary, essay, historiography, prose poem, short story and travel literature.

A haibun may record a scene, or a special moment, in a highly descriptive and objective manner or may occupy a wholly fictional or dream-like space. The accompanying haiku may have a direct or subtle relationship with the prose and encompass or hint at the gist of what is recorded in the prose sections."
A haibun example from Simply Haiku: A Quarterly Journal of Japanese Short Form Poetry


It's so dry the dirt along the bike path has changed color. Last year the kids and I searched for crawdads in the adjacent stream. Now pebbles and stones rest without reflection, leaving only a few dark puddles closely guarded by trees. Our family walk interrupted — a couple of boys with sharpened spears jabbing at fish. They look up, throw down their sticks and run. I send my son to the trash can, my daughter and I taking off our shoes to wait.

He returns with 2 cups, super-sized. We spend the next half hour shuttling fish, a pond not far away. I make up a song, Fish Rescue. By the last trip, both children have memorized the refrain.

Sometimes I still wonder if I'm doing it right.

    slam of a car door
    our dog runs
    as fast as he can

Is anyone out there writing haibun? Or even prose poetry? Tell me that haibun is not as complicated as I'm making it out to be - or that my haiku sometimes could use a companion to pal around with. .  .

13 February 2017

Fiction Monday

Tetris Effect protagonist - after.

A little piece of fiction for your Monday, and a painting to go along with it. Enjoy!

The Tetris Effect
by Constance Brewer

I don't dream.

When I tell people this they rushed to reassure me they don't remember dreams either. I pretend they understood what I meant. Remembrance is a non-issue. I don't dream at all, not since the aliens took me.

Say 'alien abduction' to ordinary folks and they titter. In my case abduction is not entirely truthful, since I went voluntarily. Hell, I begged them to take me. They were understandably reluctant; their victims usually didn’t choose themselves. They wanted scientists. I swore up and down my liberal arts degree was valuable. I gave my word, and shook their hands, all of them, including the ones sticking out of their forehead.

I call the alien 'they' because it wasn't a single alien, it was a rotund carcass with numerous consciousnesses attached to it. The alien acquired them over the course of time in an assimilation process I never quite understood. Random parts protruded from the otherwise normal alien. Once in a while a body, human or otherwise, would eject from the alien with the fetid slurp of a boot ripped from swamp mud. Alien mitosis was far messier than the Earth version.

Absorption into the mass wasn't as painful as it could have been. Uncomfortably gooey and strikingly similar to the sensation you get when your foot falls asleep.  Afterwards, there was the disorientation of looking south when the alien walked east, the lack of muscle control, not to mention the disconcerting awareness of an alien hand protruding from your groin as a bizarre companion to Mr. Happy.

In the end, desire to see the universe aside, I didn't last a month as an alien implant. I wasn't fully absorbed; I was rejected, expelled with a sucking pop. They apologized profusely, explained they were afraid I would upset their multi-minded balance. It wasn't personal, a few felt I'd be a valuable addition, but they were outvoted.

If I lasted a year, I’d have been privy to all the cumulative knowledge stored in their bloated body. Full awareness, not just the flashes of unfamiliar insight that skittered across my brainpan and vanished before fully sinking in.

As I cleaned the blue slime from my naked skin, I thought maybe it was because they finally realized that while they slept, I spied on the dreams flickering across numerous brainscreens. I ate exotic foods, fought monsters, swam cobalt seas under triple moons, piloted immense spacecraft to remote universes, and met untold foreign species. One night I glimpsed a life form so incredibly unfamiliar, so vicious and frightening I scared everyone awake attempting to muffle my screams. That xenophobic reaction was my undoing.

I returned to Earth alone, distressed, and plagued by paralyzing nightmares. I'd dream of these new horrors attacking from space in wave after wave of glittering terror. Apparently I'd absorbed a lot more than I realized watching alien dream theater. I couldn't shake the image of the razor-fanged extraterrestrial. I knew someday it was going to appear and devour not only me, but my entire planet, person by person. 

My nightly screaming woke the neighbors, scared the dog, and forced my decision.

It took several weeks to track down the country where the aliens currently body-mined. I was never sure if it was 'my' alien that I talked to or another with numerous humanoid appendages protruding from its body. In the end, it didn't matter. They understood.

With a sharp mental scalpel they banished the nightmares and rewired my brain so I'd never need sleep again. I could remain alert for travelers not quite as accommodating as them; their many-toothed cousins fondly called 'GrxbyPk’. The closest my alien soggy brain could come to an interpretation was, ‘Interstellar Harvesters'.  

I don't dream, and that's probably a good thing.


*Originally published in Everyday Fiction

30 January 2017

Embracing Poetry Mind

Poetry Mind can be a challenge, an obstacle, or a puzzle that guides you to the top of the mountain.

My brain has taken a mini vacation the past few weeks, occupied with getting through the holidays and on into the new year. It was a fallow time, with little creative writing going on. I suddenly realized I needed to get myself back into "Poetry Mind" to get myself back into writing.

Poetry Mind is that state where the possibilities for poems seem endless. Chance encounters, the color of the morning sunrise, a package that arrived in the mail all become fodder for new poems. After editing a manuscript steadily through Oct-Nov-Dec I was not keen on just editing more poems. I want the thrill of the new. I wanted to fall in love with a poem all over again.

To help my journey back to poetry mind, I tend to do a version of the old wedding saw, "Something old, something new, something borrowed, something blue". Something old is rereading a poetry book I know and love, and losing myself in the language. It doesn't even have to be poetry, I reread Lord of the Rings to lose myself in Middle Earth - when I come out the other side, I am refreshed. The familiar brings confidence.

Something new is usually getting a new poetry book by an author I've always wanted to read, or picking up a few literary journals I haven't read before. There is a sense of excitement as I turn the pages. Who knows what new and inspiring poem will shoot forth from the page to worm its way into my brain? Maybe it's a new way of looking at word play, a turn of phrase or deft language handling that will twig my Poetry Brain.

Something borrowed means I appropriate an image or a line from a poem and use it as a jumping off point. I twist it, turn it, hold it upside down and shake vigorously. If it's firing on all cylinders, Poetry Mind takes off with a roar, or at least burns some rubber. Poetry Mind likes to play catch with its friend, What If? Together, they are excellent jump starters.

Finally, we have something blue. To me this means I need to get outdoors, go for a hike, take in a park, commune with nature in any way, shape or form. Deep breaths of fresh air coupled with a panoramic view of Mother Nature soothes my Poetry Mind and leaves it open to the possibilities. A dash of all four somethings, contemplated, usually provides the motivation to get me back in the state I need to be to write. Poetry Mind.

How do you reach your Poetry Mind?