Archive for the Chaos and Order Category

Jacob Groot translation workshop

Jacob Groot

To complement my earlier post about translating Jacob Groot’s poetry, I’d like to give you a short introduction to his work. Reading reviews of his work through the years – he’s written 12 volumes of poetry to date, besides collections of essays on poetry and music and a couple of novels – I found reviewers have had a similar reading experience to mine: his poems do not open up to you on first reading: mixed-up syntax, protagonists identified by seemingly generic personal pronouns and imagery that appears to stand on its own, all make for a confusing first read-through. Groot does not make any concessions to the reader. While all this may frustrate your understanding of the poem’s content, the poems do force you to keep reading through their intricate rhythms, internal rhyme, word association and assonance combined, even onomatopoeia, sound-words. In his first volumes Jacob Groot wanted to capture ‘an emotion’, not ‘one’s own emotion’, but as concrete a representation of ‘an’ emotion as possible.

“Abstract reflection only gets in the way if you want to achieve this”, as he said in an interview back in 1978 – a credo he appears to have maintained to this day, as the first poem in his latest volume Divina Noir reads: “There is no need for a mirror-image.”

There is a recurring motif in his work: ‘an end’ meaning a goal or purpose and ‘the means’. Is poetry a means to an end, or is a poem just meant to result in itself? There are a few poems within the festival selection that mention this: ‘Local Universe’ and ‘Her Legs’.

to me the task
(an end) of sticking it to the wall like a ring
around the fleshy finger of the means.

(from: ‘Local Universe’)

The poem may be more about the journey – through language – than its conclusions. Groot doesn’t provide any solutions in his poetry, on the contrary, he reveals, displays. In the end, it all comes down to what you read into what he portrays. His poetry has been called metaphysical or religious by critics. Certainly, the celestial spheres sometimes drift into his poems and he knows how to play with biblical phrases. Mostly, though, I feel his work is experiential. His poetry wishes to incorporate as much of reality and precisely formulated experience as it can and all of life’s contradictions, be it in colloquial speech, expletives, quotations, pop lyrics, etc. As he said in an interview: “discovering and incorporating contradictions and paradoxes is something you discover naturally during the writing process” (paraphrased). Once you understand these contradictions are a natural part of his work, you may relax into them.

Aside from the more philosophical nature of his work, many critics have noted his poems’ lyrical quality. ‘Release me, the time has come’ is a good example of the driving rhythms in his work, accompanied by profoundly disturbing imagery from Artaud, whom the protagonist is reading quietly upstairs while his parents are downstairs watching television:

and takes the lid off the hell
you then get to see and he passes
it on: my hole as arse, my sour hollow
arse, in which the red lice cycle

splatters to pieces

The italicised latter part is taken from ‘La culture indienne’ (Indian Culture) by Antonin Artaud, the surrealist playwright and poet who wished to lay bare man’s baser nature, his impulsive desires. Which is another theme in Groot’s poetry. He can be as direct as Artaud in phrasing the sexual preferences of his protagonists, and he can be equally passionate about the act of screwing (as opposed to making love) or more onanistic sexual fulfilment. Many of the selected poems bear witness to this. In fact, all but two of the festival selection poems contain some form of fleshly gratification or the desire to achieve this.

The above was part of my introduction to the festival translation workshop, where one (Dutch) poet, in this case Jacob Groot, is translated into as many languages as there are poets voluntarily taking part in the workshop. This year’s participants: Erin Moure, Eduardo Espina, Truong Tran, Daljit Nagra and Draga Rinkema. The workshop is primarily aimed at the festival poets and translators, but is also open to the public. Would you like to know how the festival poets translated Jacob Groot into American, Canadian and British English, Spanish, Slovene and German? The presentation is today, Sunday 19 June at 16.00 in the afternoon, in Café Floor’s garden (next to the theatre).


Jacob Groot: ‘WIMPLED ONE’ from Poetry International on Vimeo.

Robert Hass and Serhiy Zhadan

Last night, the second reading in the main hall was rife with moral questions. American poet Robert Hass’s poems and his comments touched on the aftermath of Word War II in Amsterdam; the rape of German women in Berlin by Soviet soldiers; sex traffic in young girls in Bangkok; and the alcoholism of a mother. They almost seemed to be interrogating issues raised more vaguely by Serhiy Zhadan’s poems, which opened the reading. I say vaguely because Zhadan uses elliptical streams of associations rather than precise statements. Zhadan, from the Ukraine – (personal disclosure, my father’s parents left Tchernogov in 1905) – read energetically, with the enthusiasm, it seemed, of the young and morally righteous – and touched on Russian oligarchs stealing eastern European resources “with dispensation from Jerusalem,” about Islam, about Chinese drug smugglers, gypsies (with “lazy movements”) and so on.

In Poetry and Ethics, Natasha Saje writes that “In one sense, poetry itself is an exercise in othering, in trying to understand something or someone foreign from oneself.

“Transactions between writer and reader are like transactions with real people, and that is why they matter,” she says. “Moreover, because of poetry’s intimacy – the readers of a poem are simultaneously addressee and speaker – I believe that some poems create an ethical disjunction for their readers.”

She discusses her discomfort when “the poet is making art out of others’ suffering without any risk or consequence to himself or herself”. She quotes Susan Sontag’s comment that “No ‘we’ should be taken for granted when the subject is looking at other people’s pain”; “what matters precisely is who is killed and by whom”.

And she notes that Sontag suggests “a narrative seems likely to be more effective [in conveying pain] than an image. Partly it is a question of the length of time one is obliged to look, to feel”.

For me, listening to selected poems by Hass and Zhadan on Friday evening, it seemed that Hass had a clearer narrative, or at least one clearer to me. After the reading I asked him why he, not Jewish, was so sensitive to the fact of the Holocaust: “I was born in 1941,” was his answer. I didn’t get a chance to speak to Zhadan, with his careful attention to ethnicities (Chinese, Polish, Islamic) and interest in, as one of his titles reveals, ‘The History of Culture at the Turn of this Century’.

Is there a new narrative in this new world? Perhaps because I have not experienced the aftermath of the end of the Soviet Union (thanks to my ancestors, who went to America from the Ukraine and Romania), I don’t quite understand exactly which culture Zhadan refers to when he writes about it unpleasantly entering his bloodstream:

this is how the era began,
this is how it turned – awkward, heavy like a munitions truck,
leaving behind dead planets and burnt-out transmitters,
scattering wild ducks in the pond

[ . . . ]

When choosing your course of studies you should find out
among other things –
if the culture at the turn of this century
has already pressed itself into the veins of your slow arm [ . . . ]

(translated by Virlana Tkacz and Wanda Phipps)

Perhaps readers of this blog have suggestions?

Translation symposium: “They wouldn’t mind minor mistranslations”

© Michele Hutchison

Wednesday, 15 June

This year the festival is increasing the amount of attention paid to poetry translation in the programme. A translation symposium for around forty professional translators was held for the first time on the opening day of the festival. In his opening speech, Bas Kwakman called translation “the backbone of the festival”, while colleague Jan Baeke described it as “the best way of reading a poem”. This year more than five hundred people (mainly Rotterdammers) were invited to try their hand at translating poems by the festival poets beforehand. As a way of inviting involvement in poetry, there certainly is a lot to be said for it.

Nevertheless, there is still a huge gap between the professional translator who must combine linguistic ability, expertise, sensibility and skill, and the amateur whose grasp of the language translated and prosody in general may be limited. How to bridge the gap and bring the two together in an experience from which both parties might benefit? The question was left open with many ideas for improving the programme next year.

Translator Mariolein Sabarte Belacortu outlined the many difficulties she had faced with the complex, often abstract poems of Uruguayan poet, Eduardo Espina. His poems did not include rare or archaic words; no dictionary could help her with the problems his cryptic style posed. She could often only guess at the meaning. Hearing that the particular poem used as an example was based on his experience of his mother’s death, Mariolein wished she’d had this information beforehand. But still, professional translators do often have to rely on their intuition and on reading the poem many many times.

Mariolein Sabarte Belacortu © Michele Hutchison

Eduardo Espina noted that it was difficult to write his poems too, and that they had made his translators look good: “If you can translate this, you can do anything,” he said. His English translator had won prizes. When the audience urged Maroilein to ask him about the very tidy form of his poem, a column of even-length lines, which she had yet been unable to reproduce (her translation was an ongoing work on progress, and she was pleased there was no publisher in sight), he explained that he counted the number of letters in each line. This extreme precision was something his translator currently felt unable to reproduce. Perhaps by getting to know him at the festival, her knowledge of his technique and aims will facilitate the revision stage. Not everything can be picked up on by close reading and intuition.

Canadian poet Erín Moure gave a talk which reminded of me of my previous experiences of poets translating poets. While professional translators tend to be tidy-minded people with good analytical skills, poets find the act of re-creating the poem more exciting than understanding it. They often translate using sound association and feeling, as though there might be a universal poetics, in the way some believe in a universal grammar. Moure explained her own translation technique: “the body responds to the text”, “at the moment of writing, there is no possible theory”, “all translation is creative” – an equally valid approach at the festival.

Finally, Norwegian translator Roald van Elswijk outlined the set of tools he’d used to translate Øyvind Rimbereid’s 2004 masterpiece Solaris Korrigert (Solaris Corrected) – an impressive futuristic epic poem which combines various dialects with old Norse, borrows from English, Danish, Scottish and Dutch and includes hybrids and neologisms. You could see the translators pricking up their ears all over the room. By putting together an equivalent tool packet made up of standard Dutch, old Dutch, dialects, Frisian, Afrikaans, Flemish and Dutch-English, van Elswijk was able to create an inspired translation. The freedom he had to mix sources was clearly beneficial: he’d had more trouble translating some of the poets more traditional work which left less room for manoeuvre. Rimbereid praised the translation, adding “a translator’s role is to remake, not to transport, you need to be a poet at the other end as well.”

The opening ceremony

Ion Mureşan © Elisa Gallego

Last night the festival opened with an event dedicated to Rotterdam and poetry entitled View from the bow. Bas Kwakman, director of Poetry International, presented the event and was joined by international poets Eduardo Espina (Uruguay) and Ion Muresan (Romania) who read poems inspired by archive films about the city of Rotterdam. Yan Jun (China) performed a sound piece inspired by one of these films. Alongside the international guests, Rotterdam poets, including Peter Goedhart, Marco Nijmeijer, Hester Knibbe and the official city poet Ester Naomi Perquin, performed their work.

Interview with Correen Dekker

Correen Dekker © Sarah Ream

Could you tell us about your role in the 42nd Poetry International Festival? What will be different about the festival this year compared to previous festivals?

As one of the two programmers, I am responsible for the content of the festival programme, but my role also involves thinking in broader terms about the form and structure of the festival and the type of events that we organise. Working in this context, it is fascinating to see the impressions of the public regarding the new scheduling of the festival events. This year, the frequency of events increases during the week of the festival, with the highest concentration at the weekend, including a large variety of programmes during the day. I think that we have reflected the festival theme in our events more than during previous festivals. The festival poets too, will be extremely busy this year: they have been actively involved in the planning of the events and be appearing multiple times during the festival.

I first began working at Poetry International as an intern. One of my responsibilities then was to organise a translation workshop for poets: they concentrated on translating the work of one festival poet into their own languages, and interpreted and discussed the meaning, syntax and metaphors, and unravelled a poem in detail. To translate poetry requires such an intense reading, and I definitely find that interesting. That is also the reason why we decided to launch the project ‘Met andere woorden’ (In other words) this year – to give an introduction to translation – and, indirectly, to reading poetry too – to large groups of Dutch people. And, for the first time, we have also organised a translation symposium, at which professional and aspiring translators can meet and exchange ideas.

Tell us a little more about the festival theme, Chaos and Order, and how it relates to your work.

The theme has seemed very relevant in the weeks preceding the festival, which are always chaotic in terms of work, and this year is no exception. I think that we all feel the tension of the unknown aspects of a new schedule; nobody knows exactly what to expect. However, the choice of theme this year stemmed from our interest in various forms of social engagement and our curiosity about how poetry reacts to these. I think it is impossible not to see chaos in newspaper reports and not to recognise various attempts to impose and find order, from events on the world stage to the frustration people feel in cities – places that are constantly ‘event-inducing’, so to speak, and are thus becoming more and more uninhabitable.

Which events, workshops or sessions are you are most looking forward to?

So many, for various reasons: Les Murray being interviewed by none other than Robert Hass is a unique event that I do not want to miss. But I am also looking forward to hearing more about the work of Eugène Savitzkaya, Øyvind Rimbereid and others. Furthermore, I am curious to see how panelists will reflect on the ways in which the Internet affects the development of poetry in the ‘This is me’ event. I personally think that the Internet provides many opportunities for the dissemination of great poetry, but, at the same time, I ask myself whether my impressions are one-sided because of the language barrier and whether there is more I am unintentionally missing. So I am keen to hear what the festival poets think about this.

Correen Dekker is a programmer for the Poetry International Festival.

12 June 2011: Forgetting

I forgot my toothbrush. But I brought two shavers: I knew I had forgotten something and
now I know what it is. But I didn’t know I had something extra that I didn’t need. But now
I know, and the strange feeling of knowing I had forgotten something has ended. Like a
watermelon with a heavy and sharp knife! Kaaaaaaa! With the beautiful sound I jump out
from the orbicular unknown. The sound is abstracted from the chaos: there was not even
darkness . . . what a sweet chaos . . . and now the watermelon has lost one of its possibilities.
You can never cut into it as a whole and make this heavenly sound again.

That’s what I feel myself now: I was thinking and checking a lot to make sure I had
everything in my luggage. Have you seen an electron? I felt like it: moving my mind from
one point to another. Moving my body from the bedroom to living room . . .

Ok, you haven’t seen an electron. Me neither.

Anyway, now I’m like a core of the atom. Let the electron run. I don’t care. I’m enjoying my
wine under the blue sky. And I have so many options for my dear teeth.

I watch the street: this is a colourful country.

A colourful man is passing by. His honey face, green t-shirt, blue pants and grey hat.
I realise that I forget something else: a hat! It’s cold, right? A different forgetting, right? A
mellow watermelon break itself with a faint aka . . . It looks sweeter.

Many Dutch people look strong, simple and healthy. Their skin is honey-coloured, as if
made up of ocean wind, sunshine and clean air . . . warm and beefy people. Can I say they
look delicious?

Man! What are you saying? There are some people who think the muscle guys on magazine
covers are good for cooking bouillon. Are you one of them?

Yes, I am. I’m sorry. I will never cook a human being. I promise.

I’m sorry about this dark mind that also escaped from the crack in the watermelon. I have
been a human for about 40 years and I think I have already forgotten it . . . What jetlag! It’s
pulling my leg. And my legs are still weak after 10 hours’ flight . . .

Was I a tiger? Or worse: am I a lizard man?

The two shavers: what should I do with them?
My hat: made of animal skin.
A watermelon: once I invited people to eat watermelon together with the rule that there was
to be no talking so we could listen to its last possibility: to be eaten.
A flight: from one half to another half of the globe.
Something happened on the way.

© Andrew F. Jones

The pleasure of being translated

Donald Gardner © Roeland Fossen

I recently invited Elisa Gallego Rooseboom and Kristian Kanstadt to make translations, Spanish and Dutch respectively, of ‘Dust Sheet’, a poem I wrote ten years ago in the wake of the attack on the Twin Towers and which appeared in my collection The Glittering Sea (Hearing Eye, London 2006). I chose this poem because it epitomises the festival theme of chaos; as for the order, that is as hard to find as ever. Maybe we will just have to make it ourselves.

Having been so much on the translator’s side of the table over the years, it was great to experience what it is to be translated. The poet is enthroned by his or her translators. He or she is like an author of a play whose words have to be taken at their face value by the actors. A translator is like an actor or a musician following a score. Having one’s work translated is thus a major luxury in a poet’s life given that on the whole, contrary to the usual supposition, poets don’t have easy lives. There is the uncertainty of the struggle to win the poem. The bread-and-butter aspect of poetry is too well-known to deserve mention: “So you write poetry; but what do you do for a living?” Then there is the backbiting of colleagues, the competition for the few honours there are in this field. There are the cutting reviews the upcoming poet has to face – or, worse still, the complete absence of reviews. The book, in its limited edition of 500, many of which will be remaindered, is after a while returned to the silence it originated in. Poets are not exactly spoiled darlings. So when our work is translated, it’s as if we are granted accolades that to all appearances we barely deserve.

© Kristian Kanstadt and © Elisa Gallego Rooseboom

There is the pleasure of having one’s words understood. Of them being looked at from all sides. Of levels of meaning in one’s work being discerned that one hadn’t suspected. Above all there is the rediscovery of one’s own poem, through the eyes of someone else whose commitment to your words is absolute. My colleagues’ tracking of the underlying themes of ‘Dust Sheet’ have, in my view, given it a new lease of life. Here are the results, thanks to my excellent translators.



Like a pit of sacrifice,
this sudden amphitheatre
where light pours down like rain.

Like rabbits in a headlight blaze,
we’re hypnotised by what we see
but do not yet believe.
Like little puppets in death’s ham fist.

Like all those dreams where I forget my lines,
revealing what I always knew at heart –
and this is what breaks the heart –
how redundant we have always been
on any weighty scene
where governments and assassins tread the boards.

Like a group by Auguste Rodin,
a grey herd of citizens
is driven towards the camera,
yet petrified
in monumental freeze
by its Medusa lens.

Like a Christo artwork gone dreadfully wrong,
dust drapes the city,
stopping our pores
like a huge conspiracy.

© 2006, Donald Gardner


Como un pozo sacrificial
este anfiteatro repentino
donde cae la luz como la  lluvia.

Como conejos ante el resplandor de un faro,
estamos hipnotizados por lo que vemos
pero no acabamos de creernos.
Como marionetas en el torpe puño de la muerte.

Como todos los sueños donde olvido las palabras,
que revelan lo que siempre tuve a corazón –
y es esto lo que rompe el corazón –
cuán superfluos hemos sido siempre
ante cualquier escena grave
donde gobiernos y asesinos ocupen las tablas.

Como un grupo de Auguste Rodin,
un rebaño gris de ciudadanos
es impulsado hacia la cámara,
aún petrificado
en estupor de estatuas
por una lente de Medusa.

Como una obra de Christo mal envuelta
el polvo viste la ciudad,
obstruyéndonos los poros
como una gran conspiración.

© 2011, Elisa Gallego Rooseboom


Zoals een schacht voor offers,
dit amfitheater opeens
waar licht als regen indaalt.

Zoals konijnen in een laaiende koplamp,
zijn wij door wat we zien gehypnotiseerd
maar tot geloven nog niet in staat.
Als trekpoppen in de warrige vuist van de dood.

Zoals al die dromen waarin ik mijn tekst vergeet
onthullend wat ik diep in mijn hart altijd wist –
en dit is wat het hart breekt –
hoe overbodig wij altijd waren
in wat voor gewichtig schouwspel ook
waar regeringen en beulen het podium bespelen.

Zoals een groep van Auguste Rodin,
een grijze kudde burgers
naar de camera wordt voortgedreven,
echter versteend
tot monumentale verstilling
door zijn Medusa-lens.

Zoals een werk van Christo uit de voegen,
drapeert stof de stad,
verstopt onze porieën
als een enorm complot.

© 2011, Kristian Kanstadt

Donald Gardner is a poet and a translator of work from Dutch, Spanish and other languages. His translations have appeared on PIW and this year he translated festival poet biographies into English. I Dreamed in the Cities at Night, his book of translations of Remco Campert’s poetry, was published by Arc in 2007. He has also translated Octavio Paz’s The Sun Stone and Cuban novelist Guillermo Cabrera Infante’s Three Trapped Tigers. His books of poetry include The Glittering Sea (2006), How to Get the Most out of Your Jet Lag (2001) and Sleight of Tongue (2010).

Kristian Kanstadt is the pen name of J. C. Maat. He has translated into Dutch from German (the Mauthausen Memorial project) and English (a manuscript of selected poems by Donald Gardner).

Elisa Gallego Rooseboom is a translator/interpreter of Spanish/Dutch origin but has lived in Paris, Madrid and Amsterdam. She is an intern for Poetry International Web 2011.


© Yan Jun

I write a poem on my laptop. Leave it on the bed. Then go eat breakfast: go downstairs, past the cleaning lady, tiny yellow flowers and dandelions, grit and dust and garbage on the small path between two communities, wind on my face and the sunshine too, with dust and insects; of one of them ends its life in my right eye . . .

And the poem is continuously dragging me back: I haven’t finished it yet. I’m going out of its margin.

“Give me a frame before your stupid breakfast!” the world shouts to me, in the impolite sunshine.

I’m trying to describe. The margin of a day. In my diary.

Why not start from yesterday afternoon 4 pm and end it now? Who needs the stupid 24-hour-separated day? I’m not sure what happened at my last 4 pm. I guess something must have happened. But who needs to know?

Some moments of yesterday afternoon I was sitting in a taxi with three friends from Switzerland and Japan. The right hand of the driver  was moving up and down, genteelly, with its white glove, dirty, to the rhythm of the music: a waltz!

And a huge, soft, almost still American guy riding his petite electric bike just to the right of the taxi. A waltz for people who drink too much Coca Cola. A waltz for a silent taxi driver. And for four black T-shirt guys going to a noise concert. Oh glorious adenomas and final climaxes sound in the cowed cabin one after another . . .

Wait, sorry: this was in the afternoon of the day before yesterday.

So hard to frame anything.

But actually, I saw the same American guy from another taxi again, yesterday afternoon!

He might be a Swiss guy. Or German. But from the ocean of possibilities he rises up with an American reflection. A body framed immediately! A still body on a tiny moving electric bike: extracted from hundred of cars, bikes and everything in a city of noise.

Sure, I’m trying to cut my diary away from its margin. And I don’t know where that is. The way I’m trying to escape my poem that’s dragging me back.

After breakfast I go to a pet shop to buy food for my cat. My friends are still sleeping when I return. My laptop is still on the bed. I evoke the aftertaste of the concert last night: the sounds were so weak that they could barely be heard. So many sounds emerging with them from the environment.

Actually, one of my friends is already awake. He sits on the rocking chair with his laptop, entirely still. He did not exist when I opened the door of this still room.

And the room is no longer still.

Read more about Yan Jun on PIW.