Tuesday, September 30, 2008

Translation Prize Ceremony

The first month of my stay here has rushed by with a speed that would, if I’d let it, push me toward clichés about time’s winged chariot and comparable proverbs. On Friday I move to my new place in Belsize Park. I’ve had Mimi Khalvati to dinner here, then Adam Mars-Jones and Keith King. Mimi was recently awarded an Arts Council grant, which will give her a sabbatical from teaching and allow her to complete a new book of poems. Adam says the next installment of the mega-novel whose first part Pilcrow appeared last spring will be coming out in September 2009. Keith is producing his art works in ceramic. An amateur London historian he tells me that the area I'm now staying in was once London's primary quarter for the stabling of horses, including Iliffe Yard, which these windows overlook. There are now no more horses, but I feel surrounded by energy and originality.

The translation prizes for 2008 were awarded last night at Queen Elizabeth Hall, with winners in Arabic, German, French, Italian, Spanish, and Greek. Sir Peter Stothard, editor of the TLS, presented the prizes, but his participation also included some good-humored dispelling of what Eliot once called "the depressing highbrow effect." He'd also arranged to distribute copies of the current issue to the audience, its pages as usual containing articles you want to read as son as you see the subjects.

I’d been invited to attend the evening by Samuel Shimon and Margaret Obank under the auspices of Banipal magazine, which administers the Arabic translation prize. I looked forward to seeing Fady Joudah, whose translation of three Darwish books under the title The Butterfly’s Burden was this year’s winner. It was published by Copper Canyon Press in the U.S.A. and Bloodaxe Books here. Actually, there was a less formal prize celebration this past Saturday at a pub in Holborn, where Margaret, Simon, and Fady greeted me warmly and also welcomed James Byrne, who came with me. The whole evening had a spirited, Middle Eastern family feeling, and, in fact, I was introduced to Fady’s mother and father, who had flown over from Tennessee in order to attend. I met several Arab authors, including Amjad Nasser and Aamer Hussein, and I was glad to see Mimi (who knows Farsee but not Arabic) at the party, and the American poet Margo Berdeshevsky, who came over from Paris just for this event. Margo and I first met about fifteen years ago when she signed up for a poetry workshop I gave at a cultural center in Maui, and we’ve seen each other in New York a couple of times since then. Her first book But a Passage in the Wilderness was out last year with Sheep Meadow.

Fady read very movingly from Darwish in both Arabic and in his translation. Also, with eloquence and reined-in passion, Amjad Nasser recited from memory a Darwish poem. Hearing the sounds of that language, I reflected on what could be called its “epic” history, given that Arabic has traveled to so many parts of the world and formed the basis of so many high points in civilization. (My own special favorite moment is the golden age of El Andalus, where Christian, Jewish, and Arab cultures coexisted peacefully and were able to influence each other in surprisingly productive ways.) Samuel recounted how he began learning Arabic at an early age (his first language was Assyrian or Aramaic) but didn’t make much progress until he began reading Darwish, whose poems more or less guided him toward a deeper understanding of the language.

I mentioned that Copper Canyon has published The Butterfly’s Burden in America, and I’m proud to say they have also just brought out the new edition of The Poem’s Heartbeat, as well as the paperback edition of Contradictions, both findable on Amazon and B&N.

For Jewish friends, Lshanah tovah, happy 5769!

Thursday, September 25, 2008

One-Sided Representation

Sorry to have been a slacker about writing for this site. Events have been crowding in, and things will get even more complicated (though I hope fun), so I better prove I’m still here while I can.

Among the many cultural events offered this month in London, two have evoked a lot of commentary. Matthew Bourne, choreographer of the transvestite Swan Lake and a dance version of Edward Scissorhands, was back at Sadlers Wells a couple of weeks ago with an updated ballet on Wilde’s The Picture of Dorian Gray, where little blond Dorian is a metallic hustler on the make. The other event is Tate Britain’s massive Francis Bacon retrospective. Works by gay artists in the limelight, hmm, so far so good. But maybe this is a convenient moment to raise a question that has always puzzled me: Why do the most celebrated works about gay experience invariably show bizarrerie, edge, nastiness, violence, and doom? (I’m going to put aside the issue of art depicting lesbians because I’m not fully qualified to comment.) The range of contemporary gay experience is very wide, from yeoman farmers to suburban MDs to high-ranking commanding officers. But over and over, the wild-side or downright repulsive aspect of gay experience is used as subject matter: psychopathic killers (How many works has Jeffrey Dahmer inspired? I’ve lost count, but they include, get this, lyrics for a musical written by Thom Gunn); mortal illness and suicide; sex addicts, S&M devotees, and betrayers (Even Tony Kushner's excellent Angels in America includes a scene where a man leaves his dying partner’s hospital bed and goes out to the park for an anonymous quickie with a leather clone; prison rape and sexual slavery in the slammer; transvestites (by far the most popular with straight audiences because cross-dressers are always represented as being harmlessly funny, in fact, endowed with hearts of gold, which is by no means the case in general; molesters of the underage, especially priests (meanwhile, the majority of such cases are between so-called adult men and little girls); wife betrayers, woman haters, and even gynocides (cf. Hitchcock’s Psycho); barflies, steam-bath wraiths, “cottagers,” or disco bunnies; or just lonely, pitiful miserabilists, unable to be straightforward about their sexuality. The message is clear: If you want to be successful using gay subject matter, paint a nasty picture, and you’ll be exalted as prophetic—also, as the height of fashion. (And, covertly, as a valuable discourager for a “lifestyle” the majority barely tolerates and whose disappearance they would applaud.)

Am I exaggerating? Add to the works mentioned above these savoury masterpieces of the cinema and television screen: Rope, The Boys in the Band, Visconti’s The Damned, I, Claudius, Naked Lunch, Oz, Queer as Folk, The Talented Mr. Ripley, Paris Is Burning, Will and Grace, any number of episodes of Law and Order, Brokeback Mountain, Amores Perros. The typical gay work of fiction ends in a murder and/or a suicide, sometimes hopeless alcoholism or addiction. In the Eighties, a variant was death by AIDS-related causes. Cut from the sheet-draped remains, and down comes THE END with a triumphalist thump. Of course I’m not saying that these subjects should never be dealt with. I’m asking why only the extreme and negative can become the subject of a work about gay experience. “Oh, well, you can’t make works of art about happiness.” No? There are in fact many such, about happy loves between men and women, family life, the achievement of various kinds of liberation (especially the subjects drawn from African American experience). Where is the gay Much Ado about Nothing, Pygmalion, The Thin Man? The gay North by Northwest? Where is the gay Bill Cosby Show? The gay One Hundred Years of Solitude? As for somber or tragic narratives, there could be stories involving gay people where the central crisis had nothing to do with sexuality, but some purely external problem, like war, poverty, a natural disaster, or the death of a beloved (non-gay) relative. I would love to see a film about gay experience in contemporary Africa or Brazil or Lebanon, involving people at the bottom of the economic ladder. I would love to see a TV special on gay health workers (nurses, MDs, psychotherapists, heads of clinics in developing countries). As for the predator padres, they’ve had plenty of coverage. What about the gay priests who never harmed any child, who were self-sacrificial and beloved of their congregations? For example, the gay priest who was killed while administering to the injured during the bombing of the World Trade Towers. If we turn to history, we’ve had a lot about Wilde. Why not something now about Edward Carpenter or Magnus Hirschberg? The British Museum currently has a show about the Emperor Hadrian, so why not a film based on the Yourcenar novel? Why not a film about Vita Sackville-West and Harold Nicholson? Give the murderers a rest for a while!

To return to the intro to these pages: I think Francis Bacon is overrated. Begin with his subjects. Who isn’t tired of sex being represented as though it mostly resembled a thick rasher of porcine muscle and fat writhing in the saucepan over what must be hellish heat. Or if not that, decomposing cuts of mutton. It must all have seemed a lip-smacking bit of sensationalism in the late Fifties and early Sixties when Bacon made his first splash--an emetic sneak-peek into the arcane world of johns and rent boys. By now all the chic shock has worn off and we’re left with pictures whose color is haute boutique or smart spa, whose use of picture space is banal (including the silly line-drawing cubic schemas that pretend to be an important compositional feature but never prove they are); and design organization that makes nothing active of blank swathes of solid paint. Can’t we just say it? Bacon was a gay man in a time when even consenting adults could be imprisoned for their private lives; he was an addicted alcoholic and had other psychological problems; his partner committed suicide. That is all sad and regrettable and mostly not his fault. No doubt he regarded his work as a way to exorcise personal demons. But that is not necessarily a value for us. This is not major work. Opinion stated. Thanks for your attention.

Wednesday, September 17, 2008


There’s a scene in Martin Amis’s novel The Information, where the narrator, a hitherto unsuccessful novelist named Richard Tull, has a meeting with a high-powered literary agent who’s considering adding him to her client list. She says:

“‘Now. Writers need definition. The public can only keep in mind one thing per writer. Like a signature. Drunk, young, mad, fat, sick: you know. It’s better if you pick it rather than letting them pick it. Ever thought about the young-fogey thing? The young fart. You wear a bowtie and a waistcoat. Do you smoke a pipe?’”

When I first read this, I groaned at the pitiless accuracy. In an era when no one has time to make judicious assessments, the thumbnail literary sketch rules. “Oh, yeah, W., he’s the fat queen bee pornographer, isn’t he?” “Oh, right, X, he’s the retro-traditional guy, I’ve heard of him.” “Oh, sure, Y, he’s the radical politico, yeah.” “Ah yes, Z, she’s the Frenchified poet, isn’t she?” “Oh, A., he’s the adultery guy, right?” “Oh, B., absolutely, she’s the doyenne of the ghost and vampire cult.” “Oh, C., sure, he’s the infectious illness bard.”

Is it just me, or do other people see this sort of typecasting as ludicrous? William Shakespeare: “Oh, you know, the toadying monarchist.” “No, the revolutionary.” “No, the sly agnostic.” “No, the crypto-Catholic.” “No, the misogynist.” “No, the feminist.” “No, the ‘Life is a dream-play’ guy.” “No, the first realist playwright.” “No, the comedic-romance wizard.” And so on.

Why does the public need to pigeonhole? Because it’s a way to avoid having to make a close and accurate assessment of a body of work. It’s a way of not coming to terms with internal variety and even contradiction. It’s a way to hold off any strong impression works or art in their entirety might make, in effect, to disempower them. While we're on pigeonholes, let's turn to its counterpart, the columbarium (from Latin columba, "dove"). Ashes of deceased relatives or friends are often placed in a columbarium, metaphorically, a dovecote. And pigeons have their counterpart to these man-made communal nests. In the realm of metaphor, pigeonholing is an act of murder, the imposition of a narrow, even stereotypical identity on something much more fluid and diverse.

Nor is this merely a literary phenomenon. I didn’t see Madonna’s recent Wembley show, but apparently one number in it stages four or five of her earlier incarnations (schematically represented), to which she sings a wail of dismay, protesting “That’s not me now!” In other words, she realizes she’s been thumbnailed, trapped in an iconic image her fans formed a long time ago. Not even one of the most famous performers on the planet has the power to crack the shorthand version of herself that’s current. But then, could believers in the Greek or Roman pantheon ever have allowed Venus to become Minerva, or Vulcan to become Apollo? The popular mind needs fixed, stable icons.

Of course there are those that can’t wait to get pigeonholed. Why? Because it’s good market strategy, as the passage from Amis suggests. Product recognition is very, very important for sales. Once I’ve got my little formula down, I can do it to death, and people will always know anything I put out there is a work by Moi. Market, market, everything is the market. Sincerity is such a mistake.

So how do we fit that strategy in with this week’s stock market meltdown? Maybe the market approach to existence is ultimately doomed to failure, what if? The strangest fact of all is that our current right-wing Republican government has gone into the business of nationalizing financial institutions: Bear Stearns, Fanny Mae, Freddie Mac, and now AIG. We were wrong, then, to thumbnail the Republicans as rabid, free-market tigers. They are benevolent Socialists—at least where the finance industry is concerned.

Friday, September 12, 2008


Living in London, you become aware of a wide variety of accents. There's no such thing as a "British accent," the thing is plural, beginning with working class or Cockney, going on to Midlands, Scots, Irish, Australian, New Zealander, West Indian, Nigerian, Indian, and more recently East European.

In the old days, there was something called the "BBC accent," used in all public broadcasts, or the "University accent," based on public schools (in the U.S.A., read "private") topped off by speech patterns prevalent at Oxford or Cambridge. And there were also "county" accents, characteristic of the old landed gentry mainly situated outside London. All of these were related, they constituted the speech that was regarded as belonging as a birthright to the ruling classes--and therefore desirable.

But now the BBC announcers use a variety of accents, including one that developed in the 1980s and usually referred to as "estuary." The latter is Essex-flavored and was adopted by younger upper class speakers as a way of not sounding too posh or upper class. It was felt to be more egalitarian.

My advanced degree is in French, and in the course of getting it I learned not only French but also German, Italian, and Spanish. Because I have "a good ear" I can sound quite close to what native speakers in all these languages speak. And I think people in at least France are glad I don't sound like Jean Seberg in Breathless when I speak French.

A long time ago I set myself to learning English as a foreign language, and now know the differences in vocabulary, spelling, idiom, and pronunciation. (A few examples: a cellphone is a "mobile." The trunk of a car is "the boot." The statement, "It has nothing to do with you," becomes "It's nothing to do with you." American verbs in "-ize" like "realize" become "-ise," "realise." Yet again there are class differences in vocabulary, so that, for example, upper-class "napkin" becomes "serviette" in working-class English; and there are several other words that vary according to social status.) When I began examining accents, I discovered, as I said, that there are several. The BBC was the easiest. Hardest to learn is working class or Cockney, which has an amazing range of vocal effects, fun to reproduce to the extent I can. I haven't spent enough time with county people to manage their accent (again, there are differences according to region), though of course it isn't terribly different from the University accent. I'm getting pretty good at Irish, but Scots I haven't made a lot of progress in, no doubt because I don't yet have any Scots friends.

Linguists regard all languages and all accents as "value-neutral," meaning none is viewed as intrinsically better than others. (As speech, I mean. Literary value can be improved by a decision to expand vocabulary, establish distinctions, and move usage and idioms closer to what's logical and clear.) The "value-neutral" idea makes sense to me, but I realize/realise that it's not the common view. Most people of the upper class regard the working-class accent as unfortunate or cacophonous, and most working-class people regard the upper class accent as pretentious or snobby (which, as noted above, resulted a couple of decades ago in younger upper class members' adoption of the esturary accent, to avoid being despised by the majority.)

Meanwhile, as any British person who has lived in America will tell you, the British accent wins a visitor instant regard over there and often enough, lucrative employment--even when the particular accent in question might be considered in the U.K. as a marker of low economic status. Few Americans can distinguish the differences among British accents. So, how should we interpret the American fascination with the British voice? It must point to a lingering sense of cultural inferiority in the U.S.A., part of the same instinct that led people in 1920s Hollywood to build timber-frame Tudor houses in a landscape and climate entirely different from the one that first produced that building style. And allowed the transplanted Englishwoman Elinor Glyn to become the arbiter of what was done and not done socially in the California film capital.

After the social, technical, and artistic achievements of the 20th century, I see no reason for Americans to feel automatically inferior to Europeans, whatever the situation may have been in earlier centuries. By the same token, there's no reason to regard the British University accent as superior as such. I think it sounds good, but so does working-class speech, just as French or Italian or German sounds good--wonderful sonic creations invented by people who weren't especially trying to invent anything. But here's an interesting fact: When I'm in some shop in Kensington, I notice I get better treatment if I use the University accent. By the same token, if I go the the East Street outdoor market here in Kennington and buy a turnip, I'm well treated if I call the seller "mite" ("mate") and use the working-class voice. Prejudices aren't going away just because they are based on unexamined assumptions. At intellectual gatherings, American voice is best, I think, to avoid the supposition that I'm "putting on airs" if I speak British English. (Which, by the way, points to a conviction, consciously or unconsciously held, that the British accent is superior to the American, a superiority I could be seen as aspiring to, but without the "right" to it. Meanwhile, no French person would feel there was anything out of place if I managed "l'accent de Paris" with close accuracy.) Anyway, once it's established you're not an ignoramus or fundamentalist or Bush-supporter, British writers and thinkers are quite welcoming to Americans, so why not provide the vocal marker for your nationality? Finally, during the forty-odd years I've been coming to London, British speech has moved a lot closer to American than it used to be, probably because of the influence of American film, television, and pop music.

I think too much is made of accents, they're seen (or heard) as much more important than they really are. Here, let me back up a bit. I grew up in the State of Georgia and heard two forms of Southern American English throughout my childhood: the English spoken by whites and that spoken by African Americans. I could still manage either today with perfect ease, though I would certainly avoid speaking Black English for fear that people would assume I was making fun. (Too bad, because Black English has many interesting tonal resources and is fascinating to hear, once you get past the idea that it is substandard.) But around age six or seven, my father, thinking maybe I might one day get a degree in law, engaged a speech tutor for me, a woman from Ohio, I think it was. So she instilled in me something like a Midwestern American accent, and it may well be that the process of acquiring it was the beginning of the development of a special talent at hearing and producing different vocal sounds.

Those lessons came in handy when at the age of twenty-two I came to live in New York and enrolled at Columbia. There were one or two other Southerners in the program, and I noticed they were quickly cut short when they spoke in class--not because what they were saying was stupid, but because their voices gave the impression they were stupid. Now that we've had several Presidents with Southern accents there's less stigma than formerly about the Southern voice, in fact, it seems to be something of a plus. Although: wasn't it in Alabama, during the primaries, that Hilary Clinton spoke with a Southern accent and came in for criticism? Ah, but she wasn't Southern by birth and was therefore dissed as being inauthentic, no matter if living all those years in Arkansas must have made Southern speech patterns perfectly accessible to her. Still, how is varying your speech different from doffing your suit jacket and walking among steel workers with a blue-collar shirt on your back? People like to see themselves reflected in those they meet, to hear from others what they themselves speak. Whose fault is that? If you're running for office, a gift for different accents might be useful.

I still think too much emphasis and concern attach to accents, but no doubt that's like saying people worry too much about clothes. Self-presentation to outsiders is one of the most powerful motivators in experience, and that's not going to change just because a little reflection shows that there's no rational basis for fears that we're unworthy if wearing the "wrong" kind of outfit and speaking in a way different from those around us.

Sunday, September 7, 2008


I’m in London and jet-lag is nearly dispelled. James Byrne (see blog for June 1 of this year) met me at Heathrow, which was an enormous favor done to the bedraggled traveler weighed down with enough luggage to last him for the next six months. James presented me with a copy of the latest number of The Wolf, the magazine he edits. I’ve had a chance to read it since, and it probably is the best so far. James looks alert, fit and happy, off in a few days to Belgrade on a poetry mission. I look forward to seeing him again with his partner Sandeep Parmar who just received her degree and is a Mina Loy scholar, as well as a poet in her own right.

My host for the first night was the American poet Kathryn Maris (author of The Book of Jobs) at her attractive house on Warwick Avenue. Her two adorable children Mathias and Cosima kept us company while we exchanged news about friends in common, books, trips, plans. Poets in general are rather plain where looks are concerned, Kathryn being a great exception, with classical Mediterranean features of the sort that we imagine would have led Sappho to compose breathtaking verbal equivalents.

I have a temporary sublet down in Kennington, a flat belonging to friends of James’s. They are Anna Smaill a poet and poetry scholar from New Zealand and the novelist Carl Shuker. They’ll be in Japan for a month, which ought to give me the leisure to find something longer-term for my stay here. This is the first time I’ve lived in South London, but I always find working-class neighborhoods bracing. Nearby Walworth Road reminds me of Canal Street in Manhattan, lined with shops of every description, the clientele equally diverse—Asian, West Indian, Eastern European, and just plain old British. Anyway, it all feels like a homecoming, given that I’ve had more than a dozen stays in London since 1967. It isn’t always easy to explain a love for London to everyone: the standard plain brown brick, pierced by windows with white painted frames, the chimney pots, the prevalence of bizarre Victorian architecture, the turbulent gunmetal skies, the damp. But then my maternal Lahey grandfather was born in Liverpool, and on the paternal side there’s a Scottish great-grandfather, not to mention the first English Corns who came to Virginia in the 17th century. So perhaps it’s genetic, but in any case something there is in the gray, brown, and green of these isles that speaks to me.

Turning to the arts, you really feel that people read here. You can pick up a copy of the TLS or London Review of Books plus half a dozen literate newspapers (The Guardian a special favorite) at almost any newsstand; and bookshops are everywhere. The current TLS has several absorbing essays, beginning with a review of two new books about Mme. de Staël and Benjamin Constant. (These may have scooped a forthcoming biography of Mme. de Staël written by my friend Francine Duplessix Gray and soon to be published by Penguin.) Odd that there’s suddenly so much interest in this not terribly well-known figure. The review has it wrong, from a French standpoint: for the French Constant is the more important author; his brilliant récit Adolphe is still on the reading lists, whereas Mme. De Staël’s novel Corinne and De L’Allemagne are reserved for literary specialists. Granted, the book on Germany launched the vogue for Northern European Romanticism in France (I'm sure that's the explanation for Pierre Bayle's adoption of the pseudonym Stendhal), and there’s no question that she was important politically and as a literary-political salonniere. The review didn’t make the point that Constant (whose name seems ironic, given the facts) had already wooed and won a literary lioness before meeting Mme. De Staël. This was Mme. de Charrière a Low Countries noblewoman who married into the minor Swiss aristocracy and became an important figure in the later French Enlightenment. She published under the pseudonym of Zélide and is the subject of a lucidly written biography, The Porrtait of Zélide by Geoffrey Scott. (The book was recenty reissued with an introduction by Shirely Hazzard.) Scott, briefly Berenson’s secretary, was a figure on the London literary scene in the teens and 1920s; his first book, titled The Architecture of Humanism, discussed variants of neo-classical style in post-Renaissance Europe. Scott and the Berenson circle are the subject of an interesting biography by an acquaintance of mine, Richard Dunn; but not many people seem to have read it.

New subject: yesterday I had lunch with Samuel Shimon, author and editor of a magazine titled Banipal, which publishes Arab writers from the world over, some of them translated from Arabic, some from other languages. Samuel is riding the crest of the success of his autobiographical novel, published earlier this year and enjoying special success in France. Certainly his experience is unusual: born in Iraq to Christian parents, he became an expatriate at an early age and was, like Orwell, down and out in Paris, his ultimate ambition to get to the U.S.A. We sometimes forget the religious diversity of the Middle East. Not only are there Christians in Iraq there are (or used to be) Jews, Zoroastrians, and a strange sect known as Yazidis, whose hybrid doctrines draw from several sources. The Christian-Muslim divide in Lebanon is better known, but people don’t seem to realize that about 35% of Palestinians are Christians.

Anyway, Samuel was brimming over with enthusiasm and plans. Later this month there will be a tribute here in London to the Palestinian poet Darwish, with Fady Joudah, a Palestinian-American poet who lives in Houston, Texas, and translates Darwish, as a special guest. I mentioned Fady’s Yale Younger Poets book The Earth in the Attic in an earlier blog, and it will be a pleasure to see him again. Samuel is also planning an evening of Arab poetry in New York City, at the Pomegranate Gallery in SoHo, for this coming October. He gave me the latest issue of Banipal, filled with good work, including an excerpt from the fiction of Lebanese author May Menassa—as it happens, the sister of the distinguished poet and novelist Vénus Khoury-Gata, who lives in Paris and publishes in French. The author photograph confirms the cliché that Lebanese women are particularly beautiful, Ms. Menassa in a mode different from her sister. I first met Vénus a decade ago at a French-language conference in Montréal, and then again in Paris three years back, when Marilyn Hacker brought me to have lunch at Vénus’s elegant flat in the 16e arrondissement.

I’m breaking the rule that blogs should be short, my only excuse the uprush of elation about being back in the swim here in London.