May 22, 2017

Bennington Translates: Eliot Weinberger, May 17

I’m a fan of the translations, essays & poetry of Eliot Weinberger so when my comrade-in-poesy & now Bennington, VT resident, Charlie Rossiter, told me that Weinberger would be giving a lecture in the series Bennington Translates at Bennington College we made a date to go. After drinks & a lovely dinner at the home of Charlie & his wife, Mary Ellen Munley, & their guests from Oak Park, Illinois, we drove to the nearby campus, to the Center for the Advancement of Public Action (CAPA) symposium room.

Mr. Weinberger was introduced by Marguerite Feitlowitz, founding director of Bennington Translates. He had prepared a lecture, but began it with reading a piece about dreams from the Lacandons, native people of Chiapas, Mexico. The lecture was titled “Ancestry” & was an erudite, scholarly meditation taking off from the poet Nathaniel Mackey’s book Blue Fasa (New Directions, 2015), which Mackey explains in his preface, “samples two distantly related black musical traditions, the West African griot epic The Dausi … and trumpeter Kenny Dorham’s hard bop classic ‘Blue Bossa’ …”

Weinberger led us through the story of “Gassire’s lute” (a myth of the Poet) & the lost city of Wagadu (as first presented to the West by Leo Frobenius), then on to the myth’s appearance in the poetry of early & mid-twentieth century poets, including Ezra Pound’s Cantos, to Robert Duncan, Charles Olson, the poets of the Negritude movement, even to Robert Johnson’s blues & the legend of the crossroads. He described it as “following one small word in many poems…”

This led to a consideration of writing & “crossing borders,” & the use of stories, ideas, sentiments from cultures not our own; he said, “in the arts anything can belong to anyone who thinks & takes the time to learn it.” Weinberger also discussed 2 ends of the poetic spectrum, the autobiographical “I” poets versus the poets concerned solely with the words, finding both lacking. Talking about the old saw, “write what you know,” Weinberger countered that Poetry is Imagination (sounding to my ears much like William Blake).

He ended with a long, chant-like piece “The Stars,” a collaboration from his book An Elemental Thing (New Directions, 2007), followed by a short question & answer period which ran from the erudite to the hyper-theory-ridiculous (to which Weinberger simply said that he didn’t understand the question).

One of my favorite books on the art of poetry & translation is Eliot Weinberger’s 19 Ways of Looking at Wang Wei, which examines 19 different translations of one of Wang Wei’s poems, sometimes translated as “The Deer Park.” It was originally published in 1987. Before coming over here I went to retrieve my copy to get it signed only to realize that I’d given it away (which shows how good I think it is). Happily, when speaking to Mr. Weinberger before the lecture he told me that there is a new edition just out from New Directions, which was for sale at the reading. The new edition includes “more ways” & some, at times hilarious, commentary.  I highly recommend it to any poets, but particularly to those interested in Chinese poetry or translations in general.

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