Evening Will Come: A Monthly Journal of Poetics (Anthologies Feature—Issue 38, February 2014)

Tina Chang, Nathalie Handal & Ravi Shankar
Speaking a Language for a New Century: Nine Discoveries
Behind the Scene of W.W. Norton’s Language for a New Century:
Contemporary Poetry from the Middle East, Asia and Beyond

On Building LNC

Born out of the restorative impulse to heal after 9/11, the book accrued a dimensionality of its own as the editors, hyphenated Americans and New Yorkers themselves, were put in touch with far flung poets and translators who might have been a Sherpa or Bedouin, or who, like Ko Un, had been whispered about for the Nobel Prize in literature. The journey was remarkable. The Making of documentary would have scenes of the editors encamped at one another’s house in the flux of their own busy lives, breathing, arguing and loving poetry, a process from which the book emerged: 450 poets from 61 countries writing in over 40 different languages, grouped thematically into nine sections that work against normative taxonomy, a conversation threaded across the continents that occasioned book launches in India, China, Singapore, the Philippines, Germany, England, Turkey, among others.

These nine sections, planets strung on an acoustic bead, orchestrated after countless organizational drafts, left us wondering too often if we’d ever find the right steps to the dance. Editing an anthology is not for the faint of heart or the lacking in stamina. You have to embody the planner and the architect, the painter and the artisan, the stonemason and miner singing a pickaxe into a slab of stone, dreaming of the grandeur in the nave of the chapel, even when changing the minutest grammatical element in a poem translated into inefficient English. One must be a microscope and telescope at once. It felt akin to building a symphony that if striking a few chords to help usher in a new era of global understanding has done its job.


On Translation

Once any area is circumscribed by arbitrary boundaries, the organizing principle can result in certain unexpected goals that become very important. For us one of these was in exposing ourselves to more Central Asian works—poets of Kazakhstan, Tajikistan, Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan, Turkmenistan, and of course, Afghanistan. A region seldom discussed, and at the crossroads of Asian, European, and Islamic cultures. Translations from this part of the world are scanty. We had comical and enlightening exchanges with those Pashto, Dari, Turkmen, Munji and English speakers, often due to cultural misunderstandings. One story immediately comes to mind, that of Bashir Sakhawarz, a wry and cultured Afghan poet and novelist who once worked for the United Nations and was instrumental in providing us the Afghan poems we included. When we sent him the Norton permission slip, he kindly sent an email saying we have his permission. Of course, for him, having helped us for so long, it seemed rather strange that we even asked. When we sent a second email asking him to kindly sign the form. He responded, “In the name of Allah, you have my permission.” What else could we do but forward that email to Norton. The man had after all sworn—what was more sacred than his word to God? We discovered during this journey, that cultural is as important as linguistic translation and that the best translations often possess insider awareness of a cultural idiom that is then reflected in the vigor of the English version. How to achieve this balance was a question that persisted more than any other.

On Geo-Politics

The power of poetry is visible throughout the East. Moments that come to mind are: Tiananmen Square. In 1978, Bei Dao and his poet-friend Mang Ke co-edited and launched the literary journal Jintian (Today), which first appeared as a large character poster on the Democracy Wall in Beijing, where people originally posted their experiences of suffering during the Cultural Revolution. The journal had to be published in secret, and Bei Dao and a few other volunteers bicycled through Beijing to put up the pages, the posting of which took great courage as it was considered politically subversive by the Chinese authorities. When the journal appeared on the wall, there was a tremendous reaction to the poems and essays. There were blank spaces left after each piece of writing so that people could write their comments and responses. In a short period of time, the magazine circulated throughout China. Bei Dao has said,

The greatest danger was a matter of language. Our poetry was written in what amounted to a new language, which differed greatly from the official language to which people were accustomed. That was what got people excited. It was unusual to have so many people writing poetry.

More recently, Tahrir Square. Images of the Arab Spring in Tunisia, Libya, Egypt flashed on CNN. It was clear something extraordinary was taking place in the Arab world. There was a cry for freedom coming from within the country itself and it was lines from an early 20th century Tunisian poet, Abu al-Qasim al-Shabi, that were being chanted “To the Tyrants of the World” as the Egyptians’ palpable longing for freedom ricocheted around the world. Witnessing that, we realized that the purpose of our book was being realized. Poetry in other parts of the world is as necessary to life as bus schedules or electricity. Many Palestinians can recite by heart ancient hymns and within them reside the latent desires of the people released into a communal space. The Arab Spring demonstrated that poetry has a real-world power. The gesture to introduce the voices of Asian and Arab poets to the English-speaking world has contributed, we hope, to a global awareness that is shaping into a full-blown revolution.

On Teaching

LNC is a book designed for the general reader hoping to understand international verse and the student of poetry in a traditional classroom. Indeed, it has been taught with success at every level since its launch, though we are focusing anew on the pedagogy of the book after extensive conversations with teachers. To celebrate the 5-year anniversary of LNC, we are about to debut a website (languageforanewcentury.com) directed at educators on how to better use the book to teach poetry, creative writing, political science, among many other fields, complete with sample syllabi, discussion questions, writing exercises and more. Most of us were exposed in high school to one kind of work, taught lamentably in just a few different ways, but to introduce voices born many miles away is to help develop students as critical and empathetic thinkers, a goal in any level of education. In our growing age of technological interrelation, awareness of global culture is rapidly becoming a requirement.

Our mission and vision is to have the anthology adopted in primary schools, undergraduate and graduate classrooms and to provide supplementary materials to help educators utilize the book along with the website in an effort to design distinctive courses. LNC provides an international education through the voices of poets from countries with whom we may not initially feel we have an immediate connection due to distance, culture, language, religious affiliation, or any of the classifications that separates one human from another. In the rhetoric that surrounds international exchange in mass media there may be a tendency to focus on difference, though why not explore commonalities? Better yet, learning that there is no them, no monolithic entity who we can imbue with some set of values, but rather, individual beings living in ever-changing cultural situations can be enhanced through the understanding of poetry. For example, the traditional forms of the sonnet can be taught alongside the renga, the ghazal and the pantoum which all have fascinating and rich histories. Comparing and contrasting those histories, influences, and structural scaffolding adds to the student’s understanding of the global tradition in which they are a part.

On Poets and Poems

We didn’t expect that two of the most important Arab poets in the anthology would pass away. Sargon Boulus died before the anthology was published in 2008. He was a great friend to us. He guided us as well as translated numerous Arab poems into English for the book. Mahmoud Darwish died a few months after the anthology was published. The world seemed to pause at his passing and, in the Palestinian territories, time seemed to stop to grieve his loss. His absence has left a void in Arabic poetry. Nor did we expect, during Syria’s current turbulent political situation, that some of the Syrian poets included in the anthology would face persecution or vanish altogether.

On the other hand, many of our poets have gone on to win prestigious awards ranging from the Naguib Mahfouz Medal for Literature to the DSC prize for South Asian literature. We’ve witnessed many more books of Asian and Arab poetry translated into English since our anthology came out, though not nearly as many as we need to see. The human questions raised collectively by these poets is elucidated with lucid perception by Carolyn Forché in her Foreward to the anthology: “what the poem asks is that we enter into their lyric disclosure as we would cross the threshold of another’s dwelling—with curiosity, respect, and a withholding of assumptions. This is especially true of poems that have been written out of rifts between peoples or are the fruit of cultural hybridity, aware that consciousness, out of which the poem arises, is experienced differently by different people, who are variously aware, receptive, curious—who might share affinities at distance or estrangements close at hand…If poetry is, indeed, the natural prayer of the human soul, what better way to approach the other than by language elevated beyond the service of diplomacy to the realm of art?” No matter what, our poets will always continue to live on in the pages of LNC.

On Mishaps

Putting together the book we came upon unexpectedly thorny political issues. It was surprisingly controversial that we chose to include territories without sovereignty in the country list. We will always be proud that we included Kashmiri, Tibetan, Palestinian and Kurdish poets among the many other voices. But an event, co-sponsored by the Chinese embassy in San Francisco, was cancelled after they found out that we had given Tibet the same status as China. They pulled our participation from the bill two days before we were supposed to appear.

We also couldn’t include a few of the poets we targeted because they were out of touch, like the esteemed Edwin Thumboo of Singapore who didn’t respond to our messages until it was too late. And in the five years since the book has been published we have encountered many new voices who would be ideal to include in another edition. Probably the biggest mishap surrounded the question of inclusion and exclusion and this was due in part to miscommunication. Having accepted work contingently, we had to then take what was then nearly a 1000 page manuscript and reduce it to 600. It was heart-breaking and intensely time consuming. Telling poets with whom we developed close professional relationships and whose poems we admired—that their poems could not be included due to special parameters—remains our most painful memory. We mourned every single poem we had to take out.

On Celebration

Without question the relationships we forged with poets, editors, translators, scholars, diplomats, and organizations around the world was the great reward of this project, a relationship that continues to pay dividends. Some special memories from the launch of the book: the worldwide launch at the Rubin Museum in New York City was a glamorous, enchanted evening with standing room only readings in a gala event; the subsequent launches in Connecticut were highlighted by a wonderful dinner sitting around cushions at an Afghan restaurant with a number of poets including Pireeni Sundralingam, Khaled Mattawa, Kirpal Singh and Sudeep Sen, and a rigorous dialogue about the book at the Yale Working Group in Poetics; being part of the PEN World Voices Festival, Poets House programming and participating on panels at AWP with poets such as Cathy Park Hong, Meena Alexander, Kimiko Hahn and Timothy Liu, among many others; meeting and interviewing China’s leading poet Bei Dao at Princeton University and the bi-lingual reading that followed; and being featured on BBC-3’s radio program “The Verb” and being treated exceptionally by Norton’s London offices who arranged a launch at the Nehru Centre for the book; taking part in a multi-city China tour and meeting poets and translators with whom we had been communicating for years; launching the book at De LaSalle University in Manila with Alfred Yuson, Marjorie Evasco, Gemino Abad and others, where the event was preceded by a prayer and the singing of the Philippine national anthem before the poets read and then the stage was bum-rushed by shrieking, ululating throngs of teenagers, taking photographs and holding out autograph pads as if the Bieber had landed. It was a truly surreal moment to see poetry being so acclaimed. One of the great joys of the entire process was to meet the poets and translators, some of whom we had been communicating with for years.

After Words

It is hard to believe we are celebrating Language for a New Century’s fifth anniversary and we’re excited the journey continues with a dynamic LNC website (languageforanewcentury.com) in tandem with our upcoming pedagogical panel at the 2014 AWP Seattle “How to Teach Students to Speak Language for a New Century,” and last summer’s Hong Kong grand re-launch with virtual and live performances by Cyril Wong, Kazim Ali, Mani Rao, Agnes S. L. Lam and others. The collaborations that have formed since the anthology’s publication continues, as Alvin Pang and Ravi Shankar will edit an anthology of poems surrounding the issue of “Union” for Drunken Boat and for the Singaporean imprint of Books Actually, Math Paper Press; Tina Chang and Ravi Shankar now teach as international faculty at the City University of Hong Kong in the first-ever low residency MFA program in Asia and they now frequently travel to Asia, and Nathalie Handal will introduce the book in Indonesia, Sudan and Oman. We plan to spend 2014 fertilizing the ground for the second edition by reminding the world about the first.

Final Musings

Speaking A Language for a New Century will be inherently humanistic and it will be polyglot, spoken in many tongues around a world where Asia and the Middle East are growing in wealth and cultural influence. Poetry is not a transactional language but one that values subjectivity and it is there we can begin to empathize with those we share the planet with, those with whom we wish to share the same peace and prosperity.

These poems gesture toward what it means to be alive while reaching back to honor tradition and history. If you wish to understand North Korea, read the testimony of South Korean poets like Seo Jeong-ju who lived through the partition of the country during the Korean War and channeled both Baudelaire and the Buddha; if you desire insight into the minds and souls of Afghan or Iraqi citizens whose countries have been ravaged by the wars in which we are complicit, read the work of Nadia Anjuman, stoned to death for writing her poems, or listen to Saadi Youssef mourn and praise in ‘America, America.’ Our vision was to scour the globe with our attention focused on the distinctive music of each poet and their respective culture, while noticing the similarities that bound them to each other. They have each left lyrics, artifacts of literary art that speak to our human condition. We hope our readers hear and respond to this language for a new century through experiencing the symphony of our collective utterance.