May 23, 2023

Art & Life

Rebecca Solnit is an excellent thinker. Orwell's Roses is an exceptional book. We all know about the Orwellian “doublespeak” of Trump’s administration but here Solnit looks at Orwell’s passion for his rose garden and life’s pleasures even as he traced the lies of totalitarianism. This is a vision that could be described as polyphony. There is some biography (although that is not her intention to become his biographer) and the history of roses and the rose industry. All this created in an associative way that also highlights the landscapes and artistic landscape of his time. This is a poetic, incisive, and fascinating angle.

In her book, Recollections of My Nonexistence, Solnit's writes about gender and becoming a writer. She quotes Diane di Prima's line "You cannot write a single line w/out a cosmology."
Writing is often treated as a project of making things, one piece at a time, but you write from who you are and what you care about and what true voice is yours and from leaving all the false voices and wrong notes behind, and so underneath the task of writing a particular piece is the general one of making a self who can make the work you are meant to make.
A writer's voice, therefore, traces this self-making. The Swedish-Finnish poet Edith Södergran (1892-1923) wrote in a notebook: "I do not write poems, I create myself; my poems are the way to my self." Each book of poems that I have made had a select group of influences, and I called it the 'constellation' from which the book emerged. This I might consider as part of the cosmology. For Solnit, it's clear that her work for the Sierra Club and the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art have been significant.  

My favorite writing of George Orwell are two essays, "Why I Write," and "Politics of the English Language."  His work endures. His themes are necessary ones which speak of politics and language. The two are inseparable and can cause an irreality that harms people. Solnit considers writing by Orwell that gives readers a broad view of the era that he lived and his philosophy and his whole writing practice. The book celebrates Orwell, and it celebrates a life that combines clear-eyed vision of art and life.  

April 19, 2023

What Role Does Translation Play in Your Day?

In my study of Finnish, I have learned that the Finnish word for translation is related to the word "to carry." Yet, it is nearly impossible to carry all the meanings of any one word into a new language. There are cultural associations and literary references that a reader in another context, not in the original language or landscape, will not get.  

Between languages, between literary translations, is a gap, an electric space. This gap contains silence, things unable to be said, misunderstandings, and longings. In the carrying, meanings have been dropped by one side or the other. In this between space, as a poet, I sense the ambiguities of meanings and linger with the possibilities.  In my book Surface Displacements, I have a sequence of poems that have titles in Finnish although the body of each poem is in English. The titles reflected my day-to-day experience while I was staying in Finland and memories of the Finnish language and family in Minnesota. 

Translation is much more than transcription.  Intuition is necessary. Priorities are made. Mira Rosenthal said translating poetry is a "process of discovery, which may sound strange, given that the original has already laid it all out for me. But the translation still has to discover it’s own form."  This highlights the way that translation is similar to creating one's own poem.  Another translator, flash fiction writer Lydia Davis says, "you are a ventriloquist as well as a chameleon."  Book reviewer Elizabeth Bryeron describes the act of translation as entering the "fruitful darkness" in her review of the novel, Signs Preceding the End of the World by Yuri Herrara.  The phrase fruitful darkness rings true. The image of the word translate in the photograph here is next to the "Shift" key. There are several changes, or to use a more accurate word, shifts that one must make.  


When I was in Helsinki, I met a woman who did translation for a company, or as she clarified, she did not so much do translations but trans-creations.  This term might be a better word for the business of translating poetry. Often translators must re-invent the meaning using different images or metaphors than the original writer, and this of course, creates controversy at times. Let's just say that if one really needs to experience the original in full, one must know the original language and live in the landscape.  Failing that, reading several translations of the same work might get you closer to the source.  

The Book Club for Poets has had a fascinating sequence of books this year.  In February, we read Emily Dickinson.  

In March, the book selection was Anne Carson's Autobiography of Red.  This novel in poems, based on ancient Greek myth of Geryon, the red winged monster.  Carson used a complete poem by Emily Dickinson (no. 1748) "The reticent volcano keeps/ His never slumbering plan--/ Confided are his projects pink/ To no precarious man.// ....   Carson's translation of the ancient myth gives us a contemporary tale.  Geryon negotiates a complicated family life, develops a passion for photography, and when he becomes a young man, takes a gay lover named Herakles). After Herakles leaves him, they meet again while at a conference in Buenos Aires. 

In April, the book selection is A Life Replaced: Poems with Translations from Anna Akhmatova and Vladimir Gandelsman by Olga Livshin (Poets & Traitors Press, c2019).  In this book, Livshin creates a conversation between her translated poems of Akmatova and Gandelsman and her own poetry.  This creates a unique experience for the reader.  New versions of the literary greats' poems are presented. I enjoyed reading the echos and response in the narrative poems by Livshin about her contemporary experience of being a Russian-Jewish immigrant in the United States. 

In May, the book selection is How to Communicate by David Lee Clark (Norton Press, 2022). Clark is a deaf/blind person, and his poems reflect the intense experience of touch.  ASL uses a different grammar structure than English or American English.  Interpreters of ASL translate on the fly, and often use analogy and repetition to reinforce the meaning of the original communication. Interpreters for deaf/blind people receive and give translation by physical touch with the deaf/blind.  As you can imagine, this makes for some very interesting poems.   

I recommend that you read more about translation and more interviews with translators. It's fascinating:

Review by Elizabeth Bryeron: "In This Fruitful Darkness: Signs Preceding the End of the World by Yuri Herrera":

Lydia Davis' essay:

Interview with Mira Rosenthal, translator of poetry:

Interview with translator Samantha Schnee:

April 17, 2023

The Minnesota Book Awards

 I am honored to be a finalist for the 2023 Minnesota Book Awards in poetry.  All four poet finalists gathered for a poetry book talk. You can watch it here:  


One Art

 Today, I was interviewed by Cathy Wurzer on Minnesota Public Radio.  She asked me what poem made me want to become a poet.  This is an interesting angle!  My answer surprised me!

You can listen to the conversation here:

March 6, 2023

Spark Catchers: Lemn Sissay and Amanda Gorman

There are poets writing history and writing poems drawn from history. Eavan Boland once said that a poem will revivify an event. She cautioned against revivifying trauma, because it will make that event re-traumatize. Boland is a political poet. In Ireland, where she was born, writing about the land is a political act.  Paul Valery, a French poet, said that a poem is like a small engine that recreates meaning each time it is read.  Therefore, a poem that celebrates the strength, resilience, ingenuity and power of a survivor and changemaker will inspire us.  Here are two examples: 

Lemn Sissay's poem "Spark Catchers" was commissioned to become part of the 2012 Olympic Park in London, UK. The poem is engraved at the site, and it marks a historic event in 1888, a strike by women who worked at the Bryant and May Match Factory.  Sparks in match factory posed a threat to life and work, and this poem describes the spark-catcher who helped the women survive the exploitation and danger in the factory and whose story now inspires solidarity and the power of women to create change. His poem has also been the basis of a music composition by Hannah Kendall.   "Spark Catchers" translates the words into notes and textures of music and it continues to share the light to concert audiences across the world. Listen to it here:
This piece of music has been performed by several orchestras world-wide, and it continues to share the light.   

Spark Catchers by Lemn Sissay

Tide twists on the Thames and lifts the Lea to the brim of Bow
Where shoals of sirens work by way of the waves.
At the fire factory the fortress of flames

In tidal shifts East London Lampades made
Millions of matches that lit candles for the well-to-do
And the ne’er-do-well to do alike. Strike.

The greatest threat to their lives was
The sulferuous spite filled spit of diablo
The molten madness of a spark

They became spark catchers and on the word “strike”
a parched arched woman would dive
With hand outstretched to catch the light.

And Land like a crouching tiger with fist high
Holding the malevolent flare tight
‘til it became an ash dot in the palm. Strike.

The women applauded the magnificent grace
The skill it took, the pirouette in mid air
The precision, perfection and the peace.

Beneath stars by the bending bridge of Bow
In the silver sheen of a phosphorous moon
They practised Spark Catching.

“The fist the earth the spark it’s core
The fist the body the spark it’s heart”
The Matchmakers march. Strike.

Lampades The Torch bearers
The Catchers of light.
Sparks fly Matchmakers strike.

In another poem by Lemn Sessay, "Making a Difference," again he demonstrates how effective poetry is to create social change.  A composer, Hannah Kendall, read this poem and used it as the basis for a musical composition for orchestra.  

In the rhythms of Lemn Sissay, an accomplished poet of London, I heard a similar beat and internal rhyme here in the United States by the poet Amanda Gorman. She too is a spark-catcher -- one who by speaking out calls for change, creates change.  This poem, "The Hill We Climb" was performed by Gorman at the inauguration of President Joe Biden.  The poem is also in Amanda Gorman's book of the same title.   

Compare the two, and be inspired to write a poem about a historic event.  

Argentinian Writer Cesar Aira on Improvisation and All That Jazz

Cesar Aira has developed a unique style that is improvisational.  He's written about 100 novels (many have been translated into English), and each is about 100 pages. He doesn't edit his work, but he has honed his style and structure. Further, he puts into a story whatever event happens (or whatever character appears) on the sidewalk outside the Buenos Aires coffee shop where he does his writing!  One of his great stories is titled "Cecil Taylor." This story is published in Aira's book of short fiction, Musical Brain published by New Directions Press.  This story defies categories. It begins with a vivid scene on a New York City street, seemingly fiction, and then quickly enters an essayistic passage that meditates on music, biography, and composition which leads to an example, the biographical details of the avant-garde musician Cecil Taylor.  You can read it here:

The story is about Taylor trying to launch his career in New York City (later, his career skyrocketed). When it came to composing, Taylor was totally improvisational.  He was outspoken and fascinated by and borrowed dance forms and architectural forms as he created music. This story is also about how hard it was for Cecil Taylor to reach a point where his - very original -- music was not rejected. It took awhile for his sound to be accepted by others, and then he was considered a genius. Taylor's story is one of success, but it is success only after a series of extreme and painful rejections in a many jazz clubs and performances.  He changed music, and at first, people did not understand it. They didn't think he was doing music at all. They thought he was a joke. It was not a joke at all.  One of his albums was titled, Unit Structures.  He designed a unit of sound which served as a basis for improvisation for himself and members of his band.  In this interview, he said: "Improvisation is the ability to talk to oneself."

Aira has a unique voice like nobody else. His material seems to be generated by the musings of his mind and chance occurrences. Nobody could imitate him. He is a lesson in self-confidence and the amplification of his writing voice. I have taken a quote from the story "Cecil Taylor" and arranged it into line breaks. 

…what counts in literature is detail,

atmosphere, and the right balance between the two. 

The exact detail, which makes things visible, 

and an evocative, overall atmosphere, 

without which the details would be a disjointed inventory. 


allows the author to work with forces 

freed of function, and with movements 

in a space that is independent of location, a space 

that finally abolishes the difference 

between the writer and the written: 

the great manifold tunnel in broad daylight ... 

Atmosphere is the three-dimensional 

condition of regionalism, and the medium of music. 

The line breaks allowed me to slow down my reading of it and appreciate what he is saying. So often while teaching poetry, we focus on "details, details, details."  This passage takes a larger perspective. Details create something larger, which Aira calls the atmosphere. I think of this as "the world of the story."  Many writers and readers might not like Cesar Aira's style nor the music of Cecil Taylor, however, both offer original insights into the process of composing and both honor and amplify their own unique voice, and that's a lesson worth learning. 

March 3, 2023

Minnesota Reads: The North, 103.3 FM

One never knows what question an interviewer might pose. On March 2 at 8:20 am Luke Moravic interviewed me on radio for The North 103.3 for Minnesota Reads. 

What did he ask?  How did you end up writing poetry? What does the title of your book mean? What advice do you have for other writers?   You can listen to the recording here:

Many thanks to the Friends of the Saint Paul Public Library who run the Minnesota Book Awards and The North, 103.3.  Because of these organizations, because my book is a finalist, I have new opportunities!  

February 13, 2023

A Different Engine

A Different Engine: How to Power Your Writing

March 6, 13, 20, 27 on Zoom
Come join my writing workshop and explore techniques that power your own writing.  I'd love to see you! It's happening on Zoom: four sessions, Monday evenings in March, starting at 7:15 pm. In this workshop, you can work in your favorite genre (poetry, fiction, or creative nonfiction). We will focus on techniques to make writing vivid, intense, and alive. Register here at Lake Superior Writers. $60.

Register here:

January 31, 2023

Bringing Joy


In celebration of Joy Harjo's appearance at the Fond Du Lac Tribal and Community College, the editors of this fine collection asked writers to send work that was inspired by the writing of Joy Harjo.  It is a wonderful collection of writings, and I'm proud to have some poems in it. 

First it was an e-book, and now, since it received a 2022 MN Author Project Award in the Communities Create category, it has become a physical book.  

The lead editor, Darci Schummer, has done a fantastic job gathering and putting together this noteworthy collection.  

A reading and book celebration will be on February 7, 2023. 6:30 reception and 7:00 pm reading on the beautiful campus of Fond Du Lac Tribal and Community College!  

January 28, 2023

Surface Displacements, a Finalist in Poetry at the Minnesota Book Awards

I'm thrilled to be among the poetry finalists for the Minnesota Book Award!  Here's a list of all the finalists in all categories:

Celebrate the state's best books at the annual Minnesota Book Awards Ceremony. Readers, writers, and book-lovers from all over the state gather together for one incredible evening to honor stories of Minnesotans that connect us all. Awards are presented to winners in nine book categories and to the recipient of the Kay Sexton award, with special guests. 

Minnesota Book Awards 35th Annual Ceremony
Tuesday, May 2 | Ordway Center for Performing Arts
Tickets will go on sale January 30, 2023