How about a good poetics talk: On translation and experimentation in Poeta en San Francisco

You know, it’s been a really good couple of days of literary discussions.

The other day, I went into Dean Rader’s Literature class, where they have just read Poeta en San Francisco. I’d originally had some anxiety about revisiting a work so “old,” in my literary life. I didn’t know that I knew how to talk about the work anymore.

I was so young when I wrote Poeta. This is not to say I am ashamed of it. Quite the contrary. I see a young poet who wrote some hella bomba, walang hiya poetry there. She was so brave. And some of the reason why she was so brave was precisely because she was young, writing from the margins of the margins, with little self-consciousness about how the “big world” would receive such a work.

With the class, we talked about how the work was received, where was there push back, how does a reader read a work that contains these ‘foreign” elements. As readers, we are already accustomed to seeing translation; we see, for example, Neruda’s original Spanish on the page, and then we see the translator’s crafted translation on the facing page. We view the languages as discrete, i.e. not really in interaction with one another.

We can, with bilingual editions, if we like, read back and forth between the two. If we look hard enough, then we see how one-to-one translation has not occurred. Then, if we look at two different translators’ translations, we see how there can potentially be two different poems that have come from the same one poem.

But what of the multilingual work which does not treat languages as mutually discrete bodies? I told the students that when I was new in my grad program, that was one of my first questions about writing. The multilingualism that exists in my life, in my head, in Bay Area open spaces (not just the bustling urban, cosmopolitan areas) — I just hadn’t at that point figured out how to put that on the page yet. It was more than opportune; it was fortune that Stacy Doris and Chet Wiener found me in grad school. I do not know that I could have written what I did, without them, precisely because they were translators.

I bring this up now, because code switching in my work is always treated as such a spectacle. Or as this specimen called poetic experiment. Which I’m like, I guess. It’s just figuring out how to put on the page the languages of one’s real life, which I think of as ongoing work on one’s craft (which could mean, figuring out how to do it well, whatever “well” means). I was told a couple of years later that Poeta en San Francisco had become an example to a group of Latinx poets of how to code switch in poetry.

(And actually, after class, one of the Latinx students did come up to me to tell me they could see why my work would resonate with Latinx writers/poets, as they were having a similar reading experience.)

I was able to also talk about the baybayin translations I included in the book. That the section called “[noo, nyoo],” (pages 43-51) was what I can now call a “failed experiment,” because (1) the parameters I provided for myself, which I adhered to, were flawed at the onset, (2) the re-translation from baybayin back to Roman alphabet yielded something entirely unreadable. But there’s also a (3) the actual visual presence of the baybayin is something to consider on its own, as producing some kind of affect on the reader/their reading experience.

I asked them to compare the baybayin in this “[noo, nyoo]” section, to the baybayin that appears later in the text (pages 95-96). That would be an example of a more successful translation, in that the original source material was in Tagalog (modern, in Roman characters), and so adhering to the writing rules of baybayin, the resulting translation is actually readable to one who knows how to read baybayin.

We talked also about the poetic form of the prayer, and how rosaries, novenas, and processions (Stations of the Cross, semana santa) do indeed come with identifiable form and lines of verse. These are the kinds of rhythms that feel like they’ve seeped into my pores, into my bloodstream. You can drop out of that life and practice, but when you find yourself there again, you know exactly where to pick up and carry on as if you’ve never left. And you can speak and move as one body with so many other bodies.

Anyway, this is a lot for now. Let me stop.

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