May 19, 2011

Who is left untouched by the world?

The following is the text which I presented Saturday, May 14 at the "Poetry & Translocality" panel at the Prague Microfestival. A fantastic discussion between David Vichnar, Louis Armand, Alistair Noon, Donna Stonecipher, and myself followed.

When I first encountered the term translocality some four or five years ago, and Alistair's treatment of it in the final issue of Bordercrossing Berlin, I was immediately intrigued. Indeed, here is a word that enhances our vocabulary, our ability to describe something, and it does so morphologically. What's more, it does so openly.

In his 2009 essay, "Transculturality as a Perspective: Researching Media Cultures Comparatively", professor Andreas Hepp describes the word as follows:

"Locality emphasizes that…the local world does not cease to exist. Irrespective of how far the communicative connectivity of a locality goes, this does not prompt questions of whether a person is living his or her life primarily locally…As a physical human being, he or she must reside somewhere. "Trans," as a prefix, guides the focus from questions of locality…to questions of connectivity. If research is centered on translocality this emphasizes, on the one hand, that those questions pertaining to all that is local still matter, but that on the other hand today's locales are connected physically and communicatively to a very high degree. And that is the reason why the local does not cease to exist, but rather, changes."

The word itself asks us to be wide, to widen, to be open, flexible, dare I say inclusive. Upon reading Alistair's essay and a few of his reviews circa 2007 and 2008, I felt that our treatment of the word needed to open up, and I began writing on it myself. I thought this for several reasons:

The first of these is: There is a distinction between the translocal writer as a political/social circumstance (and pertaining to the writer's career) and translocal writing, where translocal is an adjective and perspective that can be used to understand a text
indeed, perhaps, the way a textual line is even crossed.

This distinction is important if the term is to be applied to its full potential. On the one hand, limiting translocality to an author's certain set of circumstances is instructive if we're talking about what a translocal writer faces when trying to get published in her home country, for example. But when using the term as a tool to help reveal and unravel text, as a kind of handle into the workings of a line, obviously translocality offers us much more beyond an author's personal narrative or even beyond our current temporal.

Over the course of 2008 and 2009, I worked with this idea in many ways, including in the opening editorials of Versal 7 and 8. In Versal 7's editorial, I wrote, "Up to now, most of the monologue I've seen about translocal literature is restricted to the relationship between author and his (yes, his) narrative text: observations of a street scene in Prague by a long-time foreign resident (the author)
the locality itself becoming protagonist to the poem. This either reduces the self-sufficiency of a piece alone on the pagei.e. it is the author's biography that makes a piece translocal or not--or it limits it to narrative surveillance. Certainly not all poetry is traceable to a particular mise en scene, nor is all prose a story. The very pivot of translocality would indicate that there are many, many kinds of localities, and we need not focus solely on where our (or the author's) feet are standing."

Which brings me to my next point. Up until about 2008, the vocabulary of translocality was applied almost exclusively to narrative
and to some degree lyricpoetry, and as mentioned to works by people "living abroad". This goes back to the early conflation of the writer and the writing.

Indeed it may be said that translocality is on a scale, easily exemplified by what Alistair calls the "holiday poem" but treated with more subtlety and complexity in a book like Christian Hawkey's Ventrakle or much of Paris-based poet Jennifer K. Dick's work. The "move" into long-term residence abroad can change your writing fundamentally, not just your subject matter or references. It can change your writing at the level of the line. But it is only one of many pathways towards translocal writing. Learning another language can have this effect. Access to the media of our contemporary world can have this effect. Being from a family of multiple cultures can have this effect. Take filmmaker Ish Klein's poetry, for example [here I read "Lithuanian Sunset" from her first collection].

This is not to say we should not be talking about any of this here, just that we should open the dialogue to the full breadth of its instructiveness. Looking at literary production in a place like Amsterdam or Prague--places of high concentration of tranlsocal writers
can tell us something about the mechanisms of translocality, but it is not everything.

"Sites of translocal activity—Amsterdam, Paris, Istanbul, and elsewhere—are not the privileged spaces of translocal literary production, but they are its breeding grounds. What our relocated writers can offer us, if not manifestos and hundreds of poems about foreign street markets, is insight into the inner workings of the translocal line that can then be applied everywhere. How do they invite (or force) interdependence between a string of vocabularies from two (or more) languages within a single stanza? How is the distance of a line of poetry crossed in a translocal sensibility? How is this distance ever crossed? Watch what these heavy carbon footprints are up to, and this nascent translocality concept could very well become a crucible for understanding literary production in general." [Versal 7 editorial]

Which brings me to my final point. The application of the term to cities such as Amsterdam, Paris, Berlin and Prague has highlighted another issue: the prevalence of men in the local and translocal dialogue, at the readings, in the publications. For example, in Alistair's article in Bordercrossing Berlin, he names and quotes a handful of translocal male writers, yet he names only two women: Slyvia Plath and Elizabeth Bishop. No living women writers are mentioned in the piece, much less as practitioners of or participators in translocality. The "numbers trouble" highlighted by Juliana Spahr and Stephanie Young in the Chicago Review in 2007 is no less of an issue in our translocal communities here in Europe, and certainly this state of affairs should not go uncriticized.

By being limited in how we talk about it
indeed, how we BEGIN the literary dialogue about itwe are putting translocality in the hands of a few, of a select. This is an oxymoron to the term, contrary to its very linguistic structure, and can lead to, for example, the omission of translocal women writers from literary history or literary criticism, the reduction of the field of inquiry from a translocal perspective, and even the rise of falsely-founded literary "movements" in its name. I'll end on a section from my editorial in Versal 8, which is a kind of call.

"The more geography and culture lose their grips on locality, the more the poles of discourse I’m used to holding become useless. And this is where translocality departs from dogmatic political, linguistic, or sociological artifices: it frustrates not only definition and literary explication but also the enclosures of manifesto and branding. We are all translocal, now. We can’t help but be. What is local and global in a given experience is becoming more and more difficult to discern. Who is left untouched by the world?"

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