Getting toward the end of a course on very short fiction, and looking ahead to one on translating poetry

In the spring quarter, which begins in early March, when I’ll be teaching my annual seminar on translating poetry.  I always begin with a poem in Spanish, because it’s the language and the poetic tradition I can handle best, myself, outside English, but on the first day I also find out what languages students have brought in with them.  Last year the great surprise–a first in the many years I have taught this course–two students had terrific Icelandic, one because she is bicultural and has lived in Iceland for years, and the other–who took my course as a member of the staff at Northwestern–because she has been studying it and has been to Iceland several times.  (That student, after completing the course, decided to apply to graduate programs in Icelandic or Scandinavian studies–languages and cultures–for fall 2017 and just received her first admission, so she’ll leave her university staff position and return to school for more study.  A very happy story.

We’ll translate three short poems together–going as deeply into each poem as we can, with the help of a literary scholar who visits our course and takes us through the poem’s linguistic, poetic and cultural dimensions.  So everyone must translate from a language not known (including me).  While this doesn’t always produce finished translations by everyone, it does open up poetry itself in a way that is possible only when working in two languages–in that situation, we see much more clearly the differences not only in the linguistics of a language and its expressive strengths but also in its poetic traditions.  And when I say, “a language,” I mean of course English too.  Nothing so clarifies what English-language poetry has been, in all its astonishing variety, as comparing it to poems in other languages.  One becomes, even if it’s only a first step, aware of how what seems “natural” (or not) in poetry is just what the English language does and doesn’t do, and what English-language poets have chosen to do–and chosen not to do.  My friend the poet Ilya Kutik has mentioned to me that it would have been amazing to see what the English-language Modernists might have done, in the early 20th century, if they had known the poetry of Pasternak, Mandelshtam, Blok, and other Russian poets.  But evidently they did not know of this work, or did not have access to it through Russian-language fellow poets or at least through (very good) translators…

I’m now in the last weeks now of the winter quarter, and have been teaching a graduate course in our MA/MFA in creative writing–a course on very short fiction.  Not only free-standing very short pieces, but also stories made of very short chapters.  One classic contemporary example is Amy Hempel’s “In the Cemetery Where Al Jolson Is Buried” (first published in TriQuarterly).  Another is the much earlier, but much further out story by Leonard Michaels, “I Would Have Saved Them if I Could.”  We’ve been reading around in several anthologies of very short (“flash,” as many now call it) fiction, and I also put on our website such stories as the Hempel and Michaels, and also these:

Kobo Abe, “The Red Cocoon,” “The Stick”

Isaac Babel, “My First Goose,” “Dolgushov’s Death,” “The Kiss”

Anton Chekhov, “Anyuta”

Stephen Dixon, “Down the Road”

Eugene Garber, “The Oddment Man and the Apocalyptic Beasts”

Nadine Gordimer, “Is There Nowhere Else Where We Can Meet?”

William Goyen, “Arthur Bond”

Amy Hempel, “In the Cemetery where Al Jolson is Buried”

Franz Kafka, from Blue Notebooks

Clarice Lispector, “A Chicken,” “Temptation,” “Covert Joy,” “Remnants of Carnival,” and

“The Servant” “Praça Mauá”

Thomas McGrath, “Used Up”

Leonard Michaels, “I Would Have Saved Them if I Could”

Marga Minco, “The Address”

Grace Paley, “Midrash on Happiness” and “Wants”

Katherine Anne Porter, “Magic”

Jean Toomer, “Karintha,” “Rhobert”

What’s that McGrath, you might wonder.  No, not a story.  It’s a short poem in sections, but it narrates the life and death of a whole farm culture and I couldn’t resist putting it in.