American Hybrid

February 6, 2009

Translator and Iowa Writers’ Workshop faculty member Cole Swensen has co-edited a new poetry anthology called American Hybrid, which is due out in March from Norton. In her introduction (to read, click here) she argues against the traditional binaries of language and lyric in contemporary poetry and for a new hybrid poetics which incorporates elements of both. Of particular interest to this blog is the role that multilingualism/multiculturalism and translation play in this new poetic landscape:

Just as the shift in gender balance played an important role, increased internationalism and multiculturalism have also had a hand in broadening the aesthetic field, dispersing critical attention, and decentralizing power. Though the first word in our anthology’s title is “American,” it’s increasingly difficult to say just what the “American” in American poetry is. More and more poets writing and publishing in the United States were born and raised in other countries, and various poets in this volume come from China, England, Lebanon, Germany, Jamaica, Canada, Korea, and elsewhere—it’s a truly wide range of cultures that filters into this work. In addition, many of the poets presented here routinely spend part of each year out of the country, and though they all write in English, for some it is not their native language, and many write in other languages as well. These factors position a linguistic differential at the center of the work that keeps the English language questioning its parameters.

For many of these writers, translation is also an essential aspect of their writing practice, and, as it’s a discipline that constantly folds difference into the core of personal linguistic landscapes, it imports these differences—of form, sound, syntax, perspective, etc.—into American poetics as a whole.

Translation is also a literary practice that casts creation out, away from the creating “I” into a more public realm, and that same gesture is made by the many poets represented here who work editing, publishing, and producing the poetry of others through reading series and other modes of public access. By thus creating literature on the most concrete, material, and social level, these writers extend the Rimbaudian “I is an other” beyond the estrangement inherent in committing the first person singular to paper and into a socially creative act—it literally creates the society in which it can thrive.

–Cole Swensen, from her Introduction to American Hybrid

I admire Cole’s formulation of translation as a socially committed act, and as one that is mirrored and utilized in the expanding conversation that surrounds poetry, or at least the poets that she’s promoting with this anthology. Anthologizing is a tricky game, how can one ever pinpoint the poetry landscape in america, etc., but I like the framework Cole has presented here. I’ll look forward to reading the anthology.



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