IMPROMPTU #19: Michael Leong

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Leong - PictureMuch of my recent work has entailed creating poetry by manipulating and collaging together found texts. My latest book Cutting Time with a Knife (Black Square Editions, 2012) consists of material appropriated from T.S. Eliot’s essay “Tradition and the Individual Talent,” Wikipedia articles, and the periodic table of elements. I have a forthcoming book called Words on Edge (Black Square Editions), which collects, among other writing, my chapbook The Philosophy of Decomposition/Re-composition as Explanation: A Poe and Stein Mash-Up (Delete Press, 2011). As the title suggest, The Philosophy of Decomposition is a blending of Poe’s “The Philosophy of Composition” and Stein’s “Composition as Explanation.” Another major section of Words on Edge is a sequence of 30 poems I wrote for the Found Poetry Review’s National Poetry Month initiative in 2013. During April 2013 I wrote a new poem every day based on language found in Booth Tarkington’s 1921 novel Alice Adams; the sequence eventually won the 2014 Burnside Review Chapbook Contest and was published under the name Fruits and Flowers and Animals and Seas and Lands Do Open. Looking back at these various projects, it seems that one can group Cutting Time with a Knife, The Philosophy of Decomposition, and Fruits and Flowers together as a trilogy, an extended effort at trying to absorb and make a mark on the American tradition.

When we speak of “translation” we usually refer to the process of turning a text that is written in one language into another language. But if we think about translation more broadly, we can imagine a diverse range of experimental processes that can spark new writing. All you need is to find a source text and invent a method of transforming, altering, or changing it.

To use a very recent example—Paul Legault’s Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror 2 (Fence Books, 2016) is an English-to-English translation of John Ashbery. The book is “a memory translation” in which Legault attempted to recreate Ashbery’s Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror—a volume renowned for winning the Pulitzer Prize, the National Book Award, and the National Book Critics Circle Award in 1975—by “writ[ing] down each of Ashbery’s original poems, from memory.” Ashbery’s “Grand Galop,” for instance, begins, “All things seem mention of themselves / And the names which stem from them branch out to other referents. Hugely, spring exists again.” Legault’s “Grand Galop 2,” in turn, is a kind of branching out from the original: “Everything seems to mention itself / The way people are trees of people / Connected through days as if by a force / Of some huge version of spring let out / That held us there.” Legault’s book follows the cultural logic of the sequel and the remix in order to pay homage to an influential American master, to acknowledge the extent to which contemporary poetry continues to translate Ashbery’s groundbreaking writing into a myriad of afterlives.

In terms of experimental translation, the practice of “homophonic translation” is well-known: it is translating a foreign language text by loosely imitating its sound rather than by following its sense. In homophonically translating Rimbaud’s famous sonnet “Voyelles,” Christian Bök turns the line “A noir, E blanc, I rouge, U vert, O bleu: voyelles” into “Anywhere near blank rage / you veer, oblivial.” But there are many other methods of transforming a found text.

Craig Dworkin and Kenneth Goldsmith’s Against Expression: An Anthology of Conceptual Writing (2011) is full of experimental translations; one of my favorites is Yedda Morrison’s “Kyoto Protocol.” Morrison’s work translates the 1997 Kyoto Protocol on climate change into Bodoni Ornaments, a decorative font that consists of floral glyphs. In its “uncreative” mode, experimental translation can present an incisive critique with minimal authorial intervention. In this instance, Morrison suggests that “efforts to save the environment […] have been decorative or ornamental.” I taught some excerpts from Against Expression this semester in a contemporary poetry class and I had my students create their own experimental translations. One student translated a canonical Robert Frost text into a graphically striking concrete poem. Another took some e.e. cummings poems and “corrected” their grammatical and typographical idiosyncrasies in order to show the inventiveness of the originals. Yet another deleted all the letters from Edgar Allan Poe’s “The Raven” except for the letters “p,” “o,” and “e,” turning the poem into a playful repetitive signature.

In a way, all poetry is translation—whether transcribing messages from the muse or following a predetermined procedure.


Michael Leong’s most recent poetry book is Cutting Time with a Knife (Black Square Editions, 2012). His criticism has appeared in Contemporary Literature, Modern Language Studies, and Reconstruction: Studies in Contemporary Culture. He frequently reviews books for such venues as the Boston Review, The Brooklyn Rail, Hyperallergic Weekend, and the Los Angeles Review of Books. He is Assistant Professor of English at the University at Albany, SUNY and a 2016 NEA Literature Translation Fellow.

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