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Madmen and Exiles

By Nicolle Elizabeth

I was late to the Madmen, Exiles, and Savage Detectives: Latin American Poetry panel at the Philoctetes Center this Tuesday. I was late because I was puttering around the fourth floor poetry section at the Barnes and Noble in Union Square here in New York City. Among the shelves, out of place, was a book which has nothing to do with Latin American Poets, but everything to do with translation and so I thought you'd find it interesting, as I did. You probably already know of this book but I am younger than you and so I got a late start. The book is called Rimbaud and Morrison: The Rebel as Poet, and was published by Duke University Press in 1994. The impetus for the work was a letter that Jim Morrison wrote in 1968 to a Rimbaud translator and French scholar at Duke University named Wallace Fowlie. The letter was a thank-you note to the translator. It read, in part, "I don't read French that easily. I am a rock singer and your book travels around with me." The book touches on the influence Rimbaud's words had on Morrison lyrically and I ran uptown to the Philoctetes Center for the talk on madmen and exiles and poets with this information in mind: Wallace Fowlie inspired the Doors.

I sat feet near Jamie Manrique, who was already reading poems and the first thing I noticed was a rose tattoo on his hand. The second was a story he started to tell. "The relationship between the audience and the poet in Colombia is very different than it is in America," Manrique said. "Thousands of people go to listen to poetry for days."

I likened this in my mind to a rock concert, the way Americans would gather in stadiums and stand the rain to see, say, Jim Morrison on a stage. Manrique was covering a lot of historical ground in a short space, introducing Surrealism through a discussion of the American Beat poets. (Earlier in time than Morrison, but still, the thread was there.)

"The idea [for the Latin surrealists] was to break any idea of what poetry should have been. They were very influenced by the Beats," Manrique returned us to the state of the poet in Latin America: "Once, at a panel, a man stood up from his chair, lifted it from the ground, and threw it at me. He yelled, 'Long live Surrealism!' In Latin America," Manrique breathed, "a poet is a great man. Think of Neruda. Poets have a place in society. They don't have that here. Well, Jefferson was a poet, but that's about it."

Manrique followed by reading Cuban poet, novelist and playwrite Reinaldo Arenas. (Arenas, suffering from AIDS would commit suicide in 1990 and his memoir Before Night Falls would later take the American and International pop-culture literary world by storm. Manrique has translated Arenas's work The Will to Live Manifests Itself, in conjunction with the St. Marks Poetry Project it is important to note that the original work was written while Arenas was in prison, and that much of the manuscript had been confiscated and destroyed. The work proves itself one of the more influential, and to my mind, beautiful, examples of Surrealism historically. "We left drilling a hole in the air...we arrive swimming," Manrique read.

In a tag-team reading style, Laura Healy, translator of Roberto Bolaño's The Romantic Dogs followed with her yet to be published translation of Bolaño's Tres. The pieces effuse the cheeky inappropriate humor we have come to appreciate, including one in which Bolaño imagines he is having sexual intercourse with American author Carson McCullers.

"I dreamt that Georges Perec was three years old visiting my house...I dreamt I was falling in love with Alice Sheldon. She didn't want me so I tried getting myself killed on three continents." Healy's translation of Bolaño's as yet unseen work Tres brings the art of the prose poem as form to the forefront and it was a treat to be privy to the yet to be seen in print translation.

The discussion shifted from specific poetry to a discussion on the art in the abstract, fitting, and beautiful in a dialogue surrounding Surrealists.

"Translation informs everything you do and how you are," Manrique wiped his rose-tattoed hand to his brow when addressing the room. Then he went back to the mechanics: "The rhythm in Spanish poetry [is more evident], the romantics within, there are five vowel sounds. In English there are twenty-three."

The panel, as suggested in the advertised title, was about Madmen, and Manrique opened discussion to the audience. A man who identified himself as a psychologist began to ask about madness in Bolaño, looking to the text for answers, he followed his words then with, "What does healing mean?" The room gasped and whispers of "Good question," flowed.

"When I was in Algeria," Manrique answered, "Two people(s) were trusted and respected: Those two people were Poets, and Madmen, because it was felt that those two types of people were more in touch with God."

The conversation returned to translation and my mind again returned to Jim Morrison, who would, like Arenas, take his own life early on, but I was not thinking about his suicide, I was thinking about the thank-you letter he wrote to Fowlie at Duke, and how the translation had informed his own poetry. I was mulling this when Manrique said, "Translation is the best friend literature has. What it does is make available writers we would not be normally reading."

Published Dec 16, 2009   Copyright 2009 Nicolle Elizabeth

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