PEN World Voices Festival Dispatch: Speaking in Tongues

By Seth Satterlee

At the Juan Carlos I of Spain Center at NYU, Speaking in Tongues: A Poetry Reading opened with an introduction from Creative Writing in Spanish Director Mariela Dreyfus, who spoke about the historic thread connecting the readers: “Poets in Spanish-speaking countries, but none of which write in Spanish.” This is the reading’s second year, something that shouldn’t be overlooked considering how recently such collaborations were simply impossible. As Dreyfus said, “It’s a long road for languages to get into the ‘mainstream.’ Only since the 80’s…after Franco’s death there were open possibilities for regional languages.”  There were two Poets from the Iberian Peninsula, Melcion Mateu writing in Catalan and Tere Iratortza, a Basque poet, and Peruvian Odi Gonzales who began with a poem inspired by a Quechua artist that transposes his photographs of common people, street vendors and vagrants, onto seventeenth-century paintings of Catholic virgins. The final line reverberates after a glimpse of life on the street: “The children at my feet/ Offer punch and cigarettes.”

Each of the readers performed poems in their original language and afterward MFA students provided English translations. The exception was Melcion Mateu who came to the stage with Mary Ann Newman, Director of the Catalan Center at New York University, and performed his insightful urban poesies, many from his 2005 A Garden with Kangaroos. Many of the poems have the casual sensibility of a Brooklyn flâneur. This flippancy pushes against his inevitably political imagery, much of which concerns wealth, tourism, globalization. In “Modus Vivendi” a job seeker makes his way down the street in boxing gloves while smoking a pipe—how exactly did he light that? He’s trying to figure out the right combination, any combination. “I’ve been man / I’ve been machine / I’ve been beast / What will I have to turn into today to survive?” Another leaped from Spain into Mexico through Columbus during a truly modern walk down Barcelona’s famed La Rambla: “Where natives can find it hard to feel at home.” Other highlights included his ruminations on the worth of forgotten cities and lost words in “Tocom,” and imaginings of the aggressive hecklings of past Troubadours, part of their necessary machismo, outside the plaza de toros, in the poem “Gap.”  Melcion speaks directly about the trouble of translation in his poem, which plays with ideas of God, “The 100 Principal Languages.” What can ever be true to one person, when it’s so mysterious how two people even understand one another? The translations all went over differently, much of it having to do with pervasiveness of the language. Where Quechua, with beautifully choppy phonetics, became a quiet joy, a full room listening to Odi Gonzales’ words, the crackle of their rhythm, Melcion’s Catalan was more prevalent in the audience, inspiring the timing of his cadence. Each of their tongues inhabited a different space, approached different registers. Irastortza, who read in Basque, performed poems which speak to the universality of language and literature, of opening the door into prose:  “This is a first page, a door, perhaps. / But since the door separates the inside from the outside / or this first page separates the closed book from the open book / either because the door positions us on one side or the other / or because the first page / represents you reading now and me having written in advance.”  We enter a more methodical movement with Irastortza, whose poems crawl slower and find deep crevices to rest. “And other times we have to moult / like snakes / in order to be / Because I, you, he, and the World / want to be under the same skin / turned into flesh enveloped by skin.” Three diverse styles from three singular languages originating within the confines of the Spainish cultural empire.


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