Poet and journalist Sara Elkamel is currently pursuing an MFA at New York University, dividing her time between Cairo and New York City. Her work can be found in several literary magazines including the Los Angeles Review and Michigan Quarterly Review. Her most recent work is a chapbook, Field of No Justice, published as part of Akashic Books’ African Poetry Book Fund.
Birds, Language, and the Desire for Repair: An Interview with Sara Elkamel
Does a poet benefit from knowing more than one language? In what way do translingual poets approach their craft differently than their monolingual counterparts? Should translingual poets be understood as “self-translators”? Is translingualism a form of rebellion? How do we make home in, across, and between languages?
These topics are part of the following conversation between Ilan Stavans and Haoran Tong. Ilan Stavans is Lewis-Sebring Professor of Humanities, Latin America and Latino Culture at Amherst College. He is the author of the award-winning, book-length poem The Wall (2018) and the translator into English of Jorge Luis Borges and Pablo Neruda and into Spanish of Emily Dickinson and Elizabeth Bishop, among others. Chinese poet Haoran Tong is a student at Amherst College. The conversation took place electronically in Amherst and Wellfleet, Massachusetts, from June 25 to July 10, 2021.
The Poet’s Languages: A Conversation between Ilan Stavans and Haoran Tong
“Places remember what people forget.” – Richard Powers
Instead of speaking, we eat peanuts in the Holland Tunnel: the unshelled, lightly roasted kind from the bulk section of our grocery store. With one hand on the steering wheel, my father takes handfuls from the top, since all the salt falls to the bottom, and my mother digs for those. Outside, the tunnel tiles blur as our Subaru speeds beneath the river and all the buried foundations of New York.
In common with the other tales in his Libro del tedio (The Book of Tedium), José Ardila performs in “The House” a kind of alchemy with his autobiography, taking inspiration in childhood events and feelings, but stripping them of their specificity to conjure an alternative reality in which the contours of the particular give way at once to the schematic clarity of myth and to the uncanniness of dream.
The story carries what seem to me unmistakeable echoes of One Hundred Years of Solitude both in the inexorable descent of its narrative arc and the subtle magical realism that inflects it, and reminders (the flood, the chaotic fecundity of the vegetation, the demotic rough and tumble of family relations and of course the gallows humour) of its Colombian setting. And yet, shorn of clear markers of time and place and (largely) of names, both the eponymous house and the anxieties of its unnamed narrator become universal.
The wall above the desk in my childhood bedroom is covered in sticky notes, index cards, and fading color photographs. They are haphazardly layered, held up by torn pieces of Scotch tape and pushpins at odd angles. Each time I sit, spinning in my blue, cat-clawed desk chair, I reread and remember.
My first college English professor told us everyone should keep a commonplace book: somewhere to put words, ideas, and sentences we want to hold. He said it was a way to mark the passage of time and the changes of our minds. I was intrigued by the idea, but aware it was the sort of thing I’d begin and then forget in the bustling adjustment of no longer being at home. So I wrote down the word—commonplace—but started nothing then.
In our July edition of Friday Reads, two TC interns and one volunteer reader recommend transportive summer reading, ranging from a novel about a trip to Greece to a good old-fashioned western. Read onward for discussions of a braided Faulkner novel, a flâneur novelist, and two cowboys down on their luck.
Recommendations: If I Forget Thee, Jerusalem by William Faulkner, Outline by Rachel Cusk, Hanging Woman Creek by Louis L’Amour.
You once read, in a psychology journal you found in a dentist’s waiting room, that two people who have loved each other since age five or younger will instinctively believe that they are blood siblings. When, at seventeen, you began to dress like Solomon—to take his sweatshirts home, to wear circular wire-frame glasses identical to his except in their prescription—you despised yourself for it. Although you have no biological relation to Solomon, this mimicry red-flagged incest in a visceral way. You had been neighbors since you floated in utero. All your lives, you lived next door to each other in your little town near Anchorage. Together, you raised bugs and frogs in air-holed mason jars in Solomon’s bedroom and memorized riddles and Grimm’s fairytales to tell each other on tedious fishing trips with your parents. In middle school, you alternated first and second place medals at science fairs in cold gray gymnasiums across Alaska.
Cha chaan tengs, local diners that serve comfort food all day, are a cornerstone of Hong Kong culture. At a cha chaan teng, you can order beef satay noodles for breakfast, a cup of milk tea stronger than any Starbucks coffee, lo mai gai (glutinous rice and chicken wrapped in a lotus leaf), and more. To many Hongkongers, cha chaan tengs evoke a sense of familiarity and nostalgia. Indeed, it was precisely these feelings that drew me, a Hongkonger living in America, to translate Chung Kwok-keung’s remarkable poems.
Chung wrote “The Cha Chaan Teng on Fortune Street” in 1996 about a Cha Chaan Teng he visited in Sham Shui Po while running an errand. He no longer remembers what the errand was for, he writes in a blog post, but “words have helped [him] remember concrete details of that cha chaan teng.” At the same time, he also wonders whether there is something about a place that is lost forever once it no longer exists, no matter what we write down. As evocative as the details in this poem are, from the “soft clink” of utensils to the “grease-soaked hair” of a waiter, the poem ends on a note of uncertainty, unsure of whether words can safeguard memory.
“Moss on a Smooth Rock” is from Un mar en madrugada (A Sea at Dawn), by the Uruguayan poet Silvia Guerra, published in 2018 by Hilos Editora, Buenos Aires, Argentina. The English version of this book is forthcoming from Eulalia Books in 2022.
Guerra’s work is notorious for its complexity, its concreteness of image and abstraction of thought, and its convention-defying syntax, capitalization and punctuation. With a long-standing interest in linguistics and psychology as well as a deep affinity for the natural world, Guerra’s poems go beyond the self in an effort to imagine the world from the standpoint of other beings, living and nonliving. For centuries, humans have assumed a monopoly on consciousness, even arrogantly denying the subjective experience of other mammals. But scientists are at last confirming what any dog or cat owner has always known: animals are not unfeeling automata any more than we are. But while only some creatures are proven to be sentient, can we be so certain that others are not? “How can we be so sure that plants feel no pain?” asks Polish poet Wisława Szymborska. What about rocks? Guerra dares to imagine they are.