From “Cruel Hookah” to “Cruel Hooker”: A Cross-Cultural Conversation in Poetry

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By Christopher Merrill

chris-merill

Christopher Merrill, director of the International Writing Program at The University of Iowa

IOWA CITY: The book Seven Poets Four Days One Book was an experiment to see what would happen if poets from different lands, languages, and generations tried to write together. The possibilities for failure seemed limitless — which perversely appealed to me. For it has been my experience that the least promising material may sometimes yield the most interesting work, perhaps because one must dig deeper, look farther, and risk more to bring that material to life. And what could be riskier, in the literary scheme of things, than to ask poets to give up their precious time for what might be a fruitless enterprise? I consoled myself with the thought that unlike novelists for whom a lost day of work may represent lost income poets are accustomed to receiving little or nothing for their efforts, not to mention the fact that many lines of verse lead nowhere.

Thus in October 2007, in a sunlit room at the University of Iowa, six poets — István László Geher from Hungary, Simone Inguanez from Malta, Tomaž Šalamun from Slovenia, Ksenia Golubovich from Russia, Marvin Bell and Dean Young from the United States and I — conducted an experiment, which, if nothing else, might strengthen the bonds of friendship; with any luck, it might also lead to something new. We gathered around a long table in the library of Shambaugh House, headquarters of the International Writing Program, which for more than forty years has brought writers from all over the world for residencies in Iowa City, and set to work.

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Our springboard was the definition of the word union, about which we wrote for thirty minutes, with the loosest formal imperative — fifteen lines, in any meter. Then we took turns reading our drafts aloud, with the others scribbling notes: words, phrases, and images for the next round of writing. By the end of the first day each of us had two poems to revise and notes for a third to be written overnight — the starting point for our next meeting. And so it went for three more days until the collection was more or less complete.

The collective activities of the French Surrealists, the serious games of these intrepid explorers (automatic writing, exquisite corpse, and so on), provided models for our project: The Magnetic Fields by André Breton and Philippe Soupault; The Immaculate Conception by Breton and Paul Éluard; Slow Under Construction, which Breton, Éluard, and René Char wrote on a driving tour of southern France. These books inspired my decision to invite wildly different poets to dream together. Indeed our explorations were marked by the strange juxtapositions and sometimes marvelous connections of dreams, as well as the lulls and surprises of good conversation: when a cruel hookah in one poem became a cruel hooker in another the room lit up with laughter.

István, Simone, and Tomaž wrote in their native languages then read translations done on the fly. Ksenia switched back and forth between Russian and English. And at every turn Marvin, Dean, and I heard our mother tongue anew. The only tension in the room was creative: writers hunched over their yellow tablets, searching for the right word. The sun shone through the windows, and as we traded jokes and puns, crossed out words and added others, or gazed at the books on the shelves, following the meta-language of poetry to its sometimes zany conclusions, it felt as if we were writing our way into a different world: “Goodbye sky, aren’t you tired of your war with the invisible?” Dean wrote. What became visible was a commonality of purpose predicated on our shared enthusiasm for the word: a union of seven poets. Imagine.

How did the conversation go? Marvin’s first poem addressed the silence in the room, a theme picked up by Simone and Dean, respectively, and in these three poems you may hear a little of what came to fill that silence, which is the sound of time passing:

A single car horn eighth-note signals
a four day union of seven who write.
A waterfall of tires on wet roadway
enters through a window. These connect.
I hear the silence. I usually hear the silence.
There is sound and no-sound in the paring
of an apple. In the thrust of an auto
when motion turns to scrap metal at the end.
One has also an urge to hear the unheard,
to see the invisible, smell the odorless,
touch the insubstantial and then to taste
the last ashes of an earth in flames
before it meets the sun. We are given to
this unity of nourishment and damnation
because we cook up words to cover silence.

— Marvin Bell

variations on silence
silence – that’s what I recall, mostly
: the biting silence – of your gaze
where i still keep vigil, waiting for thyme to bloom.
a white screen unfolds before me, slightly crinkled slightly patched
– and i’m there trembling
in my childhood hole, silent
in a block – that’s given up even on itself;
– you scrub my small body, bent over
the plastic basin with its broken handle,
a big pot bubbling on the light blue tower
of a kerosene stove with its black door
– how we peered from far to see the fire dance.
and i recall the silence, scared
of time passing, your bones – cracking

— Simone Inguanez

The Plow Goes Through the World
My friends, the plow goes through the word,
laughter cleaved from slaughter, aster
from disaster, rot from erotics. Smoke comes
from the halo, maybe a benefit of mistranslation.
This morning waking: a slip, a spill, a slur
while the sky gave up its color yet somehow
we find each other. I don’t believe in shouts,
don’t believe in whispers heavy in fat air
but under dripping umbrellas we fall in love
like giraffes, like sopped sky rockets.
There’s never one language for that. Poetry
is always cockeyed, obedient to only other,
what we whisper for, wish to be true, to woo
unto woe. Unsmother me my darkling divisible
words from other tongues.

— Dean Young

Christopher Merrill is the author of four books of poetry and is the director of the International Writing Program at the University of Iowa. Seven Poets Four Days One Book, edited by Merrill, is published by Trinity University Press in the United States.

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