This “script” documents a recent poetry reading/reading of one another’s work, conducted by Susan Gevirtz and Benjamin Hollander, at Moe’s Bookstore in Berkeley, on May 22nd. An audio record of the event can be found here.
Susan Gevirtz and Benjamin Hollander reading from their new books and in response to one another’s new books:
We will each read a brief piece on translation before we introduce each other and read from our books. You should know: neither one of us are translators although we do have this perverse instinct to watch—and then write about—translation. So much so that we wanted to introduce ourselves tonight as the voyeurs of translation—that’s Susan’s phrase:
Maybe even have Moe’s lovely in-house dancers introduce: now appearing, in their first Bay Area appearance, the voyeurs of translation . . .
But there’s a good crowd here and such lures were not necessary.
So we decided against such nonsense and will now give you the serious portion of the evening.
About Ben’s translation piece and a bit of history about Ben and translation:
Ben claims that “being translated is a personal story,” so he’s encouraged me to take his writing about translation personally. And yes, since Ben and I circulate in our writings around the question of what can possibly stay put as an origin story, and in both books he keeps returning us to the question of (impossible to locate) origin, he tangles the “personal.”
This tangle he describes also describes what has motivated me to be near translation. Translation itself—whatever it is—circulates in what he calls “reciprocal territories.”
“What is the nature of collaboration in translation?” is one of the epigraph-like questions that frames/leads off “Like a Rumor Through The Fact of Translation,” in Memoir American.
Ben reminds us of the invisible—the mother tongue and the personal—that stain and strain translation. I think we both want to get closer to that, not exactly make visible the invisible but gesture at being in its vicinity, at its invisibility, like a person with a stalled car waving both arms to flag down help.
—Susan reads her translation piece, “Letter: Translation Panel Invitation,” from Coming Events.
—Ben reads his translation piece, “Like a Rumor thru the Fact of Translation,” from Memoir American.
Ben introduces Susan:
The other day, looking to describe my book for an audience, I stopped.
Instead, I picked up Susan’s book, Coming Events.
And I read Susan cite Virginia Woolf—it felt true to what we both do and it didn’t require me to describe my book:
If a writer could write what he chose, there would be no plot, no comedy, no tragedy, no love interest, no catastrophe in the accepted style.
And I read Susan citing Dorothy Richardson, who wrote that “she was perpetually haunted by the mutability of ideas.” And both Susan and I are.
We are haunted by the mutability of ideas: about origins, sojourns, pilgrimages—the intensity of being inside them, as memoir, as fiction, as essay, as poetry, as more than any one of those.
Yet, then I realize, even that’s not right, at least not for Susan. She does not write “about.” For Susan, as she writes, “The poem (as always) is About About. Which means that events are an environment of conversation, but the poem is not about events. The poem is about the impossibility of writing about events.”
Susan’s and my writing converge when we enter the possibility of writing at a point of shock, astonishment, revelation, without the conventions of safe passage in a fixed genre.
In “Without Event,” a piece in her book, Susan writes, partly about what the experience of train travel became over time:
What at first seemed frightening became “panoramic vision” and the “novel activity of reading while traveling.”
Fear of derailment arising from the experience of traveling in what seemed like an enormous grenade, gave way to diversion—security based on familiarity—habit and the plush upholstery of later trains cushioned the vibrations and noise of train to track.
The traveler’s psychic structure: the ability to ward off stimuli. The ability to forget the possibility of future experience.
Susan’s writing does the opposite. It invites stimuli in order to remember the possibility of future experiences—and to make this point she cites Beckett:
life is a succession of habits, since the individual is a succession of individuals; the world being a projection of the individual’s consciousness . . . the pact must be continually renewed, the letter of safe conduct brought up to date. The creation of the world did not take place once and for all time, but takes place every day.
And it is this kind of creation which takes place and casts light and is at play at each moment in Susan’s beautiful book Coming Events.
I know you have already welcomed us, but:
Please re-welcome Susan Gevirtz.
My reading takes place under the signs of refusal that Ben and I share as a starting place—among other starting places.
And also under the signs of the matter and mother “It’s the matter and mother of hearing all this I am after” (In the House, 28).
“I am after” in the sense that I follow it, come after it, and “I am after” in the sense that I pursue it. Hearing all of this—I am after.
My mother is here tonight so I also read for her and also the anti-personal that all mothers are, that I am. So my “mother tongue” or mother is no more here tonight than on any, and no more escapable or invisible than on any other night.
I also read to Ben’s books and play. I am reading tonight from pieces in Coming Events that he has mentioned.
—Susan reads, “My Little read backwards Book,” from Coming Events.
—Susan reads excerpts from “Without Event: The Reign of Commotion,” from Coming Events.
—Susan reads from “About About,” from Coming Events.
Susan introduces Ben:
Ben’s books Memoir American, In the House Un-American and my book Coming Events, have been in conversation long before they were published, long before Ben wrote this reading’s play for us that enacts that conversation and ventriloquizes what the books are already saying to each other.
He wrote this fabulous reading play but he didn’t write my lines! First I refused to write them. But then . . . the next morning. This generosity: His wanting to actually read with someone else, and read their work and respond to it as the reading, is rare and wonderful, and made me wake up and write my lines. This kind of reciprocal reading requires a lot more work and desire for relation than I’ve ever witnessed in any poetry reading. This is what Ben’s books do too—they “read with”; they are densely populated with poets, philosophers, many others, all morphing into one another and talking back and forth to each other as themselves and as another. It’s a big brilliant cacophony, turning on dimes, a big exciting Babel (see the book cover of Memoir American) that’s hard to leave once you’re in it. In fact it reminds me that I’m never not in it. I, we, are always babeling in the way he shows. In these ways the books are also great generosities bringing us to the conversation—or reminding us of our participation in spite of ourselves.
I’ve also been thinking about Ben’s books and mine as kinds of refusals, as anti-memoir or as auto-anti-autobiographical writing—as if to go so far into and through the “I” as to come out with a “not I.” I think this is related to the tangle I spoke to when I was describing his translation writing. In Memoir he says:
Let’s say: any language like any person, has its baggage—what we carry, what we lug, what we keep in confidence, perhaps.
So the personal is a language and a person . . . at least (or maybe an as of yet unnamed animal called “language-person”). And secrets known or not by the one who secrets them, carries them.
Back to the anti. I know from Paros and Anti Paros, next to each other, that anti isn’t just “against.” My Liddel Scott tells me αντα, adverb, over against, face to face, with a notion of comparison, in the hostile sense against. And αντεγκαλεω is to make a counter claim, bring a counter charge. And αντη is a prayer, a word preserved.
So we (our books, that is) go through the “I” to another “I”: A place holder for the specificity of personhood, still capable of embarrassment; a place/person/language that through its specificity becomes referential—but referring to what? Baggage? The coming and current events of readers reading? Again From Memoir: “I am the (other) the source . . .”
Then who’s the target? I wonder.
Ben’s books are enactments of reading, reading circuses, the anti-about of my About About, the non-about of reading, which is his writing, writing into—and here at Moe’s we even enact a reading or read aloud our readings of each other’s books, which is one reason I read “My Little Read Backwards Book” tonight. No “safe passage through fixed genres” here.
I am very grateful to Ben for writing these beautiful books. I’ll take it personally. I’ll imagine he wrote for me and to my book. I think we can all take the books personally. In an anti-fashion. That is, we are face to face with these books and him tonight or while reading alone. We are in a land of comparison. In a hostile sense he is against us—offers with one hand while resisting our affinity with the other. And the books call us to make a counter claim, bring a counter charge to “Amerika.” And in “reciprocal territorialities,” often invisible, inaudible, these books are also a prayer, a word (of refusal) preserved.
Please welcome Ben Hollander.
I was just listening to Susan say the books call us to make a counter claim, maybe in my work about how America and Americans see themselves. We were talking before about the mutable ideas in my work (and in Susan’s work).
And in the House Un-American, one of these mutable ideas is the idea of naming, and counter-naming, where I ask: “Who is who and where do they belong and where can they go? How do we inhabit a name, as if that name could enter into a place?” Susan writes:
“Name is a disturbance of place,” counter-name, counter-place.
In my case, in this book, In the House Un-American, names enter into places and have ripple effects—creating these disturbances, sometimes comic, about what place is (in this case, Amerika). And also, who or what is American? Who or what is un-American?
The primary character in this book is one Carlos ben Carlos Rossman (“ben,” as in Hebrew for son of Carlos), who is an immigrant (Puerto Rican and Jewish) traveling from the Middle East to New York, and related to Franz Kafka’s Karl Rossman, and also the wannabe heir to the iconic American poet, William Carlos Williams.
And so here he is in this section of the book, a section called “Carlos among the Fables,” among his namesakes, one of which is the iconic William Carlos Williams.
—Ben reads from In the House Un-American.
This next piece is for my friend and colleague, Dennis Chowenhill.
—Ben reads more from In the House Un-American.
So I’m going to move in the book from Carlos ben Carlos’ relation to William Carlos Williams, to two sections later, to a part in the book called, “Hearings in Progress.”
I would like to invite up here a wonderful poet, the director of the San Francisco State Poetry Center, Steve Dickison. We will read the dialogue from “Second Testimony,” about the purpose of the separation of church and state when faith-based Americans place less and less faith in organized religions.
To finish up, I will be reading four pieces from two sections of the book, “Fables in the Air” and “Facts on the Ground.”
Susan Gevirtz’s books of poetry include Aerodrome Orion and Starry Messenger, Broadcast, Thrall and Hourglass Transcripts. Her critical books are Narrative’s Journey: The fiction and Film Writing of Dorothy Richardson and Coming Events (Collected Writings). She teaches at California College of the Arts and Mills College. Gevirtz has co-organized the annual translation and conversation meeting of The Paros Symposium with Greek poet Siarita Kouka, and guest organizers Eleni Stecopoulos, Liana Sakelliou and Socrates Kabouropoulos for eight years.
Benjamin Hollander was born in Haifa, Israel and as a boy immigrated to New York City. He presently lives on the West Coast of North America. His books include: In the House Un-American, Memoir American, Vigilance, Rituals of Truce and the Other Israeli, The Book Of Who Are Was, How to Read, too, and, as editor, Translating Tradition: Paul Celan in France.
An excerpt from his newest book, In The House Un-American, can be found at The Brooklyn Rail.