Wednesday, October 17, 2012

The Chord of Two Cultures

image credit:
This Monday, October 15, the Mid-Manhattan branch of New York Public Library hosted a poetry reading, organized by non-profit NYC-based CAUSA ARTIUM and the Debut Prize Foundation (Debut is a literary competition of beginning Russian writers under 35). During the event, both Russian and American poets had a chance to read their poems and converse with each other. The three Russian poets, Dina Gatina, Alla Gorbunova and Lev Oborin, were the Debut Prize winners at various times. The event was moderated by David Lehman, an NYC-based editor, literary critic and poet, who was upbeat and positive throughout the evening as he introduced each poet and read extracts from their works.

The reading was quite fast-paced. Every poet was given 12 minutes (3-4 poems, on average). The Russians were reading their poems in their native language, and translation was provided for each poem by John William Narins, the executive director of CAUSA ARTIUM. Therefore, understanding Russian was a plus, but not a must. Surprisingly, even for those fluent in both languages the translation was helpful, since modern poetry is generally hard to listen to. The last means of organization - rhyme - is no longer crucial, and it was at times really difficult to stay tuned. When the translation was provided, however, the audience was given a second chance to dive into the meaning of each poem and think it through one more time.

The first poet to take the stage was Dina Gatina, a young and well-known in Russian literary circles poet, who spoke only in Russian, and her interaction with the audience always included the translator. Her poetry was built on repetitions, often in the most unexpected places, and she let them speak for themselves providing no explanation at all. Her poetry reflected on her surroundings and showed how she perceived the world. When interacting with the audience, she seemed shy and uncomfortable, but at the same time, she was confident in her word choices and statements.

Gatina was followed by a Poet Laureate of Brooklyn 2010 and a poetry professor, Tina Chang, who was born in Oklahoma and raised in New York City. In contrast to Gatina, Chang gave a foreword for her every poem. She spoke about how a wolf in her poem was tied to her childhood fears and her being a mom, and she also shared her interest in Chinese culture and literature and her fascination with the Chinese Empress Dowager, who appeared in one of her poems. Chang's performance started the wave of the poet-audience interaction that other readers continued.

The next poet up was Alla Gorbunova, who is not only a poet, but also a translator, reviewer, journalist and a university teacher. She addressed the audience directly, with a mixture of Russian and British accent, and she talked a little bit about her poems. They were quite short and sophisticated with reflection on life and the world around us. The images of nature also played an important role in many of Gorbunova's poems. When she chatted with the audience, her voice was weak and trembling, whereas when she read her poetry, it was loud and vibrant. Russian poets, in general, seemed to stay within their own shell, while the Americans smiled wider and talked more eagerly.

After Gorbunova another American poet, Heather Christle, the winner of the 2012 Believer Poetry Award, took the stage. She was sweet and talkative, and she mentioned her fascination with Russian poetry in addition to giving a preface to some of her poems. She held the audience's attention, and her images, for example, "a small husband," were creative and simple at the same time. Christle stole the audience's hearts, and received a great amount of applause when she finished her last poem - the shout out to a Russian poet, Vladimir Mayakovskii.

When the women poets had shared their work with the audience, it was the men's turn to keep the evening going. The next poet after Christle was Lev Oborin, the youngest of all the poets who attended the reading. At the age of 25, Oborin is already an accomplished figure as a poet, critic, literary translator from English and Polish and an editor of the Russian edition of Rolling Stones. Oborin was the only poet who used rhymes more or less consistently at the end of his lines, and Narins did a marvelous job of recreating them in his translations, for which the author thanked him during the reading. The most memorable Oborin's image was the ducks getting sucked in by the softness of the bread people threw at them.

And last but not least, there was Matthew Yeager, whose longest poem, as announced by the moderator, David Lehman, took up 12 pages. Yeager is a successful poet and award-winning short film maker, who also won the 2009 Barthelme Prize in Short Proze and two McDowell fellowships. He read only two poems of his, but the first one, "You Are Henry Hudson," was a very long one, of which he warned the audience beforehand. Yeager was the most confident speaker, and he didn't feel shy to use a strong word in his poems. Despite the length of the poem and constant repetitions, the poet managed to hold the listeners' attention till the end and received a round of applause for his reading.

The evening ended with a conversation between the two cultures. The poets got a chance to ask questions and exchange ideas. Amazingly enough, even if we live on different sides of the world and are fascinated with dissimilar historical figures, we are contemporaries, and we have similar experiences, and it is very well reflected in our creative work. Given the language barrier and the cultural gap, the poets sounded in unison, related to each other and happily shared what was meaningful to them. As the world is becoming global, and as New York continues to be the capital of the world, let us hope that there will be more intercultural art lovers meetings during which we can get acquainted with each other and learn from each other.

No comments:

Post a Comment