Tuesday, December 16, 2014

Han-shan and the Cult of Translation

(Image source: wikipedia.org)

Chinese monk Han-shan (the English translation of which is Cold Mountain) was a recluse and, by all surviving accounts, a rascal.  Han-shan, whose given name remains unknown, lived, according to scholarly estimates, between the late sixth and the early ninth centuries...most likely.  At some point during his adult life he had a wife and son….probably.  How the family separated, as they most certainly must have for the following legend to have played out, is a mystery equal to every other element of the man’s life.  Scholars even disagree, in fact, on the appropriate presentation of his name: Han-shan, Han Shan, etc.  The one detail of Han-shan’s life that is beyond reproof are the more than 300 poems composed on cave walls on the mountain from which Han-shan drew his name.

The poems are nearly always attributed to Han-shan who lived for lengthy stretches over several decades upon the same secluded mountain.  The cave’s walls are covered, as are the trunks of surrounding trees, with poems about the mountain itself—its vistas, its seasonal changes, its inhabitants (none human but the poet himself)—and, though a recluse, episodes involving his life before the mountain and his dealings during infrequent sojourns to nearby towns and temples.  In short, the bulk of these more than 300 poems deal in simple observation, natural or social, but are able to transcend their mundane facts, quietly blossoming into spiritual truths.  For this reason, and the attractiveness of overall biographical mystery, countless poets, scholars, misfits and Zen practitioners today count themselves amongst the devoted.
Countless translations of these poems have ornamented bookshelves since the 1950s, some merely fragments while others are entire catalogs of the 300 plus Cold Mountain poems.  Many readers’ first exposure to the name Han-shan was thanks to Jack Kerouac, whose 1958 novel, The Dharma Bums, is dedicated to the recluse monk.  Later printings of Gary Snyder’s first book, Riprap, including translations of twenty-four Cold Mountain poems.  These twenty-four, though not the first time Han-shan’s work had been translated into English, were the first time his work had appeared lumped in with a popular collection of poetry and, as such, provided most readers’ first, serious glimpse at what the Cold Mountain poems were all about.  

A few translations aside from Snyder’s include those of Burton Watson, whose Cold Mountain: 100 Poems by the T’ang poet Han-shan (1962), is often regarded as Han-shan’s first EN MASSE scholarly translations into English; and one of the more recent bulk additions, Cold Mountain Poems (2009), translated and edited by J. P. Seaton.  Special attention should also be credited to Arthur Waley, whose “27 Poems by Han-shan” appeared in Encounter in September of 1954, perhaps touching off the powder keg of subsequent of translations ever since.  

The aforementioned translations — those by Snyder, Burton, Seaton and Waley — are the nucleus of this essay, which will attempt to display and discuss one specific Han-shan poem, of four total, chosen for translation by each. 

Red Pine, whose The Collected Songs of Cold Mountain (2000) compiles all of the more than 300 Cold Mountain poems, attempts a word-for-word translation without embellishment or frill.  What Red Pine provides is, perhaps, as close to the original as an English translation can get.  Because of this purity, Red Pine’s translation will serve as a foundation upon which an analysis of the other four translation (below) can be built.

            People ask the way to Cold Mountain
            but roads don’t reach Cold Mountain
            in summer the ice doesn’t melt
            and the morning fog is too dense
            how did someone like me arrive
            our minds are not the same
            if they were the same
            you would be here (47)

This, we are to believe, is the precise English equivalent of what Red Pine found written on the cave walls, without embellishment: no punctuation, eight lines, adjectives and adverbs perhaps implied, but none physically present.  But is a direct translation like this one actually a poem?

Each translator’s contribution is unique, and in accordance with his own agenda and voice, he has attempted to create art (discerning implied meaning, attitude and perspective) by taking Han-shan’s words and applying them to research based on Han-shan, his time and place, and conducting a secondary translation that attempts to make such poetry palatable to contemporary Americans readers.   (Please forgive the male pronoun, him, but the sample presented here is representative of the body of work available, which is overwhelmingly male.)  The specific agenda and voice of each translation, presented here in chronological order, proves enlightening when the poems in question are presented together.

Despite the many similarities inevitable in translations drawn from the same source poem, the four translators included here take an amazingly varied approach to recreating not only the poem, but also the poet.  This concept — recreating the poet himself — is of utmost importance in analyzing the translations.  Most of those drawn to Han-shan and his work, consciously or otherwise, consider the man and the man of legend to be of equal importance to the poems themselves.  While not unique, this type of reverence is, at least, rare.  We must, then, contemplate not only the translation but also the spirit of which the translation were born.  What, we must ask, is so appealing about Han-shan and his work, and how has that shaped the translations?    

Arthur Waley viewed the source material through an academic lens.  A scholar of ancient Chinese literature and translation who scooped the poetry world by first rendering Han-shan’s work in English, Waley’s method is calm and complete.  Without any precedent, Waley found and translated Han-shan’s work through the western methods of which he was accustomed.  Though attempting to give an accurate portrayal of the poems he was translating, Waley also sought to smooth the rough edges, adding punctuation where necessary and producing elegant sentences that, though drawn from a centuries-old Chinese source, would easily fit the western academic aesthetic.

I am sometimes asked the way to the Cold Mountain;
There is no path that goes all the way.
Even in summer the ice never melts;
Far into the morning the mists gather thick.
How, you may ask, did I manage to get here?
My heart is not like your heart.
If only your heart were like mine
You too would be living where I live now.

Contemplate the final two lines: “If only your heart were like mine/ You too would be living where I live now (lines 7-8).  This payoff, as it were, would be more witty, more poignant and maybe more acerbic, depending on your reading, were it rendered in fewer words.  But it wouldn’t necessary be, if efforts were made to make it more conversational, as complete or as in accordance with formal grammar and syntax.  Waley, then, attempts to address meaning without much thought for tone.  

The opening lines illustrate a similar point.  Waley writes, “I am sometimes asked the way to the Cold Mountain;/ There is no path that goes all the way” (1-2).  Why not dispense with the colon, subsequently beginning the second line with “but?”  One need look at the end of every line in the translation but one to find a possible answer.  Each line ending, with the exception of line seven, is punctuated with a relatively hard stop.  Punctuating each line ending is a formal gesture that places Waley firmly with the academy and, at the risk of sounding even more judgmental, firmly on the far side or World War II.  

Waley has not only observed the formality of punctuating each line ending (and capitalized each beginning), but he has also taken pains to use the right punctuation to do so.  Dispensing with the semi colon at the end of the first line and inserting “but” at the beginning of the second would still allow for punctuation — a comma would slip nicely into the semi colon’s place — but each of Waley’s punctuated line endings is punctuated with a much more solid, insurmountable stop — semi colons, period and a question mark — than a comma can provide.  But what does a semi colon have to do with a several hundred year old poem written on a cave wall?

While recognition that Waley has taken pains to observe the niceties of punctuation is particularly telling, a look at line length also sheds light on his approach.  Where possible Waley has made efforts, or so it seems, to create lines of comparable length except where it is advantageous to deviate.  Lines six is the shortest of the eight.  The same line is, by no coincidence, the turn.  Waley made no effort, as hid did in the preceding seven lines, to artificially formalize the language, instead opting to set this particular line apart, both syllabically and rhetorically, as the fulcrum upon which the following two lines, what I called earlier the payoff, are hinged.  Waley discerned, despite the great cultural and spatial distance between Han-shan and the western poetic tradition, the linguistic similarities that might allow his translations to apply formal western structures on seemingly informal eastern poems.

I’ve used in my assessment of Waley’s translation #VI, loaded terms like academic, erudite, and formal.  I stand by these labels and yet I must also mention that, however formal, Waley’s poem can also be particularly exhilarating.  

Waley’s line four, as just one example, uses a shift in syntax to render the language palpable.  Waley writes, “Far into the morning the mists gather thick.”  Forcing the reader to linger on the one syllable, two digraphs word stops them (with help from the following period), swelling their tongues and making that fog thicken in their mouth and mind’s eye.  The mist is further animated by the fact that, while an adjective, it falls after the verb, thereby almost modifying it instead of the noun.  It’s the joined mist that is thick, not the method in which the mist gathers.  Yet the gathering — the very act itself — given this partial reshuffling in syntax, becomes thick, rendering the mist itself an active participant in its own conglomeration.  The adjective becomes so inextricable from the verb that the reader begins to feel the phantom pain where the –ly ought to be.

Gary Snyder’s translation employs the conversational approach that is so audibly absent from that of Waley.  Snyder’s diction and syntax highlight his rejection of formality and his acceptance of common parlance as fit lifeblood of literature.  Whereas Waley’s lines were even, calming and regulated, Snyder’s are wholly unpredictable; each line presents a different rhythm and unaffiliated voice.  

                        Men ask the way to Cold Mountain
                        Cold Mountain: there’s no through trail.
                        In summer, ice doesn’t melt
                        The rising sun blurs in swirling fog.
                        How did I make it?
                        My heart’s not the same as yours.
                        If your heart was like mine
                        You’d get it and be right here. (42)

The first example in the poem of Snyder unpredictability is the hard caesura of line two: “Cold Mountain: there’s no through trail.”  Snyder’s line one is similar to Waley’s, though less wordy, but the colon after the mountain name takes any momentum the reader might have built and, in no uncertain terms, crushes it.  Snyder’s translation does not allow for rhythmic complacence.

Snyder’s refusal to let the reader grow comfortable does not mean that the translation is free of elegant language.  Only that the elegance is also impossible to predict, which makes it just as unaccommodating as any other line.  In line six, for example, Snyder allows for the expansion of the poems rhythmic scope.  Snyder writes, “The rising sun blurs in swirling fog.”  Another, more stark approach might include dispensing with the initial determiner, but this line stands out as being particularly poetic in a poem that largely defies such genteel classification.

Though not vernacular exactly, another way Snyder distances himself from the academy is by employing certain simple unpoetic or common diction.  Snyder’s speaker asks, “How did I make it?” (5).  Compare Snyder’s “make it” with Waley’s “How, you may ask, did I manage to get here?” (5).  “Make it” seems particularly inelegant, yet the reader knows, in context, precisely what “it” means, because it means precisely what it says.

This colloquial treatment of the poem’s turn is mirrored by a companion phrase in line eight.  Snyder writes, “If your heart was like mine/ You’d get it and be right here” (7-8).  “Get it” works, more or less, on the same level as “make it.”  Both are overt attempts to both celebrate common speech and simultaneously thumb one’s nose at formality.  The two concepts are not mutually exclusive nor are they inextricable.  One can be employed without the other but, when taken in the same dose, the effect is greatly heightened.  Whereas Snyder’s inclusion of “make it” and “get it” mimic the way most people might express the concept (and do so successfully) the location of these phrases, in the turn and the payoff, render the usage a vast departure from literary tradition. 

To call this type of language solely a social or stylistic choice would be inaccurate.  Snyder, sensing a kindred spirit, was attempting to recreate Han-shan, not just his work, on the page.  Would a miserably poor, mountaineering, recluse monk speak with perfect and elegent diction?  Snyder, apparently, think’s not.

I refer to Waley as representative of a poetic that would be more at home prior to the Second World War.  Snyder, too, can be just as easily fixed in time.  Coming of age in an era when the world was shrinking (World Wars tend to have that effect), Snyder directly benefited from the influx of alternative artistic influences, especially literary, that spilled in.  Or, perhaps it would be more accurate to say that many Americans spilled out, traveling specifically to Europe and Asia, and being confronted with poetry the likes of which they never dreamed existed.  Snyder was among their numbers, finding Buddhism and finding Han-shan, though not necessarily in that order.

Snyder, a thoroughly documented Beat poet and spiritual mentor, became “the rebel model for American youth from the late 1950s to 1970s” (Tan 4), co-opting the Han-shan image and refracting it through the lens of American counterculture.  In short, there’s a lot of Han-shan in Kerouac’s Sal Paradise.

Burton Watson, on the other hand, followed Waley’s lead, creating translations that attempt to retain meaning.  What sets Watson’s translations apart, among other things, is that he did them in bulk.  Translating 100 Cold Mountain poems in his Cold Mountain: 100 Poems by the T’ang poet Han-shan, Watson might have had the same basic approach as Waley, but Watson made choices that render his translations unique. Watson’s translation #82 is able to achieve the basic word-for-word, funneling it into western formalities approach while infusing his translation with new meanings and unexpected diction. 
                        People ask the way to Cold Mountain.
                        Cold Mountain?  There is no road that goes through.
                        Even in summer the ice doesn’t melt;
                        Though the sun comes out, the fog is blinding.
                        How can you hope to get there by aping me?
                        Your heart and mine are not alike.
                        If your heart were the same as mine,
                        Then you could journey to the very center! (100)

A prime example of Watson’s surprise content is, “How can you hope to get their by aping me?” (5).  None of the other translators sampled here go so far out on a limb in translating this line.  Though the language isn’t, by and large, dazzling, by shifting the rhetorical structure (line5) and including the slang, “aping,” Watson is able to revitalize a translation that, otherwise, is a bit flat.  

“Aping” is perhaps more appropriate than this one poem alone can show.  As a character, Han-shan is often represented as playful and pure, comical yet wise in the face of hypocrisy.  Han-shan’s sense of humor, on display throughout a large chunk of his more than 300 poems, has as much to do with a primate as it does, sometimes, the world of men.  Let alone the fact that he lived solitary in a mountain cave for lengthy stretches throughout his life and that in China he is often represented as a spirit particularly representative of the natural world, the poems themselves, and first-hand accounts of encounters with the recluse monk, show a personae both innocent and inquisitive, energetic and a bit of a nuisance.  Han-shan encompassed, then, attributes that, at least in relation to his fellow monks who would never dream of leaving the safety and relative comfort of the temple or the town, the characteristics of a wild primate.

Today we laugh with and not at Han-shan, who was supposedly two steps ahead of his brethren, spiritually speaking.  “Aping,” then, might take on the opposite meaning.  If the other monks are the ones truly misguided, then any attempt they make, until they’ve gotten their spiritual house in order, are doomed to appear foolish to Han-shan who, having already figured it all out, can sit back and laugh at the monkeys who blunderingly imitate a superior being. 

Han-shan truly was as singular, perhaps, as a person can be, but he was also a man of the world who measured himself, in part, by others’ perception of him.  Like anyone else, Han-shan suffered when judged harshly, was lonely at times, and felt the burden of age increasingly encompass him.  Han-shan carried on conversations in his poem about these same issue, despite the fact that no one was around to read or hear.  Yet, at the heart of almost all the work there is the distinct feeling that Han-shan is addressing an unnamed someone, some audience or recipient of his wisdom, both common and revelatory.  Part of this feeling stems from Han-shan’s use of “you” and “your,” but this is overly simplistic as each of the translations also uses second person.   This voiceless receptacle in which Han-shan poured the workings of his mind, some faceless auditor, is as much a character as the speaker himself.

Burton Watson introduces the auditor a bit more than do previous translators.  The question in line five feels far less rhetorical, implying not only the auditor’s existence, but also a complicit and active role in Han-shan’s discourse.  Han-shan was a recluse and mystic, yes, but his mountain, however isolated, was no island.

Perhaps what first stands out in J. P. Seaton’s translation is the even, complete lines.  Each line, with the exception of the final two comprising the payoff, is complete in and of itself.  This feature renders the translation formal, maybe even overly wordy; a lot is packed into each.  It also compels me to revisit the other poems, retroactively noticing that they, too, share this feature.  Why should this characteristic in Seaton’s poem be so obvious while going largely unnoticed by me in the three previous translations?  One possible differentiator is the caesura. 

                        People ask about the Cold Mountain way:
                        Plain roads don’t get through to Cold Mountain.
                        Middle of the summer, and the ice still hasn’t melted.
                        Sunrise, and the mist would blind a hidden dragon.
                        So, how could a man like me get here?
                        My heart is not the same as yours, dear sir
                        If your heart were like mine,
                        You’d be here already. (27)

Seaton employs no hard stops throughout any line in the poem.  Four commas regulate reader rhythm to a degree, but they provide barely a hiccup.  Arthur Waley uses even fewer commas (two), and nothing else, but Waley uses those commas efficiently, shaking up the conventional syntax.  Waley writes, “How, you may ask, did I manage to get here?” (5).  Such usage is far from unconventional, but it does provide enough of a deviation, given the brevity of the poem, to shape the whole experience.

Gary Snyder places a colon in line two.  Though he uses nothing but commas thereafter, the colon is enough of a disruptor, when coupled with the erratic line lengths and rhythms, to characterize the whole poem.  Burton Watson uses a question mark in the same position as Snyder’s colon.  Though the hard stop is not identical, it serves a similar purpose in shaking up the rhythms of such a short poem.  Seaton’s translation, at least in this regard, is fairly unencumbered.

But one element Seaton does include that sets his translation apart is italics.  As used here, Seaton’s italics increase the dramatic mode by further interacting with (or upon) an auditor.  Seaton’s auditor, however, does not have the same relationship to the speaker as does Watson’s.  The italics provide the emphatic imperative that there is real tension, not just on the part of the speaker, but perhaps seething from both.  Seaton’s “dear sir…” (6), is both overly deferential and sarcastic.  One can almost see the speaker bow graciously, acerbically, in the auditor’s direction.  Though there is an element of tension, maybe even pain, in each translation, Seaton pushes this element to an aggressive level.

Me must, I think, briefly discuss that “dragon” (4).  Why it should make an appearance in this poem I cannot say.  Of the seven translations I have read of this poem none of the other six so much as hint at a dragon.  Is the inclusion here a culturally insensitive method of giving this poem some added Chinese flare?  I tend to doubt it.  For one thing, such stereotyping is absent from the rest of Seaton’s Cold Mountain Poems; at no other point is a mythical element of Chinese culture exploited to boldly.  

It’s also important to note that this particular line is, of the five translations included herein, by far the most widely varied.  Though the meaning remains the same, more or less, throughout the five versions, the level of creativity with which each translator renders the lines is one of the details that makes comparing these translations so worthwhile.

Arthur Waley’s line four reads, “Far into the morning the mists gather thick.”  Snyder writes, “The rising sun blurs in swirling fog” (4).  No dragon, perhaps, but beautiful, evocative language in their own respects.

Individual details aside, what is so enthralling about this particular Han-shan poem that makes it so rife for translation?  We can add to those provided here Peter Hobson’s translation, A. S. Kline’s, and countless others.  But why, when so many Han-shan poem go relatively unnoticed, should this one stand out?  Perhaps because Han-shan’s physical journey to and existence on Cold Mountain is a metaphor for his spiritual journey which, as Joan Quoinglin Tan points out in Han Shan, Chan Buddhism and Gary Snyder’s Ecopoetic Way, “is often seen as a reflection on the ancient Chinese literati’s pilgrimage to Chan enlightenment” (3).  Whereas most translators are not Buddhist (Snyder and Red Pine excluded), Han-shan’s journey is vaguely universal in that many people journey toward or away from some form of spirituality throughout their life.  Han’shan’s dualistic journey (both physical and spiritual) further enhances the mystery and intrigue of an already attractive character. 

 This poem, as succinctly as few others, provides the link between these two distinct threads of Han-shan’s journey.  It can also be said that, so attractive as a man apart from the world of men, this poem gives voice to Han-shan’s own personal contemplations on the matter, naming, as it were, what he himself felt about his social standing.  This insight provides a toehold for those attempting to summit Cold Mountain and commune with its lone inhabitant.

The middle column above is a representation of Han-shan’s original text as reproduced in Red Pine.


Red Pine, trans.  “16.”  The Collected Poems of Cold Mountain.  Revised and Expanded.  Port Townsend, WA: Copper Canyon Press, 2000.  47.  Print.

Seaton, J. P., trans.  “IX.”  Cold Mountain Poems: Zen Poems of Han Shan,Shih Te, and Wang
Fan-chih.  Boston: Shambhala, 2009.  27.  Print.

Snyder, Gary, trans.  “6.”  Riprap and Cold Mountain Poems.  1958.  Berkeley, CA.: Counterpoint,
2004.  42.  Print.

Tan, Joan Qionglin, trans.  Han Shan, Chan Buddhism and Gary Snyder’s Ecopoetic Way.  Portland,
OR: Sussex Academic Press, 2009.  Print.

Waley, Arthur, trans.  “27 Poems by Han-shan.”  Encounter 3.3 (1954): 3-8.  Print.

Watson, Burton, trans.  “82.”  Cold Mountain: 100 Poems by the T’ang Poet Han-shan.  1962.  New York: Columbia UP, 1970.  100.  Print.

Sunday, November 16, 2014

Forgiveness Forgiveness by Shane McCrae

Shane McCrae
Forgiveness Forgiveness

Factory Hollow Press, 2014

ISBN: 978-0-9835203-1-3

Reviewed by Joel W. Nelson.

Shane McCrae was hired to teach for the Spalding University brief-residency MFA program as I was completing my final semester in 2013. During my graduating residency, I was fortunate enough to be a part of a workshop he led along with Greg Pape. McCrae came across as humble, often self-deprecating, guy who is smart, talented, hard working, and an all-around cool guy. To date, McCrae has released three full-length books of poetry: Mule, Blood, and Forgiveness Forgiveness. His fourth book, The Animal Too Big to Kill, is forthcoming from Persea Books. McCrae is a graduate of Harvard Law School and the Iowa University Writers' Workshop. In addition to teaching at Spalding University, he is an assistant professor in the Creative Writing program at Oberlin College.


Review of Forgiveness Forgiveness

Forgiveness Forgiveness comes at a time when race relations are tense. The case of Michael Brown still looms large in the news, even as the stories of Eric Garner, John Crawford III, and countless others begin to fade. A society assumed by some to be post-racial is proving to be anything but. There are still two Americas. We are still divided, still struggling. We claim to be equals on the one hand, while equality is denied on the other. The narrative is still one-sided, but it is very much in flux.

* * * 
My grandfather liked to paint pictures
of Native Americans discovering water
as if water hadn't existed before a white
man painted it, wearing expressions of
uncomprehending awe, crouching to
touch the river.
          -“How My Grandfather Painted Water”

Shane McCrae's third full-length book of poetry, Forgiveness Forgiveness, is a powerful, haunting work that deals with issues of identity, race, family, abuse, belonging, and finding a way to move forward. The poems are mostly unpunctuated, often ungrammatical. Ideas burst forth and crash into each other, as if the speaker is recollecting things for the first time and hasn't had time to filter these thoughts through the conventions of syntax. The effect, in McCrae's hands, is masterful. Although McCrae has made use of similar techniques in previous books, Forgiveness Forgiveness feels even more authentic, personal, and emotionally raw.

Forgiveness Forgiveness is structured in two halves separated by “A Pastoral Interlude.” Each half contains three sections, “The Visible Boy,” “Materials Sketch,” and “Draft Epilogue,” with the second half of the book providing alternate versions of the first three sections.

The first half introduces Little Brown Koko, a quasi-allegorical figure pulled from a racist children's book the speaker found in his grandparent's home as a child. Koko walks barefoot, steals watermelons, strolls along picket fences, and gets beaten by his mother's wooden spoon. He is essentially a puppet, a stereotype, a black character who is thrust into the imaginary world and manipulated by a white author and a white illustrator. The voice of Koko and the other black characters in the book are not authentic voices but instead racist fabrications:
in the book as I remember it
The illustrator indicates the motion / With action lines 
Parentheses surround the rolling pin

Parentheses surround 
Little Brown Koko running from the house 
The black of the parentheses

Is different from the black of his brown skin 
The two blacks tell the reader 
everything the reader needs to know about him 

Like two-way mirrors
          - “6. The Two Blacks” from “The Visible Boy”
The second half of the book turns its focus to the speaker, a man separated from his black father and white mother and raised by racist grandparents. The grandparents are incapable of acknowledging the speaker's father and attempt to twist family history to further alienate him and minimize the speaker's blackness, if not erase it completely:
[…] I couldn't remember my father
anyway, because I was three when
my grandparents took me from him
and they never told me that, anyway,
they told me he had abandoned me
          - “How My Grandfather Painted Water”
In addition to being a racist, the grandfather becomes sexually and physically abusive. The resulting confusion and dissonance caused by this troubling home environment prove to be fertile ground for McCrae's poetry, made even more compelling when considering the dynamic between the speaker's story and that of Little Brown Koko.

While the two halves of Forgiveness Forgiveness interact and inform each other, they are not mirror images. The parallels between Little Brown Koko and the speaker are more metaphorical than literal and are understood to speak to--but not necessarily for--a broader community. The poems in the second half of the book are more personal, perhaps even confessional. The early Koko poems are lighter in tone and gradually become darker and more grotesque as the racism becomes more overt and violent. The progression of the second half of the book is generally the opposite. Koko is left ravaged, but the speaker's story is accented by hope.

Although a title like Forgiveness Forgiveness might imply a tidy conclusion, the end of the book brings little resolution, at least not of the feel-good type. The speaker moves on with his life. He has a wife and a family of his own, but he never fully makes amends with either of his grandparents. Perhaps such amends are impossible. The final poem in the collection, “Forgiveness Forgiveness,” serves as a suitable but devastating capstone for a truly compelling book of poems.

* * *

Perhaps caricatures like Little Brown Koko are no longer acceptable in contemporary society--people today prefer news stories, select personal anecdotes, and misleading statistics--yet still, people are stereotyped and placed in a race narrative. Their voices are replaced with another voice, a voice often imposed on them by people who look a lot like me. Forgiveness Forgiveness is a powerful book of poems, not only because of its deep and personal nature or because of McCrae's unique presentation, but because the work speaks to contemporary America. Voices like McCrae's are important. He not only has something to say, but he says it while maintaining artistic integrity with poems of a very high caliber.


Joel W. Nelson spent most of his childhood in the sub-Saharan countries of Burkina Faso and Cote d'Ivoire. He has an MFA in Poetry from Spalding University and lives with his wife and son in Louisville, KY. His poems may be found in the Bellevue Literary Review, the Found Poetry Review, The Louisville Review, and A Narrow Fellow.

Thursday, October 9, 2014

Interview with Sherry Chandler

I eat them from a bowl, lick
their succulence from my thumb and finger,
tongue the whorls and pads, suck
my own sweet flesh, linger

in the feedback loop of warm and wet.

             from “Medjool Dates,” Sherry Chandler

Sherry Chandler’s work has appeared in many magazines and anthologies, including The Louisville Review, The Cortland Review, The William and Mary Review, Kestrel, and Calyx. Her work has twice been nominated for the Pushcart Prize. Chandler has had professional development support from the Kentucky Arts Council and the Kentucky Foundation for Women.

 The Woodcarver’s Wife is her second full-length poetry collection. She is the author of one previously published full-length collection, Weaving a New Eden, and two chapbooks, Dance the Black-Eyed Girl (Finishing Line Press) and My Will and Testament Is on the Desk (FootHills Publishing).

Chandler was born and raised in rural Owen County, Kentucky. A 1963 graduate of Owen County High School, she has degrees from Georgetown College (BA) and the University of Kentucky (MA). She has recently retired from a 25-year career as a board-certified Editor in the Life Sciences. Chandler lives in Bourbon County, Kentucky with her husband, the wood carver T. R. Williams. She has twin sons and twin grandchildren.

* * *

As I mention in my review of The Woodcarver's Wife (click here for the review), I first met Sherry Chandler several years ago at a reading and panel discussion held as part of the Kentucky Women Writers Conference in Lexington, Kentucky. The past two years I've enjoyed participating with her and other poets in writing a new poem every day during the month of June for the Lexington Poetry Month Writing Challenge, organized by Hap Houlihan of the Morris Book Shop and Katerina Stoykova-Klemer of Accents Publishing to promote local poets and poetry.

     Karen L. George

(This interview was conducted via email.)

* * *

On your author website it says you didn't publish a poem until 1993 and that your first chapbook was published in 2003.  Had you been writing poetry for years, and just hadn't submitted it for publication, or did you begin writing poetry later in life?

SC:  I was nine or ten years old before a television set was considered as essential to the home as a cookstove, especially in our rural community. Although we did have radio, and I remember listening to series like The Lone Ranger and The Shadow on radio, everybody read: Agatha Christie, The Courier Journal, Motor Trend, Superman comics. As the youngest in the family, I was the only one in the house who couldn’t read, and I did a lot of begging to be read to.

Eventually l became an omnivorous but na├»ve reader. When I decided to concentrate on poetry, my first task was to learn what it is—a task I’ll probably never finish. A task I hope I never finish.

Although I started out behind, I always wrote, even if it was just letters. Before I wrote in any other genre, I was known as an entertaining correspondent. Alas! The form was archaic before I set pen to paper.

Setting pen to paper, by the way, the act of writing is something I enjoy.

I wrote a few poems in college but studying the English canon convinced me that the poet was next to God, a height to which I could never aspire, not the least because of my gender.

Fiction writers at least had to be grounded, so I spent several years learning the short story. I even had a little success. Got an artist enrichment grant from the Kentucky Arts Council and used the money to attend the Indiana University’s summer writer’s conference.

I’ve had two big epiphanies in my development as a poet: One was reading “The Red Wheelbarrow;” the other was hearing Andrew Hudgins read at IU. He was not comparing anyone to a summer’s day or daring to eat a peach; he might be explaining the ways of God to man, but he was doing it by writing about church ladies with funeral parlor fans. He was writing poetry about the world I lived in. I could do that!

So that was 1989 and I was 44 years old. That was when I became a serious poet.

What made you first want to write poetry? And why led you to submit your poetry for publication?

SC:  I don’t know why I wanted to write poetry. As I say above, I wanted to write and once I got over my awe of it, I realized that poetry is the genre best suited to my particular imagination. My mother used to recite poems she had memorized in school: “The Song of Hiawatha,” “Paul Revere’s Ride,” “October’s Bright Blue Weather,” “The Swing.” Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, Helen Hunt Jackson, poets we’d long-since dismissed as too popular, but I didn’t know that. What I did know was the pleasure they brought my mother and I loved to hear her say them. That’ll do for a reason, to please my mother.

I do know why I offer poems to journals: Ego. The world has room for only one Emily Dickinson. For most of us, the writing process is incomplete without publication. Acceptance by the gatekeepers. Of course the nature of publication has changed since I started writing and people are finding ways to by-pass the gatekeepers – or create new ones. Self-publishing, in print or online, doesn’t carry the stigma it did in the 20th Century, and poets who post their work to their blogs get more readers than poets published in traditional print outlets.

One of the things I admire most about your poems is how rhythmic they are because of your use of assonance, alliteration, internal and end rhyme. Do you have a musical background that instilled this element into your poetry? And is this something that finds its way into your early drafts or do you add it in later revisions?

SC:  Thank you.

The always-in-the-present me forgets how old I am. As I said, I lived several years before television made it into everybody’s living room. In those days people had to entertain themselves and most everybody played some sort of instrument. And in my particular case, people would gather at the general store on Saturday nights. They sat in the back room among the sweet-smelling bags of feed and jammed while the children chased lightning bugs or took each other on snipe hunts.

Or they’d roll back the rugs in somebody’s house and have a square dance.

It’s just too Norman Rockwell for words, isn’t it?  Well, I suspect there may have been a bottle involved.

Robert Pinsky says because the accentual cadences of spoken English require not just changes in volume but also in pitch, it’s almost as though we are singing to one another all the time. I like to push my poetry toward singing. I am, in fact, a bit word drunk. With practice, the devices that started out as add-ons in revision are internalized and start to appear in first drafts.

What is it that compels you to write formal poetry? Is it a decision you make while, or after, you write a first draft of a poem?

SC:  I find working with restraints pushes me to surprise myself. It can be really hard to write in (something I laughingly call) meter and rhyme. The biggest temptation is to pad lines. Earlier poets do it shamelessly – all those “I did go” constructions and inversions to hit the meter – and it was partly that wordiness that made the modern poets embrace free verse. If you work in rhymed and metered verse now, it has to read like ordinary speech. “I didn’t realize it was a sonnet” is about the highest praise I receive.

The second temptation is to sound “poetic.” I don’t want iambics to over-ride my natural-born cadences.

It culminates as a sort of synthesis if I’m lucky.

Any number of poets (Robert Graves, Richard Wilbur) say a poem finds its own form. Molly Peacock suggests that form is a scaffolding not a cage. I work the reverse of your question – I sometimes use form to generate the work and edit it out in the revisions. And sometimes the poem just won’t do what you tell it to do. “For my Valentine” defied me. I tried to make it a sonnet, because it’s a love poem, but Wooly Bully insisted on a bigger role so I had to open the gate and let him run. The result is much more relaxed and, I hope, amusing.

Your bio says, "You recently retired from a 25-year career as a board-certified Editor in the Life Sciences."  Can you tell us more about this work, and did it play into your poetry writing?

SC:  I worked for academic physicians, doctors who doctor, teach, and research. That’s a big commitment and I admire them tremendously. Besides they have the money to pay editors.

Part of what I did was to translate jargon into plain English. Writing for medical journals follows a very strict form, much tighter than formal poetry, and papers are heavily peer reviewed. Medical researchers have to be very careful not to claim cause and effect. As a result, doctors don’t trust the sentence. They think it’s gonna haul off and assert something. So they subordinate (badly) and qualify and hang so many constraints on any statement, use so many acronyms, and so much jargon that the poor sentence is choked almost to non-meaning. In addition to which, a fair number of my clients spoke English as a second language. So I had to become an expert on the sentence, first to pull it apart and figure out what it intended to convey and second to put it back together so that it said what it meant.

It was a bit like working for Humpty-Dumpty:

“When I use a word,” Humpty Dumpty said in rather a scornful tone, “it means just what I choose it to mean - neither more nor less.

I also had the job of writing consent forms that made the research understandable on the sixth grade level. That was my favorite part of the job. I prided myself on writing elegant consents.

The most “readable” text is not that comprised of one simple declarative sentence after another. Intelligent subordination works best in consents and in poetry. To be nimble with English syntax is essential. Even if you’re going to violate syntax, you first need to know how it works.

Several of your poems contain lists, such as in "Bennet's New Latin Grammar (1895): A Love Poem" it's grammatical terms, and in "Clearing Out" it's items someone has collected throughout a lifetime, and in "The Woodcarver's Wife" it's carving tools and types of wood. Can you tell us how you decide which items to include, and do you arrange them in a particular way for some effect?

SC:  There is music — and magic — in the names of things. Ancient cultures thought to know the true name was to have power over. Gertrude Stein says "A noun is a name of anything, why after a thing is named write about it.” But I write about it too.

I wanted “The Woodcarver’s Wife” to function like a rhapsody, constantly changing form, rhythm, and mood. I wanted those lists to just tumble down the page and off the tongue, and I was lucky enough to find some rhymes to help with the music. If I was successful, the lists don’t just accumulate, they culminate. They chant like a shaman:

Chain saws,
                          pole saws,
                          bow saws,

In “Bennet’s” I tried to pick grammatical charts and tables that would undercut the speaker, providing glimpses of the relationship. Latin is wonderful for that purpose, having forms like “accusative of the result produced” and “moods of indirect discourse.” Because it’s a somewhat comic poem, I let it get a little raunchy. Love those copulatives and supines.

I've discovered you're posting micro poetry on your Twitter and Facebook page. What inspired you to do this and how long have you been doing it?

SC:  Blogging brought me in contact with one Dave Bonta, an avid supporter of open-source publishing on the web (http://www.vianegativa.us/2007/08/should-poetry-be-open-source/ ) Dave, who lives in the Pennsylvania Appalachians, writes a micro poem daily, which he posts on Morning Porch (http://morningporch.com/). Before I made a cyber connection with Dave, all I had seen and read about what was called “TwitterPo” was derogatory, but I admired what Dave was doing and decided to try it for myself. 

I started out with two rules. First my postings would serve me as a sort of meditation – not just to observe one thing closely each day but also to find fresh language to evoke what I see. Second, the postings would be ephemeral. That is to say, I’d put them out there and let them go.

I opened my Twitter account in April 2008; that means I’m into my 7th year of writing micro-poetry. As it stands today I’ve made over 1600 posts and have about 3600 followers. From time to time, someone will ask me whether I intend to put the tweets in a book but I want to stay true to my original concept.

I only have one regret – when I set up my Twitter account I had to choose a name. For reasons too complicated to explain, I chose the name @BluegrassPoet, as though somehow there was only one. To all the other wonderful Bluegrass Poets out there, I do apologize.

Some other good micropoets: @morningporch, @jdbrush, @morganabag, @krislindbeck

What poets did you first come to admire, and what was it about their work that intrigued you?

SC:  If I say Hank Williams, will you laugh or cry? Or both? Maybe it’s because we always had a lot of whippoorwills around our house but at certain moments, I still want to sing

Hear that lonesome whippoorwill
He sounds too blue to fly
The midnight freight is whining low
I’m so lonesome I could cry

Williams’s songs are raw emotion with a steel guitar, but sometimes that’s what you need.

Then there were minimalists:  Emily Dickinson, William Carlos Williams, E. E. Cummings. I liked the way they used space. Like I said, when I first saw “The Red Wheelbarrow” I was hooked.

And I was intrigued for a while by the Middle English poets: Chaucer and the Gawain Poet (Pearl Poet) were best. Chaucer could be so many people, some of them very earthy. The poetry I read before college had been pretty heavily bowdlerized. Who knew you were allowed to tell dirty jokes in poetry? But Chaucer is amazingly skilled at creating characters who reveal themselves unawares by their speech. Gawain and the Green Knight was at once familiar and alien, like Disney crossed with Stephen King. I loved horror stories when I was young.

Donne, Browning. Frost. James Weldon Johnson’s God’s Trombones.

Young man—
Young man—
Your arm's too short to box with God.

Have your tastes in poetry changed over the years, and if so, in what ways?

SC:  My tastes in poetry have become more educated but I don’t know that they’ve changed in essence. I’ve come to know more contemporary poets and my taste ranges from Kay Ryan to Patricia Smith to Seamus Heaney who did an excellent translation of Beowulf. I still love the ancient poems – Gilgamesh, Beowulf, et al.

I seem to have a predilection for Southern poets: Ellen Bryant Voigt and our own Maurice Manning. Natasha Trethewey. Sally Rosen Kindred.

Looking at the poems I’ve named in answering your questions, I’d say I am drawn to poems that are strongly voiced and musical and that is completely predictable, because that is the kind of poetry I attempt to write.

You just keep teaching me things about myself, Karen.

What poets are you currently reading, and can you recommend particular collections of theirs?

SC:  I’m reading:

Cathryn Essinger’s A Desk in the Elephant House.  Actually, I’m re-reading this book, her first, and I recommend it and her other books: My Dog Does Not Read Plato and What I Know about Innocence.

Joe Survant’s The Land We Dreamed. This book is the last of a trilogy about Kentucky’s history. The others are Anne and Alpheus and Rafting Rise, the latter my favorite.

Richard Jarrette’s Beso the Donkey, a book of short poems recommended to me by Cathy Essinger. It        reads sort of like “Seventy Ways of Looking at a Donkey.” If Beso were a mule he’d fit        snugly          into a William Faulkner novel.

Lisa Williams’s A Gazelle in the House. Lisa is a multi-award winning poet. I have just started this book so I can’t say much about it. My favorite at this point is Woman Reading to the Sea, which won the Barnard Women Poets Prize.

Do you have any writing projects you're working on now?

SC:  In a word, no. I’m enjoying the freedom to follow my nose in the writing and to hope, like Mr. Macawber, that something will turn up.

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To read some of Sherry Chandler's poems and learn more about her and her work, visit her website:  http://sherrychandler.com/index.html.

Read her micro poetry on Twitter @BluegrassPoet:  https://twitter.com/BluegrassPoet


Karen George, MFA, retired from computer programming to write full-time. She enjoys traveling to historic river towns, mountains, and Europe. She is author of Into the Heartland (Finishing Line Press, 2011), Inner Passage (Red Bird Chapbooks, 2014), Swim Your Way Back (Dos Madres Press, 2014), and forthcoming The Seed of Me (Finishing Line Press, 2015). You can find her work in Louisville Review, Tupelo Press 30/30 Project, Wind, Permafrost, Blast Furnace, qarrtsiluni, Found Poetry Review, and Still.