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natural death, co-elaboration, & the change is the change

By E. Tracy Grinnell

Aufgabe1

…the task of creating these spaces is necessarily the responsibility of those readers who insist that the text remain open, as a form of resistance…

natural death

I wrote the above in 2002 in the editor’s note for Aufgabe #2. I wanted to address the title of the journal—taken from Walter Benjamin’s essay “The Task of the Translator” (“Die Aufgabe des Übersetzers”)—and to establish the journal as a space where the kind of exchanges that have been so generative to me as a writer could play out, elaborate, unfold. I was in no small part responding, as well, to the post-9-11 / pre-Iraq invasion rhetoric and jingoism that was echoing through the city, across the country, around the world. Aufgabe has been a space where I can hear the complexities of language against the distortions, hear different voices, and connect with a broader community of artists and writers in camaraderie. I ended the note by saying, “the task at hand is not to stop.” I still believe this is true, even as I work on the final issue of Aufgabe, due out in June. Journals and presses, the small ones, have a natural lifespan, sometimes the lifespan of the editor, sometimes the lifespan of resources, energy, or the imperatives that produced the publication. The natural death of Aufgabe has much to do with a 15-year old format and the challenges of producing a 300-400 page print journal each year. None of the convictions, the questions or concerns out of which the journal arose, have become irrelevant.

co-elaboration

I began working as an intern for Leslie Scalapino and O Books in 1997. It was there I first read Danielle Collobert’s It Then, translated by Norma Cole. I was deeply influenced by the intensity of Collobert’s writing, the way in which she writes both abstraction and urgency, presence and absence, into her often fragmented lines strung together with em dashes. Two years later, Norma Cole guest edited the feature section of Aufgabe #1, presenting covers and content pages from small press publications in France, “a sampling of the editorial art itself, inextricable from the instants of writing among which publishing events take place” (from Cole’s introduction). In 2003, Litmus published Danielle Collobert’s Notebooks 1956-1978, translated by Norma Cole, and I traveled to Paris to participate in the Biennale Internationale des Poètes en Val-de-Marne. There I read with Isabelle Garron and met Sarah Riggs, who was translating Garron’s work at the time. In 2006, Litmus published Garron’s Face Before Against, translated by Riggs. Last year, Litmus published Collobert’s first novel, Murder, translated by Nathanaël, and currently I am in conversation with Garron as she works to translate writing by Leslie Scalapino into French.

Last Friday, I had the pleasure of sitting on a panel with Cole Swensen and Pierre Joris to discuss publishing poetry in translation, specifically French poetry, at a day-long symposium organized by Vincent Broqua and Emmanuelle Ertel at NYU. It provided me with an opportunity to review the lifespan of Aufgabe in light of the forthcoming final issue. It also reminded me of the way in which I have experienced and viewed writing, editing, publishing, and translating (the little I have done)—that these things operate along the fluid lines of friendship, community, conversation, and engagement. “Co-elaboration,” to use the term Cole Swensen brought up last Friday in relation to the collaborative / creative process of translation. I think the term applies, or should apply, as well to the process of writing, editing, curating, publishing. It implies exchange and transformation. Leading up to last week’s panel, I had felt a certain anxiety about the prevalence, the ease, with which this exchange occurs between France and the U.S. It grows out of a long history of cultural and artistic exchange, of course, and this is rooted in social and political realities as well. I felt it needed some justification, in light of the lack of ease in other international relationships. At the end of the day, though, the pure joy and generativity that exists in the longstanding exchange between poets in the U.S. and France needs no justification, it needs repetition and elaboration. The possibilities are there and it is happening—projects like Jen Hofer and John Pluecker’s Antena are doing this work—but the problem does most heavily rest on the shoulders of us in the U.S., where so little is done on a government level—in stark contrast to many other countries—to support translation and cultural / artistic activities and exchange in the first place. Ask me about traveling to Brazil for Simpoesia—being ushered to the front of the visa line, ahead of economists, academics, business people…because I was a poet!

When I began working on Aufgabe in 1999 in the the Bay Area, new small publications were proliferating—Mary Burger’s journal Proliferation, Peter Neufeld and Eric Frost’s chapbook press Melodeon Poetry Systems, giovanni singleton’s journal Nocturnes, Jill Stengel’s chapbook press a+bend, among many others. After a reading one night, Peter Neufeld and I decided to start a journal, and we wanted it to address some sort of articulated gap in addition to presenting writing “that challenges static cultural modes of thinking and being.” At that moment, we lamented the access to poetries in translation and agreed that the journal should create a space for the intersections of diverse trajectories of innovative writing. Each issue has been a process of educating myself. The guest editors—Norma Cole (France), Rosmarie Waldrop (Germany), Jen Hofer (Mexico), Sawako Nakayasu (Japan), Guy Bennett & Jalal El Hakmaoui (Morocco), Ray Bianchi (Brazil), Jennifer Scappettone (Italy), Matvei Yankelevich (Russia), Mark Tardi (Poland), Cole Swensen (France), Christian Nagler (El Salvador), Oana Avasilichioaei (Quebec), Biswamit Dwibedy (India)—have each raised new and important questions about representation and presentation, as well as opening up entirely new poetic fields of reading, of community. And each issue of the journal has likewise revealed what remains to be done, that the dyanmic, productive, transformational work of writing, translating, publishing, is never complete.

the change is the change

There is so much in the origins and activities of Litmus Press and Aufgabe that is intertwined with my excitement at finding and being taken into this community that understood my writing, my energy, my engagement with experimental and innovative poetics. This is sacred to me in many ways. And. And this same community—if we can call it “one,” which I don’t think we can, but I will as a kind of shorthand—this relatively small community of writers working outside the narrow mainstream, this poetry community whose politics also work outside any narrow liberalism, in general, this unwieldy community of thinkers, misfits, radicals, dreamers, agitators, and rebels that I have loved for many years, is still unrelentingly, it seems, burdened by sexism, if not outright misogyny, and entrenched racism. If our politics are to line up with our poetics, then we must attend to these problems at every turn.

I think there must be a balance between going with the flow in the way we do as artists—following threads, seeing where our writing and our affinities take us, putting our work out there—and intervening when that flow becomes confining, exclusive, limited. I have been eagerly reading the posts on Harriet this month. There is an implicit connection I see between posts on small press publishing – Stephanie Young, Divya Victor, J. Michael Martinez, for example – and those on the social realities and persistent segregation within our community – Simone White, Camille Rankine, Thomas Sayers Ellis, for example. In “on the small press, its recent past, production, present future, circulation: part one” Stephanie Young quotes Jen Hofer, “how can each of us participate in creating the literary world we would like to inhabit?” How indeed. How do we change the dynamics within our poetic community? How do we not reinscribe the same biases, borders, obstructions that exist in society at large? How do we change the space?

We call it out. We support others when they call it out. We challenge editorial and curatorial habits and patterns. Those are the easy answers. The more complex answers exist in process. I am grateful, at least, for the space on Harriet this month, where we can think these things out loud. No matter how small the press, the publication, the reading series, we must ask the questions and raise the concerns. The answers are in the questioning, or to quote Silvia Federici, whom I heard speak in Buffalo recently—“the struggle itself is transformational.” This is not to romanticize struggle, rather to emphasize the importance of the ongoing engagement with this struggle, with the questions, the callings out, as a mode of transformation.

Aufgabe issues #1-#6 are available for free download from the Litmus Press website.

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Posted in Featured Blogger on Saturday, May 3rd, 2014 by E. Tracy Grinnell.