Language Portraits

Bob Holman on the Nuyorican, oral tradition, and how poetry led him to activism.

 Toward the beginning of the new documentary film, Language Matters, which poet Bob Holman created with director David Grubin, Nancy Ngalmindjalmag draws a language portrait of herself. Her right side is yellow, for Mawng, her own language; most of her left leg is green, for Gunwingku, her mother's language; and there's a small patch of pink on that shoulder for her great-grandmother's Ndjeebbana.

Ngalmindjalmag lives on one of the Goulburn Islands, a small area off the north coast of Australia populated mostly by aboriginals such as herself. The islands have dozens of languages, some of them with only one speaker. Language Matters, a feature documentary that airs this month on PBS, shows the community's efforts to preserve their language along with those of the Hawaiians and the Welsh, efforts that often involve unlikely alliances between science and art.

There are a number of colors and languages on the floor of Bob Holman's loft in New York City's Bowery. He lives above Bowery Poetry, one of the many poetry venues he's founded or been involved with over the last several decades—such as the Nuyorican Poets Cafe and the Poetry Project at St. Mark's Church. When I visited him on a wet, dreary day last December, he was at work on a performance of a little-known poem by Simone Yoyotte, a black Parisian surrealist from Martinique. We discussed how his writing led him to activism, and his animating hope for poetry to transcend the language it's written in. Our interview has been edited and condensed.

You've always been interested in how different languages are themselves media. You write in the introduction to Aloud, the collection of the Nuyorican poets' work published in 1994, that in Chinese characters, for instance, there's no such thing as a verb without a noun. And then in 2000 you begin collaborating with Papa Susso [a griot from Gambia]. Could you talk a little about your path, including starting the Endangered Language Alliance?

I studied Chinese poetry at Columbia, with Chiang Yee, who was an intellectual with the Kuomintang and who was just a marvelous teacher. He would draw the ideogram, the evolution of ideograms to calligraphy, as well as great painterly chalk drawings of Chinese gods and goddesses on the blackboard. So he really brought us into the consciousness of Chinese language.

And reading the Cantos as well was important, and seeing all languages on the same page. I was learning about Gaudier-Brzeska, the magnificent sculptor who died in the trenches before Pound could test his theory that he could read Chinese without learning it because his vision allowed him to see into the Chinese written character. All of this was afloat in my mind as multiculti came to forbearance. And I heard hip-hop for the first time at the Nuyorican [Poets Cafe].

Hanging out with the Nuyoricans, I saw how Spanglish was such a provocative language, watched as Bimbo Rivas invented the word for Avenue C as "Loisaida." I got the way that for a poet, being an inventor of language was part of the job, was really right in front of you, working with the Nuyorqueños—itself a word that was derogatory originally and then held up as a banner.

The Poetry Slams at the Nuyorican certainly were an opportunity to hear. When people dropped by and wanted to read a poem in another language, that was part of the deal, and in selecting [judges from] the audience, it was considered a good attribute if [they] hadn't been to a poetry slam before, a better one if [they'd] never been to a poetry reading of any type before. But best of all were the people that didn't speak English. So that idea of poetry transcending language, or poetry being a language unto itself, of which all languages are in service, was part of the bravado.

Plus the orality. Before any idea of hearkening back to the oral tradition, "Did it even exist?" was a real question around the St. Mark's Poetry Project when I was there. It didn't exist because you can't read about it. It wasn't till the '60s that people remembered that Homer didn't write The Iliad and The Odyssey: he spoke it. Or they spoke it. All of a sudden, all of this consciousness expansion, which is really just allowing orality to be not the precursor of writing but a consciousness that was the equivalent of writing.

And then when my students—particularly this was at Columbia, but at Bard also—would say that [Slam] wasn't relevant because they were hip-hop poets and they just made this shit up, that's when I said, "Well, you got to study hip-hop. Hip-hop is the current iteration of the African American tradition." The African American oral tradition—what is that? There's so little you can find—a Smithsonian record or two, but not easy to find, particularly in an academic kind of approach. So that's when I went to Africa.

In 2006, there was a people's poetry gathering devoted to endangered languages, because that's what studying the African American oral tradition leads you to: the fact that many of the languages in Africa are disappearing. And that's when this whole connection with linguists began.

First, linguists thought we just had to use our phonemic alphabet and write down what people are saying, and then that their recording of them will give us something better. Ultimately you realize that gesture and the whole contextualization of a voice is also part of conversation, part of communication. All of this is just leading up to being able to use film, video, digital means of recording, to record.

Now some linguists are becoming activists, saying it's part of the job to help these languages, because they are useful as living entities. If we do have a face-to-face, hand-to-hand combat in 300 years between the only two remaining languages, Mandarin and English, to see which one is going to be the language of Earth, we [would be] losing a lot of the life in life.

One tension I see in the film is between the idea of pure preservation and a kind of cross-pollination. In all these cases it's not as simple as just purely maintaining tradition. For instance, on the island in Australia, here's this guy adapting popular music on guitar and over radio, but in traditional languages. In Wales, you have not only the Stomp, which is the incorporation of current performance poetry that's hip-hop–inflected, but also people inspired to perform in Welsh because they hear hip-hop. Could you talk a bit about the tension between mutual influence and the preservation of languages in and of themselves?

I can tell you what I've learned, and that is that languages are living things, and they are always changing. In fact, what we call a language is simply a snapshot of right now with what this language has been and where it's going. And it's a moving picture. So the answers to this are found in the speakers themselves, and these tensions are alive even in a language, like Welsh, that is as close as we have to a success story.

You have, for example, the Super Furry Animals rock-and roll band naming an album in Welsh that according to some Welsh purists was mispunctuated, , and they took it and said, "Look, here are these guys saying that they're Welsh and they can't even punctuate the title correctly," as opposed to saying, "Oh my god, the Super Furry Animals are writing their title in Welsh!"

The great thing about language activism is that the ideology of it has to immediately just go to the people who are speaking it. And it's not an easy thing. In that way, it's like poetry. The idea that languages want to come back, how you do it, what's it going to be—these are details that have to be worked out like a poem is worked out, by the people who are living it. It's like talking about music.

Might as well be dancing about architecture.

Might as well. [Moves arms around in a circle and draws them together and lower, as if miming a funnel.] Bob is doing the Guggenheim now.

I was wondering whether you could talk about how you managed to tell a compelling story about three different languages.

The film is told from David Grubin's extraordinary expertise in making a documentary. And this cat is, you know, he is a Zen master at documentary films.

He and I had our differences, but thank God he's making the film and not me. I wanted just to go to Africa, which I always just want to do. It's the birth of everything, right? So let's go back to Africa and do some shows there with all the people I know. And he said, "I don't think that's going to work." And I say, "Okay, you want a beginning, middle, end, we'll have a beginning, middle, end. And the beginning should be the end, which is a language that has a last speaker, so we'll have a last speaker to begin with. And then we'll have a middle, which is a language that's trying to survive, and then we'll have Welsh."

One of the great shifts in making the film was when David thought of putting the end in the middle. We'll put the happy ending in the middle and end with the question. It looks so good, Hawaiian, but it is so struggling.

We took the Welsh section to Larry Kimura, sort of the godfather of Hawaiian language [preservation and teaching], and he loved it. Luckily—you never know. His word to us was "Oh, you're coming to the PTA meeting tonight, and you're going to show this." Okay!

These people at the [Hawaiian] immersion school there were so focused on this language surviving, the idea that someone else out there was doing this—who'd thought of that one? The Welsh, they're doing this? They have 100,000 people come to their festival? Here are two cultures as different as you can possibly have, but they're in the same place.

You mentioned Pound's idea of being able to intuit or even read Chinese characters without having learned the language. Could you speak to the extent to which you were able to intuit things either in the music or in the sense, or really the poetry, of the languages in Australia, in Hawaii, and in Wales?

In most conversations, there's only so many things that people are going to talk about. But I think just as important is an openness to the experience, to the event. You could be pretty closed off to your own language. But if you're open to all the nuances going on, to the truck that's going down the street as much as to the words coming out of your mouth, you have a different frame, a different field to be in. The fear you have when you don't know a language is something that's learned.

What I didn't get was the extent of what people are doing to have their language. The great example, of course, is the [Mashpee] Wampanoags up in Cape Cod, where Jessie "Little Doe" Baird was dreaming in this language she didn't speak, which she figured was her forefathers'. Now she's become a linguist and is teaching a language that hadn't been spoken in over a hundred years, and her daughter is fluent. Or the aboriginals in Australia who so much want their language back that they are bringing back languages that have never been recorded. Without these languages, we lose a part of the "varied carols" that Whitman heard in America and that we certainly have in the world. Fugue, you know?  

Originally Published: January 21st, 2015

Adam Plunkett has written about poetry for a number of publications.