Journal, Day Five
It’s been great to be here at this virtual gathering post. When I began writing last weekend some of the first sentences to come to my mind were: If we were at a party I’d introduce you to some of my favorite people. (Some of them are dead, or almost, and some of the living I’ve never met myself.) Soon I deleted them since the first person made me a little self-conscious . . . Ultimately, though, that was what I sought to do here, and what has motivated me to do almost everything else I do: translate, curate readings, edit, and even do my own writing. There’s so much I’d like to help make more available to readers in the U.S. that a five-day stint was obviously not going to suffice. I barely scratched the surface. (I wish I were a more monogamous type of translator à la Clayton Eshleman, for instance, although he’s had his flings with Césaire, Artaud, and others besides Vallejo.) And something tells me that availability isn’t necessarily the issue. How much of a demand is there for it? (Did I mention that the reading I gave to an audience of two at the St. George Theater in Staten Island consisted of translations of Mexican poetry?)
I recently watched a documentary about The Corno Emplumado/The Plumed Horn (directed by Anne Mette Nielsen and Nicolenka Beltrán), the legendary international magazine published by poets Margaret Randall and Sergio Mondragón in Mexico City from 1962 to 1969. For those viewers who can tell how the plot of a movie will unfold upon watching its first scenes, from the start it’s possible to guess why the magazine folded. Opening footage: soldiers and tanks flooding the Plaza de las Tres Culturas in the Tlatelolco neighborhood in Mexico City. The date: October 2, 1968. The voice-over: President Gustavo Díaz Ordaz speechifying so as to justify the military’s crushing of the student movement the time has come to stop the student movement (applause) the abuse of vehicles for expression and outreach has led us to libertinism (applause) we have been tolerant to the point of being criticized, but everything has its limits (applause) . . .
Back then poetry was considered a threat, especially if it had been written by a Latin American poet since all of them had to be, at least, communists. The Mexican poet Homero Aridjis tells an unbelievable story about an anarchist poem that he published in The Plumed Horn in January of 1963. The poem is called “Desencapsulamiento” (De-encapsulating) and its first couple of lines read “Yo recomiendo el magnicidio. / Yo digo: asesinemos al poderoso, al que conduce, encauza, somete, habla por todos, y ha tomado los lazos y el látigo” (I recommend magnicide. / I say: let us murder the powerful, he who leads, dictates, subjugates, speaks for all, and has taken hold of the bonds and the whip.) The poem was translated into English and published in a magazine put out by the Organization of American States later that same year. Remember what else happened in the U.S. in 1963? A deranged senator was convinced that the poem had inspired Lee Harvey Oswald to assassinate JFK and wanted to pursue an investigation on the links between him and Aridjis. Fortunately his argument wasn’t very persuasive. Was this about the power of poetry or the paranoid legacy of McCarthy’s witch-hunting?
After the massacre of 1968, the Mexican government withdrew all funding from The Plumed Horn and its editors and contributors started being accosted by the police. Nothing quite like it has ever resurged. What was remarkable about it was not only its bilingualism and diversity—in the same issue one could find almost about everything being written by poets mainly in the Americas: Concrete poets, Black Mountain poets, Colombian Nadaístas, Roque Dalton, Ernesto Cardenal, Jerome Rothenberg, and Cecilia Vicuña, to name but a few—but that there was a real and almost physical connection between those who contributed to the magazine. Clayton Eshleman tells the story of how when he was in Guatemala en route to Perú to translate Vallejo, he knocked and knocked on the door of Marco Antonio Flores, a poet whose name had been given to him by Margaret Randall. Those were dangerous times and Flores was cautious, but he decided to invite the stranger in as soon as he heard the magic password: The Plumed Horn. Eshleman acknowledges that they engaged in a long conversation that taught him how to read the revolution in Vallejo’s poems.
Even the way the magazine started seems impossibly perfect. Philip Lamantia lived in Mexico City’s Zona Rosa. Any American poet traveling in Mexico would stop by at his house. Mexican poets stopped by at his house. It soon became a sort of salon where poets would read to each other and discuss the different contexts and traditions from which their work was coming. As Randall says in the film, they wanted to understand each other despite the language barrier, and, at some point, she and Sergio Mondragón realized that they had met enough people to start an international magazine. American poet Harvey Wolin came up with the name, a juxtaposition of the horn, the quintessential jazz instrument, and the feathers of Quetzalcoatl.
The poetry was not published in translation, but in its original language, and was very efficiently distributed across the globe through the network of representatives that gradually began to take shape. If a poet in Finland was published in The Plumed Horn that poet became a representative who would place copies in a few bookstores and would get other Finnish poets to submit poetry. The pricing “system” was a true gem. In each country the magazine cost whatever the representatives thought poets in a given country might be able to pay for it, and therefore it was not in the least homogenous. The back cover of the last issue of the magazine reads:
argentina: 150 pesos / australia: 7/6 / brasil: 1000 cruceiros / costa rica: 5.50 colones / chile: 2 escudos / ecuador: 6 sucres / guatemala: 80 centavos / españa: U.S. 1.00 / méxico: 12.50 m.n. / panamá: 1 balboa / paraguay: 50 guaraníes / united states: 1 dollar / uruguay: 15 pesos / venezuela: 1 bolívar
A poem in itself. How different is this from the typical dossiers—“Eight Poets from India,” “Five Poets from Cuba,” “Three Poets from Bolivia,” “Two Poets from Luxembourg”—that we occasionally find in poetry magazines that sometimes choose to feature work in translation, often without providing any glimpse of the context of the poetry and hence blocking any real possibility for the creation of a community of writers transcending national borders.
Then again, what poetry in translation magazines do is terrific. What Circumference does is absolutely commendable. It’s just that I long for something that does much more than that . . . Perhaps Roberto Tejada’s Mandorla, which he started independently and now is co-edited by him with Kristin Dykstra at Illinois State University is the closest to that ideal. For translation to be potlatch mere translation is not enough. Shouldn’t bodies be returned to the equation if true exchange is desired? (Jackson MacLow quizzically asked a propos of the Jack Kerouac School of Disembodied Poetics at Naropa University: “Why not Embodied Poetics?” At this point of disembodied everything, I couldn’t agree more with him.)
But what am I saying, myself disembodied like this in this virtual space? Anybody out there? ¡Adiós!
Poet, translator, and scholar Mónica de la Torre was born and raised in Mexico City. She earned a BA from the Instituto Tecnológico Autónomo de México and, with the support of a Fulbright scholarship, relocated to New York in 1993 to pursue an MFA and a PhD in Spanish literature...