Collage by Alice Notley
Collage by Alice Notley

Who really believes that the abundance and proliferation, the birth of so many new literary journals can be a bad thing? I don't. The more venues for diverse poetries, the better off we all are. One such new journal is Barzakh, a multi-genre journal with an internationalist stance, which has emerged out of the English Department at the University of Albany, SUNY.

Editorial board members Urayoán Noel and Pierre Joris tell us that Barzakh is

: a word / concept that names the connecting link, the “between” of something, such as different spheres of existence. As a temporal concept it can be, and historically was, considered an interval of time — say, the time between death and Resurrection in the Qu’ran, similar to the Bardo Thödol of the Tibetans, or the travel between life and death as the Egyptians imagined it. The Arabic word has the literal meaning of “barrier,” “veil,” “curtain.” Thus traditionally seen as a separator, it is however also and more interestingly thinkable as a “between” that links, and in that sense can be translated as “isthmus.”

And I really like this, the isthmus. If we indeed reside in a Republic of Poetry (Holla, Martín Espada!), then where/how is this republic connected to the rest of the world? Or, can we poets be that isthmus, embody it in our cultural work and our activism.

Enough from me. Barzakh goes live this morning. Here are Urayoán Noel and Pierre Joris:

Are there any current journals doing what it is you want Barzakh to do or represent? If so, which? Who are your contemporaries?

UN: When brainstorming the project, a journal we looked to was Jacket, for its international scope, inclusivity, and creative/critical mix. I’m sure Pierre can mention others. Of course, as far as the archive component of Barzakh goes, UbuWeb and PennSound were basic reference points. We didn’t find that many online journals mining the audiovisual potential of the web. In terms of print journals, it’s hard to say, as the online presence is so central to our project.

PJ: Yes, as Ura says, Jacket was obviously one of the online mags we looked at closest. I could also point to Sibila: Poesia e cultura with its double Portuguese/English interface & its wide creative/critical internationalist scope. But, I think, from the beginning the vision was wider than any single existing e-mag: we wanted something like a rhizome, a non-hierarchical multi-dimensional structure that could integrate the trad poetry/lit magazine with a strong translation component, plus a mix of critical work, and an archival dimension, all of these using the possibilities of the web to integrate print, sound and video — while also seeing possible hard print offshoots in the future. We are not there yet with our first issue, but that is the aim.

If not, why do you think this is? Is there a trend in USA-American poetry which disallows it?

UN: One guiding principle of Barzakh is a commitment to translation, as practice and as critical frame. The undervaluing and relative invisibility of literature in translation in the United States, and the concomitant lack of publication spaces for literary translation (especially of poetry), seemed to us a cause for concern, but also an opportunity. The word/concept Barzakh, which Pierre suggested and theorized, is appropriate in that sense: it can only be rendered by way of a "thick translation" (to use Kwame Anthony Appiah's/Clifford Geertz’s term); it is autologic, only readable from the very kind of isthmus it describes, as a difficult opening. Of course, as a Caribbeanist and Latino Studies scholar, I also loved the connections that could be made between Barzakh, and, say, Glissant’s archipelagic poetics or Chicano/a border theory. It is precisely this sort of transcultural slippage that interests me; I see little of this intermixing in USA-American publishing, which stubbornly remains a monoculture where linguistic and cultural difference would appear to be viable only as a manageable “Other.”

PJ: I like Ura’s term of “transcultural slippage” and, listening to Glissant last week, also thought of the latter’s “Poetics of Relation” as core concept for our undertaking. USA-American poetry has always had at least one trend that allows for such an internationalism, from, say Pound, via the New Americans to Language & the very cosmopolitanism of New York, Nuyorican & other schools, while another trend, today represented by the so-called “confessionalists” and their descendants, i.e. the majority of creative writing AWP-type work has been very me-me American — not only in terms of its content concerns but also in terms of its formal reliance on basic mid-20 Century post-Eliotian free-verse.

Can you tell me how each of your own poetic (and political) influences and concerns brought you to the creation of Barzakh?

UN: The impetus for what has become Barzakh predates my arrival at Albany; Pierre can flesh out some of that context far better than I could. That said, I do see the journal as informed by my investment in a hemispheric or trans-American poetics (for our second issue, we’re thinking of doing something on the centenaries of Charles Olson and José Lezama Lima). For me, it’s partly an interest in theoretical questions about reading/listening communities and circulation (and on ongoing “poetics of the Americas” debates), but it is also, more simply, about how such disparate journals as Mandorla and e-misférica are reframing some of these issues, and about how Barzakh could build upon such efforts. More generally, I think all of us at Barzakh are in one way or another interested in the relationship between poetry, performance, and media; I know my research on Nuyorican poetry has brought home to me how provisional, how limited, and yet how necessary the archive is. (Or I should say “brought homes,” as there is not one home for poetry. The home is in the intervals.) Whatever else it becomes, I hope Barzakh will prove a creative-critical laboratory for some of these questions.

PJ: Barzakh is the successor of two magazines brought to SUNY Albany by the poet Judy Johnson in the eighties: 13th Moon and The Little Magazine. The latter’s late incarnation were 2 CDrom issues that were among the first “magazines” to explore the possibilities of new media poetry and poetics. At that level the new magazine is an outgrowth of a tradition of experimental investigations in poetry and poetics that has been central to the Department and our students’ interests. As one of the faculty advisers, I personally see Barzakh also as extending the internationalist/global work on experimental or avant-garde poetry and poetics Jerome Rothenberg (who is in the first issue, talking about Chinese poetry) and I did in the nineties when editing the Poems for the Millennium anthologies.

Originally Published: April 29th, 2010

Barbara Jane Reyes was born in Manila, the Philippines, and grew up in the San Francisco Bay area. She earned a BA in ethnic studies from the University of California at Berkeley and an MFA from San Francisco State University. She is the author of the poetry collections Gravities of...