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Why Algerian Novelist Boualem Sansal’s ‘2084’ is a Sensation in France

October 8th, 2015 · Uncategorized

via the excellent Arabic Literature (in English):

Boualem Sansal’s 2084 has become a sensation in France, where it made the longlist for every one of country’s most prestitious literary prizes. Nadia Ghanem reads the book, and its reception, against the backdrop of France’s relationship with Algeria and the aims of its literary prizes:

By Nadia Ghanem

2084CouvertureIn France, every year between October and November, six of the most prestigious literary prizes open the autumn: the Goncourt, the Grand Prix, the Renaudot, the Medicis, the Femina and the Interallie. 

This year, 2084: The End of the World (Gallimard ed., 2015), Algerian novelist Boualem Sansal’s seventh novel, appears on every of these literary institutions’ longlists. 2084 was preselected bythe Goncourt, the French Academy’s Grand Prix du Roman (who celebrates its centenary this year), the Femina, the Renaudot, the Médicis, and the Interallié prizes. In addition, 2084 is onLe prix de Flore’s list and was also selected forLe prix de la page 111 whose winner was Pierre Senges, as announced on the first of this month.

What is the purpose of a literary prize in France?

The Goncourt, the French Academy’s Grand Prix, and Femina are the oldest in the history of French lit prizes. The Goncourt awarded its first prize in 1903, Femina in 1905, and the French Academy its Grand Prix in 1915. Then came the Renaudot in 1926, Interallié in 1930, and the Médicis in 1958. The Goncourt was created for a specific purpose: to institutionally recognize prose as a valuable, separate genre apart from verse,and to rebalance how aesthetics, and its hierarchy, were understood — definitions that had up till then been exclusively set by the French Academy and its immortals (an institution that dates back to the seventeenth century). The Goncourt brothers wanted to reward literary prose, recognise its separate branches, and step away from the French Academy’s monopoly. Other literary institutions created prizes that followed the brothers’ vision.

As time passed, these organizations and prizes grew deep roots and shaped the literary canon, but they took on an international dimension only relatively recently. The Goncourt underwent this process in the 70s, and the French Academy’s creation of the Prix de la Francophonie, initiated in 1986 by Canada, France and Morocco, illustrates this new literary (and geopolitical) objective. It will escape no one that the 70s coincide with a decade that saw the emergence of new nation-states, who in the course of their history had become francophone by force or by choice.

Today, the Goncourt states that it aims to reward the best work of imagination published in the year. The French Academy’s Grand Prix du Roman seeks to reward a work’s originality, and the Femina’s intention is to recompense free thinking. But before and behind these various literary concerns, it is the quality of the French language (they all declare) that is fundamental. The promotion and safeguard of the French language is at stake here.

With notions of language protection and promotion at the prizes’ core, it becomes natural to find francophone writers who come from geographies physically remote from the mothership, France. These authors’ novels are considered for services rendered to the French language, and for enriching the corpus of an institutional canon. Francophone authors are related by language, their second umbilical cord, not by birth or origin.

If colonization has taught us anything, it is to beware the politics of language. While safeguarding one’s language is noble, France has showed time and again that its tactics for survival, and expansion, include intellectual co-opting. Behind every cultural embrace lays a claim for ownership. France isn’t unique here: dominant nations as far back as the Assyrian and Babylonian empires founded themselves on the same principles. They erected their supremacy with weapons and established their hold with culture, absorbing the other until it belonged, according to each’s definition of belonging.

They rewrote history by writing stories.

The substance of the story

Why is 2084 creating such a craze? We are told Sansal’s revisiting of Orwell’s 1984 is key in having captured the imagination of readers. The French literary scene seems quite fond of this book-extension concept, the extension of classics, especially when Algerians are reworking them. It made this amply clear last year with the reception of Kamel Daoud’s Meursault, contre-enquête, which extended Camus’ L’étranger. Algeria was once the land of French expansion. It is now the land of European classics’ extension. But is a concept sufficient to win a prize? What about the story?

In a sanatorium, set up high in the Ouâ mountains, towering over the Sîn region, Ati is recovering from tuberculosis. A year has passed during which he has received the appropriate dosages of concoctions and powerful talismans to aid his condition. Ati is somewhere around his early thirties, he doesn’t know. No one knows his or her exact age in Abistan, the land of believers in the all-seeing Yölah and his representative on earth Abi, or Bigaye, who rules over 60 regions, that is the whole world. Ati has recovered and can now be sent back to Qodsabad, the capital of Abistan, to resume his work as council clerk. He and all other patients now healed, will leave by caravans pulled by donkeys. It will take a year to reach Qodsabad, during which Ati will meet Nas, a civil servant working for the archives department of the Ministry of Holy books and Memories. Nas has just returned from an excavation where he and a group of archaeologists found a previously unknown site whose remains point to a great flaw in Abi’s truths: there was a world before Abistan, one in which Yölah’s religion and others co-existed. Could a time have existed before the greatest war, the Holy War Char, when Abistanis won against the Chitan and the Enemy, previously known as the United High Regions or the Lig in Abilang, Abistan’s language?

Unnerved by what the excavations will reveal but excited, Nas makes his way back to the Kiiba, around which the oligarchs of Abigouv have set up their ministries and where they fight among themselves for power. Ati returns home haunted by Nas’s tale. The religious scepticism that had gripped him during his sanatorium stay firms up when he meets Koa, a work colleague who shares Ati’s secret questioning of Gkabul, acceptance, and of man’s purpose beyond the worshipping of Yölah nine times a day. Both friends are moved to action by doubt, a feeling for which there is no word in Abilang. They decide to head for the Kiiba, the pyramid that shines like the rising sun and can be seen from all four horizons, to find Nas. They leave searching for what lies within the Holy city, and to discover who or what is Democ and the Return.

The coating of the substance

Some might be inspired by the story’s content, others — like the media, worked up by Sansal during his interviews — have been mesmerised by its coating. And as you read 2084, you can easily see why.

An Iranian or Afghan-sounding city name (Qodsabad) is surrounded by suburbs reachable on rails via underground tunnels (the metro system, shht). In the Kiiba, Ati and Koa’s shady new friend, Toz, has kept a museum intact whose ancient name is the Louvres. He continues to fill it with artefacts to piece together a time before Abistan, even though there is no such thing, Abi says. The languages that survive post-Abilang, spoken in hiding, are French (thank God!) and Modern Standard Arabic.

Piece all this together and now you can start to panic. France, and what’s worse Paris, have been taken over by futuristic brothers bent on Friday floggings, remarrying burniqab women, raping young boys, the total sum of which wear burni-cloaks so dirty you can tell washing machines exist no longer. The death of home electrical equipment is a sure sign all types of sciences have been proscribed, except for IT to keep electronic newspapers going in Abistan. (Meanwhile, Toz represents an onomatopoeic word in various colloquial Arabics, inspired by the anus.)

What lies beyond

Think you might read 2084? You should, but be prepared.

Sansal describes Ati’s journey in four parts called Books, plus a curious epilogue. Book 1 sets the scene and explains Abistan. It is probably the most nebulous. Sansal has no clear idea what Abistan is like because he just can’t see what it could be like. In Book 2, Sansal can no longer sustain his lack of imagination, nor can the reader, and that’s lucky. His talent takes over at this point to breathe a three-dimensional spirit into Ati and his surroundings (basically, it’s Algiers). Book 3 begins Ati and Koa’s detective work. For any detective and crime-novel fan, it’s the best part. Book 4 is the last book. This means you’re nearly done, and it’s worth a read on that basis. Then there’s the Epilogue, composed of seven + 1 articles. Seven articles published by Abistan’s e-news and the +1 is a mountaineer’s tale, written on a sheet of paper circulated by caravaneers.

Think you might not read it? Wait.

Whatever you may think of Sansal as an author, he is not unkind. He leaves a shorter way to get through the book. Every Book, or part, starts with a short summary of the tale it contains. So in essence, Sansal’s novel is not 288 pages, it’s 4 pages + 1.

Boualem Sansal is one of Algeria’s best established novelists, as well as one of the country’s most talented, whether we’re happy about this or not. In 1999, his first novel, The Barbarians’ Oath, earned him two prizes, Le Prix du Premier Roman and the Prix Tropiques in France, and set the stage for his literary career. His novels share the same traits: a fluid, playful and radiant language that carried his vision of a fragile and sinister reality, a world inhabited by individuals whose experiences were moving and actions compassionate. That was the pattern for his first four powerful novels. Something after them changed.

A world of newsreel

2084 is not the first book in recent years to have generated media debates because it mixes the fear ofthe other with electoral suspense. Michel Houellebecq’s Soumission did it in 2015, Sabri Louatah did it in his epic four volume family saga Les Sauvages (2012-2014), in 1982, Christopher Mullin did it in English with A Very British Coup (but the fearsome other were UK Left-wingers). However, these stories didn’t put any of their writers up for five major literary prizes. Could the hermeneutics of numbers in the title 2-0-8-4 have cast a spell? Haruki Murakami’s 1Q84 and Orwell’s 1984 are splendid, but it’s not because of their titles nor hermeneutics.

In 2084, Sansal essentially describes a world we can entirely relate to without stretching our creative powers because Abistan is built on the images of destruction and conflicts we see today, and everyday, on the news. But it is a world so remote from Sansal’s western compass, physically and emotionally, that he just can’t get inspiration for it beyond the first layer, the TV screen layer. 2084 is a CNN news flash.

The world of journalism has been fundamental in shaping contemporary Algerian literature. Algerian lit has been marked by major and classic authors who are, and were first, journalists. Sansal was not one, but that’s the belly he comes from and I wonder if things went wrong because of this environmental legacy. This news diet, and its inherent exploitation of immediate attention-getting and readership, has not solely affected the once awesome writer of Le Serment des Barbares (a cornerstone work in Algerian literature), it has affected Algerian literary production. A serious examination of recently published novels should be commenced to try and determine what is happening, not to French literature, but to Algerian literature and its vampiric news muse.

nadiaNadia is a doctoral student at the School of Oriental and African Studies, where she specializes in the ancient languages of Iraq and Syria. Based between Algeria and the UK, she blogs  at about living in Algeria, and Algerian literature.

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Joris on Celan & Witnessing @ ENS

October 6th, 2015 · Criticism, Essays, Language, Literature, Philosophy, Poetry, Translation



Open & free to the public
Monday, 12 October, 11a.m. to 1p.m.
Salle Beckett
Ecole Normale Supérieure
45 Rue d’Ulm, 75005 Paris

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CMP’s Great Jean-Luc Godard Project

October 3rd, 2015 · Anthology, Books, Translation

Godard, Phrases from Giovanni Piacenza on Vimeo.

To raise funds to complete a Jean-Luc Godard publication to be translated by Stuart Kendall.
Contra Mundum
New York, New York
United States
1 Team Member

Contact See More Details

Short Summary

Contra Mundum Press (CMP) is seeking support for the remainder of printing costs and marketing expenses for a series of five books by Jean-Luc Godard to be translated into English: 1) Allemagne neuf zero; 2) Les enfants jouent à la Russie; 3)JLG / JLG; 4) 2×50 ans de cinéma français; 5) For Ever Mozart; and 6) Éloge de l’amour.

The books will be published under the collective title Phrases and mark the second collaboration between translator Stuart Kendall and CMP, our first being Kendall’s translation of Gilgamesh (2012).

What We Need & What You Get

We have already paid for the translation rights, have funds for typography and design fees, but have only part of the printing fees covered (a total of 2,000 copies will be printed). What remains of the budget for the book is as follows:

Printing costs: $7,600.00

Publicity & Marketing: $3,000.00

Typesetting & Design (for ads): $350.00


For your contribution to the project, these are the gifts that we are offering for different donation levels:

1) A 10% discount on Godard’s PHRASES.

2) A copy of Godard’s PHRASES before it is released to the general public

3) Discounts from 15%–25% on other CMP books.

4) An original work of calligraphy by Alessandro Segalini of a word or phrase of your choice.

5) Discounted subscriptions to CMP books or any twelve CMP books of your choice.

6) An original 12” x 12” silk-screen of Genese Grill’s “World-maker; Word-maker (Robert Musil at Work).”

Genese Grill is the translator of Thought Flights, our edition of Robert Musil’s selected short prose & other texts.

7) Series Titling: In the tradition of Stanford University Press’s Meridian Series (named in honor of Paul Celan’s speech on poetics), for a significant donation, our Godard publication can be named in your honor. On a title page, the publication will be named after you or an agreed upon name, i.e., A Dark Matter Series Publication.

The Team


A pioneer of the French New Wave, Jean-Luc Godard has had an incalculable effect on modern cinema that refuses to wane. Before directing, Godard was an ethnology student and a critic for Cahiers du cinéma, and his approach to filmmaking reflects his interest in how cinematic form intertwines with social reality. His groundbreaking debut feature, Breathless is essential Godard: its strategy of merging high and low culture has been mimicked by generations of filmmakers. As the sixties progressed, Godard’s output became increasingly radical, both aesthetically and politically, until 1968 when he had forsworn commercial cinema altogether, forming a leftist filmmaking collective (the Dziga Vertov Group) and making such films as Tout va bien. Today Godard remains our greatest lyricist on historical trauma, religion, and the legacy of cinema. [Bio taken from Criterion]

TRANSLATOR: STUART KENDALLThe books will be translated into English by Stuart Kendall, a writer, editor, and translator working at the intersections of modern and contemporary art and design, critical theory, poetics, and theology. Kendall is the author of the critical biography Georges Bataille and the editor and translator of four other books by Bataille (SUNY Press). He has also translated works by Éluard, Blanchot, and Guy Debord and is the co-editor of Terence Malick: Film & Philosophy.


Alessandro Segalini studied and practiced graphic design and calligraphy in Milan, Helsinki, Philadelphia, and Rome. He is a member of the editorial board of Multi, the RIT journal of diversity and plurality in design, and co-creator of ISType (Istanbul Type Seminars), a lecture and workshop series devoted to encouraging typographic literacy in Turkey. Hemingway, a typeface designed by Segalini, was inspired by Hemingway’s The Old Man and the Sea and selected for the UK Creative Review Type Annual (2011).

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Five Palestinian Poets in Paris

September 30th, 2015 · Middle East, Minority Literature, Poetry, Poets, Translator

‘Interludes Poétiques de Palestine’:

Palestinian poet and publisher Ashraf Zaghal was in Paris for the “Interludes Poetiques de Palestine.” He writes:


By Ashraf Zaghal

Between September 22 and 26, five Palestinian poets shared the stage at two cultural and literary hubs in Paris, Maison de la Poesie and Institut du Monde Arabe, to read their recent poems and interact with the French audience. The list of participating poets included Ghassan Zaqtan, Rajaa Ghanim, Ashraf Zaghal, Fady Joudah, and Jihad Hudaib. All were invited by the Franco-Palestinian Arab Institute as part of the Institute’s third annual poetry event entitled “Interludes Poetiques de Palestine.” Two of the invited poets, Joudah and Hudaib, could not make it to the event, however their poems were recited and their presence was felt.

The two poetry-reading events, held on September 23 and September 25, incorporated a performance of the French Soprano Elodie Hache with the Palestinian musician and composer Patrick Lama, who wrote the music for two poems written by Ghassan Zaqtan.

The poems that participated in the events were translated by poet and translator Mohamed el Amraoui and recited in French by Phillipe Tanculin, professor of aesthetics at University of Paris VIII, and the French actress Lina Soualem. Most of the poems were extracted from recent collections. The poems included “I Don’t Know the Road to Aleppo” by Ghassan Zaqtan, “Doors of Nostalgia” by Rajaa Ghanim, “A Red Hand” by Ashraf Zaghal, “The Humanitarian Man” by Fady Joudah, and “Impersonal Portrait” by Jihad Hudaib.

As part of the activities surrounding the readings, the poets met the director of the Arab World Institute Jack Lang and the Syrian singer and activist Samih Choukeir. The poets were also interviewed by Radio Monte Carlo, Radio Orient, and France 24.


Ashraf Zaghal was born in Jerusalem in 1974, and has lived in Palestine, the US, and Canada. He has written four poetry collections: Wheels of Ashes, Sleeping as I see, A Desert in the Metro, and A Portrait of the Ugly Family. In 2001, he was awarded the Young Writer’s Award for Poetry by the A.M. Qattan Foundation. He has been translated into French, Hebrew and English, and he is the editor-in-chief of an online literary magazine ( which promotes progressive creative writing and taboo-breaking themes.

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Tageblatt Article on PJ @ Luxembourg National Theater

September 29th, 2015 · Interview, Journalism, Literature, Poetry, Theater

Heute hier, morgen da

Eineinhalb Stunden verfliegen wie zehn Minuten, und selbst der Automatenkaffee schmeckt irgendwie nach Zaubertrank. Ein wenig high verlässt man das Theater schon – nach einem Gespräch mit Pierre Joris. Die Droge? Na, die Sprache.

Mit zwei Stücken ist Pierre Joris in der diesjährigen Spielzeit im TNL vertreten. (Bild: François Aussems)

Mit zwei Stücken ist Pierre Joris in der diesjährigen Spielzeit im TNL vertreten. (Bild: François Aussems)

Er wohnt nicht in Luxemburg, sondern in New York. Und er ist eigentlich kein Theatermensch, sondern in erster Linie Dichter. Der diesjährige „auteur en résidence“ des TNL ist schon etwas ganz Besonderes. Ein Gespräch mit Pierre Joris lässt einige Bruchteile erkennen, aus denen sich diese Persönlichkeit, die u.a. Paul Celan ins Englische übersetzte, mit Janis Joplin und Allen Ginsberg in New York wilde Feste feierte und nun hier in Luxemburg sitzt und über Flüchtlinge und Nomadentum redet, zusammensetzt. Er lebt in keinem Elfenbeinturm, sondern nimmt an der Welt in all ihren Dimensionen teil, ist ständig in Bewegung, ruhelos, nomadisch, aufgewühlt.

Pierre Joris im TNL

• The Gulf (Between You and Me)

• Pierre Joris / Gabriel
Jackson / Chris Jonas /
Gene Coleman

• 23., 25. und 28. Oktober

• The Agony of I. B.

• Regie: Marion Poppenborg

• Mit: Sascha Ley, Nickel
Bösenberg und Fred Frenay

• 14., 17., 18. und 21. Juni



Die Flüchtlingsströme sind die Rettung Europas, findet er. Nur leider hätten das die wenigsten verstanden. „Das mit dem Nationalstaat haben wir versaut“, sagt er, „da müssen wir drüber hinwegkommen“. Die Lösung sei nunmal – er zitiert aus „Zeus hospitalier“ von René Scherer – die Invasion. „Vive donc l’invasion!“ Lasset die Zeit der Anderen kommen, das Einzige, was uns noch retten kann, ist die Vermischung, denn: „Die Wurzel allen Übels ist Reinheit“.

Größte Erfindung der Menschheit

Das gelte übrigens auch für die Literatur, für die Sprache, „die größte Erfindung des Menschen“. Pierre Joris wird sprachphilosophisch:

Es könne keine Reinheit, keine Durchsichtigkeit in der Sprache geben, zwischen dem Ding und dem Wort, das es zu nennen versucht, bleibe immer unüberbrückbarer Raum, Nomadenland. Ding und Wort haben nicht viel miteinander zu tun, das dürfe man niemals vergessen, denn sonst laufe man Gefahr, das Menschliche zu vereinfachen …

Das Übersetzen ermögliche den stärksten Fokus auf ein Sprachgebilde, sagt Pierre Joris. Schließlich versuche ein Übersetzer, ein Sprachgebilde in eine andere Sprache „einzumeißeln“. Bei den Gedichten von Celan zum Beispiel habe er versucht, „das Deutsche so ins Englische einzusetzen, wie der Hölderlin das Griechische ins Deutsche hineinschrieb“.

„Stärkste Ausdrucksform der Sprache“

Kein Wunder, dass jemand, der seine Arbeit als Übersetzer mit solchen Worten beschreibt, sich selbst in der Dichtung, als „stärkster Ausdrucksform der Sprache“, am Nächsten fühlt. „Die Form des Romans finde ich uninteressant. Warum soll ich Situationen oder Personen erfinden?“ Und deshalb liegt der einzige Roman, den Joris, damals in den sechziger Jahren als Student, in irgendeinem Hotel in Paris jemals geschrieben hat, bis heute unberührt in einer Schublade.

Und das Theater? Das ist ihm schon vertrauter. Vor allem, weil er sich dem Theater mithilfe seiner Dichtung nähern kann. „Wissen Sie, die amerikanische Poesie ist sehr unfranzösisch, ihre Sprache viel näher der gesprochenen Sprache und deshalb direkter, lebendiger, spontaner“. Alle seine Gedichte könne er laut vorlesen und vor seinen Studenten, mit denen er über die Notwendigkeit spreche, dass alle Dichtkunst nomadisch sein müsse, laufe er auch ständig herum. Das ähnele schon sehr einer Performance.

Auch im TNL wird Pierre Joris auf der Bühne zu sehen sein. Für das Stück „The Gulf (Between You and Me)“, ein Stück, das das Ölunglück Deep Water im mexikanischen Golf zum Ausgangspunkt hat. Eine Collage aus Text, Musik und Performance, die – davon ist auszugehen – die Grenzen des klassischen Theaters sprengen wird.

Frank Hoffmann wartet, und der Zug nach Paris und die Arbeit auch. Gesprächsfetzen hängen in der Luft, bis zum 23. Oktober, Pierre Joris!

(Janina Strötgen)

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Happy Birthday, Robert Kelly!

September 25th, 2015 · Poet, Poetry, Poetry Cuisine

Robert Kelly in Encenitas, CA at the Rothenbergs' with jerry at camera, & RK flanked by Diane Rothenberg & David Antin. circa '89-90

Robert Kelly in Encenitas, CA at the Rothenbergs’ with Jerry Rothenberg at camera, & RK flanked by Diane Rothenberg & David Antin. Circa 89-90

Happy 80th birthday, Robert!
Below the clickable cover of the Festschrift for the occasion that Metambesen publishes today, and below that my own festish Schrift piece for Robert.
fest lynn cover

A Memoir: for Robert at 80

I came to America in late August 1967 with a Karl May-fantasy of Apache and Comanche landscapes in one eye and a West Coast dream of San Fran & Bob Kaufmannian be-bop, Ginsbergian Howls & Kerouacian  California Railroad Earth flophouses & bars in the other. From JFK, where a Lions Club friend of my parents’ picked me up, I was driven to a pretty suburban disaster area on Long Island — Hicksville seems about right — where two TVs were on all the time with the sound off and on one of them baseball games unfolded their bewildering & incomprehensible rituals. In the kitchen, the family & I sat at an aluminum-fringed baby-blue formica counter to eat — or just to grab a TV-dinner plate and go back to the TV den. After sleeping off my jet lag, I was taken to my first mall on the morning of the next day, and to Aqueduct race-track on the afternoon of the second day. On the third day they finally drove me to the Big City, to Port Authority where I was to catch the dog upstate to Kingston. Manhattan, to my surprise, did not surprise me: the much-vaunted skyscrapers didn’t look half as impressive in real life than they had looked in all the fish-eye lens LIFE magazine pictures I had gawked at, and in all the “Yankee” movies I had seen in grandmother’s movie house in Ettelbruck, Luxembourg.

Architectural surprise would however come as soon as the bus had left the urban surrounds of the city and, beyond the New Jersey wastelands, moved into more rural settings: a continent of wooden houses! A sea of clapboard siding — an architecture I thought of then as “clinker-built,” my British English still close to naval terminology, though prairie schooners would eventually marry the two. Then the strangeness of the bus stop in Kingston, the taxi that took me for the first time across the bridge and up River Road to Bard campus. At the end of that day I regained my landlubber euro-footing as I moved into my dorm, brown-stony Tudor revival Ward Manor.

When did I make contact with the Kelly constellation (Ursa Major, as for awhile I came to think of it, that constellation formed by Robert and those around him)? I would like it to have been the very next day, but I cannot remember the exact time sequence, though it happened certainly during my first week in Annandale. Early one afternoon, as I was sitting in the old coffeeshop on Stone Row, eating my newly discovered favorite American snack, toasted English muffin and cream cheese, I was approached by a lady of some girth who pulled up a chair, sat down at my table and asked: “Are you the new freshman, the young poet from France?” I said, no, I am not french, but yes, I am a young poet come here to study poetry. She asked me if I was familiar with Stéphane Mallarmé’s oeuvre, especially his masterpiece, the Coup de dé that would never abolish chance. I answered that yes, I had studied Mallarmé some, had tried to read the famous Coup de dé, but had not been all that impressed. She frowned. I tried to explain that the reason I was here was that I had decided to write poetry in English as I found that the two languages I should have been writing in, French and/or German, didn’t offer much excitement judging by their contemporary practitioners.  Mallarmé, I agreed, may be great, but he was nineteenth century, and anyway French poetry was by now a somewhat stagnant backwater. Her frown deepened, no doubt taken aback by the abruptness of my brash youthful judgement, but decided that maybe I wasn’t a lost cause as yet. If you want to learn what’s most important in American poetry now, she said somewhat sternly, you must read Charles Olson,  Robert Creeley, Robert Duncan and Robert Kelly. Hmm, I wondered, all those Roberts … & despite not being French, a French pun immediately popped into mind: les roberts in French are breasts, tits, teats — so these were the teats of American poetry? I promised to check them out. She then insisted that I needed to proceed immediately to a certain room on Stone Row (I’ve forgotten the house name and number by now) and meet the best of the young poets now studying at Bard: Thomas Meyer. After she left, I finished my muffin, pondering this welcome.

Asking around, I quickly found out who the lady who had undertaken me on this advanced literary matters was: Joby Kelly, the wife of poet and professor Robert Kelly. Ah, I thought, one of the Roberts is in fact here! I will need to meet him. I then walked over to the bookshop where I bought an anthology that had the two other Roberts in it, as well as the man called Olson:  the famed Don Allen New American Poetry gathering that would become a ground-breaking book for my discovery of American poetry. When I opened it, I did feel relieved that those poets I had championed as the new American avant-garde, namely the Beats, were also included. Ah, I thought, here is a wider, more democratic community in which various groupings with differing aesthetics are able to co-exist, without the excommunication-mania and internecine fighting habits of European avant-garde groupings.

A day or so later, I dutifully went to knock on Thomas Meyer’s door on Stone Row. A sweet and elegant young man welcomed me into a room very much to my own liking: overflowing with books and crowned by something that made me instantly jealous— a golf-ball IMB Selectric sitting atop his work desk. I had been so proud of my new Olivetti Lettera 32 portable bought just before coming to America — and now I realized I was stuck not only with a mechanical machine but also with a latinate AZERTY keyboard when I should be using an anglo-friendly QWERTY. Tom read me some pages of a massive work in progress, called, if I remember correctly, A Technographic Typography In Progress — or in Process, maybe, a work of major proportions never published in its entirety to this day. Via Kelly, whose student he was, Tom had acquired the necessary habit & discipline to “write every day” — as Robert was to put it much later in a biographical essay. It was, I think, Tom who on that day hipped me to another useful anthology I managed to pick up soon after: the Robert Kelly / Paris Leary A Controversy of Poets — a book that at first seemed to reinforce my vision of multiple communities co-existing peacefully in a land roomy enough, given that space comes large here indeed (I’d also started to read that Olson character). But on second thought I realized that the book, maybe against the will of its editors, proposed a topography of conflict that demanded one take sides. I immediately knew what side I was on: having read and liked Francis Ponge back in my days of studying life sciences in Europe, I instantly took to Robert Kelly’s postface where I underlined the following:

I mean a poem that means something because it is no longer about something but is something: but, and this is all-important, a poem that, as a thing, does not come to exist aesthetically and in remoteness, as a thing would be in a museum, unthinged, but as a thing would exist, and possess meaning, in a world of living men. As a chair possesses meaning. Not as furniture, but as a place to sit down.

At some point I did meet Robert: in the coffee shop, no doubt, where I was eating yet again my daily toasted english muffin with cream cheese, an anti-dote to the food of the school cafeteria. Of course, & boringly so, I remember as first impression the man’s size, the forked, reddish beard, the eyebrows — & the voice, oh that voice, Irish opera basso, with what I would later learn was a Brooklyn tinge, it immediately amazed, even before I heard him read his poetry. And when I saw him walk away, I was amazed at the grace of the big man’s walk: a dance it was, an elegance I would never have suspected in a man so large. Joby had no doubt filled Robert in on my provenance, my likes and dislikes, but I remember little of our early conversations, except for a piece of advice that would prove essential. Explaining my decision to write in English — or rather American — I wondered what would be best to improve my language skills toward writing poetry. Robert was adamant: get a radio & listen to baseball games, he said, in order to become familiar with and soak up the rhythms of an american language sports announcers are master practitioners of. I followed his advice, and if at first — being clueless about the game of baseball — the running commentaries sounded like dadaistic babel, I quickly began to hear the rhythmic and musical nuances that made for a very different language dance than the Britisher English I had learned in high school in Europe.

In hindsight I can say now that with that suggestion Robert gave me my America. Tonight, 48 years later, I am writing this while on television, our Mets are winning another game — & I’m sure that Robert will be watching in Annandale. (The Metsies are indeed tearing it up right now & just may get into the playoffs & even to the world series this year, my suspicion being that this is the baseball gods’ secret birthday present for Robert). In 1968, still intrigued by the radio broadcasts, I started watching games on TV. Then one of my co-students, Bruce McClelland, a St Louis native and thus a Cardinals fan, after some patient tutoring in the rules and arcana of the game, took me to Shea stadium for my first Mets game: that was spring of 1969.

As it turned out I didn’t take a single so-called academic course with Robert during my two years at Bard, but his primary advice panned out marvelously, opening up a cultural trove I am still exploring today. I did work with Robert during my last semester when he was my senior project advisor, a project that consisted in translating Atemwende / Breathturn, the most recently published book of poetry by Paul Celan. To this day I cherish those afternoon sessions on the porch of his house, once known as Lindenwood, facing the pump that don’t work ‘cause the vandals took the handle. Robert may have been thinking of Schubert’s aching songs of nostalgia (see “A Line of Sight”) as he sipped his huge pewter? bronze? can of (it was rumored) 1/3 coffee, 1/3 milk & 1/3 sugar, and I may have had Dylan’s Subterranean Homesick Blues buzzing in my head which didn’t need anymore coffee given last night’s still active black beauties and the late morning’s calming joint.  Still, the power of Celan’s stark yet boundlessly seductive cosmos was enough to draw us in along its image- and language-rails, making our so differently busy minds focus and exult in the sheer power and beauty of the poems underhand and work on bringing it over into this, to me new, American language. 

It may have been during one of those sessions that Robert showed me (or spoke of?)  Julius Pokorny’s 1957 Indogermanisches Etymologisches Wörterbuch, a book I tried to acquire in vain for the next three decades (the only other copy I ever saw was in Jeremy Prynne’s rooms in Caius College, Cambridge, sometime in the mid-seventies). Then, less than 10 years ago, a new edition was finally published and Nicole Peyrafitte, having heard me mythify this book for so long, gave it to me for my birthday. The first thing I looked up was the root pel — from which derives, among others, our word polis —, the definitions and derivations of which Robert had reproduced directly from Pokorny in his 1971 book of essays In Time, one of the most cogent and illuminating ways to present such matters.

By this time — spring 1969 — I had started reading into this other American tradition, the Black Mountain & San Francisco Renaissance poetries. In 1968 I bought my first Kelly book, Finding the Measure. If “Last Light” was the first of his poems that opened up as process and world (some of its lines have remained with me ever since: “in front / of the agony of any being / we are stupid mute” ), it was the “(prefix” that I thought on most often over the years — a 19-line poem that is a complete poetics  & that I used as an essential teaching tool ever since. That year I also picked up Songs I-XXX, those “experiments in the extended lyric” in which I could exercise my ear for the American speech Robert had sent me to via baseball radio, and follow those rhythms into lines of poetry as they create a bright, breathtaking dance out of the retort of our dailynesses in the alchemical wedding that joins what you do & what you read. Among many of the riches these Songs revealed to me  — besides an interest in the traditionary sciences — let me just mention the abiding figures of Giordano Bruno, a writer & thinker who has remained core to my own thinking (I anointed him the patron saint of translators a few years back in an essay), and that of the book’s dedicatee,  Stan Brakhage, whose cinematographic work Robert’s Songs led me to.

How foolish of me to have suggested that I never took a course with Robert! In truth, I have been a student of his since arriving in this country. When I left Bard in 1969 to move to New York City, Robert gave me the keys to the big city of his youth in the shape of two phone numbers: those of Paul Blackburn & Jerome Rothenberg. Now I was on the, on my, road — a road that would take me across three continents over two decades before I returned to America. An America, “rica,” rich and “amer,” bitter, as he writes in his long poem, The Common Shore, but whose name also holds a word from one of my old languages: “aimer,” to love. Yes, it is now our common shore, Robert — and it has been a great pleasure, an honor, a blessing, to have been able to walk along these shores in your company, and to have had you & your work teaching me to read so many of its shapes and names, to see so many of its obvious and its secret riches. Happy 80th, compañero, and may we soon break bread again, up in Annandale or here in your Brooklyn, around a table — that “natural gamecourt / to lean & draw on,” that perfect place to talk and share.

Pierre Joris

Sorrentinostan, Brooklyn
August 14, 2015,
also the 70th birthday of Wim Wenders.

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Muhammad Fanatil al-Hajaya’s ‘Following the News on Al Jazeera’

September 24th, 2015 · Arab Culture

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“Following the News on Al Jazeera” is a pop-rhetorical poem by Muhammad Fanatil al-Hajaya, an intervention into recent news, translated and introduced here by William Tamplin:

By William Tamplin

Hajaya at a poetry festival in Isma'iliya, Egypt in 2010

Muhammad al-Hajaya has been recognized as representing modern Bedouin poetry. A literate, educated man with a varied career behind him, Hajaya stopped writing love poetry in 1988 and turned to the political. Hajaya wrote at least six poems on the second Iraq war, and his poetry continues to respond to current events: he’s written poems of warning to Bashar al-Assad and Vladimir Putin, mock-serious love poems to Tzipi Livni and Condoleezza Rice, and an elegy to Mu‘ath al-Kasasbeh, the Jordanian pilot burned to death by ISIS.

Hajaya is most remarkable for putting his poems into the mouths of political leaders. In his 2004 poem “Oh Condoleezza Rice!” Hajaya wrote as if George W. Bush had been a Bedouin warrior-poet bragging about his conquests of Iraq and Afghanistan. He has since put poems in the mouths of Ariel Sharon, Saddam Hussein, and Barack Obama. Also notable about Hajaya’s poetry is his use of animal imagery to portray international leaders. He’s compared Qaddafi to a camel, Bashar al-Assad to a sheep, and Gulf countries’ leaders to stud rams. Indeed, Hajaya criticizes Arab leaders as much as he does the United States and Israel.

Animal imagery plays a part in this poem as well, as the Russian “bear” can devour both of the Americans’ symbols: the elephant and the donkey. Whales are the ultimate symbol of greed and malice, gulping down refugees as they attempt the sea crossing to Europe. In this poem, Hajaya tries to goad Kerry into intervening in Syria by citing the Russians’ encroachment in Latakia, Iran’s hegemonic designs for the region, and the refugees who are suffering for all the politicians’ scheming.

The power of poetry

Hajaya has faith in the power of poetry. In February 2012, Hajaya wrote a poem directly to Bashar al-Assad urging him to stop killing civilians and leave Syria. In the introduction to that poem, he called for a good man to deliver it in hopes that it would reach al-Assad and convince him to leave. In August 2014, Hajaya wrote a poem from Obama to Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, the leader of ISIS, urging him to spare Steven Sotloff’s life. Again, Hajaya sincerely believed that his poem could effect political change.

An Anglophone analog to Hajaya’s political poetry is spoken word and hip hop, neither of which are printed in mainstream poetry journals but both of which are heard, felt, and transmitted on the radio, on YouTube, and in lesser-known poetry magazines. Another analog is Calvin Trillin’s “Deadline Poet”column in The Nation.

In this poem, Hajaya pokes fun at Kerry’s equivocations about Syria during his term as Secretary of State. He compares Kerry to the Russians, firm men who don’t prevaricate or desert their allies. Hajaya criticizes Al Jazeera for its incessant claims that the Assad regime is on the verge of collapse, al-Assad for being the Russians’ lackey, and Ayatollah Khomeini for reviving a 1400-year-old blood feud in order to assert its hegemony over Iraq, Syria, and Lebanon. Leaving the politicians behind, Hajaya turns to the refugees, sacrifices to the politicians’ scheming. He ends by asserting that the Arab Spring and the Syrian Civil War were conspiracies planned by the West and executed by its Arab lackeys. Those lackeys are sitting in their palaces drinking whiskey and beer and following the news on Al Jazeera in the vain hope that the Assad regime is on the verge of collapse.

Like his messages to al-Assad and al-Baghdadi, Hajaya believes that this poem might influence John Kerry. While he and I were translating the poem, he let on that he was being as hard on Kerry as he was in order to goad him into increasing the US’ support for the moderate Syrian opposition. In case he’s right about the extent of his poetry’s influence, I’ve translated it here.


“Following the News on Al Jazeera”

By Muhammad Fanatil al-Hajaya

Trans. William Tamplin

Kerry’s always declaiming over the news;

He sure has made a lot of public statements.

“Bashar doesn’t have to leave today!”

His word’s no good because no one’s advising him.

Oh Kerry, today the secrets were laid bare:

Your allies can expect nothing but defeat and humiliation.

The Russians are firm men, and they’ve proven their power.

They’re not shaken by all Al Jazeera’s barking.

America’s mascots are the elephant and the jackass,

And bears can devour them both.

Bashar’s just another guard for the Russians’ house

Along with Mu‘allim, his foreign minister.

Old Mr. Khomeini is bent on blood-revenge:

Husayn’s blood spilled at Karbala still has him all worked up.

Our Arabs are caught between merchants, middlemen,

And the malice now controlling the blood-avengers’ conscience.

From the beginning the West has been fabricating rebels

And squadrons, and each one follows its own commander.

Today the refugees are in every country,

Scattered throughout every state and region:

Some of them eaten by whales in the sea’s depths,

Some of them lost, their fates unknown.

Behind all the outrage and harm

Is a man sitting in his palace sipping whiskey and beer.

He’s got slave girls and servants always at the ready

And follows the news on Al Jazeera.

The poet recites:

Listen on SoundCloud


William Tamplin is a PhD candidate in Comparative Literature at Harvard University. He studies Bedouin poetry, the Andalus, and literary translation. He translated political Bedouin poetry in 2013-14 on a Fulbright to Jordan and has lived, worked and studied in Jerusalem, Amman, and Alexandria, Egypt. He blogs here


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Ken Irby Celebration

September 16th, 2015 · Uncategorized

Ken Irby Memorial

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Listening to Refugees: 5 Novels, Stories, and Essays

September 15th, 2015 · Arab Culture, Arabic, Translation

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Abo Adnan, a Syrian who lives in a refugee camp in Germany, asks that we not just look at refugees, but listen. Refugee literary voices:

Sculpture by Sami Mohammed.

African Titanics, by Abu Bakr Khaal. Khaal is a refugee who left Eritrea for Denmark. His novel follows his characters “through the Sahara Desert, to cramped refugee hideaways, to prisons and ghettos, out onto the frightening leaky ships of the Mediterranean—these are great, fast-moving Odyssean adventures.” These are the songs of refugees from all across the region, most of whom sink in one way or another. Translated by Charis Bredon.

“The Truck to Berlin,” by Hassan Blasim. Blasim is an Iraqi refugee who found his way to Finland. From the collection Madman of Freedom SquareThis terrifying story tells of a truck full of refugees rushing through a Serbian forest, pursued by the border police. Translated by Jonathan Wright.

“The Refugee Crisis,” by Samar Yazbek. Yazbek is a Syrian refugee currently living in France. The Guardian had a number of writers respond to the trigger of “refugee crisis”; Yazbek, a novelist and journalist, reminds us that we must see it in its context. “Yes, we need to find a solution to the refugee crisis, but let’s start by talking transparently and impartially about the underlying causes of this catastrophe that sees no end.” Translated by Ruth Ahmedzai Kemp.

“Sea of Refuge,” by Hanan al-Shaykh. During the Lebanese civil war, al-Shaykh fled to London. Granta also asked writers to respond to the idea of refuge and refugees.

Men in the Sun, by Ghassan Kanafani. Kanafani was a Palestinian writer who lived, and was assassinated in, Lebanon. The novella Men in the Sun follows three Palestinians fleeing Lebanon’s refugee camps for Iraq with the goal of reaching Kuwait. They are smuggled across the desert in the empty barrel of a water tanker truck. Translated by Hilary Kilpatrick.

More recent Syrian works:

Syria Speaks: Art and Culture from the Front Lineed. Malu Halasa, Zaher Omareen, and Nawara Mahfoud;

The Crossing, by Samar Yazbek, trans. by Nashwa Gowanlock and Ruth Ahmedzai Kemp;

Woman in the Crossfire, by Yazbek, trans. Max Weiss;

Short stories by Rasha Abbas, from The Gist of It, trans. Alice Guthrie;

“My Fingers Are Not Enough,” by Derar Soltan Kurdiehtrans. Fawaz Azem;

Three other Syrian poems, trans. Azem;

And fourteen Poems from Loneliness Spoils its Victims, by Dara Abdallah, trans. Mona Kareem.

For instructors:

Teaching Syrian Stories: Between Understanding and Empathy 

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Burning all fossil energy…

September 14th, 2015 · Fossil fuel, Global Warming, Oceans

F4.large…would raise sea-level by more than 50 meters – and eliminate all ice of Antarctica 

Press Release by the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research


Burning all of the world’s available fossil-fuel resources would result in the complete melting of the Antarctic ice sheet, a new study published in Science Advances shows. The Antarctic ice masses store water equivalent to more than 50 meters of sea-level rise. The new calculations show that Antarctica’s long-term contribution to sea-level rise could likely be restricted to a few meters that could still be manageable, if global warming did not exceed 2 degrees. Crossing this threshold, however, would in the long run destabilize both West and East Antarctica – causing sea-level rise that would reshape coastal regions around the globe for millennia to come.
“If we were to burn all attainable fossil fuel resources, this would eliminate the Antarctic ice sheet and cause long-term global sea-level rise unprecedented in human history,” lead author Ricarda Winkelmann of the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research says. “This would not happen overnight, but the mind-boggling point is that our actions today are changing the face of planet Earth as we know it, and will continue to do so for tens of thousands of years to come. If we want to avoid Antarctica to become ice-free, we need to keep coal, gas and oil in the ground”.

The long-term risk increases with every additional tenth of a degree of warming“By using more and more fossil energy, we increase the risk of triggering changes that we may not be able to stop or reverse in the future,” co-author Anders Levermann of the Potsdam Institute explains. “The West Antarctic ice sheet may already have tipped into a state of unstoppable ice loss, whether as a result of human activity or not. But if we want to pass on cities like Tokyo, Hong Kong, Shanghai, Calcutta, Hamburg or New York as our future heritage, we need to avoid a tipping in East Antarctica,” he says.

“The idea was to compute what we have already started by emitting greenhouse-gas emissions from burning coal or oil – and to analyze where that will take us in the future,” says co-author Ken Caldeira of the Carnegie Institution for Science at Stanford University. Burning all available fossil-fuel resources would result in carbon emissions of about 10,000 billion tons. Assuming a pulse of carbon release, the scientists’ simulations show that Antarctica would lose ice over at least the next ten thousand years in response, with an average contribution to sea-level rise of up to three meters per century during the first millennium. Consistent with recent observations and simulations, the scientists also found that even if global warming would be limited to two degrees, this already raises the risk of destabilizing the West Antarctic ice sheet. “And the risk increases with every additional tenth of a degree of warming, with unabated carbon emissions threatening the Antarctic Ice Sheet in its entirety,” Ken Caldeira concludes.

 “An ice cube in a warming room

The comprehensive simulations take into account the impacts of atmospheric and ocean warming on the Antarctic ice as well as feedback mechanisms that might speed up ice discharge and melting processes. Moreover, they consider phenomena like enhanced snowfall due to global warming that might offset some part of the ice loss. Even though major modeling challenges remain, like imperfect datasets of Antarctic bedrock topography, the simulations are particularly well suited for the long-term projections of the continental-scale evolution of the ice sheet. “It is much easier to predict that an ice cube in a warming room is going to melt eventually than it is to say precisely how quickly it will vanish,” Winkelmann says.

Currently, Antarctica contributes less than 10 percent to global sea-level rise and hence is a minor contributor compared to the thermal expansion of the warming oceans and to the influx from melting mountain glaciers. However, Greenland and especially Antarctica with their huge ice volumes are expected to be the major contributors to long-term future sea-level rise. “Our results show that the currently attainable carbon resources are sufficient to eliminate the Antarctic ice sheet and that major coastal cities are threatened at much lower amounts of cumulative emissions,” Winkelmann says. “In a world beyond two degrees, long-term sea-level rise would likely be dominated by ice loss from Antarctica.”

Article: Winkelmann, R., Levermann, A., Ridgwell, K., Caldeira, K. (2015): Combustion of available fossil-fuel resources sufficient to eliminate the Antarctic Ice Sheet. Science Advances

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