Friday, November 10, 2017

Master Class on the Novella in Translation

Bolaño's Una novelita lumpen
At the beginning of September, the fall semester always looks endless to me, like a river whose mouth or delta lies beyond the horizon of the looming holidays. Once class begin, however, the weeks and months always race by more swiftly than I envision. By December, I find myself remarking how the term has slimmed down to final papers and exams, with the restorative winter break--that terminus--only weeks away. Even still, I always worry about overloading and wearing myself out, which I have come to realize is unavoidable. Beyond classes these days, there is everything else, which was always there, but even more so with each passing year.

I nevertheless had the idea that a mere month's worth of--four--classes on a free Wednesday alongside my usual teaching and advising load would not be unreasonable and a pleasant change of pace, and it turns out that it was. For four weeks from mid-October through the beginning of November, I taught a masterclass on the novella in translation to a small cadre of MFA students at Columbia University's School of the Arts, and once I properly figured out the commute, which required heading in the opposite direction from Newark, things ran quite smoothly.

Having not headed into Manhattan regularly during morning rush hour in 17 years, I was reminded that the PATH trains are usually reliable, if stuffed like a coffee vacuum pack, at that hour, and that the trip into the city is especially quick because it only requires a few stops to Christopher Street station, which once was my destination when I was a student at NYU (except when I taught in the East Village and in the winter, when I would take it further, to 9th Street) and again when I worked in SoHo in the late 1990s. From the Christopher St. PATH stop, I walked down the famous street, still mostly shuttered at 9 am, to the 1 Train at 7th Avenue, and then changed to the 2 to speed uptown, then back to the 1 to end up right outside Columbia's main gate on Broadway. Trips back to New Jersey (and usually the Rutgers campus for afternoon meetings) ran more leisurely in reverse.

Since we had only four weeks, so I assigned four novellas in translation:
  • Roberto Bolaño's 2005 mini-masterpiece A Little Lumpen Novelita, the last work of fiction he published in his lifetime, which was translated by Natasha Wimmer and published by New Directions in 2016;
  • Amélie Nothomb's 1993 novella Loving Sabotage, translated by Andrew Wilson and published by New Directions in 2003;
  • Yoko Ogawa's The Diving Pool: Three Novellas, originally published as three separate works, in 1990 and 1991, and translated by Stephen Snyder and published by Picador in 2008;
  • and Abdourahman A. Waberi's 2009 Passage of Tears, translated by David and Nicole Ball, and published by Seagull Books, 2011.
I had read all of these books before, the Waberi and Bolaño texts most recently, and the Nothomb not long after it appeared a little over a decade ago. I chose these texts with the aim of linguistic, aesthetic, and thematic diversity, among other goals, yet still ended up with two Francophone authors, writing from rather different perspectives, and three works in European languages. (Since I can read French and Spanish, though, I had a clearer sense of the translators' skills.) Of the four works, Bolaño's and Ogawa's were clearly labeled novelas (or "novelita"), while Nothomb's and Waberi's were issued as novels. All four are authors I admire, Bolaño especially so, and though I had taught his work before, I had never included fiction by any of the other authors, nor these four works, on my syllabi.

I'd chosen Waberi's text, I realized after the course had begun, in part as a provocation, because its length suggests that it might not fit the criteria. And what are they? I won't reprise the essay, based on a talk I gave last spring at Northwestern's annual spring Festival of Writing, that I revised and shared with my students to start the class, but some of the key characteristics I asked the students to think about were the novella's usually limited scope (more than a story, perhaps, but less than most novels) and concentrated effects, its unity of voice and plot, and its concision in narration. One of my students metaphorized, specifically apropos of Ogawa's work, the novella's narrative focus to a "tunnel." I thought this a brilliant insight, and thought it applied, in varying ways, to all four works. The students' assignments included in-class discussion and writing, response papers, and, as their final submission, a set of novella starters. Each student produced several that I hope they pursue, if not as novellas then, plumped out as novels.

They were to a person smart, engaged, and original in their thinking. I did not see any of their creative work, but nearly all were fiction writers, and I got a sense of what each of them was working on. It was a pleasure to experience thinking through the texts with them. Each novella offers different challenges in terms of how it works, and the class as a whole was more than up to the case, puzzling out as well other aspects of the texts. One of the students who read French was able to point out how much more ironic Nothomb's original was compared to the English (and how it riffed off a variety of works that Francophone readers would know, though Anglophones might not), while Waberi's French was a bit more formal in places, and less so in others.

Will they write a novella or novellas? I hope my proselytization was effective, though I did discuss, in the essay and the class, the US publishing industry's reluctance about the shorter long form. I also hope I might have sparked an interest in translation among some of them. I did leave the very brief course--like an "eyeblink," as one student put it--as encouraged as I always am when I finish a semester with my MFA (and other graduate, and undergraduate) students at Rutgers-Newark, about the future of American literature and writing. The hurdle, of course, is to get inventive, talented writers (of all ages and backgrounds) like these students and my Rutgers students and mentees, into print, and their work to readers. The sharp, gifted novella class cohort, I sincerely hope and trust, will be doing so before long.

Tuesday, October 10, 2017

Random Photos

A few photos from the last month or so. More posts coming soon, I hope!

New School University, readying for an outdoor event
A worker at a construction site (Calvin Krime)
West Village
More booths being set up near New School University
"Global Media Activism"
I walked around an entire day with
this book in my pocket, like a talisman
Cabinet delivery (or disposal?),
West Village
Sidewalk (trash) display, West Village 
Observant meter, Newark
Amazon locker, Haynes Bldg, Newark
Erika L. Sánchez, MFA Associate Director
Rigoberto González & Ben Lerner
at Writers@Newark reading, September 2017
Outdoor performance, Military Park, Newark

Military Park, Newark
David Barclay Moore's debut novel
(& my new copy!)
Examining records, 19th St., Manhattan 
Another view (at Academy Records) 
Workers on break, 19th Street
Near MoMA PS1
Lorca's view, Canal Street
From Renee Gladman's Prose Architectures (2017)

Friday, September 29, 2017

New York Art Book Fair

As has been the case for the last few years, I was able to get over to MoMA PS1 in Long Island City, Queens for the annual NY Art Book Fair, one of the largest art-book gatherings in the US. Running for four days, presented primarily by Printed Matter (with a host of sponsors), and featuring over 370 "booksellers, antiquarians, artists, institutions, and independent publishers from 28 countries," to quote the website, it is always a bonanza for arts-based publishing, and the ideal venue to learn about and find books you might not readily encounter elsewhere. I used to go on the first day, but realized the last day--Sunday--is the best for bargains and smaller crowds. The MTA's usual challenges as well as the Sunday travel schedule meant a slightly more involved journey over to Queens, but once there and on the bus, it was a short hop to the venue, which tends to have as many interesting look people milling around outside it as inside.

Street décollage (on the way there)
A vendor in the domed tent 
A vendor and reader
One of many booths
Last year, I made sure to head to Image Text Ithaca's (ITI) booth to sign copies of GRIND, and they were there again this year, with a number of newly published texts. I had the opportunity to chat with some of the students in their MFA program, as well as with photographer, publisher, ITI co-organizer and my collaborator on GRIND Nicholas Muellner. (I'd just missed author, artist, publisher and ITI co-organizer Catherine Taylor, who'd been there for most of the event.) New Directions, which was there in 2015, skipped this year, though I imagine they'll be back next year with some of their new offerings, including new entries in their pamphlet series. This year, I said I would try to visit every floor, and as many of the rooms and booths as I could handle, within a four-hour window, because the building tends to get a bit toasty and so many exhibits become overwhelming. (This is my strategy for BEA and AWP, etc. also.) In addition, I said that I would not load up on books, or no more than I could fit reasonably fit in one book bag, and I stuck to my vow, bringing back lots of cards, but fewer books and works of art than in the past.

The bustling courtyard
One of the vendor areas, off
MoMA PS1's main courtyard 
The geodesic domed tent
A room wallpapered with
images of uteruses
A closeup of the wallpaper 
At a booth where I found some great
photos last year
I'm always fascinated by the mix of vendors at the NY Art Book Fair. You have pretty high end university presses, like Yale, for example, and tiny publishers who clearly are a one-person operation.  Those booths and books are often some of the funnest to check out, because the work often is highly original and a labor of love, though I imagine everyone at the fair wants to at least make back the fees for exhibiting, and to develop regular readers and subscribers (for the magazines and zines). Another publisher I always look for is Song Cave, helmed by poet Alan Felsenthal and others.  As in the past, they were in the geodesic dome, with their trove of new and backlist titles. One especially intriguing book of theirs I picked up was an edited volume of Subcommandante Marcos's writings, Professionals of Hope, with an afterward by Gabriela Jauregui, which read like (some of the best overtly political) poetry and philosophy.

Free posters ("WAS WAR WON")
Art and books and viewers 
This gentleman was selling the
controversial and discredited
Black Panthers Coloring Book,
produced not by the Black Panthers
but by the FBI to discredit them
(the book is actually pretty fascinating)
Photography books for sale
The image I that from a distance
I at first thought was a window!
More photographs for sale
One of the things I've noticed over the last few years is that the vendor base is diversifying somewhat, with more (especially young) artists and publishers of color and queer creative figures. This always means that if I can go slowly enough through the booths and displays I'll find some gems I would not see elsewhere. There are also art exhibits, but I chose to skip most of the freestanding ones this time, and booksignings, which I also skipped unless the artist or writer was there at the table. There probably are readings and conversations. I think I'll try to catch some of these next year, because if I'm in town, I will make every effort to be back!

Aperture's table
In one of the large upstairs rooms
Nathaniel Otting, at left, and
books and zines for days!
Nathaniel and a bookseller,
from the Philadelphia area (though
I think he said he's now in NYC,
but the store is still in Philly) 
Door display
Gregory R. Miller & Co.
He signed a card I bought 
Another room bursting with books of all kinds
Delicious zines!

Friday, September 22, 2017

Checking In (Jury Duty)

The view from the Hudson County Superior Courthouse
Time races by these days, as it always has, though I've felt it increasing even more over the last few years, and this fall has been no exception. Last spring was a marathon of sorts, and after recuperating this summer, figuratively and literally, a new race has begun. In addition to chairing, teaching, advising, and mentoring, traveling for conferences and readings, and serving as a referee, second editor, blurbist, and all those good things, I was called up for jury duty by the Hudson County Superior Court in September, just as the fall semester began. On the one hand, I understand that peer jury service is a civic duty, and I strong support this key component of our court system.

On the other hand, it came at a very inopportune time, and because I had already postponed it several times over the summer for medical reasons, I could not get another delay, so I had to appear at the court house and see if the lottery would fall in my favor. It either did or didn't, depending upon whether you think getting selected to serve on a horrifying criminal case for roughly three weeks was a positive outcome or not. I did not, though I can say in retrospect that the experience was enlightening and one I will not soon forget. I also will not forget that the some of the skills need to assess literature critically--judiciousness, an eye for detail, the ability to relate texts to other texts, etc.--and to function decently in the classroom, such as listening carefully, being persuasive in arguing points, carefulness in balancing differing opinions, defusing unnecessary conflict, etc., also come in very handy if you are on a jury, even if you are not the fore-person.

A tip to prospective jurors: some things I learned in the jury selection process are that neither the prosecutor nor the defense attorney wants to have anyone involved in psychology, psychiatry, or social work counseling on the jury pool if they can help it. They also do not seem to like people who love police, though expressing concern about police brutality or misconduct does not seem to be a bar to service. Personal experience as a victim of a crime is also no hindrance, though if you were a victim of a crime similar to the one being adjudicated, they will probably politely ask you to leave the courtroom and reenter the jury pool for another case.

Another view, looking out at Jersey City and Manhattan
As for justice being served, I think that is a much more complex issue. We were told not to discuss the case even after we had rendered a decision--and the defendant, I learned from the news, has several more cases pending on very similar grounds, information that was, for whatever reason, not admitted in court--so I will not go into specifics. But I felt that under the circumstances, we were able to come a decision that was just and fair. Extrapolating from our jury discussions and several jurors' almost unyielding opinions, based not on the facts of the case but on personal beliefs and stereotypes, however, I am even more convinced than before that the possibility of justice is foreclosed as soon as a jury is constituted.

Back to blogging, I have begun a number of posts, dating all the way back to mid-summer, but have not been able to finish them as various other deadlines have popped up. I had the idea that I would try shorter entries, but I find that brief posts that aren't photos or short accounts of events almost as tough as longer ones, since I feel I'm not saying enough. But I want to return to blogging a bit more regularly, and not only talk about the events of the day--which now move so swiftly that unless you blog daily or in some cases several times a day, they're already history--but also return to this site's roots, which is literature, the arts, and cultural issues writ small and large.