Tuesday, April 28, 2009

Cuban Science Fiction

Thanks to Three Percent a few weeks ago I learned about the World SF News Blog. I am a sometimes guilty, but constant, reader of science fiction in English and only recently began exploring the rich world of science fiction in translation, and in Spanish (my other reading language). Today, on the World SF News Blog they posted a link to a list of Cuban science fiction writers which includes detailed biographical information, bibliographies and links to texts and interviews. A great resource I look forward to more fully exploring!

Monday, April 27, 2009


In an insightful and suggestive NYTimes.com article yesterday, Columbia professor of religion Mark Taylor discusses the structure of higher education in the United States, and its future. Despite it's rather anxiety-inducing title, "The End of the University As We Know It," the article is not as doom-saying as all that. Rather, he carefully isolates the major recurring problems of academia, which those of us involved in it know all too well, and considers solutions to these problems.

Among his major complaints, and rightfully so, is the debillitating specialization and inability to foster innovation that the current system necessitates:
And as departments fragment, research and publication become more and more about less and less. Each academic becomes the trustee not of a branch of the sciences, but of limited knowledge that all too often is irrelevant for genuinely important problems. ... The emphasis on narrow scholarship also encourages an educational system that has become a process of cloning.
All other problems aside, the siloing of academia has made it less and less relevant and by extension made the sometimes very important work that happens in both practical and theoretical fields within university communities arcane and inaccessible. This problem connects, in my mind, to that of jargon, which Edward Said wrote about brilliantly in Representations of the Intellectual. When the work that academics do cannot be understood as relating to the world outside the ivory tower, it becomes relegated to navel-gazing and self-indulgent diatribe. In just the same way, when departments and the faculty and students within them turn away from the connections implicit in their work they become diminishingly important. It is these connections that justifies more obviously the humanities, but the sciences as well.

This is to say, also, that all fields of study are equally rich with connections. That poetry (as I firmly believe) is as relevant as chemistry for addressing the world's multiplying and complex problems.
There can be no adequate understanding of the most important issues we face when disciplines are cloistered from one another and operate on their own premises.

It would be far more effective to bring together people working on questions of religion, politics, history, economics, anthropology, sociology, literature, art, religion and philosophy to engage in comparative analysis of common problems. As the curriculum is restructured, fields of inquiry and methods of investigation will be transformed.
I think that there have been surges in this direction in academia. Comparative Literature departments, to some degree, address the necessity for looking outside single national literary traditions to form complete pictures. New Historicism in literary criticism requires the situating of a text and its author in a socio-historical, political and economic context for the fullest understanding. I'm drawing examples from my own discipline, but I'm sure there are many others.

It's no surprise to me that the author of this article is a professor of religion. One of the monumental and formative moments of my undergraduate academic experience was a spirited discussion in a study of religion class (which became a second major for me, in part because of this) in which we examined the place of the study of religion in academia. Was it even possible to study religion without equal parts anthropology, history, economics, politics and literature? Was it reasonable to expect to be able to study any of these independant of the others? As a class, we came to the conclusion that it would make more sense to have a Cultural Studies field in which one could focus, like a wide-angle camera, on a particular aspect without excluding the others. Our professor agreed.

The problem is that these steps are too small. Even the collapse of autonomous and disconnected departments is not enough. It is also the problem of national in the place of international. Taylor addresses this through the increased use of technology and resources, allowing universities around the world to simultaneously share resources and faculty, but this leaves 2/3 of the world behind. In order for academia and scholarship to truly transform, it needs to break free of the elitism that is endemic in the institutions. The elitism isn't mearly in the absurd over-specialization, or in the equaliy pretentious use of jargon, but in the basic assumptions of what higher education can accomplish, and what its intent is in the world. A dissolution of boundaries between disciplines is a good first step in a larger examination of the role of the intellectual in public life.

Critics of these ideas say that it is the ability to specialize so minutely that allows great ideas to develop, and while I don't doubt that for some that's true, I think for the most part it rewards elitism and arcane scholarship. There must be not only room, but encouragement, for both. Critics of these ideas say that these kinds of changes would take away from the scholarship that is possbile, for who is making the decisions once professors aren't guarenteed a life-time position? God forbid it be the administrators! The answer, of course, is more innovation: boards - perhaps much like editorial boards, for example, that determine areas of inquiry and whether to discontinue unsuccesful focuses. There

I, unlike Taylor, have no solutions. His are radical, and will be rejected but shouldn't be. Even the suggestion of aboloshing tenure, though this made me flinch with aprehension. He's right, though, aboloshing tenure to be replaced with long-term contracts would allow for more innovation in universities, and make it possible for younger professors to find footing. There's a risk here that by aboloshing tenure universities would merely increase the exploitation of adjunct and graduate student teachers (another institutionalized problem addressed in the article), without creating opportunities and a system of rewards that would encourage the change Talyor is hoping for.

This is perhaps why change occurs so slowly in institutions as old as the university. The risks run high, and the people in power have a lot at stake. There are no shareholders to call for radical restructuring, only students whose futures are at the whim of the system they are a part of. There are too many people who have too much to gain by maintaining the status quo, and no one in the position to push for immediate and comprehensive change. It is a system dependant on evolution. But I don't find this discouraging.

I've already seen the inklings of this broadening of perspective in academia. Literary translation, perhaps the best example of looking outside the singluar specialized field, has begun to find a place in academia in the UK and the US. Interdisciplinary studies programs are popping up, still new, unfunded and untested, but there. The possibilites for real change are out there - but only if the existing power structures can evolve towards it.

Friday, April 24, 2009

The Husk

Reading over at Harriet a post by
It also could have been the denaturing process of translation itself, which gives us, at best, the husk of poems. But it was the husk I needed, not the grace notes. I needed a new conceptual platform.
Young North American poets of the early 21st century must come to understand that the English language has become the global language, and this global idiom comes in two basic forms: hegemonic and co-opted; that is, English has become a language which embodies both power and the struggle against power, both the standardization and the defense of the particular.
It is our duty now, since English has become the language of globalization, to continually recycle all of its registers, to shift and shuffle them, to be at once plain spoken and baroque, as need be, to keep the language exercised, lean and honest.

I was glad to see the discussion in the comments turn toward translation, because I was dismayed by the first statement above, especially in light of the conclusion - our responsibility now as speakers of a language of globalization, war and consumerism.

It seems to me that in large part the assumption that nothing of value can move between languages is a result of linguistic monopoly, and an archaic one at that, coming from a previous language of empire and religion, Latin. Replaced by the religion of consumerism and the empire of free market, English supplants Latin but the premise is the same. Translation threatens the supremacy of the language of state, and therefore is classified as at best inferior and at worst traitorous. He mentions in a comment that he's studied the 'art of translation' - and I do believe it is an art, at least when translating literary works - and so it is even stranger to me that he would reduce it to failed derivative reproduction.

While I accept that there are necessary sacrifices made during the translation process, there are also gains. These gains are not only in the sound, syntax, image and structure of the poem (as they can be, at times) but in the expansion of our horizons as readers and writers, and importantly the de-centering of our native language as the only legitimate producer of culture and art.

Translation, I think, is an inherently subversive act that can throw into sharp relief the bloated egotism of our linguistic assumptions. To use his term, it is through translation that we can perhaps un-co-opt poetic expression.

Monday, April 20, 2009

Zebra Poetry Film Festival

I've always been intrigued by the possibilities of combining, or exploring the overlap between, film and poetry. This may be because I work in poetry while my husband, brother and several of my closest friends work in film. I won't pretend it's not a selfish interest. It's also always seemed rich in possibility because both rely heavily on universal communication through the image, and film allows for a multidimensional and multitemporal exploration of single or multiplied and shifting images.

So I was thrilled, in a frenzy of surfing, to come across the Zebra Poetry Film Award and corresponding festival. Though the site is moderately difficult to navigate and my German is severely lacking, with 600 entries from across the world in 2006, it's clear that I'm not the only one who believes this is a fertile ground for creation. The site does, after a bit of searching, have information about the upcoming 2009 event from June 27 - July 5, and the videos of past year's winners. I looked a bit for a dvd of the films, or some of them, because I would certainly buy it if not only to support the festival, but also to enrich my understanding of this borderland art, but in vain.

In any case, this certainly bumped German up on my list of languages to improve.

Sunday, April 19, 2009

Literature Across Frontiers

They have a spectacular list of links to publishers and organizations that support literature and translation. According to Three Percent:
LAF represents approximately twenty cultural organizations from across Europe that provide translation subsidies to publishers interested in translating their works. In addition, these organizations frequently produce pamphlets and other promotional materials to spread the word about their literature.

The Guilt of the Photographer

I know that fiction relies on a suspension of disbelief, to some degree, even realist fiction. But I wonder, as I begin reading Margaret Sayers-Peden's translation of Arturo Perez-Reverte's The Painter of Battles, why a person threatened with being killed wouldn't immediately go to the police. The protagonist, a retired war-photographer, is confronted by the subject of an award-winning photo from ten years ago, who tracks him down in his secluded studio and promises to kill him. Perhaps the photographer cum painter feels an obligation to the subject for his dispassionate capture and use of his image, or remorse for not remembering the subject, asking his name or even finding out whether he survived the war being documented. But that somehow seems too comfortable, to easy to succumb to guilt.

I'm interested to see how it will unfold - it the painter, we already know, is searching for some meaning to life and death, it is why he became a war photographer in the first place. There is the promise that the meaning he seeks will be developed, like a photograph, through the conversations he has with is subject and would-be killer. Perhaps there is he insinuation that by photographing this man in the midst of battle, anonymously and without emotion, the photographer in some way took his life from him. Though the subject survived the battle, his face becomes the symbol of a lost cause, a defeated party in a civil war. That theft of choice in identity - what one's life represents - will be balanced by the theft of the photographer's life.

Faulques, photographer and now painter of battles, says to his subject, companion, inquisitor "War ... can be photographed well only when, as you raise the camera, what you see doesn't affect you." (40) In this way the camera becomes weaponized, the photographer a soldier of sorts. Soldiers learn, through training or experience, to dehumanize the other, the enemy. It's necessary in order to kill, tortue, villanize. A soldier who feels remorse, sympathy or empathy is useless as a combatant. In the same way, here, the photographer cannot indulge in an emotional identification with the subject - sterilizing them, though without the villification necessary to kill them. The interesting double meaning of "shoot."

Poetry On Demand

I love this. The idea that poetry is just as vital as groceries, if it were just as available. I would love to try something like this - it must be an amazing feeling, to know that your poem, no matter how hurried, is important to someone's day.

More than that, it's a popularizing of the commissioning of works of art - something that only the very wealthy could do, and which they rarely do anymore. Putting art in the hands of the everyday. Because neither can survive without the other.

Friday, April 17, 2009


There is so much information out there it's overwhelming. Well, maybe not if you're under 20, but sometimes I become inundated with input. It's something I almost seek - right now I'm watching a History Channel program, working on the bi-weekly Joiner Center newsletter, checking and answering emails, and researching a few things that especially caught my attention today. So how able am I to significantly absorb any of this information?

There's a lament I've seen, though I can't recall where, that we have become a society of skimmers. We look for fast, quick information that is easily digestible and assimilatable. We shirk from meaningful contemplation. This affects our communications, our intelligence, and according to some, our morality.

The thing is, I've never had a good memory. Really, even before the days of constant digital input (and output) I could barely remember the conversations I had earlier in the day. Does subjecting myself to virtually constant information make it more difficult for me to digest? Some people swear by multitasking - especially those with attention disorders - claiming that using more of the brain allows for better focus. Some, a dear friend of mine for example, advises slowing down. I'm caught in the middle. At times, like now for example, I find myself distracted by the multiple inputs, yet strangely unable to pull myself away from them. At others, and perhaps the origin of the habit for me, I can't seem to devote myself to one project entirely and so search for other stimulation.