Sunday, December 16, 2007

maybe partying will help

This is going to be my last blog post for a few weeks probably. I’m headed to Washington DC for much holiday cheer. Maybe I’ll see you there. In the meantime, please remember those in need, and do them some small kindness if you can.

Now that I have the important part out of the way, what about this whole holiday season concept? Unlike most Americans apparently (as the surveys tell us) I like it. Then again, having been widely acknowledged for many years as on my way to nowhere, I don’t feel like I’ve let anybody down, I don’t feel pressure to buy anybody anything fancy, and I don’t have to pretend to love anybody more than I do. Plus I even get a few weeks off. So all told I can enjoy myself. And I can also say, this whole holiday season concept is a little ridiculous, isn’t it? I’m not going to get into the issues of religion or the capitalist uses of Christmas right now, although I’d be glad to be serious about them some other time. Let’s just say that they’re part of the human pageant at this time of year, one which offers a wide palette of outrageous behavior very useful for any investigation of the human animal.

Take the holiday party. Paraphrasing Guy Debord in Panegyric, I can say that I have written much less than most people who write, but I have been to many more holiday parties than most people who go to holiday parties. And holiday parties are, to put it mildly, ridiculous, which is directly linked to the way people behave when at them. More on that in a moment, and points to any of you who know what Debord’s original line actually is.

But what about you? Going to any holiday parties this season? Ones that involve writers? Ones that don’t? My blog comment box wants to hear your thoughts on holiday season parties. Poems, anecdotes, tall tales, whatever. Tell the truth if you dare or make something up. Where will you be this holiday season? If the answer isn’t interesting, make it sound like it anyway.

In the meantime, I’m leaving you with a little piece of mine about holiday season parties that some people in the past have enjoyed and some others might enjoy if I post it here. It was published in my book Haze, and was originally part of a manuscript called Communal Perversities which long ago fell apart much like I did and morphed into other things. I think the piece still reflects the truth of the holiday season office party. If it offers some small pleasure, I’m glad. I wish all of you a wonderful season and a Happy New Year. With luck I’ll even wish it to you in person.


Perhaps nothing produces more exactly the subtle horror of current social relations than the office Christmas party. There are far worse nightmares, undoubtedly. Yet the never quite located, permeating sickness of the office party is the perfect expression of developed alienation for three reasons. One, everyone there appears as though they are there to see each other, when really they are there to protect their tenuous economic circumstances. Two, it's a party and supposed to be fun, while fun is precisely what it is not about, indeed while anyone seeking fun could more likely find it anywhere else, literally. Three, in its apparently voluntary, benevolent largesse, it appears to make people welcome and to feel like they belong, while it displays exactly that to which no one is welcome, namely, a voluntary gathering of like-minded others who work together simply because they prefer to do so.

Thus it displays its alienation through the fact that no one can state openly why they are there. And this is true even for those who believe they are, who in fact are, having fun.

For all these reasons, people who avoid office Christmas parties are only avoiding their feelings. They don't wish to know, to experience directly, and deludedly believe that avoiding the truth will make it not so. I myself go to every office Christmas party to which I am invited, arriving early and staying late, chatting, eating, and drinking, until the sickness congratulates my entire body, until each toast I have made can be faithfully dedicated to its exact opposite.

Sunday, December 9, 2007

an insightful distance from the host language

In translating Turkish poetry into English, working with other translators, and writing a series of essays that help readers in English contextualize the poetry, Murat Nemet-Nejat has taken on a task of a size and significance that few contemporary translators and editors can match.

In 2004 EDA: An Anthology of Contemporary Turkish Poetry was published by Talisman House and made the range of this achievement apparent. Now Jacket 34 is featuring further developments in the project, including new poems and essays. If you want to learn more about Turkish poetry, obviously there’s no better place to turn. These translations, and the contextualization Nemet-Nejat supplies for them, continue to help all of us who speak English primarily to reduce our own myopia and have at least somewhat more awareness of global literary history.

Coming in neatly just under the 750-word limit, my review of the original EDA anthology appeared in the Oct/Nov 2005 issue of The Poetry Project Newsletter. I’m reprinting it here. Needless to say perhaps, some of the issues I take up regarding the inevitable incompleteness of all anthologies still hold, while at the same time this new work in Jacket 34 shows that Nemet-Nejat continues making this project ever more thorough and impressive.


For some years, translator, critic, and poet Murat Nemet-Nejat has been providing English speakers a detailed look at developments in Turkish poetry. Although with luck it’s not the culmination of his effort, EDA: An Anthology of Contemporary Turkish Poetry certainly gives the fullest look yet at Nemet-Nejat’s project. Readers wanting an introduction to 20th century Turkish poetry as well as guidelines for future exploration can find it here.

It’s a strange time for anthologies. By now it’s a cliche to note that the work found in one always reveals the ideology of its editors, yet the cliche has accompanied not the death of the anthology but an explosion of anthologies that wear their ideologies openly. Even as standard English language anthologies like Norton and Heath prepare to release new editions with thousands of more pages than past versions, as if desperately believing that somehow they can get it all in, the editors of other too-numerous-to-read anthologies struggle to find convincing (or at least interesting) reasons for creating alternative concepts of what an anthology might be.

Nemet-Nejat negotiates this problem carefully. He makes no claims for EDA as a thorough representation of 20th century Turkish poetry. Instead he acknowledges individual bias, claiming that the poems in the book represent primarily his own interests. But he also highlights a concept that helps him move beyond merely personal investments. He defines “eda” (a term he borrows and alters from Mustafa Ziyalan) as an impulse animating much of the poetry he presents, an “essence” perhaps best defined in a phrase by Walter Benjamin as “distance from the host language”; that is, as those marks that make a poem distinct from other uses of the language into which it's translated. Nemet-Nejat breaks down the “otherness of eda” into three aspects, thematic, linguistic, and metaphysical. While we should be wary of the idea that a single concept can sum up all the important developments in any literary tradition, the concept of eda is broad and precise enough simultaneously almost to do the trick.

The anthology traces a spirit of innovation in Turkish poetry since 1921, when “for the first time in almost four hundred years” Turkish “became a written literary language.” Nemet-Nejat locates this spirit in three major periods: the initial one of the 20s and 30s; the period known as The Second New during the 50s and 60s; and finally a contemporary era beginning in the 90s. Each era is represented by substantial selections of poetry by major figures and a smattering of work by related writers. Also included are some important era-undermining iconoclasts, Ilhan Berk most prominently.

One of the anthology’s great successes is its focus on a number of writers who deserve to be more known outside Turkey than they are. The book wisely plays down work by the great Nazim Hikmet, who of these poets is most thoroughly familiar to English-speaking readers, in favor of writers whose work will benefit more from attention here. It’s a pleasure to read extended sequences by writers such as Ahmet Hasim, Orhan Veli Kanik, and Ece Ayhan, and to compare their achievements with contemporary poets like Seyhan Erozcelik, Sami Baydar, kucuk Iskender and others. It’s fun to consider which of these poets seem more incisive outside of their cultural context and which more lodged within it. For instance, the earthy ironies of Orhan Veli, the satires of Ilhan Berk, and the linguistic adventurousness of Ece Ayhan resonate more across cultures than the male erotic sado-masochistic anguish of Cemal Sureya and its critique of Sufism.

The anthology also does a good job of tracing at least the outlines of various cultural problems in Turkish poetry, including sexual orientation, gender, and others. It’s interesting to see the coded homoerotics of Sait Faik in the 1950s contrasted to the open homosexuality of Ahmet Guntan’s linguistically sly 1995 book Romeo and Romeo. And if gender issues emerge primarily through the way women are imaged by male poets, the presence of an outstanding contemporary poet like Lale Muldur at least begins to develop an understanding of women’s writing in Turkey, although more clearly needs to be done. By the 1990s, Turkish poetry was also taking new risks with linguistic experimentation, and it will be intriguing to see where that tendency heads.

The shorter selections of work by figures less central to Nemet-Nejat’s thinking were occasionally more frustrating than enlightening. It’s not always clear why some of these poets are included, or what good it does to translate no more than several lines of their poetry. Yet in at least pointing to these writers, Nemet-Nejat suggests possibilities for further exploration. And many of these poems were both insightful and clearly connected to the anthology’s interests.

The book ends with a series of essays that provide brief readings of poems or develop more thoroughly the guiding concepts of the anthology. While other essays addressing the more marginal figures would have been welcome, it’s hard to pretend that demanding greater thoroughness is always the best way to handle anthologies in an era that highlights ideological transparency and the necessity of limits. Readers of EDA come away with much more than an understanding of Nemet-Nejat’s approach to Turkish poetry. They see as well a detailed outline of a poetic tradition that’s emotionally gripping and intellectually adventurous, one clearly deserving greater world attention.

Sunday, December 2, 2007

learning to spell properly

Historically, the establishment of a supposedly definitive OED and also Webster's Dictionary created a level of institutional and cultural control over the variable ways people had spelled words earlier in the language we call English. These dictionaries created both the idea that a word should have a single spelling and that a dictionary could tell you what that spelling was. Simultaneously, the dictionaries did explain at least something, often a great deal, about the earlier history of variable spellings.

On the one hand, there was some positive practical benefit from this codification. In many instances, communication could be made easier when there was agreement about the nature of what communication looked like. Still, a deeply unfortunate and in some ways intended result of this codification was that people who were less likely to spell properly (mainly those who didn't have access to an education that taught them to spell) could also be codified not simply as uneducated but also as incapable, stupid, and so on. It was a perfectly vicious circle. Labeling people as incapable enabled not educating them which led to more chances to label them. And around and around we go.

Today those of us who speak English almost always assume that words have only one spelling, despite the fact that many of us don’t know the authoritative spelling of as many words as we like to believe. Yet the idea of questioning, challenging, or refusing dominant modes of spelling has a long history in literature, one that develops simultaneously with the belief in standardized spelling. Dialect and idiolect writing are two common such approaches. In dialect, spelling tries to mimic the way people speak in some actual cultural context or region. Idiolect, a more self-conscious attempt to create new, unique approaches to language, sometimes in relation to new contexts in which language is being used (idiolect using computer language, for instance) contains an overt attempt to change prior ways of using words. Spelling words in ways different than the dictionary suggests shows us how language really works in living practice or suggests how it might be changed.

Learning how to spell correctly indicates some degree of acceptance of institutional control over language. Not learning how to spell can indicate resistance (more active or passive as the case may be) to this control but doesn't necessarily. It can also indicate the fact that some people view the physical properties of language differently. Many people with what is called dyslexia see the visual field of the page in unexpected ways, the words literally moving around on the page or rearranging themselves according to puns or other similarities in syllables. In a culture which demands normative language abilities, people who see words that way can suffer from a lack of opportunities that often starts with getting poor grades. The problems caused by stigmatization of their differences are real.

But people who don’t learn to spell properly also include those who see themselves as not conforming as thoroughly as they would like, or who are rebelling only because they don’t feel they should have to learn. So while it’s important not to stigmatize non-normative spellers, it’s equally essential not to see them simply as heroic rebels. Not learning to spell as educational institutions would like can in some cases be done by people who feel impervious to (or at least uninterested in) the consequences, just as learning to spell can be a heroic attempt not to feel threatened and inconsequential. Add to the mix the complications of second language speakers of English, whose original languages contain different grammatical structures and sets of possible sounds, and it turns out that the notion of proper spelling involves all sorts of cultural and psychological issues.

Every time it seems simple to know what spelling correctly means, the world gets in the way.

An interesting wrinkle worth considering is that some non-normative spellings may be more disruptive to normative spelling than others. A recent linguistics study going around on the internet in various urban legend versions suggests that changed consonants are much more damaging to normative understanding than changed vowels. Based on the ideas in that study, if somebody sent me an “invatition” (two letters switched) I would still understand that I had been invited somewhere. But were I to receive an “inligation” (again, only two letters switched) then I would be much more likely to assume some legal issue was at stake.

A particularly disruptive type of non-normative spelling is the one in which a word, by being misspelled, becomes another word. The most amazing incident of this kind that I was involved in concerned a student who had written the line “I was bored by the [ ] system.” When I asked her what bored her, it turned out she hadn’t meant “bored.” She’d meant “barred.” Speaking for myself, I found the pun fascinating. As a student who felt like she had been unfairly kicked out of a institutional program, she didn’t find it fascinating. She wanted me to understand what had happened to her and was frustrated that I still wasn’t understanding.

As an editor who’s interested in work that challenges ideas about spelling, I’ve often found the boundary very hazy between a conscious misspelling and a typo. My general rule of thumb is that if a piece contains numerous non-normative spellings, they’re probably intentional, whereas one or two non-normative spellings in a piece are much more likely to be typos. In either case it’s crucial to query the writer, and I never know what’s going to happen. Sometimes the misspelling is a typo. Sometimes I’ve missed the writer’s interest in a non-normative version of the word. In either case, it seems to me that authorial intention should be the final arbiter.

Assuming, that is, that one notices there’s an issue at all. Mistakes on this subject still happen to me. In the Telling It Slant essay collection that I co-edited, five typos were brought to my attention (all of them quickly) after the publication of the book. Four were typos in which the word should have been corrected to a normative spelling. One was a word that intentionally had been spelled non-normatively. It had been edited to become normative, by me I guess, although I had no memory of making the change. It’s quite possible that I thought I’d added a letter by accident and then deleted it because I thought it was my own mistake that the letter was there in the first place.

The will to proper spelling, it seems, can act itself out on a subliminal level.

I’d be interested in knowing how you feel about proper spelling. Like it, hate it, want to defend its importance or attack it? Are you a good speller? Would it be fascinating or disturbing to think that a lot of writers have difficulty spelling?