Bus Stops: Ars Poetica

Valzhyna Mort

copyright ©2020



Not books, but
a street opened my mouth like a doctor’s spatula.

One by one, streets introduced themselves
with the names of national
murderers.

In the State Archives, covers
hardened like scabs
over the ledgers.

*

Inside a tiny apartment
I built myself
into a separate room.

*
Inside a tiny apartment
I built myself
into a separate room,

peopled it
with the Calibans
of plans for the future.

Future that runs on the schedule of public buses,
from the zoo to the circus,
what future;
what is your alibi for these ledgers, these streets, this
apartment, this future?

*

In the purse which held—
through seven wars—
the birth certificates
of the dead, my grandmother
hid—from me—
chocolates. The purse opened like a screaming mouth.

*

The purse opened like a screaming mouth.
Its two shiny buckles watched me
through doors, through walls, through jazz.

Who has taught you to be a frightening face, purse?
I kiss your buckles, I swear myself your subject.

*

August. Apples. I have nobody.
August. For me, a ripe apple is a brother.

For me, a four-legged table is a pet.

*

In the temple of Supermarket
I stand
like a candle

in the line to the priestesses who preserve
the knowledge of sausage prices, the virginity
of milk cartons. My future, small
change.

*

Future that runs on the schedule of public buses.
Streets introduced themselves
with the names
of national murderers. I build myself
into a separate room,
where memory,
the illegal migrant in time, cleans up
after imagination.

*
Bus stops:
My future, an empty seat.

*

In a room where memory strips the beds—
linens that hardened like scabs
on the mattresses—I kiss

little apples—my brothers—I kiss the buckles
that watch us through walls,
through years,
through jazz,
chocolates from a purse that held—through seven wars—
birth certificates of the dead!

Hold me, brother-apple.

Notes on the Poem

Our Poem of the Week is by our 2021 Griffin Poetry Prize winner Valzhyna Mort, who is also one of our recently announced 2022 Griffin Poetry Prize judges (alongside Adam Dickinson and Claudia Rankine)! In the past few weeks, we have featured poems addressing the multifaceted relationship between poetry and translation. Valzhyna Mort is another prolific poet-translator who translates between English, Belarusian, Russian, Ukrainian, and Polish. She received the National Endowment for the Arts grant in translation for her work on Polina Barskova’s book of selected poems, Air Raid, out this October with Ugly Duckling Presse. Mort’s poem, “Bus Stops: Ars Poetica,” from her Griffin-winning collection Music for the Dead and Resurrected, gives us a “poetic map for the many themes of remembrance and loss in the book and, more importantly, the ways in which the state attempts to re-write memory” (Grandbois). Her translation of Barskova similarly takes us through the archives of memory “post-death, post-Holocaust, post-Siege, post-revolution; post-marriage and post-literature” and “confronts English excavating its muteness, stutter, and curse.” (Ugly Duckling). Purchase Music for the Dead and Resurrected, Mort’s Griffin-winning collection here. Purchase Air Raid, Mort’s translation of Barskova, here.

Soft Link 1

Robert Majzels and Erín Moure translated from the French written by Nicole Brossard

copyright ©2007



It’s fears slow and fascinating that enter life each morning at coffee time while she wonders if tomorrow there’ll be war and brusquely as she does each morning slices bread and cheese. It’s gestures of uncontrollable avidity that proliferate in the throng and its worldly febrility, its parquet fever on the trading floor and stage. It’s hesitations, heart cries that crisscross broad avenues full of shade and dust that attract and make us think of our legs and elbows, our knees too when desire bumps and bounces words and feelings upward, it’s simple things with prefixes like cyber or bio that hold thoughts fast, float them a moment till we believe them aquatic and marvellous. It’s certainties that in tiny increments of dust and light are soon mixed with our tears. It’s inexplicable feelings made of small hurts strung over long years and vast horizons, it’s blues ideas that settle in where the happiness of existing threatens to take the breath away or to lodge itself in the throat like an instrument of fervour. It’s glimmers of intoxications impossible to look at for long, thoughts so precise that engage us beyond shade and wind, far beyond crude words, so noisy so terribly close to silence that the world all around seems suddenly engulfed in high seas and continual rustling like the music in our heads that in one stroke of the bow dislodges all that resists torment. It’s underlined passages, fragments of happiness that traverse the body and raise bridges all around because elsewhere and in the wild blue yonder they say there’s euphoria. It’s written down with bruises, abundance of life burst to fullness in a world and its niches of worn paths that lick at the shadow of bones.

Notes on the Poem

Our 500th Poem of the Week continues to celebrate translation, polyvocality and artist collaboration. Here is “Soft Link 1” from the 2008 Griffin Poetry Prize shortlisted collection, Notebook of Roses and Civilization (Coach House Books) by Robert Majzels and Erín Moure translated from the French Written by Nicole Brossard. Of the collection, the judges said: “Over her four decades of writing and depublishing poems and novels and essays-textes, Nicole Brossard has always shone an investigative light on every word that comes to her, and turned a demanding ear to each item of punctuation and notation. She sees the universe in the word for sand, and knows that it could be sable mouvant. So the translators of Nicole Brossard have to make poems we will love to read the way a carpenter loves a finished table.” Listen to Majzels, Moure, and Brossard read Soft Link 3 in this stunning polyphonic performance.

Judges for the 2022 Griffin Poetry Prize Announced

TORONTO – September 15, 2021 – The trustees of The Griffin Trust For Excellence In Poetry are pleased to announce that Adam Dickinson (Canada), Valzhyna Mort (Belarus), and Claudia Rankine (Jamaica/US) are the judges for the 2022 Griffin Poetry Prize.

Continue reading “Judges for the 2022 Griffin Poetry Prize Announced”

Lake Michigan, Scene 1

Daniel Borzutzky

copyright ©2018



They beat me even though I did nothing

I don’t know what day it was

But they beat me on the beach

They beat me with iron paws

The mayor ordered the police superintendent to beat me

The police superintendent ordered an officer to beat me

The officer ordered his dogs to attack me

Then someone beat me with iron paws

Then someone kicked me with iron boots

Then someone shot me

Then someone buried me in the sand

Then someone scooped me out of the sand and dumped me
somewhere

And I was dead

But I could feel the sand on my body

I could feel the sand filling my mouth

I could feel the sand in my eyes

There was an earthquake in my eyes

There was a tornado in my mouth

But after the storms passed it was peaceful and I was dead

And they beat me even though I did nothing

They said I was illegal

They said I was an immigrant

They said I was an illegal immigrant who roamed the streets in a gang

They said I raped people

They said I killed people

They said I smuggled drugs in my gastrointestinal tract

They said I didn’t speak the right language

They said my boss exploited me and I tried to kill him

They said my boss treated me well and I tried to kill him

They said my heart was dark

They said I peddled in blood

They said this is only war and that I had the audacity to think
my body could resist the state

Let death come quickly    I asked

Let death be easy

But I did not know how long it would take

I did not know I would be under the sand forever

I did not know that in Chicago the bodies do not die when they
have been strangled or riddled with bullets

A journalist asked the mayor why they killed us

I am not responsible     said the mayor

There will be an inquest    said the mayor

We will bring the perpetrators to justice     said the mayor

He was wearing a slim fitting suit and he looked handsome as
the hurricane entered his mouth

He was wearing a slim fitting suit and he looked handsome as he
pretended he did not live in a city of state-killed cadavers

He had gel in his hair and his shoes were nicely polished

I died and I died again and a voice said something about hope

Another voice said you pay a big price for hope

I dragged myself around the sand and I tried to make it to the
water because I thought the water might carry me away but each
time I took a step closer to the water the water moved farther
from my body and there were faces in the water and they were
calling to me and I was trying to get to them

It’s what you do when you are dead

But every time I took a step toward the water the water drew
farther away

And the faces in the water were murmuring and their murmurs
grew louder and louder as I moved nearer and farther

And it is only war     a voice said      by way of explanation     as
he photographed my dead body on the sand

And I was dead though I was still breathing when I finally made
it to the water

And in the water there was another war going on in the waves

It was only the beginning of the war that would kill me again
and again

Notes on the Poem

This week’s poem, “Lake Michigan, Scene 1,” is excerpted from Daniel Borzutsky’s 2019 shortlisted collection, Lake Michigan (University of Pittsburgh Press). For the past few weeks, our Poem of the Week focused on translated poems, poems about translation, as well as poems written by poet-translators. Daniel Borzutzky’s translations to Spanish include Raúl Zurita's Song for his Disappeared Love (Action Books, 2010) and Jaime Luis Huenún's Port Trakl (Action Books, 2008), among others. Although not a translation per se, Lake Michigan is written from the perspective of someone who doesn’t “speak the right language.” Of the collection, the judges said: “Daniel Borzutzky’s Lake Michigan is an elegant and chilling masterpiece of dramatic speech in a tradition of activist, political poetry that encompasses works as diverse as Pablo Neruda’s Canto General and Peter Dale Scott’s Coming to Jakarta: A Poem About Terror. One of the theses embodied in its multiplicity of voices might be said to be that state-sponsored (or state-acquiescent) violence creates ghosts – ghosts who, by continued speaking, come to stand in for the people from whose histories they have been created, people who are therefore never truly dead. Technically brilliant in its use of repetition and variation, leavened with touches of embittered, and yet, in the end, resilient, drollness, Lake Michigan is an eloquent, book-length howl, a piece of political theatre staged in a no-man’s land lying somewhere between the surreal and the real.”

Found in Translation

Elaine Equi

copyright ©2007



I’ve always liked reading poetry in translation. In fact, I prefer it that way.

Poetry is the sound one language makes when it escapes into another.

Whatever you think you’ve missed is, as the saying goes, better left to the imagination.

It gives even a mediocre poem an ineffable essence.

Greater involvement on the part of the reader leads to greater enjoyment.

A bad translation, a clumsy one, is especially charming.

The poem is whatever cannot be killed by the translator.

Its will to survive, its willingness to be uprooted and flee its homeland is admirable. I almost want to say virile.

An untranslated poem is too attached to its author. It’s too raw.

An untranslatable poem that hordes its meaning, whose borders are too guarded, is better unsaid.

For years, I copied authors from around the world. Then one day it occurred to me, perhaps it’s the translator I imitate, not the poet. This idea pleases me and makes me want to write more.

It would be great to learn French in order to read William Carlos Williams.

Translators are the true transcendentalists.

Notes on the Poem

We begin the week with "Found in Translation," a poem by Elaine Equi from her 2008 shortlisted collection, Ripple Effect: New and Selected Poems (Coffee House Press). Equi’s sophisticated prose explores the multifaceted and deeply fascinating relationship between poetry and translation. “Poetry is the sound one language makes when it escapes into another,” she writes, equating poetry to the very act of translation. Of the collection, the judges said: “The words could stand as an accurate description of Equi’s own highly distinct poems. They too move with a bounce and twist; they have their own insouciant, confident wit, their own beautifully poised way of looking outward at the world in all its quirky variousness, while at the same time retaining an uncompromised inwardness: the registering of a complex, sophisticated poetic self.” Listen to Equi’s Griffin Poetry Prize reading here.

What’s new?

Elizabeth Winslow, translated from the Arabic written by Dunya Mikhail

copyright ©2006



I saw a Ghost pass in the mirror.
Someone whispered something in my ear.
I said a word, and left.
Graves were scattered with mandrake seeds.
A bleating sound entered the assembly.
Gardens remained hanging.
Straw was scattered with the words.
No fruit is left.
Someone climbed on the shoulders of another.
Someone descended into the netherworld.
Other things are happening
in secret.
I don’t know what they are—
This is everything.

Notes on the Poem

For the next few months, our Poem of the Week will highlight poetry in translation, featuring excerpts from our shortlisted and winning collections. This week’s poem, “What’s New?,” is excerpted from the 2006 shortlisted collection, The War Works Hard, by Elizabeth Winslow translated from the Arabic written by Dunya Mikhail. Of the collection, the judges, say; “These are political poems without political rhetoric, Arabic poems without Arabic poetical flourishes, an exile’s letter with neither nostalgia nor self-pity, an excavation of the ruins of her homeland where the Sumerian goddess Inana is followed on the next page by the little American devil Lynndie England. In Elizabeth Winslow’s perfect translations, poetry takes on its ancient function of restoring meaning to the language. Here is the war in Iraq in English without a single lie.” Listen to Dunya Mikhael read in this 92Y reading.

At 2 PM in the Afternoon (Excerpts)

Sarah Riggs, translated from the French written by Etel Adnan

copyright ©2019



the sun came out at night
to go for a stroll and the divine crossed
the room. the windows
opened

writing comes from a dialogue
with time: it’s made
of a mirror in which thought
is stripped and no longer knows
itself

in Palermo men are as
strictly trained as horses; or
else they have the shining violence of
flowers

*

it’s more bearable to think of
death than of love

Greek thought explored
all things the way it
explored the islands

when men no longer have
power over women, over whom
will they have it?

*
all Sicily is painted
by the planting
of vines

the shards of grief that a teapot
transforms into inexpressible joy

the Barbary figs ripen
on brilliant mornings, with firm flesh,
with certain steps

Notes on the Poem

We begin the week with “2 PM in the Afternoon” from the award-winning collection Time (Nightboat Books) by Sarah Riggs, translated from the French written by Etel Adnan. For the next few months, our Poem of the Week will highlight poetry in translation, featuring excerpts from our shortlisted and winning collections. The Griffin Poetry Prize is one of the very few international prizes that accepts works in translation (under the condition that the work be translated to English), and by featuring poems in translation, we wish to highlight creative affinities between our shortlisted poets, as well as translation as an act of artistic collaboration. “I fell in love with Etel and her work simultaneously, and the exuberance and clarity and engagement you find in her work you find her art and in her person—it’s all one. These poems spoke to me in their brevity, geographical and historical reach, and intensity, and I wanted to hear how they sounded in English,” says Sarah Riggs in a brief interview on translation published on Nightboat’s website. Listen to Sarah Riggs read from the poem "Return from London" in this beautifully illustrated Griffin Poetry Prize video.

Black Horses

Fady Joudah translated from the Arabic written by Ghassan Zaqtan

copyright ©2012



The enemy’s dead think mercilessly of me in their eternal sleep
while ghosts take to the stairs and house corners
the ghosts that I picked off the road and gathered like necklaces
from others’ necks and sins.

Sin goes to the neck… there I raise my ghosts, feed them
and they swim like black horses in my sleep.

With the energy of a dead person the last blues song rises
while I think of jealousy
the door is a slit open and breath enters through the cracks, the river’s
respiration, the drunks
and the woman who wakes to her past in the public garden

and when I fall asleep
I find a horse grazing grass
whenever I fall asleep
a horse comes to graze my dreams.

On my desk in Ramallah there are unfinished letters and photos of
old friends,
a poetry manuscript of a young man from Gaza, a sand hourglass,
and poem beginnings that flap like wings in my head.

I want to memorize you like that song in elementary school
the one I carry whole without errors
with my lisp and tilted head and dissonance
the little feet that stomp the concrete ground with fervor
the open hands that bang on the desks

All died in war, my friends and classmates…
and their little feet, their excited hands, remained
stomping the classroom floors, the dining tables and sidewalks,
The backs and shoulders of pedestrians…
Wherever I go
I hear them
I see them.

Notes on the Poem

For the next few months, our Poem of the Week will highlight poetry in translation, featuring excerpts from our shortlisted and winning collections. Today we are sharing “Black Horses” by Fady Joudah, translated from the Arabic written by Ghassan Zaqtan from the collection Like a Straw Bird It Follows Me (Yale University Press), the 2013 Griffin international winner. Joudah and Zaqtan have a longstanding collaboration. Of his encounter with the collection, Zaqtan writes, “A few years ago, I came across what would eventually make up half of Ghassan Zaqtan's tenth and most recent poetry collection, Like a Straw Bird It Follows Me, in Al-Karmel, the international quarterly literary journal that Mahmoud Darwish edited for more than two decades…. I was so taken by the long poem that I still remember clearly the sense of having encountered one of the finest poems I have read: its private and collective enunciation, versatile diction, adjacency of classical and modern aesthetics, narrative and lyric, its insistence on dispelling dimensions of time and place in search of new language where what is learned is constantly destabilized.” (from Fady Joudah on Ghassan Zaqtan, in Asymptote)

Underworld (Day Forty-Five)

Don Mee Choi Translated from the Korean written by Kim Hyesoon

copyright ©2018



The dead without faces

run out like patients

when the door of the intensive care unit opens

carrying pouches of heart, pouches of urine

The dead running toward the path to the underworld

turn into stone pillars when they look back and their eyes meet
their past

The dead in their sacks look out with eyes brimming with salt
water

The dead become pillars of water as their tears melt their bones
The dead, gone forever, departed before you,
pull amniotic sacs over their heads and get in line to be born
again
and say that they need to learn their mother tongue all over
again
You’re not there when they awake or even when they eat
breakfast
When the dead swarm down the mountain
like children who pour out of the door of the first-grade room
carrying their notebooks and shoe bags

a four-ton bronze bell with a thousand names of the dead
engraved on it dangles from the helicopter
The helicopter flies over a tall mountain to hang the bell at a
temple hidden deep in the mountains

Notes on the Poem

This week’s poem launches our Poem of the Week’s new focus on the poet-translator. Over the next few months, we will be featuring material (interviews, poems, essays) exploring the complex relationship between poetry and translation. The Griffin Poetry Prize is one of the very few international prizes that accepts works in translation (under the condition that the work be translated to English). By featuring poems in translation, we wish to highlight creative affinities between our shortlisted poets, as well as translation as an act of creative collaboration. We begin the week with “Underworld,” from the 2019 winning collection, Autobiography of Death (2019), translated by Don Mee Choi and written by Kim Hyesoon. “In the grievous wake of the Sewol Ferry incident of 2014, the Korean poet Kim Hyesoon composed a cycle of forty-nine poems – one for each day the dead must await reincarnation – to produce a harrowing work of shock, outrage, and veneration for the children lost to this disaster. Through Don Mee Choi’s extraordinary translations, we hear the clamorous registers of Kim’s art – a transnational collision of shamanism, Modernism, and feminism – yield ‘a low note no one has ever sung before.’ That otherworldly tone may sound like life itself, the poet sings, ‘for even death can’t enter this deep inside me,'" the judges said. Listen to Don Mee Choi and Kim Hyesoon read poems from Autobiography of Death here.

Black Hair

Tracy K. Smith and Changtai Bi translated from the Chinese by Yi Lei

copyright ©2020



Black hair like youth
Runs wild in March.
Dark papery leaves fly
Teeming, swarming,
Bum-rushing March.

Black hair in March
Is gentle, strangers’ eyes
Softer. Memory:
A feast on offer. Youth,
Born of the primordial sea—
Embrace me. Drape my skin
Old as clouds
In something suppler.

Black hair
Blown free, rootless,
Wanders the desert’s
Countless tombs, sways
Across a vacant sky,
Whips at fresh mud in rain.
Days blaze past. I have
Lost sight of my own black hair
In the mirror. Let me
Watch it now
For the next thousand years.

Black hair weedy
In dirt-poor soil.
Thirsty, deluded,
Squandering its spoils.
Black hair has no idea.

The story of black hair
Is my story.
When I die, let me drift
Like a dandelion
Of black hair.

Black hair
Like holy water
No way, there is no way
To be saved except to die.
When black hair cries,
Itsw tears snuff themselves out
Like candles.
So will my life cease to flicker.

Black hair
Exhausted brush fire
Fanned by misery
Whistling
Through the last century.

Black hair, ?Shredded black flag
Of a women’s glory
Ragged and battered
In March wind.
Forsaking dignity
Absolved of chastity
With its pride in knots
Black hair smiles easily
In March.

If waterfall, it will plummet.
If cloud, it will scatter.
Eyes plaintive, wide,
Black hair waits to be spun
By hardened hands
Into rock.

March 25, 1987

Notes on the Poem

Our Poem of the Week continues to celebrate the 2021 Griffin Poetry Prize shortlisted poets. This week’s poem, “Black Hair,” is from the shortlisted collection, My Name Will Grow Wide Like a Tree by Tracy K. Smith and Changtai Bi translated from the Chinese written by Yi Lei—a collection that “gathers poems of eros and grief, each page bursting with attentiveness to our world.” (Judges' citation) Listen to Tracy K. Smith read the Poem of the Week in a beautifully illustrated excerpt from the Griffin Poetry Prize Winners Announcement Film