October 20, 2021

Translations and Substitutions: Poetry Exercises in Anti-Ableism
Pt. 2

Eds note: The prose in this post was written by Creative Growth Poet-in-Residence Lorraine Lupo

A black and white picture from a magazine has been painted over with brightly colored brushstrokes. Underneath the paint is the outline of a man bending over slightly.

Jane Kassner, Untitled, 10.5″ x 10.5″ acrylic on found magazine

For the past two years I have had the pleasure of facilitating poetry workshops with the artists of Creative Growth Art Center in Oakland. We write our poems collaboratively, aloud. When the pandemic forced our workshop online I sensed a unique opportunity to host poets residing outside of the Bay Area. We love having visitors and I warn new guests that if they visit once they will never want to leave. Kostas Anagnopoulos now has a workshop of his own and Kyle Schlesinger has been visiting since the January 2021 (only the arrival of family guests or pressing work duties pulls him away); Claudia La Rocco has visited on multiple occasions and I hope she will return.

We poets are a weird bunch. We know that most of the world is indifferent to our work. (Kyle once told me, quoting the poet Matvei Yankelevich, that poetry could be defined as “something no one wants”). There is an element of absurdity in our toil, as though we labor below ground to discover a metal that is precious only to us. (Even the word toil here is absurd!)

This reality can lead to a looping disconnect for a lot of poets: poetry doesn’t matter/it is all that matters to me. And because poetic composition is typically a solitary endeavor, there’s nothing to break that loop. The stakes can feel at once punishingly high and discouragingly low. Enter a collective poetry endeavor; not a workshop in which the group strives to “perfect” the individual’s effort, but one in which creation itself is prioritized, infused with freedom and play. Whether or not what we’re doing matters doesn’t matter. We’re reminded of why we write in the first place.

Writing a poem collaboratively is one of my favorite ways to have a conversation. You can hear that taking place in this poem:

All Over

All over the water and inside the house
You’re not kidding
Who’s on first?
The otter is sitting on the chair
Which one is the otter?
The one being ridden or the rider?
Do you have otter thoughts?
I can have a whole day of it
Don’t monkey with the otter
That’s a good one Mr. Wilson

— Todd Blair, Jorge Gomez, Larry Randolph,
Julie S., Nicole Storm, and Monica Valentine

The Creative Growth artists and poets have long been interested in connecting with artists and poets outside of the center. I happened upon an idea for such an exchange when I asked them to improve a poem of mine that I felt had some merit but that I never quite liked.

Here is my poem:

All One

It’s stupid to be nostalgic
about television commercials
like the one for applesauce

Why don’t I turn the TV off
if the jingle makes me cry? There was talk
of a “problem of reality”

while my man arranged
orange plastic traffic cones
on the sidewalk with an authority

never conferred on the likes of me
Oh I’ll bet he never gets that feeling
of one foot in the river twice

Let’s imagine a day without tragic impulse
Parti-colored surplus of noise and fun
Suffering resumes

in the absence of suffering
More autonomous than a bush
We’d like to live amid history

This daily news is hard
to take without any skin
It would be all one if you weren’t here

— Lorraine Lupo

Here is their version:

Calm Poem (After Lorraine Lupo)

It’s stupid to be sunkissed
about commercials without sunshine
like the one for National Geographic

Why don’t I put a scarf on the TV
if the curtains make me grateful? There was talk
of family and the nice tree

while Edgar Allen Poe
reads the horror cone
Oh I’ll bet he never gets his hair on end

Let’s draw a day without painting the sidewalk
The poet’s poetry is simply impassable
Clockwork resumes

In the absence of clockwork
We’ve got the beat!
I’d like to walk amid breathing

Jesus walks on water
Hard to take without any inhaler
It would be terrible if you weren’t here

— Todd Blair, Chris Corr-Barberis, Heather Edgar,
D’Lisa Fort, Jorge Gomez, Julie S., Nicole Storm,
and Kathy Zhong

Their version is an obvious improvement, wouldn’t you agree? I learned a lot from this exercise, or remembered things I often forget as I’m trying to express some intention (no matter how much I might fight against that attempt). Todd, Chris, Heather, D’Lisa, Jorge, Julie, Nicole, and Kathy understood when to be abstract and bizarre, when to say it plain, when to be playful and when to be sincere. Notice, for example, how the last line isn’t corny, as it follows the laugh-out-loud line about inhaler, which is funny because of what it follows.

As I discussed in “Speaking Together: Poetry Exercises in Anti-Ableism,” I am interested in flattening the assumption of hierarchy that can occur in the realm of cognitive and developmental disability. I realized that this was the perfect exercise in such an exchange. I invited poets I knew to submit poems they would like to have improved, translated, and otherwise tinkered with.

Kit Robinson was quick to respond and I really like both versions.

Friendly Cookies

Round the bend
The Sphinx speaks
In another language
One with horns
On a backing track
That lasts
As long as
The arrangement
Of stars in the sky

Tender shoots
Spring up
In cool air
At the very thought
Swimming from here
To there
A length of time
Measured in words
Those meanings of theirs

Air traffic
A high bar
To generalize
Our current state
Papyrus sways
In a light breeze
Hummingbird zooms
White cat
On a wooden fence

We wish you
A happy holiday
The hat off
The needle lifted
From the groove
The tone arm
At rest
An opportunity
To breathe normally

What one must do
Or has to do
Is an office
One sits down in it
Looks out the window
Free at last
Subject to fits
Wherever you are
Wherever you want to go

— Kit Robinson

Friendly Crumbles (after Kit Robinson)

Round the block
The Sphinx growls loud
In another language
One with Sphinxes
On a scale
That lasts
As long as time

Tenderfoot flies
In cool air
Just remember we’re not on the ground
A pyramid
Measured in water length
Out in the rain
And splash up a little water
Swimming from here
To there

Air headache control
Houston we have a problem
To generalize
Our current state
Papyrus sways
Grass is smooth
Zig zag zooms
I don’t know that dance step

We wish you
A better holiday
The boot off
The weight lifted
From the groove
How do you get to your groove
An opportunity
Like a flying pyramid

What one must do
Is not go crazy
Or sit in an electric chair
One sits down in it
Looks out the window
Watch out for the bear
Don’t walk on the electric street
Subject to fits
Your spirit is free
Wherever you want to go

— Todd Blair, Chris Corr-Barberis, D’Lisa Fort,
Jorge Gomez, Gail Lewis, Larry Randolph,
Kyle Schlesinger, Monica Valentine,
and Kathy Zhong

Kit’s straightforward and concrete language lent itself to a similarly straightforward, almost “mad-lib” rewriting approach . We substituted various nouns and verbs to make alterations while still keeping the spirit of the original.

Next, Liam Curley sent me an untitled work-in-progress which required a different approach:

A planet then how you’re thrown
a pyramid but in reverse
quarry more sacred than tomb
in a ring of
please stop please
and we wait
a basket of arms

When a mountain falls
do the stones
sled down in heaps or
is it brought up entire
to hover like an iron
and dropped
I want to know

You’ve got a core
gold slipping off a sphere
in hot lashes
a glow raw
that cannot be seen beyond

Plant your feet
Wish power bent to you
but it won’t
Heavy is the head
heavy is ever
both falling and

Wish to be
no more bound
But years will go by
and it will hurt
coming back here

— Liam Curley

In his email accompanying the poem, Liam wrote: “I don’t know what to do with poems! My mind is wired around lyric prose and essay, so poems are still a mystery […] In a lot of my writing, I struggle to ‘loosen’ it up, you know?”

Due to the compactness and obliqueness of Liam’s poem, a mad-lib substitution wasn’t necessarily going to work. Instead, I asked the Creative Growth poets to concentrate on certain passages and translate them roughly. What did a passage make them think of, imagine? This is their response:

All My Brains Are In My Bones (after Liam Curley)

Stars and then how you’re blown
Ancient but in reverse
Imagine you’re digging in a quarry and you find gold
in a ring of gold
Calm yourself
and we wait
A basket of hands

What if the mountains fall apart
What was rolling out there
was rocks of gold and silver or
are diamonds made out of sand?
I want to know

You’ve got iron
gold pouring off Jupiter
Don’t get burned
Turn on the light bulb in your head
Stars and the moon and then in space
I’m not sure what planet Venus is like,
there could be lots of lights up there
that cannot be seen beyond

Plant your jewels
Reach how your bend everything
but it won’t
Heavy head in shame
Heavy is the bowling ball
that flies down the alley

Wish to be
not nowhere
But years will go by
And I wish for a happy ending

— D’Lisa Fort, Heather Edgar, Jorge Gomez,
Gail Lewis, Larry Randolph, Elizabeth Rangel,
Julie S., and Kathy Zhong

Liam was delighted with the new version and had this to say: “This is such a gift. Their translation of the poem is fun and spacey, and a lot less severe than my attempt, which is a good lesson for me. It’s like they opened a window in the poem.” I couldn’t agree more. I also appreciate how they still kept the intense searching tone of Liam’s poem, but clarified it, as in the last line.

Collaboration and exchange serve as good reminders to the lonely striving poet that we needn’t cling too tightly to any one phrase or single conception of what our poem must say. When I read these versions I remember how language isn’t mine. I borrow it to set it down on the page — I can give it up just as easily.

If YOU have a poem you’d like to submit to our workshop, please write to me at: lorraine[at]creativegrowth.org. Poems that work best for this exercise should be on the shorter side (1 page is perfect!).

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