Language is already a poem: Erín Moure and Klara du Plessis in Conversation

by Erín Moure and Klara du Plessis

Erín Moure is a poet with 18 books of poetry, a coauthored book of poetry, a volume of essays, a book of articles on translation, a biopoetics and two memoirs, and is translator or co-translator of 21 poetry collections, 1 hybrid novel, 2 biopoetics, and 1 biography from French, Galician, Portunhol, Portuguese, Spanish, and Ukrainian into English. A 40-year retrospective, Planetary Noise: Selected Poetry of Erín Moure, appeared in 2017 from Wesleyan University Press. Her latest is The Elements (Anansi, 2019).

Klara du Plessis is a poet, critic, and literary curator. Winner of the 2019 Pat Lowther Memorial Award, her debut collection, Ekke, was published with Palimpsest Press. Her second book, released Fall 2020, is Hell Light Flesh. She has recently been nominated for the Leon E. and Ann M. Pavlick Poetry Prize for contributions to the Canadian literary community. Among other projects, Klara is currently working on a videopoem in collaboration with Qirou Yang for Le Festival de la Poésie de Montréal.

On October 13, 2020, Erín Moure and Klara du Plessis reflected on language, translingualism, and translation at a joint poetry reading for the Atwater Poetry Project, facilitated online from Montreal by poet and curator Rachel McCrum. A collection of Erín’s translations of Uxío Novoneyra’s poetry from Galician to English, The Uplands: Book of the Courel and Other Poems, had recently been published, as had Klara’s second book of poetry, Hell Light Flesh. This is both a contracted and an expanded transcript of their discussion.


Erín Moure: Uxío Novoneyra is one of the greatest Galician poets, and has a stature there as does Federico García Lorca in the rest of Spain and our parts of the world. I want to begin to speak about Novoneyra by saying a word about risk, stimulated by a fellow on Goodreads who found The Uplands: Book of the Courel and other poems disappointing because he felt that the poetry didn’t take enough risks. I’m receptive to people’s comments, but right away realized that there are different ways of thinking about risk, and one of the larger risks that Novoneyra took was writing in Galician. He was one of the first to advocate publicly for Galician poetry, and for Galician specificity, in the face of the centralizing and homogenizing dictatorship of Francisco Franco that actively suppressed other languages of Iberia than Castilian (which we call “Spanish”). He had the police watching him. He wrote in Galician in the face of people insisting that Galician was a rural dialect that didn’t belong in modern life. And he continued to write in the post-Francoist democracy engineered by Franco’s own technocrats, a democracy whose first acts were to hold a veil over the injustices of Franco’s regime, claiming to break from it while repeating its centralizing discourse about an image of what is “Spanish.”

Galician was then a language long untaught in schools (forbidden in the school grounds), never used in administration, and though times have changed, it still struggles to find space in official channels. When I translate Novoneyra into English, a hegemonic language, we lose that aspect of risk. We lose the Galician accent.

How can we hear a poetry like Novoneyra’s that is fed by a different history, but appears to us in our own language and place?

From our position today, it’s hard to be cognizant of that risk as we read Novoneyra’s poetry in English. Yet democracy is at risk everywhere. There are crumbling institutions, and a climate crisis. There is a disrespect for land and an elevation of human endeavour that does not respect and care for the land. At our current moment in this climate crisis, we have a radical need to rethink the human-land relation, and Novoneyra’s poetry is radical in the way it does this, in the way it approaches popular culture, the lore of his ancestors, and the ways they protected and cared for land without merely exploiting it for commercial purposes. We can learn from this quiet radicality. Novoneyra doesn’t draw attention to himself as poet, doesn’t tell anecdotes about his life; he features a mountain-land with extreme seasons, a land cultivated and enculturated for about 10,000 years, and a vocabulary long apt for co-existing with this land, nurturing it and being nurtured in return. Some of the things that I receive in Galicia as wild, like chestnut forests, were actually planted hundreds of years ago. I can stand under trees there that started growing at the time of the first Europeans at sea who “found” a new world and initiated the colonization that this side of the planet has suffered. How can we hear a poetry like Novoneyra’s that is fed by a different history, but appears to us in our own language and place? Novoneyra depicts space and place through accent, lexicon, naming, and this has relevance to us, I think. We can see Novoneyra as eco-poet, tending to that land-human relation, living in Galicia too with the effects of colonization.

Klara du Plessis: The inherent risk of translating from Galician to English is similar to, but also different from, the relationship between Afrikaans and English. Both of the latter languages are colonial ones and have fraught political histories in terms of their imposed usage on South African soil. Taken at a remove from their larger histories and in relation to one another, though, Afrikaans is overshadowed by the global force of English. As a poet, deciding to write in Afrikaans is equal to addressing a very minoritized audience or primarily being read in translation (if fortunate enough to be translated). We have, of course, become familiarized with the fantasy of English equalling a more international readership, while in reality, there is a cluster of  small poetry communities with fabulous work written often within those smaller, more inward-facing linguistic spaces. Some of my earlier work—and some of my new, still unpublished work—is written translingually between Afrikaans and English. In contrast, Hell Light Flesh is resolutely written in English. So there are some strands that need to be unpacked in the gesture of moving from linguistic diversity to a so-called monolingual text.

Erín, you’ve pushed back against the notion that Hell Light Flesh is monolingual due to the short introductory poem which includes a list of colours in English and German. Also, Hell in the title is actually the German translation for the English word Light in the title. So Hell = Light [Flesh], although in an English context Hell obviously takes on a different resonance. The hidden equation of Hell and Light in the title is something that the German poet Uljana Wolf noticed! One might similarly suggest that the visual poems, based on a sound waveform visualization, represent a different kind of language, one that is sonic but not syntactic; at least, the visual poems interfere with the notion of the poem written in a dominant English.

Writing only in English means muting the Afrikaans side of my vocabulary, grammar, language use, and the poetic potential that these hold through me. Choosing to write in one language over another language is encoded with history, both public and personal.

I’d like to return to the concept of risk. As someone who writes in English, in Afrikaans, and also across both languages, there are a variety of potential risks. If I were to write solely in Afrikaans, I risk losing the entire Canadian audience, the country where I primarily reside; if I were not to write in Afrikaans, I risk forgetting a linguistic dimension of which I form a part and under-nourishing a language which is in me. I risk not writing in a language that already has a very small literature, while having the capacity to do so. Writing only in English means muting the Afrikaans side of my vocabulary, grammar, language use, and the poetic potential that these hold through me. Choosing to write in one language over another language is encoded with history, both public and personal. Each choice activates a tradition that I end up inhabiting; each decision places me in a different “literature.”

Since I decided to write Hell Light Flesh in English, I continue wondering what does happen if I write in one language, but with a mind that works, at least, bilingually. Because my mind works in and across more than one language, does that mean that this book in one language is actually written in more than one language? Is it possible to work in one language that isn’t only one language?

Erín Moure: Your words make me think of Derrida’s marvellous The Monolingualism of the Other, or The Prosthesis of Origin, (tr. Patrick Mensah, 1998) and the concept of a language that both is and is not mine. In Derrida’s case, this language is the French language, which belonged to him as an Algerian Jew under a French colonial regime, yet was not his, at the same time. I think too of Chus Pato and other Galician writers, and the possible silence and lack of reception to which they are assigned as writers in Galician, instead of in Castilian.

Klara du Plessis: I’d like to quote from your poem “Articulating the Shaking,” which appeared in The Elem:ents in 2019: “If multilingual is to speak +one languages serially, polylingual is to speak +one languages concomitantly. It acts to induce or permit thought or affect not possible in a single and flattened linguistic realm.” Polylingual could be another word for translingual here. You can speak more than one language after one another or you can speak them embedded in each other, and that embeddedness doesn’t always have to be obvious.

EM: Absolutely. English is a hegemonic language, but we write in English in different ways. I was commenting to you that in Hell Light Flesh your English has an accent, and I don’t mean a vocal accent, it has a structural accent, and it does in Ekke too; we talked about it before when we talked about Spanish translations of your work and capturing that accent. In confronting your work, as a translator, there’s a different angularity to your English that comes across in the rhythms of what you do, even when you say that you’re doing more essayistic and narrative work, you’re not trying to put yourself up front as doing an experiment or anything like that, but on the other hand, there is something going on with the English and the inflections, and so also with the way or ways we can receive those.

English is a hegemonic language, but we write in English in different ways.

KdP: I find that very exciting even though I never deliberately try to do that. While I was writing this book I was wondering whether I should signal that it’s taking place in South Africa. What are the different ways that I can signal that? I can signal it by saying, this is South Africa, and adding geographical markers. Or I can signal it by adding bits of languages spoken in South Africa. But I’m so resistant to the idea of commodifying Afrikaans, to use a word just to flavour a text. There is a difference between writing across languages, deploying embedded structures or inflections, as you say, or just writing in one language and using the addition of single words from another as spice. It’s nice to imagine that somewhere, structurally, Afrikaans is signalling, even if invisibly.

EM: I sometimes use Galician structures in English: like in Galician you would say “falls the snow” and not “the snow falls.” The falling, the verb, is a much more intense thing in Galician than in English because we don’t always need the subject of the sentence explained to us front and centre, before the verb. The falling is more important and then later in the phrase you find out that it’s the snow. Knowing this about Galician and knowing how verbs work—and I wrote of this in my essay at the end of François Turcot’s My Dinosaur—made me realize that when you’re trained from an English base toward a second and third language, you start seeing these other languages differently, and English too. I think that perhaps you have a similar experience. It’s not a matter of trying to impose structures onto English—when I look at it, it’s all English structures in your poems—but somehow there is a deflection, a manner of expression that is different in your work from when I use English in mine.

It’s really easy to rhyme in Galician without making a big fuss about it. You have to be careful if you want not to rhyme. When I’m translating a Novoneyra poem—and Novoneyra does use refrains, cadences, rhymes in his structures—I’m not simply trying to convey the meaning or meanings of these Galician words in English (even Google Translate can do that better than it could before, with all the AI that’s backing it up these days). There’s something about the sounds and just trying to make them work in the poem, the cadences, especially since, to retain other textural elements of the verse, I have to mostly forego the rhyme. Also, there is a specificity to the Galician of the Courel that is not shared with normative Galician; there are names for so many aspects of details of land, details of weather, or cultivation. We’ve lost that multiplicity of  names in English. The sinews of our language today do not help us articulate land (most of us do not cultivate or care for land). In English, to find that richness, I would have to go back to Old English and Middle English to find possibly accurate equivalents, but nobody would understand these words now in English, so I can’t put them in a poem. So I hunted down other equivalent words, and found some in Scots Gaelic, but I can’t use those words either, sorry! How do I get words for steep fields and cultivating crops or food on steep fields? I end up on the mountains of Scotland! I can’t use those words because they are too far away from our English. Novoneyra’s Galician is natural, so I have to create an English for his poems that is natural, that a reader today in English can read naturally. Often I ended up using the Germanic capacity of English to combine words, to create portmanteau words. Also, our language has the capacity to allow us to recognize its prefixes and suffixes as meaning units, so that I can kind of mix them up a bit and people will get what I’m doing, even if the words are invented in the end. Poets who came before me have also been very attentive of language, poets such as Jen Hadfield or Kathleen Jamie, who are from the British Isles. And in America, there’s  C.D. Wright who wrote out of a cadence and music in words that comes from the Ozarks (rural language variants have endured longer than urban differences). I actually borrow some of her words, or her ways of making words, for my translation of Novoneyra. It’s my secret salute to her and drawing of an ancient kinship.

I could argue that this bilingual understanding makes for a so-called ideal readership. But weirdly, a frayed relationship to meaning is exactly what sharpens the project of a poem.

KdP: I’ve been thinking a lot about what it means to “get” a poem or to absorb meaning through language, so it’s interesting to think about the obscure or ancient words that you can’t use or which would further mask the translations you’re doing. In the translingual poems from Ekke, in that play with Afrikaans words within what is mostly English, those Afrikaans words are opaque to the majority of North American readers, so they work on the level of disruption or curiosity, but against “getting.” In contrast, when I introduce English words in poems that are majority Afrikaans, South African readers will understand both sets of words, being bilingual almost across the board. Understanding every word across languages implies a more nuanced semantic following of the interlingual play with words, the twists and turns and falls of registers. I could argue that this bilingual understanding makes for a so-called ideal readership. But weirdly, a frayed relationship to meaning is exactly what sharpens the project of a poem. It’s easier to unsettle the illusion of one language’s self-contained form when the reader has to type a word or phrase into Google Translate to proceed. I had been thinking about this already, but it was pointed out to me again more recently by an Afrikaans editor who argued that when a reader understands both languages the dimension of otherness disappears, the beauty of the word as interjection gets flattened into understanding. (I’d like to think that poetry can emphasize the strangeness of language even through understanding, but ok…) For a North American audience, Afrikaans works in the poems to make explicit the indeterminacy already inherent to poetry, but through the very medium of language itself.

EM: And for a South African audience?

KdP: Only a handful of people have read Ekke in South Africa due to it not currently having an imprint there. It’s actually pretty hilarious because it’s been reviewed there, I’ve appeared on South African television reading from it, and have talked about it in interviews. So people keep phoning bookstores asking for copies and then I get frantically emailed by these bookstore owners asking me to send them copies. Ekke is making its way along some kind of underground circuit, not quite an illicit read, but one that is hard to come by! When I met the Afrikaans poet and translator Daniel Hugo a few years back, he was very enthusiastic about my work, autographing a copy of one of his books, “Vir Klara, wat die limiete van die woordspel verskuif het” (“To Klara, who shifted the limits of wordplay”). At the time, he felt that by placing English and Afrikaans in relation to each other, I had expanded the potential of what Afrikaans poetry can do. An exaggerated sentiment, but one which I appreciate, coming from him. Following this train of thought, though, translingualism in a South African context is less about understanding all the languages used or not, and more about the actual interaction of those languages, on the levels of sound and meaning.

So when writing translingually, one needs to disentangle the notion of ‘mixing’ languages (or what it even means to have borders between languages) and create an equal plane of all language from which to write in more than one language at once.

Another twist is that it’s very common in contemporary, spoken Afrikaans to use a lot of English words anyway. So when writing translingually, one needs to disentangle the notion of “mixing” languages (or what it even means to have borders between languages) and create an equal plane of all language from which to write in more than one language at once. The level of intentionality supporting the linguistic shifts, and what those shifts add to the poem in question, becomes significant. This is a long way from the notion of language as spice that I was also talking about earlier, or the ease of using an Afrikaans word because I can’t find the English word in the moment or vice versa.

EM: It’s as if we both work for language. We’re in the employ of language. I love your idea that a frayed relationship to meaning sharpens the project of a poem. For my part, I just listen where language is coming from, and work with that. To me, when I see English or French or Galician, I see language, simply. In my 40-odd years of production, I’ve done so many things in poetry and translation: yet language/s still evolves and intrigues me in so many ways. Translation, as such, is part of my poetic practice, it’s not a role of servitude of a foreign language or poet or poem, it’s an actual part of the practice of understanding how language works, can work, in the poem. It doesn’t feel like I’m trying to create an individual voice when I work on the poem in any given project, whether my own or a translation. I’m knitting one small part of this huge sweater that is poetry. It’s a sweater for an octopus, so many poetic arms, so much watery intelligence! And I depend on what others write to make my writing possible, to allow it to resonate.

KdP: I think of language as being art, in a way. Words are so beautiful; language is so beautiful; grammatical structures are so beautiful. Language itself is already a poem. You end up doing something with language, but the poem’s already there.


Erín Moure
from The Uplands: Book of the Courel & other poems, by Uxío Novoneyra, Veliz Books, 2020

Wind HUMS and shimmers through high heather.
Sun winks and rises in the fog.
Through the mountains fall and rise
long shadows jagged and black…

/

The fogs glide above the fens
and on the mountain there’s patches of sun.

Leaning over the weir
I’m transfixed in it.

The fogs glide under the water.


Klara du Plessis
from “Glass” in Hell Light Flesh, Palimpsest Press, 2020

The absolute strangeness of glass
produced with earth,
the black earth fostering
green shoots and flowers,
a growth of soil.
Sand, silica, mineral quartz,
compounds heated to the silken
combination of a transparent sheet.
This window is a garden.
It passes through me so I can pass through
to the abstracted greens, the blooms,
looming branches that knock up
against the pane, then retreat.
The outtake of reality as framed
by the window, disregarded,
an extraction placed before my eyes.
Windows are ornaments of thought.


Credit: “Wind HUMS” is published with the permission of the translator and Veliz Books.




Erín Moure is a poet with 18 books of poetry, a coauthored book of poetry, a volume of essays, a book of articles on translation, a biopoetics and two memoirs, and is translator or co-translator of 21 poetry collections, 1 hybrid novel, 2 biopoetics, and 1 biography from French, Galician, Portunhol, Portuguese, Spanish, and Ukrainian into English. A 40-year retrospective, Planetary Noise: Selected Poetry of Erín Moure, appeared in 2017 from Wesleyan University Press. Her latest is The Elements (Anansi, 2019).

Klara du Plessis is a poet, critic, and literary curator. Winner of the 2019 Pat Lowther Memorial Award, her debut collection, Ekke, was published with Palimpsest Press. Her second book, released Fall 2020, is Hell Light Flesh. She has recently been nominated for the Leon E. and Ann M. Pavlick Poetry Prize for contributions to the Canadian literary community. Among other projects, Klara is currently working on a videopoem in collaboration with Qirou Yang for Le Festival de la Poésie de Montréal.

☝ BACK TO TOP