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Saturday, October 10, 2009

Multilingual Poetics, Feminist Implications

Rachel Levitsky has asked me to post a brief note on our panel, Multilingual Poetics, Feminist Implications, which featured Julia Bloch, Angela Carr, Zhang Er (capably represented by Leonard Schwartz, wearing Nathalie Stephens's name tag), Janet Neigh, and me. These presenters, some of whom I was delighted to meet for the first time, brought together literary-critical, pedagogical, and poetic practice-oriented perspectives on literature that uses more than one language. Our presentations were, not at all surprisingly, followed by a challenging, insightful, and very stimulating discussion.

When we proposed this panel, we wanted to think about multilingualism from a variety of perspectives in order to make concrete a term whose meaning seems obvious, but whose use can sometimes be vague (is it the same thing as bilingualism? multiculturalism?). Some of the key questions we wanted to discuss included:

-What is the meaning of multilingualism in and for our practice as poets?

-What is/are the relationship/s between multilingualism and translation?

-How does multilingualism compare or relate to polyvocality or other multi-voiced textual practices?

-In what ways do the non-English parts of a multilingual text mean, especially for those who cannot read the languages in which they are written?

-How can a multilingual text best be taught? What does a pedagogy that centers multilingual work look like?

-What is the relationship between multilingualism and feminism?

These questions were discussed with reference to a broad range of texts including Anne Tardos's Uxudo (me), M. NourbeSe Philip's She Tries Her Tongue, Her Silence Softly Breaks (Julia), Erin Moure and Oana Avasilichioaei's Expeditions of a Chimaera (Angela), Chinese songs and poetry by women from a variety of historical periods (Zhang Er), and Louise Bennett (Janet).

While all of these questions received some treatment in the panel, a new list of questions began to emerge for me as I listened to my fellow panelists speak. Listening to Julia's paper on NourbeSe Philip, I began to think about contemporary multilingualism in relation to historical instances of multilingualism: when Philip revisits Ezra Pound's famous dicta "make it new," how is she remaking a multilingual poetics? How does contemporary multilingual work differ from its historical precedents in high modernism and elsewhere? To what extent is it accurate to see contemporary multilingual works as the inheritors of Pound's or Eliot's (or even Loy's) multilingualisms?

I also wondered about what meanings are signaled by the simple fact of linguistic mixture. As Angela outlined the politics of selecting a language in which to write in a complex linguistic environment such as Montreal's, and explained that to group readers according to language is also to group them according to ideology, I wondered how certain linguistic combinations can also carry specific ideological or affective content. That is, before we even read the work, its linguistic combination already has a certain suggestive power, already makes us feel a certain way. What kinds of linguistic combinations can we - ought we - deploy in our poetic works?

Janet's paper, which opened with an anecdote about multilingualism and xenophobia at Geno's Cheesesteaks in South Philadelphia's Italian Market, raised similar questions for me. Like Angela, Janet emphasized that languages meet in specific times and places, in response to specific forces of history, colonialism, immigration, and economics, and she explained that in order to be pedagogically responsible - and pedagogically effective - we must develop activities that situate our students' linguistic knowledge. Janet shared a list of classroom activities designed to help students think about the social privilege that comes with knowing English, and the ways in which language does and does not map onto other social structures like class and race. These exercises seemed especially useful in bringing the work of our panel forward.

Zhang Er's paper engaged an alternative tradition in Chinese poetry, and the debate about whether these female-voiced poems had really been written by women, or whether they had been written by male poets taking on female voices (she argued that they had been written by women). I, on the other hand, wrote about a formal effect of Anne Tardos's work, where the reader is led through transliterations of different languages, learning how to pronounce French words (sidérant) through their simplification into English words (see-day-rant). Our two papers were brought together in a question from the audience, which I have been mulling over ever since: Divya Victor asked our panel as a whole to reflect on the politics of what she called "ventriloquy." Was there a way in which we might think of multilingual poetics as an empowering ventriloquy? Instead of a powerless puppet being manipulated by an insidious puppeteer, might we find an enforced performance of listening instead of an enforced performance of speech? What possibilities could be discovered there? What kind of feminism would this be?


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