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Words Without Borders

Only a Question of Words?

Since the day that I went to a poetry slam and heard an erotic poet recite the following lines, "I'm overweight/ But a friend told me/ Bones are for the dog/ Meat is for the man,” I decided never to go to a poetry slam ever in my life again.
Generally speaking, I’m suspicious of literary events. If the distinction between reading and speaking is a minor one, why not call authors performance artists? Having said this, I must admit that I have been a member of a panel a few times, myself. In Milan, I had to discuss the topic of humor. In Montreal, I spoke, if I’m not mistaken, on translating literature. And in Paris, I shared a few jolly moments with colleagues while discussing literature and war.
With slight hesitation, I went on Saturday to the event "Dual Citizenship," part of the New York PEN World Voices festival (and co-sponsored by this magazine.)
Seeing four or five authors behind a table is always a poignant sight. Nothing strips the author more of his dignity than being on a panel. Which is not purely a negative thing.
Behind the respectful silence and the even more respectful applause one can feel the competition. Who is going to sign the most books afterwards? Nevertheless, as far a panel goes, this was an entertaining one. Statements were made that went beyond the obvious. And there were a few remarks which were interesting enough to disagree with.
The Israeli poet Agi Mishol declared that poetry was about language, but only after reading a poem that clearly dealt with a real-life event. A young female Palestinian blew herself up in Jerusalem.
So yes, of course it’s all about language, and poetry and novels are made of words. But I’m not convinced that the strength of Agi Mishol’s poem was only a question of words. Her poem was relying on the fact that the audience knew she was speaking about events that we all had seen on television several times. There is nothing against turning newspaper articles into art, but then it should go beyond the obvious conclusion that suicide bombing is not the most appropriate way to solve problems.
There was also an interesting remark by the American author Richard Rodriguez, who I liked very much. He knew how to perform, he had some some valuable observations, and he drew some provocative conclusions. I call Mr. Rodriguez American, because I cannot stand hyphenated identities. How should I call myself? Dutch-German? Or Dutch-German-Jewish? Or Dutch-German-Jewish-American-Russian? Mr. Rodriguez stated that the author ought to be more on the side of magic and less on the side of reason.
I happen to disagree.
Magic is when an entertainer comes on stage and declares with a heavy, but nontheless beautiful, French accent, “And now, ladies and gentlemen, the trick with the rabbit.”


(Words Without Borders, May 3, 2006)