Tag Archives: Arte Público Press

Small Graces in the Valley of the Shadow of Trump (with malice for none, if you’ll pardon the pun)

"We won't be silenced."--Jorge Ramos, Univision journalist and newscaster

“We won’t be silenced.”–Jorge Ramos, Univision journalist and newscaster

In an essay still forthcoming in Hourglass Literary Magazine (see 8/17/16 blog), I speak of certain “small graces” that help us wade through whatever intervening darkness might otherwise engulf and drag us down in life. Indeed, for those readers accustomed to these occasional scribblings of mine, it will come as no surprise that the electoral results of November 8 did send me into one of those spirals toward the Land of Despond, although my intuition had been warning me all along that it might well happen. When it did, I was more disheartened than really surprised.

Trump to Ramos as he signals to his people to have him removed from the premises

Trump to Ramos as he signals to his people to have him removed from the premises

So I ask those of my readers who might have voted for Herr Trump—for whatever variety of motives; with hopeful heart or held nose—to indulge me any signs of that honest discontent while I give thanks for the small graces that do continue appearing to me. Which give me reason, as well as strength, to struggle on.

First, to those closest to me who were my initial support:

  • Anita, near tears of her own and startled by mine, who hurried to notify our daughters and son that their father needed comforting (I had been trying to express in words the sadness I felt for all the children who were already so fearful of the wall that might soon separate them from their parents—all the more since watching Jorge Ramos’s documentary, Hate Rising, on my computer the previous night: his interview with a classroom of those children, in particular; and also with some white supremacists just up the road from me inPaoli, Indiana—the virulence and unreason of their hatred, pre-existent but newly vindicated by authoritarian demagoguery, so overwhelming);images2T8B1O1V
  • My daughters, both of whom answered, for my sake, their mother’s call to share a dinner out with us the following evening: Stephanie, conscientious and empathetic social-work therapist, who also cried that night thinking of her own unorthodox family (two wives/mothers, one teenage son), the struggling people she counsels, and so many others, known to her and unknown; and her sister, Nadina, who marveled at the ubiquitous and vindictive Facebook rants of otherwise kind, generous, loving, even upright and church-going people;
  • Their brother, Jonathan, who called me on the phone from his home three hours north in Indianapolis; and who sent a card bearing a message about love—received a couple of days later—from that radical dreamer John Lennon;
  • My vivacious and good-hearted cousin, Jeri Lynn, to whom Jonathan had confided on Facebook that I was feeling low, who also sent me a card with her own personal sentiments of shared commiseration and condolence; as well as the women of the Southern Indiana Writers group who, whatever the content of their individual perspectives and politics, lifted my spirits at our weekly Thursday-evening meeting—
L to R: Brett Alan Sanders, Luis Alberto Ambroggio, Ana Ona

L to R: Brett Alan Sanders, Luis Alberto Ambroggio, Ana Ona

But then, on November 29, the event I have been leading up to: on a stage on the Indiana University-Purdue University Indianapolis campus (IUPUI)—I, American-Argentine poet  Luis Alberto Ambroggio, and fellow translator Ana Ona—in front of an auditorium full of almost two hundred people, mostly students, where we discussed and read from two of Ambroggio’s recent books; as my readers may know, the one that I translated for him (who I met that evening in person for the first time) is Todos somos Whitman/We Are All Whitman, his Latin American response to the “Song of Myself” and tribute to that Great Bearded Bard, published this year by Arte Público Press in Houston, Texas.

I had been to the Lilly Auditorium before, visiting it about five years ago with Buenos Aires writer María Rosa Lojo to discuss and read from both versions of her novel La pasión de los nómades, or Passionate Nomads (Aliform Publications, 2011). And now, for this second time, I was invited by Professor Rosa Tezanos-Pinto, whose published work includes a separate anthology of literary criticism about each of those writers’ work; and who also edited an impressively thick volume of roughly thirty years of Ambroggio’s poetic production.

To say that this was a moment of no small grace for me is perhaps an understatement. I would say, in fact, that no single book event that I have participated in has been a bigger one.

Dr. Rosa Tezanos-Pinto (front, in dark suit); Dr. Ambroggio, (behind her), and students

Dr. Rosa Tezanos-Pinto (front, in dark suit); Dr. Ambroggio, (behind her), and students

Why? For the gracious enthusiasm of this group of students, for one thing, several of whom shook my hand and thanked me effusively for my contribution and for even being there; and who later, after the meal that they had prepared in honor of the three of us (each dish representing the country of their families’ origins), were among those purchasing the Whitman book and asking for mine and Luis Alberto’s autographs.

And then—not to mention the usual graciousness of Dr. Tezanos-Pinto and her husband, José Vargas-Vila—there was Liz Goodfellow, friendly university employee (and non-Spanish speaker) who had arranged our hotel accommodations; and who also asked me, with credible signs of having been touched by my translations, if I wouldn’t also sign her copy.

Ambroggio and Sanders, the Whitman reading

Ambroggio and Sanders, the Whitman reading

So with all of that, in particular hers and others’ repeated and insistent praises, like Don Quixote after an unexpected victory I may have gotten a slightly inflated head. But not to worry: it was only a mildly intoxicating feeling, not on the whole unhealthy and, if I may say so, quite delightful. When I fell asleep a short time later in its fragrant mists, just imagine that it was into the most pleasant dreams of literary glory; and which appear, after all, to have done me no lasting harm.


Speaking of unlikely Quixotic victories, can it be possible that, as I was composing the rough draft of these words last night, the Standing Rock Sioux scored at least a temporary victory against my good knight’s evil magicians and the determined capitalists and enforcers of the Dakota Access Pipeline? Who had so lately taken to showering them—water protectors, or agitators, or “bad, bad people,” as I seem to recall our triumphant president-elect having characteristically dismissed them—with blasts of icy water in already sub-freezing temperatures? Blowing off an arm, here, with a concussion grenade, and taking out an eye, there, with a rubber bullet, for good measure?

Militarized police drenching peaceful water protectors in freezing weather, during a protest against plans to pass the Dakota Access pipeline near the Standing Rock Indian Reservation, near Cannon Ball, North Dakota, U.S. November 20, 2016. REUTERS/Stephanie Keith

Militarized police drenching peaceful water protectors in freezing weather, during a protest against plans to pass the Dakota Access pipeline near the Standing Rock Indian Reservation, near Cannon Ball, North Dakota, U.S. November 20, 2016. REUTERS/Stephanie Keith

To protect them from the ravages of hypothermia, I suppose; so that now, to prevent that from happening to them (or for whatever official reasons or unofficial intentions), the Army Corps of Engineers decides to call for the environmental study that may or may not force the “big snake” of the oil barons to direct its path around Native lands—as it had already been re-routed before from Bismarck, with far less spectacle and show of force, when the good and respectably white residents of that city had previously petitioned.

For such graces large and small, in any case, let us rejoice! And lay praises on the brave community of nonviolent resisters who fought on in the great tradition of their ancestors—as well as of Henry David Thoreau, the Mahatma Gandhi, and Martin Luther King, Jr.

Palestinian support for Standing Rock Sioux protesting DAPL.

Palestinian support for Standing Rock Sioux protesting DAPL.

And, from however near or far they came, those others from the populous and diverse United States of America and beyond, including those who just sent money, made phone calls, or wrote letters; but none more so than the courageous American veterans of foreign wars, whether of Native or Immigrant stock, who came this time by the thousands to really defend the freedoms (for perhaps their first time) of the American people.

So let’s not allow the dividers to divide us, my good neighbors and kith and kin, from those who might become our faithful allies. Together with whom, if we dare imagine it, through whatever darkness may lie ahead, we might still become the more united … mutually reliant and peaceable … and truly democratic people that our better angels would have us be.

Blessèd, as scripture says, be the uniters and the peacemakers!

"Vict'ry?" said Don Quixote to Sancho Panza. "Vict'ry!"

“Vict’ry?” said Don Quixote to Sancho Panza. “Vict’ry!”


We Are Humanity (Every Last One of Us!)

Todos-somos-Whitman-350x550[1]Today’s title and theme reflect the English-language titles of my translations of María Rosa Lojo’s most recent novel and of the Arte Público Press’s newly published bilingual edition of Luis Alberto Ambroggio’s poetic response to Walt Whitman. The Whitman book is available here: https://artepublicopress.com/product/todos-somos-whitman-we-are-all-whitman/.

Luis’s book, from the Spanish title Todos somos Whitman, becomes in my version We Are All Whitman; while María Rosa’s, Todos éramos hijos, becomes All of Us Were Children (instead of, as might have been expected, We Were All Children). Why? Because the parallel being sought here is not to Ambroggio’s book but to Arthur Miller’s 1947 play All My Sons, which is a central motif that runs through María Rosa’s novel; which, in its Spanish title (Todos eran mis hijos, or, They Were All / All of Them Were My Sons, more closely parallels her own novel’s.

True, either English version would have included Miller’s word All, but it seemed to me that placing it at the beginning would echo that antecedent more effectively. Such are some of the seemingly trivial concerns that the literary translator faces on a daily basis. The translator of more technical texts—from the legal or medical professions, for instance—might not stop to ponder such fine points. Which is why they tend to work faster than we do.

images0HJCF060Like Whitman, in any case, Ambroggio writes about universal themes such as identity, love, and life; death, nature, and physical pleasure. But he does so from a distinctly Latin American perspective. Which is only logical, considering the degree to which Whitman has long been venerated by the people and poets of our Spanish-speaking neighbors.

Indeed, while Whitman’s subject is the people of this American nation in particular, his is an expansive and inclusive view of humanity. Drawing as he does on the experience and energy of all the people of this immigrant country, he writes of them in all their ethnic, cultural, and linguistic diversity. The “Myself” of Whitman’s title is really a plurality, then, all the people embraced within the poet’s charismatic verse. It is not the merely egocentric musings of a single man, though he does speak like one of immense self-confidence; nor does it exclude the people of other lands—from which our various selves have originated, and who might also fall under his spell; as we, potentially, under the spell of José Martí or Pablo Neruda.

Ambroggio’s Hispanic or Latin American perspective is of particular value today for the light it sheds on what otherwise has long been our rancorous and often fact-free national “debate” on immigration: as in these United States, now again in Europe as we seek to contain the seemingly unending flow of refugees from a Middle Eastern inferno that our nations are at least in part responsible for creating.

Ambroggio illuminates the subject by attaching a more humane and human face to the voice of the immigrant Other, who contributes to our nations’ health in ways all too easy to ignore. He addresses this issue directly, in a passage that opens with one of Whitman’s most famous lines:

I am large, I contain multitudes.

They will not manage to deny me or ignore me or declare me undocumented:

I am written in you, in all,

as all are in me,

in clay and in the breeze’s gentle sky,

in the delightful meaning of your body.

images2T8B1O1VMy personal epiphany on this subject came when I was about twelve years old and my Vacation Bible School leaders took us to visit a migrant labor camp somewhere in south-central Indiana. The insight may not have approached the sophistication of my present understanding, but it was real and powerful and has been with me for all these forty-some years.

It was my impression, as I looked around at the poverty the migrant families lived in, and as I ran with the children to play by a nearby creek, that they were people just like me; so, why did they have so little and I so much? And I understood immediately that it was not because I, or my parents, or anyone else, was in any moral sense better than they. That something, which has haunted me forever after, was wrong in the world.

Those people who are so eager to run them off or keep them out should try to imagine how we would feel if we were in their situation and they, ours. But it is a difficult concept to get a hold on, I gather, and the best those of us who get it can do is probably to just keep keepin’ on in the struggle for basic rights for all human creatures; knowing that, if we can’t ever reach that utopian place of universally shared bliss, at least we can create—and fight to maintain—a little more of it for our fellow beings.


imagesFUTEWQ01In All of Us Were Children, María Rosa writes of what were troubled times in Argentina: from 1971, as political and social chaos reigned and Juan Perón was maneuvering his way back from exile to the presidency, to 1975 or ’76 as the generals’ dictatorship began to rain an unprecedented level of violence (a “dirty war”) on its populace. Unlike other treatments of the subject, we are allowed to see all of this from the perspective of an idealistic group of young students in their transition from their final year at a rigorous Catholic high school into university studies and other activities.

Arthur Miller comes into the picture because of this group’s performance, at the end of that academic year, of All My Sons. The priest and the young woman who chose that play, both of them teachers, did so because it spoke to their own national situation from the safe distance of space and time. It was an opportunity to address important issues like integrity and responsibility, as well as the far-reaching and unanticipated consequences of war and of the race to get to and keep one’s place at the top in a capitalistic society.

At center of the tale Miller weaves is Joe Keller, a successful businessman and provider, with one son at home and the older one, before his plane had vanished, flying missions over Hitler’s Europe. The crisis comes because of a faulty batch of airplane parts that he allows to be superficially fixed and shipped off to the European campaign. Everything comes to a head when we learn that his son—whose body was never found and, so, the mother continues to await him—deliberately crashed his plane, committing suicide; at shame over what his father had done and which had caused the deaths of other young men, and for which Joe Keller had sent his partner in business away to prison, for his own unacknowledged betrayal of all those sons.

And what is “so terrible” about Joe Keller’s personal tragedy, the one teacher comments to her female students at the end of a day’s discussion, is that he “is not a conspirator, a spy, or even a monster. Aside from that, until then he has been an admired citizen. Someone who has made himself with hard work, audacity, and a bit of luck. A model that everyone wanted to imitate. The conclusion, then, is that any other man like him could act that way under similar circumstances, perhaps because the evil is not just within himself, but in the society he lives in. A society whose greatest values are success, power, money, and which for that reason generates people who fail. Like the defective parts.”

We have all heard that banal truism that says capitalism is the worst of economic systems, except for all the other ones. But that is at best a diversion, one that lulls the most comfortably situated of us into complacency and discourages the rest of us from embracing the truly radical change—whether we come to it in four to eight years or over decades—that might actually make radical progress at lifting all boats. And at ceasing to discard people like defective parts, then blaming and shaming them for their misfortune.

It seems clear to me, in any case, that if we do not begin to shake the old ideological myth that exalts selfish and homogenous individualism over the common effort of an engaged and diverse citizenry—a citizenry at once tolerant of religious and cultural difference, but also fiercely determined to engage each other in informed inquiry rather than the ideological free-for-all that we have come to call political debate—until then, if I may wax colloquial, we scarcely have a snowball’s chance in hell of resolving the array of urgent problems that confront us.

Don Quixote conjuring his beautiful Dulcinea

Don Quixote conjuring his beautiful Dulcinea

There does, indeed, need to be something on the order of a revolution in all of our public discourse. If the present political season has not already been enough to convince us of this, I despair of knowing what will. Being an essentially Quixotic spirit, though, despite the melancholic streak that almost continually wrestles me toward darkest despair, I will continue as best I can to cultivate hope.

And if, as that good knight says, we are children of the things (good or ill) that we do, then why shouldn’t our extravagant and impossible dreaming bear some good fruit? We needn’t create Utopia in order to create a significantly better and more humane society. That the United States is not Denmark does not mean that we cannot (like Denmark) find a way to feed and house all our people, make their children’s education free or radically more affordable, and provide for their medical needs.

And just maybe, as long as we’re dreaming big, become a superpower in the arts of diplomacy instead of destruction, peacemaking instead of perpetual war, and environmental sanity instead of apocalyptic madness.

If we cannot produce any substantive progress in these vitally existential areas, then what good is our much-touted American exceptionaism and ingenuity?

It is, as the Seventies’ rock group used to sing, “dust in the wind.”

María Rosa knew from a young age that she was a writer: the Magi also knew and brought her this first writing desk.

María Rosa knew from a young age that she was a writer: the Magi also knew and brought her this first writing desk.

Why read work in translation?

978-0-7864-2386-6[1]At the ALTA conference in Bloomington last month I attended a session with translator Anne Fountain, who presented on the Versos Sencillos (or “Simple Verses,” as often translated) of José Martí. More specifically, she addressed the benefits of using multiple English-language versions of a literary text in order to teach students about the complex choices involved in bringing that or any text over from one language to another. Professor Fountain, who directs the Latin American Studies program at San José State University in San José, California, is a native of Argentina whose professional focus has been on Cuban literature. I came away from the conference with her very elegant translation of Martí’s most famous work in McFarland & Company’s 2005 “dual-language edition.”

Even if Martí’s name doesn’t immediately ring a bell, there is more than a reasonable chance that you have heard at least a portion of his verse – particularly if you are over forty or fifty years old, or if you have ever studied Spanish in high school. If you are familiar with the folk song called “Guantanamera,” then you might know that its verses consist of a more-or-less random (and varied) sampling of stanzas from Martí’s poems. Growing up in the Sixties I heard the Smothers Brothers perform it on their variety show and have since heard it performed by Joan Baez and undoubtedly others. This edition contains a brief foreword by folk icon Pete Seeger who is principally responsible for the song’s diffusion beyond the Spanish-speaking world.

While I am now retired from classroom teaching, I taught the song to my high-school Spanish classes for some twenty years (in southern Indiana) and even presented it, during my first year of teaching, to my English-as-a-Second-Language (ESL) students in Houston, Texas. If I didn’t fully grasp the power of those verses beforehand, I did after I had presented it to those mostly Mexican American students. Teaching in an urban junior high school was a kind of trial by fire for this slow-talking, slow-thinking Midwestern boy and to say that I encountered some discipline problems and youthful resistance would be an understatement. But when I played that song on my guitar, one of the boys who up to that point had tried me the most moved up beside me and listened with a rapt attention. Afterwards he went home and told his parents that, you know, that Mr. Sanders isn’t such a bad fellow after all, that he’s even surprisingly human. I wish I could say that with that gesture I was immediately transformed into another Jaime Escalante (super-teacher who inspired the movie Stand and Deliver), but that would be something of an overstatement. Still, the episode is illustrative of the power of Martí’s poetry to win hearts and move souls.

Here, without the music, are Martí’s verses from the version that I taught, first in the original Spanish and then in Fountain’s excellent translations:

Yo soy un hombre sincero

De donde crece la palma,

Y antes de morirme quiero

Echar mis versos del alma.

(A sincere man am I

Born where the palm trees grow,

And I long before I die

My soul’s verses to bestow.)

Mi verso es de un verde claro

Y de un carmín encendido:

Mi verso es un ciervo herido

Que busca en el monte amparo.

(My verse is a gentle green

And is fiery red in part

In the forest refuge seen,

My verse is the wounded hart.)

Con los pobres de la tierra

Quiero yo mi suerte echar:

El arroyo de la sierra

Me complace más que el mar.

(With the poor ones of this earth

I’ll cast my destiny:

The mountain stream is worth

Much more than the mighty sea.)

The very colorful cover illustration shows Martí walking amidst woods and flowers, with a white horse behind and a wounded deer at his side: Donde el verso es un ciervo herido (Where the Verse is a Wounded Deer), 1996, by the artist Adigio Benítez Jimeno. The title is drawn from the second of the verses cited above, in which the generic “deer” is substituted with the rhyming (and synonymous) “hart.”

To touch briefly on the question of Professor Fountain’s topic, it is a popular assumption that if you’ve seen one translation you’ve seen them all. Isn’t it just a matter of taking the precisely corresponding word in the second language and substituting it for the foreign word? To be brief, no. Even when both translators are competent and careful, differences will appear and each may convey a slightly different nuance, sometimes even a different interpretation altogether. The problem is worse when the translation is done hastily or without attention to detail: beware, in particular, translations found on the average Internet site, which may be particularly bad.

That, of course, is a larger topic, and is perhaps best illustrated by other examples from the text, but the crucial educational point is that the translation / translator does / do matter. There are the good, the bad, and the ugly, and the best are objects to be treasured. For a closer look at the topic of literary translation I would recommend Lucina Schell’s excellent site at www.readingintranslation.com. Even if you aren’t a translator, you might learn something. I am a new visitor myself and have particularly enjoyed her essay on the art of the translator’s introduction.

But my topic is more general: why bother to read work in translation at all? I will not cite the ugly statistics, but we English-speakers in the United States are particularly unlikely to read work originally written in other languages. Though there is a lot of effort being made in particular by small presses and literary translators to bring a greater trove of translated work to the public’s attention. (I have myself recently been reading work translated from German and Polish, two languages that I can’t read in the original, though I am of German ancestry.)

images[2]Anyway, as I was reading Martí’s brief prologue, it occurred to me that one important reason is that we need more perspectives on the world than the very limited and even myopic ones that we get from what passes as a national discourse on foreign and even domestic policy (immigration, anyone?). To broaden our perspective is to add to our “equipment for living,” to use Kenneth Burke’s phrase which is by now at least passingly familiar to readers of this blog. A person (or a people; or a nation) with only one perspective is sadly ill-equipped for the complexities of life in an increasingly interdependent world.

And who better to illustrate the principle, it occurred to me, than Martí, who is universally beloved and respected for his humane verses and struggle for freedom – and who, as a journalist who lived several years in the United States, was a perceptive and friendly interpreter of American affairs and life to his Latin American compatriots.

Which is not to say that he was always an approving observer of gringo society and politics. It was with a worried heart over U.S. efforts to purchase Cuba from Spain, thus subverting to our own ends his people’s struggle for their own independence, that he accepted his doctor’s advice to take a vacation to New York’s Catskill Mountains where he wrote these poems full of reverence for his own land and people – this in 1890, five years before his dying in that struggle in an exchange of fire with Spanish troops.

When he wrote those verses, as we read in his prologue, during “that winter of anguish in which because of ignorance, blind faith, fear, or simple courtesy, the Spanish American nations gathered in Washington under the shield of the fearsome eagle” (he alludes to the Pan American Conference of 1889 in Washington D. C.), he was deeply worried about U.S. involvement in Latin America’s affairs. “Who among us,” he continues, “has forgotten that shield, an emblem on which the eagle of Monterrey and Chapultepec … clutched the flags of the nations of the Americas in its talons?”

The allusion to Monterrey and Chapultepec is to the Mexican War which we fought between 1846 and 1848, during the Presidency of James K. Polk who was anxious to annex what are now our Western states by fair means or foul. As the Spanish American War turned out, while we didn’t get Cuba we did Puerto Rico, among other possessions. Certainly Martí had cause to worry, since our motives and interests were clearly not of a wholly altruistic nature.

Now, today we may argue that those Western states are much better off than had they continued belonging to troubled Mexico. Though it should be noted that one of our most fiercely independent-minded American writers of the day, Henry David Thoreau, wrote his famous essay “On the Duty of Civil Disobedience” in protest of that war which he rightly saw as a war of American aggression against a weaker neighbor – and he went proudly to jail for refusing to pay his war tax.

And while we may argue that Cuba would have been better off with us than under the rule, first, of the tyrant Batista, and then of the Communist tyrant Castro, we will never know how the extremes of Castro’s rule might have been moderated if his movement hadn’t from the outset been threatened by the out-sized power and bellicose threats of its neighbor to the north, who even tried to assassinate him.

Regardless of how individually we might feel about those questions, to me it seems inarguably true that we can scarcely have a meaningful and productive dialogue with other nations or people if it has never even occurred to us that they might view things from a different perspective than we do. And that they might not always look kindly on our efforts, whether real or perceived, to enforce our will on them by military or economic fiat. And (gasp!) that they might have a point: that we could even be wrong, now and then.

None of which is to argue that the United States is the Great Satan, but it could certainly do us good to have a better sense of how the rest of the world perceives us – often for good, but sometimes not so much so. And not without reason, more often than many of us care to admit.

Thus, I would argue, one very practical reason for reading in translation. It equips us to live better and more wisely in a world of varying perspectives, no one of them wholly valid in isolation. Not even ours.


Of course, another reason for reading Martí in translation is for the same reason that people have read and loved him throughout the Spanish-speaking world for over a century: for the sheer pleasure of it, which (with the related concept of beauty) is its own kind of equipment for confronting the sometimes cruel vicissitudes of life. Martí himself, for instance, speaks in one of these poems of the “sweet consolation of verse” (dulce consuelo); and in another he writes, as Professor Fountain translates: “You, poem, are the poet’s friend” – and likewise the reader’s, I like to think.

 I must tell you that, if you are looking to explore these verses on your own, the McFarland edition may seem a bit over-priced at just under $40 for the paper edition. This was also the case when some years ago I purchased my friend Julie Sellers’s delightful book Merengue and Dominican Identity: Music as National Unifier. McFarland does have an impressive list and bills itself as “a leading independent publisher of academic and nonfiction books,” so I suppose their marketing plan is aimed at universities and libraries and that they are thus able to take on projects that would otherwise be cost prohibitive.

1073063[1]If you can’t buy it for yourself, anyway, you might suggest that your local library purchase it. But also there is another edition from the Arte Público Press, by the Cuban American translator Manuel A. Tellechea, that is aimed at young readers and much more modestly priced. I do not have that version available and have not made a comparative study of the translations, though I am familiar with the press and it is extremely reputable.