Black Lawrence Press
August 25, 2015

Welcome, Okla Elliott!

This month we are featuring the poets and writers who have signed with us in the past twelve months—all writers who submitted work during one of our two annual open reading periods.

Today we bring you Okla Elliott, author of the Jürgen Becker translation Blackbirds in Septemberwhich will be published in December.

 

The Author

blp_author_page_okla_imageOkla Elliott is an assistant professor of creative writing and world literature at Misericordia University. He holds a PhD in comparative literature from the University of Illinois and an MFA in creative writing from Ohio State University. His nonfiction, poetry, short fiction, and translations have appeared in Another Chicago Magazine, Harvard Review, Indiana Review, The Literary Review, The Los Angeles Review, New York Quarterly, Prairie Schooner, A Public Space, and Subtropics, among others. He is the author of From the Crooked Timber (short fiction), The Cartographer’s Ink (poetry), and The Doors You Mark Are Your Own (a novel co-authored with Raul Clement).

The Book

I first encountered Jürgen Becker’s work when I was a junior in college and studying in Mannheim, Germany. Until that year abroad, I had never left the country and had never even been on an airplane. By the time I stumbled upon Becker’s work during the third month of my program, I had passed through the initial blissful state of being in a foreign place where everything is new and exciting, especially for a boy who had been raised in rural Kentucky, and had entered the second stage of any long period abroad—that of utter isolation and depression that comes along with culture shock. It was during this dreary period that I was heading to the university one day and decided to walk into the city library with nothing particular in mind. I only knew I wanted a book in German and that it should be poetry. I had just finished Siddhartha by Hermann Hesse, the first full-length prose book I had read in German, and so I wanted to try my hand at poetry. I perused randomly and happened upon Becker’s Erzähl mir nichts vom Krieg (which can be translated as Tell Me Nothing of the War or Don’t Tell Me Anything about the War, depending on your druthers).

I checked out the book and continued on my way to class. All day I thought of ways to cut my study abroad short and return home to the United States, I was so homesick and generally depressed. I also felt ashamed and weak for even thinking of leaving, which only added to my depression. At the end of the day, I returned home and lay in bed reading Becker’s poetry. I had to consult my dictionary several times, but I understood most of the surface language and some of the metaphorical depth Becker was after. That magical and ever-sought-after moment where you feel a real kinship with an author happened after only a handful of poems, and my excitement about the German language, poetry in general, and being where I was began to return to me. This is not to say that I was magically cured of my anxieties and was suddenly in a state of bliss, but rather that I saw a way forward and a reason to continue in that direction. Over the next few weeks, I found more of Becker‘s books and read them on trams, in cafes, at home in bed—anywhere I could. I slowly transitioned out of the depression that comes along with culture shock and came to feel fully at home in Germany. What I am saying is that Becker‘s poems sustained me at a time when I desperately needed sustainment.

It was a few years later, after I had finished my time abroad and was doing my MFA at Ohio State University, that I took a translation class with Dick Davis and produced a small portfolio of translations of Becker’s work as my final project. With Davis’s encouragement, I contacted Becker for permission to publish my translations of his work and began submitting them to journals. At first I didn’t consider the possibility of doing an entire book of Becker’s work, but I kept returning to his poems over the course of about five years, translating a few at a time, discovering more along the way, and developing an ever-closer relationship to his lyrical idiom.

I often joke that others do the New York Times Sunday crossword puzzle to pass the time, whereas I translate poetry. Finding a makeshift solution to some insoluble problem of translation can be just as exciting as producing my own work, and in a sense our translations are our own work, since another translator would have happened upon a different solution to some idiosyncratic turn of phrase or syntactical oddity.

The following translations originally appeared in Plume, Indiana Review, and Prairie Schooner, respectively. I hope the reader finds a fraction of the joy in reading them as I found in producing them. May they sustain you in a time of need.

 

The Location & The Assistant

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Brewed Cafe on Brady St. in Milwaukee, where many hours of work were done

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This is Jean-Martin Jose, the philosopher-monkey and Okla’s spirit animal

The Excerpt

A Provisional Topography

On the Weichsel River, before the war. You see
exactly where we
could have gone farther on the path
above the dam separating the Nothing of river-silver
from those things that formed only shadows
in the changing light.

The unmoved architecture of clouds: it is
this moment that over decades has dragged itself
and has adopted the color of newsprint.

In the distance, in the dark, two houses.
Although it’s bright as day.

Whether souls wander here . . . in any case, distant,
on the dam, two people walking
stand out against the horizon, in the middle
of this past.

The rows of trees continue until
they disappear in a line that returns
on the other side of the river.

The question, whether such or similar conflicts begin.

At night, and not just nights, in the subjunctive.

. . . as though the embankment were to come against us.
Then it’s clear that you can’t steer anything in history.
A progression, an altogether private movement stays
undecided between the return home and a further absence.
These years, it’s said, have left traces of bitterness.

But the landscape is rather quiet.
Invisible the destruction, if in fact
there is destruction.

And the time is passed
which the subsequent, the subsequent time produced.

But you never speak of Now.

Probably in the summer. At that time of year
we remember. Fence posts follow the paths,
or turned around, all of it belonging
to the landscape . . . who owns it? The landscape
leads into landscapes, from the visible ones
to the unseen ones which await us.

A provisional topography.
You can cover it up. You can change
it, but a series emerges, until we achieve
the shore of repetition.

***

Oderbruch

The camera’s broken? It’s cold out,
and there are crows bigger than crows
usually are, scattering smoothly over there across the fields.

Nothing over there. Twilight. Gold gray twilight
spreads out. A tree in Poland
is over there the lost barren tree.

Lighted and empty, the bus drives over the levee.
On the riverbank, two men with their backs
to the dam, which neither begins nor ends.

You don’t hear anything. You hear the slippage
of the floe, the circling floe. You hear
for a long time yet, later, in the dark, the drifting ice.

The camera’s broken, else why are the pictures
blurry now? Two men stood on the riverbank.
They came back. They could tell the story.

***

Poem about Snow in April

April-snow; quickly; once again
fifteen minutes
of winter and full disappearance
of crocus-regions
…………………………….and
fifteen minutes, in the future,
says Warhol, is fame. Quickly,
a poem about snow in April,
for mood and snow
are quickly gone
……………………and suddenly,
metaphorically speaking,
snow-mastery disappeared
in the region of the crocus,
and the regime of spring rules.
So, a spring-poem.
And quickly. Tomorrow it’s winter, again,
and new mastery,
……………………………no,
not tomorrow: in fifteen minutes
with snow, like quick life,
says Warhol, metaphorically speaking,
like snow, disappearing, April.