Wednesday, October 10, 2012

Sun Myong Moon and Me

sun myong moon and me

I do not celebrate anyone’s death, and Sun Myong Moon’s death, on September 3rd of this year was no exception. Death is a sad occasion. One less person on the horizon—even if, unintentionally, he has long been someone I might totally disagree with. I am not religious, in any sense of that word, and quite thoroughly detested his Korean vision of multi-marriages and religious fanaticism.  It might have been possible that I would have had no relationship to this absurd figure had I not, quite innocently named my magazine and, later, press, Sun & Moon Press.

     Seeking to imitate the wonderful John Ashbery journal, Art & Literature, I sought a connection between those two wonderful genres by referring back to the great Austrian novelist—completely unknown by US readers—Albert-Paris Gütersloh, who was both a great surrealist artist and an important fiction writer, who influenced many Austrian figures, most notably Hemito von Doderer, several of whose fictions I was to publish later on my Sun & Moon Press.

      I bought the rights to Gütersloh’s great fiction, Sonne und Mond, asking the wonderful Rosmarie Waldrop to translate it. She had just discovered that she had breast cancer, and suggested that, given her health, she might want to translate the work for the fair price of $10,000. I had no such funding, and had to pass. The book never came to publication, although she did translate a chapter to give me a sense of the work; it appeared just what I was seeking.

      You must understand, I did not truly read German, but I fell in love with this book in the long-gone Rizzoli bookstore in Manhattan, where I asked several times—as if asking them to bring out this special jewel for me to peruse—for them to take the book out of the glass-enclosed case in which they had embedded this “masterpiece.” I must have perceived it as a masterpiece because of the glass encasement, but something about the book totally enchanted me—why I can’t explain. German publisher Klaus Wagenbach tried to convince me that it was an archaic work—he, after all, had published Kafka and numerous other major psychologically-based works that did not at all accord with the high Austrian fantasist and romanticized works of figures such as Albert-Paris Gütersloh.

      I could not be dissuaded, however, and still today would have loved to have published his fiction. What I did was to name my magazine after his novel, Sonne und Mond, Sun & Moon: A Journal of Literature & Art, recognizing the combination of two great planetary forces, for me representing literature and art. I could never have imagined that that phrase might suddenly put me into the camp of the religious fanatic, Sun Myong Moon. But that is what happened.

      It begin with seemingly friendly questions: are you connected with the Sun Myong Moon sect? No, I had nothing to do with that, I reacted. And soon, I just moved forward with great disdain to the religious connections. I would, I determined, create a Sun & Moon Press, despite the religious bigot who had become a thorn in my side. But at one American Booksellers Conventions (now Book Expo) I was placed with religious presses, at another I was embedded in the section that contained mostly Korean, video-based publishers. Obviously, my customers could not find me in these odd isolationist spots, which has a great deal to do with my continued refusal to attend those large book fairs.  Later, as the newspapers and magazine reviewers became more and more isolated themselves from comprehending serious literature, my press name served as an anathema to their predilections, and reviews appeared less and less often. Sun & Moon was somewhat, subliminally connected with Sun Myong Moon, who had bought up entire newspapers and other media networks to get out his religious perspective. It became clear to me that literary reviewers and their editors are not necessarily wise individuals who comprehend the intricacies of literary publishing. Today, they are even less inclined to comprehend even what serious literature is, although I now publish under a less-loaded name,  Green Integer—after all, they might ask, what is an integer (any number).

     So, I am sorry to say, I cannot exactly mourn this religious “messiah’s” death. Sun & Moon Press was a delightful combinatory of major planetary forces, understood clearly in Asian countries and even in Europe. Americans, as usual, got confused. For nearly thirty years, that press provided a wide range of world poetry, fiction, and drama. Nothing to do with closed religious practices, and certainly disinterested in marrying throngs of young grooms and brides, but very much influenced by European and American modernism. Rest in peace, Sun Myong Moon, my strange ghost of a name-sake. I will no longer have to deal with you, my own press having also gone, for other reasons, into the grave before you.

Los Angeles, October 10, 2012




Tuesday, October 9, 2012

Translating Heaven (on the death of Michael Heim)

translating heaven

Although I knew that my friend Michael Heim was dying of cancer, I was still shocked to hear of his death, at the age of 69, on September 29, 2012.

      I don’t remember where I first met Michael, most likely at a party by my former mentor and dear friend, Marjorie Perloff. What I do remember is that as a scholar and major literary translator, Michael immediately attracted me, since my publishing houses—both Sun & Moon Press and Green Integer—featured international literature in translation; and we soon became good friends, Michael inviting me to be the lead speaker at one of his UCLA translation seminars. These seminars, held in the summer, invited major translators from around the country to gather for a few weeks, where they shared—translated from many languages—works they had translated or were currently working on, receiving from their fellow colleagues and a man who spoke and translated from many languages, critical advice and affirmation.

     I bravely proffered an introduction from one of volume 4 of my ongoing Anthology of World Poetry of the 20th Century, advocating and defending the publication of international works*, which received a great deal of response from young translators in search of possible publication. After all, both my presses had perhaps published more translations than any American press in those days, with the exception of Dalkey Archive. Many of our publications, moreover, had received awards for translation, and I had received an award as publisher from the American Translator’s Association. My good friend, Suzanne Jill Levine, translator of Spanish-language literature, was also a guest speaker, and followed my introductory speech.

     That event, led, through my introduction to Efrain Kristal, to a two-semester teaching position at UCLA in the Comparative Literature Department—an experience I thoroughly enjoyed—and which further resulted in my teaching two courses in the UCLA Scandinavian Department in later semesters.

      Michael, born in New York City in 1943, the son of a Hungarian immigrant father (who studied music under Béla Bartük) was the kind of person who naturally nurtures. But he was also an imposing figure, somewhat conservative in the world of open-minded translators, who graduated from Columbia with a degree in Oriental Studies before gaining a Harvard degree in Slavic languages and literature. Along with French, Spanish, German, and Russian, Heim later expanded his linguistic abilities to include Czech, Slovak, Croatian, Serbian, Danish, Norwegian, Swedish, Dutch, Hungarian, Italian, Latin, and Romanian! And his translations, from several of these languages, were brilliant. When Nobel Prize-winning writer Günter Grass lost his long-time translator, he invited 15 world-wide translators to come together; Heim was selected to translate his book, My Century. Heim also translated major works by Milan Kundera, Hugo Claus and numerous others. For me, he translated only one poem (without any remuneration), an original work sent to me by the Czech poet Miroslav Holub.

     His stern vision of the original text differed a bit from my own commitment to present a text that, while true to the original, in part, had to be recreated into the translated language:

                The postmodern stance is that the translator creates a new work.
                That’s where I disagree. I believe that the translator is a creator,
                But I’m not sure that I’d want to create a new work. I would like
                as much as possible, the same work.

     Over the last several years, I met Michael at several of Marjorie and Joe Perloff’s parties and events at his own home with his always gracious and intelligent wife, Priscilla. Michael, a tall, lanky, lean-looking man who one was always tempted to compare, in appearance, with Abraham Lincoln, despite his literary and academic successes clearly had little interest in money. His very aspect (Lincoln excluded) spoke of the kind of patch-coated academic who hadn’t ever given a thought to his costume. Michael, it was apparent, was averse to the smell of dollars.

     What we didn’t know until the appearance of his obituary in the Los Angeles Times is that he and his wife had anonymously given away a small fortune of $734,000, left to him by his father and mother, to establish a fund from the PEN American Center to be awarded to translators over the past decade. I had seen several of the translations that had resulted from his generosity without ever knowing that he had been behind them, a fact that Priscilla revealed only after his death.

     Over the last years, with wracking back pain and then, suddenly, the inoperable cancer, Michael was, occasionally, an oppositional discussant, impatient perhaps with some of the more contemporary figures I published. He was, after all, a kind of classicist, a perfectionist, a mentor for generations of young talents devoted to the often unrewarding job of recreating into English fiction, poetry and drama that might receive little reader attention. But I felt only love and admiration for him, a man who had done so much for writers and their translators.

     Today Marjorie noted on Facebook that at his memorial service yesterday one speaker had suggested that Michael had surely gone to heaven, where he was busy translating for all. A nice sentiment. But I would argue that Michael Heim had created a heaven here on earth—a kind of translated heaven—almost personally defeating the age-old curse of the Tower of Babel, as he brought forth communication in our everyday lives between creators of numerous tongues. Through his struggles many cultures could finally communicate with one another and find shared values, a cultural peace.

 Los Angeles, September 8, 2012

*The central paragraph of this essay reads, in the context of its 2003 publication date:

What has become increasingly apparent, in this horrible year of war, is the true need for such a series, the importance of helping English-language readers to know the writing and, by extension, the cultures of poets from around the world. In an interview with a Brazilian journal, I was recently asked to comment if I felt Americans, and by extension American poets, knew of the poetry in other countries. My conclusion was a bleak one: most Americans don’t even know a poet in this country, I quipped; and, perhaps even more disturbing, is my guess that most American poets could name, perhaps, twenty poets from other countries. I recounted the story of a poet friend, very interested in international writing and who is engaged in reading the poetry of other cultures, innocently asking me who was the poet whose book I held in my hands. The books was the collected poetry of Léopold Sédar Senghor, the great Senegalese poet, former President of the Republic of Senegal, and one of the founders of the Negritude movement of French-speaking Caribbean and African writers who utterly transformed Francophone writing in the 20th century. My fear is that precisely this lack of knowledge of the writing and experiences of other cultures underlies the American arrogance and beliefs that not only is our culture superior to others, but that it should be the culture of others. It is no accident, I suspect, that a president who had traveled very little before taking office, could not comprehend that American values and methods of achieving those values were not shared by all others. I am not suggesting that poetry will change these conditions, but certainly it may help us comprehend a world which—despite its astounding ability to quickly communicate—seems to be splintering apart rather than sharing ideas.

Reprinted from The PIP Anthology of World Poetry of the 20th Century, Volume 4 (Los Angeles: Green Integer, 2003).


Thursday, October 4, 2012

Bad Day on the Seville Streets (on Mozart's Don Giovanni)

bad day on the seville streets

Lorenzo Da Ponte (libretto), Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (composer) Don Giovanni / Los Angeles, LAOpera at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion, Sunday, September 30, 2012 matinee


Certainly there is not much left to be said about Mozart’s masterwork, Don Giovanni; and it seems almost pointless to attempt to write, accordingly, about the opera. But one thing struck me in this story about a very “bad” day in the life of Don Giovanni (Ildebrando D’Arcangelo) while I watching the LAOpera version the other afternoon: except for a very few important scenes, this wealthy citizen of the upper class spends most of his time, like a vagabond, on the city streets. Indeed, one might almost describe the opera, metaphorically, as being like an intense Western, wherein the hero’s luck has changed, as in a work like Bad Day at Black Rock, where everything seems to be going against the already maimed man.

      Of course, Don Giovanni is not really a hero. He begins by attempting to rape Donna Anna (Julianna Di Giacomo), who—either out of an desire to have him finish the job or to out the villain to others, we do not know which—tries to hold the man close to her, as if the victim cannot release herself from the offender. When her father, the Commendatore (Ievgen Orlov) comes to her rescue, dueling with the ruffian, Don Giovanni kills him. From that moment on Don Giovanni is doomed to remain on the streets, for the most part, on the run for his actions—while still absurdly attempting to seduce each woman he encounters along the way.

Because his life is so public, it is easy for his ex-wife, the furious Donna Elvira (Soile Isokoski) to find him. Indeed she is the very first person he encounters along his spiraling path down to hell. Donna Elvira is both a significant force against him—revealing Giovanni’s horrible deeds to anyone who might listen—and a of kind comic figure, a spectre appearing long before the Commendatore’s final ghostly manifestation, that haunts him wherever he goes, as well as foiling his attempts to seduce Zerlina (Roxana Constantinescu) and her maid.


Twice during the long day on the road, however, Giovanni does return to his palatial estate, the first time to join in a  drunken party he has ordered up so that he might get the men out of the way in order to bed Zerlina. Yet the sober if oafishly jealous Masetto stands in his way, while Zerlina herself—if at first all too ready to surrender to Giovanni’s seductions—remains steadfast in her love for Masetto.

     Again Giovanni takes to the street, this time, dressed as his servant Leporello, pretending to participate in a mad chase while really trying to save his own life. As the sun begins to sink, we still find him in a public space, this time in the cemetery where he encounters the Commendatore’s horrifying talking statue whom he flippantly invites to dinner.     

      While Giovanni is at risk for most of day upon the streets, it is in his own home, as he sits down for a lonely dinner—even now torturing Leporello—where he is finally “captured” and brought to justice through the visitation of the Commendatore’s figuration.

      Hell, strangely enough (at least in the LAOpera version, based on the Lyric Opera of Chicago production) manifests itself in Giovanni’s own dining room, not in the public square, suggesting that it is Giovanni’s own private hell, not a spectacle of public proportions; only Leporello observes this event

      Giovanni’s punishment, however, has resulted from all his public crimes, from his inability to remain alone but for but a few moments each day. It is almost as if Giovanni will not even sleep, so determined is he to seek out and find new prey. If the final show-down occurs out of the public eye, it is only because Giovanni is most vulnerable in his own house, since it is public transgressions that truly define who he is. A villainous gunslinger cannot play that role in a lonely farmhouse, just as a lascivious seducer cannot act out his identity in an empty estate. If the particular day Mozart and Da Ponte show us is the worst day of Giovanni’s life, it is—except for his murder of the Commendatore and his inability to seduce anyone—not much different from any other day; for Giovanni is a man doomed to roam Seville’s public streets and squares instead of enjoying the private pleasures of a wealthy life.

Los Angeles, October 4, 2012.