Online Exhibitions

Multilingual Poetry presents contemporary poets whose multilingual heritage plays a central role in their work. Their languages are Chamoru, English, French, Hawaiian Pidgin/Hawaiian Creole English, Japanese, Korean, Navajo, O'odham, Russian, Spanish, Spanglish, and Tagalog. This list, however, does not comprehend all of the languages that are their heritage, nor is 'multilingual' synonymous with 'bilingual.'

The poets of Filipino descent featured here, for example, come from a nation where more than 170 languages are spoken. For Mexican and Chicano/a poets, Spanish and Spanglish have deep and varied indigenous roots. The farther back any language is traced, the more it becomes multilingual all on its own.

On the heels of language comes language politics. Some of the poets featured here remember a time when they, or their parents, were punished for speaking a language other than English at school or in a public place. In resisting this constraint, they have opened a space for the multilingualism of subsequent generations. But the push for monolingualism and monoculturalism is hardly a thing of the past. Where some forces work to shut down, seal off, and contain, multilingual writers work to expand, forge links, and refresh: like language itself.

This exhibit, curated by Wendy Burk, was originally presented in the Jeremy Ingalls Gallery of the University of Arizona Poetry Center from August 16 to September 25, 2010.

Talk Shows
Image of Mónica de la Torre's Talk Shows
Image of Bite Its Heart Until It Learns, by Mónica de la Torre

Mónica de la Torre. Talk Shows. Chicago: Switchback Books, 2006.

Mónica de la Torre, originally from Mexico City and now based in New York City, is a rising star as translator, editor, experimental poet, and promoter of the next wave of multilingual theory and art. de la Torre publishes in the U.S. and Mexico and is also a critic, pursuing a PhD at Columbia University with a focus on multilingual writing and countercultural discourses in Latin American poetry.

As might be expected, de la Torre’s work delights in multilingualism and persistently pushes the boundaries of the term. Witness the poem on display in this exhibit, "Bite Its Heart Until It Learns," from her first full-length collection in English, Talk Shows. de la Torre’s notes explain that the poem is one of two "renditions of two poems… that Paul Hoover wrote in English as if they were being written by a Spanish-language  poet. My renderings are centos with lines that I found in poems by diverse Latin American authors and which I then translated into English… Resulting from this 'translation' project were more literal Spanish poems, in English."

Mónica de la Torre in 2008

Mónica de la Torre, 2008, at The University of Arizona Poetry Center. Photo by Christine Krikliwy.

Half of the World in Light
Image of Half of the World in Light, by Juan Felipe Herrera
Image of "Arizón maricopa tempe tu tierra roja," by Juan Felipe Herrera

Juan Felipe Herrera. Half of the World in Light: New and Selected Poems. Tucson: The University of Arizona Press, 2008.

Juan Felipe Herrera is a venerable and vital presence in Chicano letters. In addition to poetry, he writes prose and theatrical works for adults, young adults, and children, working in and on an American identity that resists hegemony. Herrera is deeply interested in indigenous cultures and consciousness, which are also part of the Chicano experience.

Herrera’s poetry balances the experimental with the lyrical. He is innovative, yet never abandons the heart. A self-translator, he often includes English and Spanish versions of his poems, and particularly in his early work of the 1970s, he mingles English and Spanish in a hybrid that draws on the fluidity of Spanglish but is something else again. Half of the World in Light, his collection of new and selected poems, received the 2009 National Book Critics Circle Award.

Thirteen Ways of Looking at TheBus
Image of Thirteen Ways of Looking at TheBus, by Gizelle Gajelonia
Image of "Bustainability," by Gizelle Gajelonia

Gizelle Gajelonia. Thirteen Ways of Looking at TheBus. Kane'ohe, HI: TinFish Press, 2010.

Gizelle Gajelonia, a very new author on the scene, is definitely one to watch for. Born in the Philippines and raised in Hawai'i, she wrote this, her debut chapbook, while still an undergraduate student at the University of Hawai'i at Manoa. As the title Thirteen Ways of Looking at TheBus implies, Gajelonia takes on 'other' voices, including Eliot, Bishop, Crane, Ashbery, and, naturally, Stevens. Her transportations of their frames of reference to the contemporary Hawaiian context are trenchant and wryly hilarious.

Thirteen Ways of Looking at TheBus (TheBus, by the way, is the island of Oahu's public transportation system) also includes poems in Hawaiian Pidgin/Hawaiian Creole English, a self-translated set of 'bus haikus' in Tagalog and English, and a breathtaking multilingual, but mostly English, final prose poem. By "doing da kine in different voices," Gajelonia calls attention to persistent inequities, stirring up our political outrage along with our laughter.

Codex Espangliensis: From Columbus to the Border Patrol
Image of Codex Espangliensis: From Columbus to the Border Patrol
Image of Codex Espangliensis: From Columbus to the Border Patrol

Guillermo Gómez-Peña, Enrique Chagoya, and Felicia Rice. Codex Espangliensis: From Columbus to the Border Patrol. San Francisco: City Lights Books with Moving Parts Press, 2000.

This collaboration comes from the fertile minds of poet Guillermo Gómez-Peña, founder of the cutting-edge performance troupe La Pocha Nuestra, visual artist Enrique Chagoya, and book artist Felicia Rice. In the form of a pre-Hispanic codex, the book unfolds accordion-style, presenting a rich visual and linguistic history of the Americas. Text in Spanish, English, and Spanglish juxtaposes past border conflicts and border cultures with present ones.

Gómez-Peña's work is a premier example of the inherent and deeply rooted multilingualism of the U.S.-Mexico border region. Codex Espangliensis reminds us that multilingualism and hybridity are our heritage.

Guillermo Gómez-Peña with Albert Soto in 2003
Image of Guillermo Gómez-Peña with Albert Soto

Guillermo Gómez-Peña with Albert Soto, 2003, after his performance at the Rialto Theater for The University of Arizona Poetry Center. Albert Soto (1954-2005) was a beloved Tucson arts administrator and performer. Photo by Christine Krikliwy.

Dúchas-Táá Kóó-Diné
Image of Dúchas-Táá Kóó-Diné, by Rex Lee Jim
Image of poem frmo Dúchas-Táá Kóó-Diné, by Rex Lee Jim

Rex Lee Jim. Dúchas-Táá Kóó-Diné. Béal Fierste [Belfast]: An Clochán, 1998.

Poet and playwright Rex Lee Jim, of Rock Point, Arizona, writes and publishes in Navajo and English. Dúchas-Táá Kóó-Diné, published in Belfast, presents poems in Navajo and English (Jim's renderings) beside their translations in Irish Gaelic.

Jim's work is acclaimed for speaking volumes in few words; because of Navajo's richness, poems are sometimes one word long. He has inspired the next generation of Navajo writers, including Sherwin Bitsui. Rex Lee Jim was also a 2010 candidate for Navajo Nation President.

Rex Lee Jim in 2007
Photograph of Rex Lee Jim

Rex Lee Jim, 2007, at The University of Arizona Poetry Center’s Native Voices Symposium. Photo by Christine Krikliwy.

Type O Negative
Image of Type O Negative, by Joël Barraquiel Tan
Image of "Beautiful Daughter," by Joël Barraquiel Tan

Joël Barraquiel Tan. Type O Negative. Los Angeles: Red Hen Press, 2009.

Joël Barraquiel Tan's poetry is wild and rangy. He speaks informed by his Filipino childhood, his adult activism, and the voices of family and friends who interject their words into his own, in the multitude of tongues of the eminently multilingual Philippines, where more than 170 languages are spoken. As voices dart in and out, the poems acquire elements of collage, a collage that is very much mixed media, frantic, sexual, and loving. In "ars poetica filipiniana," Tan writes:

 

isn’t enough

to pass mangoes ‘round

until they’re bruised

[…] to be defined

by exile of empire

or scorn the

love of whites. just

isn’t enough to be brown.

 

He then describes a search for "the wildest poem in captivity," an apt description of his project in Type O Negative.

Where Clouds Are Formed
Image of Where Clouds Are Formed, by Ofelia Zepeda
Image of "Birth Witness," by Ofelia Zepeda

 

Ofelia Zepeda. Where Clouds Are Formed. Tucson: The University of Arizona Press, 2008.

University of Arizona Regents' Professor of Linguistics, MacArthur Fellow, and former Tucson Poet Laureate Ofelia Zepeda (Tohono O'odham) has achieved international acclaim for her creative writing and scholarly work. Zepeda, born and raised in Stanfield, Arizona, authored the first grammar textbook of her native language, O'odham. Her work promoting O'odham literacy has brought her many honors, and she has served as a consultant for other tribes on literacy projects. She is co-director of the American Indian Language Development Institute (AILDI), which brings American Indian educators to the University of Arizona campus each summer for study with renowned teachers and writers. She is also the editor of the University of Arizona Press Sun Tracks series, publishing distinguished American Indian authors. From this 'short list' of her professional activities, it is clear that Zepeda works passionately and tirelessly to promote literacy and scholarship in indigenous languages.

Zepeda, who writes and publishes poetry in O'odham and English, often uses both languages in a single poem and also translates her own work. Her poetry is sweeping and tender; it is humane and sometimes fierce. "Birth Witness," included in this exhibit, is a poem in English whose central concern is multilingualism. In this poem Zepeda recounts her difficulty obtaining a passport because she was born at home and has no birth certificate. As Zepeda describes her parents, who cannot read and write English but "speak a language much too civil for writing," the reader feels the injustice accorded to those who are indigenous to this land but experience difficulty 'documenting' their existence through bureaucratic channels.

Ofelia Zepeda in 2007
Image of Ofelia Zepeda

Ofelia Zepeda, 2007, at The University of Arizona Poetry Center's Native Voices Symposium. Photo by Christine Krikliwy.

What Do You Want?
Image of What Do You Want?, by Marina Temkina
Image of poetry by Marina Temkina

Marina Temkina. What Do You Want? Brooklyn: Ugly Duckling Presse, 2009.

Can a poem be multilingual if it is written in English only? If you are Russian poet and visual artist Marina Temkina, the answer is probably yes. Temkina, who writes, "I am a poet and words are my strong side. I am a poet-immigrant and words are my weak side," moved in 1978 from Leningrad to New York City, where she writes and creates installations and artist books, at times in collaboration with her partner, the French artist Michel Gerard.

When Temkina writes in English (she also has an extensive publishing history in Russian), monolingual becomes multilingual. The poet draws playful attention to the accent of her English through repetition and simple statements (I am, I am not, I do, I do not) that trace her identity and self in relation to others. Temkina declares, "I am an example of how English becomes international./ Many people are against this." Reading her joyous work, it's impossible to imagine why.

A Radiant Curve
Image of A Radiant Curve, by Luci Tapahonso
Image of "A Blessing," by Luci Tapahonso

Luci Tapahonso. A Radiant Curve. Tucson: The University of Arizona Press, 2008.

The title of Luci Tapahonso's A Radiant Curve speaks to a persistent quality of her work: a gracefulness imbued with light. Another quality associated with Tapahonso, a University of Arizona professor who hails from Shiprock, New Mexico, is laughter.

In using Navajo in her poems and stories, Tapahonso underscores the inadequacy of English to encompass her world. In the poem "They Are Silent and Quick," for example, she writes of watching fireflies: "There are no English words to describe this feeling... Because of it, I am overshadowed by aching." The Navajo language in Tapahonso's work honors kinship ties, sacred stories, deep hurts, and beauty.

Influential to her students, Tapahonso wrote the poem "A Blessing" for a University of Arizona graduation ceremony. The first page of the poem is included in this exhibit.

Luci Tapahonso in 1999
Image of Luci Tapahonso

Luci Tapahonso, 1999, at The University of Arizona Poetry Center. Photo by Christine Krikliwy.

Exilée: Temps Morts
Image of Exilée-Temps Morts, by Theresa Hak Kyung Cha
Poem from Exilée-Temps Morts, by Theresa Hak Kyung Cha

Theresa Hak Kyung Cha. Exilée: Temps Morts: Selected Works. Edited and with an introduction by Constance M. Lewallen, with an essay by Ed Park. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2009.

Theresa Hak Kyung Cha's work is considered groundbreaking for scholars and poets interested in multilingualism, hybrid writing, and performance. She leaps between languages—mainly French (all of her works are titled in French) and English, but also Japanese and Korean—and between image and text, with words struck out, revised, run together, and fragmented.

Cha interrogates language, translates herself, and records the demands of others that she be translated. Her work carries a palpable tension and dislocation, a reflection of her early life in Korea shortly after the end of the Japanese occupation and her immigration to the United States at age 13.

Cha's life came to a untimely and tragic end. She was murdered by a stranger at the age of 31, just days after her landmark text Dictée was first published in 1982. Her selected works, brought together in Exilée-Temps Morts, allow us to appreciate her range as visual artist and writer.

Hostile
Image of Hostile, by Heather Nagami
Poem from Hostile, by Heather Nagami

Heather Nagami. Hostile. Tucson: Chax Press, 2005.

As if language were visual art, University of Arizona Creative Writing alumna Heather Nagami layers multiple ironies on a flat surface where they can be appreciated in relation to each other. In Hostile, her first full-length collection, the voices of family members, lovers, doctors, and Tucson city council members join Nagami's own, speaking Japanese, English, Spanish, medicalese, and the private language of obsession.

"Acts of Translation," included in Section 1 of Hostile, is most directly multilingual, allowing the reader to appreciate the poet's affinity for the work of Theresa Hak Kyung Cha. Nagami explores her family's imprisonment in Japanese American internment camps and, in doing so, recreates the experience of a young woman learning Japanese, listening to the places where her dominant language, English, collides with the language of her family's history.

Bird Eating Bird
Image of Bird Eating Bird, by Kristin Naca
"Language Poetry/Grandma's English," by Kristin Naca

Kristin Naca. Bird Eating Bird. New York: HarperPerennial, 2009.

Kristin Naca, whose first book Bird Eating Bird was selected by Yusef Komunyakaa for the 2008 National Poetry Series MTVU prize, is an adept self-translator. Bird Eating Bird is striking for the number of poems it offers in Spanish and English renderings. Like others of Filipino descent in this exhibit, however, Naca approaches language beyond bilingualism. In the poem/section titled "House," she looks at how the utterance of a word and the visual appearance of the letters themselves conjure up visual images and linguistic synergies. In "House," individual letters compete with each other as they make up the entity of a brick house on Macon Avenue:

 

Avenue: "Macon, your 'n' is leaving ink clouds, my 'A' dyed blue."

Macon: "Get over it, Avenue. Even capitalized you're common."

 

Formally inventive and often erotic, Naca lets language traipse across the page and become its own actor: "h  breath on her neck and neck on her lips/ h  quickened over a scissor leg/ when h  threads her arm across the other lovers/ she scores homophones."

Pink Car Crash
Image of Pink Car Crash, by Itziar Barrio
Pages from Pink Car Crash, by Itziar Barrio

Itziar Barrio. Pink Car Crash. New York: Fly By Night Press, 2008.

Basque artist Itziar Barrio works with words and pictures, as well as sculpture, animations, installations, and performance. While she does not see her work as generating "overtly social or political" questions (Artist's Statement, www.itziarbarrio.com), she juxtaposes playful and familiar forms with language in Spanish and English that suggests dire conflict. "Collision" is a refrain in Pink Car Crash, as is the Janus-faced dog made of cardboard, seeming to look both ways from confusion, rather than omnividence.

Dance Dance Revolution
Image of Dance Dance Revolution, by Cathy Park Hong
"Windowless House," by Cathy Park Hong

Cathy Park Hong. Dance Dance Revolution. New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 2007.

Cathy Park Hong's Dance Dance Revolution, selected for the 2006 Barnard Women Poets Prize by Adrienne Rich, is a tour de force of invented language, personal and cultural history, and politics. Set in a futuristic resort megalopolis reminiscent of Las Vegas, the book brings together two characters--the Guide, a former South Korean dissident-turned-tour-guide, and the Historian, the daughter of the Guide's former lover--to tell a far-flung story of diaspora and community. The Guide speaks Desert Creole, a language created by Hong from multiple sources: Korean, Spanish, Old and Middle English, and many others. The Historian describes Desert Creole as "an amalgam of some three hundred languages and dialects," and so great is Hong's skill that we can readily enter into the language and the rapidly evolving (fictional) society that created it.

Red Ink
Image of Red Ink 13.2, with art by Ryan Red Corn
"Ga'iwsa," by Marlon Evans

Red Ink 13.2 (Fall 2007). Tucson: Red Ink Magazine.

Red Ink, the University of Arizona's student-run publication for American Indian writers and artists, offers a vibrant experience of Native voices. O'odham, Navajo, and other Native languages share space with English reborn as a Native tongue through its speakers. The art, criticism, and poetry of Red Ink reinvent identity constantly.

Featured here is the poetry of Marlon B. Evans (Tohono O’odham/Akimel O'odham). For Evans, a beloved and much-missed University of Arizona poet who died in 2009, the experience of weaving O’odham words (ce:mat, tortilla; ga'iwsa, corn stew) into an English-language poem is one of memory and also reassurance of culture's continuance.

Marlon B. Evans in 2007
Photograph of Marlon B. Evans

Marlon B. Evans, 2007, at Tumamoc Hill, Tucson. Photo by Eric Mache.

Tséyi'/Deep in the Rock
Image of Tseyi/Deep in the Rock, by Laura Tohe and Stephen Strom
"Female Rain," by Laura Tohe

Laura Tohe and Stephen E. Strom. Tséyi'/Deep in the Rock: Reflections on Canyon de Chelly. Tucson: The University of Arizona Press, 2005.

Navajo poet Laura Tohe is well known for her uncompromising debut collection, No Parole Today, in which she tells, in poems and prose, of the Indian boarding school experience. In Tséyi'  ("the place deep in the rock," original name of Canyon de Chelly), Tohe's poems are illustrated with photographs by Stephen Strom that draw attention to patterns of rock, sediment, and vegetation in the Canyon.

Tséyi' also provides an opportunity for fans of Tohe's work to read her poetry in Navajo, along with English translations that she provides. As with the work of many self-translators included in this exhibit, it is evident from the way that the form of the poem changes from Navajo to English that the act of translation requires reimagining the poem's original shape and cadence.

Laura Tohe in 2004
Photograph of Laura Tohe

Laura Tohe, 2004, at The University of Arizona Poetry Center. Photo by Christine Krikliwy.

from Unincorporated Territory [saina]
Image of from Unincorporated Territory [saina], by Craig Santos Perez
"from aerial roots," by Craig Santos Perez

Craig Santos Perez. from Unincorporated Territory [saina]. Richmond, CA: Omnidawn, 2010.

Craig Santos Perez is Chamoru [Chamorro], native to Guåhan [Guam]. The Chamoru language and the island's contested political and cultural history permeate Perez's work, which can be described as epic and highly spacial, reorganizing our sense of speech and place.

In the preface to his first book, from Unincorporated Territory [hacha], Perez mines American poetry for mentions of his homeland and finds little beyond the "planes roaring out from Guam" in a single line of Robert Duncan's "Uprising: Passages 25." Thus the word "from" has a special importance to his work. "From" not only signifies and challenges Guam's supposed status as a place to proceed from rather than a place to be, but it also speaks to our ideas about 'fromness': what it means to 'be from' a place. By titling his books from Unincorporated Territory [hacha] and [saina], as well as attaching the word 'from' to individual poem titles, the poet also draws attention to the fact that his work cannot be complete: "Each poem carries the 'from' and bears its weight and resultant incompleteness."

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