29 September 2010

Cardenas on inter-lingual poetry

When asked by an interviewer, Brenda Cardenas reflects on her poems that mix Spanish and English:

Q:  "You have an amazing flexibility and often cross borders. Your scholarly background is interdisciplinary; your poems are inter-lingual; and you write free verse, prose poems, Sapphics, and sonnets…"
A:  "I’m interested in liminal spaces, in the spaces in between. That interest comes from often feeling like a crossroads–like I have one foot in one world and the other in another world, as do many other transcultural people. If you have been living in the United States for a while and you go to Mexico you are not Mexican enough for the Mexicans (they used to call you pocho). And in the United States you are certainly not American enough, or privileged enough or white enough."
People who move from one country to another feel it most intensely, but everyone actually lives in two or more worlds without knowing it - the world of the language as it limits and expands their imagination and the world they move around in during their daily tasks.  The world of a language antedates the existence of a person and constitutes his/her identity, but everyone reconstitutes that language, in much the same way that T. S. Eliot said that every new poem or, as he called it, individual talent, changes the landscape of poetry.  It matters only a little bit where one lives.  What matters more is what language keeps forcing one to think in certain ways, while hearing or reading or knowing other languages frees one from what has been called the prison-house of language.

26 September 2010

Looking outside is a duty

Since poetry started, poets have been global, at least in the sense that, unlike ordinary mortals, they have always been open to foreign influences.  When Ezra Pound opened himself up to Chinese culture, he learned his greatest lesson, as articulated in this 2010 text:
"Pound’s artistic credo was ‘Make it new,’ borrowed from the inscription in the bathtub of the legendary Chinese emperor Tang, who founded the Shang dynasty in the sixteenth century bc. Pound made poetry new by globalizing its language and expanding its subject matter to all that the human mind can encompass. The most astonishing accomplishment of The Cantos was the mad courage of its conception."
Because many readers have neither the time nor the chance to partake of the banquet of foreign cultures, they look to poets to furnish them with the vicarious experience of living outside their own country and their own century.  In effect, being multilingual or multicultural is a duty, rather than just a preference, of the poet.

23 September 2010

Second-language writing as defense mechanism?

 Niko Besnier, in “Crossing Genders, Mixing Languages:  The Linguistic Construction of Transgenderism in Tonga” (2003), offers an explanation of code-switching that might be helpful for multilingual literary critics:

Fakaleitī code-switch for complex and diverse reasons, and in this respect they do not differ from code-switchers in all other societies of the world.  However, one of the most salient, although largely unarticulated, motivations for code-switching that this chapter has explored is the fact that the use of English represents for many fakaleitī a symbolic escape hatch out of social marginality.  The claims embedded in their use of English and their code-switching serve as an idiom of resistance against the symbolic and material oppression that they experience sas both transgendered persons and poor Tongans.”

Is it possible that Filipino writers writing in English (to take only one example of second-language writing) use English because they are marginalized in Philippine society, which uses for the most part various vernacular languages in media, books, the street, the market, and real life?  A radical thought, indeed, which has never been articulated as far as literature is concerned.

21 September 2010


I have a question about Maltese literary texts.  The first Maltese-language newspaper mixed English and Maltese.  Did the poems in that newspaper also mix the two languages?

Here's the note from reference.com:

"The first Maltese language newspaper, l-Arlekkin jew Kawlata Ingliża u Maltija (The Harlequin, or a mix of English and Maltese) appeared in 1839, and featured the poems l-Imħabba u Fantasija (Love and Fantasy) and Sunett (A Sonnet)."

19 September 2010

Mixing not just words but concepts

At the “Cognitive Approaches to Literature Session” of the Modern Language Association Convention in New York in 2002, Martine Fernandes presented a paper entitled "Hybridity in Postcolonial Francophone Novels: A Cognitive Approach."

The abstract of the paper promises a theoretical approach to multilingual literature:

“I argue that cognitive linguistics, which is concerned with the conceptual apparatus that shapes our language, is useful to account for the literary representation of hybrid identities in postcolonial Francophone novels.  My contention is that textual hybridity lies in emergent conceptual structures and not so much in the lexicon, i.e. in the mixing of codes, as most linguistic studies of hybridity in Francophone novels claim. Drawing upon George Lakoff's contemporary theory of metaphor, and Gilles Fauconnier and Mark Turner's theory of conceptual integration, I propose a definition of cultural hybridity as ‘conceptual blending’ that enables me to describe textual hybridity in its multiple forms (including but not limited to code mixing). … This cognitive approach not only addresses the need for a formal methodology to study Francophone literary texts but also contributes to the recognition of Francophone novels as ideologically and aesthetically complex literary productions.”

Indeed, not only Francophone novels, but all novels, even those presumably written by monolingual writers in their own languages, are “ideologically and aesthetically complex literary productions.”  Part of the aesthetic complexity is the effect of the unacknowledged multilingualism of monolingual writers.  Also part of that complexity is the interplay, not only of words borrowed from other languages, but of concepts and ideas growing out of the other languages.

17 September 2010

Visual mixing of languages

Here is an unexplored area of literary criticism.  What happens when a writer whose mother tongue is Chinese, Hebrew, Arabic, or some other language that makes readers read from right to left or top to bottom and not left to right the way the Latin alphabet makes us read?  Is it possible that such a writer (if the writer is aware of concrete poetry or of book design or something similar that gives poetry a visual, in addition to an aural, character) would deliberately work with the direction of reading as a counterpoint?  I know a little spoken Chinese and a little written Arabic, but far from enough to discern if an English text by a Chinese or Arabic writer has some visual pyrotechnics going on.  It would not be unusual for a good writer to play with such possibilities.  After all, hidden messages have been embedded in poems (usually just with letters that stand out).  Think of Jose Lacaba's famous anti-Ferdinand Marcos poem published unwittingly by a pro-Marcos magazine during the height of the Marcos dictatorship.

I got this thought while I was going through an essay about computer programmers having difficulty with right-to-left languages:

"Complications arise, however, when left-to-right conventions are mixed with right-to-left conventions in the same document. Consider an Arabic/English dictionary or a Bible conlrnentary that quotes Hebrew or a Middle-Eastern encyclopedia that refers to Western names in roman letters; such documents, and many others, must go both ways."

It would probably take the New Critics' Ideal Reader to get what extremely clever second-language writers might be doing with visual habits of reading.

15 September 2010

Forthcoming expensive book

Language Mixing and Code-Switching in Writing

Approaches to Mixed-Language Written Discourse

Edited by Mark SebbaShahrzad MahootianCarla Jonsson

  • Price: $120.00
  • Binding/Format: Hardback
  • ISBN: 978-0-415-87946-0
  • Publish Date: June 1st 2011
  • Imprint: Routledge
  • Pages: 256 pages

"After many years in which interest in language alternation has focussed almost entirely on spoken code-switching, recently there has been renewed interest in written mixed-language texts. However, at the moment there is no general agreement on what constitutes the subject area and there is no widely applicable framework for analysis. The aim of this volume is to correct the deficiency just mentioned. Contributors introduce a range of approaches applied to different types of ‘multilingual texts’ (this term is used as an inclusive one, which covers both 'code-switching' in a traditional sense and other types of language mixing), and the collection will cover a range of different languages (including different scripts) and research methods. New perspectives developed in this book will be: the development of approaches to analysis which are specific to written discourse rather than based on spoken discourse; the introduction of approaches from the new literacy studies, treating mixed-language literacy from a practice perspective; the drawing together of 'old' and 'new' media types, e.g. medieval manuscripts and text messaging."

"Introduction: Researching and theorising mixed-language texts (Mark Sebba, Lancaster University) Part 1: Digital literacies 1. Linguistic and generic hybridity in web writing: the case of fan fiction (Sirpa Leppänen, University of Jyväskylä ) 2. Multilingual Texts on Web 2.0: The Case of Flickr.com (Carmen Lee, Open University of Hong Kong and David Barton, Lancaster University) 3. Multilingual web discussion forums: theoretical, practical and methodological issues (Samu Kytölä, University of Jyväskylä) Part 2: Literature, advertising and print media 4. Literary Language Mixing: (Re)Constructing Culture and Identity (Carla Jonsson, University of Stockholm) 5. Repertoires and resources: understanding code mixing in the media (Shahrzad Mahootian , Northeastern Illinois University) 6. Code-Switching in U S Latino Novels (Cecilia Montes-Alcalá, Georgia Institute of Technology) 7. "Hafa Adai… means hello!" Written Codeswitching in the Social Construction of Identity on Tourism Websites (Richard W. Hallett and Judith Kaplan-Weinger, Northeastern Illinois University)Part 3: Informal literacies 8. Analyzing multilingual text-messaging in Senegal - an approach for the study of mixed language SMS (Kristin Vold Lexander, University of Oslo) 9. Vernacular literacy practices in present-day Mali: combining ethnography and textual analysis to understand multilingual texts (Aïssatou Mbodj-Pouye, Centre d’études africaines, Ecole des Hautes Etudes en Sciences Sociales, Paris and Cécile Van den Avenne, ICAR, Ecole Normale Supérieure-Lettres Sciences Humaines, Lyon) 10. Bilingualism meets digraphia: Script alternation and hybridity in Russian-American writing and beyond (Philipp Angermeyer, York University)"

I think the price of $120 is highway robbery, even if the contents of the book look promising.  Here is where a digital book might be a better idea for Routledge, who will not have to get back the heavy investment in printing a book that will not sell too many copies (because there are so few of us interested in mixed-language literary texts).

13 September 2010

Literary power

As far as literary reputation is concerned, Karl Marx was right.  The ruling ideas in the literary community are the ideas of the ruling class.  Here is an early example of how literary quality is judged not by literary standards, but by political ones:

"Particularly after the 16th century foreign terms dominated written texts, in fact, some Turkish words disappeared altogether from the written language. In the field of literature, a great passion for creating art work of high quality persuaded the ruling elite to attribute higher value to literary works containing a high proportion of Arabic and Persian vocabulary, which resulted in the domination of foreign elements over Turkish. This development was at its extreme in the literary works originating in the palace. This trend of royal literature eventually had its impact on folk literature, and numerous foreign words and phrases were used by folk poets."

Literary critics have to be cautious of extra-literary pressures, such as the prejudices of many (most?) publishers, the narrow-mindedness of some (many?) academic administrators, the literary illiteracy of  many (a great many?) readers.  These pressures force critics to write only about "mainstream" (that really means, politically safe) literature, rather than texts that have high literary value in themselves.  (I can criticize publishers, administrators, and readers because I am a publisher, an administrator, and a reader!)

11 September 2010

John Bloomberg-Rissman

Here’s a poem by John Bloomberg-Rissman:

Chick welders rule
the [true and] false
Einheit continuum.

Here’s a comment by Alan Baker about his poetry:

“The Californian poet John Bloomberg-Rissman has a substantial body of work behind him: several collections, a Selected Poems and a large-scale, unpublished work, Travels to Capitals, which draws on the poetry of Michael Palmer and the artwork of Donald Evans. Most of this work is self-published in limited editions and on his website. Bloomberg-Rissman’s early work has the American virtues of plain speech and direct statement, with conventional first-person narration. A quiet, humane and humorous voice. More recently however, he has adopted techniques such as random word-generation, and has blended his more conventional voice with alternative forms of discourse. Incorporations from other writers, snatches of news reports, overheard conversations and other ‘found’ language all appear in a single poem. The result is a fascinating and at times powerful mix.”

Found poetry has been around for quite a while.  Part of what makes it fascinating and powerful is its multilingual character, since real people today do not speak in only one language, particularly in California.  Multilingual literary criticism, perhaps like every other type of literary criticism, is a descendant of Plato and Aristotle, who – despite disagreeing on what exactly reality is – both agreed that literature’s main appeal is mimesis.

09 September 2010

Rereading the Babel story

This one is for those that read and believe the Old Testament.

How can we read Genesis 11:1-9?

"1 Now the whole world had one language and a common speech. 2 As men moved eastward, they found a plain in Shinar and settled there.  3 They said to each other, "Come, let's make bricks and bake them thoroughly." They used brick instead of stone, and tar for mortar. 4 Then they said, "Come, let us build ourselves a city, with a tower that reaches to the heavens, so that we may make a name for ourselves and not be scattered over the face of the whole earth."  5 But the LORD came down to see the city and the tower that the men were building. 6 The LORD said, "If as one people speaking the same language they have begun to do this, then nothing they plan to do will be impossible for them. 7 Come, let us go down and confuse their language so they will not understand each other."  8 So the LORD scattered them from there over all the earth, and they stopped building the city. 9 That is why it was called Babel – because there the LORD confused the language of the whole world. From there the LORD scattered them over the face of the whole earth."

Multiple languages are not the creation of the devil, but of God.  The Old Testament interprets God’s action as motivated by fear at what humanity can do.  Since we know from theology that the all-powerful God would never be threatened by puny humanity, the Biblical writer’s interpretation is wrong.  If everything God created (see Genesis 1:31) is good, then multiple languages are good.  Those that insist on having only one language (in a poem, in a country, in the world) are going against God’s will.

07 September 2010

Hassani poetry

From sahara-online comes this description of Hassani poetry:

"The Hassani poetry belongs to popular poetry and is characterized by various rhythmical and prosodic forms.

"As is the case with all Arab poetry, the Hassani poetry, whether expressed in the classic language or in dialect, takes a major importance.

"Even if Hassani poets pride themselves of exceeding the classic poetry and poets, dialectal poetry contains all the same many terms and even sentences of the literary Arabic language in addition to some words appertaining to other foreign languages.

"It takes also inspiration from coranic verses, hadiths and Arab poetry of different periods."

A multilingual literary critic has to discuss the effect on the poem not just of words from other languages, but even of words and expressions in different registers or types of a single language.  There is really no end to a multilingual literary critic's job of work (in R. P. Blackmur's sense, not in the usual sense of work being a mere job).

05 September 2010


One of the reasons cited by poets that use more than one language in a single text is verisimilitude or true-to-life-ness.  One way to test whether a word is true to life or not is to do what the paradigm-shifting linguist Ferdinand de Saussure did  to check how different languages report the same sound.  Take a rooster.  Clearly, all roosters emit exactly the same sound when they crow.  How that sound is written on paper (and if Saussure is right, how the sound is actually heard by a listener) depends on the mother tongue of the writer.  Here is a list of the words used in some languages to mimic the sound of a cockcrow:  kykyliky (Danish), kukeleku (Dutch), cock-a-doodle-doo (English), kukkurukkuk (Filipino), kukko kiekuu (Finnish), cocorico (French), kikeriki (German), kikiriku or kikiriki (Greek), coo-koo-ri-koo (Hebrew), kukuriku (Hungarian), chicchirichí (Italian), ko-ke-kok-ko-o (Japanese), cucurucu (Portuguese), kukareku (Russian), quiquiriquí or kikiriki (Spanish), kuckeliku (Swedish), kuk-kurri-kuuu u uru uuu (Turkish), kuklooku (Urdu).

Here is one difficulty multilingual writers have.  If they use the sound as spelled in another language, they lose their monolingual reader, because the word would be unrecognizable.  On the other hand, especially if the text is prose rather than verse and the sentence is supposed to be uttered by a foreigner or someone using a different language, it would not be true to life if the cockcrow sound were spelled in the main language of the text.  For example, if I wrote in an English short story, “The Filipino heard the cock-a-doodle-doo of the rooster,” that may make sense to an American reader, but would be plain nonsense to a Filipino reader (who has never in her or his life heard a cock crow “cock-a-doodle-doo.”)

02 September 2010

Early Welsh and Old English poetry

Multilingual literary criticism is not new, although obviously not as old as multilingual literature itself.  Here is a relatively early example of how the knowledge of two languages helps a critic enter more deeply into texts:

"Between languages

the uncooperative text in early Welsh and Old English nature poetry
Front Cover
Pennsylvania State University Press, 1993 - Literary Criticism - 314 pages

"Early Welsh and Old English poetry are rarely spoken of together, but when they are, they have been described as like or different from one another. Sarah Higley breaks this cycle of mutual marginalization by examining what it means to read otherness or sameness into a text, concluding that too much of our reading is 'anglo-centric' in its expectations and dictated by invisible ideological agendas. ... Higley sees the English and Welsh traditions as foils to one another rather than as template and variation, and she starts with the connection of natural image and emotion, employed differently in these two contiguous but separate traditions. She shows how the English poems, long thought to be disjointed and cryptic, are invested in explanation and disclosure to a degree that the Welsh are not. The Welsh 'omissions' might be better understood as dynamic juxtapositions wherein other poetic aspects (metrics, imagery, context) serve to link ideas, perhaps even to disrupt them. She sees difficulty, ambiguity, and dialogism as loci of power - neither accidents of our reading distance nor defects in other classical standards of wholeness. Reading the English and the Welsh together with a respect for the mutual differences helps us to get beyond some of the cliche's about what is English and 'familiar' and what is Celtic and 'other.' Her argument revolves around the plight of the lone human as he or she is depicted in these texts in a precarious state of connection with the rest of the world: caught between society and wilderness, inside and outside, sacred and secular, meaning and nonmeaning. This focus on connection informs the title as well: 'between languages' expresses our position as readers reading two different cultures together, reading ancient literature mediated through modern poetic theory, and the position of medieval scholarship in its struggle between traditional and postmodern approaches."