Friday, November 27, 2020

Primitive Information Episode 4 : David Hadbawnik discusses Diane di Prima with fellow former students Jenny Jo Wennlund and Sara Larsen

This special episode is dedicated to Diane di Prima, who died on October 25, 2020 at age 86. Host David Hadbawnik talks with fellow former students Jenny Jo Wennlund and Sara Larsen about Diane di Prima's life, poetry, and teaching. This episode was recorded on November 7, 2020.

Jenny Jo Wennlund:

Sara Larsen: Sara reading for Small Press Traffic, Bay Area Shorts, April 2020

Six poems in The Brooklyn Rail, November 2020

Sara reading for Double Change, Paris, March 2020

Monday, November 23, 2020

folio : Mark Goldstein : Paul Celan/100

Mark Goldstein : On Paul Celan at 100

Ian Fairley :

Pierre Joris :

Susan H. Gillespie :

Mark Goldstein :

R. Kolewe :

Jaclyn Piudik :

Alec Finlay :

Phil Hall :

Andrés Ajens tr. by Erín Moure with Anthony Seidman :

Hugh Thomas :

Robert Kelly :

Paul Celan/100: an online event at the Atwater Poetry Project :

Mark Goldstein : On Paul Celan at 100

folio : Paul Celan/100


A Prefatory Note:

When Paul Celan plunged, unseen, into the waters of the river Seine at le pont Mirabeau, late on April 19th or early on the 20th, 1970, he had little idea his life’s work would find itself transformed into countless articles, essays, and translations disseminated to a readership throughout the world.

It’s been written of Celan’s suicide that he was a strong swimmer and yet this piece of information only bolsters the fact of his absence. In light of this, his maxim that “no one witnesses for the witness” is especially significant when so many readers often mistake the man for his work. Moreover, it’s been reported that found in Celan’s pocket after his death was a ticket stub for a performance of Waiting for Godot. If true, this in some indecipherable way illustrates the unknowable drive to self-annihilation at the limit of his life.

It is startling to think that Celan’s presence in literature now converges with that of his “brother” Franz Kafka’s own, in a shared penumbra that remains unlocatable — despite their works having been identified by a far-reaching audience. For as George Steiner writes of Kafka’s novel The Trial: “Countless are those who have not read it, who may not even have seen stage, film, or television versions but are familiar with its main outline and situations.” The same could be said of the poetry of Paul Celan.


I came to the work of Paul Celan in my 20s through the common entryway of his poem Todesfuge [Death Fugue]. I suspect that I first encountered it in anthology — likely either in Jerome Rothenberg’s translation found in Poems for the Millennium or in John Felstiner’s translation as it appears in Against Forgetting: Twentieth Century Poetry of Witness.

In each case I was startled by Celan’s power of expression, and as a Jew, I obsessed over his early use of the imagery of the Shoah. In time, as I read through his books, I began to develop an ever-expanding sense of their territory. Moreover, as the writing neared its terminus, I came to recognize my estrangement with it too — one born from its profound and compelling angularity.

Borges has written that “we make a very common mistake when we think that we’re ignorant of something because we are unable to define it.” He goes on to say “that we can define something only when we know nothing about it.”[1]

It was my own ‘ignorance’ of the German language through this burgeoning encounter with Celan’s poetry that first compelled me to translate it. Methodologically, I initially dealt with his work through the lens of transtranslation (a term of my own), an admixture that came by way of poets Louis Zukofsky and bpNichol — their meta-translational poetics permitting me to proceed within a self-delineated approach. (See also “On Transtranslating Paul Celan,” Part Thief, Part Carpenter, forthcoming from Beautiful Outlaw Press, 2021.) It was within this territory that I continued to exercise my ‘ignorance’ while establishing an encampment among all the others that surrounded Celan’s celebrated Abwesenheit.

It was later in this period that I began to translate then transtranslate Celan’s cycle of poems, Atemwende, published by Suhrkamp Verlag in 1967. Atemwende [Breathturn] was Celan’s Rubicon, wherein he committed himself to an increasingly revolutionary poetics from which he never abated. As Celan says of this turn in his Meridian Speech: “Poetry is perhaps this: an Atemwende, a turning of our breath. Who knows, perhaps poetry goes its way — the way of art — for the sake of just such a turn? […] Perhaps after this, the poem can be itself … can in this now art-less, art-free manner go other ways, including the ways of art, time and again? Perhaps.”[2]


The centenary of Paul Celan’s birth denotes a shift in this decades-long affair. What was once perceived as a private matter has now fully entered the public sphere. I’m possessive of my literary loves, and especially so of the poetry of Paul Celan. To echo a thought by his contemporary, the Romanian-born philosopher and essayist, Emil Cioran (who both engaged Celan as translator and helped him find employment as a teacher at the École Normale Supérieure), perhaps, in part, an awareness of his rising literary fame pressed Celan to realize “that the prospect of having a biographer” made him want to “renounce having a life.”

          We know Celan’s biographical details. We know of his struggles with mental health in the last years of his life leading up to his death by suicide. We have innumerable PhD theses on his work, translations in any number of languages, a feature film, and documentaries on his life.

Celan, of course, wanted none of this. For those of us who have visited Prague and have seen the statuary, the historical plaques, the gift shops and museums set up in the name of Franz Kafka, we know how this ends too. That members of both Kafka’s and Celan’s families perished in the Shoah adds a necessary pause to such machinations. Moreover, that statuary and other commemorations are now in place in Celan’s Chernivtsi is equally troubling for these do little more than demarcate a shadow’s point of origin. So, what’s left to speak of? Process, of course, and perhaps trajectory? “Perhaps.”


One of the significant turns in Celan’s writing pre- to post-Wende is that early on his use of language is tempered by story. The marvel of his poetry post-Wende is that story (if it is present at all) is tempered solely by language. Of course, story as a fact of writing is inescapable in that sense-making occurs among the most fragmentary of sources — those shattered juxtapositions wherein the relationship between any two words can be the source of whole histories. The poetry of Paul Celan exemplifies perfectly this facet of Sprache.

In Celan’s post-Wende poem “Einbruch,” which appears in a discarded cycle of poems entitled Eingedunkelt, he appositions the words “Sperrzauber, stärker.” As translators, we likely do not know exactly what Celan meant by these word choices — a compound noun and an adjective separated by a comma — nor their relation in juxtaposition or to other parts of the text. Yet, as careful readers we may sense what Celan is writing toward:

Break-in the undivorced
          on your tongue,

Spell-barrier, stronger.

A strange, high
          tidal sway washes away


That this poem’s enigmatic central line acts as a type of hinge or counterlight may serve to reinforce the reader’s supposition that the interpretive possibilities for this text are nearly limitless. Amid such uncertainties, it is the unspoken, intuited relationship between word accretions that compels us to keep reading — to read aloud, of course, and to notate in the margins our questions of and vexations with the work. Moreover, it is the poem’s Macht und Stärke that, absent of commentary, presses us to finally translate Celan’s mother-tongue into one’s own.


On occasion, it is important to honor those poets whose work continues to challenge, fascinate, and edify us — to draw together our Elsewhere Community in reminder that our work is in concert with others. The poetry of Paul Celan presents us with a body of work that far exceeds this measure. The year 2020 not only signifies the one hundredth anniversary of Paul Celan’s birth but also marks the fiftieth yahrzeit of his death. This Periodicities portfolio published here as Paul Celan/100 is a celebration of Celan’s life, poetry, and translational practices as well as the varied poetries these have inspired.

Excerpted within is a compact but carefully considered array, including some of Celan’s poetry and prose in translation. Herein, the reader will find Ian Fairley’s translations of Celan’s earliest work (forthcoming as Sand from the Urns), along with Susan Gillespie’s essay and translations of key selections of Celan’s poetry (published as Corona, Station Hill Press, 2013) and Pierre Joris’s essential work around Celan’s epigrammatic writings (published as Microliths: Posthumous Prose, Contra Mundum Press, 2020).

Equally, there are creative responses to Celan’s work by writers such as Andrés Ajens & Erín Moure, and Phil Hall: Ajens & Moure with co-translator Anthony Seidman offer us an unexpected poetry as contemporary critique of how not to read Celan through the lens of two misreadings by Arnau Pons and Hans-Georg Gadamer, while Phil Hall’s poem, A Defence of Empathy & Sentiment, unfurls the tangled relationship between fashion & fascism. Alec Finlay is here too, who early on gave us some of the first meta-translations of Celan’s poetry in his anthologies Irish and Irish (2) (Edinburgh: Morning Star, 1997/2002).

There are works from contemporary poets Jaclyn Piudik, Ralph Kolewe, and Hugh Thomas — each of whom has employed or responded to Celan’s poetique in imaginative new ways: Piudik in her Afterwar/d (and soon in a forthcoming English translation of Celan’s self-translations of his poetry from German into French), Kolewe in his Perhaps, at the end, reading Celan, and Thomas in his “false translation of Celan’s poem ‘Sprachgitter,’” a personal account of his relationship with Celan’s work.

Most extraordinary is poet Robert Kelly’s submission of his complete manuscript, Earish. Kelly, author of over 50 books, is an exemplar of what is possible when we allow sound-sense to direct translation into innovative and surprising territories, opening up Celan’s poetry to novel translational methods. Suffice to say, we are grateful to first publish Earish here.


Unlike the recent monuments to Celan founded in the Ukraine, the cenotaph that is his oeuvre has accreted itself over decades. A similar length of time in which Celan gave of himself in purification of “death-bringing speech.” From bris to bar mitzvah, from ghetto Jew to Parisian poet writing in German, this “spoiled little mama’s boy from Czernowitz”[3] became the materia prima for a poetry that continues to make itself known. As a writer, Paul Celan transformed the horrors of “that which happened” by refracting the shards of Kristallnacht into a unified force of light. We have the work. We have the work of translation. All that is left to us is to read, and reread, with deepening appreciation that it exists at all.

Mark Goldstein
          November 23, 2020



A Brief Biography:

Paul Antschel — then Ancel, then Celan, an anagram adopted in 1947, when his first poems appeared in a Romanian periodical — was born at Czernowitz (now Chernivtsi) in Bukovina on November 23, 1920.

In June 1940 Czernowitz was occupied by Soviet troops. Subsequently, Jews were herded into a ghetto. It was during this period that Celan learned Russian and began to translate poems by Sergei Yesenin.

After the Soviets lost control of Czernowitz to a fascist Romanian regime allied with the Nazis, Celan’s parents were deported to an internment camp in Transnistria[4] in the summer of 1942, where his father died of typhus and his mother was murdered by a shot to the neck. Paul Celan managed to escape arrest until conscripted for labor service in Southern Moldavia, where he worked at building roads.

The Romanian labor camp was dissolved in February 1944 and Celan returned to Bukovina, which had been re-occupied by the Soviets and annexed to the Ukraine. For a time, Celan is reported to have worked as a ‘field surgeon’ in a psychiatric unit. Later, he left the Soviet Union for Bucharest, working as a publisher’s reader and translator of Russian texts into Romanian. (It was then that he adopted the spelling ‘Ancel’ for his surname.)

Celan succeeded in leaving Romania illegally for Vienna in December 1947, but stayed there only until July of the following year. After the publication in Austria of his first book of poems, Der Sand aus den Urnen (A. Sexl, 1948), which he withdrew because of the many misprints it contained, he settled in Paris, where he took up the study of German literature. In 1950 he obtained his ‘License’ and became a lecturer in German literature at the École Normale Supérieure.

After his marriage in 1952 to the graphic artist Gisèle Lestrange — who contributed etchings to several limited editions of poems by Celan — Paris remained his home until his suicide by drowning in the Seine on or around April 19/20 1970, at the age of forty-nine.

It has been said that Paul Celan is the greatest German-language poet after Rilke.


[Extract (revised) from Paul Celan Reads Paul Celan (Toronto: Beautiful Outlaw, 2004).]


[1] Jorge Luis Borges, “The Riddle of Poetry” from The Craft of Verse: The Norton Lectures (Boston: Harvard University Press, 2000): 17.

[2] Rosmarie Waldrop, Paul Celan: Collected Prose (New York: Routledge, 2003): 47.

[3] Susan H. Gillespie The Correspondence of Paul Celan & Ilana Shmueli (Riverdale, New York: The Sheep Meadow Press, 2010): 164

[4] Transnistria is an artificial geographic term, created in World War II, referring to the part of the Ukraine conquered by German and Romanian troops in the summer of 1941. Before the war, this area had a Jewish population of 300,000. Tens of thousands of them were slaughtered by Einsatzgruppe D, and by German and Romanian forces. When Transnistria was occupied it was used for the concentration of the Jews of Bessarabia, Bukovina, and northern Moldavia who were expelled on the direct order of Ion Antonescu.

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