Cantos: A New Directions Blog

Archive for September 2009

New Directions at the Brooklyn Book Festival

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Here is what our permissions editor Quinn Marshall had to say:

“For my part, I would say that the event was a very positive experience. Everyone was exhausted by the end of the day, but getting the chance to meet new ND fans and nerd out with all the other bookworms that visited the festival definitely carried us through the day. Of course we also had lots of help from our wonderful interns. Throughout the day they helped to keep things running relatively smoothly. It was a beautiful day and many Brooklynites flocked to Borough Hall (along with others from all over the city I’m sure) to take advantage of a day full of wonderful speakers (including Anne Carson (who I heard was marvelous), Paul Auster, and Michael Palmer (who stopped by just as someone was asking us questions about his books, which, of course, Michael was happy to answer and sign)). We were in great company; the New York Review of Books, Ugly Duckling Press, Akashic, Soft Skull, Archipelago; and many literary magazines, including Granta, Paris Review, Bookforum, etc. all had booths. It was literally astounding to look at the schedule of events and vendor attendees.

Our books definitely rose to the occasion. There was a steady stream of people visiting the ND booth. Throughout the day the table was chock-full of visitors standing shoulder-to-shoulder (often times with another row of people waiting behind them. It was great to see the wide variety of people visiting us: older people, younger people, and people of all nationalities (including a couple Brazilians who were thrilled that Clarice Lispector was enjoying such a renewal of interest due to the recent biography). One elderly gentleman stopped by and asked, “Is this the New Directions founded by Laughlin?” He then started rattling off all our books that he had read, including newer books like the Bolaños (By Night in Chile he said was “basically perfect”) and of course the older classics. I think that guy probably sold 3 books all by himself just among the other people around him listening. It was inspiring to see how much our books meant to people, and how excited they were about what they had yet to read. Everyone’s eyes lit up when they saw Robert Walser’s Microtexts proofs and the Anne Carson’s artbook Nox mock-up.

We sold out of a lot of the books we brought. Big sellers were The Halfway House, Nazi Literature in the Americas, Rings of Saturn, The Tanners, Emigrants, She-Devil in the Mirror, Skating Rink, Melancholy of Resistance, The Armies, By Night in Chile, and Ghosts. The good thing was that even if we had sold out of what someone wanted, they most always found something else to pick up. Everyone was asking for Clarice Lispector in the morning, prompting me to run back to the office to scrounge up what I could. I brought back about a dozen copies of her various books and they all sold out within a few hours. One thing we might consider: we had no bags for people to carry home their purchases (possibly an opportunity to sell tote bags?)

So on the whole, it was a tremendous amount of fun for us, and a fantastic event for ND to participate. It seemed like it meant a lot to people who stopped by. I would definitely put my vote in for participating again next year.”


Written by New Directions

September 24, 2009 at 5:01 pm

Luljeta Lleshanaku Wins Prestigious Poetry Prize

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LULJETANew Directions is pleased to announce that Albanian poet Luljeta Lleshanaku has won 2009’s Kristal Vilenice Prize—an award that will not only sustain her already well-established career, but also alter its trajectory onward and upward. She is in august company—previous recipients of the Prize have included Milan Kundera, Adam Zagajewski, Peter Handke, and Zbigniew Herbert. In awarding her the Prize, the jury summed up its sentiments:

Luljeta Lleshanaku’s poems take place in a melancholy landscape of mountain villages, chestnut trees, and collapsing futures where ‘spring kills solitude with its solitude’ and the only emotional expression not considered a sign of weakness is impatience. The place of her poems is like a zero point that can only look out from itself in all directions at once. But the poet looks inward beyond paradox, and, instead of judgment, she finds recognition. In Lleshanuku’s work, geography and soul are charted on the same map. The rhythms of her new poems are expertly managed to enact vulnerability and withdrawal. Her lines stretch out and suddenly retract into fragments with the sensitivity of snail horns. She doesn’t juxtapose so much as she integrates the peculiar and the familiar. A vernacular sentence can open into an unforeseeable corollary abstraction. The 2009 jury is delighted to present this year’s Kristal Vilenice prize to Luljeta Lleshanuku.

Luljeta Lleshanaku was born in Albania, in 1968, and came of age during the Albanian Cultural Revolution. She was only 22 when the dictatorship collapsed, relaxing the brutal censorship of the previous several decades, and resulting in a flowering of contemporary Albanian culture. As with so many writers, Lleshanaku’s career began in journalism—she was editor-in-chief of the weekly magazine Zëri i rinisë (The Voice of Youth). Lleshanaku then took a step towards poetry when she began to work for the literary paper Drita, later becoming a full-time poet. The last decade and a half has been marked by phenomenal success: Lleshanaku has published four volumes of poetry, one of which, Fresco, has been translated into English (by Henry Israeli) and published by New Directions. She has gained as much attention and as many awards and accolades as a minor-language poet can in today’s literary world, including a teaching post at the University of Iowa; her winning the Kristal Vilenice, then, culminates a brilliant period of work.

What distinguishes the poetry of Luljeta Lleshanaku? The critic Peter Constantine speaks of her poetry’s “remarkable variety of themes,” but this belies the simplicity of her works, which sometimes borders on starkness. Take, for example, the first three lines of ‘Irreversible Landscapes,’ available (with some of her newer stuff) online here: “Irreversible is the river / on whose back / dead leaves swirl.” What makes Luljeta’s poetry so daring, and so striking, is her willingness to explore old poetic tropes: there is little novel in writing about rivers and leaves, and the next two lines—“Irreversible are words / the dust of roads”—are also a familiar association. It is the ease and earnestness with which she transitions from one trope to another that are so arresting: by eschewing the abstruseness of modern poetry, Luljeta’s work is conservative yet fresh, and though it shuns irony for sincerity, her verse never falls prey to self-consciousness or self-parody.

Rivers, words, roads: another recurring theme is the connection between purity and artifice, permanence and transience, nature and man. People are characterized as earth—“even when skin comes to moss”—and forces of nature are anthropomorphized—my favorite passage from her oeuvre reads, “Where the wind with its toothless mouth blows / luring in tides…” There is something primal in these lines, as in the best of poetry. Constantine writes, “…one of the elements that distinguishes Luljeta Lleshenaku’s poetry is the absence of direct social and political commentary,” but this absence is a choice of which the reader is always conscious, especially since the poet’s background is in a blood-soaked country where, for decades, poets were not allowed to practice “abstract humanism, anarchism, bourgeois objectivism … patriarchalism, revisionism, or sentimentalism, to name a few.” By declining to mention the Revolution or the dictatorship directly, Luljeta indicates her desire to write poetry that transcends them—the Cultural Revolution comes and goes, but rivers, words, roads are timeless, “irreversible.” She concludes her first poem in Fresco with this pretty stanza, where Israeli’s sensitive translation captures the musicality of the original Albanian: “There is no destiny, only laws of biology; / fish splash in water / pine trees breathe on mountains.”

Though Luljeta surmounts and surpasses the profound difficulties of her country’s past, and its continued struggle in the present, her poetry is still subtly shaped by these circumstances: the same poem that ends with biology, fish, and pine trees begins with “There is no prophecy, only memory / What happens tomorrow / has happened a thousand years ago.” The past isn’t dead; it isn’t even past, and Constantine’s introduction adumbrates this essential context for Luljeta’s work: “Poets and novelists,” he writes, “were forced to volunteer to strengthen their ties to the land by working in the fields.” And yet the past, though it determines the present, is something that fades before the immediacy and beauty of now, and now is nothing if not Luljeta’s time.

u1_Luljeta2The Kristal Vilenice, though little known in the Anglophone world, is Eastern Europe’s most prominent prize for poetry. It is unique among awards of its kind for encompassing a broad swath of languages, nationalities, and traditions—from Kundera, writing in Czech, to Handke in German and Zagajewski and Herbert in Polish. Recent recipients have included Valzina Mort, of Belarus, and Kaca Celan, of Serbia. Luljeta is the first Albanian to win the prize. Though the Kristal Vilenice comes with no monetary perk, it is our hope and expectation that its prestige and publicity will enable Luljeta to continuously pursue a long, full, and successful career in poetry. At New Directions we are also very proud to welcome Luljeta into our ‘modern canon’ of published poets, which places her in equally august company—alongside Ezra Pound, Dylan Thomas, and Kenneth Rexroth. Another volume of poetry, translated into English, is forthcoming from New Directions. Congratulations, Luljeta!

More biographical information, as well as links to her poetry (online and in print), is available at the New Directions-maintained Wikipedia article.

Written by New Directions

September 15, 2009 at 4:26 pm

Politics and power in Evelio Rosero’s THE ARMIES.

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The Armies

For the past 60 years Colombia’s social and political climate has been defined by violence. The root of Colombia’s three decade-long civil war can be traced back to the period known as “La Violencia,” which stemmed from the assassination of the leftist presidential candidate Jorge Gaitán and the seizure of government power by conservatives. As a result, numerous left wing and communist revolutionary groups formed throughout the country, notably the FARC (Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia) and the ELN (National Liberation Army). In turn, conservative paramilitary groups such as the AUC (United Self-Defense Forces of Colombia) were created in response to these collectives. For these groups violence is the route to power. Both the leftist guerillas and conservative paramilitary groups have terrorized the populace through massacres, kidnappings, extortion, rape, robbery, assassination, disappearances, lootings and intimidation.

The Bojayá massacre of 2002 exemplifies this: In 2002, the AUC paramilitary group occupied the town of Bojayá in order to rid the area of FARC guerillas and to gain possession of the coca plantations surrounding the town. Despite protests from the local inhabitants that the presence of the paramilitary groups would only bring suffering to the town, the AUC remained. Then, on May 2nd 2002, FARC began shelling the town with primitive mortars, indiscriminately killing both civilians and AUC members. 119 citizens were killed and 98 were seriously wounded. In the wake of the atrocities, it became evident that the people of Bojayá were viewed as expendable by all combatants. The AUC reportedly used civilians as human shields, to have looted the town and confiscated goods, vehicles, and equipment from the denizens of Bojayá. Furthermore, the Colombian government failed to prevent the pillage, despite warnings from the UN of the brutality that would occur.

In The Armies, Rosero depicts this lack of concern for lives of the Colombian people. The armies playing out their gruesome war games are nameless, but are meant to evoke groups such as FARC, ELN and the AUC, who for many years have brutalized the Colombian people in the name of politics. Although Rosero elects to render anonymous the warring militias who wash through the town, murdering at will, the narrative trajectory of The Armies is fuelled by accounts of the very specifically named people of the fictional town of San José. From Chepe the restaurant owner whose pregnant wife is abducted, to the outsider figure of Hey, the empanada vendor who is eventually decapitated, no life in San José is left untouched by the book’s violent and destructive course. Rosero says of the specificity of victims and the facelessness of the killers: “Everything is reduced to death tolls without ever reporting on the causes, the offenders. Impunity is our daily bread. To tackle this aspect of the Colombian reality from a human perspective, to tackle the life of the citizen, the unarmed people stuck in the middle of crossfire, was a tremendous challenge, because I am a novelist and couldn’t take sides. I couldn’t let it fall into becoming a propaganda piece, so through writing I was able to use the literary art as a witness.” This refusal to “take sides” renders the novel all the more powerful as a depiction of humanity on the brink of destruction: the people are pawns in this game; husbands and wives are taken and used for ransom, innocent children are transformed into soldiers and murderers and the corpses of women are raped and defiled. No one in the novel escapes the grip of terror that the armies bring.

Furthermore, the reader cannot identify any recognizable incentive for the acts of either the insurgents or the paramilitaries, other than monetary gain and greed for power. The war seems in this way apolitical–the stated goals of the guerillas and paramilitaries are merely a front for their quest for power. Despite the political ambiguity of the book, figures of authority are lampooned heavily in The Armies, rendering the novel a tragicomedy of sorts. Nobody dodges Rosero’s ridicule, which acknowledges the position of those in the socio-political hierarchy and proceeds to underscore their foibles, both political and moral. The local priest is an adulterer, the chief of police a paranoid “nutter” and even the professor Ismael, our narrator, is a man tormented by lust in spite of the fact that he is incontinent and approaching decrepitude. We, like the villagers, only hear of the army general indirectly, as a man who uses helicopters to evacuate his livestock rather than aid the people. The guerillas are depicted as mocking children, and even the people of San José, caught in the chasm of violence, remain ignorant of the reasons behind their plight. In rendering his characters ignorant, Rosero has made it difficult to surmise whether or not this is satire in itself, a stereotype of rural life, in which peoples’ only concerns are the quotidian, the humdrum life of a small village.

However, it would appear that Rosero uses ignorance and anonymity in order to highlight the ruthless nature of this war, one in which sides are irrelevant and all noncombatants are victims. In his Colombia, the fictional town of San José is quite literally stuck in the middle of the greater power struggle occurring throughout the country. The villagers thus come to embody the suffering of the people of Colombia under these figures of power, and our hero Ismael, with his descent into decay and forgetfulness, becomes a metaphorical allusion to Colombian politics, a system plagued by violence and poverty, in which reason and certainty hold little meaning.
–Katie Raissian

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September 10, 2009 at 8:01 pm