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Other Words, Mother Tongues

Foreign and Local Poets Read Original Work at S.F. Festival

If you were to stand on a street corner and ask the average American walking by what they had no use for, poetry and foreign languages would probably rank right up there with beets, cricket and the U.N. Security Council.

Steve Dickison may not be able to change people's minds about beets, but he's doing his damndest with poetry and foreign tongues. Dickison is the executive director of the Poetry Center, a remarkable and remarkably underheralded advocacy for poetry that resides on the fog-bound campus of San Francisco State University.

Under the auspices of the Poetry Center, Dickison and his staff have organized three gatherings of Other Words, formerly known as the Euro-San Francisco Poetry Festival, since 1999. Edition No. 3 starts Thursday, September 25 and brings together 17 poets from around the world -- Russia, Ireland, Italy, France, Finland, Germany, Sweden, Greece, Mexico and the U.S. -- to read onstage in their native tongues with accompanying English translation when necessary.

The four-day festival will not only showcase top overseas poets whom even literary-minded Americans may not have read, but it will highlight the exquisite, ephemeral alchemy of poetry translation. Discussing the upcoming readings, Dickison is nearly as enthusiastic about the translators as he is about the original writers.

"Take Peter France, for example," Dickison says of the translator of Russian poet Gennady Aygi (pictured above). "He says he's not a poet. He's just a very skilled listener and able to bring across the strangeness of Gennady's work. Russian is very tied to rhythms, but Gennady has broken that [connection]. He has a very intense interior monologue, almost a personal journal with no traditional rhyme or pattern to the work. Peter can listen extremely well and introduce into English that strangeness."

Here's an example of Agyi's work, translated by France:

"And until then -- ever further -- into the snows. Into naked poverty.
How few things were needed. Hands -- only a little more. A poem . . .
--all so little, all more and more -- without us -- the World."

"It's strange, not because you can't get it but because it seems crystal and clear, fresh and new," says Dickison. France will kick off the program Thursday with a talk about his translation work.

It makes sense that the Poetry Center is presenting foreign poetry to American ears in the form in which it was originally conceived: in the poet's actual voice. The center has been dedicated to such presentation for fifty years as the home of the American Poetry Archives, a repository of audio and video recordings of poets reading their own work that starts with Theodore Roethke in 1954 and includes Langston Hughes, Robert Lowell, and many of the Beats. The Other Words festival is simply an extension of that work: the aural and visual representation of a poem in its rawest, purest state, coming straight from the heart and in the voice that gave it birth in the first place.

The festival should also be a good place to meet ex-pat and Americanized poetry buffs pining for their homelands and mother tongues, as several European cultural and governmental institutions, such as the Consulate General of Finland and the Irish Arts Foundation, have helped organize the event and bring the poets to San Francisco. With ten countries represented, there's a bit of United Nations in the year-long organization process. "Everybody has to trust one another, as we come from different cultures," Dickison says diplomatically as he sidesteps stereotypes of any one group being, let's say, more efficient and organized than any other.

Even for audience members who don't understand a poet's mother tongue, the festival should reward those attuned to rhythm, syntax, intonations, even body language -- what Dickison calls "the intended music" of each poet's work -- with deeper cultural connections.

Other Words: The Third International San Francisco Poetry Festival runs Sept. 25 through Sept. 28. Admission to all readings is free; donations welcome. Please consult the Other Words Website for complete program information.