April is surely the month to celebrate for literature lovers. This year marks the 25th anniversary of National Poetry Month since its first inception by the Academy of American Poets. This month also hosts UNESCO’s World Book Day, which falls on the 23rd of the month. As we enter its final week, it’s time to reacquaint ourselves with the hypnotic power of poetry, one of the oldest art forms in the world that is still very much alive today.
While Anglophone poetry has found continuity and relevance globally in pop culture through new forms such as spoken word, hip-hop, and even taking center stage during the recent Inauguration, non-Anglophone poetry has not received the same amount of exposure in the global scene. Much of this is due to linguistic imperialism, which demarcates readership based on dominant and marginalized languages.
I certainly wasn’t acquainted with poetry outside of my native tongue and the English language until university. Reading works translated from other languages made me realize the importance of literary translation and its role in ferrying ideas between specific cultures. Little did I know, that experience would plant the seed for my current journey as a translator of poetry.
Whether you’re a seasoned reader or a newcomer to poetry, here is a list of five exceptional women poets in translation to help you expand your reading list:
1. Alejandra Pizarnik
Hide me from this battle with words
and put out the furies of my elemental body
– from “Destructions” in Extracting the Stone of Madness, translated by Yvette Siegert
In her short but fulminant life, Argentine poet Alejandra Pizarnik composed scores of hidden treasures that have only just recently surfaced in the English language, thanks to the translation work undertaken by New Directions Publishing. Born to Polish Jewish immigrant parents in Buenos Aires, Pizarnik’s literary life took flight in Paris, the city she imagined would bring her success. The reality was quite the opposite; she lived in the dark margins of the City of Lights, in poverty and anguish. Undeterred by her circumstances, she wrote and wrote vociferously amid bouts of depression and schizophrenia.
The resulting work is direct, unflinching, and non-elliptical, best represented in Extracting the Stone of Madness, translated into English by Yvette Siegert. I’ve never encountered a unique volume such as this, one that showcases a voice that is inimitable in all its bright melancholy, underscored with moments of lyrical tenderness. This work firmly cements Pizarnik’s status as a literary giant in the great pantheon of Latin American literature. Sadly, Pizarnik ended her own life in 1972 at age 36 from a drug overdose after struggling with long bouts of depression.
2. Forough Farrokhzad
I don’t repent.
It’s as if my heart flows
on the other side of time.
– from In Night’s Cold Streets, translated by Sholeh Wolpé
I often bristle at the term “Iran’s Sylvia Plath” that is imposed upon her by Anglophone readers, as Farrokhzad’s poetic voice is distinctively hers, one that could have only germinated from her milieu. She was the mirror that gazed back into centuries of traditions in Persian poetry that had long been the domain of men and their proclivities. Her stunning autobiographical debut in 1954 at age 19—an unapologetic confession of an adulterous affair, no less—would come at a high price to her personal life.
It’s easy to draw parallels between Farrokhzad and Plath: both met death at an untimely age, and both struggled with the conception of the idealized self in their art. In Farrokhzad’s case, hers was a revelatory persona imbued within the poetry of protest. Between lines that speak unapologetically of female sin, defiance, longing, and aspirations, Farrokhzad mastered the unfaltering voice of the feminine iconoclast, even after decades of staunch censorship.
Watch a reading of Farrokhzad’s poems by poet and translator Sholeh Wolpé below.
3. Hélène Cixous
And I? I drink, I burn, I gather dreams.
And sometimes, I tell a story.
– from The Book of Promethea, translated by Betsy Wing
If Plath and Farrokhzad were embodiments of desire’s relation to language, the leading postmodern literary theorist Hélène Cixous perfected it into a corpus that would forever alter what I would come to understand as ‘the writing woman’. To mention Cixous is to summon her gorgon of écriture feminine (“women’s writing”) as she coined it in her seminal essay, The Laugh of the Medusa. The bold literary call to arms became a new manifesto for women writing the body. “I, too, overflow,” Cixous wrote, “my desires have invented new desires, my body knows unheard-of songs.”
Much like her declaration of the body, Cixous’s poetry interrogates exclusionary structures that have kept women’s writing at the periphery. But she also writes of love, the risk one takes when being in love, and the power it acquires in coloring our everyday presence. This theme is most prominent in The Book of Promethea. Hers is a landscape where the poetic self cannot harmonize with the imposing structure of politicized language, and therefore the way forward is a reinvention in her own terms.
4. Hiromi Itō
The epithet of ‘shamaness’ precedes Hiromi Itō, one of Japan’s most brazen poets who is boundless in her artistry. Having witnessed her performance at a literary festival, I immediately devoured videos of her past performances and poetry excerpts available in English.
Moving with the gaiety and cunning of the kitsune, a mythical Japanese fox, Itō builds upon the rich tradition of itinerant storytellers in medieval Japan in high-octane performances that simply cannot be captured on the printed page. In a society where speaking about the bodily functions of women is still seen as transgressive, Itō writes of childbirth, stillbirth, filicide, broken genealogies, and menstruation, often using clever puns and multiple characters to narrate her stories.
Watch her powerful performance on menstruation below, which plays on the Japanese term for ‘lunar cycle’, thus linking periods with the waxing and waning phases of the moon.
5. Maria Stepanova
In place of a memory I did not have, of an event I did not witness, my memory worked over someone else’s story; it rehydrated the driest little note and made of it a pop-up cherry orchard.
– from In Memory of Memory, translated by Sasha Dugdale
Nothing has quite delighted me more than discovering the works of Maria Stepanova, a Russian poet, essayist, and journalist who has lived in Moscow for most of her life. Her artistic coming-of-age coincided with the collapse of the Soviet Union in the 90s, which heavily underscores her poetic outlook.
Amid the roaring chaos of the period, Stepanova wove a space where she could intervene between politics and memory, one she termed postmemory. Her body of poetry is brilliant in its expression of the humdrum and peculiar in the post-Soviet environment. However, her poetic prose is where she shines as a memoirist in the truest sense: one who reconstructs memory between recollections and falsehoods.
“Poetry’s work is the clarification and magnification of being,” writes Jane Hirshfield, distinguished American poet, and literary translator. Like many others who retreat into solitary reading to seek comfort during the pandemic, these authors offered vast topographies that nurture the delicate exchange between language and emotion. If you’re currently on a reading binge, what better way to cap off a literary month than reading fearless women who write?
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