Juliana Spahr: USA 1/06

First, some truisms:

All languages are multilingual, full of words and concepts from afar, developed by the language habits of different places constantly rubbing up against each other.

All poetries, thus, are multilingual.

Some poetries though are more aware of being multilingual than others.

Then some obvious observations, when one talks about the US and languages, it quickly becomes obvious that it is impossible to say anything coherent. The US does not have an “official” language. Over 176 languages are indigenous to the US, although many of these are extinct. And around 162 languages are spoken in the US. (All these numbers vary from source to source.) But the collection of words and syntaxes that gets called English has an unchallenged dominance. It is the defacto language of the US, the language most often used by the government. And the US’s consistent underfunding of language acquisition programs in its schools makes this unlikely to change any time soon.

Despite English’s assured status as the de facto language of the US, there regularly are groups of people who are prone to hysterical anxieties that English is at risk. In the 90s, for instance, an “English Only” movement got a lot of media coverage (although variations on English only have been around for some time and never seem to completely go away). This movement argues that English is at risk in the US and attempts to provoke legislative changes that will make English the “official” language of the US. English only advocates have had some success. English is the official language of a number of states, although most of these states still produce government documents in other languages. But still, a number of states remain officially bilingual.

I start with these truisms and observations because I am often told when outside the US that Americans only speak English. That is true of many Americans, and I have to include myself in this because I have never gotten to fluency with Dutch, French, or Spanish despite study in all three. But it is not true by any means of all Americans.

A similar sort of contradiction in action is true of US literatures. While it is true that most of the classes in “American literature” and most of the anthologies that define “American literature” present only work written in English, the US has a long tradition of literatures written in other languages. And, as all places, a lot of literatures that mix different languages.

So, by way of introduction to the US poetries that lie outside of the “English only” mainstream, I want to make a somewhat false distinction. I want to claim that there are two forms of multilingual writing in the US: a multilingualism that uses the languages of empire and a multilingualism that uses at risk or marginal languages. And that the difference between them matters to the understanding of the diverse nature of US literatures.

What I am calling a multilingualism of the languages of empire is basically a poetry that uses mainly European languages (English and French most often but sometimes also Italian, European Spanish, Russian, etc). When I say a multilingualism of empire, I do not mean to suggest that this work is necessarily apolitical. More often than not, this work shows its politics. Much of this work is clearly indebted to avant garde modernism’s cosmopolitanism and these multilingual works are frequently written modernist-style: deliberately disjunctive, arrhythmic, syntactically unusual. (Formal techniques that are clearly opposed to the more “homegrown,” more “American” poetries of the Ted Kooser plain American English speech style.)

Anne Tardos’s Uxudo is one of the more interesting recent examples of this sort of work. Few poets have so directly taken up the multilingual impulse that comes out of personal migration histories than Tardos, who grew up in Paris and moved twice in her youth--once to Budapest, where she learned Hungarian, and then to Vienna, where she learned German but attended a French high school. In 1966 she moved to the United States. Her work moves relentlessly between numerous languages—Hungarian, German, French, English. It is playfully astute, often punning on sounds, clearly refusing to be any one thing. Another recent example is Joshua Clover’s The Totality for Kids, a book that I read as an attempt to import some sort of morphed version of Situationism and the Frankfort school (Situationfort? or Frankionism?) into a US poetry. So there are two poems side by side, mirrors of each other: “Qu;y-a-t-il D’Américain dans La Poésie Américaine?” and “What’s American about American Poetry?” The beginning lines are: “Au fond c’est fait en sable.” and “They basically grow it out of sand.” Some other key works in this tradition: Caroline Bergvall’s recent work, Joan Retallack’s Mongrelisme, and Theresa Hak Kyung Cha’s DICTEE.

The reasons these writers turn to languages of empire vary from work to work. Some do it for mimetic and representational reasons (this is Tardos’s claim but I also see this as part of Cha’s and Bergvall’s work), some because of a belief that a polylingual work is more ethical (Retallack’s claim), and some to allude to certain intellectual traditions (this is how I see Clover’s project).

That other multilingualism of US poetry, poetry that uses at risk or marginal languages, is a somewhat more specific project, one that is frequently rooted in identity. In this tradition, the poet writes in English but includes the languages of their immigrant or indigenous history. Much of this work tends to be explicitly political and uses clear and conventional language despite its multilingualism. This sort of poetry often presents itself as oppositional to both the Ted Kooser plain spoken poem of American English only and the more avant garde cosmopolitan modernist poem (although I am always a little suspicious of how loudly some of these writers point out their opposition to modernism, as if they were trying to cover over a more complicated story of origins). The Chicano poet Alurista is frequently credited with beginning this tradition. He writes in Spanish and English starting in the 60s (and this is another one of those moments where US language politics gets complicated; Spanish and English are both colonial languages in the Americas but because of the Mexican-American war and the always complicated relationship between Mexico and the US at the border, the Spanishes of the Americas have marginal—although not really at risk—histories in the US and are often seen as second class languages; thus these Spanishes have their own movement of “linguistic independence” in the US).

While work written in English with Spanish is by far the most represented combination of languages in this multilingualism of at risk or marginal languages, there is an emerging tendency to use indigenous languages. Hawaiian sovereignty activist, poet, and essayist Haunani-Kay Trask, for instance, writes an English that includes Hawaiian in her Night is a Sharkskin Drum. She is notorious for the political intensity of her work which frequently criticizes the cliché of Hawai‘i as a multicultural paradise full of racial equality and points out that how Hawai‘i is still a colonized nation. The inclusion of Hawaiian is clearly presented as a political gesture. And Trask takes great pains to keep her work clear and accessible admist the multilingualism. Hawaiian words are prominently italicized and Night is a Sharkskin Drum has a seven page glossary at the back. There is little interest in the ambiguity or crosslingual punning that so defines the multilingualism of the languages of empire. Some other writers who do this sort of work are Robert Sullivan (a Maori writer currently writing in Hawai‘i) who mixes Maori and Englishin Star Waka and Teresia Kieuea Teaiwa (a writer of African-American and Kirabati descent with multiple Pacific affiliations who is currently writing in Aotearoa/New Zealand) who uses English and Gilbertese in parts of Searching for Nei Nimanoa.

Now that I’ve set up these categories, I of course immediately should point out how they do not work all the time. Some of the most provocative multilingual work is happening outside of these categories. Rodrigo Toscano and Edwin Torres are two interesting examples of writers who do not fit well. Both mix an American Spanish into their English. Both are born in the US; Toscano is of Mexican heritage and Torres of Puerto Rican. So both use the language of their heritage identity, as do many of the writers of a multilingualism of at risk or marginal languages. But the work they write is way more disjunctive, arrhythmic, syntactically unusual than most of this work tends to be. And they both avoid the direct statement that characterizes the marginalized or at risk multilingualism.

James Thomas Stevens and Rosmarie Waldrop are two other exceptions to these two categories. Both write interestingly similar books in the 90s that mix Narragansett among their English. Stevens, the author of Tokenish, is a Mohawk poet. His turn to Narragansett could be read as a turn to a heritage language in that it is another indigenous language but when it comes down to it, that is probably not a fair reading of this complicated move. Waldrop, author of A Key into the Language of America, is a German immigrant to the US. Both write poems that are more in the disjunctive, arrhythmic, syntactically off than in the clear, political speech tradition. Both works are, I think, indicative of how complicated language choices can be for US poets, how full of multiple alliances.

While these two categories do not totally hold, I do think that this distinction between those who write multilingually with the languages of empire and those who write more with at risk and/or marginal languages is a telling one. While both multilingual poetries are working against an English only mainstream, they attack it from different directions. The multilingualism of the languages of empire works with cosmopolitanism, with a suspicion about localism, with at moments a skepticism about heritage as something that should determine their language use, and often with the suggestion that disrupting the parochialism of English is one part of the struggle against US expansionism. The multilingualism of at risk or marginal languages works with the specific, with an interest in reclaiming and reconnection with heritage, and with a faith that clear poetry can sway and convince.

Undeniably, though, a lot of US poetries in the last half of the twentieth and the beginning of the twenty first century are refusing to translate. My guess is that this refusal to translate has a lot to do with reactionary English only movements. Although English Only itself did not manage to make English the official language of the US, this movement was part of a larger anti-immigration sentiment that did have and continues to have some success in restricting immigration. As I write this large amounts of people, mainly in the west near the border with Mexico, are protesting various proposals before congress right now to arrest illegal immigrants and to further fortify the US/Mexico border. Just as it is impossible to read the multilingualism of modernism as at all separate from imperialism, I also think it is impossible not to read the multilingualism of contemporary US poetries as divorced from the language debates of the 90s. Multilingual word play in US poetries is a formal device that is unusually loaded with politics right now. It seems as if it can never avoid argument because merely to include another language in one’s work, any other language, is a pointed statement in the time of English only politics. But also, I see the proliferation in multilingual poetries, in addition to the obvious mimetic claims that some poets make, as indicative of how US poets are beginning to ponder more on the difficult role that US cultural products play in globalization. Stevens’s and Waldrop’s turns to the dead language of Narragansett in their works (no mimesis there) reads less to me as a desire to preserve Narragansett and more as a desire to think about how clearly the last thirty or so years have demonstrated the close ties between the English language and globalization.