Meet the Poets: Sylvia Geist

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SheThePeople.TV is partnering with the Poets Translating Poets Festival to be held on November 25-27 across Mumbai. Fifty poets have participated in a two year long project which aimed to provide a forum to contemporary poets from India and other South Asian countries and Germany to translate poetry across several languages. The festival in Mumbai will comprise poetry readings, discussions, photo exhibitions and exciting performances, including jazz poetry performances, and readings in unexpected parts of the city!  

Also Read: Of reading and writing poetry, and its life with Tikuli

SheThePeople.TV checked in with poet Sylvia Geist. She talks to us about how she navigates between different cultures, what it feels like when her work gets translated and the poets that have inspired her.

Poets Translate Poets

1. You have a very diverse background both in terms of education, where you have lived and career. How do you think poetry can connect different cultures?

After reading poems by Anna Achmatova and Marina  Tsvetaeva, I took an interest in Russian culture. Then I found out, that Achmatova was also influenced by Verlaine, and Tsvetaeva had lived in Paris for more than ten years.

Maybe poetry is never the product of one culture, but a texture, woven of many threads. In this sense, it is a link between differences itself.

 2. How do you navigate translating poems from different cultures? How do you try and keep the essence of the poem?

I cannot navigate on my own. I need the support of competent interpreters, linguists, experts, and especially the poets themselves, who set me on the right track. Travelling through a country, meeting and listening to people is also a way to approach a culture, of course. But in the end, something hardly predictable must happen between the poem and me. I must “catch fire”.

 3. Similarly how does it feel when you see one of your poems translated into English?

Surprisingly, delightful, occasionally disconcerting. At times some aspects emerge that I had never thought of, despite the fact that they were imbedded in the work from the start, and I learn something about the eventualities of my poem.

Read one of Geist’s translated poems:

Love in the Time of Superstition
The blue bowl
full of light.
Which atlas can hold such enormous fragility?

On the dark side of the hemisphere 
the weapons of the fourteenth century are shining,
the decorated knives and muskets. In Europe’s
museum, Artemis and her dogs are at rest. 
Let us do our work, the instruments say.
Once we were loved. 

Bright desperate divided spring. 
Soaked in blue, the Whiskey-Jack screams
on the power lines
at the sirening garbage van.
The plastic bag that has decorated 
the oak since autumn
billows in the wind, a flower 
as transparent as spilt breakfast coffee. 
True Jihad,
says the father of the dead assassin on television,
is for me the loving care of your family. 

Pray and go to 
market, shop for a favorite dish,
carrots, pumpkin, peppers in ayurvedic vermillion,
red like the sun on the morning’s traffic.

A cloud of airbuses lifts above Richmond. Pure biscuit,
blue china. In Europe, a black box 
has been salvaged. Remember: the algorithms

of your question can be decoded everywhere.
Wipe off the Rorschach stain, delete the list,
pray in the rhythm of the algae, in miso. And don’t forget
the coconut milk, the Bombay curry! Jihad is the 
favorite dish, the queue at the cash counter in the paradise of supermarkets,
kisses on the golden toes of take-away Buddhas,
while the hordes board the sky train.

Don’t give up. This soul thing is a blowfish
of the purest water, poisonous and delicious.
Do it right. Embrace the bowl’s
blue gifts with everything you’re dreaming of
in real time, the heavens of china. 

Cut the pumpkin, the carrot, the fish
with love. Polish the crockery, the floor.
Kneel down.
Pray for the peace of the pilot’s soul. 

Translation: Sridala Swami und Jeet Thayil

Poem Reproduced Courtesy: Poets Translating Poets Festival

Sylvia Geist poet

Photo Credit: Poets Translating Poets

 4. Are there any themes which have attracted you in your writing over the years?

For me, poetry is something like a rope, stretched between evanescence and love.

Motifs and metaphors can arise from everyday life, from an artwork or a landscape or whatever. But in the kernel, it is about facing my vulnerability as a human being, without getting completely mad.

5. You also write fiction and teach literature. What do you think poetry can convey that fiction perhaps cannot?

Fiction tells stories. Poetry indicates where the stories come from. It is, next to music, the oldest technique to deal with being exposed to that we call reality.

 6. How would you describe your poetic style?

To me, the term “style” could easily sound like “rules”, or “stipulation”. I do not like to be fenced in. I work with formal concepts, or with a structure, that shapes a certain idea. And then, I love to break free from it again.

The Poets Translating Poets festival is open to all — For a full schedule of events log on here

Read More Stories by Tara Khandelwal