Dodge Poetry Fest Panel – Poetry Across Borders

Posted: October 13, 2010 in Events
Tags: , , , ,

Panelists: Nancy Morejón, Dunya Mikhail, Kwame Dawes, Malena Mörling

What could’ve been a very insightful banter between four poets whose nationalities differed as much as their relation to the United States did turned into more of a reading than discussion. In this all too short session, the poets, with the exception of Kwame Dawes, spent most of their time reciting poems instead of articulating their points. Of course, one could argue that, being from other countries originally, the poets felt more comfortable reciting what amounted to the passive haven of scripted lines as opposed to the daunting task of taking part in unpredictable banter. One could also argue that, hell, these are poets. They speak through their work, so why not let the work speak? I’ll answer the latter: because audible ingestion of poetry takes a quick wit and unflinching concentration. In short, speaking in poetry, while a wonderful exercise, does not make an accessible argument. It’s reflective rather than provoking. It ended up that Dawes read one poem to kick things off, and then the effect snowballed thereafter, with one poet reading as many as 5 poems. I believe Kwame’s heart was in the right place, and truly set a stage for great discussion, but his setup was foiled by the egos and anxieties every poet shares.

Notable points were initially brought up by the poets when they introduced their individual takes on the topic at hand, however. Ghanan poet Kwame Dawes explained his view that there is a contradiction between what poetry is and what language /culture does to it. Cuban native Nancy Morejón asserted that “homeland doesn’t fit in your shoes,” and that her culture is singular but diverse, lending to an overall influence but not a mandated structure. Swedish poet Malena Mörling reflected on her transition and said English afforded her writing more avenues for expression, as Swedish has a comparatively limited vocabulary. Citing poetry as “life without borders,” Iraqi poet Dunya Mikhail’s insight culminated in the notion that working in two languages makes her think more carefully about words due to the consciousness dedicated to thinking about how her original language will translate. She also added that her hyphenated “-American” nationality descriptor felt like more of a plus sign than a minus sign. While this sentiment was sweet, it smacked of post-9/11 Old Glory stickers in convenience store windows. On the other hand it does, like Mörling’s confession, denote the possibilities attained via addition.

The really interesting notions came through in the five-minute Q&A session. When the panel was asked if living in two languages has changed their poetry, Morejón responded with the notion that translation can act as the seed for poetry. She made it clear that she never thinks that translators should be slaves to the actuality of words. To the contrary, translators are burdened by the responsibility of freedom to create their own text while keeping the original’s essence.

In a question directed towards Mikhail, someone asked how the quality of Arabic words compares to English. Dunya responded by calling Arabic a language of longer sentences and “endless” paragraphs. It has a more flexible sentence structure, she said, but is very strict phonetically.

The final question, how does art between cultures interface regarding form, was fielded by Mikhail, who said she fell in love with translators, especially French ones, because they freed her thought from her own country’s institutions/forms. She added that she used to hate classical compositions, but appreciates them much more now.

If you want to hear the panelists’ poems as well as everything that was said for yourself, click or right-click-and-save this link for a full recording of the panel. This recording is not sanctioned by the Geraldine R. Dodge foundation but is offered in faith that 1) no-one reads this blog anyway, 2) it is for the benefit of poetry lovers that I post it, and 3) supposedly the foundation’s own YouTube channel will soon offer coverage of this event anyhoo. In short, please don’t sue. Contact me (, and I will remove the link.


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