Thursday, February 28, 2008


I returned from Sri Lanka last month. At the Galle Literary Festival I was asked to speak to reporters about the relationship of the festival to Sri Lankan readers and writers abroad. Here are my remarks:

Words For a Press Conference, Galle, January 2008

At times I have trouble in the diaspora. I don’t know all the rules. There are so many groups gathered in the world’s cities. Do we share the same mother? Have we been weaned to long for the same distant father? I have been asked to reflect on the possibilities that this festival engenders for Sri Lankan readers and writers throughout the world. I remember sitting in my office at the Embassy in Abidjan one morning in 1998 when I got a call from the front desk. A countryman had come to visit. Out of the blue. He invited me to his flat in Treichville. On the wall I saw the blue sea off Trincomalee and the curries were finely spiced, lentiled and mutton hot. The young men in that flat arrived via the Middle East; had stowed away on ships bound for the remote West African coast where another Tamil representing the United States had come to rest.

How to make sense of these multiple loyalties, carrying cards from birthplace, landing status in one of the Schengen countries, the euro? How about—in dancing with locals-- forgetting slowly that jarring speech, treacle and curd, called the mother tongue?

But we are here to celebrate a different mother. Yes, we are children of many diverse parents. This particular long haired beauty rode a white horse stark naked into my dreamery. Godiva, Mary Queen of Scotts, Twiggy. But the sexual is only a partial answer to the pleasures of exile, the adoption of the new tongue. Certainly, for many of us it has been a very old tongue, passed down from missionary teachers through generations, or whipped up by a dedicated colonial servant. But the language has been made Ceylonese, jellied up in a Christmas cake or a bruda, pickled by Malays. I put my poems in the dickey the other day along with my sarong. But I forget. I need to return to the island to stock up on the Sri Lankan English language.

So this festival can encourage the return of the island’s diasporas, to have them come back for cutlets and tea, to walk upon Galle Face Green, to visit the bird sanctuaries and climb Adam’s Peak.

But then how to fend off the accusation of being a tourist, a visitor in one’s own country? I wish rather that we would be made to feel at home, our Sri Lankan roots honored with national identity cards, recognition that even living abroad we are welcome and continue to be citizens of this island.

Another ideal I wish to pursue is the notion of the Garden of Eden, paradise on earth. In 1948 we numbered 8 million; we have doubled that and continue on the way up—around 20 million according to Wikipedia. At the same time, we cull our elephants, shoot monkeys, scissor thalagoyas, and keep cobras at bay. We grow our own ecologists, and persevere in trying to keep some of the other species alive, but we cede our tropical hard woods to the top bidder. There is of course a defensible logic to development, the need to feed and clothe and prosper. Yet, in this conference dedicated also to reflection on the climate, let us think about Sri Lankans abroad and how we can help in the preservation struggle, contribute a bit of Sri Lankan sun vision to the ecological challenges of our host countries.

So many words….we will hear a lot these days. Not enough I say, not enough colored by the particular variant of English modified on a tear of the Indian Ocean-- this Ceylon, this Sri Lanka we love and want to see at peace with itself. Let us work to make that peace. Let us remove from the stage the possessed beast whirling and whirring in a fevered dance trying to find and eat its own tail. Let us make commerce with metaphors, and let us talk sense, and over drinks, nonsense.

-- c) 2008 Indran Amirthanayagam

Will Launch The Splintered Face: Tsunami Poems in the US, at Elliott Bay Books in Seattle, March 1, 7.30 pm

Elliott Bay Books sent me the following. If you're to be in Seattle this weekend, do come:

INDRAN AMIRTHANAYAGAM Saturday, March 1 at 7:30 p.m.

Noted poet, essayist, and U.S. Foreign Service Officer Indran Amirthanayagam makes his way down from his present north-of-the-border Vancouver home to give his first U.S. reading for his newest collection, The Splintered Face: Tsunami Poems (Hanging Loose). Born in Sri Lanka, raised in London and Hawai'i, he is a poet who writes in English, French, and Spanish, has been published in the U.S., Mexico, and Sri Lanka, and whose accolades include a fellowship with the New York Foundation for the Arts, the Paterson Prize, a U.S./Mexico Fund for Culture award for his translations of the work of Manuel Ulacia, and more.

"These poems both about those who died in, and those who survived the Tsunami of 2004, memorialize with anger and beauty one of the most devastating tragedies of our time. In its largeness of heart, bold artistry, and admireable desire to bear witness, Amirthanayagam's consoling, life-affirming, and triumphant volume reminds me of Neruda's great Residence on Earth." - Jaime Manrique.

Wednesday, February 20, 2008


J’ai connu Joanne Morency à Trois-Rivières l’année dernière pendant le festival international de poésie qui est célébré dans cette ville chaque septembre. Nous nous sommes rencontrés dans un parc où quelques jeunes étaient en train de présenter des poèmes « hip-hop ». Les poètes se reconnaissent dans les parcs publics. Il y a des signes formels : les cahiers, les lunettes, le visage béni par la lumière intérieure. Et l’on trouve aussi ce désir d’apprendre les secrets du langage, de saisir l’esprit dans les mots qui prennent leur vol comme le petit oiseau que j’ai vu ce jour-là, assis sur le trottoir, objet de la sympathie humaine jusqu'au geste de lui donner une petite tasse d’eau. À ce moment-là de rapprochement humain, l’oiseau s’enfuit, bondit vite comme une illumination d’idée, une épiphanie.

Dans les poèmes de Joanne Morency, je trouve un lien très beau entre le langage et les inquiétudes de l’humanité, entre les mystères des mots et les charpentiers, les poètes qui doivent saisir l’esprit du bois, pour faire des oiseaux, petits ou pas, afin que nos enfants puissent jouer, pour toujours, dans un écosystème balancé.

Extraits de : Qui donc est capable de tant de clarté ? de Joanne Morency, Prix Piché de Poésie 2007, dans « Poèmes du lendemain 16 », Écrits des Forges, 2007

j’ai vidé mes boîtes
une à une
de chaque petit morceau d’autrui

il n’y a pas de porte entre les idées d’en arrière
et celles d’en avant

la nuit
les gens se déplacent à leur insu

j’envoie les changements d’adresse

* * *

la seule idée d’un mouvement
façonne l’espace autour de soi

le vent
même s’il l’ignore
obéit aux branches

dans une maison
sans murs ni plafond
des mains se sculptent un homme

j’assiste à la multiplication

* * *

quand la noirceur tourne sur elle-même
il n’y a qu’à sauter de montagne en montagne

mais comment distinguer
le haut
du bas
dans le ciel ?

il arrive que l’on tombe en haut

* * *

Two Review: A Poetry and Nonfiction Journal from Anchorage, Alaska

I have been thinking again about how poetry thrives in the little magazines, the whispered conversations that take place between furtive poetry lovers throughout the 50 United States and beyond. I have yet to visit Anchorage or go further into the white capes of Alaska. From that space comes Two Review, "an independent, limited edition journal of poetry and nonfiction." The journal publishes writers from beyond the steppes. It reminds us that we are all marooned on private glaciers and that we need visitors. The poems in the journal have been my guests over the last weeks. They have opened my eyes again to the bitter and the sweet in human experience. Here is a poem by Sean Brendan-Brown, a poet based in Olympia, Washington. This story haunts me, the punch in its last lines. Now, don't jump ahead! Read the poem in order. I have a hunch it will make you glad and sad and you will feel a little less alone.


He worked our ranch since before I was born—
more uncle than hired hand—Pawnee,
changed his name to King of Wounds
after Korea. Part serious, part joke.
He believed fighting the Chinese
had changed his vision forever at Chosin;
the vision he had at fourteen of a black owl
flying loop-the-loops around a waxing red moon,
talons clutching a shrieking white rabbit.

His name then had been Johnny No-Horses.
He returned from Korea with a cigar-box
of medals, face & chest as scarred
as Frankenstein, but with enough disability
pension it didn’t matter no one wanted Indians.

King of Wounds. Odd even among men
reluctant to judge. He rode his circuit
of fence at night when cattle broke out
or men in; he loved stars and meteor showers,
considered insomnia a blessing.

A beautiful woman once lured him
to the city. Tried to give him everything.
They had a good time and he even wore
the pearl button shirts she bought him.
But at evening’s end, she went home alone.
When I’d heard the story enough from others
I asked him about it, and all he said was
on those barren islands
they die, blamed and blaming.

-- Sean Brendan-Brown, from Two Review, 2007

Saturday, February 16, 2008


As we engage fully in the presidential race in the United States I thought I'd dust off and revise a poem from 1996 about a trade unionist from what's now known as Old Labor. The U.K., the United States and other liberal democracies may wish to ponder what the fellow has to say:


English trade
and hoary
of Old
as ornithologist:

It’s like
a bird.
It has a right
and a left
If it loses
a wing,

it has only
one wing,
to the ground.
fly with one

-- Indran Amirthanayagam, c) 2008

Sunday, February 10, 2008


My father, Guy Amirthanayagam, spoke to me once about this dark meditation, this elemental study of reason and madness. I believe he wrote it in his youth and the ocean must have been the same one that led Neruda to his own melancholic and foreboding lapping of sea water in Residence on Earth.

I can’t think of a stronger opening to a poem than the hammering in the brain and desperate rush to seek solace in a calm sea, and as I think incessantly about the tsunami, “the still older tide” turning evil that—in some strange way--my father prefigured in these verses.


As the old, primal images
Kept drumming in my brain,
I went to the land’s edges
To assuage my pain.
The calm sea stretched its hand
Bathed me in felicity.
My cut mind in balmy waters
Regained its unity
Till the still older tide turned
Evil, pushed me back to land
Gasping in sanity.

Guy Amirthanayagam, Selected Poems, Ceylon Printers, Colombo, 2002

Tuesday, February 5, 2008


Escribí este poema después de una visita a Monterrey en Octubre 2005 del maestro José Emilio Pacheco. Me interesa mucho el imaginismo. No creo que sea necesario buscar la palabra rebuscada más bien seria genial ver la belleza desnuda con sus colores primarios: rojo, bermellón, sangre. Esta poesía me agita, me despierta, me da animo para afrontar la noche sin fin, andar en el amanecer brillante.

--para José Emilio Pacheco

Se me acerca el vaquero
con sombrero arco iris
y la mujer se pasea
con su armadillo--
estamos en la Alameda—
esto es surrealismo.

Un hombre medio calvo
me dirige la palabra
con preguntas comestibles
sobre duraznos,

O dame mil veces
ese retrato de la estación
del metro y su llovizna
de pétalos blancos.

Pero ¿dónde dejé
los oídos para escuchar
la música asfixiada
si no resucitada
de estos embalsamadores

que tocan el tambor
de Góngora
ensuciado a propósito
con cenizas modernistas?

Les felicito
su reconquista
de la lengua
y regreso
a la página blanca,
el dibujo del hombre,
el árbol, el sol.

c) 2008 Indran Amirthanayagam

Friday, February 1, 2008


An Esssay by Indran Amirthanayagam c) 2008

Midnight has passed and I wonder still how to speak about the backyard. How could I have let the grass, weeds and bracken grow so thick? There must be all sorts of insects, butterflies and rodents flying and scampering about….rivers with mysterious Indian names: Orinoco, Amazon, Parana…gold, shawls and quixotic guerrillas with masked faces….a few Nobel laureates as well celebrated on birthdays and prize days and in some houses on ordinary Sundays. How to speak of people, squat and brown in highlands, where the air fails to deliver oxygen to the bones, and tall and bronzed on the beaches of Rio and on the cobblestones of Cartagena. How to speak of a continent which I know through poems and fictions, where I have set foot in just a few places, Mexico, Argentina, Chile, Uruguay, Brazil, El Salvador.

I came to Latin America following Neruda back home. He had been consul in my birth country in the 1920s, set up house in a then pristine Wellawatte, where he entertained a mongoose and assorted visitors from the multiple ethnic groups of the richly hued island. Neruda wrote Residencia en la Tierra when not kept company in that blindingly-lit island where the sun’s rays shone through decorum and clothes: “That Ceylon light gave me life/gave me death at the same time/because living inside a diamond/is a solitary lesson in being buried/is like turning into a transparent bird,/a spider who spins the sky and says goodbye.” He wrote from that solitude of the diamond while gazing upon the wild surf on the Southern beach. Later in life, he sought that surf again, in Isla Negra, Chile where he set up a dream house and wrote “That Light,” one of the poems from his book of memories: Isla Negra: a notebook.

I first learned of Neruda from a fellow Sri Lankan, J, whom I met in Honolulu in the early 80s. J had been imprisoned on a political charge for six years in the island but had access to hundreds of books from the Red Cross. He read all of them including a selection of Neruda. I was presented then to Latin American poetry as one of resistance, read by political prisoners in jail. How lovely to discover that the resistance rose out of a profound sense of love and loss—I think of Neruda’s 20 love poems: “tonight I can write the saddest lines…love is short, forgetting is long.”—and that this Spanish language writer was indeed singing the whole of America with his ample throat.

Neruda was a monster, to use the Latin American phrase to describe a great figure, one who changed the landscape or named it for the first time. Whitman had that kind of reach in the United States and throughout human history we find in all cultures some version of the epic poet. Yet, what Neruda gave us was infinite variety, from the surreal complexities of Residence on Earth, to the ever popular odes to common things like onions and shoes, to the great work of his late period, the zen-like distilled and impossible inquiries of The Book of Questions.

I begin with Neruda because he served as my Spanish Virgil leading me through the circles of America (while Whitman had that role in English). Of course, I say America to include the whole continent, even Canada at the risk of falling into perhaps a false idealism. I also should dispel with that polemic and silly notion of the backyard. I will say it in a sentence. The backyard exists only for those who wish to persist in the folly of making distinctions between peoples and positing one set of influences above another. I realize the sentence has become a bit long. Let me try again. The backyard is a misleading invention of the smug and mediocre fellow who can’t see beyond his own red, white and blue nose. One more attempt: the backyard exists only in the mind.

I come from Sri Lanka but I am resident in the front yard of my house, seated on a canvass chair, with a book of poetry in my hand along with a pipe. I also have a sign. It says I have arrived (along with countless other immigrants). And we too are America.
I also advocate Whitman’s contradictory impulses—“I am grand, I contain multitudes.” This is a useful posture to assess the conversation between North American and Latin American poetry. And I believe there is a conversation despite what some Spanish language poets tell me almost every day.

The naysayers are of course poets who have access to both North and South. They are often resident at US universities and move in a subculture of Latin American literature that circulates through the fifty states. Of course, Whitman’s boast also includes the idea that all groups have a role in America, even Latin American literature hands, as present company demonstrates.

So these friends tell me that US poetry, the sort written in English, does not draw inspiration from reading contemporary Latin American poets. Of course, this is hard to defend when looking at reality with a microscope. Countless festivals take place in Latin America with US poets invited or self-invited. They come to read and listen, break bread, exchange books, and go back to the fifty states with the sounds of contemporary Latin American poets buzzing in their ears. Now, I agree that some of these US poets know little Spanish and find themselves marooned at these festivals, dependent on a translator and bemused by the vast numbers of gathered poets.

There is no greater discouragement for the poor listener or reader than to be obliged to confront round table after round table with five or six poets on each one. My mentor at university used to ask me if I could imagine for 10 seconds the awful implications of the atomic bomb—ten seconds of pure concentrated thought. In the case of poets I would have to say that 120 minutes marks my limit for a day, the rest of which I can spend in reading them quietly back in my room, or as some awfully impolite fellow bards have done, leave the twenty pounds of donated verse in their rooms for the cleaning ladies and the not so amused organizers of the festival.

I mention festivals to point out that reality is always more complex than the popular and emotional feeling of being left out, of belonging to a minor stream within the United States. Why do we worry so much about our place in the conversation? I suppose receiving an invitation to a conference, especially if the ticket has been paid, assuages one’s ego, fortifies the idea of having some expertise, some unique knowledge to share.

Having purchased my own plane ticket I take the Whitman approach—the Whitman who self-published various editions of Leaves of Grass—who had to hawk his poetry as some poets and critics gathered here. Come out of the closet those of you who paid for your own books. No harm in a bit of investment in your own future. Here we can agree to engage in those ancient practices among insecure and ignored poets, namely execution of M.A. and M.D. The acronyms mean Mutual Appreciation, and in the case of poets safely dead or engaged in such horrors as writing simple, declarative sentences, Mutual Destruction. But of course the mutual is a fiction in the latter as the attacked poet is indeed very dead, although he may have been a monster in his time—I think of Ezra Pound for example with his early lyrics or the T.S. Eliot of Prufrock—subject to diatribes by some contemporary poets tired of his overreaching influence like hearing 15 hours straight of heavy metal music during an interrogation session that otherwise features four hours of brightly-lit and broken sleep and a few minutes of temptation when a member of the opposite sex straddles the poor prisoner and reads neo-baroque verse.

I refuse, by the way, to endorse any particular candidate for the title of monster except of course the usual, and most likely dead ones, that we all know and have incorporated into our languages: Neruda, Borges, Vallejo, Paz, Huidobro. And I mean both our principal languages, as these poets have helped shaped both English and Spanish sensibility. I imagine they have also shaped poets who write in some of the indigenous tongues. An urbane and yet mythologically-rooted poet like Natalia Toledo writes in zapotec and Spanish, and I have a hunch has incorporated the monsters into her incantatory zapotec. There are also living masters, Parra, Pacheco. There are great novelists who have poetry in them: Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Fernando Vallejo. And there are fine upcoming poets who deserve wide readership: the Argentine Ariel Schettini, the Mexicans Jose Eugenio Sanchez and Julian Herbert and others here united.

I understand that the age of the dinosaurs has passed. I think of Jose Donoso’s novel Donde Van a Morir los Elefantes (Where the Elephants Go to Die). I don’t have a copy of the novel but understand that the elephants or monsters end up on obscure American campuses, removed from the hurly burly of Rio or Santiago, Mexico City or Havana, not to mention Los Angeles or New York. Here their only tasks are to bicycle about between classes and guide graduate students on theses and of course teach, try to preserve the collective memory, to include even Eliot and Pound, and to mention someone now forgotten, Conrad Aiken.

How many Latin Americans know Conrad Aiken? I think concern that the conversation goes one way is misguided. With the exception of John Ashbery and a poet like Charles Simic who writes in an easily translated style, few contemporary Latin American poets know new poems by contemporary American poets like Mary Oliver or Louise Gluck or Sherman Alexie. Again, translators keep busy and microscopic examination can always reveal new strands of conversation in and between the Americas. The NEA collaborated with Mexico’s Conaculta recently to publish two bilingual anthologies of Mexican and American poets. So Sherman Alexie is now part of Spanish language poetry. Writing programs—inspired by the U.S.’s MFA—have sprung up now in important universities like Diego Portales in Santiago, while transnational poetry movements have expanded thanks to the internet. In 2002, a UN-mandated Dialogue Among Civilizations led to coordinated poetry readings in hundreds of cities around the world on the same day. I organized one in Chennai, India where I had been posted at the time. A vina player strummed in between the poets. A bharata natyam dancer turned head and hands with fast and deft gestures. The evening became a feast of cross pollination between different art forms.

I like these global events. They help dispel solitude and the feeling of being left off the head table. Let us put all the poets at the head table. Let us write vigorously and with economy and clarity. Let us display our linguistic prowess and our common sense. Let us work to create a public television channel in Spanish in the United States. Let us move Univision and Telemundo towards creating a conversation with authors series. Let us work in our communities and globally to increase readership for poetry. And yes, let us have standards. “Let us go, then you and I, when the evening is spread out against the sky/like a patient etherized upon a table.” Let us advocate clear and searing metaphors. And let us always support the translators. Alastair Reid educated me about Neruda and Borges. Rae Dalven brought me Cavafy in high flown and demotic registers. Cavafy became Cavafis in the Spanish of Cayetano Cantu.

I mention Cavafy to remind all of us that our influences are catholic and have no end. We are poets shaped by the sun, wind and stars, by the books we read in original tongues and in translation. And we must put our queer and straight shoulders to the wheel. There is much to do and little time. We can stretch that time if we take our neighbor as our reader and not resign ourselves to communication between specialists in university refuges.

I believe poets should exercise their social obligations as bards of “the past, what is passing, and what is to come”. They should write frequently to the opinion pages, contribute book reviews, insist that newspapers like the LA Times return to writing about poetry. Surely, a bit of advocacy would help, a letter writing campaign, even contacts with House and Senate representatives. April was the cruelest month but is now the month when poetry is celebrated all over the United States. Let’s find other hooks to capture the imagination of our peoples. And let’s not be snooty about our secretaries and oil rig workers, fishmongers and bus conductors. We belong to them as much as the Medicis. In fact, we belong to neither. We are our own society within the larger society and we have our charge, self-appointed perhaps, but powerful. Auden, Ginsberg and Neruda should serve as our models-- la poesie engagé but written with vigorous and fresh metaphors to be etched in the hearts and minds of readers and listeners.

Let me finish with a sampler from three poets who gladden the imagination and make me feel confident about the new Latin American generation. These poets read the United States and will be read in the United States. The wave has already begun to move the sand. Julian Herbert’s poems were featured in the last Americas issue of BOMB magazine. Jose Eugenio Sanchez has just returned from Iowa and publications in US magazines and acclaim on US stages. Ariel Schettini, an earlier Iowa grad, returned to Argentina to be a poet, critic and reader of the Americas from his perch on Arenales Street in Buenos Aires. I expect to see his work come out in English very soon. I have taken the liberty of translating the poems. Here is Ariel Schettini’s The Annunciation


I do not know if he was an alien or angel
(but surely he came from outer space).
He looked at me without knowing
if I was a genius or charlatan.
He needed a description
and I gave it to him,
because I thought
that everything wandering up there
wants to know how. Besides
I only had descriptions.
When I could no longer speak, he told me:
I am sick. I know, I know, I told him.
And that night we made love
because the rest was the enemy
and sex appeared the only safe thing to do.
He told me: I am sick. This is war. No?
I replied: No. No, I told him.

I could have fallen for that alien
as easily as I could have not.
Afterwards, he told me:
I am sick. And I could not make
a pact.
But I kept watch
over the imaginary night
like those who fear and wait
for life in space.
He left like the dead, or thieves
or the nun in The Sound of Music:
without a farewell.
I don’t know if he was an artist,
the kind that give reasons for
trips to the planets.
But that night I saw
him kiss the world
as if he was kissing me.

--c) 2008 Ariel Schettini, trans. Indran Amirthanayagam


an old car guffaws by
a trembling fellow offers what you want
prostitutes in overcoats huddle together against the wind
some uniformed gents leave a bar completely smashed
a vagabond stretches out his hand
at street’s end a police patrol car
lights up as it moves slowly to the right
a couple leaves the theater
two black men speak to each other
and in the shop window in front
a pair of silk socks
hang silently
they seem more indispensable than us.

--c) 2008 Jose Eugenio Sanchez, trans. Indran Amirthanayagam


What’s to say of an ass?
I never said a thing.

An ass stood next to Leticia’s mouth:
his ardor sprang from the moon
and he scratched
against me furiously.
There was an ass in Juan Luis’ house
and they charged us five pesos to ride him.
I never rode him.
There was one swollen and black floating in a stream,
another very yellow in an Arctic dream,
and the ass of the comic strips,
and an ass a little crosseyed in Gabriela’s gaze
looking over its shoulder from a country of scent.

So beastly this word
that it disgusts me still. How to found
the angels’ flight in a back kick.
How to be the fur and chew
upon the blinking
of a sonorous breath among the sunflowers.
Without carriage drivers or feats, hardly honeycombed
by modesty
or a girl’s insolence.
Without laws or allegory, just submerged
in the copperish afternoon
like a train by Turner.

The sameness—I never told you—
this same ass
detained in his rat-colored skin
in front of a vulgar backdrop of green stalks.
The pleasure of living like an animal and striving
but bitter
like the sage or the laurel.

-- c) 2008 Julian Herbert, trans. Indran Amirthanayagam

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