WHAT IS POETRY OBSCURA?
Poetry Obscura is a new adventure in writing poetry.
To discover the true meaning of Poetry Obscura, you must start with its sister the camera obscura. The camera obscura comes from the Latin word “camera” meaning room, and “obscura” meaning dark. The camera obscura then is a dark chamber, as small as a pinhole camera or as big as a room. In one end is a small opening and in the other is a white surface that the light shines upon. Light rays entering the hole or lens, cross and shine on the white surface showing a reversed, upside down image of what ever is in front of the pinhole. Thus the camera obscura was an early camera that duplicated in reverse the images it saw.
As camera obscura’s sister, poetry obscura reproduces the images in poetry, but in reverse. In some fashion, poetry obscura is a convex lens applied to poetry. The images in a poem are turned upside down. In its simplest form, poetry obscura is a form of translation using opposites to create new images and fresh language.
Poetry Obscura had its birth in a lecture presented by Forrest Gander at the Catskills Poetry Workshop. In this lecture Gander explained the various forms of translation he has his students experience in his classes at Harvard and Brown Universities. One form of translation is based on the sounds of the words. In this translation, poets write their poems based on what the original poem sounds like. When I heard his lecture, I thought about the strangeness of this method. And since Gander was actively engaged in translating Latina women poets, I thought about the North American woman telling her domestic help to put “sopa on the table” to clean it. Like the Amelia Bedelia children’s stories, by Peggy Parish, the maid wondered why the lady of the house wanted her to put soup on the table to wash it. This clearly points to some of the problems of translating by word sounds, but using Gander’s guidelines it certainly is a possibility. In reality, the information of most importance that I took away from the lecture is that “translating” poetry can be fun and actually almost anything goes if it is “your” translation.
The concept of poetry obscura further developed in a workshop on “Poetry of Transformation” taught by Margaret Rabb in the spring of 2003 at the University of North Carolina, Friday Center for Continuing Education. As an assignment, Ms Rabb gave students copies of George Herbert’s poem THE COLLAR, and requested her students to write their own poems using this one as a springboard for writing a transforming poem.
This assignment was delivered in the last five minutes of class and Ms Rabb mentioned that the Herbert poem was “about irony.” This poet, as frequently happens with great ideas, mis-heard the statement as indicating that THE COLLAR was “about ironing.” Given the framework of “ironing,” the only sense I could make of the whole poem was the first line, “I struck the board, and cry’d, No more.” As a woman who has spent many a Sunday afternoon ironing school uniforms for two young boys, including ten shirts and shorts, and then five more shirts for my husband’s work week, I knew that feeling of wanting to hit back at the ironing board! How the rest of Herbert’s poem related to ironing was a great stretch but I did find some hints to this meaning. Could the “My lines” be creases? Petite, suit, tie, load are all words from Herbert’s poem that can apply to clothing and washing; could this really be a rant against the continuous task of ironing? I was impressed with the poet’s ability to identify with the difficult task of being wife, mother, chief laundress to a busy family—but still the poem made little sense in this light.
In trying to complete the assignment to write a transforming poem based upon Herbert’s THE COLLAR, this poet could only try a translation and ended up writing a poem that took word for word, line for line and tried to translate to the opposite image and meaning. Starting from this crazy, misguided spot made sense at the time. Thus the first Poetry Obscura poem was born.
(I owe thanks to Ruth Moose for a great suggestion on a name for this new poetry, which I originally called anti-translation poetry.)
I discovered using this method of translation, developed some very edgy lines and some extremely fresh language. Plus, it is a fun, new and refreshing way to write poetry and to appreciate the work of other poets.
I started trying this translation method with other poems and found I could achieve similar results—edgy lines with fresh language.
The real challenge for me was to try, diligently, to maintain some logic of meaning in the translation, so the poem would hold together in some loose fashion, to create a work that was willing to divert from the original in presenting a complete poem.
All of the normal rules I try to follow in writing poems (e.g. reduction of articles and redundancy, striving for assonance and alliteration, etc.) I have tried to follow in writing my poetry obscura poems.
I invite you to try writing Poetry Obscura by translating your favorite poems and stressing opposite images and meanings.