Refleksioner om | Reflexiones sobre | Reflections on “Across Languages: A Writers’ Roundtable”

By Cassie Mayer

In spite of the snowy weather, “Across Languages: A Writers’ Roundtable” co-sponsored by the English Department and the Higgins School for the Humanities a part of the Language, Literature & Culture department’s Speaker Series on March 14th was a vibrant interpersonal exchange of individual yet intertwined voices.

Elizabeth Torres AKA “Madam Neverstop”, Colombian-American poet, multi-media artist, translator and author of over 20 books was the event’s first panelist. As a child growing up amidst intense social unrest in Colombia in the 90’s, poetry and the freedom of her voice via verse would not only serve as a creative outlet but also completely transform her life path. Madam Neverstop, at only 8 years old (unbeknownst to the judges), won the Best Book of Poetry of the Year Award from the Colombian Book Chamber for her  work Preguntas sin Respuesta.

Pictured: Elizabeth Torres AKA Madam Neverstop.

After becoming a national phenomenon at such a young age she received many threats, due to the political nature of her poetry, eventually being forced to seek political asylum in the United States. Neverstop’s poetic expression not only elevated her own voice but also served as a portal from one country to another. Through this migration with her family as well as her individual travels, she realized that “all the stories around me needed an echo. I don’t believe in constructing communities, but I do believe in the power of connecting them.”

This sentiment introduced the first poem Madam Neverstop shared with us: “Distintos Espantos,” “Different Ghosts,” a poem about migration, She writes that as humans are always moving and constantly facing displacement, “you and I are not the same ghost, but we reflect one another.”

Next, she read from a recent collection Loteria, a game of divination like Tarot that is popular in Latin America. Neverstop creates a new deck of cards that speak directly to the latine migration voyage. In her reading of “El Estado de las Cosas” o “A State of Affairs” a sense of longing, and unrelenting nostalgia are divulged as “nosotros ya nunca fuimos” and “the bed became a forest of extinct animals.” “The Inheritance” explores the disruption of family dynamics imposed by migration as her mother “enviaba lágrimas a larga distancia por correo.” Eventually, the daughter too “cries with inherited ease, no one asks why either.”

More by Elizabeth Torres may be found on her website, or her Instagram, @madamneverstop.

The second panelist, Michael Goldman, poet, educator, Danish literature translator and jazz clarinetist addressed the audience by asserting that “We are all translators, every act of communication is a translation.”

His first act of translation which launched his interest and sparked his passion for the craft was actually for a friend in mourning. After losing a loved one tragically and unexpectedly, Goldman wanted to share a poem with him, but he first had to interpret it in English to bring the essence of its meaning through a new language, without losing its power. “Something to Live up to” by Danish poet Benny Anderson conveys death as a very alive, enduring part of life.

Pictured: Michael Goldman.

By translating texts from Danish to English thus reaching more readers around the world, they may undergo experiences through the literature that would otherwise remain unknown to them which can “soften the protective layers around our hearts so we can feel more compassion,” Goldman says.

He goes on to explain that “as a translator, I act as an agent of the author. I cannot help but be changed personally by this process.” Goldman explains that personal biases, or previous judgements he held have been dissolved or his perception significantly altered through the process of translation. He shared potent excerpts from The Copenhagen Trilogy, a memoir by Tove Ditlevesen detailing her withdrawal process, which he claims changed his perception of addicts. He also read a poem from Farming Dreams by Knud Sorenson which describes the huge social migration in the second half of the twentieth century prompted by the crisis in farming; a phenomenon not unique to Denmark but likewise occurring across Europe in the United States. This is not simply Danish literature, he says, but global literature.

“The page turns into a mirror, it becomes a mirror for private discovery.”

Through this mirror, Goldman became inspired to write creatively himself. He closed his portion of the panel by sharing one of his poems entitled “Creative.” The final line emphasizes the motif of literature and the translation process as a mirror as “We’re inseparable, it is me.”

For more of Michael, check out his website:

Mandy Gutmann-Gonzalez, Chilean author, translator, text-based artist and professor of creative writing at Clark University shared two poems with the audience from a series of Metrical Charms from their book manuscript Edge Beast. Inspired by medieval metrical charms which combine words and a physical action to resolve a situation or disease, Mandy translates this old form into a contemporary concept. In the process of writing this collection, they recall asking themselves “what contemporary situations feel out of my control that I would like to resolve through a charm?”

Pictured: Mandy Gutmann-Gonzalez.

They went on to read to us “Metrical Charm: For a Swarm of Bees” which approaches the threat of bee extinction. The poem begins with the action required for this charm to be effective which are meant to be performed while the rest of the stanzas are recited.

“To protect bees from harm, brush Quillay, Peumo, Boldo, and Maitén springs against the hives.” Mandy illustrates bees through this charm as agents of life, givers, in spite of constant anthropogenic threats and state-sponsored sabotage. They paint a portrait through the explanation of this charm, of how humans ought to achieve more humanity by observing the society of the swarm.

“A swarm is the opposite

of state control, each being

moves independently with no central

command yet coordination results, neither

through force nor

agreement, but through mutual need.”

The second and final poem they read from the same collection, “Metrical Charm 7: For a Shallow Wound” can be applied to whichever wound the sufferer may be afflicted by as it works “on heart or wing.” This poem takes the audience on a journey of grief and eventual healing from the wound which ails them, reminding the reader (or listener) of their undeniable resilience:

“Shallow Wound, all of your feelings

are true and the earth holds you

even as you fall through it.”

More by Mandy can be found on their website or their Instagram @mandy_gutmann_gonzalez_writer

Pictured: Juan Pablo Rivera.

The final panelist of the evening, Juan Pablo Rivera, is a Puerto Rican scholar and poet as well as a professor of Spanish at Clark University. Instead of sharing a reading with us, he instead explicated his current project, an article mixing personal prose with traditional scholarship in order to convey the relationship between literature, video games, and chronic pain management. Despite the common notion of gamers as lazy and isolated teenagers wasting away in their rooms, Juan Pablo underscores gaming instead as an opportunity for connection, where you can be the hero; an individual journey of knighthood. He asserts that video games are not only an instrument of escapism but also release, as they may provide respite from the violence ensuing in the body of an individual suffering from chronic pain.

Identifying pain as a disruptor of routine which warps one’s relationship with time, Juan Pablo proposes that video games may help ease suffering where language and the medical establishment as entities have ceaselessly failed. Pain may only be explained through metaphors, thus it is inherently poetic in nature. He finished his presentation by referencing a poem by Emily Dickinson, “Pain has an Element of Blank” which highlights pain as something which makes language insufficient and experience nearly entirely impenetrable.

To learn more about Juan Pablo Rivera and his work, see his faculty biography.

Words are dead things- it is the meaning we attach to them and the way that they are shared which presents the opportunity for connection. What happens between the lines allows for the potent transmission of emotion that facilitates opportunities for understanding. We are all, through our very existence, creators and interpreters.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *