Poets of a Second Language

An inside view

Boris Dralyuk
I came to this country with two American shibboleths to stave off linguistic isolation: "Hello," the universal greeting, and "Poppy," California's state flower. I'd picked them up at a one-hour language seminar at the Odessa House of Engineers, offered to children whose families were soon to emigrate. The first day of school in Los Angeles precipitated a crisis: There wasn't much I could do with "Hello, Poppy?" The second crisis came a few months later, while I was toweling myself off after a shower. Straddling the lip of the tub, one dry foot on the tile floor, one wet foot still on the slippery enamel, I suddenly froze. The Lilliputian of Rhodes. The thought that had struck me dumb was: How am I to translate "Meduza Gorgona" into my new tongue? I had accumulated what seemed to be an Alexandrian library of classical knowledge in Russian. All was lost.

These two crises outfitted me with an acute consciousness of language, and a sense of limitation. This sense of limitation is a source of anxiety, to be sure, but also of creativity—in a limited sense. As a poet, it has pointed me in the direction of forms. Of course, all poets work in forms, even if these amount to little else than an unjustified right margin or, if we are to include prose poetry, a paragraphic shape. But the forms I have worked in, be they traditional or simply accentual-syllabic in some way, reflect both my expectations of verse, shaped by the Russian poets I encountered as a child, and that abiding sense of language as rich, elusive, and hopelessly foreign.

How much of this, exactly, owes to my background I cannot say. It's a psychological matter, and there is no shortage of poets in any language who place great emphasis on craft and regard the demands of form as a heuristic device. Donald Justice has addressed the personal significance of form for the poet in his beautiful essay, “Meters and Memory.” The poems of mine included here are thematically and formally in keeping with what I've laid out. “Foil” is five syllables and two beats per line, capped off with an adonic line. The tight prosodic structure leads to certain choices, like the elision of the first person singular pronoun from line 5, that seem to reinforce whatever meaning there is in the thing. “Lethe” is two beats per line. Both poems play with notions of identity and perspective, and aim for an elegiac mood.

Eugene Ostashevsky
My native language is Russian, although English comes a very close second: I have been studying it since I was five, moving to a semi-English-speaking country (Brooklyn) just after I turned eleven. Life in-between languages makes one more prone to pun, because it encourages seeing the language from the side, as if the words were purely formal and not immediately transparent. This is why I like reading what I don't entirely understand, or older versions of languages I claim to understand: because partial incomprehension turns readers into writers, makes them invent in order to fill in the blanks. I think there ought to exist a bridge between a word and its homonym (or homophone) in another language. Why should the English word "chair" not have the French meaning "flesh", and why should the English word "flesh" not have the French meaning "arrow?”

Ana Boziceric-Bowling
Joseph Brodsky writes that the "landscape of New York might be too visually alternative to ever be fully internalized by a newcomer". I emigrated to New York in 1997. I was nineteen and (aside from attempting a couple of English sonnets) had only ever written in Croatian. Soon after landing, I found I was unable to continue in my native idiom; it took close to four years for poems to reemerge, this time in English. Re-learning to write was a kind of an alchemical process: to transmute the feeling of displacement in one's second language into a license to play, an opportunity to question words instead of accepting them implicitly. When discouraged, I think of Nabokov, or read subway signs backwards. Curiosity is a home.

Mikhail Magazinnik
Although my native language is Russian, I first began writing in English in the early 1990's, only years later developing taste for composing in Russian. Presently, I write in both languages and find English to be more concise/compact/economical than Russian.

Mariya Gusev
Born in St. Petersburg, a mecca of literary variety, she first began writing in English because she was captivated by this language's linear yet malleable structure. English, like Russian, lends itself very well to experimental forms because of its high absorbency (importation of words from other languages). It has a fast rate of natural evolution, due to continuous incorporation of many cultural influences; it is open-ended and understood by many.


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