Went to a poetry reading of Friday night and it was one of the weirdest live ‘entertainment’ experiences I’ve ever had the pleasure (?) of sitting through. The poet was Tatiana Szerbinkowa (?), who writes exclusively in Russian and French and who speaks nearly no English. She was accompanied by her literary translator, a nebbish in the tweed blazer and athletic sneakers mode who is also a poet, and her translator-translator, another Russian woman who looked like she’d been picked up at the last bus stop Tatiana had visited before leaving Russia. Seriously, the translator-translator was wearing wrinkly linen pants, a shapeless button-up shirt, and – and this is the detail which threw the whole thing into Strangeville – she was wearing her purse. On stage, at a formal poetry reading, she was wearing her purse, across her chest, the way you’re taught to wear your purse when you’re twelve and going to the big city for the first time. Also, while she was obviously a skilled translator, her English so thickly accented that it took a few rounds of ‘translation’ for me to realize she was speaking English. Plus, she sounded drunk. I mean, I’m sure she wasn’t, but still, she slurred. Also, there was this strange sense of rehearsed informality while the poet, the poet-translator, and the translator were preparing to read. It was strange and disconcerting, like I didn’t know how to interpret what was going on onstage, and it had the feel of complete performance. Like something you’d expect Monty Python to do: spend ten minutes busily organizing your papers and setting up and adjusting the microphone and conferring with your colleagues before saying something completely non-sequitor. F leaned over and whispered, “Is this supposed to be sketch comedy?” I giggled helplessly and shrugged.
At one point, the poet mentioned, through the translator, that she had some new poetry which was yet untranslated. Then some well-intentioned student in the front row yelled, “Read it.” And she did. She continued to read the untranslated poetry for about thirty minutes. I think the whole exercise was meant for us rubes to get an appreciation of the sound of the Russian language which is all well and good for a few minutes, but after the fifth work titles “Untitled” I was drooping. Then the poet said something to the translator and the translator asked, “Who here knows Leon Trotsky?” There was a smattering of applause (I don’t think most people heard the name Trotsky correctly) and the translator said, “This is good. The last university the students did not know Trotsky. Here are some limericks about Trotsky. This is very funny one about plight of worker.” And the poet read:
Brogonk glibag zherbanka
Kriek zhershow gubook
Lovrod duvrok shpilanka
Dashkam bribenk tuvrook.
At which point, had the audience spoken Russian, I’m sure we would have been rolling on the floor.