Poetry Inside Out in THIS Literary Magazine

Posted on January 30, 2012 by Scott Esposito

John Oliver Simon, Artistic Director of the Center's Poetry Inside Out program, is interviewed in THIS Literary Magazine. Amongst remarks on translation and poetry, John talks about the different PIO has been making at Bay Area schools:

PIO began as a Spanish bilingual program, teaching Latino and immersion kids to translate from Spanish to English. Spanish-dominant classes became an endangered species as schools hustled everybody into English so they would do better on our important national objective of filling in the correct bubbles. Our niche shrank. And then it occurred to us that translation is larger than Spanish. Robert Hass doesn’t know Polish, yet he translates Milosz. Our Poetry Inside Out students are now translating from 28 languages (more are added constantly; last month we taught our first poem in Serbian).

In seventeenth-century Japan, a frog hurtles into still water and startles the poet Basho:

Furu ike ya
kawazu tobikomu
mizu no oto

The particle ya in the first line is particularly “untranslatable”: it serves to draw attention to what has gone just before, like a backward-facing colon: in this case, 古池 Furu ike, “old pond.” Armed with a glossary, fifth-graders Willie (fluent in Chinese) and Jesús (fluent in Spanish) take a shot:

Ancient pond alert,
frog catapulting in pond,
sound of the water

— Willie Qiu

Legendary pond!
frog flies into
sound of water

— Jesús Fragoso

When I ask a class which of these versions is correct, they know immediately what I’m getting at with my trick question. While the standardized test machine teaches that all problems have one right answer, translation teaches that any problem has a variety of interesting solutions. We do 16-session residencies in each classroom, and culminate with a published anthology and public reading of student work.

As of early 2012, we have ten instructors doing Poetry Inside Out in Bay Area schools and reporting to me. I am so pleased at this stage of my life to have a full-scale opportunity to mentor young writers-in-residence. Demand for our PIO workshops is rising rapidly. I think many folks in the schools are (finally) getting it that drill-skill kills and what kids of all skill levels need is interesting, engaging work with a component of playful imagination. Over 80% of our students are children of color, mostly immigrants and African-Americans. PIO sometimes makes a dramatic difference in their lives.