The Imaginary Poets is available:
$19.95 pb ISBN: 978-1-932195-20-0
Tupelo Press

A selection of Aliki Barnstone's Eva poems

Her essay Poetics of Witness

Eva and Chagall

The Imaginary

Introduction:The Imaginary Poets: 22 Master Poets Create 22 Master Poets

By Alan Michael Parker, Editor

Translate a poem into English, offer a biography of the poet, and then write a short essay in which the poem, the poet, and the corpus are considered—and make all of it up, without once indicating you have done so. Thus charged were the twenty-two contributors to this volume, who in response produced poems “translated”from eighteen languages including Dirja, Vietnamese, Yiddish, and even from Egyptian hieroglyphs, poems that may be read in the grand literary tradition of heteronyms and alter egos. Calling into question the axioms of translation and the use of fiction-in-poetry, the work that follows allows the contributors to slip between speaker, self, and other. I invite you to do likewise: read these poems aloud, speaker, self, and other.

Writing as someone else seems fundamental to what writers do. That a fiction writer invents his or her characters could even be a commonplace, notwithstanding such moments when a character in a work of fiction leads us to believe that he or she might be some version of the author, as in Jorge Luis Borges's “Borges and I”or Tim O'Brien's The Things They Carried. The poet as dramatic monologist seems a familiar pose as well, as can be seen in the poems of Robert Browning, C.P. Cavafy, and Robert Frost, or in the work of contemporary writers such as Ai and Carol Ann Duffy. And of course, any literary history of imagined authorship must pay homage to the monumental and brilliant work of the Portuguese poet Fernando Pessoa (1888-1935), whose forty-four heteronyms—invented characters over whose signature the poems appeared— account for almost three-fourths of his life's work.

More complicated, the publication of poetry under a false name or a nom de plume—such as W.D. Snodgrass' anagrammatic use of S.S. Gardons, “author”of the charmingly entitled 1970 volume Remains, published by the equally charmingly named Perishable Press—invites us to pay no attention to the man behind the screen, at least until such time as the text's provenance becomes known. Yet another possibility exists for fabricating a self, a more subversive and perverse approach, and that is the hoax, of the kind most notably perpetrated by the bored Australian soldiers Lieutenant James McAuley and Corporal Harold Stewart in 1943, whose invented poet, Ern Malley, had his Modernist poems championed by an equally invented sister, Ethel. More recently, another hoax has renewed our faith in skepticism—the forging, oft-attributed to the American Kent Johnson, of a non-existent Hiroshima survivor and poet, Araki Yasusada.

But The Imaginary Poets offers another way to think about the writer as ventriloquist, one both serious and carnivalesque: the contributors here have written poems that needed to be “translated”first, that is, written as though translated from another language. As a result, the ways in which these poets see their imagined others offers a distorted view that also constitutes a self-portrait of sorts. What is “translated”as an act of imagining might thus be understood as the self seen prismatically through an act of imagined translation.

Readers familiar with the poems of any of these writers will surely find affinities between their self-signed work and the work of their imagined poets; perhaps it is perverse and true that no matter what we do, we cannot run from ourselves, even though we can hide. Such affinities between the “original”poetry and the works here were, in part, the impetus for this project: from the outset, The Imaginary Poets has aimed to inform the reading of its contributors' self-signed works, to tell us more about the poets whose imaginations have been excited by this call to charms.

Other affinities abound. A number of contributors have chosen World War II as the scrim for their projections, and depicted in moving fashion various crimes perpetrated during the Holocaust, a few of the poems written from the point of view of victims and others from that of the oppressor. Something might well be made of these decisions, were a reader to be inclined to psychological analysis. The writing of political poetry, at times self-censored as a result of a given poet's own lack of suffering, here finds an outlet, the imagination allowing for a shift in content (if not subject). What one can imagine, after all, turns out to be horrific.

Not incidentally, many of the imaginary poets collected here are dead. Perhaps a reader might see this phenomenon as mere coincidence in light of the volume's limited sample, and how the affinities among the entries could be treated as anecdotal rather than empirical evidence. But one might also understand the coincidence as emblematic: the past remains many poets' great subject after all, the present turned into the past as soon as writing happens, the future unknowable. To imagine a dead speaker is to allow oneself access to the past without the problem of nostalgia—to avoid idealizing experience simply because it was one's own, trauma and triumph aggrandized alike.

But the rendering of an experience in these scratches and scritches called “words”necessarily fails to be the experience itself, a notion Plato knew too well, the poets barred from the Republic on the grounds of their dissembling. Words might be a problem, as such. And so, another affinity between the various entries in this volume bears noting, and that is, the number poems presented as a version of something lost, in the tradition of the signifier as palimpsest. When asked to invent, the poets here responded cheerily, and their inventions were full of delightful moments of absence, slippage, and decentering. Poetry does happen in such moments as well, and yet the preponderance of those moments within the construction of these imaginary cultural artifacts speaks directly to the ways in which language isn't “real,”a notion the authors of The Imaginary Poets understand.

And thus, with serious glee, here they are: the poets the poets have imagined. I wish them and you, dear reader, well.

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Alan Michael ParkerAlan Michael Parker is the author of three books of poems, including Love Song with Motor Vehicles (BOA, 2003), and a novel, Cry Uncle (Mississippi, 2005), and co-editor of two reference works on poetry, including Who's Who in 20th Century World Poetry (Routledge, 2001), for which he served as Editor for North America. His poetry, essays, and reviews have appeared widely, in journals including The American Poetry Review, The New York Times Book Review, The New Yorker, Paris Review, and Salon; his awards include the 2003 Lucille Medwick Memorial Award from the Poetry Society of America, and a Pushcart Prize. Parker teaches at Davidson College, where he directs the program in creative writing, and is a core faculty member in the Queens University low-residency M.F.A. program.

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Publisher's Note:

The Imaginary Poets presents exceptional work from major poets who delight in assuming a new persona. But the book's ultimate goal is to explore the nature of creativity: what is it to make a poem? to make up a poet? To “translate” a work—is that rewriting or writing? What about translating a work that never existed? What does it mean if you create the creator? In the tradition of Pessoa and Borges, The Imaginary Poets delves delightedly into the very act of invention with a wink, a smile and tremendous respect for the art.

Contributors include Aliki Barnstone, Josh Bell, Laure-Anne Bosselaar, Martha Collins, Annie Finch, Judith Hall, Barbara Hamby, Jennifer Michael Hecht, Garrett Hongo, Andrew Hudgins, David Kirby, Maxine Kumin, Khaled Mattawa, D.A. Powell, Kevin Prufer, Anna Rabinowitz, Victoria Redel, David St. John, Mark Strand, Thom Ward, Rosanna Warren, and Eleanor Wilner

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The Imagingary Poets is available:
$19.95 pb ISBN: 978-1-932195-20-0
Tupelo Press