Nov. 3, 2006
In Iowa, Courtoisie Transforms His Bark Into The Music Of Poetry
Uruguayan writer Raphael Courtoisie tackles many literary genres simultaneously. He is a prolific Spanish-language novelist, short-story writer, screenwriter, essayist, poet and television serial writer, plus he teaches college courses in screenwriting.
And when he learned that he would be in residence at the University of Iowa International Writing Program (IWP) this fall, he decided to stretch even further -- writing a collection of poems in the English language for the first time.
But when the invitation to the IWP first arrived, Courtoisie's lack of self-confidence in his spoken English -- an excess of modesty for someone who effortlessly and appropriately uses "denotative," "serendipity" and "phenomenology" in conversation -- almost led him to decline the offer.
"When I knew I would come here, I started to think that my oral English is bad," he recalls. "What have I to express in English? Perhaps I should refuse the IWP. I talked to my daughter, who speaks English very well, and she tortures me constantly, saying things like, 'Daddy, you don't speak English. You BARK!'
"This led me to think, sitting in Montevideo, Uruguay, I have to catch this language. It is now the lingua franca. I love a lot of poems and a lot of poets in this language. I have to catch it! In the past I have tried to translate Raymond Carver -- this is a very special author for me in poetry. So when I talked with my daughter, I thought, OK, I have to accept this challenge, and I will write a book of poems in English."
Courtoisie took up this personal and literary challenge with systematic preparation, first reading a variety of American poets and then resolving not to be too ambitious: "I tried to work in a simple poetry, and I tried, in this poetry, to express, in this other language, my inner feelings. When you just express one or two of your inner feelings in this other language, this other language begins to be your own language.
"Poetry, in any language is like a violence to the language -- but a positive violence: Poetry usually breaks the standards of writing. For me it was a very hard exercise, but at the same time like a training. Not a physical training, but a mental training."
Courtoisie sees benefits in this discipline that extend far beyond mere mental muscle building and improved language facility. In his view, poetry is a way of exploring and knowing the world, and in seeking this knowing through the awkwardness of a not-completely-familiar language, he anticipated a broader and deeper understanding of human life.
"When you try to get the soul of another language, you try to take the keys of another point of view, and then you are in the place of the other, you know?" he says. "If I invite you to write a poem in Spanish, maybe you will have a lot of difficulties, but at the same time it is possible that you understand some Latin American feelings from sitting in my place for a moment. This was the experiment for me.
"Language is not only a pragmatic instrument to develop a skill in commercial communication. The language is the civilization, a way of life. When you try to catch at least a portion of another language, you are catching a portion of the civilization."
Once in Iowa, Courtoisie overcame his lack of self-confidence in spoken English as well, not only by contributing his affable personality and literary insights to IWP panel discussions, but by visiting Washington High School in Cedar Rapids and Elizabeth Tate High School in Iowa City, where is shared a few of his English-language poems with the students.
"I read aloud three or four poems in English to students at Washington High School," he says. "I was astonished about the reactions of the students. In Washington school there were a lot of students that really enjoyed my poems in English. I think they really understood, because of the conversations that followed the reading.
"One of the most amazing experiences was when I went to Elizabeth Tate School, which I learned later is an alternative school. All the students had been searching through the Internet and the library and had all sorts of information about the Uruguay dictatorship, and the best questions I heard during this residency period were at Elizabeth Tate -- not in the panel discussions.
"These questions were being asked by young people who are only 15 or 16 years old! For example, what is it like writing under a dictatorship? How can you write in a small country that is next to a big country, Argentina. What is it like to write in an underdeveloped country?"
The residency in Iowa immersed him in an English-speaking culture, which increased his comfort with the language, but also enabled him to recruit native speakers to assist him specifically in tackling the nuts and bolts of writing poetry in English. They alerted him to grammatical mistakes he was making in the language, and also helped him identify which poems communicate effectively to English speakers.
"It is almost finished," he reports as the residency period is coming to a close. "I wrote 45 pages, and then I began to erase, to select, to choose the poems that for a native speaker work the best."
Courtoisie has titled the collection, "Side Effects": "Writing in a language that is not your mother language is on the one hand a challenge, but it is also liberating. When you try to write your own feelings, in a professional way, in poetry in another language that you don't manage completely, the side effects are very interesting, because they reverberate in your own writing, in your own tongue, in your own language. "
It may, in fact, have provided the spark for an extremely productive period in his writing -- possibly because it made his other writing seem so effortless in comparison. "Finishing the first draft of my new novel was easier," he says, and then he reveals that project has totaled 280 pages during his two months in Iowa. He pauses for a moment while that sinks in, and then he just laughs. A very jovial, satisfied laugh.
Here is one of Courtousie's poems in English.
(to the Shegood)
If you were cat
I would be a mouse
If you were arrow
I would be a pigeon
If you were knife
I would be a wounded body
but I am not a mouse
I am not a pigeon
nor a body
I am only an object without substance
I am a weightless thing
I am an amount without quantity
I'm a blanco spiritual
I'm a black point, mute
in the noisy house
of nuts and poets
a devil in paradise
an angel with broken wings
laughing in Dante's hell
out of place
out of work
out of order
like a gossip with her tongue cut off
in the middle of the words.
Mute, forever mute
Courtoisie teaches screenwriting at the Escuela de Cine del Uruguay in Montevideo. He is one of Uruguay's leading writers, with work published in the United States, Latin America and Europe. He is the author of three novels and 16 volumes of poetry, and he is a prolific essayist. He has won both his country's National Prize in Narrative for his first novel, "A Dog's Life" (1997), and the National Prize in Poetry for his 2002 collection "Frontiers of Umbria."
He is participating in the IWP through the Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs of the U.S. Department of State.
Twenty-nine writers, representing 22 countries, are in residence this fall at the IWP. Biographies of all the writers are accessible on the IWP Web site, www.uiowa.edu/~iwp.
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