I was at a Polish poetry translation workshop today. Whereas the organizers and presenters were terrific, I was bored by the egos of fellow workshoppers. Of the 18 of us, only five were male, and guess who did most of the talking? And one of them, during the introductions, needed to opine on "Christian mythology" and how he assumed it was "still imposed" on Poland. For all he knew, the poet could have attended noon-hour mass before arriving at the poetry centre or had a keen devotion to Our Lady of Częstochowa. Mr Sixty-Eighter (complete with white hair pulled back in a ponytail) obviously hadn't heard that Poland was born and baptized simultaneously.
Suddenly I remembered why I gave up going to writers' groups. There's just too much "I", which is why I may give up blogging eventually. The very word blog or "web log" assumes a first-person narrative, so blogging can encourage rampant self-regard. Me, me, me. I, I, I. Margaret Avison advised me not to write in the first person for ten years. Alas.
The wonderful thing about a language group, in contrast, is the point of the group is never "I" and what "I" wrote, or what "I" think but the language itself. It is difficult to speak the foreign language, but everyone tries and is even relieved when it is someone else's turn to talk.
One of the chaps in the workshop was in love with the fact that he could speak Polish. He was a terrible warning to your humble scribe. In fact, I may have tried to show off my own shaky grasp of the piękny język, were it not for him. Instead I asked questions and talked about Polish might best be translated for a North American audience. Thus, I learned something. Of course, I learned more by keeping quiet and listening.
Of the women who spoke, I spoke a fair amount, keeping in mind how ego-jostling is contagious. Good moderators must be able to keep this within bounds, and fortunately ours did. It helped, I think, that the poet was actually there, and so was the indisputable leader of the pack. At least if there was some "Look at me! Look at me!" going on, it was directed at the poet.
The best poets-in-English I have met are humble people who are more interested in the world than they are in being heard. They are also incredibly interested in poetry for itself and so are eager to listen to others, more eager to listen than to speak. I once asked a woman I met at theology school--a woman whose poems were regularly published in the most prestigious Canadian journals--if she ever went to Spoken Word or open mic events, and she never did.
Meeting Polish poets is a different experience altogether because they are presenting and reading in what is to them a foreign language environment. They usually give the impression that they are on a fun holiday, and that having any English-speaking readers-listeners is a jolly surprise. If they have an ego, none of it is bound up in their facility with English. They read what their translator wrote, and their audience listens in respectfully and claps.
Afterwards a fellow Polish-language enthusiast and I took off for a drink. We ended up having coffee and cake in my favourite hipster café. and while we were there another workshop participant approached to say she had enjoyed our contributions. She is a English-to-Polish translator, which we found very interesting. She said very little during the workshop. Indeed the young, female students of translation said almost nothing. This does not mean that they had nothing to say, of course.