Multilingual poetry is, by nature, an interdisciplinary art form. Its openness invites experimentation and play with language, whether it is at the level of the written and spoken word, sound or image. As an art form concerned with unpacking discourses of power, multilingual poetry has the potential to make language stutter, as to make it vibrate again. How we define multilingual poetry has primarily to do with how we define language.
In a post-Covid and post-Brexit world concerned with the closing of borders and characterised by a renewed interest in national identity, multilingual poetry is increasingly gaining new ground. I believe this is so not only because of its poetic possibilities, but also because of its power to challenge, disrupt and subvert unilingual and monolingual thinking and practices that are still very much the norm. Ultimately, multilingual poetry writing contributes to the decolonisation of language.
During my research on poets using multilinguality in their writing, I came across the work of Amelia Rosselli, regarded as one of the most important Italian poets of the 20th century. Rosselli was born in a family living in political exile – her paternal grandmother was a secular Jewish Venetian feminist and republican thinker from a family active in the unification of Italy, her English mother was an activist for the Labour party and her Italian father was an intellectual leader and eventually a martyr of the anti-Fascist resistance. She was polylingual and she was also an educated musicologist. What appealed to me in Rosselli’s writing in particular was the fact that she experimented with writing poetry in three languages – Italian, English, French – something that was close to my own poetry writing practice as someone who writes in English, French and Croatian.
Roselli’s Diario in tre lingue / Diary in Three Tongues is particularly interesting in that respect. In this fifty page autobiographical, trilingual piece, Rosselli not only mixes and juxtaposes her three languages, she also experiments with different registers, styles and histories within a linguistic system, something that leads to the corruption of grammar and reciprocal language interference. In her analysis on the presence of melancholic discourse in Rosselli’s writing, Pina Antinucci speaks of “shadow language” and writes that this ambiguous and polysemic notion “aptly conveys the underlying leitmotiv in Rosselli’s poetics, where “languages are the representation of unmourned lostobjects”. She continues by saying that in Rosselli’s writing: “Language is the locus of traumas, exile and fragmentation; it turns into a tool for the recreation of an eerie atmosphere of spatio-temporal dislocation” (p. 97).
Multilingual poetry project Unbound: “Reveries about language”
“Reveries about Language: Word Sound Image / Reveries autour de la langue: Mot Son Image / Sanjarenje o jeziku: Rijec Zvuk Slika” were a series of immersive multilingual poetry recitals developed as part of my project "Unbound" funded by the Language Acts 2018 and 2019 Small grants programme. The aim of this project is to explore multilingual poetry practice in the contemporary context and across different media.
During 2019 and 2020, I co-directed and directed three recitals. Other products or outputs of "Unbound" were a short video, a short film and a multilingual poetry collection featuring my poetry, including the title poem “Reveries about language”, as well as my photography.
Imagined as textual, sonic and visual ‘promenades’ inviting the public to immerse themselves in the multi-sensorial experience of poetry in English, French and Croatian, these multilingual poetry recitals aimed to show how the spoken word, sound and image interact to create a series of ‘unbound’ or free expressions.
Before turning to the next section of my talk, I would like to say a few words about the concept of “reveries” and how it relates to my experience of ‘multi-language’. The term “reveries” can be interpreted or misinterpreted to mean “out of place”, “out of touch”, or “futile”; this feels especially true to me in present times where reality of the pandemic has taken such a firm hold on our imagination(s). According to the Collins dictionary, a “reverie is a state of imagining or thinking about pleasant things, as if you are dreaming”. The dictionnaire du Larousse offers a slightly different definition referring to a state of drifting aimlessly, of being lost in one’s thoughts: Une reverie est une “activité mentale dirigée vers des pensées vagues, sans but précis”. Regardless of the nuances used to define this term, in both of these definitions is present the experience of daydreaming. “Reveries about language” was a trilingual poem I wrote at the very beginning of my practice. A bit unsurprisingly, it has taken me a long time to fully appropriate the concept of “reveries” and understand its importance for my own multilingual poetry practice; with hindsight, I think that the act of reveries about my languages lies embedded in all of the multilingual poems I have written. Reveries as a search for recovery of (lost) language(s) and an excavation of my fourth, silent language, Arabic that I used to speak with my grandmother during my first seven summers in Algeria, language that I have later forgotten. But reveries also in the sense of play, of reinvention of language(s). Taken in entirety, the act of reveries about language(s) looks both to the past and to the future. It does not only signify (a state of) daydreaming and a melancholic feeling for the thing lost; instead, it questions and transcends nostalgia. It (re)opens rather than closes the doors of memory and forgetting. As the main character and narrator in Helene Cixous’s Rêveries de la femme sauvage says at the beginning of the novel: “une porte vient de s’entrebâiller dans la galerie Oubli de ma mémoire, et pour la première fois, voici que j’ai la possibilité de retourner en Algérie…”.
Creative challenges and opportunities of performing multilingual poetry
The first multilingual poetry recital took place on the 20 March 2019 at the Pinter studio, Queen Mary University of London. The evening began with a 50 min reading by three actors of my poems in English, Croatian and French from my Reveries about language collection. The readings by the actors were interweaved with 1 – 2 min computer generated graphic animations set to live encoded music created by the sound artist Alo Allik; the computer-generated animations included fragments of my photography and verses of poems in the three languages.
The evening closed with a discussion with the creative team and the public facilitated by Professor Catherine Boyle who co-directed the poetry reading with me. I want use this opportunity to thank her again for her great contribution, mentoring and support. What I found particularly refreshing in that discussion was to hear both the creative team and the members of the public say how much they enjoyed hearing or working with a language they do not understand. Working with languages that the public might not understand has been a great concern for me from the beginning; it has therefore been encouraging to hear that people did not mind hearing poetry in an unfamiliar language and the feedback I received from the recitals and readings has been overwhelmingly positive.
This brings me to the third and last “Reveries about language” multilingual poetry recital that was originally planned to be performed at the KIC (Kulturno informativni centar) in Zagreb on 20 March 2020 but was cancelled due to COVID-19. Instead, the recital was pre-recorded later in that year in Zagreb and London, and streamed online on 11 December 2020; the pre-recorded short film was followed by a special live reading by two guests from Paris and Brussels I invited to read with me; Delphine Salkin & Isabelle Dumont. The event concluded with a panel discussion and questions and answers, excellently hosted by David Caddy, Editor, Tears in the Fence. Here are some of the comments from the evening:
“I am glad that because of Covid this is happening virtually because it opens it to people like me on different continents. Thank you for this experience.”
“Real food for thought regarding belonging and identity, and ways of weaving different languages together. At a time when many are feeling down about Brexit, and an ‘isolationist mentality’, a real tonic to be among people who clearly love to explore and express themselves in different languages. It lifted my spirits!”
“I loved the musicality and circularity of the effect [of the different languages].”
“I really loved the use of video as well as the more direct readings. In particular, I loved the musical polyphonic effect of the weaving of languages and the repetition.”
“Le monde semblait à nouveau ouvert durant les « rêveries autour de la langue » partagées ce soir…”
“…[Jasminine] pjesme su krasne, čak i kad slušam francuski koji ne razumijem, nekako dolaze riječi do srca. Sve u svemu ne samo da je bilo lijepo nego i zabavno!” [Jasmina’s poems are beautiful, even if I hear French which I don’t understand, the words seem to be coming from the heart. All in all, not only was the experience beautiful, it was also fun.”]
So, what were the challenges and opportunities that arose as the result of performing multilingual poetry?
1. Voice and multi-vocality
The “Reveries about language” poems in English, French and Croatian have mutated since they were first written in 2014; through performance, they have acquired new meanings, new resonances, new voices, something that I regard as one of the greatest gifts and result of collaborating with a creative multilingual team.
As the Italian philosopher Adriana Cavarero writes in her 2005 book “For more than one voice: towards a philosophy of vocal expression”, the voice “destabilises language as a system that produces the subject… the voice stands in opposition to language – that is to the disciplining codes of language, to grammar and syntax.” Citing Kristeva, she continues by saying that “very early on babies pronounce ‘articulate sounds which easily outstrip the register of their mother tongue’. In other words, vocality predates language creating a pleasure that takes us back to the “maternal or “semiotic chora (to use Kristeva’s expression again)”.
A recurring question for me in the process of both co-directing and directing the “Reveries” recitals was to decide how I should represent the multilingual voices in my poetry on stage. Should I have one single actor reading all of the languages? Or should I have one actor for each of the languages? Or should I combine both of these interpretations? Should I as the author appear on stage? What voice should I give my poems? These questions might sound like simple aesthetic choices; however, how I as the author choose to treat the question of multivocality on stage has consequences for how I as the author perceive and define myself: as a multilingual subject that possesses a fractured or a unified identity. Or both?
2. Creative team & interpretation
In order to understand the poems and interpret them in the different languages, I needed to find actors and readers who were at least bilingual, if not trilingual. The same was important when choosing to collaborate with the sound artist and musician I ended up working with on the sonic and visual aspects of the multilingual recitals. The actors and readers Pierre Elliot, Emily Celine-Thomson and Bridget Knapper read in both English and French, and Robert Santek read in English, French and Croatian. Alo Allik, the sound artist, was Estonian and apart from his mother tongue spoke also English and Russian. Alan Chamberlain who wrote the music for the last poetry recital was also bilingual; he spoke English and Welsh. Finally, the film maker I worked with on the short documentation film for the final recital – Inigo Berron – was Mexican and he was also a translator in Spanish and German. The only member who was monolingual (English) was the film maker Dan Coffey who produced the short video I showed.
In order to prepare for this talk, I send a short question to two of the readers and asked them what they thought were the challenges and opportunities in performing “Reveries”. Their answers brought to the fore the question of the voice again with each language possessing its own melody, rhythm and texture, but also pointed to the obvious limitations of not being able to perform the poems face to face in the same physical space due to COVID-10:
- “The reading was challenging on multiple levels. First, trying to "feel" your poems, the (ex)change of languages. The effort of trying to respect each language's specific wording, rhythm and melody. Then combining that in a new ensemble. The interweaving of said rhythms and melodies in the poems with verses in different languages. In the ones we read by ourselves and especially in those where we exchanged lines and additionally had to function like an orchestra. One piece, different instruments.” (RS)
- “Needing to pay close attention when two or three of us were reading a poem which contained three different languages, and where I didn’t understand the Croatian, reading along and listening closely.” (BK)
- Not being in the same physical space as co-performers to rehearse and perform and missing the opportunity to experiment with breath and body movements in conjunction with the musicality of the different languages (BK)
- “The joy of a joint endeavour - especially in Covid times and Brexit - that reached across country and language borders. Feeling part of an artistic, international, multi-cultural community. The performance event created a great sense of connection with others through the themes of the poems and the different language communities of the audience.” (BK)
- “The richness of the three languages, the layering of meaning and the way the same poem resonated differently in each language” (BK)
- “The curiosity aroused by the Croatian language - enjoying its sounds and rhythms” (BK)
- I loved the work in progress, our little workshops on stressing the right key words and lines. Most of all, as a bilingual person, I enjoyed (re)discovering the beauty of mixing languages without creating a cacophony. Also, the mental process behind it. A totally new experience, quite different from switching languages during translating. I loved the positive reactions, especially by people who do not speak several languages. I was wondering before how monolingual persons would perceive the poems. Like listening to music? (RS)
I can add to this that for me as the author playing with the order of the multilingual poems by interweaving the versions of the poems in three languages throughout the reading gave me more creative choice; it invited the listener to find new meanings by moving between the languages and produced a more layered interpretation of the poems. The repetition of the same poem in different languages created a circularity of meaning, a spiral.
3. Creation of a multisensory experience: merging word, sound and image
When trying to make aesthetic choices about how sound, image and word should best be explored on the stage to produce an immersive experience for the listener, the question of the primacy of the spoken word in relation to the sonic soundscapes and visual representations was discussed more than once. The graphic representation of the three languages on the screen was something I discussed at length with the sound artist I was collaborating with. To him, textual meaning was secondary to sonic and visual meaning and electronic noise created via the live encoded music. The sound artist also had to adapt somewhat his way or working, as it required more preparation and less improvisation; whilst we both found this method of working frustrating at times for different reason, I think we both welcomed this challenge as it made us reflect upon what it means to produce a multimedia, contemporary multilingual poetry performance. In the end, the graphic animations created by the sound artist based on my photography were computer generated and fragments of the verses from the poems in English, French and Croatian were superposed over these by using a very specific font in red; in an effort to represent all three languages, some of the visibility was lost in the process. On the other hand, the combination of live encoded music and computer generated animations with verses of poetry projected onto a large screen created moments of creative disruption signifying a fractured flow of reading.
Jasmina Bolfek-Radovani, 15 April 2021, talk given at the Languages Future online conference, King's College London, 15-23 April, 2021.