Tavern Books

The strangest epic poem you’ve never heard of

Linfield professor Sonia Ticas is part of the team translating a 456-page work by Costa Rican poet Eunice Odio for Portland’s Tavern Books

Nothing was foreseen.
All was imminent.

— “The Fire’s Journey, Part I: The Integration of the Parents”

With offices tucked away in Union Station, Portland-based Tavern Books is in the home stretch of an ambitious project that began more than five years ago: the translation and publication of more than 400 pages of the strangest epic poem you’ve never heard of. Written in the mid-20th century by Costa Rican poet Eunice Odio (a poet you’ve also probably never heard of), it’s called The Fire’s Journey. Tavern Books claims that it is the first book-length translation into English of the work of any Costa Rican woman poet.

Eunice Odio (1919-1974) is considered the leading Costa Rican poet of the 20th-century, according to Tavern Books, which is publishing “The Fire’s Journey” in four volumes.

The idea to bring this mysterious and complex work to English-speaking readers was the brainchild of Keith Ekiss. A Stegner Fellow in Poetry at Stanford (where he still lectures) from 2005-07, Ekiss is the author of Pima Road Notebook, a poetry collection published in 2010 by New Issues Poetry & Prose.

Ekiss had help on this epic literary excavation, and as Tavern was preparing to release the third of what ultimately will be four volumes, I sat down with one of his collaborators, Yamhill County resident Sonia Ticas.

Since 2001, Ticas has taught Spanish at Linfield College in McMinnville, along with classes in Latin American literature and culture, women writers, and history. Before we dive into my conversation with her, an introduction to Odio is in order, because she’s an obscure figure who has only in the past couple of decades started getting attention in the poetry world. Let’s start with an excerpt from the introduction Ekiss wrote for Vol. 1: Integration of the Parents, which Tavern published in 2013. After noting that Costa Rica is largely viewed as the “Switzerland of Central America,” with a prosperous democracy, high literacy, and national health care, Ekiss continues:

But when it comes to the arts, and poetry in particular, English-speaking readers and literary translators have mostly turned their attention elsewhere in Central America, gravitating to the more politically-charged writers of war-torn Nicaragua and El Salvador, to the poetry of Rubén Dario, Ernesto Cardenal, Claribel Alegría and Roque Dalton. Eunice Odio’s poetry has thus remained almost wholly unknown to readers outside Latin America, obscured on the margins of the region’s avant-garde and proletarian-poet traditions.

Odio was born in 1919 in San Jose, Costa Rica. According to Spanish American Women Writers, she learned to read when she was very young and gravitated to science-fiction writers such as Jules Verne and Emilio Salgari, preferring getting lost in a book to paying attention to her classroom teacher. She wasn’t much for hobnobbing with the region’s literary and publishing world, and while she associated with the political left early in her life, Odio eventually fell out with them. She was clearly a fiercely independent woman, and what little I read about her made me want to know more. Her letters must be fascinating.

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ArtsWatch just received a review copy of We Women by Edith Södergran, just published by Tavern Books. I didn’t recognize the name of the poet, so I read the introductions by the translator Samuel Charters (this edition builds on a previous one he had assembled and translated). Södergran was born in a village north of St. Petersburg in 1892, part of a small Finn and Swedish community. Her father was an engineer, and she studied at a prominent German school. Her father died of tuberculosis when she was 15, and then she contracted the disease and spent several years in various sanitariums. World War I and the the Bolshevik revolution landed on her little life after the disease abated a bit.

All along she was writing poems, mostly in Swedish, modern free-verse poems, influenced by the Symbolists, poems often savagely criticized by the Swedish poetry “people.” She kept at it. She and her mother tumbled into abject poverty. She kept writing. Her tuberculosis returned. She wrote on. Then in 1923 at the age of 31 she died, from her disease aggravated by malnourishment. Before her death, she rounded up her loose poems and notebooks and burned them. So we are left with the four little volumes she published during her lifetime, a small book of aphorisms, and a notebook of her earliest work, which somehow survived. Charters treats them lovingly.

What are the poems like? Short, even fragmentary. Symbolist, I suppose. Beautiful and heart-breaking. Keen about male and female natures, roles, expectations. Here’s a short one, “Discovered”:

“Your love clouds my stars,
the moon rises in my life.
My hand isn’t at home in yours.
Your hand is desire—
my hand is longing.”

Once I had read about her life, I read them obsessively. You might, too.

Cynthia Lahti, THREE WOMEN (detail), 2011, Paper on clay base

Cynthia Lahti, THREE WOMEN (detail), 2011, Paper on clay base

Disjecta Contemporary Art Center has announced the selection of Chiara Giovando as its fifth Curator-in-Residence for the 2015/2016 exhibition season. She is an LA artist and curator, who studied at the San Francisco Art Institute and then at the California Institute of the Arts, focusing on projects built around sound art.

“Sound is ephemeral, temporal, and pervasive; it has physicality yet it is intangible. It can sooth or irritate our organs, shatter glass, and map the depths of the ocean floor. Sound surrounds us, inspires us, and while it often brings us together, it may also confuse and disorient us,” says Giovando in the press release. “Disjecta’s 2015-16 program will explore an expanded definition of sound, looking at historical experiments in musical notation, new sound art practices, and ways that sound functions in architecture and installation.”

Some of these experiments will be conducted by local sound artists, and some by international ones. “Chiara has a wealth of experience working with artists from abroad and we’re excited to see her expand the boundaries of the program,” said Bryan Suereth, Disjecta’s Executive Director. “But she’s also intrigued by the work of Portland-based artists and that results in a highly cross-pollinated vision for her exhibitions.”

Cynthia Lahti is this year’s Bonnie Bronson Fellowship Award winner, and the public reception for her will be 6-7:30 pm Thursday, April 15, in the Reed College Performing Arts Building, 3rd Floor Atrium. Lahti is a sculptor whose accolades include the Hallie Ford Fellowship (2013) and Oregon Arts Commission Artist Fellowship (2006). She shows regularly at PDX Contemporary Art.

Past Bronson Fellowship recipients include: Christine Bourdette, Judy Cooke, Ronna Neuenschwander, Fernanda D’Agostino, Carolyn King, Lucinda Parker, Judy Hill, Adriene Cruz, Helen Lessick, Ann Hughes, Malia Jensen, Christopher Rauschenberg, Kristy Edmunds, Paul Sutinen, Bill Will, Laura Ross-Paul, MK Guth, Marie Watt, David Eckard, Nan Curtis, Pat Boas, Wynne Greenwood and Vanessa Renwick.

News & Notes: Dear Congress, Support sacred music and stop the shutdown!

Can Byzantine chant save the Republic? How literary can Portland get? How musical? Etc.

October 4, 2013—Maybe we have our first direct Portland casualty of the US government shutdown (don’t get my mother started on this topic!). And by casualty I just mean “spot of bother,” not actual injuries or death. It involves our splendid Byzantine chant choir, Cappella Romana, and of course it involves a trip to Washington, D.C.

Archangel Michael, First half 14th century tempera on wood, gold leaf/Byzantine and Christian Museum, Athens

Archangel Michael, First half 14th century
tempera on wood, gold leaf/Byzantine and Christian Museum, Athens

Before the shutdown, the National Gallery of Art was to have opened the exhibit “Heaven and Earth: Art of Byzantium from Greek Collections” on October 6 continuing through March 2, 2014. And the gallery had enlisted Cappella Romana to provide an aural supplement on October 27. (The National Gallery has an extensive music program.) CR administrative jefe Mark Powell says that in his last communication with the gallery, he was told 1) they couldn’t communicate with him any more about the concert because they’d been furloughed, and 2) they couldn’t make a final determination about the concert until October 23.

The CR tour was also to have included a stop in Richmond, VA, but Powell says it’s unlikely the choir members can stay that flexible on scheduling, and the tour is likely off, barring a sudden change of heart by the House of Representatives. (Hey guys, you could USE a little sacred music in those precincts!)

The show moves on to the J. Paul Getty Museum, April 9 through August 25, 2014, and Cappella Romana will meet up with it there at the Getty Villa. Presumably, that gig is safe from the shutdown.

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