Editor Battles Stomach-flu to a Draw

By Brandon Holmquest

Part Two: The Bowery

It would be difficult to describe my relief upon hearing from Stephen Kessler that he didn’t want to meet up until deep that afternoon. Any day that I have to get out of bed before 12:30 is by definition not a good day. No matter what. But any day when I can get up later than 12:30 is always good, no matter what happens. So this particular Sunday was shaping up nicely.

I resurrected myself at 2 p.m. My illness, the dubiously named stomach-flu, seemed largely to have abated. I remained wary, having thought once before that it was gone for good, but in general I felt less ill than hollow, unstable. I took the N train to Union Square and walked the few blocks to St. Mark’s, to take what air there may be said to exist in Manhattan.

Stephen found me first and we introduced ourselves, I was then introduced to his wife, Daniela Hurezanu, herself a translator, and the three of us set out in search of a suitable café which we quickly found. It was quite the place. I ordered coffee and when the waiter set it before me he gently whispered, “Americano.” I response to this passive-aggressive terminology mongering I continued ordering coffee. He kept subtly correcting me. It was a sort of truce.

Daniela, Stephen and I settled in and got to talking. I should state right up front that I’m a frightful geek. Seriously. And it wasn’t all that long ago that I was carrying Save Twilight, Stephen’s translations of Julio Cortázar’s poetry, around with me all over Chicago in my coat pocket. So I wanted two things: his signature on that book, which somehow I haven’t lost, and all the Julio stories he could tell me. That done, we all conversed about the usual mixture of the past, the future, the recent present, and the maybe, then the discussion took a deep translation geek turn. It takes a certain kind of person to ramble excitedly about grammar for twenty minutes, and when you get three such people together in one place, well, what can I say?

Daniela and Stephen were due that evening at New York’s venerable Bowery Poetry Club for a reading of Romanian poetry. I tagged along. The event was hosted by Matvei Yankelevich, editor at Ugly Duckling, a fine translator, and officially the Nicest Man in New York. On the bill were Daniela’s old friend from Romania Alta Ifland, prolific translator Adam Sorkin (whose versions of Christian Popescu grace the pages of Calque 3), and Saviana Stanescu, both a poet and an NYU drama professor.

This was Super Bowl Sunday. I’m sure I don’t need to remind anyone that the New York Football Giants were partaking in the big game this year. When we walked through the door the barista was setting up a small black and white television, twisting rabbit ears into unnatural configurations in a vain attempt to clarify the signal. The crowd turned out to be small, even smaller if we don’t count those who were drinking at the bar when we arrived, but everybody who was out watching a goddamned football game that evening missed a hell of a reading.

Alta Ifland read first. From Romania, she writes in French and translates her own works into English. Prose poems, for the most part. I’ll be damned if I can tell what any of them were about, other than being poems. I wound up sort of fixated on the word in a way that didn’t require a connection to their meanings. Alta stood tall and read methodically in a clear voice, her Romanian accent giving the language just a little bit of a twist that made familiar words less familiar, which heightened the effect of the poems themselves. She read several of the poems in French as well as English. My French is quite poor, but I did notice that a musicality latent in the English versions, present but in a subtle way, was much more apparent in the French.

Next came Adam Sorkin, who publishes about a hundred books a year, it seems, reading from his volume of Mariana Marin’s poetry, Paper Children. I feel like I’d need to sit down alone, in my kitchen, for about three days with this book to be able to write about it intelligently. So. Damn. Sad. But not entirely depressing. I recall laughing at something in self defense and getting some odd looks from the crowd. Adam, in a flannel shirt, cracking wise with a somber undertone. He is a superb comprehender of poetry, I think because he actually feels it, which is something quite out of fashion these days. Adam, being a little older, doesn’t care about that. He is a strong argument for more translation prizes in this country.

The night’s final reader was Saviana Stanescu, a native of Romania who now writes in English. She read from her latest book, Google Me! You know how a lot of poets read in what I call “The Voice,” that dry, slightly pedantic, ponderously serious, flat nasal blah, as if to say oh, this is poetry and its ssssooooo terribly serious? Well I hate that bullshit. Seriously, I’ll get up and leave. Well there was no such problem with Saviana. She really throws herself into it, in a way that is performative, yes, and also theatrical, but which serves to enhance the poetry, to make it more engaging. I was in enough awful rock bands to know when somebody’s being loud and flashy to cover up a lack of talent. Not Saviana. The poems, which are good on the page, gain from the way she reads them. And everyone present who doesn’t have a stick up their ass has a good time.

The reading over, I allowed Matvei to corral me into going to a Russian restaurant nearby. All the readers, Stephen and I, some guy who just happened to be there, Paul Doru, an editor of the superb online journal Respiro, and some other people I didn’t know trucked down to the Anyway Café. I hadn’t eaten at all that day, nor the day before, and I felt like I could handle some solid food right about then.

What can I say, I’m kind of a schmuck so I ordered borscht. I’d never had it before, and Matvei said it was good there so I went for it. Halfway through the bowl I leaned over to Matvei and said, “You know, this is actually really good stuff. I don’t know what I was expecting but I really like this.” He nodded. “Yeah, it’s okay here, though really I make the best borscht.” As soon as I find two other people who make the same claim, I’m going to assemble them and have a borscht-off, with myself as the judge, just drown in beets and die happy.

Daniela, Stephen and I took our leave and walked north together towards transportation. They left me at Astor Place, where I descended to the N train, Queens-bound. On the ride home someone screamed out, “If the Giants win I’m gonna start a riot!” People seemed less amused by this comment than I might have thought. I got home in time to flip on the TV, see Eli Manning slip away from a sack and fling the ball into a miracle catch. I shut the TV off. A few minutes later a joyous shout came falling from every window in my building, then the bar down the street began vomiting screaming drunkards. There were gunshots in the distance. I went to bed, put a pillow over my head and tried to sleep. I had to go back to work tomorrow.

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