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"Language for a New Century" is a poetic survival manual

Language for a New Century: your purchase benefits LCC programmingLanguage for a New Century: your purchase benefits LCC programmingKudos to Language for a New Century: Contemporary Poetry from the Middle East, Asia, and Beyond. This handsome new anthology (Norton 2008) celebrates the artistic and cultural forces flourishing today in the East—gathering an unprecedented selection of works by East Asian, Middle Eastern, South Asian and Central Asian poets as well as poets living in the diaspora. The volume is organized around nine themes—including childhood, politics and oppression, identity, war, homeland and love—and includes more than 400 unique voices from 59 countries. Each section of the anthology—organized by theme rather than national affiliation—is preceded by a personal essay from the editors that introduces the poetry and invokes the readers to examine their own identities in light of these powerful poems. This anthology is a bold declaration of shared humanness and devotion to the transformative power of art.

"This anthology gives entry to its vast expression in the Middle East and Asia, including the changing sensibilities of poets in the ever-growing world of immigration. Assembled here is not the Tower of Babel, but the astonishment and subtlety inherent in many languages and their experimental modes to expand the power of words." —Nadine Gordimer, Nobel Laureate

Co-editor Nathalie Handal is a poet, writer, playwright, director, and producer. She has lived in the Europe, the United States, the Caribbean, Latin America and the Arab world. Among her published works are The Poetry of Arab Women. Visit her site.

Levantine Cultural Center presented five poets from this anthology in a World Festival of Sacred Music program, "The Way to Peace: Peace IS the Way," on Saturday, September 27, 2008 in Santa Monica, partnering with CODEPINK Women for Peace, PEN Center, SGI-USA, Salaam-Shalom Educational Foundation and Poets & Writers. They were Elmaz Abinader, Tina Chang, Sesshu Foster, Russell Leong and Nathalie Handal.

Poet-Editors Tina Chang, Nathalie Handal and Ravi Shankar.Poet-Editors Tina Chang, Nathalie Handal and Ravi Shankar.Co-editors Tina Chang and Ravi Shankar (not to be mistaken with the venerable Indian maestro) explain in their preface how after the events of September 11, 2001, they as New Yorkers felt compelled to articulate a response.

We began asking ourselves with whom did we identify? Though we grew up keenly aware of our respectively Chinese American and Indian American backgrounds, we began to feel an even deeper solidarity between ourselves and others of Eastern descent.

How could we respond to the destruction and unjust loss of human lives while protesting the one-sided and flattened view of the East being showcased in the media? What was the vantage point we could arrive at in order to respond on a human level, to generate articulate dialogue, conversations that did not fall into the rhetorical fallacies of us vs. them?

As poets and editors, we desperately sought to find a solution, though there was no solution. There was, however, a distinct path to choose and that was one of further understanding. What we turned to was what was most innate to us: poetry, which provided the impetus for beginning this project.

We sought the expertise of a third editor and found Nathalie Handal, who had just published the groundbreaking anthology The Poetry of Arab Women and was herself of Arab descent…Together, we set out on a journey to gather voices that add to the ongoing dialogue between East and West.

In her foreward to this collection, Carolyn Forché gives us a great sense of what makes these poets and poetry itself so invaluable: "In Central America many years ago," Forché writes, "a human rights worker pondered the prospect of a new ambassador from the United States to his country in the aftermath of over a decade of revolutionary struggle and civil war. 'Why send us your bureaucrats?' he asked. 'Send us your poets. Send us the soul of your country.'

"...Read Language for a New Century as you would a field guide to the human condition in our time, a poetic survival manual if you will, for how much more fragile do these things we call civilization and culture seem now? If as Milosz also wrote, 'posterity will read us in an attempt to comprehend what the twentieth century was like,' then this collection will be read to know the beginning of the twenty-first."

Mammad Araz*, a poet from Azerbaijan, contributes an acutely felt anti-war poem:

If There Were No War

If there were no war,
We could construct a bridge between Earth and Mars
Melting weapons in an open-hearth furnace.
If there were no war,
The harvest of a thousand years could grow in one day.
Scientists could bring the moon and stars to Earth.
The eyes of the general also says:
“I would be chairman in a small village
If there were no war!”
If there were no war,
We could avoid untimely deaths.
Our hair would gray very late.
If there were no war,
We would face
Neither grief nor parting.
If there were no war,
The bullet of mankind would be his word,
And the word of mankind would be love.

[translated from the Azeri by Aytan Aliyeva]

* Araz was born in 1933 in Nurs in the Shahbuz region of Nakhchivan, Azerbaijan.

Abd-Allah al-Baraduni, a poet and literary historian from Baradun in North Yemen, contributed this poem that expresses the melancholy of his country:

From Exile to Exile

My country is handed over from one tyrant
to the next, a worse tyrant;
from one prison to another,
from one exile to another.
It is colonized by the observed
invader and the hidden one;
handed over by one beast to two
like an emaciated camel.

In the caverns of its death
my country neither dies
nor recovers. It digs
in the muted graves looking
for its pure origins
for its springtime promise
that slept behind its eyes
for the dream that will come
for the phantom that hid.
It moves from one overwhelming
night to a darker night.

My country grieves
in its own boundaries
and in other people’s land
and even on its own soil
suffers the alienation
of exile.

[translated from the Arabic by Diana Der-Hovanessian and Sharif S. Elmusa]

“Before September 11,” Nathalie Handal writes, “Americans barely knew what is was like to be attacked in their own country, and we continue to be fortunate that wars have not been fought in recent times on U.S. soil. However, much of the rest of the world has had another fate, and most, if not all, countries in this anthology have been victims of combat.”

Hence, in a way, one could argue that these are voices for peace and that the entire volume is an extended argument against war. This, however, would be too didactic, for the range of themes and styles in Language for a New Century is broad and beautiful.

We urge readers to obtain their own copy to savor over the coming months and indeed, years: in addition to the spirited poets' work, there are also several introductory essays from the editors that by themselves are worth the price of admission. We agree with Nadine Gordimer, the 1992 Nobel Prize Laureate, when she says that Language for a New Century is "a beautiful achievement for world literature."