What Sparks Poetry


What Sparks Poetry is a serialized feature in which we invite poets to explore experiences and ideas that spark new poems. 

In our series focused on Translation, we invite poet-translators to share seminal experiences in their practices, bringing poems from one language into another. How does the work of translating feel essential to the writing of one’s own poetry? Our contributors reflect on inspiring moments as intricate as a grammatical quirk and as wide-ranging as the history or politics of another place. 

Eugene Ostashevsky on Vasily Kamensky’s “Constantinople”

Vasily Kamensky’s typographic visual poem “Constantinople” first appeared on January 16, 1914 in Odessa, as a broadside outside the theater where Kamensky was reading with fellow Futurists Vladimir Mayakovsky and David Burliuk. A month later the poem was published in Moscow as part of Naked Among the Clad, a Futurist chapbook co-authored by Kamensky. In March 1914 the poem, again in the same typographic arrangement, reappeared in Kamensky’s famous solo chapbook, Tango with Cows, whose 300 copies were printed on colorful, mostly yellow-orange, wallpaper.

Kamensky’s “ferroconcrete poems”—for so he called his experiments in innovative typography—resemble Cubist paintings in how they are sectioned, but they also offer a response to Italian Futurist manifestos for a new poetic language. Each poem arranges words on a single page, like a poster. The reading order is left largely up to the spectator. The poems mix nouns referring to things seen with nouns referring to the reactions of the invisible lyrical subject.

I and the Chicago artist Daniel Mellis have finished an English-language recreation of Tango with Cows, and are about to release it as a limited-edition artist’s book. Our artist’s book comes in a box which also contains an exhaustive commentary on the typography, language, and the cultural background of the poem, as well as facsimiles of related typographic materials. We are looking for a publisher to do a more bare-bones trade edition.

“Constantinople” recalls Kamensky’s tourist impressions of that city. Or rather, it recreates them. He visited Constantinople around 1905, but parts of the poem allude to events he encountered in newspapers just before 1914. The impressions are visual and also aural. The poem looks as if it maps out a city space; however, it is a space filled not just with sights but also with sounds, from the cries of seagulls to exotic names, and from children’s invective to a come-on in agrammatical Turkish. A naïve reader might mistake a great deal of it for Russian Futurist zaum, or abstract sound poetry.

The Cubist language of the poem imposes cuts on words, fractures them into planes by repetition and variation, and recombines parts of words to build other words. Although the poem lacks a single order of reading–nor do we have evidence that Kamensky ever performed it out loud–it pulsates with sound repetitions. Repetitions convert its word lists into the sonic counterparts of Cubist planes, with each word turning into a formal variation of the one above it.

For example, in the original the center of the word “Constantinople” generates diminishing, mostly meaningless echoes–“stanti / stani / stai / sta,” like signs of speed on a Futurist painting. Yet the third item means “flocks”, and the Russian for stork, aist, is embedded in the series anagrammatically. Divided into syllables, the words for “fezzes” and “coffee” transform into one another (as a translator, I had to use the obsolete plural “fezes” and “café” to get the effect). Most spectacularly, the wharves are represented by a double nesting rhyme—“matrosy / trosy / osy” (literally: “sailors / cables / wasps”)—which, after much hesitation, became the lukewarm “loaders / odors / oars.”

The modularity of Kamensky’s language, whose words become sequences of letters that may be separated, switched, or permuted at will, with meaning appearing just as accidental as it is intentional, is what makes “Constantinople” so important for my own poetic practice. Even more vital for me is the related Futurist concept of the sdvig, or (broadly) formal dislocation that enacts a semantic shift, where the reader suddenly sees the same form from another angle, as in “ko / fe / zki “ (ca / fe / zes). My poetry has been described as “translingual” in that it mixes languages, and–more importantly–in that in looks at English expressions from an oblique angle, with the eye of a nonnative speaker.

Virtually everything I write is a pun in some way or another. Punning treats words as things: as objects lying outside us, whose expression of our interiority is heavily mediated by their own laws. It suggests that form generates content and that form is semantically polyvalent, two positions that ought to be at odds. Above all, punning asserts untranslatability—that utterances can’t be converted into other utterances, whether interlingually or intralingually, without any semantic change (or sdvig) taking place. I think that poetry—or at least some poetry, including mine—is a way of speaking that subscribes to the Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis that material aspects of a language influence thought.

Kamensky’s ferroconcrete poems, like the concrete poetry that originated in 1950s Brazil, have influenced my understanding of translingualism. It is no accident that the first ever ferroconcrete poem, “Constantinople,” reenacts the experience of linguistic disorientation that comes during a visit to a foreign city. Linguistic disorientation fills the poems of my new book, The Feeling Sonnets, which is out from Carcanet and forthcoming from NYRB Poets in October 2022. The questions that The Feeling Sonnets ask—about the role that language, and nonnative language in particular, plays in shaping one’s emotions, interpreting the emotions of others, and representing one’s putative identity or history—are not the same questions that were usually posed by twentieth-century avant garde poets. But the way I ask these questions was made possible by their linguistic experiments.

Writing Prompt

Kamensky’s “ferroconcrete poems” react to the words-in-freedom language proposed for poetry by the Italian Futurists. Compose a poem in that language. Words-in-freedom poetry arbitrarily mixes terms referring to objects in the world with terms referring to the speaker’s reaction to such objects. It focuses on sounds, colors, and other sensations of the speaker, but it also admits loosely metaphorical associations. A words-in-freedom poem may include only nouns and verbs in the infinitive; any adjectives or adverbs, if admitted, may not be used as modifiers. Conjunctions are to be discarded or, at best, replaced by mathematical signs. You may include onomatopeias of your own making. Furthermore, you may use as great a variety of fonts as you wish, and you should think of the arrangement of words on the page as another way to make both rhythm and meaning.
Eugene Ostashevsky

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Una Ostashevsky

Eugene Ostashevsky

Eugene Ostashevsky is a poet and translator. His most recent collection, The Feeling Sonnets, analyzes the relationship between emotions and non-native language. His previous book, The Pirate Who Does Not Know the Value of Pi, discusses the challenges of communication between pirates and parrots. His many translations of experimental literature in Russian include OBERIU: An Anthology of Russian Absurdism and Alexander Vvedensky’s An Invitation for Me to Think