08 May, 2019

Meet the Veep


Expressing myself in writing has always come more easily for me than for the average person, but effective face-to-face communication is trickier. I joined ERDCC's Gavel Club because Toastmasters International (with which Gavel Clubs are affiliated) has a sterling reputation for empowering members' development as communicators and leaders. I assumed I'd get something good out of joining. What came as some surprise, though, was others getting something good from me joining.

At last week's election there were two nominees for vice president education. According to Toastmasters' constitution, the VPE "is responsible for planning, organizing, and directing a club program which meets the educational needs of the individual members." In our club, this means maintaining a schedule of members' roles in meetings (which is tricky in prison, a volatile, protean environment requiring lots of last-minute changes), facilitating and tracking members' educational achievements, and organizing speech contests. It can get to be a lot of work.

My fellow Gavel Club members obviously trust that I'm up to the task. They elected me their next VPE. It was my first time being voted in as anything, ever. That kind of validation felt pretty good.

New executives are traditionally sworn in at the annual banquet; however, our outgoing VPE has already stepped down. As I write this, my predecessor is a free man, probably enjoying some fresh air and sunshine in bluegrass country. Nature abhors a vacuum; so do executive committees. As a result, I went from VPE-elect to sitting VPE one month early. Thank goodness he trained me, over the past three months, to succeed him. I'm glad his confidence wasn't misplaced, or I'd now be training someone else.

Not even a year after joining, I hold the Speak Easy Gavel Club's second-highest office — proof that the Toastmasters slogan, "Where leaders are made," isn't hyperbole. It's an honor and a thrill to serve.

26 April, 2019

Menu Subject to Change without Notice


Since when are there red beans in tuna salad? Come to think of it, this sausage is probably barely 15% fish. And what about the sides — cole slaw that looks like corn, macaroni and cheese bearing a striking resemblance to boiled cabbage, bizarrely fruitlike cookies?

Egad, the old switcheroo! This is a completely different meal! 

The ERDCC kitchen diverges from its posted menu with irritating frequency. Some days you trek across the yard, through pelting rain or blazing heat, having put off some important bit of personal business, anticipating one of the especially edible meals on the six-week menu cycle, only to be greeted by an unexpected smell and a surprise foodstuff. No warning was given. You just got duped.

Similarly, there are times when you're scared of the planned meal and make other arrangements, resolved not to even set eyes on, say, that inedible brake pad they call meatloaf, only to find out after lunch that the kitchen manager substituted the more palatable vegetable soup and sandwich, and that you just cooked something with canteen foodstuffs that would've been better reserved for leaner times.

This happened at Crossroads periodically — usually just with a side, such as beet-and-onion salad or corn relish, which few cared about. Fresh fruit was also substituted for cake pretty often, to the dismay of many a sweet tooth. Here, though, it's about once a week that someone with authority veers hard off-menu.

I haven't seen peanut butter in months, though it definitely remains part of the printed meal plan. Instead, we've been given bologna or scrambled egg mix on the regular. One time they slapped slices of turkey ham (something else against which my digestive system revolts) on the trays where peanut butter should've been. During my initial months here, the institution was out of black-eyed peas. Because the menu didn't reflect this, I was tricked again and again, only to wind up with trays piled with pinto beans instead, which was fine, if not ideal. I love me some dirt-flavored legumes.

This week I skipped a movie on basic cable because there was a chance that lunch's cardboard pizza would be replaced by that rare treat, a pepperoni pizza pocket. It wasn't. And while this sort of thing isn't that big of a deal, it's just another item in the long, long list of tetchy bullshit that I abide, living this life locked away.

17 April, 2019

My First Translated Poem

Deer Grove

by Wang Wei



Unpeopled, unseen mountain
Echoing with distant voices, pierced
By us returning to its depths,
Casting our refulgent selves
In spots on blue-green lichen.



* * * * *



Monday's SLU Speaker Series event brought poet and translator Aditi Machado to speak about the art of translation. She began her talk with a fifteen-minute exercise. The twenty or so ERDCC prisoners in attendance were given a 1,250-year-old poem by the Buddhist painter and calligrapher Wang Wei, then encouraged to try our hand at translating it. (We also got a crib, as, unsurprisingly, there were no readers of classical Chinese among us.) What's interesting is that even Wang Wei's original, painted on a massive horizontal scroll, has been lost to time. The earliest copy of his poem that still exists is from the seventeenth-century, itself no doubt changed many times over those 900 years. The poem's still alluring to many translators, who keep reinterpreting it in fresh ways. I understood its voice as belonging to the collective of rays of a setting sun. Others at the event adopted the perspective of the vacant mountain. One guy who'd been watching too much History Channel interpreted it as an account of alien abduction. There was much to discuss.




My relationship with translation is fraught and complex and very, very Western. I have a craving for certainty, for fidelity, for empirical, inarguable, capital-T Truth. I want the original. I want to download Wang's intentions and thoughts into my head, uncompressed and ultra high-res. As such, I want the impossible. People misunderstand and reinterpret everything, even in their own language, even in their own time. So how can anyone read a translation and say that they've experienced a particular work? No language equates to another on a one-to-one basis. There can be no "true" translation of a work, only approximations, interpretations, which are filtered through other minds before getting scrambled and remixed in our own.

The very popular Penguin Classics translations of books are so often read because they're uncontroversial, not necessarily good. The average reader doesn't become aware of the translator's role, of the tremendous difference he or she makes in a given text, until sampling multiple translations of the same title. I've read three different versions of Hugo's The Hunchback of Notre Dame (including Penguin's), but it was the gorgeous one by Catherine Liu that brought me genuine delight. Reading a work of literature in translation is like looking at a painting through someone else's prescription eyeglasses — maybe it'll speak to you, maybe it won't.

Regardless, I brought my translation of Wang back from the event to rework it a little more. This version won't win any awards, but I felt that my experience creating it, and what I learned from doing so, was worth sharing.