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International Whitman Week (and reunion!) 2010

Bojana Acamovic, Elma Porobic, and Karen Karbiener in front of the site of International Whitman Week 2010 (Universite de Macerata, Italia)
Bojana Acamovic, Elma Porobic, and Karen Karbiener in attendance at International Whitman Week 2010
(Universite de Macerata, Italia)
A goal that I set forth for the graduate seminar  “Whitman: The Global Perspective” (U. Novi Sad, Fall 2009) was that we as a class would contribute– not just read, write, and think about–  Whitman’s worldwide impact on culture, politics, and society.  They were therefore asked to submit their papers for consideration to the International Whitman Week Conference, held in a different world site each year.  This prestigious conference invites applications from graduate students around the world, twenty of whom are selected for participation (as well as free housing, excursions, and other perks).  The last two days of the conference are reserved for lectures from Whitman scholars.  I am so very pleased and immensely proud to share the news that two of my students were chosen to participate in this year’s conference in Macerata, Italy: Elma Porobic was one of the twenty in the Whitman ‘think tank’, and Bojana Acamovic presented her paper (i.e., her final translation project for our class) among top scholars in the final sessions!  This is the first time there were any representatives from the ex-Yugloslavia region at Whitman Week, and Elma and Bojana both contributed richly and benefit greatly from the discussions and camraderie of the conference.  As I was also a participant (and delivered two talks, one of which on the subject of teaching Whitman in Serbia on the Fulbright), we three enjoyed a very happy reunion in Italy this June.
Continue reading International Whitman Week (and reunion!) 2010

Going Global with Walt Whitman

I am absolutely delighted to announce that two of the students of “Walt Whitman: The Global Perspective” have been selected to participate in the Third International Walt Whitman Week, to be held this year at the University of Macerata, Italy. Elma Porobic is one of the twenty graduate students selected from a worldwide pool of applicants to take part in the seminar; Bojana Acamovic will be presenting her paper: “Can ‘Calamus 9’ Matter?: Reading and Translating Whitman” among Whitman scholars in the final days of the conference. Elma and Bojana will be the first ever participants in the conference from the territories of ex-Yugoslavia. These talented scholars are full of promise, and I am so very pleased that they will contribute to the conversation and camraderie of this wonderful event.

Looking forward to our reunion in Macerata, Bojana and Elma!




Walt in the Balkans: the Novi Sad cinepoems

In the fall of 2009, I taught a graduate seminar entitled “Walt Whitman: The Global Perspective”, as a Fulbright Fellow at the University of Novi Sad, Serbia. Though the University of Novi Sad had not offered a graduate seminar in poetry—much less Walt Whitman— since anyone could remember, despite the generally felt  “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy on sexuality and skepticism regarding American propagandistic voices (like our dear Walt’s), I was granted approval to offer a s course focusing on the radical, revolutionary poetics of the 1860 edition of Leaves of Grass.  Serbia is just emerging from decades of corrupt dictatorship, violence, and insularity, and proved to be an exciting testing-ground for my personal theories regarding ‘the measure of his song.’ And my small but fierce band of Whitmaniacs did not disappoint me: they participated fully and wholeheartedly, reading avidly in the new “Whitman Collection” I donated to their library (with the help of many generous individuals and corporations, including Barnes & Noble, the Library of America, Recorded Books, and the University of Iowa Press), fearlessly discussing Whitman’s boundary-breaking poems and surprising themselves with how gracefully they too could break down long-standing walls. For their final project, I required them to select a “Calamus” poem for close study and translation into Serbian.  As an illustration of how they responded, consider that three of the six chose “Calamus 9”, a subtle and daring self-analysis by any country’s standards, and one of the poems not yet translated into Serbian.

My participation in the NEH-funded “Looking for Whitman” project enabled me to introduce my Serbian students to Whitman as a poet of global reputation and application, and also connected them to other students in Whitman seminars across the US.  Grant funds provided for the introduction of new technologies in our classroom, ensuring that each student would have access to a Flipcam as well as a specially trained assistant (our own beloved Dragan Babic, a senior at the University of Novi Sad).  As a way of encouraging their use of these resources as well as their creativity, I asked each student to design a “cinepoem” that would both verbally and visually represent the translation he or she had composed as part of their final project.  Though all of them worked through frequent internet outages, some were subject to the availability of public computers, and none of them had ever seen a Flipcam before, they each mastered the technology and produced surprisingly professional—and moving—short films.  All of their efforts are viewable on our “Video Map”– the link’s just at the top of this page.

Each of these videos is quite different in style and tone, though they all seem to combine the makers’ deep-rooted love of their country with their new passion for Whitman.  Neda found new freedom of expression in the video mode, as her provocative (even sexy) interpretation of “Calamus 11” demonstrates.  Josip kept the imagery simple and straightforward, preferring to let his translation of “Calamus 6” speak for itself.  Sanja’s visual interpretation of “Calamus 9” invites contemplation, while  Bojana’s setting of the same poem is a Whitmanic celebration of Belgrade, her beloved hometown.  Indira’s translation of “Calamus 22” is recited by a wonderful collective of Serbs young and old (including her toothless grandfather), creating a video montage of overwhelming emotional impact.  And Elma, a resident of beautiful war-torn Sarajevo who commuted seven hours to our class (each way) each week, offered a powerful raison d’etre for poetry: it keeps us burning.  Images of Sarajevo’s “eternal flame” segue to Elma’s candlelit reading of “Calamus 9.”

Can poetry matter?  As part of their final project, I asked my students to respond to Dana Gioia’s controversial 1992 essay.  Each of the recent poetry converts gave a well-reasoned and enthusiastic affirmative response, and I found myself happily nodding along with them.  Poetry really does matter, as I witnessed firsthand bringing Walt Whitman to Serbia.  He sounds as true, beautiful, and useful in the Balkans as he does on my own Brooklyn Bridge.  Walt, wherever you are, it must do your heart good to know that we’re all still listening, still learning.

You, where you are!
You daughter or son of England!
You of the mighty Slavic tribes and empires! You Russ in Russia!…
All you continents of Asia, Africa, Europe, Australia, indifferent of place!
All you on the numberless islands of the archipelagoes of the sea!
And you of centuries hence, when you listen to me!
And you, each and everywhere, whom I specify not, but include just the same!
Health to you!  Good will to you all—from me and America sent,
For we acknowledge you all and each.

(from “Salut Au Monde!”, 1860)

The Cambridge companion to Walt Whitman

The Cambridge companion to Walt Whitman, edited by Ezra Greenspan is a useful aid to all Whitman scholars and everyone interested in knowing more about Walt Whitman. This is an assembled group of essays that demonstrates a broad variety of responses to Whitman’s poetry. And at the beginning of the book there is a convenient chronology list indicating all the important facts of Whitman’s life.

Ezra Greenspan talks about the celebration and commemoration of Whitman all around the world. And there is something special in the way that these conferences are held, each in its own way. But, Greenspan claims that Whitman is a true New York poet. He is a celebrator of diversity, poet of ferries and bridges and a master of self-advertising. And furthermore he is a poet of the spoken word, a master of spoken arts. That is why there is something appropriate about the public readings of Whitman in New York City.

Even more interesting to Greenspan is the fact that Whitman always has a wide span of audience. He doesn’t limit himself to America only but spreads the word all over the world, and because of that he is a true global poet. Even the future readers and the “poets to come” are included. That is why he was never fit for the established cultural models. In this context he wanted to ensure an afterlife for himself by recording his own voice while reading his poem America. And in that sense, Ezra Greenspan collected these essays to reflect the variety of Whitman’s audience and diversity of readings. The view points are various, some are interpreting the I-you relationship, Whitman’s interest in the new arts, some deal with the influence on feminist movements, or on Latin America.

This book is a gift for the University of Novi Sad from Karen Karbiener and her WhitmaniaNS.


This is the translation of the ">Calamus6 and the video of me reciting it.

I had some problems uploading it, but I hope you can all view it fine.


And finally it is done!

After planning, changing, deciding, it is finally finished… I must say that it was more fun filming it than it is watching it. Almost like I’m sorry it is all over.

Calamus 22

The scenes are not taken only in one place, but in towns, cities and villages in Vojvodina. People in the video are some of my closest friends and family as well as people I’ve just met. They are of all ages, of different nations,  because there are no discriminations to people who can significantly alter you life. That stranger who can mean the world to you could be…just ANYONE.

Budući Pesnici!: Translating the Untranslatable Barbaric Yawp with Dragan Purešiću

Though Whitman never learned to speak or write in anything besides English, he loved the sounds of other languages.  Walt announces himself no ‘dainty dolce affettuoso’; his ‘vivas’ are blown through his ’embouchures’ from ‘Paumanok’ to ‘Mannahatta.’  Though he claims that the United States have veins “full of poetical stuff,” he gave a French titles to one of his most important clusters of the third edition (“Enfans d’Adam”).  He encouraged his readers to think globally by integrating what must have been exotic foreign phrases in nineteenth-century America, from ‘tabounschiks’ to ‘teokalllises.’

–but Walt, did you ever consider how fluid and strong and beautiful all of these words would sound… in Serbian?

Sati protiču dugi, mučni i teški,

Sati u suton, kada se povlačim na neko osamljeno i

Pusto mjesto, sjedam, naslanjajući lice na ruke…

That is Elma Porobic’s stunning translation of the first lines of Calamus 9.  Those of you who can read Serbian will not just note her sensitive treatment of Whitman’s language, but her ear for his music.  Elma is one of my six students in “Walt Whitman: The Global Perspective”, and one of three that have chosen to absorb, translate, and interpret Calamus 9 as her final project.  Sanja Stanimirovic offers a different perspective on Whitman’s emotional opening:

Sati teku dugi, bolni i tegobni,

Sati u sumrak, kada se povlačim na neko samotno mesto, retko pohođeno, sedam i zarivam

lice u šake…

And then we have Bojana Acamovic’s nuanced reading:

Sati teku dugi, bolni, nesrećni,

Sati sutona, kada se povlačim na usamljeno i pusto mesto, kada sedam, spuštam lice u šake…

Indira Janic brings another level of meaning to Calamus 22 (later “To a Stranger”) by interpreting him using the Cyrillic alphabet:

Странче у пролазу! Ти не знаш колико те чежљиво гледам…

Neda Kosoric has diligently labored to resolve interesting questions regarding the use of gender in Serbian, in her translation of Calamus 11:

…i njegova ruka lagano prebacena preko mojih grudi,

i te noci ja bio sam srecan.

And Josip brings passion and intensity to Calamus 6 as he continues to try to wrestle down a Serbian word for a distinctively Whitmanic term:

Ne s bilo kim niti sa svima, O adhesiveness! O bȉlo mog života!

Potrebno mi je da postojiš i prikazuješ se, više no u ovim pesmama.

Dragan Purešić, Karen, Indira, Sanja, Neda, Bojana, and Elma: united we Whitmaniacs stand!

Dragan Purešić, Karen, Indira, Sanja, Neda, Bojana, and Elma: united we Whitmaniacs stand!

On Saturday 12 December, we were honored to welcome the esteemed translator Dragan Purešić to our classroom at the University of Novi Sad.  In addition to his crucial contributions to the success of the Serbian Book Market Project (see http://www.ceebp.org/book-market.htm for more info), Dragan has published noteworthy translations of the works of William Blake (Belgrade: Plato, 2007) as well as Walt Whitman (Belgrade: Plato, 2008).  He presented us with a memorable lecture on the art of translation, describing some of the challenges he faced when interpreting Whitman’s words for the Serbian people.  “The poem is an artistic entity,” he reminded us.  “The translator is both an artist and an artisan.”  Quoting freely and fluidly from works as wide-ranging as Lessing’s “Laocoon” and “The Godfather Part III”, he charged us with the significance and the perils of our task at hand.  And he inspired us.  “Blessed be the messengers,” he said.  Whitman sounds really good, really true and beautiful, in Serbian.

Ringed round by Dragans: Whitman's women!

Ringed round by Dragans: Whitman's women (don't forget Indira, behind the lens!)

Dragan then led a translation workshop (which was further enhanced by the contribution of Novi Sad faculty members Vladislava Gordic Petkovic, Ivana Djuric, and Aleksandra Izgarjan).  We pored over Whitman’s language: what’s the connotative difference between being “content” and “happy”, as we see these terms used in Calamus 9 and 11?  What is behind the unusual statement “I am to wait” at the end of Calamus 22, and how can one achieve that feeling in Serbian?  And when Whitman asks, “I wonder if other men ever have the like” (Calamus 9), does the use of  the idea of  ‘mankind’ deny the poem’s true meaning or enhance its applicability?  Dragan offered suggestions and asked thoughtful questions of all of us; all of us responded and questioned our own understandings of Whitman’s words and intentions.

We strolled out of Classroom 37 three hours later, with full hearts and minds.  You see, Dragan knows Walt Whitman.   He ‘gets’ the poet in a fluid and intuitive way, in addition to possessing a finessed scholarly knowledge of  Whitman’s life and work.  And Dragan communicated his love and understanding for Whitman to us with honesty and passion, encouraging and helping shape our responses to these elusive Calamus poems.

In a few weeks, you will be able to listen to my students’ final versions of their Calamus translations on our “video map” (just swing the pointer a bit east of Walt’s usual stomping-grounds).  You, too, will be able to enjoy the benefits of Dragan’s sensitive tutelage– as channeled by this outstanding, unforgettable collective of new Serbian Whitmaniacs.

Hvala, Dragan! Vidimo se, Josip, Indira, Elma, Bojana, Sanja, Neda, and faithful right-hand man Dragan!

…I ostavlja vama da dokazujete i određujete,

I glavne stvari očekuje od vas.

(the rousing challenge of “Poets to Come”, as delivered by Walt Whitman and Dragan Purešić)

The development of the ”Hours continuing long” a.k.a. Calamus 9


“Hours continuing long” is the eight poem of the twelve poem sequence Live Oak, with Moss, that Whitman wrote some time in the period between 1856 (second edition of the Leaves of Grass) and 1859, when the poems were ‘neatly copied’ in a notebook  by the abovementioned title. The sequence tells of the love affair that the poet had with another man and was never published; instead, Whitman tore it apart into individual poems, revised some of them and shuffled them and included them among the other poems of the 1860 Calamus cluster.

As for the reason why Whitman did this, the reasons are still in the vague area of speculations. There exist many theories concerning this issue, yet nothing can be claimed for sure. In any case, the poems were scattered around the Calamus cluster, which indicates that they were important for Whitman, but they were so jumbled, which further indicates that he had his reasons why he wanted to obscure the narrative behind the sequence. Without going further into the motives for this specific treatment of the poems, the fact remains that they were ‘hidden’ among the other Calamus poems for a long time – for nearly a century – until Fredson Bowers found a connection between the poems, while working n the Valentine Collection of Whitman’s manuscripts, now the property of the University of Virginia (then the property of Clifton Waller Barrett (Parker, Hershel) and reconstructed the sequence. He published his findings in Studies in Bibliography in 1953, and then in Whitman’s Manuscripts: Leaves of Grass (1860):A Parallel Text  in 1955. After that, the sequence was mainly neglected until 1990s.

“Hours continuing long” is, as I have already mentioned, the eight poem of the Live Oak, with Moss, which in 1860 edition of Leaves of Grass became Calamus nine. It is a bleak, dark poem which deals, among other things, with the aftermath of the love affair that ended badly.  The affair here mentioned, Alan Helms claims, was with one Fred Vaughn, a young man who lived with Whitman in early 1850s and their break up had a very strong influence on the poet.

Calamus 9 had a fairly strange destiny, even when compared with the already strange destinies of the other poems of the sequence. Firstly, it was not revised – the 1860 version of the poem that appeared in the Leaves is identical with the 1859 manuscript version. Whitman changed nothing for the purpose of publication, which is not case with most of the other poems of the sequence. On the other hand, he did not really need to, because the 1860 edition was the only one that contained the ”Hours continuing long”. After the third edition, Whitman decided to exclude the poem from all the subsequent editions, and the motives for such an act remained a mystery even today.

Even though the “Hours continuing long” have not been given the same kind of ‘publicity’ as some of the other poems of Whitman’s ,  I think it lends itself to interpretation, and I find it indicative of the linguistic, cultural and emotional issues that had a profound impact on Whitman’s poetics

…an early visit from jolly old St. Walt!

Seeing double? It’s not the holiday punch– it’s Darrel Ford, Whitman’s living doppelganger.

Walt Whitman?  Santa Claus?? Darrell Ford??? I'm getting BUTTERFLIES  just trying to put my finger on the truth...


Calamus 22, a Serbian translation (draft)

Calamus 22  (To a Stranger)

PASSING stranger! you do not know how longingly I
look upon you,
You must be he I was seeking, or she I was seeking,
(It comes to me, as of a dream,)
I have somewhere surely lived a life of joy with
All is recalled as we flit by each other, fluid, affec-
tionate, chaste, matured,
You grew up with me, were a boy with me, or a girl
with me,
I ate with you, and slept with you—your body has
become not yours only, nor left my body mine
You give me the pleasure of your eyes, face, flesh, as
we pass—you take of my beard, breast, hands,
in return,
I am not to speak to you—I am to think of you
when I sit alone, or wake at night alone,

I am to wait—I do not doubt I am to meet you
I am to see to it that I do not lose you.


Странче у ПРОЛАЗУ! Ти не знаш колико те чежљиво гледам,

Ти мора да си онај којег сам тражио или она коју сам тражио (дође ми као у сну,)

Негде сам сигурно живео радостан живот с тобом,

Сећање се вратило док се мимоилазимо, непостојани, нежни, чедни, сазрели,

Одрастао си са мном, био дечак са мном или девојчица са мном,

Јео сам са тобом и спавао са тобом – твоје тело је постало не твоје само и моје тело није остало моје само,

Уживам у твојим очима, лицу, телу док се мимоилазимо, а ти у мојој бради, недрима, шакама заузврат,

Ја не треба да говорим са тобом – ја треба да мислим на тебе када седим сам или кад се будим ноћз сам,

Ја треба да чекам – ја не сумњам да треба да те сретнем опет,

Ја треба да се постарам да те не изгубим.

This is just a draft version, but it was a great challenge  to translate Whitman’s poetry. It is even more interesting to see him written in Cyrillic! Some of the problems I encountered was the translation of the construction I am to. The to infinitive could be regarded as a future action (like will) as well as an imperative mood (instead of should), the trouble was to decide what Walt wanted to say. Maybe someone out there has some suggestions?

History of Calamus 22

First time the poem To a Stranger was presented to a reading audience was in a 1860 edition of “Leaves of Grass”, under the name of Calamus 22. From that very edition down to the last “Death-bed” edition the form of the poem hasn’t changed much. Or should I better say that there are no striking changes…

There are a few dashes in this first publication of the Calamus poems, and Whitman decided to change this when he published his Calamus poems for the fourth time in the 1881-82 edition of “Leaves of Grass”.  The dashes made really nice pauses, almost like they’re saying “don’t stop now, wait ’till you hear this!”. Walt Whitman was a true visualistic person, so other than giving the poem a good rhythm, it also looked good.

The whole word passing at the beginning of the poem is capitalized, and I like the way this gives importance to the fact that he is just passing by. It is giving meaning to the moment, emphasizing that things are passing right by, that we have to stop and think, seaze the moment. Carpe diem! It also presents a classical romantic idea that everyone have their pair somewhere in the world. And like the legend says we are ment to look for that other part of us for eternity. The period of Whitman’s life and love with Fred Vaughan, his first known lover, was quite influential on his poetry at that time. He was just opening up, expressing his true feelings for the first time, not hiding anything. Completely exposed.