Students, Faculty Unite with Uncommon Language

Swarthmore had its first bilingual poetry reading last week, called “Forked Tongues.” Organized by Candice Nguyen ’11 and her adviser Professor Sibelan Forrester of the Department of Modern Languages, the event drew performances from a combination of students and faculty. Both Nguyen and Forrester hope more bilingual reading events will follow.

“Forked Tongues” was held on November 5 in the Scheuer Room. Forrester devised its name while considering the “demonic temptations” of translation.

Forrester has long been interested in venues for spoken bilingual poetry. She recalled the experience of hearing Yiddish poetry at a bilingual conference: she was “amazed by how engaging and really overwhelming it was.”

Nguyen, who works on the board of the Swarthmore Literary Review, wanted to create an outlet for world literature that, in the spirit of the Review, would not be exclusive to Swarthmore students. To Nguyen, a virtue of the Review is its openness to students, faculty, and essentially anyone in the world, placing all submissions, whether world-famous poet or ambitious freshman, “on an equal level.”

Consequently, “Forked Tongues” incorporated a combination of student and faculty presentations. Students presented independently as in Brice Jordan’s ’12 reading of the German poet Rainer Maria Rilke and Mary Prager’s ’11 reading of Mexican poet Jaime Sabine. In a reading described by Forrester as “very graceful,” Professor Aman Attieh and Abigail Weathers ’10 presented the work of the Lebanese poet Khalil Gibran.

“We’re real hams,” observed Forrester of her fellow professors. These “frustrated actors” seemed particularly excited by a performance venue for their readings. Also on the program was Professor Marina Rojavin and Forrester’s reading of Russian poet Junna Morits, Professor Aurora Camacho de Schmidt’s reading of Mexican poet Enoch Cancino-Casahonda and Professor Micheline Rice-Maximin’s reading of French poet Aimé Césaire.

Forrester and Nguyen both commented on how poetry has a special dimension when spoken. “Vocalized poetry is an ancient tradition and [has] very deep roots … it makes us culturally aware,” said Nguyen, noting that some poems were presented in native dress. “Spoken poetry is extremely interactive and engaging in a way that people don’t expect.”

Spoken poetry reminds us, Forrester explained, that “every tradition of reading has a very different sound.” She illustrated this by comparing her Russian reading (“Russian tends to be very theatrical”) to her response to Rice-Maximin’s reading of Césaire, which left her “shaken…It was heartrending. The rhythm was hypnotic.”

While “Forked Tongues” was a pilot project, Nguyen and Forrester hope that next semester other students and faculty will take the initiative to organize a similar event. Ideally this would involve not only the Modern Languages Department but other departments as well, including Classics and Linguistics.

In the interim, Forrester encouraged students interested in submitting original work in another language or their own translations to the Voyages literary journal. Nguyen similarly encouraged that Swarthmore students, faculty and the wider community consider submitting to or becoming involved with the Swarthmore Literary Review.

Students or faculty interested participating in any way with an event like “Forked Tongues” are encouraged to contact Forrester, Nguyen or the Department of Modern Languages and Literatures.


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