It was in the summer of 2003 that I – on the spur of the moment and to my own surprise – wrote Un idioma sin fronteras, my first polyfonía. I had received an invitation to read some poems on Radio Exterior de España and – flattered and without giving it a second thought – I said yes. I had barely hung up when it struck me that they probably thought that I had written some poems in Spanish or at least had had some of my work translated into Spanish. After all, the aim of Radio Exterior de España was to promote and spread the Spanish language abroad and keep it alive among Spanish immigrants in non-Spanish-speaking environments.
Caught off-balance, I immediately set on the task of writing a poem in my host language, but when I finished the first stanza I had already used words and expressions from the three other cultures that a nomadic life had made me part of and that in turn had become part of me. My native Danish culture, the French culture of my childhood, first nest and offspring and, finally, the American culture of jazz, my lifelong musical affair.
Dentro de mí
viven cuatro personas, each
with their own voice,
sa propre langue.
Hver med sit eget sprog
og sin egen stemme.
Since the radio programme that had invited me – “Un idioma sin fronteras” – dealt with literary translinguism, I decided to pay homage to it and name my poem accordingly. This was to prove a premonitary choice: The discovery that polyfonías could serve as a proof that poetry fundamentally is “a language without frontiers” has since become the key to the development of my poetics.
My interest in orally transmitted poetry and my calling as a musician soon prompted me to start searching for musical improvisers in order to add their instrumental voices to my poetic voice. In 2004 I contacted Mark Solborg – one of the most original and sensitive musicians on the Danish improvisatory scene – to ask him to help me develop the instrumental dimension of my, still nascent, polyphonic poetry project. That fall we had the good fortune to both earn grants to the Andalusian Fundación Valparaíso in Mojácar, where we spent a month working out and recording the first nine polyfonías.
After our Andalusian sessions Mark returned to Copenhagen, and for the next three years I recited in duo with the clarinettist Salvador Vidal from Valencia, home to some of Spain’s finest reed players. When the CD-book Polyfonías was published in 2008, Mark and I invited Salvador to join us for the presentation concert. The Peter Wessel Polyfonías Poetry Project had been born.
The Medieval French Village of Conques, Homesoil of “Polyfonías”
Since we live in each our corner of Europe – Mark in Copenhagen and Salvador and I in Madrid – we have settled on a place midway for rehearsals and exchange of ideas. It would be hard to find a more ideal place for an intercultural and translingual project than Conques, spiritual watering-place on the Way of Saint James that leads through Europe to Santiago de Compostela near the northwestern finistierra of Spain. I found this town in an adolescent dream thirty-five years ago, and I consider it my creative birthplace. This is where I collect inspiration and where I wrote In Place of Absence, my second book of poetry.In Conques the herbal juices that later should yield Polyfonías started brewing.
Albeit the fact that Conques is situated on the southern banks of the Lot River, its personality is strongly redolent of the volcanic Auvergne region of Central France that administratively begins on the other side of the river. The schist, the chestnuts and the clear rapids are reflected in the cuisine, the architecture and the mentality of the Conquois. It always fascinated me how survival in this steep and narrow valley with its lush, yet austere and unforgiving wilderness depended on its dwellers’ capacity to become just as tough and stubborn as the living conditions themselves.
This observation is what I have tried to convey in my poem dedicated to Conques: one must have faith to live here, facing the rock, fighting the bramble. Whatever we do it is a losing battle. The stone remains – only superficially altered by our efforts to make a temporary abode of it on our perpetual journey to the end. I would like to think that the poems in Delta have that simple, austere and efficient architecture and that from the bottom of them can be heard the multiplicity of voices and languages that have passed though Conques.
On the occasion of the 2010 edition of the annual music festival Conques – la Lumière du Roman, our trio managed to gather the entire population of the village for a concert-reading under the magnificent lime tree whose crown gives shade to Place Chirac overlooking the church. Since then Polyfonías Poetry Project has had its home in Conques as a contemporary artistic asset of the town where little Saint Foy, martyr and majesty, still works her mischievous wonders.
There are several reasons. 1: The Greek letter delta is a triangle, and this book presents Polyfonías Poetry Project in trio-format. 2: Δ is the fouth letter in the Greek alphabet, and my poetical language nourishes itself on words and expressions from four cultures. 3: In Hebrew the fourth letter Daleth ד means “door” and you can’t pass unchanged through Conques. Hopefully Delta too will open doors in you. 4: “D” is the first letter in “Denmark”, my native country. 5: The river delta is a recurrent theme in my poems. 6: To stress my point that Polyfonías is not a mixture of languages, but a single poetic idiom, I wanted to find a title for my book which would be the same in English, French, Spanish and Danish. 7: The Origin of the World – matrix of creativity – is also surrounded by a delta of hair.
A Publisher of Choice and an Artist with a Gift for Dialogue
Publishers who love books are today a threatened species. That is why I feel very fortunate that José María Gutiérrez de la Torre, founder and director of Ediciones de la Torre in Madrid and known and respected for his erudition and commitment has offered to collaborate in the project. A great lover of poetry he is convinced that it is a language that children should be familiar with from an early age in order to keep their imagination and sensitivity alert, and the small, independent De la Torre publishing house has always dedicated special attention to poetry collections for young readers.
It was José María de la Torre who introduced me to the delicate, penetrating and at the same time passionate work of Spanish artist Dinah Salama. I was not seeking illustrations for my poems; what I was hoping was to find a graphic artist who shared some of my ethical and esthetic preoccupations and with whom I could enter into a creative dialogue. Dinah and I had both crossed many borders before we met, and when we talk we understand one another. It is this convergence between the spoken languages which is reflected in our artistic endeavors. That’s where the discovery takes place.
The Colors of Saying
Since four cultures and their languages are interwoven in my poetry, and because my relationship with each language touches upon different spheres and periods of my life, I thought it would make more sense to let four different tongues present Delta rather than translating one voice into four different languages.
Although it would be wrong to compartmentalise things too much, it probably is true that my Danish native tongue is more elementary, more in touch with the first sensations – communicates the primitive feelings in a purer state – than my other languages. I grew up in the country and my “Danish state of mind” makes me see things in a very concrete, very down-to-earth manner. Certain Danish monosyllabic words are like primary colors on my linguistic palette. Interestingly enough, in Danish the three primary colors green, red and blue all contain one of the specifically Danish letters that also have a function as lexemes : ø (which isolated means island) or å (which isolated means brook or stream).
In Delta the Danish foreword is written in green (grøn) because that was the color of the fields and lush foliage that surrounded me as a child. And, of course, many vegetables and fruits are green before they mature. In my polyfonías Danish and French are both visceral languages and therefore equally spontaneous – the first I learned as a son, the second as a father –, but the registers are not the same.
My daughter Tania was born when I was a young poet and lived as a Bohemian in Paris. After a springtime as the language of my first great love, French became my language of responsability and prise de conscience. It is my tongue of rebellion, but also of fatherhood: all the feelings, all the values and precepts that I have transmitted – first to my daughter and later, with grandfatherly indulgence, to her daughter Salomé – I have expressed in French. For them Conques will always be the garden of their childhood.
English and Spanish are languages that I have studied methodically, and partly for professional purposes, and I am constantly on some level aware of their grammar. They are my tools when I give form and structure to a poem – even when this is based on a musical fragment, which is often the case.
English was the language that my parents spoke when they didn’t want us children to understand what they were talking about, and since then English has become my language for penetrating the secrets of creation. I was an adolescent poet who only dreamt of being a jazz musician, and accordingly, since jazz was the musical language of America, I wrote my first two books of poetry in English.
Many years later, after settling down in Spain, the syntax of the American culture became the leitmotif in my endeavors as an artist and teacher. Since 1983, when I met Margarita and fell in love with her and the culture that wrought her, I build my house with the light, odors and textures of Spain and with the nostalgic, indigo and always new sounds of jazz.
I have thus selected a Danish voice to speak about my poetry from the point of view of a musically inclined person grounded in my own cultural soil, an English voice to analyse my multilingualism as an identity marker and finally a Spanish voice to speak about my project from the point of view of a lyrical rhapsodist. The Danish voice belongs to a member of my own tribe who is a long-time expatriate like myself, but with much stronger ties to Denmark and Danish traditions. Her lifelong experience a a choral singer makes her evaluation of poetry built on a polyphonic principle especially relevant. The English voice is that of a distinguished, international linguist, UNESCO consultant on literary multilingualism, and the Spanish voice belongs to a poet with a special ear for the music of poetry in natural settings – a travel mate with whom I have been exploring new territories for the dialogue between music and poetry.
Nobody except the author of this project could take upon himself the interpretation of the paternal voice in this choir of prologuists. Considering the function of an introduction, the usage of English or Spanish would no doubt have been easier for me, but since my language in the role of father is French I have written it in the color of blood*.
Peter Wessel, Madrid, March 2014
MULTILINGUALISM AND PERSONAL IDENTITY
Peter Wessel’s polyglot poetry, or, in his own words, his polyfonías project, is highly representative of the artistic expression of modern nomadic and mosaic subjects. In the framework of contemporary cross-cultural movements and migrations, multilingualism has become a basic characteristic of poetic language. It is at once a natural and an artistic way of communication, which is not marginal any more, but more and more substantial.
English may be used as a global language of practical communication, but the dialogue between a mother tongue and the other’s tongue is essential to the shaping and the expression of personal and cultural identity. Such a dialogue can take place in various manners: as a direct or an indirect dialogue, by means of translation or of allusion, by writing different languages in different texts or by mixing different languages in the same text. Peter Wessel has chosen the last type of literary multilingualism where the interlingual and transnational dialogue is most genuine for his polyfonías, first in the eponymous collection of 2008 and now further developed in Delta.
As a result of his extended and intensive wanderings through various cultural areas and eras, Peter Wessel has become a tetraglot poet who speaks and writes fluently in four languages that finally merge into one: Danish, English, French and Spanish. While Danish is his native language, English is related to his studies, French and Spanish to his relatives and their respective cultures. Three of these languages are European world languages, whereas Danish is a marginal, yet original, European language. With such a combination, Peter Wessel is an ideal European Citizen, on the brink of being a full Citizen of the World, with an eventual non-European language in sight. Music, his fifth language, may be a bridge toward that non-European language, as it serves already as a bridge between his four European languages.
On the one hand, the dialogue of languages in Peter Wessel’s polyfonías follows a bio-poetic pattern, linked to his curriculum vitae; on the other hand it is ruled by a dominant auto-poetic pattern, centered upon the creation of a new plural language. This plural language constantly reflects upon itself, as such titles as “Un idioma sin fronteras” – the programmatic poem from Polyfonías –and “Verb” and “Å, the Word” from Delta show best. Flaubert’s le mot juste, which the poet quotes in “Un idioma sin fronteras”, takes a plurilinguistic turn. Henceforth, le mot juste both offers more and demands more.
An important part of the interlingual dialogue is its mediation through music, recitation and illustration. In cooperation with other artists, like the musicians Mark Solborg and Salvador Vidal, or the graphic artist Dinah Salama, a collective and multimedial form of art has been created, renewing the ancient tradition of lyric poetry.
The arborescent illustrations which integrated both the poemario and the CD album of Polyfonías, suggesting that the various idioms of the multilingual poems be seen as the nomadic roots or branches of a new family tree of languages, have in Delta, through the visual alchemy of Dinah Salama, metamorphosed into a series of magical, uncanny tableaux of a similar ambivalence and precision as the verbal transformations of Mr. Wessel.
In fact, it seems fitting that the poet for his new quest has teamed up with a fellow Sephardic artist who, in the words af the Spanish philosopher and linguist Agustín García Calvo, deconstructs the photograph “in search for the living memory of what underlies Reality”. Yet, the predominant inspiration in Delta is verbal, vocal and instrumental. The poem “Offering” is the utmost expression of this intermedial and interlinguistic experience.
The very principle of polyglossia in Delta (as it was in Polyfonías) is that there is no basic national language. The formal (not the thematic) oppositions of native and foreign language, of norm and deviation, of source and target language become obsolete, including the corresponding typographic marks of italic and upright types.The intrinsic nature of the poemario is in fact to be polyglot, not only additionally or accidentally, but substantially and necessarily.
The inner necessity of polyglossia is confirmed by the fact that multilingual poems cannot be translated. At most, a fictive translation is possible through the translation of a given tetraglot poem into four other languages, but such a fictive translation would modify completely the linguistic structure and sense of the original. A multiple translation can only be conceived as a variation of the original poem, as a sort of tema con variazioni.
The major stylistic device of Mr. Wessel‘s poems is the meandering of meaning in the flow of polyglot sequences. This effect is achieved through the well calculated alternation of translated and untranslated passages. At first sight, the frequent translations inside the poems might be considered as merely pragmatic and didactic, or even pedantic. But their primary function is definitely a poetic one, which of course doesn’t exclude a secondary pragmatic aim. The meandering of meaning in the stream of translations throughout the poemario gives Delta a very original note.
The intratextual translations offer a kind of contrastive and creative linguistics, as they reveal the differences rather than the identities within the translatory process: differences of sound, rhythm, grammar and meaning, which add either a complementary or an antiphrastic sense to the monolinguistic structures. Furthermore, they produce the effect of a musical modulation. Beside the differences within the interlinguistic couplings, there is a permanent change in the number and distribution of the translational elements and idioms, in the translating or translated role each idiom plays. The same mobility characterizes the untranslated words. So, there is a constant “game of shifting mirrors”, as Borges would say.
Surprisingly, a suggestive word like “Ordet” (“The word”) finishes a circular poem which began with the suggestive title “Ǻ, the word”. The Danish letter and lexem Å offers a new version of Genesis, with its ambiguous Aleph and its illuminating kumi ori, “la palabra creadora, la luz, le mot universel. Ordet”.
The astonishing Danish sequences of Peter Wessel’s “polyphonic poems” are one of their secret charms. They have a stimulating effect on the reader to know more about that tongue within the quartet of tongues where it plays an important part.
Alfons Knauth is professor emeritus of Romance Philology at the Ruhr University of Bochum (Germany) and was chairman of the Research Committee „Mapping Multilingualism in World Literature“ within the International Comparative Literature Association (2007-2013). He is the author of numerous books and articles on European and Latin American Literature, on creative writing and literary multilingualism, such as Literaturlabor – La Muse au point (1986), co-editor of the encyclopedia Comparative Literature (3 vols. UNESCO-EOLSS 2010), editor of Translation & Multilingual Literature (2011) and co-editor of the volumes Imaginaire et idéologie du plurilinguisme littéraire et numérique (2014), Migrancy and Multilingualism (forthcoming), and Figures of Transcontinental Multilingualism (forthcoming). In 1981 he founded the literary review Dichtungsring (Bonn, Germany), some of whose 44 volumes are focussed on the principle of poethik polyglott, an esthetics and ethics of polyglossy.
THE HEART LANGUAGE OF POETRY
”Our native tongue is our heart language, fatuous is all foreign talk”*. If you have carried Grundtvig with you ever since you left home, as I have, you cannot avoid feeling a bit provoked by Peter Wessel’s poems, which are composed of Danish, French, English and Spanish words and phrases apparently assembled in the most haphazard way. It must, however, be understood that the poetry in these poems is nourished by a deep empathy with each of the four languages and a profound acceptance of the poverty of translation as a means to convey the poetic experience, so closely related to the epiphany of the word itself. Every language has its own history, its connotations and rhythm.
Peter Wessel has made the conscious choice to play simultaneously on all his four linguistic keyboards. A scorchingly honest choice. When you hear him read his poems out aloud it is as though the four languages turn into a four-voice composition. And when a certain idea or concept sometimes is repeated in different languages, one after the other, you feel that each new tongue adds a new tone to the harmony. With the incorporation of Spanish collage artist Dinah Salama’s sensitive, transparent and polysemantic pictures and the music of Danish composer and musician Mark Solborg and Spanish clarinettist Salvador Vidal, two more dimensions have been added to the quadrilingual polyphony. Both music and pictures continue dialoguing with the poems as they accompany them – truly a ”Gesamtkunstwerk”, to use a German word which doesn’t either have a satisfying equivalent in any other language.
As in a river delta, many things flow together in the poetry collection DELTA: not only the languages, the music and the pictures, but also reminiscences, the present moment and visions of the eternal or endless. You don’t need to spend a long time with Peter Wessel and his poetry to realize that the medieval pilgrims’ village of Conques in southwest France is of mythic significance to his life and work. One of the poems, ”Lieu de naissance”, deals with precisely that. The town, the cloister and the magnificent Romanesque church have for centuries been peopled with pilgrims on their way to Santiago de Compostela. In the poem ”Conques, la quête” Peter Wessel describes the contrast and the interplay between søgende sjæle med hus på ryggen – searching souls with houses on their back [a very apt metaphor: snails are ubiquitous in Conques, t.n.] – that move around among the solid old walls where everybody comes and goes while everything remains the same. In that poem the multilingual attains a special significance, reflecting the many tongues of the pilgrims of all times.
We Danes probably have an advantage compared to most other recipients of Peter Wessel’s poems. We feel that little pang of nostalgia whenever we hear the sound of Danish words and expressions ring out among the other languages. All of a sudden quite common words which we were so familiar with that we didn’t even pay attention to them become something vulnerable and dear. This is very moving in the poem ”Bedstefar”, dedicated to the beloved granddaughter whose only Danish word conjures up the irony and tragic loss and longing in the poet when he realizes that the only heirloom she has related to him is a single word: ”bedstefar”, grandfather, the best father. In the love poem ”Margarita” the first stanza concludes with the Danish words perle, blomst og du – perl, flower and you. These three nouns disclose the meaning of his wife`s name and the meaning of the entire poem. The three words become specially meaningful to a Danish audience standing isolated among the other languages.
Does this mean that Peter Wessel’s heart language is Danish? It probably is, but so are French, English and Spanish. Peter Wessel lets his heart talk in his poetry – and that is no doubt totally in the spirit of Grundtvig.
Birgitte Hørdum was born and grew up in Danmark, and all her life she has worked intensely with language and music. While she was studying Danish and German at the University of Copenhagen she came into contact with the world of radio through the Danish Radio’s Girls’ Choir, and in 1979 she got a job as an editor at the Danish editorial desk at the international German radio station Deutchlandfunk, which eventually became Deutche Welle. She later became the leader of the small team which called itself ”The Danish Voice from Cologne”.
Birgitte Hørdum lives in Cologne with her husband, the visual artist Hingstmartin. She divides her time between working as a freelance language consultant, speaker, translator/interpreter and her concerts with different choirs.
DELTA, THE ENDEAVOR OF THE RHAPSODIC POET
The poetic art of Peter Wessel is characterized by a minimalist and sober style and, added to this, a special talent for delivering his poems in dialogue with excellent musicians accustomed to exploring the worlds of sound, such as Mark Solborg and Salvador Vidal. His command of musical-poetic dialogue – so apparently easy, but so hard to achieve – makes Peter one of the most interesting contemporary poets.
I still recall how on one occasion he offered us a strikingly unbiased anti-definition of poetry: “Poetry is not a set of instructions for opening cans,” he announced. Thus discarding an approach that would see poetry as something purposeful and with meaning, I shall start this humble outline of his work by pointing out that his poems deploy a pattern of itineraries; departures and returns from long wandering and vital, eventful journeys. These loops of loss – of nostalgia – and the celebration of chance encounters are the poet’s strong points. Peter’s obvious preference for collective terms such as “we” and “the village” to first person singular “I” calls back the memory of some lines of his that I particularly like: …the river itself has no eye / for the singularity of drops. (From “Poem in the Rain”, Polyfonías 2008).
Because Peter Wessel has lived in so many places and cultures and has assumed the predicament which each new horizon imposes; because he knows that occupying a new mental and emotional landscape will expose him to the seeds – the words – which blow in those winds, and that from those seeds a forest of emotions will grow up which – when he eventually is obliged to push on – will cover those regions which are no longer his, yet ever present and throbbing in the languages learned, not in the classroom, but through living his life there, in situ; because the poet is aware that his survival depended on his permeability to those voices, it is in the nature of his poetry not to conceal its delicate vulnerability.
It is the sounds of those languages, their music, rather than their literal meaning which is the driving force in his poems; the mainspring which enables him to be precise without losing lyricism. By an intelligent use of multilingualism he explores the affinities of sound and meaning as well as the dissimilarities of languages.
Peter’s itinerancy updates the ramblings of the medieval jugglers, and – with a multidisciplinary approach to most anything he does – he becomes, intentionally or not, an example of the modern poet by simply doing what in reality is the oldest thing in the world: telling stories – in his case with the added interest of the dialogue between voice and instruments; a fertile co-creation with contemporary musicians. In this context we should not forget that Peter is extremely knowledgeable about jazz since this is the music he has studied, played and collected since he lived in California as a young man and that he also has promoted as a jazz festival organizer for a number of years. At present he teaches the history of popular American music as an anthropological subject.
This special approach to sounds and multidisciplinarity reminds us that music is an integral part of poetry, and viceversa. Each of the languages is affected by this co-existence which is more than a mere collaboration: perhaps a kind of fusion in unfettered intercourse resulting in an enlargement or rebirth of both of the concrete languages. Isn’t this the way the best songs were born?
In the specific field of oral poetry, Peter knows how to get the maximum effect, not only out of the meaning, but also out of the energy of the music in the words of his multi-language register. Independently of the pleasure we gain from these qualities during his recitals, we can already, while reading the poems, appreciate how the distribution of vowels and consonants on the page create a visual score. The reader who knows one, two, three or, in the case of the most fortunate, all four of Peter’s languages will also partake in the wonder of the diverse organisation of sound and meaning, and of vowel and consonant signs in the geologies of different linguistic landscapes.
One may choose to enjoy the voyage through Peter’s poems as if one was standing at a train window seeing things pass by without consciously trying to distinguish anything in particular; a convenient approach in order to better appreciate the poet’s use of the fecund possibilities of collage, the art of putting together different pieces whose mutually shared tones end up affecting each other in the complete picture of an epoch – ours – which blends everything, shakes everything, both as far as style and content is concerned, but here with feeling, with wholesome, not self-pitying nostalgia, if such a thing can be said to exist. A cracked surface which keeps splintering contained in the multiple folds of the poet’s sensibility.
Peter’s new work is entitled, DELTA. As one of the poems in the collection “On the Edge of the Word” seems to indicate, this is a hint to the mouth as the womb of the word, confluence of life and the river’s the gate to the sea. Or perhaps the concentration of concrete seminal meanings in a single letter stems from Peter’s Jewish origins on his mother’s side, I say to myself, spurred by my wild imagination: delta/daleth, mouth/gate where assimilation begins, the gate/opening/place where the psychic energy of the words is exteriorized.
Peter has always been politically engaged, and it is therefore no surprise to find an explicitly political poem in his new collection: “Greed and Gråd” plays on the fact that if you remove the adjectival suffix “-ig” from the Danish word for “greedy” (grådig) you are left with the noun gråd which means “weeping”. This is what I am in the habit of calling a “sick-of-power-poem” as opposed to the poem in praise of the gipsy street cleaner, the rhyme to Margarita, hymns to jazz or odes to the joy of returning to Conques, the Medieval French village to which he has so strong ties; where campanas, klokker, bells / no rompen el silencio. / Sólido, minéral. In- / mutable.
It is stimulating to hear, in the work of Peter Wessel, the different ways of saying a noun or a verb: the same thing inside. He is one of those poet friends of ours who culturally fertilize the place where they choose to live. It is our good luck that this place for the time being is Lavapiés, Madrid.
Thus Delta, on the edge of the word, “the cavity we all came from” (triangular matrix which gives birth to the form of the Greek letter and its intimate connections), coastal outline which limits and separates the waters, leading them further, beyond stagnation, until they break into the sea, / the great void, el mar // la mère, / den åbne mund. / Le grand vide as it is reflected in this poetry without borders and with many prosperous roots, reflecting our times. Delta, endeavor of the rhapsodist who finds in the diversity and the constant change of country his most legitimate way of living, his poem in action.
Teresa Sebastián was born and grew up in Bilbao (Spain), where she studied art. She has published three books of poetry: Óxido en Bilbao, La noche incandescente and Frágil. In 1998 Teresa Sebastián became interested in the prospect of reading her poetry in dialogue with field recordings of on-location sounds and free improvised music. For this project she has been able to obtain the collaboration of such musical trail-blazers as Suso Saiz, Luis Paniagua, Javier Paxariño, Juan Carlos Blancas, Niraj Kumar, Llorenç Barber and Chefa Alonso. She has staged readings at the Reina Sofía National Art Museum (MNCARS) in Madrid, Museo Würth, Círculo de Bellas Artes (Madrid), Teatro Español etc. In 2009 she founded, and has since directed, the annual “Poetry in Concert” series at the Museo Español in Madrid. In 2013 Teresa Sebastián directed the documentary Latidos on the work of the late videoartist Benjamín Larrea.