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Fusion Introduction

Fusion Introduction

By Kwame Dawes

This issue of Fusion has the distinction of representing our first full-blown venture into translation.  Of course a few of our issues entailed some translated work—most memorably the Balkans issue on "Home" and the Singapore special issue some months ago.  But this collaboration with Vietnamese poets is a fully translated issue, and we are extremely excited about this opportunity to showcase poems translated from various traditions of Vietnamese verse. 

The theme, "Aunts," I suspect, is a fairly unique one.  When it was determined that we would look at aunts, some of our undergraduate interns panicked at bit. Their task has always been to scour our Prairie Schooner archives to find work that somehow matches the selected theme of all our Fusion issues.  One of the first tasks in this effort is to find tangential search words that could lead us to the central theme, even if the actual word does not appear in the poem.

Nguyen Phan Que Mai, our partner curator for the work from Vietnam, was less panicked.  She had been part of the process of determining that aunts would be the theme and focus of the portfolio.  The result of this peculiar focus has been fascinating and rewarding.  As it happens, the position of the aunt in cultures world-wide is never uncomplicated and is always rich with all the stuff that comes to the surface when we think of family. 

Much of what counts as lore in my family has everything to do with aunts.  Aunts, of course, range in complexity and position in our lives as any class of close relative. They are, as several of the poems gathered here attest, evidence of an existence in our parent's life that predates us and certainly predates who we imagine our parents to be.  They also have authority over us in fairly unpredictable ways. They do not, for instance, have to like us nor do we have to like them. They have to be known through the filter of our parents, and this allows us to engage them as both part of who we are and outside of who we are.  Aunts can be substitute parents to us, peculiar and eccentric figures in our life, and often their mortality offers us some of the first opportunities we have to prepare for the loss of our parents.  In some instances, where we find it either impossible or icky to imagine our parents as sexual beings, we are, oddly, able to understand our aunts as such—the distance is helpful in that regard—without losing anything of the peculiar taboo and transgression of such considerations.  

In many of the Prairie Schooner poems, there is the peculiar phenomenon of the blood aunt and the play/make-up aunt—a phenomenon with which I am deeply familiar.  For a long time, I was not entirely sure who were my "blood" aunts (my parents' cousins and sisters) and who were my "pretend aunts" (the dearest friends of my mother and father).  In Ghana, where I was born and spent my formative years as a child, we were taught to refer to every adult who had a modicum of importance in our home as "uncle" and "aunty."  Eventually, the distinction collapsed into uselessness, especially as we grew closer to some of these aunts and uncles.  There is nothing profound here, frankly, except to say that the position of the aunt is deeply connected to our parents and the permission they give us to treat other adults as relevant to our lives, and is, in some way, responsible for who we are and how we live in the world. 

The theme has therefore created a lovely issue of Fusion that has, built within it, an examination of the ways in which cultures intersect and diverge from each other, and the deeply emotional and defining possibilities of poetry when the subject matter has at its core, something that is intimate and that speaks to our core selves.  There are, therefore, delightful and intimate poems in this sequence that transport us into the complex world of home.   

Having had the chance to participate in some ways in the translation of the Vietnamese poems, I gained a deeper fascination with the work that emerges in this special Fusion.  The poems from Vietnam are beautifully rendered in English and I have, on good authority, that they are matching well the sensibilities of the originals.  We have not sought to replicate the formal strictures of the work in Vietnam, but we have introduced other formal practices in English that seek to, in some way, reflect what the poets have done in the Vietnamese originals.  I have been reminded of just how important these acts of translation and conversation are, and I hope that we can continue to do this same work in the future. 

A brief comment should be made on one of the more obvious things that will strike the reader of this issue.  We felt that we were given a splendid opportunity to be reminded of the ways in which the making of poetry and calligraphy are inextricably connected in many poetry traditions, not the least of which is the tradition in Vietnam.  This issue's artwork effectively, I believe, combines the whimsical textile work of Nebraskan artist Phyllis Moore, whose work is as connected to the idea of tradition and memory as the deft calligraphy of the Vietnam poems done by master calligrapher Trinh Tuan.  The conversation here is rich, again, for the ways in which they both represent striking examples of how art seeks to speak to tradition and experience.  


Kwame Dawes

Kwame Dawes is the author of eighteen collections of poetry, most recently Duppy Conqueror (Copper Canyon Press), as well as two novels, numerous anthologies, and plays. He has won Pushcart Prizes, a Guggenheim Fellowship, an Emmy and was the 2013 awardee of the Paul Engel Prize. At the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, he is a Chancellor's Professor of English and Glenna Luschei Editor of Prairie Schooner. Dawes is the Associate Poetry Editor at Peepal Tree Press, the Series editor of the University of South Carolina Poetry Series, and the Founding Director of the African Poetry Book Fund. Dawes teaches in the Pacific MFA Program and is Director of the biennial Calabash International Literary Festival.

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