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A Virtuoso Performance: Speakers from the 2016 William H. Gass Symposium, Part II

An image of William Gass, older and with white hair, looking into the camera.

In addition to talks addressing William Gass’s roles as reader, translator, and advocate for international writing, the 2016 William H. Gass Symposium featured multilingual poetry readings. The symposium included an introduction by Gerhild Williams, followed by readings of Rilke poems and Gass’s translations from Matthias Göritz and Mary Jo Bang, and poetry by  Ph.D. candidates in the track for international writers Kārlis Vērdiņš and Katja Perat.

Washington University professor and vice-provost Gerhild Williams expressed gratitude toward William Gass and Lorin Cuoco for their establishment of the International Writers Center, an organization that aimed to “introduce the writer to the reader” (and which Williams initially conceived of, in 1989). She introduced the featured poets with an examination of Gass’s exploration of Rainier Maria Rilke, long considered one of the densest German-language poets. Through readings of Rilke–Williams explained–Gass guided his students through issues of epistemology and aesthetic theory until he ultimately realized his deep dissatisfaction with current translations. This dissatisfaction led Gass to compose his own translations, which led to his 1999 book Reading Rilke.

Gass extolled Rilke for pushing “into the realm of forms where language glows as ghosts glow.” As Williams illuminated, Gass played a similarly critical role in the development of fellow reader-writers, “moving across languages, media, and political difference” to produce stunning worlds of language.

Poet and Washington University professor Mary Jo Bang and novelist and William H. Gass Fellow Matthias Göritz followed the introduction with readings of Rilke’s poems “Autumn,”  “Self Portrait 1906,” and “The Lace II.” The two alternated between Göritz reading the original German and Bang reading Gass’s translation. Bang then read “Puppet Theater” in English translation only. The alternating between German and English followed with “Requiem for a Friend” and “Torso of an Archaic Apollo.”

Latvian writer and translator Katja Perat introduced her poems with a sly reflection on the importance of reading as a writer: “Slovenia is known as the country with the largest number of poetry collections published each year…I think more than half of those collections are self-published, because Slovenia–apart from being the country of poets–is the country where everybody writes but almost nobody reads.” She began by reading a poem in Slovenian without an English translation, encouraging listeners to absorb the sound of the language “as if it was music.”

Slovenian poet and critic Kārlis Vērdiņš began with a similarly sly introduction: “I write extremely simple poems about sex and violence, so I tried to choose some that were suitable for the academic public.” He began with a poem entitled “Lies” which suggested a certain subtext–that of skillful crafting via believable “intonation”–that spoke to the symposium’s interests in reading, language, and learning between the lines. Like Perat, Vērdiņš also read a poem in his native Latvian language, asking readers what they were able to pick up from the poem’s tone, repetition, and structure prior to understanding what the words themselves meant. He then read the same poem translated into English, both complicating and elucidating the reader’s poetic imagination.

Stay tuned for more posts with materials from the 2016 William H. Gass Symposium! In the meantime, please explore the Modern Literature Collection digital exhibit on William H. Gass, The Soul Inside the Sentence.