January 10, 2007
Peter Cole receives MacArthur ‘genius award’ for poetry
(Page 2 - Previous Page)Cole's translations are sparkling; they're neither word-for-word nor loose translations, but he takes the poem apart and then re-creates it in English. (Hebrew texts for the poems are provided online at www.press.princeton.edu).
He explains that translating can sometimes feel like detective work, and he often consults with scholars. For each poet, he includes a brief biography, and together these comprise a colorful history of the period. Shelomo Ibn Gabirol is described as "Philosopher, misanthrope and spectacular fly in the ointment of the refined eleventh-century Andalusian-Jewish elite."
Cole has written two volumes of poetry, "Rift" and "Hymns & Qualms," with another volume due out this year, along with several volumes of translated works. His own poetry is connected to the topography of Jerusalem, and at times he thought that he couldn't write anywhere else.
For years, Cole, who also speaks Arabic, tried to keep the elements of his writing, translating and publishing work separate, but he has come to find the way each informs the other to be very exciting. His own politics quietly appear in his poems and are reflected in the work of the press.
He founded Ibis Editions in 1998, along with his essayist/biographer wife, Adina Hoffman, and their partner, poet Gabriel Levin. With close to 20 titles in print, the press -- so named because the ibis in Egyptian mythology represents Thoth, scribe to the gods -- is "a reincarnation of the Andalusian model" with cross-fertilization of cultures. It publishes English and bilingual editions, and hopes to add Turkish to the list of languages.
"We're devoted to bringing these voices into the world -- they come from a place of light and vision that is endangered in the current matrix of Israel and Palestine," he said.
When the work is described as idealistic, he asserts that it's based in realism, that it might serve an ideal but that the work is physical and tactile, with much lugging of boxes.
"It's important that a sense of hopefulness be grounded in things, in texts, so that there's physical evidence of what we're talking about, not simply hope."
Cole, who has won a Guggenheim fellowship and the 2004 PEN-American Translation Award, as well as prizes from Times Literary Supplement and the National Endowment for the Humanities, says that winning the MacArthur won't change his plans. He and his wife are writing a book for Nextbook on the Cairo Geniza, and he has plans to teach at Yale.
"The thing I'd like to do most is to carve out some time for my poetry," he said.
Sandee Brawarsky is book critic for The Jewish Week.
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