By Poetry Editors Marina Dora Martino and Helena Fornells
Putting the EAL Special Feature together for the eighth issue of The Scores has been an incredibly enjoyable and enriching process. For the occasion, we have read the work of over a hundred poets who conceive their poetry in English when it’s not their mother tongue.
The idea for the special feature came from the coincidence that this year, the two of us editing the poetry section of The Scores happened to be both poets writing in English as an additional language. (Marina was raised speaking Italian as well as the Veneto and Neapolitan dialects; Helena’s languages are Catalan and Spanish.)
Between ourselves, we have often discussed the difficulties that writing in another language can pose, especially when the form is one as precise as poetry. But we also talk about the beauty of it, the opportunity it gives to step out into an uncharted territory. Reading the thoughts of so many other EAL poets from all over the world, we were able to compare our experiences with those of others and to feel part of a broader community.
The implications of choosing to write in English, a language so dominant worldwide, are many and complex. In this context, reading literature written in English as an additional language provides a way to hear about non-anglophone milieus from first-hand experiences without the mediation of translation.
Putting the feature together has made us aware of how the intricacies of moving between linguistic backgrounds are mirrored in the poets’ approaches to language, their idiosyncrasies, their purposeful imperfections and unique poetic rhythms. We have seen an abundance of poems that reflect on language and its uses. Writing with more than one language at hand opens up new worlds in each of those languages, creating an ambiguous terrain in which the poet may conceive new or non-normative linguistic formulas.
One of the poets featured in the issue, JinJin Xu, wrote to us about her experience of writing in English and we would like to share her words, since they expressed eloquently a lot of the things we talked about during the editing process:
As I began learning English, I found myself exiled into a new soundscape, liberating me from the trappings of my mother tongue. […] In my new language, I found an intensely private space open for experimentation and mistakes. And yet, my existence in that space was foreign—my betrayal of my mother tongue meant I would never recognize myself within the literature I loved. So I began writing to reconcile the two languages: opening up the liminal spaces between my Chinese and English selves, finding a space within that was at once foreign and familiar, public and private. […] As I mispronounce and intentionally make unfamiliar the English language, I have learned that slippage can unleash words from their boundaries, that the perversion of language is beautiful and necessary.
The reality of working and writing in another language doesn’t lack personal and professional difficulties that are worth acknowledging. Writing poetry requires a high degree of intimacy with the language in which you’re writing, and even when you reach an intimate knowledge of that language, you may still feel like an outsider within it. It can be a vulnerable and daunting position to put yourself in, to tell the world: this language is mine enough.
The selection of poems in this special feature is a small showcase of the wide diversity of voices writing in English as an additional language.
We hope that you’ll enjoy the work of these wonderful poets as much as we do.