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Poets Celebrate Genius of Whitman--and Their Multilingual Selves

November 25, 1987|PENELOPE MOFFET

A rotund, bearded man in a soft brown hat stood behind a lectern in a small conference room at the Pacific Symphony Center in Santa Ana Monday night. "I celebrate myself," he said softly. Then, a little louder, "I celebrate myself." And again, with more assurance: "I celebrate myself--and what I assume you shall assume, for every atom belonging to me, as good belongs to you."

John Grapes, an actor from Los Angeles, continued his portrayal of Walt Whitman reading from his masterpiece, "Song of Myself," and was followed by Florinda Mintz-Yoder reading Spanish translations of the poem, as done by the late Argentine Jorge Luis Borges in 1969.

And so began the first in a series of free "Conciertos de la Palabra" ("Concerts of the Word")--the only series in Southern California, according to the participants, that is offering poetry in English-to-Spanish translations. The readings will be sponsored once every two months by the Orange County Branch of the Ibero-American Writers Society (SIADE).

The readings are intended to help "bring both peoples, both communities (English and Spanish-speaking) to the same place, (to) know each other," according to Mintz-Yoder, who is directing the series.

"The general public still thinks Hispanics are ignorant," she said. "There's a stereotype of the poor immigrant from Mexico (who speaks little English)."

But many Latino immigrants "have two languages," she said, "and we use both of them."

Mintz-Yoder, a poet who was raised in Buenos Aires and who came to the United States six years ago, said she selected Whitman to start the series because she has been impressed by Whitman's "very positive way of seeing life and also of seeing yourself" ever since she was 18 and first read "Leaves of Grass," in which "Song of Myself" is the central poem.

"He identified himself as a different being, as an individual within the society and in relationship with nature," she said.

To Latin American writers, she added, Whitman represents "the image of freedom, (and) the unity of races."

Grapes--who read from a crumpled, aged-with-coffee photocopy of the poem's 1855 edition, jokingly calling his copy "the original text"--seemed to breathe and boom his way into his role as Whitman, taking some poetic license with the words as his eyes traveled from face to face in the small audience.

Occasionally, he added sound effects: Proclaiming near the poem's end that "I too am not a bit tamed--I too am untranslatable, I sound my barbaric yawp over the roofs of the world," he demonstrated the yawp fiercely enough to make a few listeners jump.

"This reading tonight was the best I'd ever heard" of the Whitman poem, said John Brander, a Long Beach lawyer who also edits "California State Poetry Quarterly."

Grapes, Brander said, read the poem "the way I read it in my mind."

Meanwhile, Paul Fernando of Santa Monica, a Venezuelan-born writer who has been in the United States four years, said he appreciated the Spanish translation. The SIADE readings are "very important," Fernando said.

Music by U.S. composers, folk songs and hymns punctuated the poetry readings, and a post-poem discussion enlivened by champagne concluded the two-hour session.

Grapes, who is a poet, playwright and teacher as well as an actor, said he has long been interested in adapting Whitman's writing into material for a one-man show. The Santa Ana performance was "a good chance to just kind of get my feet wet in the experience" of performing the poetry, he said.

"Song of Myself," he continued, is "one of the great sequences in modern poetry, and it's still ahead of its time. To me it's real clear that (Whitman) is saying to the poets of the future, 'We must create something new, a new speech, a new poetry, new thoughts.' Every American poet must someday come to grips with Whitman.. . . In the last five or six years, my (poetry) has become more muscular, and I think it's because of (reading) Whitman and other poets who are Whitmanesque."

Whitman, Grapes added, was "a strange guy," a journalist with interests in phrenology (the analysis of character through the study of bumps on the head) and the abolition of slavery.

He said: "There's nothing in his (pre-"Song") writings that would make you say, 'Oh, this guy's going to be a great poet someday.' That should be a comfort to all poets, that if you have genius and greatness within you, it can leap out at any time.

"He translates into Spanish very easily," Grapes said. "American poets by and large do not write with the vigor, with the intensity, with the passion, with the song that Whitman did. But Spanish poets do."

Mintz-Yoder--who has published a bilingual book called "10 Contemporary American Poets" through Puertas Press, which she founded--helped last year to start the Orange County branch of the 5-year-old Los Angeles-based SIADE, whose members are mostly writers from Latin America and Spain. The "Conciertos de la Palabra" series continues Jan. 27 with two Los Angeles writers, Laurel Ann Bogen and Sylvia Rosen. An April reading will feature work by Jorge Luis Borges.

On Nov. 30, poets Elliot Fried and John Brander will give an English-only reading.

All these readings are free and open to the public at the Pacific Symphony Center, 115 E. Santa Ana Blvd., Santa Ana.

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