Prompt 169. Crossroads and Prank Calls
And a prompt on translation by Rena Mosteirin
We gathered with our beloved quaranpod to celebrate Jon’s birthday this weekend. It was lively in the best and most predictable ways, with Cat and Jonny bringing the wine and the bear hugs, Liz cooking a stew, and Oscar snapping at three people within the first hour. Of course the oven went out and Liz had to finish cooking on her wood stove in the living room, which made us feel like pioneers. For dessert, we had grocery store ice cream cake (the homemade apple pie—Jon’s favorite—had to be nixed) and devoured some world famous chocolate chip cookies from my beloved friend Salsa, who you may remember from Between Two Kingdoms, or her Isolation Journals prompt, or from the many times I’ve lauded her care packages. They’re the best.
After dinner, we sprawled out across couches and giant pillows on the floor and indulged a favorite pastime: prank calling. From time to time, Jon dials up one of our longtime friends, or the most famous person in someone’s contact list, or a random business, and he tries to sell them on some absurd premise. This time he called a New Orleans pizza place and said he was looking for a job—but that he could only work from 6 to 8 am and that he was hoping for a position that was under water. The man he spoke to was the world’s nicest person. “Oh, the morning shift?” he said. “I’m not sure we can swing that. But if you come in and fill out an application, we’ll see what we can do.”
That’s one of the fascinating things about the prank call (mischievous as it is): it reveals so much. About a year ago, we called two very famous authors. One—who will remain unnamed—we expected to be nice, but he was so horrible and said such nasty things that our opinion of him was forever changed.
The second was Jonathan Franzen, who’s one of those people that everyone seems to have very strong opinions about—either loving or hating his work. We called him late at night, and a woman answered the phone. Jon asked if Mr. Franzen was available, and she said, “Oh, one moment.” A second later, he was on the line. In a very strange, rather creepy voice, Jon explained that he was calling on behalf of the University of Alabama to ask if he would be open to donating an organ to the football team. Franzen responded with a very polite “no.” He went on calmly, explaining his rationale: that he thought of Alabama as the equivalent of the New York Yankees, and such a wealthy team with so many resources was not deserving of an organ. I didn’t have a strong opinion about Jonathan Franzen before, but that night placed me firmly in the camp of adoring fan.
Now a couple of updates for paid subscribers—
The fangirl in me is excited to announce Jonathan Franzen’s newest novel as our next book club pick. Crossroads is the story of a Midwestern family at a pivotal moment of moral crisis, and I’ve heard such good things. It’s been on my bedside table for a few weeks now, and I’m dying to dive in—I hope you’ll join me!
Introducing “Dear Susu.” Scheduling our November Studio Visit has been tricky because of the holidays, so we’re trying something different this month. Check out this post for instructions on how to submit questions about writing and life, and I’ll be choosing one to answer each week. You can ask me anything—about drafting, revising, book deals, my beloved scruffy rescue pups—and I’ll answer them in a Dear Sugar-style column that I’m calling “Dear Susu.”
With all that business done: Onto today’s prompt, which is from the dear and wonderful poet and bookstore owner Rena Mosteirin. It’s a fascinating one about translation, and what is lost and found in the process.
Full of love and woodstove stew,
The Isolation Journals is my newsletter for people seeking to transform life's interruptions into creative grist. Both free and paid subscriptions are available. The best way to support my work is with a paid subscription, where you get added benefits like interviews with amazing artists, behind-the-scenes tidbits from me, a book club, and other opportunities for creative community.
169. Defamiliarized English by Rena J. Mosteirin
While studying creative writing as an undergraduate, I experimented with erasures. Erasure poems typically use some canonical text as the source text, but I used the machine-generated and filter-defying gibberish of spam email as my jumping-off point. I love defamiliarized English, perhaps because I was raised in a trilingual family: my father’s family speaks Spanish and my mother’s family speaks a dialect of German.
Working with these texts was fun, especially when the grammatical errors were strange or beautiful. I found the same to be true when an online translation tool called Babelfish came out. I eagerly used this to translate poems into Spanish and then back into English again. Then I’d try taking the poem from Spanish into German and then back to English, getting a completely different result. These days I use Google Translate, and I urge my students to take their own poems through these revisionary paces so that they can re-imagine the ways in which their poems can speak.
My new book Experiment 116 takes Shakespeare's Sonnet 116 through all the languages in Google Translate (in pairs and trios) creating new variations of this beloved poem in a radically defamiliarized English. At my wedding, the officiant read Sonnet 116. This is a poem I know by heart. So why would I want to make it less familiar? Perhaps because this is a new way to read and engage with a text that I love.
I’m excited by the different possibilities for this approach to reading and writing. Authentic poetic language for the multilingual reader needs to nod to several languages and codes at once in order to be realistic, such as glimpses of a phrase half in one language and half in another, or diction correctly translated from one language combined with syntax left over from the first. These moments allow a global idiom to emerge.
Your prompt for this week:
Copy and paste a poem you love into Google Translate. Translate it from English to a different language and then back to English. Now send it through two languages—see if you can “trick” the translation program into getting different or new meanings from old, familiar words. You can also try this with some writing of your own—maybe a poem or a short piece from your journal. Let the translations suggest a different way of saying what you mean.
Then consider this question: What got lost and found in translation?
Rena J. Mosteirin wrote Experiment 116 (Counterpath Press, 2021), Half-Fabulous Whales (Little Dipper, 2019) and Nick Trail’s Thumb (Kore Press, 2008). She is the co-author of Moonbit (punctum books, 2019) an academic and poetic exploration of the Apollo 11 guidance computer code. Mosteirin is an editor at Bloodroot Literary Magazine, teaches creative writing workshops at Dartmouth College and owns Left Bank Books, a used bookstore in Hanover, New Hampshire.