Seattle Poet Offers Epic 800 Years in the Making

KitPS_4aShota Rustaveli’s The Knight in the Panther Skin is a 12th-century epic poem from the country of Georgia. It has been largely unknown to English-speaking audiences because few translations have been produced. Those translations that have appeared over the years have opted for free verse or prose re-tellings rather than the much-more-difficult poetic translation in meter faithful to the original. Some scholars familiar with the poem have even gone so far as to say a translation that preserved the rhymes, the metaphors, the poetry and the scope of the orginal was impossible.

Now Seattle poet/author/playwright Lyn Coffin has achieved that impossible goal with her newly released translation from Poezia Press in Tbilisi. Coffin, who lives and works in Seattle’s Magnolia neighborhood, is the author of twenty-one books of poetry, fiction, drama, nonfiction, and translation (many of which are available on Amazon); she has taught writing at the University of Michigan, the University of Washington and elsewhere; and her work has appeared in The Best American Short Stories anthology which, annually, highlights the best writing in the country.

Nevertheless, Coffin may be the most accomplished writer most Americans have never heard of. That is not the case in the country of Georgia, however, where, due in part to her overt appreciation for The Knight in the Panther Skin and her faithful translations of more modern Georgian works, she is regarded as a bit of a literary celebrity. She has visited the country several times, and is celebrated when she arrives–she’s done poetry readings on Georgian television–including on her most recent visit where she was an honored guest of the Georgian government at a reception for the country’s president.

Iron Twine Press recently spoke with Lyn about her achievement with The Knight in the Panther Skin.

Iron Twine Press: How would you describe the importance of The Knight in the Panther Skin to Georgian literature and history? Is it accurate to compare its importance to Beowulf or the Iliad?

Lyn Coffin: Absolutely! This is the founding piece of literature for Georgia. This Is their national
epic, their rightful entry on the world stage. You can’t exaggerate the importance of
The Knight in Georgia.  School kids have to learn it- some every year. Most people
can quote sections of it. The proverbs in it are, well, proverbial. It is key. It is bigger
than Beowulf is for English speakers because Beowulf is almost never taught (at least
not in America, not until grad school, maybe a small section in high school). The language
of Beowulf makes it inaccessible to “normal” speakers. Georgian, being an autolect
(self-standing language), has remained remarkably the same for centuries—very little borrowing or change. As for The Iliad: it has to compete with The Odyssey. People argue about which is more important and why, and the author, “Homer” may well be a compilation. But  Shota KitPS_1Rustaveli wrote The Knight.

ITP: We see this in the Amazon description of your book: “this is the first-ever rendering of the 12th century Georgian epic ‘The Knight in the Panther Skin’ in the same poetic style as it was written.” Can you describe what that means, specifically, and help us understand why it is significant?

LC: I translated the epic in shairi, a Persian verse form. It was written in shairi, and I wanted to keep
the form. Shairi means 16 syllable lines rhymed AAAA, BBBB, etc. for 1661 quatrains. There is
high shairi and low shairi. High shairi means the same pattern on both sides of a central caesura.

High Shairi is four four (syllables) /caesura/ four four and Low Shairi is five three (syllables) /caesura/ five three after. Yes, it was difficult sometimes. English has more words than Georgian, but fewer rhymes. And there are amazing metaphors that needed translation.

KitPS_3ITP: Tell us about your process in producing this translation.
LC: The difficult language part was not so difficult for me because I worked with a team of Georgian
native speakers. I would read the original and try to sound it out. I would have a native recite the original wherever possible. I would read Dodona’s word for word translation and her notes. If I didn’t understand, I would refer to earlier English translations. And then afterward, Nato Alhazashvili, an excellent English speaker herself, would read and comment where she thought the lines went “off.” And she showed it to Nodar Natadze, made corrections and added whole quatrains. Levan Gigneinishvili (who wrote the afterword) had his say about some passages. The man I originally worked with, Gia Jokhadze, weighed in during the early stages. And so it went. I would revise, send to Dodona and Nato, and they would either say, okay, or now this is wrong…. It took a long time. I have some facility with rhyming, and I have a feel for English poetry. I was driven by a voice that sometimes seemed to be Rustaveli’s. Some quatrains took days to do the first time. I translated chapter by chapter, never allowing myself to read ahead of the chapter I was translating. So I was in suspense for most of the book, wondering what would happen next. The Knight is a heck of a great yarn, as well as great poetry. I loved it from the first time I heard/read it/puzzled it out, and I had a discoverer’s joy—Keat’s “On First Reading Homer.”

My translation is significant because the English reader for the first time, really, is able to hear the story in a rhythmic, metaphoric, Poetic translation. I translated as a poet, informed by scholars. Previous translators were not themselves poets, and did not have the advantage of the Georgian scholars I did.

ITP: P.D Rayfield, in his comments about the book, says “The Impossible Achieved. I read Georgian and have, for 40 years, thought a poetic translation of Rustaveli was impossible, given the original’s elaborate rhyme scheme, the metaphors and the difficult language: up until now the prose translations have been the only tolerable access for English-speaking readers. Lyn Coffin has achieved a miracle…”  Was it as difficult a challenge as he makes it out to be?  What did you find the greatest challenge to be?

LC: Yes, Rayfield is a great translator from Georgia himself, so his praise is wonderful. We met in London at the London Georgian Film Festival. I was afraid he would scoff at me for my lack of scholarship. And he liked it from the get go. I was very relieved.

The greatest challenge? To keep going through the really long chapters. To stay interested in some of the “catalog” sections, where the items at a wedding are described at length—He got this, She got that. Or the lines where the epithets come again and again. Homer had “rosy-fingered dawn.” Rustaveli has “an aloe tree”—tall and slender as an aloe tree. Or translating the features on a face— ivory and rose—He opened the twin petals of his rose lips, that kind of thing. On the other hand, there were some sections that were so suspenseful, I was literally on the edge of my seat.KitPS_2

Rustaveli himself speaks in the Prologue about needing poetic skill to carry on through a really long work. It was hard to keep going for two and a half years. I am not sure I would have been able to if Nato Alhazashvili and Dodona Kiziria hadn’t been there, encouraging me. Dodona and I worked together seemlessly. Her comments and support were invaluable.

ITP: What inspired you to take on “the impossible”?

LC: I took on the challenge because of my love for the Georgian people and my love of The Knight in the Panther Skin. From the beginning, I felt a calling—that this was something I was meant to do and could do.

The First Honeymoon Goodreads Giveaway — Enter Now

Goodreads_Giveaway_2Iron Twine Press is giving away 15 copies of Lyn Coffin’s The First Honeymoon: New and Selected Stories via a Goodreads Giveaway.

The giveaway is live now! Click here to request a copy of the book.

You could argue that, as the publisher of this book, we’re biased. It’s true, we publish work that we like. I think that should be true of every publisher. I’d like to explain to you just what it is we like about The First Honeymoon, I think it gets at what is special about this collection of stories:

The edginess of Joyce Carol Oates; the ability, like John Updike, to extract human drama from the mundane, the suburban, the overlooked experience; the twisting of form to the service of story, a la Alice Munro; the poeticism of Virginia Woolf; the quirk and off-beat humor of Richard Brautigan—all these elements come together in Lyn Coffin’s distinctive style.

Simply put, Iron Twine Press wanted to publish these stories because they are not like any stories we’ve read before. There are moments throughout the collection that remind us of the writers mentioned above, and it’s helpful to use those names to try to place these stories on the literary landscape, but on the whole these stories are unique. The voices are mature, characters who have lived and lost and are trying to regain what, after a lifetime, emerges as truly important—simple connection in friendship and in love, acceptance despite flaws, patience and honesty and grace.

The stories collected in The First Honeymoon often don’t feel like stories. That is to say, you won’t always find the patient narrator waiting at the door to guide you in to act as your tour guide, to feed you facts in a sequential order, to introduce you to everyone and make sure you’re comfortably situated as the show unfolds. These stories defy our expectations about how stories should come to us, how they should act. These stories have the feel of events into which we have tumbled unwittingly—at times, as though, at a restaurant, we were looking for the bathroom and stumbled into a banquet room hosting a family reunion and one person after another mistakes us for family and begins speaking to us, at other times as though we’ve broken into an apartment and are rifling through private correspondence, completely taken in by the intimacy and the urgency in the language of what we’ve found. Events unfold around us unexplained, and yet if we pause to think about what we’ve read, we realize that we don’t need an explanation; as human beings involved in our own searches for connection with others, our own searches for love, our own desires for acceptance, validation, forgiveness, we recognize exactly what’s happening and we understand. These stories are more than narratives which you read: you live them, you participate in them, you complete them, in the same way your eye completes a minimalist sketch of a face (a swooping line here, a dark line there, a dash—a nose, an eyebrow, a mouth), you look at it, you relax into it, you see it.

That’s what we saw in Lyn Coffin’s work and why we wanted to publish her collection.

But see for yourself. Enter the Goodreads Giveaway, or buy a copy today in print or Kindle format.


Review: Fuego De Juventud, A Novella by Kevin A. Gonzalez

Mississippi ReviewSometimes we come across a story so worth reading, we just have to tell you about it even if it might be a little inconvenient for you to get ahold of it. This is one of those times…

Fuego De Juventud: A Novella by Kevin A. Gonzalez

Thinking about his father’s boat—the one they sailed together to the islands off Puerto Rico in happier times, the boat that is now dry-docked and crumbling—high school sophomore Tito tells us: “I’m not sure what happened. It’s like there was a time when everything worked, and now, it’s all broken and no one is fixing it.”

Tito’s observation, we come to learn, sums up not just the condition of the boat; it applies equally to the broken-family world in which Tito and his school friends live. In short, the adults around Tito and his friends have made a mess of things, leaving their kids to live in that mess. Friend Gaby’s father has pulled up stakes for Orlando and Gaby commits acts of self-sabotage hoping he will be shipped off to join him; Mamerto’s father is dead, murdered by thieves; Becquia hasn’t spoken to her father in weeks. Chupi, the jockey-sized driver of Tito’s school bus, is the only adult who takes any active interest in the experiences of Tito and his friends. But Chupi shows them no way out of the adolescent dystopia, only how to accept their lot and how to cope—which can sometimes mean alcohol and prostitutes, both of which Chupi supplies the boys for a fee.

Tito spends the school week with his mother. Weekends he spends in his father’s favorite bars playing darts and competing with the bar honeys for his father’s attention. His time in the bars appears on the surface (to us, as well as to Tito), glamorous, romantic, as he proves his mettle to the other gamblers and drinkers and is accepted as his own man, not just his father’s son. But as Tito becomes more adept at the bar culture as a way of bonding with his distracted father, Tito’s own future seems in danger of shrinking and his presence in the bar begins to smack of inevitability, as though he is auditioning for a permanent role after high school. It is natural for a son to want to follow in his father’s footsteps, but how tragic when those footsteps only lead as far as the nearest bar stool.

Gonzalez’s strength in this novella is his ability to reveal the darkness in these lives that exists beneath the bright surface. He gives his characters the trappings of structure and achievement—beachside apartments, Rolexes, rule-emphasizing school administrators—all the pieces that it takes to have functioning relationships and to thrive. It’s all there, but none of it works anymore. The adults are so absent, so ineffective, so burdened by their own unnamed pains and frustrations, it’s as though they created a world to bring their children into and then set that world on fire. Gonzalez patiently paints the scenes of this story and infuses them with a number of distinct voices. His characters come to life as unique, real, and individual people, they never feel like creations of the writer’s imagination. That fact is testament to how nimble and skillful an imagination Gonzalez has.

Read this if you like realistic fiction, literary fiction, coming-of-age stories. Gonzalez is a writer of power and wit, he has created characters with unique and engrossing voices and infused this sad story with enough dark humor to keep it a very entertaining read.

The story is published in the Winter 2015 issue of Mississippi Review. If you’re unable to get a copy of the review, Gonzalez also has a novella, Villa Boheme, available on Amazon as a Kindle Single. It features some of the same characters, including Tito, as Fuego De Juventud. Though we have yet to read it, if Fuego De Juventud is any indication, we anticipate good things. — ITP