Saturday, September 7, 2013

Sitting Down with Poets of the Bay: Episode 2

The moment I arrive, the reading is over. I've stayed too long at coffee in Alameda with my college roommate. Life is short, and the nature of the Lunch Poems series is uncertain. Still, I've driven out to Berkeley, albeit too late to hear members of the faculty and staff read. As the audience chats with the readers and begins to file out, I approach someone who appears to be in charge, and ask if he is Robert Hass, the great poet who curates the series. I should know what Hass looks like, but I do not. He is not Hass. But he is a librarian and can point me to a small man making his deliberate, downcast way to the door. He appears to be, in the words of Emanuel Carnevali, a hurried man.

Alexander Givental is a professor of mathematics. Like the other readers, he is not a poet per se. When I ask to speak with him, he eyes me suspiciously, explains, in a fairly thick Russian accent, that he is on his way to class, but could talk for a few minutes. In the meantime the librarian continues corraling readers with whom I might speak. As I'll need to do a lot, I diplomatically move from one to the other, explaining my project and enlisting their help. Givental waits patiently by the door until the handshakes and exchanges of cards are done.

When I finally return to him, Givental allows me to suggest that we re-enter the venue, Morrison Library, where he and other readers stood at a podium before a marble hearth, reading poetry to nearly a hundred people seated on comfortable couches and in leather wing chairs nicely placed around the 200' x 50' space, while students studying at gallery tables above tried to concentrate on the first-week reading. The walls here are oak, the floors, like the hearth, marble. Busts of Roman statesmen sit atop built-in bookshelves below enormous windows with views of the Berkeley Hills, huge spruce trees and campus buildings of various vintage.

We choose a comfortable couch near the hearth. I admit to Givental that I did not hear him read. He is kind, and explains that, with a collaborator, he's just done a volume of poems by the twentieth-century Russian poet Marina Tsetaeva, To You in 10 Decades. He hands me the book, and we begin to talk about why a mathematician at one of the nation's leading universities is translating poetry. It has to do with his education in Russia, with the place of poetry in people's lives there, and with his willingness to be part of poetry in America.  

No comments:

Post a Comment