Roadtrip II: The Midwest

It takes one thousand miles to drive from Washington, District of Columbia, to Iowa City, Iowa. Iowa City is approximately one hour west of the Mississippi River, and is considered part of Eastern Iowa. Eastern Iowa reflects the presence of the Central and East European settlers who arrived during the middle of the nineteenth century, responding to the offer of homestead farms, in a lot of ways. It also shows many of the paradoxical effects of late twentieth century cultural shifts.

The traditional industry that has dominated the Iowan economy and Iowan mythology is agriculture. Johnson County, the area where Iowa City is located, has a great number of family farms. Rybel’s Farm, right outside of Solon, Iowa, has some amazingly fresh early sweet corn. Local farmers’ markets abound with summer produce such as zucchini and tomatoes. Residents of the coastlines may not lack for fresh seafood, but in the summer they do suffer from a want of the flavor of corn fresh from the stalk or freshly picked heirloom tomatoes. Early summer harvest also marks the gentler lifestyle –and notice, I use the adjective gentler, not easier — of summer in the Midwest.  This represents the first of the paradoxes of life in the Midwest. Summer may bring gentler weather, but that hides the higher level of labor that you find in expected and unexpected places.

You expect to find more intense labor in Iowa’s dominant industry – agriculture. Fresh corn and other vegetables and fruits may dominate the farmers’ markets, but these usually do not come to mean much to the local palate without the addition pork and corn fed beef, the dominant products from the state’s animal husbandry.  Animal husbandry occupies a place second to corn within Iowa’s culinary mythology. The favored products from this realm are pork and corn fed – emphasis on the corn fed – beef. I have yet to see an Iowa pork farm, but I have to say that – and these, as they say, are considered “fighting words” in parts of the state – I tend to prefer the pork over the beef. But that derives from my Puerto Rican roots, most likely, since Puerto Rican culture favors pork over beef. The Iowa farm cycle culminates in the late summer with the Iowa State Fair, the largest agricultural state fair in the United States.

Food, and the way it is prepared, further represents the merger and evolution of East and Central European cuisines at the hands of the diasporic communities of the Midwest. In any of the German heritage restaurants in the Amanas Colonies – and please note the use of the term “colonies” for this region – the term “salad” refers to any combination of steamed, boiled or shredded vegetables slathered  in mayonnaise sauce. Think of any of the endless permutations of potato salad or cole slaw type presentations so familiar to those of us who have studied abroad in Slavic countries. The epitome of the culinary celebration of this Eastern European past is represented in Saint Ludmila’s Kolach Festival, in June. Saint Ludmila’s Church in Cedar Rapids[i] hosts this celebration of the culinary legacy of the city’s Czech settlers.

Hay stacks along Highway 1 on the way to Solon, Iowa from Iowa City, Iowa..

Hay stacks along Highway 1 on the way to Solon, Iowa from Iowa City, Iowa..

Signs of the presence of increasingly global monocultures have started to manifest themselves within Iowa’s strong emphasis on local agriculture and local self-sufficiency.  A drive among the corn fields in Iowa start to show the signs of the increasing concentration of large agricultural conglomerates, as the fields are marked by the signs of large agricultural seed producers – the kind that do not allow the historically thrifty Iowa farmers to keep any leftover corn seed for heirloom harvesting the next year.

Even the local art scene shows the increasing influence of global forces. At first glance, it seems as if each and every business in downtown Iowa City belongs to a local business person. Among some businesses of long standing are Herteen and Stocker jewelers and Pagliai’s PIzza.  This does not mean that global connections do not affect the popularity of local establishments.  The particular favorite of people in the field of cultural studies is Prairie Lights, the local independent bookstore that includes a wonderful coffee shop on the third floor, as well as regular readings by authors from the University of Iowa summer writers’ workshops. These readings are actually a much bigger deal than anyone may expect from a city in the middle of Iowa. UNESCO has given Iowa City the title of City of Literature. The title is due, in great part, to the presence of the University of Iowa. The University houses a Writers’ Workshop and an International Writing Program that attracts an amazing amount of literary talent to the city. This has turned University of Iowa into a powerhouse within the writing community, in part because of the ability to focus on the writing rather than on a whole gaggle of museums or events to attend each day.

For language and literature types, summer is the highlight of the year in Iowa City. The warm weather, the manageable dimensions of the city, and the breathtaking expanses of the rolling corn and soybean fields offer a writer a welcoming atmosphere to meditate and to create. This writer’s equivalent of the Super Bowl lastas through what I find the most pleasant part of the year in Iowa.

One of the favorite summer establishments right outside Iowa City — Rebal’s fresh picked sweet corn!



Contemplating Translation: Kind of a Performance Review… But Mostly About Poetry…

Reposted to reflect author’s name…

On January 28, 2012, Vadim Astrakhan performed his translations of Vladimir Vysotsky’s poetry at the American Council for Teachers of Russian/Russkiy Mir Center offices in Washington, D. C. Mr. Astrakhan has been on a mission to make Vladimir Vysotsky, the beloved Russian semi-official guitar poet, popular in the English speaking world by translating his guitar poetry and performing it wherever anyone is willing to listen. He has a nifty website,, and he has recorded a couple of compact discs.

The performance was held in a small conference room, so the feeling was definitely intimate, which is similar to how most of this music was shared during the Soviet period in Russia. Guitar poetry was a genre of performance poetry that emerged in response to the heavy-handed approach to poetry supported by the Soviet regime. It was definitely unofficial – even though Vysotsky did get some of his songs into a couple of films – and circulated from friend to friend on tapes. Yes, one of the nicest presents you could bring to hosts and friends were empty high quality Maxell tapes, preferably 70 minute or 90 minute ones, because then they could use them to make more copies of this mostly unofficial music.

So, rewind to the early 1980s, when I was starting to study Russian. I just happened to be in one of those high schools in Massachusetts that a lot of the children of Digital Equipment’s executives studied, so they had a fairly robust offering at all levels. Mrs. McNally, officially an English teacher, also taught Russian. One of the first things she taught us was Pushkin’s poem “I Loved You,” and I was hooked. This fascination with Russian poetry was left over from my experience in Puerto Rican elementary schools, where we memorized poems as a regular part of the curriculum, including yearly poetry reading competitions among the different grades. I still remember how we all had to memory Luis Palés Matos’s “Danza Negra,” with its opening line, “Calabó y bambú.” I really missed the different level of learning required when you memorized poetry, and after my arrival in New England I thought I would never encounter another group of people so excited to memorize and recite their poetry – sorry Emily Dickinson, but they just did not make memorizing your poems part of our high school curriculum!

Suffice it to say, I was amazed at how much Russians love their poetry. Your average Russian, at least of the Soviet generation, probably had hundreds of poems memorized. This was not a simple act of aesthetic pleasure – it also came to represent an act of political opposition. Anna Akhmatova’s opus Requiem, for instance, would probably not have survived if her friend Lidiia Chukovskaia had not served as her living tape recorder. It is easy to forget twenty years after the fall that being caught with a copy of the wrong text could lose you your job or even land you in jail. Popular culture, particularly popular forms of art such as guitar poetry, served as an active front in the battle against Soviet censorship.

Knowledge of guitar poetry served as a cultural identifier for those who sided with the Russian intelligentsia in the opposition of cultural censorship. As eager young undergraduates, we took the task of memorizing the right kind of poetry seriously. Our first choice was never the official writers like Evtushenko. Rather, we favored Okudzhava, Dolina, Dol’skii, and Vysotsky, which circulated almost exclusively through underground recordings on those Maxell tapes.

Mr. Astrakhan’s project appeals at one level because of its heavy component of nostalgia. In spite of the fact that he has been dead for almost thirty years, Russians still highly enjoy Vysotsky’s songs. The post-Soviet era has seen the release of really nice compact discs of a lot of these poets’ works. One of my favorites is a two volume set of Bulat Okudzhava’s songs. I have to admit, given the choice of guitar poet, or “bard,” to which I could listen, more often than not I would listen to Okudzhava.

This raises all sorts of interesting questions to scholars of cultural studies. How do you analyze the shift in cultural value that something like guitar poetry has in post-Soviet society? How do you measure its relevance in current day Russia? How do you provide outsiders, such as my traditional American undergraduate students, with anything close to an understanding of their place and cultural meaning?

At the end of his performance, Mr. Astrakhan spent some time describing the challenges of translating text such as Vysotsky’s. He mentioned how he had not tackled some of his most popular songs because he considered them “untranslatable.” I think the issue is not so much that a text is impossible to translate, but how hard it is to convey the cultural meaning of a certain work. The hardest aspect of conveying cultural meaning falls on the reader him/herself – on the challenge of becoming familiar with some of the context and history of the major symbols encountered, be they the fairly open reference to Stalin’s purges in Master and Margarita, or the communal grief displayed by Akhamtova’s narrator’s line in Requiem. Translators face new and unexpected challenges with a new generation of readers who are faster to ask “Is there an app for that?” than to look at hard copies of novels from the first half of the century.

Un poema favorito…/A Favorite Poem

Reposted to reflect the author’s name…

Primero, el poema. First: the poem…


no le hacíamos caso paula no era una niña

decía ella

llegaba con los ojos repintado

los zapatos de su madre

el bolsito y andaba

tropezando una tarde nos reimos a lo bestia de mi padre

es guardia civil

y os va a fusilar como a los rojos


(De Para quemar el trapecio)

Álvaro García. Aparece en: Luis Antonio de  Villena, Fin de siglo(El sesgo clásico en al última poesía española): antología. Colección Visor de poesía. (Visor: Madrid, 1992) 184




we paid no mind Paula was not a girl

she said

she came with her eyes overly made up

her mother’s shoes

the handbag and walked

tripping one afternoon we laughed like hell at my father

he is a civil guard

and he will execute you like the reds


The translation here is my own. It worked on it way too quickly, but in some ways the speed reflects the conversational nature of the poem.

The first thing that strikes the ­reader is the lack of traditional punctuation signs. No upper case letters or periods to indicate the beginning and the end of an individual utterance. No commas to indicate breathing points.  The title: “I Was a Kid in the 70s” indicates some of the basic premises of the narrative stance of the poem. “I Was a Kid” means I am not a child any more – this is being brought out of the vault of childhood memories for some reason. The reason is never revealed, and really is not important. The lack of punctuation makes for a tempo that reflects the nature of memory – fluid, rapid, moving from object to object without respecting the presence of periods or exclamation points.

The first line indicates a childish rejection of others, as we “paid no mind” to Paula, who was not a girl. That is a problematic statement. Does that mean she is the kind of childhood friend who defies gender perception? At the same time, Paula comes in performing her best impression of a grown woman, in her mother’s shoes – high heeled most likely? She probably chose the highest set of heels she could find. Then you have the rest of the outfit: handbag, overly made up eyes.  Just like Paula is performing her best impression of a grown woman in 1970s Spain, however, the narrator pulls a Freudian slip as the children laugh at the father, who is a civil guard, a guardia civil, part of Francisco Franco’s domestic enforcement forces.  The punch line is the last line, where our narrator, in a moment of childish honestly, describes his father’s possible reaction, violently executing those who mock him – which stands for opposition, as he executed members of the Spanish Communist Party, who probably participated in the civil war of the 1930s. The lack of normative punctuation and orthographic markers helps to show how the perception of violence exists at the same level as Paula’s role playing in the beginning.

The memory of violence is spontaneous, an element of daily life that became ingrained as a normal element of life, so normal that it became part of the kind of childhood role playing depicted in the first half of the poem. The spontaneous appearance of violence turns it into something that has now become part of child’s play.  It is, however, only a memory, something that apparently now belongs to the past, just like playing dress-up with our little girlfriend.

That is the content of the poem. The content provides one with an opportunity to start thinking about the nature of political violence such as the one Francisco Franco exercised upon Spain during this regime. The violence eventually becomes part of the everyday, something everyone takes for granted and learns to avoid at a personal level.

How we internalize this kind of violence begs the question of how possible is it to emerge from this kind of violent regime without carrying on daily acts of violence, violence that had become part of child’s play? The most important transformation, in this case, is not the external transformation of practices followed by police officers in everyday life, but the internal one, the one where the cultural memory gets to transcend the cultural and political group identities that defined the previous regime, such as Communist or Republican (this refers to the Second Republic, not the United States party!) or Fascist. Just as important is learning to transcend the pain left from the massive systematic violence that such dictatorships used to cement and maintain their power.

The author of the poem, Álvaro García, comes from Málaga, Spain, and was born in 1965. [i] He is the  youngest of a group of Spanish poets called “the generation of the 80s.” He was awarded the 24th International Poetry Price by the Loewe Foundation for his book Canción en blanco.[ii]  He is the author of El río de agua (2005), Caída (2002), Para lo que no existe (1999), Intemperie (1995) and La noche junto al álbum (1989).





So, the last two months have pretty much been about software. Not software in the personal computer/Macintosh sense of the word, even though earlier this year I had to get a new laptop – my old Vaio is dead, long live my old Vaio! – but software in the use it for work sense. Yes, as academics we all have our specific suite of software that we like to curse. Science types, for instance, have cursed Mathematica and anything put out by ESRI for a long time.  As a humanist, I am faced with the challenge of finding software that I can use, that is accessible to my students, and that will not cause undue economic stress to them or to myself.

Finding software that does not cause undue economic stress can prove challenging. As an instructor at a major research university, my students and I get access to Blackboard. Blackboard allows instructors to post exercises, provides students with a platform to hand in assignments with an electronic time stamp, and streamlines communication between faculty and students – for better or for worse. It proves better, because I can communicate with my students without having to keep track of their contact information personally. Our enrollment software interfaces with Blackboard and updates contact information automatically. It proves worse, because I am from an older generation. I typed all my papers my Freshman year in college. I remember when computers came into common use. Students today have been raised with the assumption that you will be accessible via electronic media twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week. That just is not a possibility in my world.

This summer, I have focused on upgrading my electronic tool skills because I will be having a mixed level Russian class next semester – my students returning from Russia will be mixed in with my second year Russian students. Clearly, there will be a gaping chasm in the level of verbal, grammatical, and written skills. I need these tools to be able to create enough high quality work to rotate students – higher level work for higher level students, and enough common level work for them to learn from each other. Believe it or not, this is a daunting task. My students, particularly my advanced students, need that much attention this year.

I have focused on two workshops – Blackboard certification for distance learning courses at my home institution, and a Startalk teacher workshop focusing on electronic resources. What I have learned from both these courses is that very little high quality language learning educational software exists, particularly for Slavic languages, that does not include a substantial amount of economic investment. Blackboard becomes cost effective only when purchased for a large volume of users. Outside of that, for Russian in specific, there is Russnet, sponsored by American Councils for International Education/American Council of Teachers of Russian.  It provides tools for basic exercises, such as multiple choice questions, essay writing, and matching.  It allows for the automation of general rote and mechanical language learning tasks, like drilling case and verb endings, as well as to develop reading and writing skills.

What is sorely lacking, unfortunately, is a truly robust language learning software platform that can allow not only academics, but serious students of language, to develop their own exercises at all levels – a suite that allows you, for instance, to split your screen in two parts, with an article, for instance, appearing on the left side, while the mechanical exercises appear on the right, so students can still have an easy visual reference to the original language in context. Also, it still is really difficult to create exercises that integrate video or audio files to other text based exercises.

The problem with such a program is the basic realm of economics. Language and literature departments find themselves as the first to face budget cuts, especially in this economy. They need to argue better than other departments for any resources that they have. Unfortunately, more and more, the resources do not go much further than to protect their face to face teaching contact hours. This is particularly vital with the Less Commonly Taught Languages, where grammatical and linguistic structures do not map word to word with the English structures. This means departments cannot afford to spend thousands of dollars on foreign language specific software. This leaves instructors with access to something like Blackboard, which cuts across the board to almost all academic disciplines, but forces instructors to spend increasing amounts of time in front to their keyboard developing content, rather than working on their classroom face to face contact content or, heaven forbid!, on their actual academic research.

The most economically sensible, but administratively challenging, solution, would be for a consortium of world languages and cultures departments within a region to come together and develop such a suite, most likely using open source platforms.  The departments would have to be willing to invest in one or two extremely high caliber developers. Hiring and keeping one or two such developers would be more palatable is distributed among several institutions. A realistic development and testing schedule would lead to a level of software that does not exist anywhere in the market right now. Such a suite, designed with Less Commonly Taught Languages in mind, would prove invaluable to language instructors who face the same pressures in other institutions to teach more with less funds. Anything that can increase faculty productivity in these fields needs to be designed with the needs of this field in mind.