My academic connection to the Caribbean was first inspired by my childhood memories of listening to my abuelitas tell stories while frying tostones or simmering stew over a low flame. The tribal beat of mambo still vibrates in my veins, propelling the inner soundtrack of my life....
Enter José Kozer, stage right. An impressive poet, translator, professor, and intellectual, Kozer was born in Cuba, but self-exiled in 1960. He was one of the original poets included in the famous anthology, Medusario: Muestra de la poesía latinoamericana. In 2013, he was awarded the Premio Iberoamericano de poesía de Pablo Neruda and since then has continued since then to publish at least eight more volumes of poetry. His poetry spans from the Neobaroque style to Spanglish, drawing upon his background as a Jewish Cuban poet who spent most of his adult life in New York City.
During my PhD coursework, I had first read his collection of poetry, El carrilón de los muertos. I was captivated by the fusion of languages, styles, punctuation, collage of words, the carefully constructed chaos, the silence: his voice.
Every dead soul is revealed to me in their niche, flying
into their mud
Sepulveda, the beast.
She is one of many, doe mother fawns my
aunts the fathers own name is
colt steed Frisian aroma of who knows what
of my uncles propagation of
grain on grain taps tick of
metronomes my poor uncles a
pounding of a live sarabande
of dogs at the entrance
Arbeit Macht Frei. ("Holocausto" by José Kozer, my translation).
This poem effectively changed my life. The building of suspense is undergirded by the tap, tap of the metronomic sarabande of death. Kozer's Holocaust poetry stems from his childhood memories of listening to stories of his surviving relatives. His parents were of Polish and Czech decent. In 2015, through the efforts of Cave Moon Press, I was asked to translate two of Kozer's poems...and the rest is history!
From September 18-21, 2016, thanks to the Gerszten Family Foundation Series, the Spanish and Portuguese Department and the Jewish Studies Program were able to extend an invitation to Kozer and his wife Guadalupe to come and give and lecture and poetry workshop:
Kozer came to UVa and presented an essay and three intercalated poems that I translated especially for this event. We performed the poetry together; our readings both completed and contradicted each other in a back and forth of Spanish and English.
This event was only the beginning. Kozer and I are now collaborating on two book projects: first, the treatment of the Holocaust in his vast poetic corpus and secondly, a critical biography of his life and work. To learn more about Kozer, see this amazing documentary trailer directed by Magdiel Aspillaga and Malena Barrios:
Kozer has become my mentor, inspiration, and friend. Because he knew of my musical and linguistic background, Kozer recommended me to Frank London to collaborate with his latest project. I was commissioned by Frank London to versify the songs and lyrics of the opera, Hatuey: Memory of Fire, which was performed in Havana, Cuba on March 3-5, 2017 by Opera de la Calle. See below an excerpt from an article I published about the work on Elon's e-net:
The opera tells the story of Oscar, a Ukrainian Jew who moved to Cuba to escape the Nazis. While in Havana, he falls in love with a beautiful singer named Kasika who tells him the story of a Taíno chief, Hatuey, who was murdered by Spanish conquistadors. The story of Chief Hatuey’s murder has become famous become symbolic of resistance against injustice. As Oscar learns about the plight of the native Taínos, the narrative interweaves scenes from Hatuey’s life during the Spanish conquest and Oscar’s love story with Kasika.
While versifying the work to London’s phenomenal score, I tried my best to maintain the linguistic traits that came from both Yiddish and Spanish, while also paying homage to the Taíno influences. You will have to use your imagination … or wait for the next performance to hear these lyrics sung, but as you can see there are words of Yiddish, Taíno, and Spanish origin.
¡Ay, blancos! ¿Qué buscan?
¡Ay, vejsen! ¿Qué buscan?
Aquí hay cassava ¡Ay no!
No es qué querían.
Aquí hay guayaba ¡Ay no!
No es lo que buscan.
¡Oh ney! ¡Ay no! Oh ney! ¡Ay no!
Both the opera and Kozer's poetry are two examples of the vibrancy of Cuban Jewish culture and literature that is alive today. I am excited to be involved in both of these endeavors and look forward achieving our current goals.
Hatuey: Memory of Fire performed in Havana
See articles from Tablet Magazine, the New York Times, and the Cuban Debate to see more about Hatuey: Memory of Fire. Also, see below the full list of collaborators:
The work on Hatuey Memory of Fire would not be possible without translators:
Moishe Rosenfeld (Yiddish-English), Andres de Piedra Bueno (Yiddish- Spanish)
Shane Baker (Yiddish reader & transliteration), Michael Posnick, Deborah K. Symons (Spanish-English); Judith K. Lang Hilgartner, Malena Chinski, Ana Maria Jomolco, Lidia Ramirez (English-Spanish); Alan Astro (transliteration)
Hatuey Memoria del Fuego - traducción al español de Judith K. Lang Hilgartner (poema) & Malena Chinski (diálogos); Alan Astro (Español/Idish transliteración)