Staley H. Barkan
If I have a little cash, I will open an artshop
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I will spend my time listening to the bees.
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Bangladesh, take note of it, . . .
—From Breath of Bengal
"With just a little cash," Hassanal Abdullah wrote in Breath of Bengal, what he could/would do. And what this new immigrant from Bangladesh has done with the "little cash" from his salary as math teacher in the New York City school system for his poet-wife, Naznin Seamon, and son, Ekok, and his and her families in Bangladesh, as well as for the Bengali poets (his extended family) from the home country, other parts of the world, and, especially, in America, is some kind of miracle. I first met Hassanal about a decade ago, when another Bengali poet/translator, Nazrul Islam Naz, came with a friend and a couple of his children to meet me at my house, Casa Barkan, in Merrick, Long Island. Naz called me up about having a manuscript of poems by a Bengali poet (Hassanal), which Naz, had translated into English, with the hope of my publishing it. I was very impressed with Naz and the manuscript. And, since it fit in with the central focus of my small non-commercial bilingual poetry-focused publishing house, Cross-Cultural Communications, it was of definite interest. But I first wanted to meet the author. Shortly thereafter, that was arranged. I was immediately quite taken with Hassanal Abdullah, this then-young, handsome poet, with his shock of black hair and his warm and excited and serious manner, betokening that he was an authentic poet, one who was truly committed to the value of the word and its connection with Humanity. It was then that I also became aware of his magazine, Shabdaguchha, a poetry journal, in its second issue, focusing on poets of and from Bangladesh, as well as having the possibility of a wider international component. Upon learning this, I warned Hassanal of the many pitfalls inherent in being an editor and publisher, about how much it would detract from his own poetry, in fact admonishing him that he "would make more enemies than friends." (Indeed, in one later issue, "Shabdaguchha Under Threat" [#31, 2006], this was brought home to him in quite disturbing sharpness.) And so, I committed to publishing Breath of Bengal in bilingual format, and brought it out simultaneously in paperback and hardcover editions in 2000. And I also invited Hassanal to be Cross-Cultural's representative for Bangla culture. From that time till the present, we have been supportive of each other's reciprocal aims. I've introduced Hassanal to a number of American and other international poets, like Stanley Kunitz, twice Poet Laureate of America, whose poetry Hassanal translated into Bengali and published in a special issue of Shabdaguchha, "A Tribute to Stanley Kunitz" (#32/33, 2006). Later, Hassanal also translated one of Dylan Thomas's most famous poems, "And Death Shall Have No Dominion," which he read at a special multilingual event at the Mid-Manhattan Library this past April, as part of the Spring 2008 Dylan Thomas Tribute Tour of America, featuring Aeronwy Thomas, daughter of Dylan, and another Welsh poet, Peter Thabit Jones, editor of the Swansea-based poetry magazine, The Seventh Quarry (both of whom Hassanal published in Shabdaguchha). Similarly, I introduced Hassanal to other poet/editors like Laura Boss of Lips magazine, Maria Mazziotti Gillan of Paterson Literary Review, Robert Dunn of Medicinal Purposes and Asbestos, and Nat Scammacca of the Sicilian Antigruppo, with the object of there being a sharing of their pages for Bengali poets in translation. Thus far, this has worked out very well. Many CCC luminary authors-Gregory Rabassa (foremost translator of Spanish and Portuguese literature), Pablo Neruda (Nobel Prize-winning Chilean), and Leo Vroman (foremost Dutch poet/artist/scientist)-and those of a range of ethno-linguistic origin have been published in Shabdaguchha, in English and as well as in bilingual format. The latter include Franciso Arriví (Puerto Rican), Fuad Attal, (Palestinian), August Bover (Catalan), Vince Clemente (Italian), Jessica Cohen, Aleksey Dayen (Russian), John Dotson, Charles Fishman, John Gery, Isaac Goldemberg (Peruvian), Ko Won (Korean), Beverly Matherne (Cajun), D. H. Melhem (Lebanese), Biljana D. Obradovic (Serbian), Clementine Rabassa (Greek), Orna Rav-Hon (Israeli), Stephen A. Sadow, Georgine Sanders (Indonesian), Adam Szyper (Polish), Tino Villanueva (Chicano), and A. D. Winans. Thus, this relationship resulted in the magazine's international component being greatly extended and enhanced, beyond the borders of Bangladesh and the USA. Of course, numerous Bengali poets have found an international outlet in the pages of Shabdaguchha, including, for example, Shamsur Rahman, Shaheed Quaderi, Shakti Chattapadyay, Syed Shamsul Haq, Humayun Azad, Nirmolendu Goon, and Rafiq Azad. Other poets of fame have also been published in the magazine: Charles Baudelaire (of 19th-Century France), Joseph Brodsky (Nobel Prize-winning Russian), Jonathan Galassi (Chair of the Academy of American Poets), and Alfonso Reyes (of 19th-Century Spain), as well as poets from India (Jayanta Mahapatra) and Japan (Sijo Hino), with many others whose work has been accepted from other countries scheduled in forthcoming issues.
Similarly, the poems of Hassanal and Naz and other Bengali poets were introduced to poet-editors from many different parts of the world, where many have found an outlet for publication in English translation. I also engaged in co-translating with Hassanal some Bengali poets to whose poetry Hassanal introduced me. These include Joy Goswami ("Ashes") and Shamsur Rahman (1929-2006, "The Eternal Sunlight"). Some significant lines:
The scrape of their hooves will spark
Diamonds every where . . .
—(From: "Ashes" by Joy Goswami)
A lone man sits quietly penning poems
With the ink of sunlight.
But the gamblers gather around him
Suddenly excited, shouting,
Thinking the poems are banknotes.
Then, amazed, realizing the fact of poetry,
They tear the manuscript from the man
And toss it in the air.
In the end those outraged gamblers
Snatch away the sunlight.
But the poet remains calm as they depart
Fading away in the air.
—(From: "The Eternal Sunlight" by Shamsur Rahman)
It is this "fact of poetry" in contrast with what the "gamblers" (who symbolize the Philistines) value that is emblematic of the purpose of Shabdaguchha, if not Bengali poets and people, in general, these new immigrants who demonstrate a passion for things non-material, and whose language, is the language of poetry as Italian is the language of music. In addition to producing a magazine that has reached out across the world to all manner of ethno-linguistic diversity, as well introducing contemporary Bengali poets to the world at large, the magazine has been in the forefront of serious human rights causes.
Shabdaguchha has also been published quite regularly, several times a year, something extraordinary for a little magazine with typically limited resources. CCC and Shabdaguchha also share some issues as co-published "chapbooks": #9 "From Barisal to Briarwood," #32/33 "A Tribute to Stanley Kunitz," and #39, "Poets of Bangladhesh." Furthermore, Hassanal, as editor/publisher, has hosted numerous poetry festivals, as well as initiating the Shabdaguchha biennial award: a certificate, publishing a book of the poet, and a significant monetary prize. Four times, I've been honored to announce the winners in a special celebration at the home office of the magazine, formerly in Briarwood, now in Woodhaven, Queens. Winners to date are Ruksana Rupa (2001), Baitulah Quaderee (2003), Prabir Das (2005), and Naznin Seamon (2007). And at one festival in Astoria, Queens, I had the honor of speaking about and reading a long poem (in English translation) by Kazi Nazrul Islam, the most famous Bengali poet of the 20th Century. Hassanal has also invited poet and writer-critic activists, who have been the object of attacks by fundamentalists in Bangladesh, to come to America to seek some assistance in this deadly war that threatens not only the well-being and security of the people of Bangladesh but of all democratic nations. One of these, Dr. Humayan Azad, came, several times injured by attempts on his life, walking with a cane. He did not speak with rancor or vengeance, only with a benign attitude, seeking improvement. And though at great risk, he persisted in his critical writing. Forced to leave his home country under further deadly threat, he was found dead shortly afterwards under "suspicious circumstances" in Germany. In addition to its literary activities, Shabdaguchha has been in the forefront of protesting the terror that holds sway in Bangladesh. On March 15, 2004, a demonstration organized by Shabdaguchha was held in front of the UN. (I was privileged to participate.) So "with just a little cash," Hassanal Abdullah, poet/translator/editor/publisher and activist has managed to create a vehicle and a repository, not only for Bengali and international poetry, but a special place in which poets can speak out and, against terrific odds, try to bring about some kind of peaceful resolution and harmony.
This tenth anniversary issue of Shabdaguchha is truly a milestone in the history of poetry. Shabdaguchha is a bridge across the wide waters, from Barisal to Briarwood and beyond, from Woodhaven to the world, as well as across the large divide between man's basest instincts and his higher civilizing vision.
Let's look forward to the next ten years!