Standing at a podium before a small, attentive audience at the Jewish Community Center in St. Paul, Israeli poet Agi Mishol and her translator, Lisa Katz, read work from her book "Look There." She chooses a poem written for her mother, a victim of the holocaust.
The reading marks the end of a very long day for both Mishol and her colleague, Lebanese poet and author Venus Khoury-Ghata. The two spent the day talking to high school classes, having just arrived in the U.S. the day before. Their trip is part of a project called Border Crossings, co-organized by Graywolf Press in St. Paul and PEN America in New York, the American branch of the world's oldest international literary organization. Graywolf Poetry Editor Jeff Shotts says the project is partly aimed at creating greater interest in work from foreign cultures.
"Too few writers around the world are being published in the United States and being translated in any responsible, real way," says Shotts. "Poetry, fiction, memoir...much of it is unavailable to American readers, so the point of this program is to expose readers to writing that they probably don't know about yet."
Graywolf Press' mission is to create and promote contemporary literature, believing it is essential to a vital and diverse culture. Since 2002 Graywolf has published two translated works each year, including the work of Agi Mishol and Venus Khoury-Ghata. Khoury Ghata was born in Lebanon; she moved to France in 1973 and writes in French. But her poems are filled with the rich imagery of her childhood.
After the reading, the audience probes the two poets with questions: How do they choose words? How political are they? Venus Khoury-Ghata says she's normally a solitary person, but she's enjoying the contact.
"I've met people from the other side of the border and we've become friends," Khoury-Ghata says. "And I've gained and met new readers, which enriches my life. So I'm very happy to have come."
Some audience members said they were surprised to see how two poets from such different cultural backgrounds have so much in common in their writing. But in truth, their cultures have shared centuries of intermingled history--their languages and food bear more than a passing resemblance. Israeli poet Agi Mishol says she's actively involved in artistic collaborations with Arab artists. But she's not surprised Americans don't know about those stories.
"You never hear about it because negative things are always more interesting in the media, but there are a lot of positive things," says Mishol. Editor Jeff Shotts agrees. He says Americans need to read the work of foreign writers in order to connect with other cultures.
"We need to understand who it is in this world we're coming into contact with, and some of that contact is loving and some of that contact is warring," says Shotts. "The more we can put a voice to the people who are loving us, and perhaps hating us, the more we understand who we're affecting and why. And I think literature is one of the great entry points into that conversation."
But can a poetry reading in St. Paul, Minnesota really make a difference in international understanding? Poet Agi Mishol says it just might.
"The influence of poetry is always very mysterious," says Mishol. "You know one can go home with two words and think about it... and sometimes words bring friends...other words. Things can happen. Well if it's mysterious, it's mysterious. Leave it like that."
Agi Mishol and Venus Khoury-Ghata read from their work tonight at the Hamline United Methodist Church. Tomorrow the poets will continue on to New York for the annual PEN World Voices Festival.