Bob Holman is on the road to save the day.
A camel-shaped teapot sits on the highest shelf of the cabinet. If this were fiction, that would’ve been the teapot we used. Instead, too-hot-to-drink Chinese tea splashes out of a nondescript teapot. Tea cooling, I ask poet Bob Holman about his documentary on endangered languages, produced by Rattapallax in association with Bowery Arts and Science, that is currently airing on LinkTV. In the show, On the Road with Bob Holman, the downtown New York poet and host of the three-part series traveled to West Africa and Israel and the West Bank to bring light to the fact that more than half of the world’s 6500 languages will disappear before the end of this century.
Already a three-time Emmy Award-winner for WNYC-TV’s Poetry Spots, as well as a recipient of a Bessie Performance Award and an International Public Television Award for the PBS series The United States of Poetry, Holman entertains armchair travelers as much as he informs us about the endangered-language crisis. In the first two episodes of On the Road with Bob Holman, he visits West Africa and discovers that the roots of spoken word span the globe and go back thousands of years. He boats up the Niger River toward Timbuktu, where his mentor, Beat poet Ted Joans, lived. We learn that the poets of West Africa are the griots, keepers of oral tradition and tribal genealogy, and see how their ancient harp-lyre, the 21-string kora, is made. Then we watch a kora–guitar jam session between Ali Farka Toure’s son, Vieux, and griot Karamo Susso. Following hypnotic music into the Sahara Desert, we encounter the nomadic “blue people,” Tuaregs, whose indigo-dyed clothes rubbed off onto their skin, and then catch a stunning mask ceremony in Dogon country. Bambara, Fulani, Dogon, Mandinke, French, English, and Arabic shape and are shaped by natives, colonizers, merchants, and sojourners in West Africa.
When we land in Israel, in the third episode, we see Hebrew’s resurrection tied to the decline of other tongues, such as Yiddish and Ladino. A “true Israeli poet from Iraq,” Ronny Someck takes Holman on a tour of Jaffa before suggesting he hear Arabic in the West Bank. From the Separation Wall to Ramallah, it’s checkpoints, checkpoints, and checkpoints. Holman contemplates if a national language creates barriers amongst the multitude of voices, languages, memories, and ideologies. Young Palestinian hip-hop poets say the Separation Wall dominates and complicates life in that region, and they use the words of Palestinian poet Mahmoud Darwish in raps that explore the situation.
Holman trades stories, recipes, and poems with the people he meets on his journey, giving a face to the endangered-language crisis. It is, after all, as he says, “not just a set of words that are in danger, but whole systems of consciousness.” If the many ceremonies, parties, dances, and lavish meals that take place in each half-hour show are any indication, humor and revelry make the plight even more poignant.
“Everyone loves a good blooper reel,” I say, and Holman tells me of his attempt at riding a camel during the making of the documentary. Most of the footage had to be cut. Apparently, camels can be fickle about poets riding on top of them. Our intrepid host rode awkwardly off into the Sahara Desert.
Stephanie Nikolopoulos Let’s start with a joke. What do you call someone who speaks two languages?
Bob Holman Uhhh, bilingual?
SN Bilingual! What do you call someone who speaks one language?
BH Ohh, that is so true. Although, these days New York City has the highest concentration of speakers of endangered languages in the world. The migration patterns are what bring speakers here.
Last night at the Bowery Poetry Club we had the Endangered Language Alliance, where Nahuatl, Nawuzco, Totenaco, Ibanang, Swangboodaiya, Taboli, Circassian, Pamari, Shubni, Waki, Garifuna were spoken. This is a community of people whose languages have never before come into contact, now brought together because they find themselves in the same situation—that their entire culture is being wiped out by the forces of globalization. So what a party! Sounds sort of depressing the way I put it there, but in fact people really were gathering strength from each other.
SN Growing up I had to attend Greek school to learn to read and write in Greek. And as a kid growing up in New Jersey I didn’t really understand the point of having to learn another language. Of course now I wish that I spoke Greek better. What’s your language background?
BH I was born in the South, and then moved to the North, which was Cincinnati—which was as far South as you can get and still be in the North. First it was the accent.
But I smelled the kasha [Eastern European grain] in my zeda’s kitchen, my Ukrainian Jewish grandparents in Cincinnati. They spoke Yiddish with each other. But like everybody else I didn’t become a Jew until I came to New York. Everybody here is Jewish. Using Yiddish phrases is part of being a New Yorker.
I studied French and Latin in high school, French and German in college, and discovered a proclivity for languages as I traveled around. But it was following the roots of hip-hop and my own lineages of orality and poetry where I discovered the crisis that languages are in right now.
SN When you spoke at The New School, the moderator, David Lehman, whom you went to Columbia University with, revealed that even back then you were studying languages. You’ve gone on to write poetry in various languages and are also working on an endangered language cento. Can you talk a little about that?
BH At Columbia I studied Chinese poetry with Professor Chiang Yee, a wonderful professor who wrote a series of books called The Silent Traveler, in San Francisco or other cities in the US—this was a Chinese person traveling around, how a Chinese person observes things. I learned that the Chinese do look at things differently, and their language portrays those things differently. Many Chinese verbs can become nouns without undergoing any sort of change. In other words, where there is the character for “rain,” it is also “raining” as a verb. I always wondered who that “It” was anyway—you don’t have to worry about that in Chinese.
And it led me to read a book, The Effect of Language on Buddhist Thought, which discussed how as Buddhism crossed Asia it altered, how those changes illuminated the languages themselves. One that was so striking was how the austerity of the Japanese language allowed for Zen Buddhism to evolve there, the most ascetic form of Buddhism. So I began—as a poet, you know, your tool is language—to understand how a poem is built, is made, of language, of words. ‘Course then you look at “poesis,” which in Greek, is “to make,” so poetry is to make. What do you make? Well, you make the poem. The poems “must not mean/But be,” as Archibald MacLeish said in his “Ars Poetica.”
SN On the Road with Bob Holman premiered in February 2012 [and is currently available on LinkTV.org], but I know that the documentary has long been in the works. You’ve already talked a little bit about this, but do you remember how and when you first heard about endangered languages?
BH I’m trying to remember if it came first from the People’s Poetry Gathering—I believe that was probably it—which was a biennial festival that I helped produce with Steve Zeitlan of City Lore and Lee Bricetti of Poet’s House in its early days. The People’s Poetry Gathering brought together oral and literary traditions. I think I sensed the dynamic then.
But it wasn’t until I went to a conference in the year 2000 called Against All Odds: African Languages and Literature in the Twenty-first Century that I really felt the urgency. Ngugi wa Thiong’o was there, and I was blown away by how he was going back to his mother tongue, Kikuya, instead of writing in English.
And I met Papa Susso there, who became, and still is, my teacher. He’s a working West African griot. The griots’ tradition of orality gives the poet an actual job within the culture, keeps alive that culture. You can’t have an event unless a griot is there! But then you begin seeing how these oral traditions are able to keep a culture together and a language alive. And then you learn the sad fact that of the 6,500 languages on earth, half will disappear this century, which means we’re losing a language every two weeks. There goes one!
SN Well it’s interesting that you mention Papa Susso because that was actually one of my favorite scenes in the documentary. I love the way that he talks about poetry and community being intertwined. Could you explain a little bit more about the importance of the griot?
BH Well first off you must understand that poetry as we define it, as MacLeish talked about it or as Pound talked about it or as anybody in your MFA program is going to talk about it, is not what other cultures necessarily consider poetry. Certainly most European cultures agree with this US definition that has created a specialized artist who works with meaning beyond meaning, who works with the look and spacing and line-breaks of words on a page to add dimensions to what a poem does. What Papa Susso does and what people in the oral tradition do is primarily to carry on traditions. So the idea of “Make it new,” which was Pound’s dictum, is more like “Keep it going.” “Pass it on!” would be the slogan.
So with that, I knew I had to merge the oral tradition, the griots and languages into the modern medium of TV. I worked with my producers Ram Devineni and Beatriz Seigner and produced the three episodes on LINK TV.
SN I’m going to play devil’s advocate for a moment. In 1887, L. L. Zamenhof wrote a book detailing Esperanto, a politically neutral language that was supposed to become a universal language that would facilitate international understanding and, consequently, peace. By 1945, the United Nations was formed. It has six official languages—Arabic, English, French, Mandarin, Russian, and Spanish—and is, according to its website, “committed to maintaining international peace and security, developing friendly relations among nations and promoting social progress, better living standards and human rights.” In the documentary, you discuss the resurrection of Hebrew as the national language of Israel. Are official languages or a universal language signs of social progress?
BH Nope. Not that I believe in Progress! I believe in Poetry, in free expression. Why vote for an official language except to force people to use that language? France has a national language, and that’s making the revival of Breton and Alsace just that much more difficult. Esperanto is a Utopian idea; I love it! But languages are not ideas; languages are physical and real as bodies. So learn Esperanto, learn ASL, learn Klingon—I’m learning Welsh. But the important thing is to speak to your children in all the languages you know—knowing Alsatian and French is no more difficult for a child than being monolingual. It will enrich their lives, and keep their culture/identity alive to help humans figure out how to live on earth. And it has the side effect of actually raising your IQ 14 points, according to a study in Alsace.
SN As a poet, you’re obviously tuned in to diction—to finding that perfect word for your poem. What’s happening to poetry—and to cultures as a whole—as languages become extinct?
BH We’re losing touch with the physical earth; we are becoming numb to the particularities of Beauty; we are losing the shivering cilia that define Truth. And if that’s not bad enough, our committee-ized language is now becoming TV-speak, boring and commercialized. Other than that, not much.
SN You’re primarily known as a poet, but you’ve also won Emmy Awards for producing Poetry Spots for television. Why did you decide to turn to the form of documentary for raising awareness on endangered languages?
BH I don’t think of them as documentaries but as poems. Being a poet I have that luxury, of naming what is a poem. From the beginnings of the first show with the description of a griot to the conclusion of the third when the Ramallah Underground is sampling Mahmoud Darwish for a hip-hop piece, these shows are infused with poetry. That’s enough for me—a poem puts poetry in the dialogue, in the air.
SN Music, food, religion, and the very land itself seem integral to the documentary series. How do they inform language, and how does language shape our perception of them? What do we risk losing if a language becomes extinct?
BH For me, language is consciousness, it’s what makes you aware of being aware of. The Khoisan languages of the Kalahari have up to 141 phonemes or distinct sounds. English has 34. The Khoisan languages also have an extraordinary vocabulary for tastes. Is this because their mouths get such a workout from clicking and speaking? If they go, do we miss the tart of it all? I find this fascinating—just as the use of medicinal plants is deeply tied to cultures and known only in certain languages. Is the cure to cancer locked in a language now extinct? To share joy in different languages is to share different joy. We need more joy.