Pancouver-Logo

Become a Cultural Navigator

Become a Cultural Navigator

Poet Kevin Spenst embraces idioms from non-English languages in A Bouquet Brought Back from Space

Kevin Spenst
Writer Kevin Spenst enjoys the interplay between different languages in poetry.

This spring, two Vancouver poets, Kevin Spenst and Marc Perez, decided to do something unusual.

“We set out from Science World on the False Creek seawall with the intent to read poems to strangers,” Spenst tells Pancouver over coffee in a local Starbucks.

They began by approaching a couple, who responded with accented English. So, Spenst asked which languages they spoke.

“They said ‘Ukrainian and Russian’,” the poet reveals. “Then, I was like, ‘Here’s a poem with a Russian idiom in it.’ And they loved it.”

In fact, Spenst’s newest collection, A Bouquet Brought Back from Space (Anvil Press Publishers), plays with idioms from many languages. One poem, “It Rains Like Rods in Sweden”, features English-language versions of how heavy rainfall is described in different parts of the world, including Reykjavik, Bangkok, Athens, Taipei, and Paris.

“It will rain married men in Spain, and intermittent toads’ beards Saturday morning in Portugal,” Spenst writes in the poem. “An intense Pacific frontal system of bamboo grass and sand will fall over Tokyo.”

Spenst credits Evelyn Lau for her help in the final editorial stage of the book. Cover art is by Shannon Pawliw.

Spenst

Prior to the interview in the coffee shop, Spenst places several other poetry collections on the table. He’s eager to draw attention to works by writers in Canada who offset English with other languages.

One of those books is Perez’s debut, Dayo. Spenst admires how Perez, who was born in the Philippines, intersperses Tagalog into his work. Spenst also praises the way Perez writes in response to famous poets.

“It’s a beautiful book of poetry,” Spenst says.

Spenst’s eagerness to promote others’ works is emblematic of his generous nature.

Yilin Wang’s The Lantern and the Night Moths includes essays on translating poetry.

Spenst showcases other books

He also wants to raise awareness about his friend Yilin Wang’s The Lantern and the Night Moths, which includes poetry translations and essays on translation.

“I’m really excited to read it to see not only these beautiful poems of poets from the past that she’s bringing to light, but also the essays that she’s written about the translation process,” Spenst says.

Another recommendation is Dallas Hunt’s second book of poetry, Teeth. The Cree poet and Wapsewsipi (Swan River First Nation) member is an assistant professor of Indigenous literature at UBC.

Spenst points out that Hunt uses really short lines in his poems. And it makes him wonder if Hunt is incorporating Cree approaches to language into his verses.

“At times, he’s working in syllabics, where it’s a pretty strict measure of five syllables,” Spenst adds.

Then, he highlights the poetry collection G, by Klara du Plessis and Khashayar “Kess” Mohammadi. Spenst describes it as another interesting example of a book examining the interface of English with other languages.

“English and other languages have been at play in North American poetry for at least 50 years in a more fringe sort of sense,” he says. “But I would say it’s far more mainstream in poetry—if there is such a thing as mainstream poetry—in the last 10 to 20 years. There are many more people from many parts of the non-European world who have grown up here and they’re coming into their own in poetry that reflects their multilingual upbringings and backgrounds..”

In addition to being impressed by these poets, Spenst is inspired by essayist, novelist, short-story writer, and translator Lydia Davis, who feels that every writer should make the effort to learn another language. Because Spenst has been teaching international students for decades, he has become familiar with accents as well as the contours of other languages.

Kevin Spenst is promoting Marc Perez’s poetry on his YouTube channel.

Playing with language

The first poem in Spenst’s collection has a colourful title reflecting his passion for sounds of other languages: “BigGermanDialectWordClankinglyInsertedHere!”.

In it, he writes that some of his ancestors were German Mennonites who trekked to Russia for farmland. They had to do this to avoid being slaughtered for being pacifists.

Spenst tells Pancouver that his grandparents spoke with thick German accents.

“They came out of a multilingual world in Russia,” he says. “So, this poem thinks a little bit about my family history, with some of that language.”

In another poem “En Francais, bed”, Spenst muses on the word lit, which means “bed” in French.

“But if I remove the French from lit and hear straight-up English, it’s on fire,” he writes.

However, A Bouquet Brought Back from Space is more than a reflection on language. It also addresses love, grief and loss. In this regard, Spenst has been influenced by German-language poet Rainer Maria Rilke.

“For Rilke, there’s this word in German—raum—and raum is space,” Spenst says. “You know, the space around us here—elbow room—that kind of space. But it also means much more. Interior space. Quite a few of the poems in this collection are elegies for friends who’ve passed over the past couple of years.”

For example, in “The Stanley Park Manor”, Spenst commemorates fellow poet and good friend Jeff Stuedel, who died in 2021.

“I live in the building where he once lived in the West End—in a building where he met his wife,” Spenst says. “They both lived in the Stanley Park Manor.”

The last section of A Bouquet Brought Back from Space features love poems to his partner, Cheryl Rossi, a former journalist who now does communications work.

Video: Kevin Spenst performs a poem with a television set on his head.

Poetry as performance

A Bouquet Brought Back from Space is Spenst’s fourth book of poems and includes words, phrases, or entire passages from about a dozen different languages. He has also written 15 chapbooks.

He believes that poetry is the most expansive art form because it can reach into so many other areas.

“There might be some poems that have a particular shape in keeping with something concrete, which can also be seen as visual art,” Spenst says. “And there’s also the sonic dimension of poetry—just sound. Considering languages, these sounds might be guttural or just cries of lament.”

Then there are the performative aspects of poetry, which he appreciates as someone with an acting background.

“The ‘actor’ in me revels the opportunity to open a book and read it to a stranger,” Spenst says with a chuckle.

Watch the trailer for The Oneironaut’s Bouquet from the River: an Afternoon of Poetry.

Kevin Spenst will join two other poets, Onjana Yawnghwe and Sheri-D Wilson, at 2 p.m. on Sunday (May 26) at the Shadbolt Centre for the Arts in Burnaby. The Oneironaut’s Bouquet from the River: an Afternoon of Poetry will launch Yawnghwe’s new collection is We Follow the River and Wilson’s new book, THE ONEIRONAUT ∅1 (Write Bloody North). Tickets are available for free at Eventbrite.

Take Action Now

Pancouver fuels creativity and promotes a more inclusive society. You can contribute to support our mission of shining a spotlight on diverse artists. Donations from within Canada qualify for a tax receipt.

Share this article

Charlie Smith

Charlie Smith

Pancouver editor Charlie Smith has worked as a Vancouver journalist in print, radio, and television for more than three decades.

Subscribe

Tags

Related Articles

The Society of We Are Canadians Too created Pancouver to foster greater appreciation for underrepresented artistic communities. A rising tide of understanding lifts all of us.

We would like to acknowledge that we are gathered on the traditional and unceded territories of the Coast Salish peoples of the xʷməθkwəy̓əm (Musqueam Indian Band), Skwxwú7mesh (Squamish Nation), and Səl̓ílwətaɬ (Tsleil-Waututh Nation). With this acknowledgement, we thank the Indigenous peoples who still live on and care for this land.

The Society of We Are Canadians Too created Pancouver to foster greater appreciation for underrepresented artistic communities. A rising tide of understanding lifts all of us.

© 2023 The Society of We Are Canadians Too Privacy Policy | Terms and Conditions

We would like to acknowledge that we are gathered on the traditional and unceded territories of the Coast Salish peoples of the xʷməθkwəy̓əm (Musqueam), Skwxwú7mesh (Squamish), and Səl̓ílwətaɬ (Tsleil-Waututh) Nations. With this acknowledgement, we thank the Indigenous peoples who still live on and care for this land.