Stranded In The Spotlight
(Published by Fra Noi, Chicago IL, April 2008)
Well, it seems the long, hard winter is finally over. Here in the central heart of Italy, flowers have again become exploding waves of color, dripping from every windowsill and balcony. Shop owners are dusting off the merchandise hidden from view these past cold months, and are re-opening their doors to embrace the torrent of tourism that comes with warmer weather. The tourists are returning to the hills of Italy, like flocks of swallows that mark the anticipated return of Spring. Every town and village prepares itself for another working season, with myriad fiere and festivals, in an attempt to catch the wandering traveler's eye, and lure them in to spend a bit of their holiday time and money.
It has been through these festivals that I have not only found an occasional secondary source of income, thanks to my having been graciously deemed "fluent" in Italian, but also where I have enjoyed myself immensely. At smaller festivals, I've helped with translating for many happy travelers, and in their company, have eaten remarkable things, danced traditional dances, and on one occasion even been involved in a medieval sword fight. At larger festivals, I've worked as a translator as well, but perhaps in a more "professional" manner. For example, a couple of years ago, I was asked by an Italian writer friend of mine to accompany her to interview Bobby McFerrin, the musician of "Don't Worry, Be Happy" fame. His performance left me astounded. It was not the Top 40, pop music show I had expected, but rather, an amazing mix of world, jazz and classical music, sprinkled with sparkling moments of enchanting humor, that lifted my heart to the point of joy. After the show, I was thrilled and honored to speak with him, and translate the short interview my friend had requested. McFerrin was an elegant speaker, a very warm soul, and one musician that I would describe as genius, without feeling the least self-conscious about saying it.
Yes, festivals are fun…but, that's not always entirely true.
Early summer 2006, I met one of the organizers of a "Coffee and Poetry Festival," and after chattering away for a while in Italian, she asked if I would be interested in helping them during the upcoming festival. She said they needed someone to do some light, informal translating for a visiting American poet, at an evening "meet and greet" session. I understood it to be an opportunity for the public to meet with the gentleman, and I would be on hand to help the conversation run smoothly if needed. It wasn't a paying gig, strictly voluntary, but it sounded like it could be interesting, and so I readily accepted.
The day of the meeting arrived, and I showed up where the event was to take place, ready and relaxed. What could be more tranquil than an evening of poetry in a palazzo? Having been through things like this before, I had anticipated tables draped in linen, adorned with flowers, hors d'oeuvres and wine, with a smattering of white chairs arranged around the open space in typical "garden party" fashion. Walking through the enormous, 17th century entrance into the intimate 13th century courtyard, I found in its place, something else entirely.
In lieu of the dreamy, picturesque scene that I had quixotically imagined, I found no flowers, no wine, no linen, no smattering, but instead rows and rows of plastic chairs all facing the same direction, straight at my worst nightmare.
My heartbeat began assaulting my eardrums. "Don't panic," I told my stage-phobic self, "it's probably just the set up for some performance AFTER the informal meeting with the public. You don't have to go up there. I'm sure you don't have to go up there. I promise you…y-y-you don't have to go up there."
I spotted the woman that had recruited me, and doing my best impression of calm-cool-collected, I asked her just what it was exactly that was going to be required of me. Her replies were vague. When I pressed her for a direct response to whether or not I had to actually go up on that stage, she suddenly remembered she had to talk to the sound engineer, and flitted away, waving her hands at me and smiling, saying more to the air than to me, "Non è niente. Tranquilla! Tranquilla!" – "It's nothing. Don't worry! Don't worry!" Her sudden disappearance and non-answer to my question, did anything but make me feel very "tranquilla."
As I was standing there, looking at the giant doorway that had led me to this, I began to think how easy it would be, just to slip away. I mean, I certainly didn't want to let anyone down, but it is my deep-seated, personal feeling that I would rather wrestle a six-armed, rabid grizzly bear with severe halitosis and razorblades for claws, than set foot on any stage. As I stood there fantasizing about a quick and easy exit, a young man gently touched my arm, waking me from my mental-escape moment, and said, "It's time to meet Mr. Strand."
The tone in his voice when he spoke those words, made me feel as if I was about to be ushered in to meet the pope. Or the Wizard of Oz. Or a firing squad. I didn't know what to expect, I just knew this was a very serious thing.
My first impression of Mark Strand was that he is a very, very tall man. My second impression of him was that he was a rather handsome man as well. Wikipedia says that he was born in 1934, but armed with his movie-star good looks, I never would have guessed. And spending just a few minutes with him, his eyes gave me the impression that he was someone that wanted to laugh a lot more than he actually did.
When it came time to start the afternoon's affair, I was still operating under the delusion that I could pull off whatever it was I was supposed to do. "Informal" was the word she had used. "Tranquilla," she had said. I told myself that this was a wonderful experience, and that stage-fright or no, I was going through with this.
As we stepped onto the platform, I was amazed at how serene I was feeling. In retrospect, I understand now, that I had gone well beyond the state of Fear, and deep into the bordering country of Resignation. There were three chairs on the stage. To my left was seated a very well informed Italian journalist. To my right was Poet Laureate, MacArthur Fellowship recipient, and Pulitzer Prize winner, Mark Strand. I, in the middle, was to serve as interpreter. Some faceless, bodiless entity from somewhere handed me a microphone, and the torture began.
The young man to my left spoke, "Signore e Signori, benvenuti." For an eighth of a nanosecond, I felt relieved. Maybe this wasn't going to be so horrible after all. I could say "Ladies and Gentlemen, welcome," no problem. But before the hint of a word could leave my lips, he began speaking again, fast and furious, full of praise for Strand, comparisons of the works of today's guest artist to the works of other great poetical masters in history, and…much, much more. Even if he had been speaking English, it still would have sounded like "omstyqwuèptoz.x,vnjf<," to me. Poetry, is not my field. With a little work, I might be able to qualify as "plebian" someday. But that afternoon, I just sat listening to what this young man was blathering on about, trying desperately not only to understand it all, but to REMEMBER it all. He rambled on for what seemed like an eternity, before his vocal inflection alerted me to the fact that his little speech was coming to an end, I was going to be expected to do something.
When his introduction was done, he nodded his thanks to the audience, and then turned to me, signaling that it was now my turn to regurgitate everything he just said, but in English. I brought the microphone up to my mouth, took a deep breath, and then…hanging there in time, with my mouth open and not saying anything, I drove straight through the country of Resignation and into the Alternative Dimension of Surrealism. This whole thing became absurdly funny to me now. Still holding onto it, I flipped the microphone over my right shoulder, tilted my head, leaned in towards the overly eloquent journalist, and whispered with a grin, "That was super. Now, could you say that again, but…shorter?"
I don't know what reaction I was expecting. An understanding smile? A glimmer of empathy in his eyes? I really don't know. What I did receive however, was a cold, empty "You-have-got-to-be-kidding" stare. Reluctantly leaving the Alternative Dimension and slinking back to Resignation-land, I proceeded to stammer to the audience something along the lines of, "Mark Strand is a great poet. He writes great poetry. We think he's great. It's great he's here tonight." I pivoted toward Strand, preparing myself to have a go at his response. The withering stare that met me, was not unexpected. I had known for several minutes now that I was in over my head, and now they did too.
This torment went on for well over an hour. I did find though, as the interview progressed, that Strand's understanding of Italian miraculously seemed to improve immensely, as did the journalist's understanding of English, and I was slowly and subtly relieved of duty. But I was still unmitigatedly trapped on that stage. So, for the last leg of the endeavor, I initiated my Cranial-Auto-Gyrator, so that when either Strand or the journalist would speak, my head would rotate in the direction of whichever voice I heard, giving the appearance that I was actually listening to what they had to say. For good measure, I also applied the OTHTLORIAIF Program (that is, the "Occasionally Tilt Head To Left Or Right In An Interested Fashion" Program), so as to give the illusion of being touched by or involved with the flow of words that came from either man. In reality, I was actually engaged in an exquisite out-of-body-experience, far, far, faaaar away from that whole scene.
When it was finally over, I quickly shook Strand's hand, told him what a great pleasure it had been for me (something we both knew to be a lie), and I got out of there like a kid running for recess.
One hour and two glasses of wine later, I finally accepted the fact that humiliation won't actually kill you, and vowed to never put myself in that kind of position again. From now on, I'm keeping my festivals festive, gleefully sticking to dancing and dining, and leaving the stage for those who actually want to be there.