Performing Poetry: Salgado Maranhão and Oral Tradition in Philadelphia

Reading poetry seems to be a lost art these days. Many people cannot even identify a favorite poem or poet because they haven’t read any, or it has been so long since they read poetry (in school). Yet, verse and lyricism are alive and well everday in our music and in some cultures, are inherent in the language. I remember being told as a student that “In Latin America everyone is a poet.” I found this to be largely true–and I encountered a figurative, metaphorical and elegant way of expressing oneself, especially by the “old-timers,” whether in Spanish or Portuguese. I think of the expression (now mostly outdated) in Brazil, “Qual é a sua graça?” for “What is your name?” “Graça” means grace and referred to the name you were baptized. What a multi-faceted word! Grace could mean a blessing, to be blessed for example. Then there are secular compliments that extend from it, such as  “graceful” or “with grace.”  But it almost always signals something positive. When used in daily life, it seemed so special and poetic to be asked that (as opposed to “Qual é seu nome”) because of all the possible associations or references to “grace” that would be set off in my mind.

On Tuesday October 23, 2018, I was treated to 80 minutes of poetry and inspiration in the middle of the afternoon at Drexel University in Philadelphia. These moments and this context, felt like an oasis, a respite, in an otherwise busy work day. Salgado Maranhão, a Brazilian poet and composer, and his translator, Alexis Levitin, had been invited to Drexel to give poetry readings. Dr. Miriam Kotzin, of the English department, organized two readings, one at 2:00 pm and one at 3:30 pm. I attended the 2:00 pm reading. I arrived a few minutes early in time to briefly chat with Salgado and Alexis in Portuguese. From the moment I met them, I felt welcomed. Because of their engaging personalities, I anticipated an exciting reading.  Between the two of them, they have written and published many works–poetry, music and translations. Salgado is also a phenomenon since he wasn’t formally educated until he was 15. He sure has caught up and gone above and beyond in terms of his writing abilities and production!


Both recited the “same” poems from two books, Blood of the Sun (Sol Sangüíneo) and Tiger Fur (A Pelagem da Tigra), first in the original Portuguese (Salgado) and then in the English translation (Alexis). However, as anyone who has ever translated knows (or who knows both languages of a translated work, and a poem, especially), they are not the same, but two versions or interpretations. There are many reasons for this, including the variation of lexicon in each language to start with.  Also, there are artistic choices that the poet made and subsequently, that the translator must make in order to render something similiar to the original. Except, how do you represent or refer to a rhyme in the translation if the words in the second language don’t rhyme when you translate word for word? This is just one example of the challenges that the translator faces. This is particularly accute for poetry, since poetry has so much symbolism and may also include word puns, and all kinds of rhyming and verse schemes. There is no such thing as an “exact translation,” when it comes to poetry.

In this reading, Alexis talked about some of these issues artfully slipped in between their reading of a poem. For example, he mentioned how masculine and feminine adjectives in Portuguese limited the possible meanings in a particular line of a poem, to just one. Meanwhile, this limitation did not exist in English so the potential meanings and interpretations were multiplied. Alexis commented that Salgado LIKED when this happened and did not have problems with exploiting it in the translation. Incidentally, they always discussed these issues before deciding on the translation. If one looks at the two renderings side by side, Salgado’s poem, and Alexis’ translation, there will be more poetic license than what is usually encountered in a translated work. This tight collaboration between poet and translator is not always the case–sometimes the translator has permission to translate a work, but does not have to check in with the poet and has license to just translate as they see fit. Sometimes the poet is already dead or otherwise unavailable. It was intriguing to hear how much collaboration went into the rendering of Salgado’s poetry into English, and how much they were “partners” in this project.

Salgado also spoke about how language reaches its potential and maximum representation of the human soul in poetry, the discovery of poetry as an instrument of liberation, the subtext of slavery and the trauma of opression.

Overall, the event reminded me of the Brazilian literatura de cordel, a popular folk poetry tradition in the northeast of Brazil. Not because of Salgado’s poetry itself, which is quite erudite, but because of the recitation and connection to the oral tradition. Chapbooks or pamphlets of literatura de cordel could be read silently by an individual alone, but very popular was the recitation/reading of the story to sell the pamphlets, or in a circle to an audience, whether at home or in public. In this reading at Drexel, both the poet and translator are aware of this space or displacement between their languages. This creates distinctive translations and interpretations. Nevertheless, it also functions as a creative space where they dialogue with each other and with the audience in the public act of recitation. This brings the audience into the creative process, in the sense that the recitation is performance and an intrinsic part of poetry, and the audience’s participation in the discussion of  “metatranslation,” henceforth understanding what goes into the making a translation. This is simliar to the cordel performance, and exagerrated in the breaking of the fourth wall in theatre. This captivating reading emphasized the oral tradition of poetry, by breathing life into the words on a page with inflection and rhythm, and exploring  languages in contact and conflict in the act of translation.

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