Roger Humes, editor of Other Voices International Project
Poet, musician, and computer graphic artist Roger Humes is the Director of The Other Voices International Project, a cyber-anthology of world poetry that resides at www.othervoicespoetry.org, and the International Poetry Editor for Harvest International, an annual arts and literature magazine produced by the California State Polytechnic University, Pomona.
ta: Please share with us the details regarding the manifestation of the Other Voices International Poetry Project.
rh: Prior to the creation of OV, I had become involved in the Iranian poetry scene through the poet Sheema Kalbasi, co-writing poetry and working with her translating the works of other Iranian poets into English. In Spring 2004, a poet I met through her, Taraneh Javanbakht, contacted me asking if I would be so kind to host a half dozen of her poems on my personal website, “electrato.com”. I thought it seemed like a good idea, so I consented. I told Sheema about it and mentioned it might be interesting to do that with more poets. She immediately showed up with ten poets who were anxious for a place to exhibit their work. I invited a couple myself and we were off and running.
As I said, I initially set the poets up on my personal website. Since my own work on the site was indexed on a page titled “My Poetry,” I indexed the poets on a page titled “Other Poetry.” Things started to take off at that point. Sheema and I decided that we had a chance to contribute something vital to the poetry world, a platform where poets could portray their work as chose. We liked the idea of naming it Other Voices, but that name was already taken by an e-journal published by the University of Pennsylvania. Since we believed this should be a global platform chose the name The Other Voices International Project. The next step came when I realized that the project was quickly outgrowing my personal website. So I registered the domain name “othervoicespoetry.org”, contracted a new site with my hosting service, brought OV online, and we’ve been growing ever since.
ta: The poets featured in Other Voices International Poetry Project are by "invitation only." What is the reasoning for this, and what criteria do you use to choose the poets who will feature? Do other people you know suggest poets or do you find them yourself?
rh: The reason for “by invitation only” is that initially when we brought the project online at its own site, it became quickly apparent that we were going to be swamped with submissions. I hated to limit it to invitations but saw no other way for our small staff to be to produce a quality site.
There is no true criteria for whom we chose for the project. We attempt to incorporate poets of all styles, ages, nationalities, religions, sexual persuasion, race, experience, professionalism, etc. Our goal is create as diverse of a collection as possible, to truly portray the world of poetry. For myself, quite often I will think of a place or a style of poetry and search out poets. Such journeys can take one to interesting places. For example, one time I went looking for poets from Malta. While searching, I discovered the nearby island of Gozo that has its own poetry society. I invited two of their members to submit to OV.
Occasionally, I still get someone who “dares” to send me their work without an invitation. Some of them I have included in OV, others I haven’t.
ta: What is the general response from the poets you ask to feature? Has anyone turned you down for a feature? Why or why not?
rh: The response on the whole is very enthusiastic. Most poets agree with the concept of OV and are delighted to be a part of it. They are honored to become a member of the project. Some have refused. A Turkish poet declined because we had included other poets from his country who wrote poems of a religious nature. There are some poets who have figured out how to make a living with their poetry and don’t want to share anything unless they get paid, which we do not have the funds to do. However, there are other poets who have gladly joined because they see OV as a place to advertise their work.
I personally have always been fascinated with the poetry in songwriting but must admit we have not had the best of luck getting songwriters to participate. I am not really sure why. There was one musician who recently died, who I desperately wanted in OV, but he never answered my emails. However, we do have some excellent lyrics included in the project such as “1 Giant Leap,” who was part of the inspiration for OV and to whom it is dedicated, along with Mike Scott of the “Waterboys.”
ta: Part of the OV's mission statement is "to save humanity from extinction." Do you still think the War on Terror is the main threat to humanity? Please elaborate.
rh: I have always contended that the terrorism we have encountered and will encounter is a manifestation of deeper problems, such as over population, social dislocation, resource erosion, environmental change, etc. In addition, the world is evolving at a breathtaking pace and millions of people have only recently left their villages and been plunged into it. These people are confronted by a new world where their long held social moorings no longer exist. Taken all together, this is a volatile combination whose implications we are only starting to realize.
If anything, the “War of Terror” as conducted by the American government is only making these problems worse. The invasion of Iraq added many problems to an already bad situation. The support of the current government in Pakistan has helped create a breeding ground to radicalize people who see they are offered no other alternative from the unresponsive voice of their leader. We have alienated much of the world with our heavy-handed foreign policy.
“To save humanity from extinction” may be beyond the scope of art alone, but I truly believe we can do our part by offering a forum where people may express their feelings about what is happening in the world around them, exploring their culture and environs through verse. They can do this and share it with all of us while we share ours with them. I truly believe that one of the best ways to learn about a culture is through its poetry. It may not be much, but it is a start.
ta: The Other Voices mission statement also mentions 9/11 as the main reason OV was created. Is this still the main reason/purpose of its existence or has its scope broadened to being concerned with other issues that may threaten humanity such as global warming, increasing poverty, etc? Were these always the main reasons for starting it and, if so, why weren't they included in the mission statement?
rh: 9/11 was only part of the impetus for the creation of the project. As important as that was Jamie Catto and Duncan Bridgeman’s “1 Giant Leap.” They traveled the world with a DV camera and a Macintosh Powerbook recording musicians, writers, and thinkers, creating truly global music and art. They showed that there lies within us all a hope for a better world. Anyone who isn’t familiar with their work should check them out at 1giantleap.tv. They are currently working on their second project.
The tragic event of 9/11 is like my answer to the previous question; it is a manifestation of deeper seeded problems in the world. I do not condone violence in any form as a solution; but one point about 9/11 that is seldom, if ever, raised is how desperate, threatened, and alienated from our culture such people must be to commit such an act. However, at the time 9/11 was completely overwhelming. For quite some time it perhaps the most paramount concern in the West, probably in the long run to our detriment. Perhaps it is time we revisit the mssion statement. It does now seem somewhat dated.
ta: As editor, what has been your biggest challenge, and your best reward?
rh:The biggest challenge for me is keeping fresh. I have read so much poetry since the project began, that sometimes I feel overwhelmed and saturated with verse. I also feel drawn in many directions with people asking for help and advice with their work. Just because I have the desire and the technical and artistic expertise to help create and run OV, doesn't really make me an expert on anything. However, I have gotten better at making myself take breaks when they are needed. Now, I just need to learn how to occasionally say no…
The greatest reward is the global poetic community of which I am now a part. I have made many truly wonderful friends over the years, as well as being able to work with such an excellent artistic partner as Sheema. I love the fact we are able to expose so many poets to the world. As we say, “the poet is voice; Other Voices is merely the platform.” This is one of the most important things to ever happen to me.
ta: Has your involvement as editor with OV changed or influenced your own writing life? How or how not?
rh: I don’t see how one can be exposed to so much work from all over the world and not be influenced. The influence has been stylistic, as well as an expansion of my horizons, in the understanding of what the world is and can be. It has also helped me find the courage to keep pushing the envelope with my creative process. Artistically, I never sit still and working with OV encourages that.
ta: What countries have participated, and have there been any restrictions? With so many cultures being presented what have been the translation issues?
rh: All over the world, as we say from Azerbaijan to Yemen. Last year we added a poet, Claire Beynon, whose work was written in the Antarctica, so we literally have work from every continent. We also may have the largest collection of Iranian poets in English on the web.
The only restrictions that have been placed are those by the poets and/or their publishers. Since we give the artist complete control over his or her section the former has not been a problem for us. As for publishers some have requested a copyright notice on every poem and that is also no problem. We have not run into restrictions yet from any government.
As for translations most of that is done before it comes to us. Sheema and I have translated some Iranian poets. She has also done some Danish and Swedish translation. Another person who works with us, Ron Hudson, has translated a number of Latin American poets. We have not received any complaints about any of the translations on the site.
ta: Some of Other Voices poets have won awards. Who were they and what did they win?
rh: The award list quite numerous so I will only touch on a few: Naomi Shihab Nye: Lannan Fellow, Guggenheim Fellow, Wittner Bynner Fellow (Library of Congress); Nathalie Handal: shortlisted for The Agnes Lynch Starrett Poetry Prize/The Pitt Poetry Series, Menada Literary Award; Mario Petrucci: British Arts Council’s Writers Award, Bridport Prize, Daily Telegraph/Arvon International Poetry Competition Prize, featured poet of BBC3; Mahmoud Darwish: French Medal for Arts and Letters, Lannan Award for Cultural Freedom; Ernesto Kahan: 1985 Nobel Peace Laureate as part of the International Physicians for the Prevention of Nuclear War; Elizabeth Smithers: former Te Mata Estate Poet Laureate of New Zealand; Ursula K. Le Guinn: National Book Award, five Hugo Awards, five Nebula Awards, SFWA's Grand Master, Kafka Award, Pushcart Prize; Billy Collins: Guggenheim fellow, former U.S. Poet Laureate. We also have many members of PEN and quite a few poets who have attended the International Writers Program at the University of Iowa.
ta: Other Voices is listed in the World Poetry Directory of UNESCO. What are OV's goals for 2008 and beyond?
rh: Our goal is to keep growing and expanding, to keep exploring the horizons of poetry. Our first print anthology is due out in November. We have also partnered the last few years with the English Department at Cal Poly Pomona, contributing international poetry to their annual arts and literature publication Harvest. We expect to keep working with them for the foreseeable future.
We want to keep pushing the envelope of the poetry we exhibit. I personally would like to include more concrete poetry and the work of those exploring use of technology. A fine example of such work is the artist Kemp from Paris. He constructed a Flash driven shell to exhibit his photographs. You choose a date and frame template. A word appears in each frame of the template and is then replaced by a photo. Then if you scroll your mouse onto the center of the picture a series of words flash on the screen, starting with the original word in the frame. His section is in Vol. 29.
I would also like to exhibit dance. I have long believed that dance is the closest art form to poetry, much closer than fiction. It would be nice to show film clips of dance on the site, but we really do not have the disk space. For now it would have to be a photographic exhibit.
Foremost is for us to always remember that we are doing this for the poets, not for ourselves. I have long believed one of the reasons OV works so well is as I said earlier we give the artists complete control over their work. We are fortunate to able to do so.
This journey with this “cyber-anthology” is one of the most remarkable accidents of my life. I did not set out to do OV. It just happened to me. I feel truly blessed.