Tuesday, January 31, 2012

Yakub Kolas

The kind folks at the House of Friendship invited me to reprise last year's performance as master of ceremonies for a presentation on the works of a famous Belarusian poet called Yakub Kolas. The invitation came at a busy time, so I declined. Undeterred, they called back and invited me to be a participant, responsible only to read a poem or two in English. I said yes just to be a good sport, but I didn't have any special expectations for the evening.

In spite of my limited expectations I had a great time choosing and rehearsing the poems. I think I enjoyed that part of the project more this year than last, since I bore small responsibilities and had more time to savor and analyze the poetry. I chose two poems, a very downhearted cry for freedom from before the revolution and a joyous paean of praise to the joys of labor on a collective farm after the revolution. While both poems showed how hard people worked on the farms, the drudgery of working for "the man" before the revolution is supplanted by the joy of working for the collective good afterwards.

It's interesting how much the poet's impression of life changes along with his change of standpoint. It reminds me of something I used to think a lot about years ago. Fascinated by space travel, I wondered when we would look out from the stars instead of looking up at them. After a while I decided that we already began looking out from the stars once we gained a better understanding of our place in the universe. We're still looking, but we're beginning see differently.

Anyway, I had a good time getting ready for the program and didn't really think much about who else might be there or what they might say or read. Well... If I had any idea who would be there, I would have put on better shoes at least, and I would have encouraged Alla to come. The poet's youngest son is still alive and well, and he came to talk about his father and his poetry. There was also a bigwig from something like the Ministry of Culture, though I don't specifically remember her title. Anyway, the poet's son gave an excellent talk and everybody performed beautifully. The first guy was so enthusiastic about his poem that he read it in three languages: The original Belarusian, a professional English translation, and his own translation into his native language, Chinese. I worried for a moment about following such a powerful presentation but felt completely in my element once I took the stage, grateful for my thorough preparation and the audience's warmth.

I'm very grateful even to have been in the room for today's presentation. And being a participant comes as a much more special privilege than I dared imagine. What an opportunity!

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