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“palabra/word, leaf/hoja/page,” The Banff Centre for the Arts, Alberta, Canada, August 25–September 7, 2003

In the late summer of 2003, I was invited to the inaugural residency of the Banff International Literary Translation Centre to translate the work of the Mexican poet David Huerta. Multiple factors inspired the creation and realization of this outdoor installation on the grounds of the Banff Centre: the solitary nature of my translation work, the glorious natural setting of Bannf, and the essential inseparability of my work as a textual and visual artist.

Anna and Mark

Mark Schafer and Canadian translator Anne Malena, after hanging Mark's "poetree" installation

On my walk to my underground translation studio, I began collecting aspen poplar leaves from low-hanging branches along the way. Between one poem and another, I began tracing these leaves over and over again on sheets of synthetic vellum, cutting them out, and sewing threads to each stem. Then, with the help of fellow translator Anne Malena, I initiated the first stage of the installation: hanging the six original leaves that I had sewn onto larger paper tracings. A few days later, we hung the fifty-two blank vellum leaves from the lowest branches of a large aspen poplar tree situated at the center of the campus. To my astonishment, rather than fluttering leaf-like in the breeze, the leaves spun rapidly at the end of their long stems of thread, white flickers in the slightest wind.

poettree leaves

Vellum leaves from Mark's text-image "poetree" installation float in the breeze at the Banff Centre for the Arts.

Stage two of the installation came several days later, when, in the early hours of the morning, I wrote one (recurring) word in Spanish from David Huerta’s poetry on one side of each leaf. Huerta’s poetry was not only spreading into this public space, which all translators and artists in residence passed by as they walked between the dorm and dining hall, it was recombining in the wind to create new poems from the old. A few days later, on the other side of each vellum leaf, I wrote the English words I was using in my translation for each of Huerta’s Spanish words—though chosen at random, so that equivalents words were rarely on the same leaf. Since the vellum was translucent, the Spanish and English words commingled, as they were doing in my head, and now constantly new translations of the Spanish, as well as dialogues between the two languages, were coming into being with each breath of air.

One night, near the end of the installation and of the residency, I cut the leaves from their threads, placing the leaves in a pile at the base of the tree and leaving the bare threads to move with the wind. A day later, I cut down the thread and added it to the pile of leaves, thus concluding the installation.

Or so I thought. As it turned out, the papery language I had set flickering beneath the poplar had entered into the lives and imaginations of many of the people who passed by it many times every day. At the reading that David and I gave to end the translator’s residency, Sandra Alland, a Canadian poet, read her original poem “Leaf Climber,” which she had composed “using 47 words from the poetree installation.” (Click here to read “Leaf Climber.”) Some people read the installation like a book, and others took home hojas/leaves after they had fallen and begun to blow around campus, dispersing in the wind and falling temperatures, as we were. Countless new poems and works of art came to life under and out of this short-lived poetree, surpassing my greatest expectations and intentions.

Read comments by translator participants in residence at the Banff colony about “palabra/word, leaf/hoja/page”.