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April 24, 2012

Mantis, published by Stanford students, translates a world of poetry

Poetry and poetics from around the globe is featured and translated in the multicultural, student-run poetry journal Mantis, now celebrating its 10th year at Stanford.

By Camille Brown

The 10th-anniversary issue of Mantis includes "Ultramarine," a new feature of emerging English-language poets from around the world, introduced by established poets from their countries of origin. (Photo: Courtesy of Stanford University) 

Poet Timothy Yu is interested in how stereotypes and cultural references are communicated across different cultures. Yu, who earned his PhD in English and American Literature at Stanford in 2005, has been exploring the topic through his own writing.  

Yu recently wrote a series of poems entitled Chinese Silence in response to Chinese cultural references in the poem Grave, written by the acclaimed American poet Billy Collins. Several of Yu's pieces are featured in the recently released 10th year anniversary edition of Mantis, a poetry journal produced by Stanford students.

Yu's poetry offers a glimpse of what the latest edition of the poetry journal, Mantis, has to offer. Mantis is supported by the Division of Literatures, Cultures, and Languages (DLCL) and the English Department at Stanford and is edited and managed by graduate students.

Founded by graduate students with guidance from faculty mentors in 2000, the journal has consistently maintained an emphasis on new poets and an internationally diverse content. The journal emerged from a collective desire to facilitate conversation among the array of writers engaged in the practice of poetry and poetics, or literary criticism of poetry. Submissions of poetry, literature reviews and translations come from a variety of writers including Stanford students, practicing professors and professional poets from around the globe.

Recent editions have featured translations of canonical works such as those of Aime Cesaire and Paul Celan, English translations and critical pieces by academics and professionals. Entries by new poets or poets who haven't yet been published infuse each issue with a dose of fresh talent and style.

As Derek Mong, an English literature PhD candidate and poetry editor for Mantis' upcoming 11th edition, noted, "Mantis is significant because it finds its niche in the literary magazine's 'less read' genres."

Presenting a Global View of Poetry

Diversity sets the tone for the language of the journal. Mantis' affiliation with Stanford's DLCL affords it the unique opportunity to share literary works from various languages while publishing the original works alongside their translations. Mong said, "Mantis is as committed to poetry in another language as it is to English poetry – and that is rare!"

Mantis offers an innovative view on poetry by highlighting an aspect of the international poetry community. For instance, "Ultramarine," this year's theme, highlights the work of Anglophone poets living and writing abroad. As Virginia Ramos, Mantis' current editor in chief, said, "This feature fulfills a need to capture how poets from English-speaking countries such as Singapore or New Zealand wrote English poetry in a different context and how that subsequent interaction with poetry and poetics influenced the work they produced."

In a passage from her poem  Nafanua, the Samoan Goddess of War becomes a Creole, Samoan poet Tusiata Avia describes the shift in cultural perspective that occurs when one heritage is examined through the eyes of an outsider.

Who could pass for black or white?
Nafanua with a body soft as pig fat.
Nafanua melts down to a golden roux
runs in shining streaks down to the open mouth.

Ramos cites this poem as typifying the multicultural and experimental nature of Mantis submissions because of its unique "retelling and reintroduction of the weight and presence of ancient culture."

The translation section, currently edited by Mark Bajus, a PhD candidate in Spanish, encompasses all the submissions of translated poetry from languages as varied as Russian, French, Spanish, Japanese and even Macedonian. As Ramos explained, "Our translation section is unique because the poems we feature help to illustrate how poetry is written in different areas of the world." Ramos added that in featuring the work of the translators, the editors aim to emphasize not just the act of creating poetry but also the value of translation.

An example of a typical translation submission can be seen in the poem Catálogo de Todas las Cosas (Catalogue of All Things) by Aldo Mazzucchelli. It was translated by Charlotte Whittle, a Spanish translator currently living and teaching in California.

Las amatistas silenciosas que se acumulan en los escritorios
Las cosas débiles y detalladas que se adaptan a la vibrátil pupila.
La fijeza insana de la tranquilidad de las letras
La luz gris oblicua a través de la ventana de bordes de hierro
La luz que se deposita entre medio del polvo que se deposita entre medio de la luz en los galpones de la Aguada Oeste

Silent amethysts that pile up on desks
Pale and detailed things that adjust to the quivering pupil.
The sickly firmness of the tranquility of letters
The slanted grey light through the iron-framed window
The light that's deposited in the dust that's deposited in the light, in the
storehouses of Aguada Oeste

In the other sections of Mantis, criticism is spotlighted as a means to talk about what's happening in poetics and theory. These narratives are typically submitted by Stanford students, Stanford faculty or poetry professionals affiliated with the university. "The main idea of this portion of the magazine is to bring the rest of the current conversations in the greater poetry world to Stanford," Ramos said.

With academic libraries throughout the United States as well as poets, translators and poetry fans both at home and abroad subscribing to the journal, "Mantis has a life outside of Stanford," said Mong.

Embedded in tech-centric Silicon Valley, the Mantis editors find themselves considering the role of poetry in an increasingly digital age. As Mong noted, poetry and the digital age need not be at odds. "There are avant-garde movements that generate poetry from Google-style word searches and iPhone apps that deliver canonical poems to the palm of your hand," Mong said.  In the end, though, "a good poem slows you down, forcing a touch of patience in the midst of our hypertext, or simply hyper, lives." And, Mong added, "That is as necessary as ever."

Submissions for Mantis's 11th edition are now open to anyone within or beyond the Stanford community.  For further information contact the current editors: Virginia Ramos, editor in chief; Mark Bajus, translations editor; Derek Mong, poetry editor; and Chiyuma Elliott, reviews editor.

The theme of Mantis 11 will be "Poetry in an Adopted Language" and it will feature a new section of criticism on poetry performance. 

Camille Brown is an intern with the Human Experience, the Humanities web portal for Stanford University.



Corrie Goldman, Stanford Humanities Outreach Officer: (650) 724-8156,

Dan Stober, Stanford News Service, (650) 721-6965,


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