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Ruben Quesada Talks Poetry, Translation, and Neck Tattoos

by Blake Z. Rong

Ruben Quesada & Miciah Bay Gault in Cafe Anna

On the right side of his neck, just below his ear, poet and professor Ruben Quesada has a tattoo of the Chinese character 晨, set within a thick black circle, which he tells me means, “early light.” Quesada was born on an early morning in a late summer day, in August in the 1970s. “I feel that idea of light embodies who I am, and my personality,” he said. Getting that tattoo “seemed like the right thing to do.”

Quesada (MFA, PhD) grew up in Bell, an oft-overlooked city tangled within Los Angeles’ grid-like boulevards, five miles southeast from downtown, close to where the 5 and 710 Freeways converge. His mother immigrated from Costa Rica just before he was born. With the help of relatives she left Quesada’s father and an abusive relationship to move to Southern California, where she worked to raise Quesada and his two sisters. Next door was a Chinese family that had come from Nicaragua. They had six children, five of them daughters. The son was just a month older than Quesada.

“We became best friends,” said Quesada. “From kindergarten to high school we were practically inseparable. I was at their house daily. I learned so many things I would have never learned within my own family. I learned about pop culture, about computers, about nature—I would go camping with them, to Sequoia National Park, Yosemite, Joshua Tree. Because my mother had to work, she couldn’t take any time off to take us on vacations. I learned about their culture, their daily way of life. This family took me in.”

When Quesada completed his MFA, he sought a reminder of the past. In many ways, he said, earning graduate degrees in the arts severs you from this personal history: you either have to let go of it, or find a way to integrate it into your work. “I knew there was a lot that I had to let go,” he said. “But growing up with that family was something I wanted to hang on to, and to be physically a part of me.”

Quesada’s debut poetry collection, Next Extinct Mammal, was published by Greenhouse Review Press in 2011. He is the translator of Spanish poet Luis Cernuda’s work, Exiled from the Throne of Night. When he is not teaching, he serves as Contributing Editor to the Chicago Review of Books, Senior Editor at the UK-based Queen Mob’s Tea House, and the moderator of the AWP Conference’s annual Latino Caucus, which he founded. He earned his MFA at the University of California Riverside, then a PhD at Texas Tech University in Lubbock, Texas, a town he recently immortalized in verse.

On the cusp of debuting his second collection of poetry, Quesada sat down with me at the Vermont College of Fine Arts, where he’s teaching a course on poetry and translation. We spoke in Café Anna, on the ground floor of College Hall, named after the ghost that still haunts the building.

 

Do you still talk to your friend?

Not regularly. After high school, he did what many people you grow up with do—people move, people get married…we lost touch just after graduate school. Almost 30 years after we met.

 

So he doesn’t know about the tattoo.

No.

 

But he’d probably be pretty excited.

I think his whole family would be! I think of them often.

 

Were you able to find a unique identity as a Central American in California, within the Hispanic and largely Mexican community?

That’s a good question. In the Los Angeles area there are predominantly Mexican people, and in the city of Bell, there were a few other Central Americans. I remember knowing a handful of El Salvadorian people, maybe one or two from Nicaragua. Early on, I knew that Latino culture was quite diverse, that there were others who spoke Spanish like me, but maybe not held the same ideas about food, or ritual, or tradition. The unifying factor was language. We understood that our way of life was different. But we all could speak to each other in Spanish.

 

How did you come to poetry growing up?

My mother encouraged me to read early on, read widely and broadly. She gave me a book of poems by Pablo Neruda that she had brought with her from Costa Rica. That was my first exposure to poems. But I didn’t really think I could make a life with it.

It wasn’t until I was a teenager that I started writing letters, which was cathartic. I didn’t understand that writing letters could be a form of poetic expression until high school. My school offered college guidance, but the resources were minimal: I didn’t know that I could go to college and study poetry. I was very good at math and science, and I was going to major in physics, but at the very last minute I discovered that if I majored in English, I could still have access to poetry.

Ultimately, I ended up going to a community college and taking classes in poetry writing before transferring to Riverside, because it had a department of creative writing that was separate from English. It was then that I knew that I could major and focus in poetry, and I learned that I could make a living teaching poetry.

 

When you graduated, you said: “I knew that I wanted to lead a life in the arts.” Did you ever have any doubts?

I had doubts because I heard that it was difficult to get a full-time job teaching poetry with just an MFA. Even now, with a PhD, it’s still quite difficult. I wanted to do it full-time. So it was a really interesting psychological change—but also, the tattoo was a bodily change, right? Having changed my appearance in this way immediately limited the kind of work that I’d get. In many ways, it forced my hand.

I doubted whether I could make a living mostly because I didn’t have any models. I didn’t know anyone who did it except for the professors that I had. And none of them looked like me. None of them had the same background that I had. It became critically important to me that I ensure that the visibility and presence of people of color, and queer people were in the literary community in the arts. And so that is one of my passions: not only to create space, but to feature their work.

 

Ruben Quesada smiles at podium in front of abstract posters at Cafe Anna

Ruben Quesada reading at Cafe Anna

Translation must have been inevitable from the study of poetry.

I believe that any time we speak, it’s a form of translation. Any time we’re trying to convey the ideas that we have in our own head, and we put those ideas into language, it’s a form of translation. But what really draws me to poetry is that initial interaction I had with it when my mother gave me that Neruda book as a child. While I grew up speaking Spanish and learning to read Spanish, it always felt like something that I wanted to share with others in my life who didn’t speak Spanish. I knew that the best way to do that is to interpret those words into a language that was familiar to those I knew.

 

If you could convey one thing to our translation class you’re teaching this semester, what would it be?

Over time, the concept of translation has changed for me. In recent years, I started putting words to images, to sound. There’s an interesting take on a biblical passage from Genesis that is on my Soundcloud page. I translated Genesis into the sound of gunfire and also into the sound of a harp. Like language, it’s a really interesting performative aspect to translation. I continue to challenge my own notions of translation. Now that I have a chance to teach it, I have a really interesting, challenging thing to do. But my hope is to show others how translation can live in these multiple forms.

I think there’s certainly an academic notion that translation is a lexical exercise where you’re translating something word for word, or sentence to sentence, but what I believe is important is being able to convey an idea or an emotion that might bridge or transgress language or culture.

 

An alum from this program recently founded their own journal, and you’ve had your hand in two: Codex Journal and Stories & Queer. It seems to be something that a lot of us might pursue.

I started Codex in 2011, during my final years at Texas Tech University. I wanted to find a way to integrate tech and also create a space for people who weren’t visible, including an annual queer people of color issue that ran once a year.

Stories & Queer is a traveling reading series that my partner and I started in 2013. Its aim is to travel to rural areas where there’s a lack of visibility of LGBT people—we find a space and we create a literary event, so people there have an opportunity to tell their stories. In Montpelier I’m currently organizing a literary event with a Vermont group called Outright.

 

What are some things that surprised you when you launched a journal?

Codex has been on hiatus for some time. But toward the end, I found guest editors. It takes a lot of time to curate an issue—this was a quarterly journal, and even four times a year, it was a lot of time to try to either solicit or go through submissions and create a cohesive idea for each issue. Even though I found guest editors, trying to find a guest editor who was passionate about a particular idea also took a lot of time. It’s a digital journal, and that also takes some financial backing. To ensure that all the work I publish lives online, I have to continue hosting that URL. There are so many small journals I see disappear in a year, mostly because people don’t have the time and money to ensure that it’s gonna be around. The long game is important. If you’re going to feature people’s work, you owe them the space to ensure them that their work will survive.

Maybe it didn’t necessarily surprise me, but I don’t know if surprise is the right word—it renewed my respect for literary institutions that have been around for decades.

 

What drew you toward Luis Cernuda and his work?

I was drawn to Spanish language poetry because of my background. The most recognizable poets of Spain might be those of the late 19th or early 20th century, a group known as the Generation of ‘27. That includes another recognizable name: Federico García Lorca. Cernuda was a contemporary. They were the only two gay poets of that group—Lorca was not out, but Cernuda was. In many ways, his openness with his sexuality may have hindered his success. I started studying Cernuda during my MFA program, and began to translate my work then. There are three American poets who have translated most of his work—Reginald Gibbons, Derek Harris, and Stephen Kessler who’s won many awards for his translation of Cernuda.

 

But there is one collection by him that has not been completely translated. When I was in graduate school I reached out to his family and acquired rights to translate his work. It’s his collection called Las Nubes, or “The Clouds”, that I’m currently working on. As I finish my second collection of poems, I’m slowly returning to Cernuda.

 

How does Las Nubes fit into his overall body of work?

This collection was written in exile. Cernuda self-exiled in 1937 and he never returned. So these poems were written during his time outside of Spain. He taught at Columbia University and at UCLA, and it’s during his time at UCLA that he died. So it’s interesting to translate these poems that were written in his native language, while he was outside of his home country.

The poems align themselves with most of his other work, which is spare, influenced by surrealism, and focused on love and desire. Throughout his body of work, he’s wrestled with his homosexual desires and how that fit into his world. He does that through the implication of the body and nature.

 

Tell me about your second collection of poetry.

The second collection is a departure from my first. My first collection is focused on my time in LA, my childhood, and my family. I think place and family play a prominent role in that collection. If someone was to examine many first collections of poetry by Latino writers, they might find that those are pretty common themes.

The current manuscript is focused on desire and religion. The book is organized by different Catholic sacraments—there’s a section on communion, there’s a section on confession, and the poems are organized in parts. One section might have a title, but poems in that section are numbered. What’s different about the way they look is that they’re laid out in blocks of text with no punctuation, so they appear to look as tablets.

The idea for that really came to me when I was reading at the Art Institute of Chicago. There was a Mayan stone in the shape of a square. The stone itself tells a story in hieroglyphs. Those glyphs reminded me of contemporary use of images to convey ideas, emojis, and I began to think of my use of imagery in a similar fashion.

 

You said you live in Chicago. How do you like the city?

I love Chicago. I’ve been in the Midwest five years, but I’ve lived in Chicago just over two. There’s many things I like about it. Its public transit, the skyline, the lake, the weather. The way the city is laid out reminds me of Los Angeles in many ways: the city spreads out into little neighborhoods just the way Los Angeles does. So in many ways it feels like home.

I’ve considered living in cities like New York City and I still think about it sometimes, but the pace of New York makes me a bit nauseous. There’s just too much happening at once. Los Angeles is in retrospect too spread out. Chicago is busy enough and there’s enough culture that it feels like a middle ground.

 

How do you write? Do you write at home, in a coffee shop, etc?

I write anywhere I can, at any moment. Revision is a different story. When I revise, most of the time I’ll revise at a desk, at a table.

I love revising, I think I do it too much sometimes. You know, I’m reminded of Walt Whitman’s incessant revisions of Leaves of Grass and I have to remind myself to step away and not labor so much over an idea or a moment in a poem. I try to step away from something as often as I can.

Silhouettes of a Vermont Poet at Home: An Interview with Kerrin McCadden

by Valentyn Smith

In an ideal world, Kerrin McCadden and I have found ourselves sunken into the velour armchairs of some vintaged cafe and have spent the last hour huddled over our steaming teamugs, deep in conversation. We’d be talking poetry—especially because Kerrin McCadden’s poetry earned her the 2015 Vermont Book Award, as well as the 2013 New Issues Poetry Prize. Alas, in the real world, Kerrin is as incredibly busy as she is incredibly accomplished. ­­­Over this fall, she was on a deadline for a magazine while judging a book contest and guest teaching at UVM. All this in addition to the balancing act that is her life as a full-time Vermont writer, teacher and parent. Yet there’s still more to what makes Kerrin so fascinating. And it’s the other life Kerrin lives that intrigues me, the life of a poet at the desk with her pens, dreams, words; a poet at home.

The first time I saw Kerrin, she was spotlighted at the 2017 Vermont Book Award Gala as the 2015 winner for Landscape of Plywood Silhouettes, a collection of poems. As a current MFA candidate, I have been curious about the creatures of habit that are writers, about their ghosts, their portals and their story-telling origins. Here, Kerrin granted me the tales of her own storytelling origins as well as the art of multitasking while sneaking a peek at her nightstand. Fortunately, she carved out some time to share her writing chops, warmth and artistry with me as she juggled la vida loca as well as treated me to her sagey insights and poetic word-smithing and, wisdom-wise, it reads like a string of pearls.

 

Valentyn Smith: We’re going to dive into portals—great writing that triggers our imaginations with inspiration, gets our creative juices flowing and (vicariously) transports us. I’m curious about the books on your nightstand (could be a proverbial one), as well as favored books on your shelves, and favorite poems and poets. For starters, what is a book that you’ll turn to for inspiration, time and time, again? What books or writers are your “portal-reads,” transporting you to times, places, memories or worlds that bring you back to the now and then to the page, ready to write?

Kerrin McCadden: Weirdly enough, on my nightstand is the 1912 edition of the Thesaurus of English Words and Phrases by P. M. Roget, a beautiful little pair of books full of common and not so common words and phrases. There are some real gems in there—words and phrases no longer in circulation. It’s both a soporific and an imagination agitator.

I also have my travel journals from recent trips (France and Ethiopia), the novel Grace, by Paul Lynch.

On my proverbial bookshelf, re: books I return to, is a pile of The Art of books, including The Art of Syntax, by Ellen Bryant Voigt, The Art of Recklessness, by Dean Young, The Art of Description, by Mark Doty. There is also Brigit Pegeen Kelly’s Song, which stands as a sacred text. I mostly only read poetry these days and have collected hundreds of contemporary collections, which I cycle through—moving a new handful of them to my table periodically to revisit.

 

VS: Who is a writer and/or what is a book that you believe everyone should read in their lifetime? In that same vein, what other book(s) do you highly recommend to young writers and poets?

 

KM: I know my reading history is skewed, as is everyone’s. We are pushed toward and away from books according to our education systems, our circumstances and our tastes as they emerge. I’m hesitant, ever, to say who should read what (though telling people what to read has been my life’s work—so, irony, yeah), but in any context, I can only say why I’ve chosen a book for the moment of my recommendation. I’ll say that for myself, a seminal work was Tess of the D’Urbervilles, by Thomas Hardy. I don’t know if everyone should read it. I read it by accident, and it rocked my young world.

For young poets, I want them to read the poets writing now—otherwise they insist on writing with all kinds of old-fashioned flourishes (grammatical inversions, clunky rhyme, forced patterns that are not consistently deployed). When I show them what poems are doing now, they can gain a sense of how to invent a poem, which is what we are all doing with every poem we write. I show them literary journals online. Most of them don’t know what a literary journal is. I have them sign up for the Academy of American Poets Poem-a-Day series—anything to put contemporary poems in front of them. Once young people start to read contemporary poetry, they can begin to know what the conversation is that they are trying to enter.

 

VS: What is the best piece of advice on writing (or piece of writerly advice) you’ve been given? 

 

KM: I think across the board, it is the learned willingness to keep at the page—both to create new work and to revise what I’m building. One time at Bread Loaf, Ed Hirsch gave a lecture in which he said that writers need, primarily, to show up at the page. He exhorted us to bump our heads against the ceiling of our abilities, not our willingness to show up at the page. By which he meant you can’t know what you can do unless you continually practice. Showing up at the page is the magic answer. Show up again and again, or lose hope, really, of being a writer. If writing is how you process the world, then you need to have the practice of writing. I can’t stand it when students of mine say, “I just couldn’t come up with anything.” Any human can come up with something. Imagination is our central gift. I’m pretty sure imagination is how we first figured out how to use tools. We could imagine something we couldn’t see. What they really mean when they say, “I just couldn’t come up with anything,” is that they don’t like what they wrote, or they didn’t come up with anything. Just keep putting the words together.

 

VS: Storytelling has its origins in the oral tradition. How much of your work do you write by ear and how would you describe your work’s relation to sound?

 

KM: This is an interesting question, and, I think, goes back to my response about practice. When I first started putting poems out into the world, one consistent response was about musicality in the poems. I know that when I write, there is a certain moment when I discover that the language has settled into what I want, but the toggle switches that I throw to decide are many, and it’s a process that’s become largely intuitive. I also know that all my early memories of poetry were the language of the Catholic mass, which I had memorized by the time I left for college. The mass is designed to be effective to a listening audience that may or may not be reading along. It’s a collective language experience, so the language is heightened in importance not just because it’s about God—but because a huge number of people are sharing it. Church was where I experienced formal language, language as an act of performance, language that transcended daily language—and I memorized it through sheer exposure to it. I know that musicality in language is part of the pattern of how I think. And before I read contemporary poets, I read the Romantics and the Modernists, who also teach line by line how sound can work in poems.

I’ve also always been a mimic, picking up accents in ways that are sometimes embarrassing. I catch on to phrases I like and use them repetitively in spates. I catch on to patterns obsessively. I’m really in love with sound, which is tough, because I’m losing my actual hearing. Good thing, I guess, that language happens inside the mind as well as in the ear!

 

VS: What was the first poem you read (or heard) that blew you away and lit your fire? Why?

 

KM: It was probably “Marriage,” by Gregory Corso. I read it during high school, and it was unlike anything I had ever read in school. I loved how unhinged the speaker was and how highly tuned Corso’s imagination was—how ranging and wild it all was. I think this is the first poem that taught me what poems could do in our time.

 

VS: Are you into form? If so, which and why, or why not? Details, please!

 

KM: I’m totally into form, structure. Every poem invents its own form even if the form of the poem is received. Regardless of the fixed nature of a form, of course, there is always invention—even on the obvious level of sequencing words. By which I mean to say every poet is into form. For me, I don’t revel in received forms, but I do love watching a poem as I’m writing it and making the formal decisions that are good for the poem. When a poem is drafted, one of my favorite editing sequences is moving it into and out of various shapes and forms. Shifting a poem from long lines into short lines, for instance, tends to expose baggy phrasing—and that’s how I tend to find it, when a line is shortened and I realize there’s nothing necessary in it. Shifting between different forms, even ordering of the lines, helps expose what should be cut. I’m a poet who errs on the side of too many words, and it takes me tricking myself to see where I should lose any of them.

 

VS: What was your very first encounter with poetry? What inspired you to write your own, and at what point in life was this? Also, how would you describe your current approach to writing poetry, compared to when you first started writing? What compelled you then versus now?

 

KM: I have some ridiculous snippets I wrote when I was little, in grade school. What is clear in them is that I was already interested in making connections that were not ready-made. I love to think associatively. In fact, one thing I struggled with when I was a young student was the idea of outlines. I had no idea how to plan what I was going to think. Writing was the act that made the ideas show up at all. I’ve always written to think. So, I wonder early on if my corrections on my papers regarding “organization” were actually not weaknesses but the beginnings of poems or poetic thinking. I was never effectively able to fight my interest in letting my ideas wander. I could always write good sentences (the “Test of Standard Written English” was the only part of the SAT where I earned a perfect score), but they were always serving different gods than the outline, or the prescribed sequence. Now that I actually get to be a poet, I’m glad I resisted. I just wish that someone had seen the way my mind worked as a potential strength.

My current approach to writing poetry is pretty sturdy, by which I mean it hasn’t changed very much. I walk about in the world like a collector, looking for images and ideas that I want to put into poems. My daily life is full of this kind of walking meditation. I keep notes, I worry an idea for a poem until I know what I want it to feel like once I’ve written it. At some point, I make the time to sit and write. I just start, because I know that later on I can improve the beginning. I let the first draft just come out. Sometimes I let it be a “talking” draft that just explains the ideas, allowing clunky phrases to be there. On a second and on subsequent passes through the poem, I clean and move, clean and move. Then I usually put the poem away for awhile, so that next time I see it, it isn’t familiar. I fall in love with every draft still—thinking this is my best poem ever. Which it never, ever really is. So, I wait, and then I take it back out, show it maybe to a good friend who knows my poems so they can tell me what moves I just keep making, or can push me toward a core issue in the poem. Most poems take months and piles of drafts. This plays out over and over again!  I know I learn and change over time—for instance right now I’m uncharacteristically attracted to making shorter lines and altogether shorter poems.

 

VS: What does your ideal place of work look like? Where and when do you write? How—longhand or screen? Also, how do you go about insulating yourself while in craft mode?

 

KM: My usual place of work is the red sofa in the living room. I have had various office spaces, but I like to work in the living room. I like good light and windows and a fire during winter. When people are around, I tune them out, or am just really clear that I’m working, or I wait until I’m alone for a number of hours. I also have a right hand man in my little poodle. He’s been next to me when I’ve written almost anything. He’s next to me right now!  I write on my computer. I’m old enough that I learned to touch-type, so I don’t need to look at the keys and I type really fast. The beauty in typing quickly is that making the words appear is not the chore. Being a good typist means there is one less thing in the way when building a poem. But the speed at the keyboard does not mean I write poems quickly, as I said earlier. They take so many visits to get anywhere close to finished. I’ve learned to be very patient. Right now, though, I’m almost five years away from when my first book was accepted for publication. I’m getting antsy to finish this next collection. Patience isn’t feeling like a friend in that department.

 

VS: What are the lessons and perks or roots that living in Vermont has offered your poetry?

 

KM: Well, one perk is material support. There are a number of agencies in Vermont that have supported my work, from the Vermont Arts Council to the Vermont Arts Endowment Fund, to Vermont College of Fine Arts through the Vermont Book Award, to a fellowship at the Vermont Studio Center. I am also a public school teacher at Montpelier High School, and it needs to be said that my school is a great supporter of my work as a poet—even when it means leaving the building to read or travel or teach. I’m surrounded by support. Almost every college and university has invited me to come read, and many bookstores. Vermont loves its poets. And Vermont’s poets find each other. My writing group has been meeting for almost a decade and is like family.

There is also the way the cold seeps into our lives—making everything a little treacherous. In Vermont, neighborliness is a survival strategy. No matter who is in your community, you’d better remember that each person might be someone you need, whether you are in a ditch, or suddenly sick, or suddenly can’t heat your home. By this I mean to say there is a fluidity between people—a willingness to honor and see each other with generosity. Sometimes this makes its way into my poems. I am also entirely in love with the hardscrabbleness of Vermont, how nothing is a given and luxuries are to be revered. God, it gets cold here. And you can’t go anywhere without knowing people. So, if you are a poet who is inherently interested in people, they come out in droves to things. There is so much to see, everywhere, be it landscape or human landscape. And the plants and animals have beautiful names: jewelweed, ermine, aspen, pig week, lambs quarters, Winooski River, Camel’s Hump, Mount Hunger, Eden, Moscow, Buel’s Gore, Hardack Mountain, lynx, fisher cat, coyote, great blue heron, bobolink, june bug, mayfly, etc.

VS: Landscape with Plywood Silhouettes is a delicious title. Absolutely delicious. Many titles in the collection were great—”Elegy for the Woman Who Became a Chair”! How do you create titles? Do they come before the poem, created during or afterwards? And when do you know it’s “the one?”

 

KM: Thanks! I don’t think much in poetry comes sequentially. I think everything comes out of order, all the time—that’s the beautiful nature of this art. Titles usually come before the poem, to create a working frame for what I’m doing, then, after the poem is written, the title is the last thing to be solidified, most times. I usually change a title a number of times. In fact, there are a few poems I am convinced are finished except for the title. I’m stuck at the title!

 

 

VS: If you could offer young writers a recipe consisting of what they’ll need to sustain them for the writing-life, what “ingredients” would be called for to serve them in the seasons to come?

 

KM: Well, again, just to always show up at the page. I think a lot of young writers think writing is some strange gift—either you have it or you don’t. Sometimes young writers can’t figure out a poem and so they give up, assuming they just don’t “have it.” I often hear young writers say things like, “I couldn’t think of anything to write,” or, “I had writer’s block.” Young writers may not know precisely how to make a poem work, and this is I think what they mean when they say they have writer’s block. Writer’s block to me seems a luxury—I mean, if a person can put another word next to the words that are already there, then there is no such thing as being “blocked.” What writer’s block means is that the writer is afraid they can’t write anything good—that they are self-policing and stopping themselves from experimenting, from throwing words on the page, from even trying. Since poems in our age are invented as we build them, the only way to know how to write a poem, or how to make a poem “good” is to practice. Practice means two big things, two big commitments: reading poetry (contemporary poetry, traditional poetry, poetry in translation, etc.) and drafting. Drafting means sketching, trying, experimenting, learning how the poem can work. It means being willing to unseat the poem, move the lines around, change the words, write the poem the way it begins to want to be written. I like to write poems until it feels like the poem is taking control. I know a poem is “done” when the poem resists change. Getting to a place where your practice is codified in any way means screwing it up so many times you can’t count. Young writers need their 10,000 hours of deliberate practice, too.

 

VS: What is your writing practice and process? What is a writing ritual that you have that continues to encourage your growth as a writer and keep you writing?

 

KM: Right now I have 107 students in my course load. Despite my job, I’ve always felt compelled to keep writing, so I encourage looking at the vocation of writing as a compulsion, or else, in these busy times, it will never happen. I’ve learned to carry ideas for poems around in my head—roll them around, play with them until I can make (not find…make) time to sit and work the poem out of my head. I dream up poems while I’m driving, while I’m teaching (bless “free write time”) and while I’m falling asleep. I have really good “critical friends”—writers I can bring poems to, or complain about poems with, or work through how a poem works with, or just piss and moan with. There is nothing like finding, nurturing and keeping friends in this art—otherwise it’s a lonely business. Some of my friends and I have a weekly writing workshop—it’s highly ritualized and ends up being possibly the most fun I ever have during most weeks, which is not to trivialize my life but to celebrate the great luck through which I found them. We have a blast and we also blast the poems we bring with our poet lasers. I learn so much from them.

 

VS: What words of wisdom or anecdotes would you offer to other working writers regarding project design and organization? What are specific things you do, in order to efficiently and productively manage your time? How do you make sure to allow yourself time to write, revise and hone your craft even when you are extremely busy?

 

KM: I make dates with myself—carve out blocks of time. I take myself away from my house—to my husband’s airport, maybe—although it’s been forever since I’ve done this. I fantasize about going to stay in a convent for a weekend, or renting myself a house somewhere with some poets (something that’s in the works right now). I mean to say there is no way to productively manage time. I think one needs to make time. Carve it out.

 

VS: My absolute favorite poem in Landscape with Plywood Silhouettes is “Skeletons.” Its speaker describes a scene from a dream, but the effect of your language does so much more. What dream or dream scene have you vividly experienced that has inspired you to write?

 

KM: Thanks! I love that poem, too—especially how it turns around inside itself. There are moments of language in that poem I loved discovering. Actually, though, I haven’t ever written from dreams! Any poem of mine that claims to originate in dream is lying, or feinting. I’m primarily interested in imagination, which is itself a kind of dream… day dream. I think all poets enter a dream state when they write, a place where nothing is quite as precise as our waking lives, but everything is also more precise and pointed. In poems, letting the imagination loose is a way of dreaming.

 

VS: How does your environment, both past and present, influence you as a writer? How has your life’s landscape inspired your writing?

 

KM: In Vermont, I’ve lived on a farm and in an actual village—one of the very few that was not run through by a state road. People actually walked around in it, from place to place, and I lived right on the sidewalk. My front yard was about eight feet deep. People’s heads bobbed past my windows in my living room all day and night. There was always someone doing something, someone to observe, someone to get to know, and many of my poems have come from the ten or so years I lived in that place. I think my book is practically infused with Plainfield, Vermont.

When I go to Ireland, my language and phrasing get different. It’s strange. I think my speaker, too, is very different. I’m a different person in Ireland. I spent my whole young life daydreaming about this place we had come from, and when I finally went back to find it, it was a mythical place in my mind, but I had to reconcile the myths with the terrifically real place I found. I am always doing the math of who am I? when I’m there, pushing my speaker more off-kilter. I’m also so fascinated when I’m there, like a toddler, by naming things, asking what everything is called.

 

VS: In an interview with Rachel Contreni Flynn, you were in Ireland, “home on holiday,” and you stated that being in Ireland put your family’s ghosts in front of you. What did you mean by that? I just love the sound of that statement, and it reminded me of your poem, “Little Ghost Girl.” What are your thoughts on the idea of us travelling through life with our family’s ghosts? Do these ghosts enter your writing and, if so, what is that like for you?

 

KM: Poems collapse time, don’t they?  They are artifacts of memory pretending to live in the moment. They collect and collect and sort and sift. What else is there to put in poems but ghosts?  Everything we remember is a kind of ghost—as is everything we imagine or send into the future. Our imaginations are machines that fabricate reality. Everything is exactly as it was, and nothing is. So, I’m comforted, really, by the idea that ghosts are what populate our poems, inasmuch as ghosts are shadows of what really was, who really did what. Maybe our ghosts are the antidote to the young person’s requirement that a poem represent “what really happened.” Every time a young person, just to circle back to the younger ones one final time, insists that a poem needs to represent what “really happened,” or every time a young person resists revising a poem because then the poem will no longer be a record of what “really happened,” what they really need is ghosts—entities that can float through anything, be anything, capture anything and stir anything.

 

VS: And lastly, what’s next?

 

KM: What’s next?  Finishing my second book of poems. That would be the best next thing. I have a monster pile of poems. Maybe I’ll find two collections in the pile!

Blackbirds in September: Selected Shorter Poems of Jürgen Becker

by Ian Haight

Blackbirds in September: Selected Shorter Poems of Jürgen Becker.

Selected and Translated by Okla Elliott.

Black Lawrence Press, 2015

There was a person I sat with on grant review panels who would get in a huff over translated works that sat before him. Always there was something wrong with a translation, something missing from a poem that a translator did not get.  And so for five years, no awards were given for a certain translation contest he presided over. After a letter to the foundation sponsoring the contest, awards for translations were given for the contest’s many tiers of prizes, yielding a range of writing I hadn’t realized existed in Korean. Translation fidelity matters, but it is sometimes expressed by the mechanical cohesion of the translation, as well as unity of voice and vision.

This is not to say fidelity is less important than how well a translation works as a poem. It is to say that when reading a collection of translated poems, singular elements of an author’s style, voice, structural practices, and themes—in short, how well a poem is translated in addition to how well a collection of poetry functions mimetically—are easier to evaluate. Blackbirds in September, a collection of poems by German writer Jürgen Becker, selected and translated by Okla Elliott, is an accomplished work, rendering Becker’s voice and aesthetic vision into fluid English.

Blackbirds opens with “In the Wind” (“Im Wind”) from 1993’s Foxtrot in Erfurt Stadium (Foxtrott im Erfurter Stadion):

In the Wind

 

Blackbirds, then other voices. It doesn’t stop

when it snows, when with the snow

a newness comes that is entirely essential this morning. Or how

do you see it? I see the pear tree and how it

(the pear tree) reacts to the wind (to the

wind). This morning, yet again,

the decision fell. War between magpies and crows, only this war,

no trappings, only this clear understanding.

Yet another voice, the next commentator; it’s all about

(yet again) the whole. Are you standing

in the garden? Then you know, tsk tsk, the blackbird

warned above all else, you know, I’ll say it yet

again, in war, in the snow, in the wind.

 

Becker emphasizes the need for clarification in the language: “I see the pear tree and how it/(the pear tree)…”; “it” obviously refers to the pear tree, so clarifying the reference turns “it” into an empty semantic gesture. The “it” is forced into a kind of hollow representational repetition, unlike the recurrence of “to the wind,” which has a rhythmic value.

“Once Again” (“Nochmals”), like many of the poems in Blackbirds, enacts the mind’s search for meaning: “Too much already betrayed. Immediately and later/an eternal searching, and mostly/what’s found: the false.” What’s mostly found is the false, suggesting the potential for the discovery of truth.

In these selected poems, there is no clear indication of what that truth might be, but there is a proposal—made through opposition—of a way to peace in “Soliloquy” (“Selbstgespräch”):

                           …By the shore,

a man, soliloquizing

back and forth—that’s not how

peace is found.

 

Perhaps peace is found in the tranquil iteration of lulling syntax, as in the poem “Renaissance”:

                  Now observe the meadow, not

the photograph, the meadow.

 

The cat, no movement,

and no movement, the blackbird.

 

Rust-colored leaves below the fence.

 

Rust-colored leaves below the fence.

 

And twilight, and wild snow.

 

The quiet snow. In twilight,

the snow falls.

 

Though there is a peacefulness in this language, maybe earned through repetition of imagery, there is far less doubt in subjectivity, and so a primacy seems to be given to objective reality—an important move beyond the representational failings of language. Doubt exists, but its outcomes are clearer. “Tell Me How You’re Doing” (“Sag mir, wie es dir geht”) defines it this way:

Sometimes to smell the nearness of water, or to see

the green sky. But these are just words;

not things or experiences.

 

Finally, language comes to fulfill its practical use of portraying empirical reality and experience. The last poem in the collection, “The Year 1932” (“Jahrgang 1932”)—1932 being the year Becker was born—offers, without any skepticism or hesitation:

                                             …Buried

in the sand, my head, a tower of consciousness;

dig it out,

tracks leading to the Zeitgeist; later

delight, horror—

these are photos:

sea and sand return. Children, new

and blond, run and build in the muck.

 

I am grateful for Elliott’s choice in selecting this poem to end the collection, and for his skillful creation of these poems into English translation. Becker’s belief in reality, his faith in meaning, and his understanding that meaning can be communicated, has value, and originates in consciousness; are all affirmations of human life. These are ideas worthy of gratitude.