Interview with Poet Harry Humes

harry-humes BWPennsylvania is teeming with exceptional poets. One of my favorites, and one of the first poets I connected with, is Harry Humes. I was first introduced to Harry by Dick Savage, a professor in the English Department of Bloomsburg University when I was there in the 80s, who also served as an informal mentor to both of us  (though many years apart). While at BU I met Harry at a writing festival at nearby Bucknell University, and we’ve met up and corresponded from time to time since then. We both share a love of the wilder places in Pennsylvania, particularly the state’s mountains, rivers and streams–which we both stalk with fly rods for trout.

Harry earned an MFA in poetry at the University of North Carolina Greensboro in 1967. He taught in the English dept. at Kutztown University, and currently teaches a fiction writing class at Cedar Crest College.

Harry’s work has been featured in numerous journals and the Best American Poetry 1997. He’s been awarded a Theodore Roethke Poetry Prize, National Endowment for the Arts fellowship, Devins Award and others. For many years he also ran the poetry journal Yarrow.

What is it about revisiting past events that they become triggers for your poems?

I think mine live inside of me. That’s to say that Girardville is always there. It doesn’t drag me down; it’s just rich. Growing up in a place for 20 years, everything you know, everything you found out about, you learned one way or another in the first 20 years of your life. All the important stuff is there. I didn’t think I was paying a whole lot of attention to things when I was growing up, but obviously I was paying attention.

As poets, we’re consciously paying attention to things, looking for material, but as kids you don’t think that in 20 or 30 years these events will become poems. Is recreating past events and details a challenge? Is there embellishment?

Oh yes, I make things up a lot. I start with something that happened, but then sometimes I lose interest in it, so I start inventing things about it and other people. I’ve imagined a lot of things that didn’t happen but could have happened.

Girardville was a wonderful place to grow up for a kid, but it was also very dramatic and dangerous. The mines were there, the mountains… we just roamed around like crazy. My mother had to worry about her husband going out to the mines every day. So anyway it was profoundly there. I didn’t think about it for years… I had some dead-end jobs and then got drafted, and when I got out of the army and went to school and began thinking (and that’s when I met Dick Savage) that maybe I could do something with that experience. But I didn’t starting thinking about the coal mining poems, the father poems, until many years afterword and started mining that material for poems. I had been writing about fishing and nature, girlfriends and so forth. But later the town became central.

I lived in the coal valley, and it was torn up. There were trucks and trains and so forth, but right over the mountain I could hike out of my valley over the top and down into this agricultural valley. There was a clean trout stream running through the middle of it, and it had fields. And there was no coal mine. Sometimes I’d fish or sometimes I’d just mess around, and then I’d hike back over the mountain back to my valley. So this gave me two landscapes. I had the coal mining landscape and the other landscape. Those two are my dominate landscape, and the people in them. So I’m constantly in nature. Dick and I talked about this a lot, that what we find in nature is more than pretty flowers; it’s something else. He introduced me to Wordsworth and Blake and the others early on.

You mention the dangerous and dark environment of the mining valley and the green and light farming valley. I noticed a lot of duality in some of your poems? Was that an approach you established early in your writing?

It took me a long time. After Bloomsburg I went to the University of North Carolina and the MFA program. I thought then I’d bitten off more than I could chew because these guys [the other students] had been writing for a long time. But I developed a whole lot in those two years. It took me forever to learn how to do it. I tell my students don’t even think about doing anything serious for the first 10 years. Gerry Stern used to say “read a hundred books, then write a poem.”

Process? It just sort of happened. It just poured for about 15 years. Something became unplugged. I think something in me knew not to get to the good stuff until I was able to write about the good stuff. Then they all came out. Over a period of 15 or 20 years they all came out. Now I fiddle around. I didn’t think too much about process. For a while I thought about writing in form. I wrote in form and meter and rhyme and published some, but then went back to the free verse stuff and never looked back.

Talking about beginnings, middle and ends–endings have always been hard for me, they still are and come harder now than they used to. Metaphor was always there. When the plug got pulled there was a torrent of metaphors and imagery.

I’ve never been quite sure when I’m writing a poem what I’m doing. It’s like fishing. You know what you’re doing because you’ve been fishing in the water and you see things in the water… but I write, and then things have an instinctive way of happening. I’ve started poems about one subject and they morph into something else, because something in the poem said change the subject. And it’s like that with endings. I’ll get near the end, but it might take me another week or two to come up with the right lines to end it. It’s like looking at a piece of water and just knowing there’s a fish in there. All you’ve gotta do is just fuck around long enough to get him out one way or another.

butterfly-effect

Butterfly Effect, a 1998 National Poetry Series selection.

Yes, that’s exactly right. Every now and then I’ve tried to write a sequence of poems, and I’ve never been able to do it. I get two or three poems out in the sequence, but then it starts to fade. I lose interest. Poems come to me from nowhere. There seems to be no rhyme or reason for why they turn up. I’ll be looking at a corn field and something will come to me. It’s often about wherever I happen to be.

I was fishing on the Little Lehigh last night and had a good hour and a little sulfur hatch, and I put on a comparadun fly, and so there I was fishing and thought, “This is pretty nice. Maybe I’ll write a poem about this.” and then I thought “don’t write another fishing poem.” So poems just happen. I don’t go looking for them. Sometimes I think I’ve got two sets of eyes. One is for living and one is for looking for poems.

A lot of your poems deal with some work or craft, someone building something or working with tools. Is because those are part of the memories or preserving something of a lifestyle we don’t really have anymore?

I have things in my room here that belonged to my father. I use his hammers and saws that he never let me use as a kid. I have a poem now that I’ve been playing around with about a cellar door. It was the house in Girardville and inside the door were the knee-high mining boots that he used to wear. So yes, tales like that I love to bring into poems. I try to get my students to think of things. We live in a world of things, and that’s what makes a poem alive for me.

Many of your poems have a journey—hiking to a swamp or crossing a mountain—that can seem almost mythic. Are you using these places as vehicles to explore an inner world as well?

Sure. I think anyone who writes does that. I did a poem last year called Climbing the Wall. We used to a lot of climbing on the slate walls after the coal had been taken out. It was very dangerous. I had to climb over those walls in order to fish in the valley on the other side. So I played around with that.

Anyway, sure, swimming, hiking, the journey metaphor is there. The other day we were up on Hawk Mountain, and the journey of the hawks is always quite stirring for me, so I wrote a poem about it of course. You go from here to there, and that’s our life.

When it comes time to assemble a collection into a book, what do you consider when deciding what to include and how to order it?

I’m in that process now. I have about 50 poems that I didn’t think were going to go anywhere and over the last couple of week’s I’ve been looking at them and thinking maybe they could be a book. So I’m looking at them again, and eventually I’ll get around to putting them all over the living room floor. Again, it’s instinctive. It’s like writing the poem in the first place. I know the way the poems should come together, I know what I’m looking for, but I don’t know that I know. The hardest one was my first one, Winter Weeds. It’s a long process, and I’ll probably spend another six months deciding what poems I want to keep and what I want to throw away. You have to make hard choices sometimes. If there’s the least little thing I’m not satisfied with in a poem, I put it in the maybe pile. It’s like knowing there’s a little misfire in a motorcycle engine—something isn’t working. I don’t think in terms of a collection when I’m writing. I think of the poem.

You can purchase books by Harry Humes here.

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Q & A on Writing with Lee Upton

Photo by CeCe Ziolkowsk

Photo by CeCe Ziolkowsk

In May I was invited to read poems at an art gallery in Hunterton NJ with Lee Upton, Warren Cooper and Upton’s daughter, Theodora Ziolkowski. The reading and venue were both wonderful and I hope to get back there again. I’d read Upton’s poetry before, particularly her book Civilian Histories (University of Georgia Press), but we’d never met. MaryAnn Miller, who curates the reading series, as well as publishes limited edition art & poetry books (Lucia Press), introduced us.

After the reading we chatted and exchanged books. I received a copy of her book Swallowing the Sea (Tupelo Press), a collection of essays about writing and the writing life. The issues discussed in this Q & A are based on that book.

Lee Upton is the author of twelve books, including five collections of poetry, a novella, and four books of literary criticism. Her short stories have also appeared widely. Her awards include a Pushcart Prize, the National Poetry Series Award, two awards from the Poetry Society of America, and the Miami University Novella Award. She is Writer-in-Residence and a professor of English at Lafayette College in Easton Pennsylvania.

You write “Our store of happiness is always in danger of being depleted.” Is a fear of running out of happiness, or running out of places to discover it, a debilitating or an energizing force for the writer? Do writers create in order to find more happiness or does that fear of running out freeze them into inactivity?

I can’t speak for other writers, but I do know that writing—for me—is a source of happiness, even though that happiness is sometimes mixed with frustration and a form of extreme yearning that can’t exactly be called happiness-inducing. The happiness I find in writing has something to do with the heightened state of concentration that writing creates.  Happiness in writing also has to do with the fact that I’m compelled to write; if I weren’t writing regularly unhappiness would be guaranteed for me.  Writing beats back despair, but because writing opens up formerly closed areas of consciousness, the act of writing can prove painful and exhausting. I’m aware of how fortunate any of us are to have writing as not only an exhilarating activity but as a kind of steady companion.  As you can see, I’m struggling here—perhaps because it is a great privilege to be able to write, and yet writing also goes beyond happiness for me.  Writing is larger than happiness and sometimes makes me face what I’d rather not face, and so the happiness writing affords comes with thistles.

I’m fascinated by the section on purity, but I’m still a little confused on what exactly you mean by the word. Can we envision purity and make it impactful on our writing, without a reference standard, something to compare everything else to? What would that standard be? I’m disposed to believe it may be something other than poetry, which of course is a particular problem for the poet.

I think you’re right to be confused by any notion of purity.  Purity is a fantasy, a phantom, a form of extreme and powerful subjectivity that changes form depending on the aspirant. (When talking about purity I’m not talking about food safety of course.)  Absolute purity in ideological terms tends to be colonizing and aggressive, and those who attempt to impose on others their own ideals of purity and its sibling, perfection, prove oppressive. The discussion of purity in Swallowing the Sea attempts to trace some of the difficulties of allowing purity to be one’s guide in writing. At the same time, I tried to give purity its due as an alluring imaginative construct that’s not easily dismissed.  Purity as a conception of the human imagination for some of us determines at least in part the way we revise our work—toward greater compression, toward elimination of anything that interrupts the culminating tensions in the poem, toward an ideal.  Our standards, which may seem instinctive even if they’re learned, threaten to purify the poem out of existence.  But if we simply dismiss the ideal of purity we fail to recognize that the conception has a hold on many of us. Our struggle with purity can be bracing and creative.  The fact that some writers have assailed purity (Neruda, for instance) testifies to the conception’s powerful grip.

In the section Poetry, Defended, Briefly, you write “in poetry more than in any other verbal genre, readers bring in an expectation …”   Do you also believe readers have a responsibility to the poet/poetry? If so, then what? And are readers today properly prepared to fulfill that responsibility? Let me make that question more practical—contemporary poets (and poetry) get criticized a lot today, by poets and non-poets alike, for being obscure, difficult, out of touch … as if the state of poetry today is all the poets’ fault. Does the reader share any of that blame?  

swallowingthesea225As a reader I can share that blame—but that’s true in any genre.  As a reader I can be too impatient, giving up on a poem before allowing even the rhythm of the lines to begin to do their work. I try to make allowances for my own impatience by eventually giving some books second and even third chances; it takes a while to know how to appreciate an aesthetic.  Often enough though, some poetry is simply not engaging or illuminating—whether it’s a difficult poem or a seemingly simple and transparent poem.  Then again, there are so many different sorts of poetries available that I tend to find plenty of work that I can respond to immediately. As you mention, it’s true that there are many poems that are difficult and obscure, and sometimes those poems fail (then again, many poems of any sort are doomed to failure).  But some poems that are difficult are haunting and even valiant and perversely lovable and even poignant because they’re so resistant to common ways of perceiving and thinking.  You mention poems that are “out of touch,” and I have to admit a special affection for poems that may be referred to as “out of touch”; those poems speak for realms of experience that are denied in our experience, reaching beyond our lived reality toward something we could never have imagined otherwise.   Then again, I think I know what you mean in certain instances: sometimes the poem that is described as “out of touch” leaves us numb; it’s untouchable not just because it’s treading air out of reach but because the poem doesn’t tug us in any direction whatsoever.  Poetry never should condescend to readers, and so a poet never needs to settle ultimately for possibilities that aren’t exciting, whether those possibilities appear superficially simple or superficially complex.

You can find many of Upton’s books here.

The Pessimism of Jack Gilbert

Update: I recently learned the Jack Gilbert passed away Sunday, November 11. You can read more about that here.

I came across this set of interviews with Jack Gilbert today(April 23, 2012). He’s one of my favorite poets, and I’ve mentioned him on UnIambic several times. I love the simplicity, the sincerity of his poems. How he’s able to be completely at ease pouring out intense emotion without being sentimental or maudlin about it.

In the interview he discusses some of his apprehension with publishing, his disappointment with much of the contemporary po-biz and his poor outlook on the future of poetry. OK, some of that I agree with, but I also feel he shortchanges poets in a big way. Yes, there are the career-minded poets, the post-modern tricksters, the posers and all the rest: “Much of postmodern poetry has no significance at all.” But he overstates how much poetry or poets have changed, and underestimates the sincerity of many of today’s poets.

That’s not surprising really. For a large part of his adult life I believe Gilbert has lived a partial hermit’s life, if not physically (as in the years he spend on Greek islands) then mentally or emotionally. He’s a person who thrives on removing himself from the pressures of the rest of the world, while he focuses on the inner world.

He says: “I don’t believe people would continue to write poetry, most of them, if there was no money to be made in poetry.” Here I assume he’s referring to the career academicians and big prize money winners, yet how could he not realize that poetry is so much more than that. Look around here (the greater Philadelphia area). There are scads of poets, with no academic affiliations,  working alone and together for just the pleasure of the poems themselves (see this recent Philly.com article on the scene.)

He also says some things in this interview which are a bit dishonest to himself. His comments on craft, for instance, he critiques the workshop experience here:

“Nobody wants to talk about how a poem works, what its purpose is. They all want to deal with the outside of the poem. Does it look good? Should I take the left line out and put it over here? How should I make the rhythm correct and such. But hardly anybody talks about the strategies of poetry, or how you make poetry live, how to use concrete detail rather than similes, goddamned similes, the weakest kind of resource there is in poetry. People are so much in love with similes. It’s a pity. The mechanics of poetry have little to do with design.”

Yet he came out of one of the most celebrated workshop programs (Iowa Writers’ Workshop). Speaking of similes here’s a couple of lines from one of my favorite Gilbert poems Finding Something

“The arches of her feet are like voices

of children calling in the groves of lemon trees

where my hart is as helpless as crushed birds.”

His craft is not the obvious, meticulously tinkered craft, but it’s a craft that shows he understands the workmanship of writing, the effort that goes into making something feel effortless.

Anyway, this interview, while illuminating, also makes me sad because I don’t feel poets and poetry warrant the negativity and pessimism he heaps upon them. I hope and believe he’s wrong.

The interview is from the book  Sad Friends, Drowned Lovers, Stapled Songs which I’ve just added to my Amazon wish list.

Interview with Nathaniel Perry on APR

I recently conducted an interview with Nathaniel Perry, author of the very fine collection of poems Nine Acres.

I encourage you to get over to the the American Poetry Review to read the whole thing.

Here’s a brief excerpt from the interview:

Grant Clauser: Did the concept for this book develop after you’d already written a few of the poems, or did you envision the collection and then write to fit within the mode?

Nathaniel Perry: I did write a few of the poems first and then the concept came to me pretty quickly. I think the first poem I wrote was the one with the seed catalog (“Vegetable crops to Avoid and to Choose”), and it happened to be in that form of simple rhymed quatrains in tetrameter, and I had maybe thought of doing a group of 10 or so with the titles from the M.G. Kains book, but the form felt fun, and was engaging for me, and I soon decided I was going to do all of the chapters.  I guess I didn’t initially even realize it was going to be book-length.

GC: I find this book to be very much like a journal—recounting the events of a year. Like a journal it tells a story, without relying on narrative. How fully formed in your head was this narrative when you were writing it?

NP: Strangely, not really at all as I was writing it. I assumed that I would put the poems in the order that they appeared in the original book, but then somebody pointed out to me very late in the process after I had already written all of the poems that there were 52 poems which was equal to the weeks in a year and it dawned on me that they could fit into the cycle of a single year. I remember taking all the poems and just sorting them out by spring, summer, fall, winter and seeing what that looked like and being pretty happy with that. I’m still happy with it.

GC: I noticed shifts and waves in the relationship between the husband and wife throughout the book.

NP: Well, you’re married. There are always shifts and waves. I won’t hide behind the fact that many of these poems are sentimental and sweet, but I like to think that’s still possible without being necessarily bad, and so the way to do that is to be true to the way relationships are. They can be hard and frustrating and full of doubt while simultaneously being joyful and intimate and full of starlight, so I wanted to show what an actual relationship looks like.

Nathaniel Perry

Jane Hirshfield on Poetry and Nature

Months ago, in preparation for a workshop/class I was going to lead in nature writing for the Musehouse Writing Center I asked the poet Jane Hirshfield several questions about her views on nature and poetry. Aside from her wonderful books of poems, Hirshfield also wrote a collection of essays called Nine Gates, which deals somewhat with that subject especially in the “Two Secrets” chapter.

The class never happened, so I’ve been sitting on this wonderful interview for months and decided that I should just publish it as is so other readers can benefit from it. The questions here are not a comprehensive look at my interest in the subject, but they’re interesting on their own and I think worth attention. Eventually I may try to wrote a whole coherent article, but the chances are getting slimmer all the time.

I also asked Ted Kooser and William Heyen similar questions. I’ll post their responses separately.

Do you think writers’ approach to nature/wild has changed in the contemporary world? Another way of asking—has our dependence on technology and distance from nature changed the poet’s relationship to it?

It’s hard to speculate about others’ inner experience—but I do suspect that increasing swaths of time in the “information technology” world is affecting poets—as urbanization itself long has. There’s a dangerous rift and amnesia that leads to hubris, exploitation, that carries from the environment and creatures into our treatment of other humans as well, when only mediated experience is seen as “real.”  Aesthetically, concentration on what’s only within the human surround can be seen as being contemporary or as claustrophobic—the response varies. I myself made a very deliberate choice to live in a way exposed to and in connection with the natural. I grew up in lower Manhattan, and wanted something less controlled and modulated in my life. But all of us carry the template of our age, and even if my poems rarely mention busses or an elevator or a comic strip character, I am quite sure that my thoughts move as the 21st century does–with increased speed and compression, acceptance of fracture, comfort with the jump cut. In a way, though, you could say that poetry itself foreshadowed all these “contemporary” habits of mind—it has always leapt, fractured, compressed, courted the uncertain and contradictory as much as courted expression or “beauty.” But how could something even as simple as electric light not alter our psyche’s relation to darkness? Perhaps we turn toward darkness more, now that it is escapable. Perhaps we must turn to bewilderment more, when we live in such orderly grids as we do.

Is nature a good yardstick for measuring our own human issues by?

As Gary Snyder has long pointed out, we humans are nature. What we do is what nature does. Still, remembering the larger field recalibrates. Going up into the High Sierra puts anxiety, selfishness, sentimentality, and neurosis into scale.

In what way do poets sometimes abuse (misuse) nature (I’m thinking of bad Romantic poems here mostly, but you please respond any way you like)?

There are no rules here—I am willing to go on record (heresy!) as being in favor of certain kinds of personification and anthropomorphizing in poems, even as I know they can be horribly abused. It works when it enlivens possibility, fails when it cheapens or simplifies or presumes. What we don’t know, cannot know, has to be remembered and honored. Still, Aristotle praised personification–what we’ve come to call “the pathetic fallacy”—as the “animating principle” in poetry, and I would not give up any mode of meaning-making, so long as it’s used deftly, subtly, toward accurate expansions and not the sentimental. Every metaphor works by internalization of the image into the self. How else could we understand, except by taking in, and trying on the image from inside our own lives, histories, minds? Comprehension is empathic. We understand even “2+2=4” because we have fingers, feelings, hunger, bodies with mouths as well as brains.

You write that the objective mode (discussed in Nine Gates) is rare and difficult. Is it also less effective or less likely to evoke a response from the reader? A poetry of Vulcans? (sorry for the Star Trek reference)

I’ve used certain haiku as examples of the objective mode—and such poems do need a reader able to feel them fully, or they will be uninhabited ink, ash-shapes. But such a reader is precisely the opposite of feelingless—rather, that reader who is able to feel these poems is a human being so tuned to the full actualities of existence that he or she can feel a spectrum of emotions outside the usually available names—the way a bee can see the ultra-violet road-stripes on certain flowers, which we cannot.

 Galway Kinnell says we must include the city in our definition of nature. What do you think of that?  Can the city work for the poet in the same way as the forest or the sea?

Of course. Our cities are termite mounds and bower bird nests, felt fully. Mark Doty can write urban natural history in a way absolutely continuous with his poems that are set in the non-urban.

Who are your favorite contemporary poets who write with nature/wilderness themes?

Snyder is still a master. Merwin. Heaney’s poems of recollection. Pattiann Rogers, Alison Hawthorne Deming, Sandra Alcosser. Milosz is dead now, but his passion for the natural world was exemplary. Some of Hass. Some of Kay Ryan. Jim Harrison, Dan Gerber. But really, even making this list feels somehow like putting lipstick on a tree. I prefer not to segregate poets by theme—Auden was as urbane as a poet comes, and then there’s his “In Praise of Limestone”; Robert Frost’s concerns were profoundly and ultimately human. And if we understand ourselves as part of nature, there’s not a poet who isn’t a nature poet. I suspect our relationship to the larger existence of this planet would be most restored to sanity if that were the principle we held in mind, rather than one of separation and difference. We are mammals, with mammals’ concerns. That thought, at least to me, is not ignoble or diminishing—it’s curative, chastening, and enlarging.

Here’s a short video of Hirshfield reading. Youtube is loaded with Hirshfield videos.

My next poetry workshop at Musehouse begins the week of March 12. It’s a six-week course held on Wednesday evenings. Go here to view the description and sign up.

Interview With Sam Hamill on Translating Poetry

Sam Hamill

Once a month I meet with a group of other poets at a local restaurant to talk about poetry and to workshop some poems. At a recent meeting we were looking over translations of Japanese poems by Sam Hamill, and we began discussing the subject of translations and the challenges they create for the translator and the reader.

To help answer a few of the questions, I decided to go to the source himself.

Hamill has published at least 14 volumes of his own poetry and about two dozen collections of translations from Chinese, Japanese, ancient Greek and Latin and more. He co-founded Copper Canyon Press and created Poets Against War.

How important is it that the translating poet be fluent in the language? Many people doing translations today work with someone who is fluent to get a literal translation, then the poet-translator steps in to take over.

There is no exact equation for great translation. Pound knew no Chinese and his source, Ernest Fenollosa, knew none, and Fenollosa’s sources, two Japanese art professors knew Li Po’s poetry only in Japanese, hence Pound “translating”  Rihaku—Li Po’s name in Japanese. Against all odds, we got 14 amazing poems, including one that is actually two poems combined. Pound’s “errors” have been noted time & again by his critics as well as by Chinese literary scholars. And yet the poems are among the most influential of the last century.

Stephen Mitchell’s “translation” of Tao Te Ching, on the other hand, is fabrication. His version was apparently “transmitted” by his Korean Zen master. In one chapter, 55, I think, there’s not a single word from the Chinese. This tome has misinformed a hundred thousand readers. Both Red Pine (Bill Porter) and I have translated Tao Te Ching in very literal ways, and comparative readings reveal a lot.

Robert Hass’s famous “translation” of a haiku by Issa bears only faint resemblance to the original, which I translate literally:

New Year greeting-time:

I feel about average

welcoming my spring.

Medetasa mo

chugurai  nari

ora ga haru

“Medatasa is a seasonal greeting, not New Year Day as Hass has it. Then Hass simply invents a line two: “Everything is in blossom!” which is not what line 2 says; “I feel about ‘chugurai’ middle or average,” which Hass turns into a punch line” “I feel about average.” Gets a nice audience response, but Issa didn’t write about blossoms in Feb in Japan. The poem asks for meditation, not a punch line.

My Chinese and Japanese is not good. But I enjoy immersing myself one word at a time, one line at a time, getting deep inside the poem and “finding” the poetry. I get help from scholar-friends and I wear out dictionaries. Bill Porter is a far better scholar, but less of a poet. I have learned a ton from him, as from translators like Burt Watson, J.P. Seaton, Rexroth, Edmund Keeley’s Seferis and Elytis, etc.

It’s always best to have a scholarly annotated translation along with one that focuses on the poetry— a “poet’s translation” —when dealing with complicated poets like Dante or Pindar.

The Poetry of ZenPrecise word choice in poetry can make or break a poem. In the writing group I moderate, we may spend 20 minutes discussing the use of one word. When reading translated poetry, I worry that the translator may not have the same word sense as the original author or that the English word may have connotations or associations not present in the original word (or phrase). How big of a problem do you believe that is?

Some words don’t translate. Some images don’t translate. Chinese syntax doesn’t follow English grammar. When the classical Chinese poet speaks of “clouds and rain,” it may be a reference to sex as well as to the weather: Clouds are masculine, rain feminine.

Translation is a provisional conclusion, that’s why the same classics need to be retranslated periodically. Translators develop their voices, just as emerging poets do, or prose writers for that matter. Scholarship can’t make up for a weak ear or failure of imagination. “Poetic licenses” come with major restrictions if one is respectful of the original

Is the translator’s responsibility to be true to the original author or to produce a good poem? I’m guessing it’s a little bit of both, but where’s the scale for you?

You can’t be “true” to a poet while turning his/her work into bad poetry. All one need do is look at what happens when formalists try to translate Chinese (which, by the way, employs both interior and end-rhyme). Chinese is a rhyme-rich language. American English is not.  Add the fact of needing to add particles, prepositions, conjunctions, decide gender when it’s indeterminate, etc. changes the poem in various ways. Chinese is also very good at plurisignation—one word may convey two or three distinct meanings all at once, and the translator must choose one.

You’ve translated poems from several languages, several different cultures and traditions sometimes separated from yourself by hundreds or thousands of years. How do you deal with the possibility of lost intention in the poem in those situations?

No one knows exact “intentions” in ancient poetry. We surmise. I have passed over a lot of poems just because they don’t make good poems in American English. For instance, Li Po wrote many occasional poems, many poems with bizarre flights of fancy that just don’t translate. We don’t know how much of Tao Te Ching Lao Tzu actually wrote, but we know that much of it existed in various forms, so he was more editor-translator than author.  Intentions?

I translated Catullus simply because the scholars were too timid to recreate his invective. Catullus invented a word, defutate, which one scholar translated “sexual exhaustion.” But a truer translation would be more raw: “fucked-out.” He was an uproarious defiant poet, and we know he, like Dante, bore grudges and used poetry to mock and/or condemn his enemies. He also translated Sappho, including her “mixo-Lydian Mode” into Latin, where it became the foundation of the “heavenly music” of the Catholic church.

How similar do you think is the experience of a contemporary reader reading, for example, Sappho or Saigyo, to the experience of a contemporary of those poets? Do you hope to recreate that experience or a new one?

Can’t possibly be done. We’d have to recreate a 7th century Taoist-Confucian-Buddhist dynastic mind-set that is completely alien to a 21st century sensibility to grasp Tu Fu or Li Po. We see our world through a lens of science and philosophy, history, and a richly embroidered historical imagination, and all of this colors the way we read various classics, from the Bible to the Lotus Sutra. Ancient Greek poets were usually accompanied by musicians, and anyone who’s heard ancient Greek music knows how mysterious it sounds to us, but to them, it was entirely “normal” music. Like Rexroth reading to jazz.

How could anyone try to actually live like Saigyo? I built a house in the woods and lived there without running water or electricity, studying Saigyo and Tu Fu et alia by kerosene lantern. But that’s not 13th century Japan. I drove into Town to work at my press, I drove to the grocery stores. The poem itself is an authentic experience.The Infinite Moment

On the process of translating poetry vs. writing your own-how are the experiences and pleasures different?

Translation requires (unless one is Stephen Mitchell) putting aside the ego and devoting one’s attention and practice to a master.

Writing original poetry, one is informed and inspired by masters, but not sitting at their feet… more like standing on their shoulders. Although my friend Sandy Seaton points out that we all, as translators, stand on the shoulders of fellow translators.

Last Questions: Can you please tell me your top five favorite poems (by other people)? If you want to share what you like about those poems, that’d be great too.

I will regret this. In fifteens minutes, it could be an entirely different list, but here’s five translations:

An Old Man on the Riverbank by George Seferis, translated by Edmund Keeley & Phillip Sherrard  This poem was written while Seferis was in exile in Egypt during the German occupation of Greece. It’s a sustaining vision.

The Heights of Macchu Picchu by Pablo Neruda, translated by Nathaniel Tarn —What could I possibly say about this?

Things I Didn’t Know I Loved by Nazim Hikmet translated by Randy Blasing & Mutlu Konuk— When the Commie Hikmet was captured by the Turkish regime and thrown into a ship’s bilge, he rose up and began singing poetry…

The Little Mariner by Odysseus Elytis, an epic poem translated by Olga Broumas— What an extraordinary poet and man: “Man is drawn to God / like a shark to blood.”

Sappho translated by Mary Barnard— So clear, so truly felt and truly spoken.

Mahmoud Darwish certainly belongs here, but which poem? Rilke’s Elegies, too, but not S. Mitchell’s translatio—maybe Galway Kinnell & Hannah Liebman

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