Guest Post, Margaret Young: Translation

Depending on how you look at it, pursuing the same craft as your very successful parent can be a formula for lifelong frustration, or a natural thing, picked up like an accent or shape of the nose. I spent several years attempting to be something other than a poet not so much because I feared failure or suffered anxiety of influence (well, maybe a little of the latter), but because it seemed too easy, too obvious a thing to do. I’d been making poems since before I could write; where was the challenge, the adventure?

When I began to take writing seriously it was nonfiction that drew me in, made me feel I could have a distinct identity. I went to a master’s program that let me pursue more than one genre, and kept up the poetry, kept hanging around poets. Time passed, I wrote poetry and prose, but one kept getting published more. Two books later, I bought a domain name that matched my dad’s: my name followed by the word “poet.”

I tell people who don’t know him that my father David Young is a poet, mostly because that’s how I think of him first and foremost. But his career encompasses teaching, scholarly work on (mostly) Shakespeare, editing a poetry magazine and book series, and translating. I grew up with a dad who cooked out of Craig Claiborne and Marcella Hazan because there were no good restaurants in town, and who translated Du Fu and Eugenio Montale because he wasn’t satisfied with the versions that were available.

“Wow, your dad knows all those languages?” people ask when I tell them about the Li Po, the Petrarch. No, I answer, just German, just the Rilke. For all the others he gets help from native speakers and multiple translations. Right now he’s working on a Dutch poet, and isn’t there another volume of Celan coming out? His friends joke about how prolific he is, now slowing down ever so slightly at the age of eighty.

So that makes it crazier, an even bigger set of boots to wear, for me to translate poetry. I never bothered, never dared. And then I went to Argentina. My husband’s first sabbatical came up, and a scholar he’d met invited him to work there. I couldn’t resist the opportunity to take time off adjuncting and join him for part of the trip.

My first-grade son and I would spend six weeks of wintery spring semester in New England, before flying to Buenos Aires where it was still late summer. I set myself the task of researching the country’s contemporary poetry, with an idea of finding someone I might like to translate. I paged through online journals and blogs, and a lovely official database with hundreds of poets and links. I Facebook friended people and poetry collectives and magazines. The abundance was both delightful and intimidating.

How’s my Spanish? It’s terrible. I took French in high school and some Italian for a trip in my twenties, just enough to mess up my future Spanish. I spent a bunch of time watching Spanish telenovelas and movies, reading poems, and listening to a language CD set when I lived in California, preparing for trips to Mexico and Costa Rica, where I let my future-and-then-husband do all the talking.

But I found my poet. I’d been chatting with this one and that, trying English versions of this or that, when it hit me that some of them lived hundreds of miles from anywhere we’d be going. Then my husband added one more city to our itinerary, when the university there invited him to talk about his research. I began researching Mendoza and came across something unusual: a report on Argentine poetry from a source outside of the country, in this case a magazine based in Madrid. An article profiled four emerging poets based in Mendoza; I started skimming it and slowed down when I reached the work of one poet.

Many have written at eloquent length about the challenges, mysteries, beauties and difficulties of translating poetry. I only have my own small perspective to add, as a writer who traces my lineage as much through work that’s been translated as work originating in English. Poetry translated not just by my dad, but Hass’s and Hirshfield’s Japanese. Bly’s and others’ Lorca, Neruda. They helped me expand my thinking and deepen my attention in graduate school, they and the wise teachers who assigned them to us. When I read Débora Benacot’s poems I had that same feeling of identification, of rightness that transcends language, or rather that works across language barriers. I felt I could imagine them in English, but more importantly I wanted to read them in English. Because I liked her poems, and my Spanish is terrible.

A few weeks later I was walking through the streets of Mendoza with directions printed out from the hotel’s computer. The streets are lined with plane trees and little streams next to the sidewalk, running through concrete or cobblestone channels, water from the Andes mountains. I found the address, just a few blocks beyond our tourist circuit of parks and restaurants. Her apartment was small, her baby cute, her husband’s English better than hers, but both way better than my Spanish. We sat down to tea and sweet bread, exchanged books, and discovered we shared a favorite reader response: our poems are not like others’; or, I don’t usually like poetry, but I like yours.

Now I just needed someone back home to help me with the language. I had some difficulty on that front, until I turned to a colleague who writes poetry in Spanish. I thought he published exclusively in his native Mexico, and had enough of undergraduates mangling his tongue not to need another beginner asking him for assistance. But an editor suggested he publish a bilingual edition of his latest collection of haiku, so…

Margaret Young with Débora and her son.

Margaret Young and Débora.

A book of (still unpublished) haiku later, I’m ready to go back to translating Débora. We just had her first poem published online.  My colleague Sergio and I recently gave a talk in a series for faculty to present their work. It’s usually about scholarly research, so I was pleasantly surprised at how many people showed up to hear a couple of poets talk about haiku. I wanted to brush up on the history of the form and remind myself why I like it so much, why I use it so often as a teaching tool. So I brought my father’s recent Basho translation and reread his introduction.

Pride is considered a sin, and for Midwesterners like my family it is particularly so. But I’m really proud of my dad, and also proud that I made my own tiny contribution to his enormous body of work. I persuaded him to change the title of his Basho translation from Moon Through the Open Window to Moon Woke Me Up Nine Times.

Interview with Julie Hensley

Julie Hensley grew up on a sheep farm in the Shenandoah Valley, but now she makes her home in Kentucky with her husband (the writer R. Dean Johnson) and their two children. Julie has won The Southern Women Writers Emerging Voice Award in both fiction (2005) and poetry (2009). Her work regularly appears in a variety of journals, most recently in Redivider, Ruminate, Superstition Review, PoemMemiorStory, The Pinch and Blackbird, and has been nominated for the Pushcart Prize. Her novel-in-stories, Landfall, won the 2007 Everett Southwest Literature Award. Her chapbook of poems, The Language of Horses, is available from Finishing Line Press.

Superstition Review: What inspired you to write The Language of Horses?

Julie Hensley: My girlhood, like so many, was marked by a period of intense love of horses. When I was very young, my three sisters and I took riding lessons. Saturday mornings, we dawned jodphurs and leather boots, rode around and around a ring of sawdust, and then stopped at Seven Eleven for Slurpees on the way home. When I was nine, after much waiting and saving, my parents bought a farm. Finally, we had our own horses. We could ride them on the overgrown trails that snaked out through the woods behind the barn. We could lounge bareback with a book while the horses grazed.

For my mom, this move marked the fulfillment of her own childhood wishes. Every Christmas, she told us, she had begged her parents for a horse, but had to settle instead for a string of Breyer ponies. Her yearning for horses was a palpable part of my childhood, and as an adolescent, I began to recognize in the fulfillment of that yearning, its metaphoric power. It wasn’t surprising that our move to the farm heralded my mother’s return to college and her development of a career as a teacher. Horses were desire. They were imagination. They were autonomy. They were the things that, I was just then beginning to understand, women ultimately have to fashion for themselves.

SR: The poems have very vivid memories and stories. Are they connected to your own personal memories and what made you want to share these certain moments?

JH: The poems are highly autobiographical. My husband Bob (R. Dean Johnson), who himself writes nonfiction, loves to tease me when I give him a new poem to read. He says, “Huh. Why don’t you take the line breaks out of that and submit it to Brevity.” While there is usually a narrative moment to my poems, and these are no exception, it is not story as much as raw, highly sensory imagery which spawns a poem for me. For instance, while “Monsoon Season” recounts the memory of a hike Bob and I did in the San Francisco Peaks, the poem really began with the immediate smell of vanilla rising from wet pine bark.

Once I realized horses could work as an extended metaphor, I did begin actively siphoning imagery around that theme, which led to specific memories such as my sister teaching me to French braid on a horse’s tail.

SR: In your fiction piece, “Expecting,” your descriptions are still very poetic. Is writing fiction more of a challenge for you compared to poems?

JH: I would have to say that fiction is harder for me. Or perhaps it is more fitting to admit that I simply work harder at fiction. My MFA is actually in fiction. Poetry has always been my secondary genre. Because I teach, I dedicate summers to fiction–for several summers in a row, I have been trying to complete a novel. When I feel hung up on the fiction, rather than sitting and fuming with creative wheels spinning, I will open a new file and begin a poem. During the academic year when I teach four classes at a time, it is difficult to drop fully into the world of my fiction, so during the winter I revise fiction and write new poems. I’m grateful to have my poetry because moving back and forth between the two genres releases pressure.

SR: The Language of Horses brings the reader to many different beautiful settings like Virginia, Kansas, and Phoenix. What does traveling offer to the pieces you write?

JH: It’s funny. My dreams take a while to catch up with my actual life. For instance, I have a nine-month-old daughter, but she has yet to appear in my dream life. I moved to Kentucky three years ago, yet my home here has really only just begun to formulate the backdrop of my dreams. I think my writing life works the same way. When I was a student in Arizona I constantly wrote of Virginia and Kansas. When I moved to Oklahoma, I wrote about the desert. Now that I live in Kentucky, I have begun to write about the plains. For me, being away from a place breeds a yearning that is quite productive to the creative process. I like to cultivate that yearning, to play with the power of dislocation.

I think that’s part of the power of low and brief-residency MFA programs such as the one in which I teach at Eastern Kentucky University—they allow emerging writers to feel the beautiful strangeness of a new place and the warm yearning for home that accompanies it. Two years ago, I traveled with students to San Miguel de Allende, Mexico, and I actually crafted “Expecting” there, sipping espresso each morning in Café Montenegro. This summer, I’ll accompany students to Edinburgh, Scotland. Maybe that trip will help me make progress on my novel.

SR: What are you writing now? What are you reading?

JH: It’s winter, so I’m writing poems. I’m working simultaneously on two cycles. One, with the working title Viable, explores motherhood and fertility. The other, Breaking Ground, channels the voices of a fictional couple—Gracie and Nohl—whose marriage dissolves into physical abuse as they build a farmhouse together.

I just finished Jennifer Egan’s A Visit from the Goon Squad, a book which absolutely blew my mind. In general, I’m a fan of novels-in-stories. (“Expecting” is actually the capstone piece in Landall, a novel-in-stories which I have just begun to circulate.) Egan’s novel is so imaginative. She inhabits the lives of an array of characters so fully, and she balances decades of branching relationships with such flawless, nuanced control. I just began and am thoroughly enjoying Nancy Jensen’s The Sisters, a sweeping novel that moves, through six different perspectives, from 1920s Kentucky to Vietnam era Indiana. I’m also reading collections of poems in preparation for a poetry workshop I’ll be teaching in the spring—this week it’s Beckian Fritz Goldberg’s Lie Awake Lake and Claudia Emerson’s Figure Studies.

 

Matthew Gavin Frank discusses “Warranty In Zulu” and other projects

Superstition Review was pleased to feature Matthew Gavin Frank’s poems in our very first Issue. Recently I had the opportunity to correspond with Frank to discuss his latest published work, Warranty In Zulu. Frank has published several poetry manuscripts including, AardvarkSagittarius AgitpropFour Hours To Mpumalanga, and 6 X 6. His prose has also been published in Blue Earth Review, Plate Magazine, Brevity, Transfinite, and elsewhere.

Superstition Review: How is Warranty In Zulu different from your other works?

Matthew Gavin Frank: Warranty is far more research-based than my previous collection, Sagittarius AgitpropWarranty began as a project to engage the ways in which the exhibits of South African museums and galleries have changed since the fall of apartheid in 1994, documenting how the “landscape” of the South African art scene has changed in style, substance, and accessibility with the socio-political landscape, with the aim of uncovering a larger statement about the interaction between politics and aesthetics.

SR: What has it been like working with Barrow Street Press?

MGF: Risking overstatement: heavenly. Barrow Street is wonderfully hands-on when it comes to the editing process, design, lay-out, etc. They’re very involved, continually offering feedback and suggestion, which contributes to the rare, essential dialogue between writer and editors (who, in the case of Barrow Street, are brilliant writers themselves). The experience of working with them will likely save me a crap-load of time when it comes to self-editing future manuscripts before submitting.

SR: What was the most difficult part about writing Warranty In Zulu?

MGF: Avoiding “othering” or “exoticising” the various cultures of South Africa. In order to aid in this, I felt I had to immerse myself in the country via research and travel, many-handed observations. After numerous trips to South Africa, my wife’s homeland, and her family’s country of residence, the project became laced with the personal, the various narrators herein (many inspired by unofficial interviews, casual conversations, and folklore) engaging issues of history, identity, confused observation, the nature of healing, irrational fear, irrational love and the collision between insider and outsider voices. While not every poem in the manuscript is set specifically within South Africa (most are), each struggles with similar thematic strains.

SR: How have your life experiences (such as working the Barolo wine harvest) shaped your views in your writing?

MGF: I’ve been incorporating things from my own life into the work, more than I have in the past. In the past, I always had a great time wearing masks, playing the asshole, protecting myself. But lately, I’ve been finding greater fulfillment in taking a risk, meaning: being honest. Or more honest at least. This desire ignited at about the same time I began to feel a draw to return to the Midwest, my roots, after wandering and traveling quite a bit. Both desires can, I think, be leashed to my mother’s recent illness. In 2006, Louisa (my wife) and I had just, on a road trip (after leaving Tempe), landed in Montpelier, Vermont, and decided we wanted to live there for a stretch. On the day we were to sign our lease, we received a phone call from my sister in Chicago telling us that my mom was sick. We fled Vermont, returned to Chicago for a year, lived in my parents’ house, and took care of the family while she battled illness (and won, thankfully). This infected my writing with the honesty I mentioned earlier. Does this mean I’m being merely confessional? Attracted solely to the Midwest and the actual? It’s complicated, but no way. As if to balance this, I’m presently working on a series of short essays based on photographs I took in Oaxaca, Mexico, and a poetry manuscript based on couching the bad joke in verse. Its working title is “Your Mother.”

SR: What are you currently working on creatively?

MGF: Well, the Oaxaca book, tentatively titled, SELF-HELP, MEXICO, deals with the aftermath of living in my parents’ house in suburban Chicago for over a year, helping my family during my mother’s battle with cancer. Louisa, and I, struggling to rediscover our footing as a married-couple-in-love, fled to Mexico. Our search for ourselves, our sanctuary, our relationship, took us from the wild crowds and violent social protests of Mexico City, to the culinary jewel of Oaxaca City, and finally to a tiny indigenous Zapotec village in Oaxaca’s Sierra Juárez mountains. The manuscript, which is still in-progress (I’m hoping to finish my final tinkering before 2010 ends), is fusing the narrative storytelling techniques typical of memoir with historical and folkloric research, becoming a series of sort-of lyric essays, and situating the sense of loss and confused search of one particular young married couple within a larger socio-cultural context. In this village, we discovered an unlikely band of U.S.-American expatriates of various demographics, on grappling journeys of their own, contributing to a community both unique and ubiquitous in its quest for some version of fulfillment. I’m going to go back to the “Your Mother” project after I’ve finished SELF-HELP, MEXICO. My nonfiction book, POT FARM, about my work on a medical marijuana farm in Northern California will be coming out from the University of Nebraska Press in 2011 or 2012.

SR: What advice would you give to an aspiring author?

MGF: Travel. Eat things that scare you: cock’s combs, for example. Force perspective onto your life. Allow your memory to distort things. Write a lot, even if it’s crappy. Read a lot. Be vulnerable. Allow the act of writing to play various roles in your life: mother, father, son, daughter, lover, pet goldfish. Argue with all of them, even though you love them. I will not say, be persistent. I swear to you: I will not say it.