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A New Russian Modern: Peter Daniels on translating Khodasevich

Vladislav Khodasevich: Selected Poems

Translated and edited by Peter Daniels

CWB: Vladislav Khodasevich is not as well known as many of his contemporaries: Osip Mandelstam, Vladimir Mayakovsky, and Anna Akhmatova, to name just a few. Both you, in your preface to Vladislav Khodasevich: Selected Poems, and Michael Wachtel, in his introduction, cite reasons for the literary obscurity of his work, but for those without the book before them, could you speak a little on Khodasevich, his poetry in context of his times, and the reemergence of his work in the last few decades?

Daniels: His career had an awkward pattern. He reached poetic maturity not long before the Revolution; five years later, in 1922, he took the chance to leave Russia, and settled into frustrated exile. In the West, dancers, composers and painters could work internationally, but writers in Russian only had each other as an audience. In the Soviet Union he was ignored or condemned, though his work still had some presence. Since publishing the book I’ve been given copies from the 1963 Moskva magazine, which in that brief period of thaw published some of his exile poems, and I’ve also heard how the poet Slutsky was influenced by discovering his work in an old house during the Second World War. Khodasevich was only available in samizdat, but he reappeared in print in 1989 under perestroika.

CWB: Poets are more often than not such strange figures in history. Many poets have almost mythical tales associated with them. What are some of the more memorable and perhaps little-known anecdotes from Khodasevich’s life?

Daniels: The portrait on the cover, painted by his niece, is from 1915, the year he was suffering from tuberculosis of the spine. In the poem “An Episode”, he describes watching himself die, and having to decide to get back into his body. Being disembodied becomes a recurring theme in his work.

As an infant, he fell out of an upstairs window and rolled down the roof, saved from falling further by the guttering. He refers to that in the poem “Not my mother…” about his nurse, a parallel to Pushkin’s nurse; while she didn’t have a store of folk tales like Pushkin’s, it’s from her love that Khodasevich stakes his claim as a Russian poet, despite his family being not Russian but Polish. Started in early 1917, the poem was unfinished until 1922, when he suddenly wrote the second half of it. That day, buying galoshes that were too big, he stuffed the poem inside so he could wear them; it turned up in the galoshes next year when he was in Berlin – though he had already memorized it (Russians do memorize their poems).

The vital link for us is Nina Berberova, with whom he started a relationship in his last months in Russia. They stayed together a number of years in exile until she found him too impossible, but she broke up with him very carefully (he was always on the verge of suicide) and she still cared deeply about him. In 1950, she left Paris for America where she became known for her own writing. She kept an archive of his manuscripts which is now at Yale.

CWB: Many English language readers familiar with Khodasevich’s name recognize it in relation to Vladimir Nabokov and his various comments and lectures on Russian literature. Nabokov gives very high praise to Khodasevich’s poetry as well as Andrei Bely’s novel Petersburg. Wachtel observes in his introduction that Nabokov’s novel The Gift is, in part, inspired by the life of Khodasevich. These two authors, Khodasevich and Bely, are so little known in the common canon of English language readers, and yet Nabokov’s name is large enough to carry them both into our awareness. What do you think it was about them that so spoke to Nabokov?

Daniels: He grew up with their literary world. Khodasevich and Nabokov both considered themselves continuing the tradition of Pushkin, and Nabokov wanted to champion him as an émigré, ignored by both Westerners and Soviets. Nabokov had the advantage that he could write in English and become noticed on his own merits.

CWB: Khodasevich was a loner in style and innovation during his time. While he plodded along with traditional forms, groups that sought to break all expectation of poetic forms were in emergence. A group that exemplifies this radical--though, for the time, more common--poetic practice is the Russian Futurist Poets. The more extreme examples of Futurist verse can be found in Alexei Kruchenykh and Velimir Khlebnikov’s poetry, wherein the poets attempt to make meaning out of a pure language. Khlebnikov sought, for example, to render the songs of birds into verse, not through a known vocabulary, but rather through vowels and consonants arranged to resemble the language of birds. In the face of this decadent turn in style, Khodasevich must have seemed rather old-fashioned. Still, there is something starkly modern about Khodasevich. How, while clinging to form, was Khodasevich a pioneer of poetry in his age and language? Was he indeed a pioneer?

Daniels: “Plodded along” and “clinging to form” are rather loaded terms! The Futurists made much of breaking verse form and reinventing it, and writing “beyond meaning,” which draws attention, as the avant garde usually does. Khodasevich didn’t want to be beyond meaning – answering the Futurists, he says paradoxically about language, “I love its rigorous freedom, / I love its twisting laws...” Tsvetaeva worked on changing the form of Russian verse in a truly remarkable way, creating her own twisting laws, but also wrote standard rhyming quatrains, as Mandelstam, Pasternak and Akhmatova did. Mayakovsky’s “staircase” layout looks maybe like W.C. Williams, but it’s still rhyming verse spread across the page.

Khodasevich was a modernist, and recognized the brokenness that is the modernist subject. By the Revolution, he was a mature poet who understood Pushkin’s magical way with Russian verse and could use it himself to make some sense of the brokenness around him. Around 1918, he wrote several great poems in blank verse, so perhaps he was thinking of a future without rhyme; blank verse is unusual in Russian, though Pushkin wrote some. One poem, “2nd November,” is about the immediate aftermath of the Revolution in Moscow, and does all those things that 20th-century modernism considered essential – no ideas but in things, telling it slant.

He didn’t have Pound to instruct him in the primacy of the image, he just got it. He was a friend of Viktor Shklovsky, who formulated the theory of art as “making strange” and “making the stone stony,” and in its own way, Khodasevich’s work embodies that, despite not being self-consciously strange like the Futurists’.

CWB: Tonally, that is in cadence and temperament, I found Khodasevich’s poetry to be closest to Osip Mandelstam’s when considering his contemporaries. Khodasevich, I would say, prefers the metropolitan, while Mandelstam prefers to draw on the rural for materials, but otherwise they speak to a certain spiritual essence of the everyday. I find this theme becomes, for both of them, more predominant as their poetry develops.

My personal wonder, when I consider their similar backgrounds as political misfits (in relation to their times), is whether or not a taste for daily life is a sort of crutch for the dislocated. Similar poets, to my mind, include Ovid, Cesar Vallejo, and George Seferis. Is this thought of mine gibberish? As a scholar of Russian language poetry, do you find that I am off my mark when I compare Mandelstam and Khodasevich?

Daniels: Everyday detail is vital to Khodasevich – in “2nd November” he gives you the world-shattering event through the small facts of a day in the ruins of Moscow. The everyday is a crutch for the dislocated, but it represents the dislocation itself when the details no longer match your world. In exile, the poems he wrote about Berlin, Sorrento and Paris are about that.

As well as other differences from Western poets, the Russians’ experience of the Revolution and its aftermath makes comparisons harder. Even a shattering event like the First World War doesn’t make Wilfred Owen or Edward Thomas comparable, though there are similarities. There is something like Robert Frost in the way he uses form and everyday detail very naturally, but of course their lives are vastly different. I’m sure there are also similarities with Ovid, Vallejo and Seferis, though I don’t know them deeply enough to say anything meaningful.

I have to say by the way that I’m really not a scholar, especially not of Russian poetry. I had the chance to study Russian at high school and I followed it up again later, visited some friends of friends in Russia, and took the A Level exam (that’s university entrance level) when I was nearly 30. Then I got distracted by other things and let it slide for a long time.

CWB: When did you first feel drawn to Khodasevich’s poetry?

Daniels: When I revived the Russian. I’d stopped writing – I finished a creative writing masters in 2003, which rather burnt me out, and then I started a busy job. But I needed something and I started going to poetry translation workshops at the Poetry School in London, working from a number of languages that didn’t include Russian, but it made me want to revive the language. I was unexpectedly invited to take up a Hawthornden Fellowship at the end of 2009, four weeks in a Scottish castle undisturbed. I was reading Michael Wachtel’s book The Development of Russian Verse, where he used some Khodasevich examples. “The Dactyls” immediately made me want to work on this poet, and I found that he was very little translated. So those four weeks gave me a good momentum, and I just carried on.

CWB: How long was the process of translating Selected Poems? Did you seek feedback during the translation process and, if so, from who?

Daniels: It took about three years – not continuously, in bursts (I’d already left the busy job and was freelancing). My mentor has been Masha Karp, a former editor for the BBC Russian Service. I’d get a version together with the dictionary, she’d show me the idioms, nuances and cultural references I’d missed, and then I had something reliable to work on as an English poem.

CWB: Are you currently working on any new translations? Who, as a scholar, would you be eager to see better known among Russian poets in the English speaking world?

Daniels: Finishing the Khodasevich book, I felt I should work on someone else, especially as my knowledge of other Russian poets is sketchy in comparison. I have attempted a couple of famous poems of Lermontov and Pasternak, and one Khlebnikov poem, which was good fun (not his most birdlike, though). I’ve looked at Mikhail Kuzmin, who hasn’t yet grabbed me the way Khodasevich did; Nikolai Kliuev is another possibility. It might need another retreat like the four weeks at Hawthornden to let me get on with another project like that.

CWB: You are not just a translator, but a distinguished poet. What are your current poetic endeavors? Do you have a new collection or project that you are currently at work on?

Daniels: I’m sorting out a lot of poems I’d forgotten about, to see whether they are any good, and improve and send them out for publication. I noticed that my computer folder called “Working On” contained about 200 – far too many, and a lot of dross, but enough worth attention. I’m still writing new ones, and there are others I like that didn’t fit the 2012 book Counting Eggs, so somewhere in this heap there might be a reasonable book.

CWB: As the majority of our readers are Americans, what contemporary English poets and publications would you recommend? And considering contemporary English and American poetry, what are some differences that you see between the two?

Daniels: I probably most admire the Northern Irish poet Michael Longley, whose versions of classical poets like Homer and Ovid bring his own world and theirs into a wonderful relationship, and he’s a great nature poet. Sinead Morrissey (another Northern Irish poet) has just deservedly won the big T.S. Eliot prize – she has a wonderful scope, a way of giving a poem a lovely arc of meaning. David Morley brings a scientist’s eye to nature and is linguistically very lively. Publications: Poetry London, Magma, Poetry Review, The Dark Horse, New Walk.

Online I like Ink Sweat and Tears, but I haven’t gone overboard for poems online, I like to get away from the screen to read.

Differences: America is bigger, so Americans get on with their own thing, and having invented various kinds of modern poetry they tend to concentrate on what that’s about. But the internet is making huge differences to the natural divide. Online submissions can happen anywhere, and judging from Facebook, Americans and Brits mingle more, share blogs and so on. We still have “innovative” and “mainstream” schools, but that seems to get less important, especially to younger poets who like to mix it. I don’t know how true that is in America.

CWB: What are some of your more notable habits when drafting a poem or translation? Do you keep notes in a notebook or does new work just pour out? How many times do you draft a poem before considering it for a manuscript or literary submission?

Daniels: I work away from the computer at first. Translation happens with a copy of the original that I scribble vocabulary on, and then start looking for ways in for an English version. One reason for those forgotten poems is because I write longhand in the early morning, with a few random triggers. Roughly monthly I type up what’s in the notebook, then usually forget that monthly output for as much as a year, though there’s no pattern to it. It often seems written by someone else, and I spend a while looking at what it means, reordering it, checking sound patterns, reading it aloud. If it’s a serious contender, I take it to a workshop group, but that’s only once a month and I could do with more of those – I like to know how a poem looks to a few readers. I also attend another group where a subject or a form is set as homework. A reasonable hit-rate from those. This sounds rather mechanical and formulaic, doesn’t it! But revising is what counts, and I do take years over some of them, though not all.

CWB: What are you currently reading? Are there any forthcoming publications in 2014 that you are eagerly awaiting?

Daniels: I’ve been giving myself stuff I feel resistant to. Anne Carson’s Red Doc> was worth the read. I’m now getting down to J.H. Prynne, who has a big mystique around him, which I think is unfortunate. I’m looking forward to the new Penguin Russian Poetry from Pushkin to Brodsky.

Vladislav Felitsianovich Khodasevich (1886–1939) was born and grew up in Moscow to a Polish-Lithuanian and partly Jewish family, although he was Russified by his education and gained a deep knowledge and love of Russian poetry. Younger than the Symbolists like Blok and Bely, he published in his early twenties but took some time to find his own style, coming to maturity as a poet around the time of the Revolution in 1917, when had turned thirty. He left Russia in 1922 with his partner Nina Berberova, at first to join Gorky in Berlin, but they eventually settled in Paris, working in the exasperating Russian émigré literary world. Khodasevich wrote less and less poetry in exile, but was considered by Nabokov to be the finest Russian poet of the 20th century. He died in June 1939, little known in the West and deleted from history by the Soviet authorities, but he has now become much appreciated in Russia.

Peter Daniels has won first prize in a number of poetry competitions including the Ledbury (2002), Arvon (2008) and TLS (2010), and has twice been a winner of the Poetry Business pamphlet competition. He published his first full collection Counting Eggs with Mulfran Press in 2012, but also has a number of chapbooks since 1992 including three from Smith/Doorstop, Mr Luczinski Makes a Move (HappenStance, 2011) and the historically obscene Ballad of Captain Rigby (Personal Pronoun, 2013) based on court records at London Metropolitan Archives. He has Masters degrees in Writing from Sheffield Hallam University, and in Modern Literatures in English from Birkbeck College, London. During a Hawthornden Fellowship he began his translations of Vladislav Khodasevich, now published by Angel Classics (UK) and Ardis/Overlook (USA).

Vladislav Khodasevich: Selected Poems Cover Image
By Vladislav Khodasevich, Peter Daniels (Translator), Michael Wachtel (Introduction by)
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Published: Overlook Press - January 9th, 2014

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Translating Northern Lights: Collected Works interviews Malena Mörling

CWB: Your latest book, The Star By My Head, is an anthology of Swedish poetry from, roughly, the last hundred years. You translated these eight poets with Jonas Ellerström who, as you have told me, worked on a good deal of the poems side by side with yourself. Can you tell us a little bit about this shared process of translating, what it looked like, and what you learned?

Mörling: A few summers ago in Sweden, Jonas and I worked quite productively together selecting poems and creating first drafts of many of the poems in the anthology. We essentially sat around and talked our way through the poems, stopping to discuss the phrasing or a difficult passage. After having created a first draft this way, we took turns working individually to refine the translations and sent the poems back and forth over email. I translated the Tomas Tranströmer poems separately, some I had translated many years earlier while I was still in graduate school for the collection For the Living and the Dead: Poems and a Memoir that came out from Ecco Press in 1995. And I began to translate Gunnar Ekelöf even before that, also while in graduate school. Many of those poems we in a sense, retranslated for this book. Jonas was instrumental in selecting some of the poems we, translated but basically, I believe it is possible to say that we translated the poems that we love the most by each of the poets and of course the poems that for some reason lent themselves to being translated.

CWB: When you are translating a poem what, for you, are key elements that you hope to transfer from one language to the next?

Mörling: Hopefully something of the urgency and or spirit of the poem—maybe it is some element of its music or perhaps the pace of it or the clarity of its images or maybe its cosmic visual scope or even in the sheer off chance, the entire meaning of the thing.

CWB: The Star By My Head is published through Milkweed Editions press, but you also received support from the Poetry Foundation. My question is, how did these partnerships arise? Did you, or you and Ellerström, approach Milkweed and or the Poetry Foundation, or was it the other way around?

Mörling: It was the other way around. It was Ilya Kaminsky of The Harriet Monroe Institute at the Poetry Foundation who started the whole thing—he contacted me and asked to see some translations and then presented the translations to Daniel Slager, editor of Milkweed Editions. That led us to assemble the anthology and it becoming a part of The Poets in the World, for which he is series editor. It is a tremendous project, involving fifteen poetry anthologies published by various and stellar poetry presses from around the country in conjunction with the Poetry Foundation. It is a beautiful and invigorating contribution, anthologies of poets from Africa, China, Latin America, Iraq, Afghanistan, Eastern Europe and elsewhere.

CWB: Edith Södergran is the first poet to appear in the pages of The Star By My Head and you also put out a translation of her poems through Marick Press in 2012.  Unlike Gunnar Ekelöf and Tomas Tranströmer, who also appear in The Star By My Head, Sodergran's was a name and body of work I hadn't been familiar with.  Can you tell us about her, maybe about an episode from her life that has intrigued you?

Mörling: Yes, even though she has been translated into nearly thirty languages, and into English by a few people, she is not as well known as she ought to be which is in part why I felt compelled to translate her. But mainly, I was drawn to translate her because I wanted to get to know and understand her work better. She was such an incredibly interesting person, a genius really. She lived and wrote with great intensity due to, I believe, having been diagnosed with tuberculosis as a teenager and became understandably obsessed with her own mortality and the spontaneous and infinite depths of her experience of being alive. She was born in St. Petersburg, Russia where she studied at a German school. Before beginning to write poems in Swedish, her mother tongue, her parents were both Swedish, she wrote over 200 poems in German in her school notebook. She also wrote briefly in Russian, before beginning to write in Swedish. All in all, by the time she died at age 31, she knew seven languages. Some of the languages she learned -like English and Italian- while recuperating at a sanatorium in Switzerland. But she ended up living in the Swedish speaking part of Finland near the Russian border and she is therefore a Finland-Swedish poet. She is perhaps the first Scandinavian modernist, she stopped writing in traditional forms which was unheard of in the first couple of decades of the twentieth century. There is an element of freedom in her work that is exhilarating. Her influence on 20th and 21st century Scandinavian poetry is unrivaled.    

CWB: Are there any Swedish poets not included in this collection that you feel ought to be better known or, had you been able, that you would have included in this anthology?

Mörling: Yes, Ragnar Thoursie is one—he should be better known. He was an incredible Swedish twentieth century modernist poet—he worked as a social worker his whole life as well as wrote poems. He was a great influence on Tomas Tranströmer’s work among others.

CWB: You do so much more than translation. You are also a teacher and a well-recognized poet. Your own books of verse are Astoria and Ocean Avenue and they have been highly regarded pretty much across the board. Are you currently at work on a new collection of your own poetry? If so, what can we expect from your third book of original verse?

Mörling: I am writing new poems that I hope will become a manuscript soon. It is hard for me to know or tell you what you can expect from it, since part of the process of writing for me is a strong element of not knowing what I am doing. Writing my poems is an intuitive process, I never know what I will write until it is written. Even then, I am not always sure of what I have just written or how it may fit with whatever else I have been writing. So it takes time to understand what it is—at this point I have a bunch of poems that have not yet quite presented themselves as a manuscript.

CWB: When you are at work on a poem, what does your drafting process look like? Do you use an iPad, an old fashioned notebook, or a computer? Do you keep notes towards poems or do their initial seeds just sprout from the page when a particular mood strikes you?

Mörling: I usually begin by writing in my notebook, usually a composition notebook or on a yellow writing pad. Although recently, for the first time in my life, I acquired a smaller Moleskine notebook and hopefully it will work. My handwriting is ridiculously ugly and large and because of that, I think I have always been a bit intimidated by such beautiful and high-end notebooks. In either case, I always carry paper and pens with me and always sleep with paper and pens next to me. I have many, many composition notebooks filled with possible notes for poems and often when I am writing a poem and when I wonder what turn the poem will take next, I randomly flip through the notebooks hoping that something perfect and unforeseen will jump out. This is one good way to create leaps in a poem or to create unlikely combinations. I write multiple drafts of my poems, I write them by hand over and over again until I feel that I am getting close to having a more or less complete poem. It is only at this point that I begin to type it on my computer and see how the lines look, how the form of it will take shape, etc.

CWB: What habits are good for aspiring poets to learn? Do you advise them to simply read, read, read? To write on city buses or at a desk? What are some points of advice that you have given along the lines of practice and habit?

Mörling: I think that maybe the most important thing is to write all the time. I think it was at the point when I realized that all I was doing was writing basically 24/7, if I was not writing, I was reading and thinking of writing, that I, in sense, realized that I was a writer. When I realized that everything else in my life was arranged around the writing—grocery shopping with a notebook, going to the dentist with a notebook, writing while driving a car, walking down the street, etc,. So I guess my advice is to allow yourself to be consumed by it, to allow it to occupy your experience no matter what it is.

CWB: What have been some of your long term influences as a poet? Are there places, pieces of music, works of art, or books that you find yourself drawn to over and over again, not for personal preference, but for poetic resource?

Mörling: The fleetingness and the strangeness of life and our mortality in general has me sitting down writing. Also music—classical composers such as Bach and Paganini influence me. And so many different poets from all over the world really—it is overwhelming to even begin to mention names, Emily Dickinson, Walt Whitman, William Carlos Williams, Elisabeth Bishop, Federico Garcia Lorca, Jorge Luis Borges, Yannis Ritsos, Jean Follain, Wislawa Szymborska, etc,. Also looking at paintings and photographs and, of course, watching films.

CWB: Finally, what are you reading right now and what, if you know of something, are you looking forward to in poetry publications for 2014?

Mörling: I am reading Joan Kane’s exquisite new book Hyperboreal. I am looking forward to Jane Mead’s new book of poems coming out this spring from Alice James Books.

Malena Mörling was born in Stockholm in 1965 and grew up in southern Sweden. She is the author of two books of poetry: Ocean Avenue and Astoria. She has also published translations together with Jonas Ellerström of the Finland-Swedish poet Edith Södergran, On Foot I Wandered Through the Solar Systems, 1933 by Philip Levine into Swedish, work by Nobel Laureate Tomas Tranströmer and most recently they have edited and translated the anthology The Star By My Head, Poets From Sweden just out from Milkweed Editions. In 2007, she received a Guggenheim Fellowship and in 2010 a Lannan Literary Fellowship. In addition to being Core-Faculty in The Low-Residency MFA program at New England College, she is an Associate Professor at University of North Carolina, Wilmington.

Interviewee: Christopher J. Johnson

 

Malena Mörling reads poems in their original Swedish.
The Star by My Head: Poets from Sweden (Poets in the World) Cover Image
By Malena Morling (Translator), Jonas Ellerstom (Translator)
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ISBN: 9781571314611
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Published: Milkweed Editions - January 14th, 2014

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Published: Marick Press - October 30th, 2012

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Published: University of Pittsburgh Press - February 28th, 2006

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Published: New Issues Poetry & Prose - March 1st, 1999

Collected Works interviews Stephen Massimilla

CWB: In your latest collection of poetry, The Plague Doctor In His Hull-Shaped Hat, you seem to take the reader on a journey across Italy. The book’s cover is evocative of this also. Could you tell us a little about the inspiration for this aspect of the book?

SM: Well, I was on a mission to recover a manuscript that I’d lost upon returning from a trip to and through Italy, my ancestral and literary “homeland.” It’s still possible to lose a manuscript if you work in hard copy and travel recklessly. Besides, as the titular reference to the “Hull-Shaped Hat” implies, the book is, in a sense, about traveling—not only from Capri to Venice, but from New England to the Tropics, and from Ithaca to Never Never Land. I wanted to pay homage to something that went wrong, all the more because it went wrong. Themes such as loss, alienation, obsession, schizophrenia, suicide, memory, and self-realization are explored in and through metaphors about travel. The book is also about searching—in a quasi-Buddhistic way—for freedom from self and place.

CWB: Your poems are evocative, in my mind, of a number of poetic traditions. The early twentieth-century Italian poet Giuseppe Ungaretti comes to mind, but also French Symbolist and Imagist poets like Tristan Corbiere and Jules Laforgue. Now, I could be way off the mark; would you share some of your inspirations in regard to poets and poetic schools?

SM: Sure, les poètes maudits Corbiere, LaForgue, Ungaretti: they’re worth defending against a disorderly genius such as Shakespeare. But I’ve spent more of my life poring over, for example, Dante, or the oeuvres of the British Romantics. Among the heirs of the Symbolists and the Imagists, a lot of my teaching and critical writing has centered on the High Modernists from Yeats to Eliot to Lawrence and their local American “enemies” from William Carlos Williams to James Schuyler. I’m also drawn to the so-called “confessional” poets, and, for different reasons, to poets of the Harlem Renaissance, of Black Mountain, and of other movements or schools. Still, I’ve often been even more captivated by those working outside the Anglo-French paradigm—Rilke, Lorca, Mayakovsky, Tsvetaeva, Milosz, Szymborska, Hikmet, Soyinka, etc. And does Dickinson, Roethke, or Kunitz belong to a “school”? To bring my answer down to earth, I should add that my favorite poets are not all “weighty.” I’m an astropotomus* fan of that inquisitive and delicate psychologist, Dean Young, for instance, and of Heather McHugh. In the end, our sensibilities have a bigger effect on what we do than all the poets who happen to inspire us, so I may appear to be more of a Symbolist than I understand myself to be.

CWB: Your poems owe a debt to color, image, and metaphor. You also utilize a very distinguished use of enjambment (or, in laymen’s terms, line break) that I am tempted to call Massimillian; thus, my question is, how do you work your poems? In your drafting process, do you write out your poetic lines in a longer form and then break them? Or, does your use of metaphor, enjambment, etc. fall out naturally in the fashion we (the reader) engage with in the final draft?

SM: Though the Muse sometimes dictates these matters from the start, it is often only when a poem tells me where it wants the line breaks to fall that I find what I need to say. I agree with Olson and Creeley that the form of a poem should be like the X-ray of its content. For me, the line-break is where the dread, the rapture, the magic happens. Enjambment is integral to the music of a poem; and it can serve so many functions, including conveying emphasis, interruption, dislocation, propulsion, and corollary signification. I sometimes read poets such as Ferlinghetti, Zukofsky, and many others just for the pleasure of re-experiencing their line breaks. In this book, my poem “Staying with the Mississippi,” which is about crossing and also permanently entering the great American river, took shape when it broke into riverine lines. In a sense, every line break marks a station of the cross, but we never know if it will be a moment of coronation, decapitation, or both. If that sounds like an odd way of summing things up, all I can do is quote E.E. Cummings: “scolds Forbid /den Stop / Must /n’t Don’t.”

CWB: Your book contains a poem entitled “Sacred Defoliation” which tell us that it was written “after Vallejo”. Cesar Vallejo is, for our readers who don’t know, one of the leading Spanish language poets of the early twentieth century. Could you tell us a little about your connection to him? Also, what is meant here by “after Vallejo”. Are we to understand that this is not a translation in the strictest sense, but rather a “transliteration,” as the poet Bill Knott would say, which is more of a bringing over of the theme of a poem than a word for word translation?

SM: In the final section of the book, we travel through the seasons in reverse, starting in the fall. The “after Vallejo” poem, which is shamelessly addressed to the autumn moon, fits in here. It expresses the tension between the sensual blood of the poet and the tragic idealism of the prophet—the real fatality of this tension. The term “after” can denote anything from a close translation to what Dryden and Lowell called an “imitation” to a radical transformation. Here, I wanted to pay homage to the original while taking necessary liberties to fashion a musically and emotively effective English version. And there was another issue. Since this poem was published in 1919, Vallejo could not have intended his verb holocaustarse to remind us of the Holocaust. It’s now impossible to read that word in a poem without making that association. Therefore, I changed Vallejo’s active, reflexive “holocaust themselves” to “are holocausted.” My grandmother’s family was killed in the Holocaust. Also, when Vallejo used the word “gypsy” to describe his heart, he wasn’t thinking of this context but of the artist as marginalized outsider, given the lack of adequate company that kept him nevertheless brave and (darkly) cheerful.

CWB: I am always interested in process and I wondering if you would share with us some of your process in the generation of poems. How do you draft your poems? Do you keep a notebook for handwritten notes or are you always working digitally from a tablet, computer or other device? How many drafts, on the average, would you say that your poems go through before they are ready to be submitted to journals or published in a book?

SM: When I write, I don’t let anyone breathe or even think in my vicinity. For someone suffering from spiritual pregnancy, self-isolation is one of the terms of instinctive sagacity. Writing poetry involves wanting the whole world to oneself. It’s an impossible, ridiculous proposition. I start with pen and paper before moving any words to that dangerous Friend, the computer. I don’t own a tablet, but I have a sketchbook that I’m always filling with drawings and drafts of poems. I sometimes even follow my old mentor Derek Walcott’s advice to compose first in pencil, as Hemingway did (Hemingway was a poet as well as a novelist). That way, early drafts never look too good to mess with. In recent years, I’ve relied on poets and friends in The Urban Range, especially Sally Dawidoff, for feedback. I revise ad inifinitum. The average poem takes about forty years to write.

CWB: Stephen, you are a poet, a scholar, and a painter. This type of “Renaissance Man” artist is more and more common. My question is twofold: is this, in your mind, related to the increase in higher education systems that offer studio practice and creative writing degrees? Do campuses like Columbia in New York and The Chicago Art Institute put students in more direct contact with the creative arts on so many levels that the young arts student is engaged with more possibilities so far as artistic creation goes? And, furthermore, is the trend for interactive, or installation based art, increasing the number of artists who “do it all”?

SM: In my experience, people are multifaceted, and creative people often work in more than one medium. Famous poet-scholars from Boccaccio to Berryman and artist-poets such as Michelangelo, Blake, Rossetti and Cummings don’t seem to reflect a single historical trend. Most writers, scholars, and artists I know also teach for a living. Anyway, my grandparents met at the Art Student’s League, and I’ve been painting for as long as I can remember. After college, I studied studio art at the Art Institute of Chicago, and I continued to paint while pursuing later degrees in writing and literature at Columbia University in New York. I’ve done the bulk of my artwork outside of university facilities, though. 

  To answer your second question, I am all in favor of the collaborative projects of the New York School. In fact, I was just rereading O’Hara’s poem “Why I Am Not a Painter.” Still, when I taught writing and literature at an art school in Manhattan, I noticed that the undergraduates were working in traditional media, whereas everything the graduate students were doing was installation-based, “out there,” and  “conceptual.” I see no reason for dividing the terrain in this way, given that so-called “traditional” painting (everything from the cave paintings of Lascaux to the work of Odd Nerdrum) has long been very “out there” in its way; and “conceptual” art (as in, everything from Zulu masks to the Anthropophagisms of Yves Klein) has never had to be exclusively installation-based. Within the literary academy, meanwhile, writing programs and literature programs have tended to be isolated from each other. Also, as Marjorie Perloff has pointed out, the very label “interdisciplinary” has lately entailed focusing on the sociopolitical at the expense of the aesthetic, as if they were separate realms. I understand why rifts such as these have formed, but I don’t see them as necessary or true to the spirit of interdisciplinarity.

CWB: What do you see as being a new avenue for poetry in its relation to other arts or public arts. How can poetry break from the page and reach out into the world? Or can it?

SM: The poet writes out of an internal abyss, creating out of his own response to the world. Over time, I become unable to endure my own work unless it reaches out beyond the page. By painting the cover for the book and writing poems influenced by Baroque, Surrealist, and Expressionist painting and sculpture, I’m already reaching out to engage different genres. I also believe in the potential of poetry to address various sociocultural, psychological, and spiritual plagues, to elevate the spirit, and to open up new possibilities. The word “doctor” is as important to the title of my book as the notion of a “plague” in our midst and the metaphor about traveling through the world.

CWB: Finally, our standard question: Some sort of apocalyptic scenario: limited resources, solitude, long silences—what books are in your survival kit?

SM: You know, that doesn’t sound half bad! I could use some more solitude…for a while. After that, I’d rely on Stendhal or the early Tolstoy for the brilliant details of a social world I’d be missing. I’ve been even more of a Dostoyevsky fan so far, but you’re talking about a game changer. There is a risk to spending too much time alone with Dostoevsky’s perverse brand of profundity. What kind of apocalyptic scenario did you have in mind? A nuclear winter might be too long even for Tolstoy. If I were going to a desert island, Vallejo’s knack for facing hardship would make him a candidate, but his heavy insistence on ecclesiastical tropes and agonies in stony places might not be suitable for the beach. I’d probably take Neruda and Lorca. Neruda knows tomorrow will be like today. And Lorca would remind me that I could always make a lot out of a little, that it takes only one miniscule ant to drink up the entire hemisphere of the midday sky reflected in the eye of one of Robinson Crusoe’s dead goats. Come to think of it, this might be a good occasion for a tablet with access to millions of books; but I’m assuming those devices wouldn’t function on a desert island. I much prefer reading in hard copy anyway.

*  "Astropotamus" means "astronomical" and also like a hippopotamus--hence, really big. No, it's not in the dictionary, but the poet June Jordan has used it. -SM

  Stephen Massimilla is a poet, critic, professor, and painter. The Plague Doctor in His Hull-Shaped Hat was selected in the Stephen F. Austin State University Press Poetry Series Prize Competition. Massimilla has received the Bordighera Poetry Prize for his book Forty Floors from Yesterday; the Grolier Prize for Later on Aiaia; a Van Rensselaer Award, selected by Kenneth Koch; an Academy of American Poets Prize; and multiple Pushcart Prize nominations. His work has appeared in hundreds of publications. Massimilla holds an M.F.A. and a Ph.D. from Columbia University and teaches at Columbia University and the New School.

For more information about Massimilla and his works visit www.stephenmassimilla.com.

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Collected Works interviews Craig Morgan Teicher

CWB: Your forthcoming chapbook, Ambivalence and Other Conundrums (Omnidawn, Feb. 2014), is a collection of prose poems. Your previous collection To Keep Love Blurry contained a longer section entitled "On His Bed and No Longer Among the Living" which was also prose. Could you discuss what a prose poem is and, perhaps, talk a little bit about its place in American poetry?

CMT: This happens to be a topic I have plenty of opinions about, and I have discussed it in other interviews as well. I've also written a book of what I call fables, which I hope other people call fables, more story than poem, but sharing some traits with both forms, called Cradle Book.

Basically, my understanding of a prose poem goes back to my understanding of the differences between poetry and prose: Richard Howard, who was an important mentor for me turned dear friend, has a formulation he likes to use to explain the differences: "verse reverses and prose proceeds." I take that to mean that when you get to the end of a poem it makes you reread it. The poem sends a lightning bolt back up through its own stalk and changes its own beginning.

Prose, on the other hand, wants you to read the next word, sentence, paragraph, description, scene, or bit of dialogue. It wants to get on with itself, to make progress toward an end that is far in the distance (though a great novel will have that kind of reversal at the end, too, that turning back, a piece of poetic mechanics).

  So -and there are plenty of exceptions- I think a prose poem is prose that reverses, meaning it makes you reread it. To do that it uses poetic devices: sound, rhythm, maybe rhyme, but also uses prose sentences, ones that look ahead, ones that draw your eye onward, not so much downward. This definition gets a bit fluffy, I know, but it's the one I like and use. I hope my prose poems operate this way.   As far as how prose poetry is fixed in the landscape of contemporary American poetry, I wonder if too many poets just think of a prose poem as a poem without lines, meaning they're not being attentive to their other tools: all those poetic things I mentioned, but also strong, sinuous sentences and even paragraphs.

CWB: I have found your poetry to be constantly engaging in a variety of forms and yet, at the same time, taking up the feasibility of language as an effective device for communication as a continual theme. I might argue that the use of form implies that a meaning can not only be derived, but contained in a poetic form (as if in an equation) and that by using language to fill that form you condone its use as the proper tool to effect communication through whatever form has been chosen. Your poetry often takes a stance of contradiction to this which is, in fact, quite pleasing. Could you speak to this.

CMT: I think a very basic human tragedy, a basic frustration, is the inability to really cross the border between inner and outer lives. Language is our best bet for making that crossing, but there is so much from inside that never gets out on the backs of words. So, I agree with you: poetry, and especially formal poetry, is basically meaningful, but the form is always trying to tell us the story of what can't be said in its own words. Every poem is about what isn't in it.

And, yes, a form carries a certain amount of agreed-upon meaning, a sense that a plan can be fulfilled, which is comforting. But, form also points up what form can't communicate. Even feeling the form, things are left out. Most things probably.

CWB: To Keep Love Blurry is, I think, largely driven by coming to terms with the death of your mother and its subtext is about settling into the themes of post adolescent life such as domesticity and work. It raises the question in me, was this collection about sloughing something off, about, to borrow from D. H. Lawrence, a man who has come through?

CMT: For me To Keep Love Blurry was about assuming the responsibilities of adulthood, which, for me, means becoming a parent. It's about the difference between, or the overlaps between being a son and being a father. So it's about giving up certain fantasies, and giving over, to my children, the right to those fantasies, as it were. So lots gets left behind. I think the poem is a good metaphor for growing up, in some ways, because it's all about what isn't kept when one tries to keep some things in words.

CWB: How does Ambivalence… represent a departure from To Keep Love Blurry? Given the radical difference in overall style between To Keep Love Blurry and Ambivalence what’s next for you in your poetry?

CMT: Ambivalence was really a generative exercise for me: Rusty Morrisson of Omnidawn asked me for a chapbook, and I hadn’t written very much since To Keep Love Blurry, so I tried to figure out if I could write something about all of these big concepts: fear, fame, drinking, ambivalence.

The poems in Ambivalence, with much revision, were the results of that exercise. I also have a new manuscript that I'm finishing, which is composed of poems that are sloppy where the poems of TKLB are more formal. It's a kind of a bitter book, but it also tries to figure out what it means to have had a second child, a daughter.

CWB: What are your long term influences and what are your short term influences? What artists, poets, musicians, biologists etc. do you look to for inspiration and how does that inspiration find you? What I mean is, when something inspires you do you draw direct influence or make direct reference or does that inspiration surface in your work in more surprising ways?

CMT: A lot of what I've written has been in direct conversation with writers who are important to me: Robert Lowell, Donald Justice, Bin Ramke, Robert Frost. There so many others though, especially new writers, of whom I read a great many. And then I love jazz. I have been listening lately to a lot of Classical music also: I love music as a metaphor for thinking; a lot more gets communicated through music than by words and you can't paraphrase it.

CWB: When you are composing new poetry, what do your habits look like? Do you work from a notebook with a pen? Use an iPad? How do you draft your poems? Do you share your drafts with a circle of poets or coworkers or family members? What is your advice to aspiring poets in regards to drafting their poetry?

CMT: Lately I've been using a weird process that involves my iPad and three different word processing apps. Whatever geekery keeps it fun. And I've come to be very fascinated with the potential of dictation, now that everyone with a smartphone can talk into a word processor. I do that a lot now, though I get mixed results with it. I tend to show everything first to my wife, the poet Brenda Shaughnessy, but lately, after years of just showing things to her, I felt the need to expand my early readers so I've shown the new poems to some other friends as well, which has been really fun.

 

PLEASE NOTE THAT Ambivalence and Other Conundrums IS NOT AVAILABLE UNTIL FEB. 2014

 

  Craig Morgan Teicher is a poet, critic, and freelance writer.  His first book of poems, Brenda Is In The Room And Other Poems, was chosen by Paul Hoover as winner of the 2007 Colorado Prize for Poetry and was published by the Center for Literary Publishing.  His collection of short stories and fables, called Cradle Book, was published in spring 2010 by BOA Editions Ltd.  To Keep Love Blurry was published by BOA in September 2012.
He is Director of Digital Operations and Poetry Reviews Editor of Publishers Weekly, a poetry editor of The Literary Review, a contributing editor of Pleiades, and a Vice President of the National Book Critics Circle.  He also teaches at The New School and New York University and lives in Brooklyn, NY with his wife and children.

 

Interviewer: Christopher J. Johnson

 

To Keep Love Blurry (American Poets Continuum #135) Cover Image
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Published: BOA Editions - August 21st, 2012

To Keep Love Blurry (American Poets Continuum #135) Cover Image
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ISBN: 9781934414934
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Published: BOA Editions - August 21st, 2012

Collected Works Bookstore interviews poet Michael Davidson

CWB: Your latest book is a collection entitled Bleed Through and it is a collection of new and selected poems. To have such a volume issued is a high honor. How long have you been publishing poetry and, what were your earliest publications? Were they chap books or book-length manuscripts? What advice do you have for aspiring poets who wish to publish their works?

MD: My first chapbook, Exchanges, appeared in 1972 and there were a number of small pamphlets during this period. My first “real” book, The Mutabilities, appeared from Sand Dollar Press in 1976. Since then there have been four other books and now Bleed Through which collects poems from all of these. My advice for aspiring poets would be to establish community by participating in workshops, reading groups, blogs, little magazines or on-line forums. Start a reading series, publish an on-line journal, go to poetry readings. Despite our romantic picture of the solitary poet, we create poems, as Jack Spicer said, through our “bartalk, our fuss and fury with each other.” Poetry is often written in response to something—a quotation, a slight, an argument—that provides the poem with a kind of silent interlocutor. The more the emerging poet engages with the art in all of its varieties the more he/she engages with the world from which poetry emerges.

CWB: Your poetry is, to my mind, very experimental. You seem often to take up the subject of language in of itself and the limits and capabilities of language in regards to understanding? Can you speak a little to this theme?

MD: I try not to use the term “experimental” or “innovative” since such terms tend to pigeonhole the work and make it unavailable to the curious reader. I do push language into odd corners, often changing direction mid-sentence, but I do try to maintain the lyric possibilities of “sight, sound, and intellection.” If one is patient enough, one will see that there is always a narrative hiding beneath the surface, one that is constantly under siege by asides and distractions. I try to keep the narrative running like a subterranean stream while remaining open to inevitable associations with certain words or registers. And yes, because I don’t believe in language as unmediated access to experience, it (language) often becomes the subject of the poem. But this, to my mind, is not the same as art-pour-art, language for its own sake, but rather a focus on the material means of expression.

CWB: From the context of your poems in Bleed Through you seem very familiar with a wide range of literature, both in poetry and in other mediums of writing. Do you draw a good deal of your inspiration from contact with other books. It has been suggested that literature is, rather than something new and fresh every time, a dialogue with its self. That is that literature, whether poetry or philosophy or fiction or anything else, is a response to the history of literature. The painter Delacroix defined genius as realizing that, “All subjects have been handled before, genius finds just a little bit more to say about them” and goes on to use the metaphor of a wheel that travels down a rut in the road and, by passing through that well traveled rut, ads more to our understanding of a well-worn topic. How does this idea find you?

MD: Well, I’m a teacher of literature, so it’s not surprising that cultural references will pop up. Literature is a dialogue with itself—its traditions, genres, cultural meanings—but it’s no less a dialogue with the world it engages. Or rather, writing engages the so-called “outside” world only through an aesthetic frame. We can’t see the political without a narrative that has, to some extent, been prepared for us by some other form. I’m not saying that in order to recognize evil in political leaders, we must first read Richard III or Macbeth, but we often use such sources to reinforce or recognize ethical crises. When I say “aesthetic frame” I’m speaking about any organization of the senses through a medium, not some alternate world to the quotidian. It’s what makes the quotidian visible.

Now as for Delacroix’s statement: it presumes that there is a topic that remains continuous and “well-
worn.” But of course this belies the emergence of new topics that couldn’t have been imagined in an earlier era (Black people are human; women should vote; humans derive from apes; space is variable). Genius could also mean the ability to see that something is fundamentally different. I think the “rut” paradigm he invokes is useful for an era of horse-drawn wagons, but to see the contemporary “information highway” as an extension of that metaphor rather obscures the difference between them. Gertrude Stein’s paraphrase of Picasso might be appropriate: someone complained that his portrait of Stein did not resemble her, to which he responded, “it will.”

CWB: There has been a lot of movement in arts communities to make art more public and, not only that, but to make the arts more compatible so that by putting together different mediums in art (i.e. painting/ sculpture/ poetry) art is not only more publicly oriented, but more accessible. How do you see poetry moving beyond the page and out into other places? Can it do so effectively? What kinds of projects, if any, would you like to see poetry entangled with and evolving into?

MD: This is an important issue since funding for the arts in education has been drastically cut at the same time that global capitalism is reducing the cultural sphere to the bottom line. But poets and artists and musicians are making good use of the excrescences of capitalism by crossing genres, moving out of the museum and into the street, off the page and into the pixilated screen, out of the studio and into collaboration. I’m not sure that this hasn’t been the situation since the mid-19thcrisis in an era when if it can’t make money it isn’t necessary.

I would agree with critics that poetry is becoming more inaccessible to the general public, but that is not because the poetry is more difficult but that the audience is not being taught how to read. Rap, hip-hop, slams, and open-mic events are creating a vital new audience for poetry, an audience that probably doesn’t read John Ashbery but which is becoming attuned to the sounds and rhythms of urban constituencies. That’s all to the good. And many people otherwise alienated from the publishing world can now publish their work in on-line venues, contribute to chat groups, and create new work in a virtual community. So while the cultural value of poetry has been diminished in the official venues of cultural authority (universities, funding agencies, journalism) it has been revitalized within the unofficial venues of our information society.

CWB: You have suffered from hearing loss and, I feel, some of the newer poems in your book address that subject. How has the lose of your hearing effected you as a poet? How do hearing and poetry move along together? How can they be separated?

MD: I realize that most people speak of losing hearing as “suffering a loss,” but I prefer to see it as a gain since it has given me an entirely new purchase on the senses—and on embodiment generally. As a consequence of anticipating deafness, my family and I learned ASL (American Sign Language), and I began to write about Deaf poets and performers. The result was a new appreciation of the rich cultural world of Deaf persons but also of new possibilities for poetry when it is enlarged to include poems “written” on the body, signed in space. With continued moments of hearing loss, I try to write out of that experience, registering the sense of frustration and anger that often attends the experience. But I also try to “hear” what it is I’m not hearing so that I can better adjust my language to a new sensorium. My work in disability studies that resulted in the book, Concerto for the Left Hand, is a direct consequence of this experience.

CWB: What does the future hold for you and your poetry?

MD: The immediate future includes my retirement from teaching. I’m hoping that this will give me more time and occasion to write poetry.

CWB: Finally, what is on your coffee table right now? What are you reading and drawing inspiration from and what have been some of your favorite literary sources of inspiration in the past?

MD: that’s a great question. Right now on my coffee table are the following: The Disability Studies Reader (4th ed.); J.M. Bernstein’s great book on Kant’s aesthetics, The Fate of Art; Andrea Brady’s poems in Vacation of a Lifetime; Jeremy Prynne’s Poems; Hilary Mantell’s Wolf Hall; Eileen Myles, Inferno. How’s that for specificity?

Favorite sources of inspiration in the past? Henry James, Gertrude Stein, Emily Dickinson, James Joyce, George Oppen, Jane Austen, John Ashbery, Beethoven’s late quartets, Bach’s Well Tempered Clavier, the paintings of Poussin and Manet, Walter Benjamin’s Arcades project, almost anything by Samuel Beckett.

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