Molly Weigel on translation, floods, and Roy Orbisonby Molly Weigel, Anna Lena Phillips • 02.23.2013
Molly Weigel’s poems “Spare the Snowman” and “Le Roy du Sentiment” appeared in Fringe in January. Her translation of the Argentine poet Oliverio Girondo, In the Moremarrow, will be available in April from Action Books, which also published her translation of Jorge Santiago Perednik. Poetry editor Anna Lena Phillips interviewed her by email in January and February.
How did you begin writing poetry?
I wrote collaborative poems with my dad when I was 4 or 5—the kind where you fold a piece of paper in half lengthwise and take turns writing words the other person can’t see. At first, we just wrote single words, and did not look at anything of what the other person wrote. Then we put it all together to see what we had. Here’s a surviving example: “Wasn’t paper windy? / Rap-running rug-leaves rip, / Lick like milk shining silk everywhere.” I still love to do this; I love poetry’s ability to make itself.
Talk about how the crows and Roy Orbison came to converge in “Le Roy du Sentiment.”
I had recently watched the 1988 television special A Black and White Night on PBS. It’s a tribute concert shot in black and white, in which Tom Waits, Elvis Costello, Bruce Springsteen, Emmylou Harris, and others join Roy Orbison in performing his songs. Roy was wearing his trademark dark shades, which floated on his moonlike face, and as usual, I found myself wondering, “Who are you?” His voice rips out of nowhere, and there is little sign on the surface of the intense feeling that created such heartbreak classics as “Crying” and “In Dreams.” The next day I drove by a bunch of crows gathered in a tree with snow on the ground below, and I found myself wondering also who crows are, what their consciousness is like. Now we know that they make tools and gather to mourn their dead, yet they seem so unavoidably other from us. The two black-and-white enigmas came together. And I liked using the archaic French roy to connect those masters of their own unknowable lives that also move us.
In “Spare the Snowman,” you write:
and none of us knows
at this moment what we want or even what our shape is, only
that we do want, and will keep melting into something else, bodies
lattices of structure and space singing. . . .
Several of your poems seem concerned with how to convey the fluidity of the boundary between the body and the world. What draws you to attempt that task? Are there other writers or particular poems you find especially successful in it?
As a practicing Zen Buddhist, I think about impermanence often, and the limits of “small I” or individual boundedness. Also, I’m a somewhat lateral or metonymic thinker, and my poetic structure tends to proceed that way. I’ve written a series of poetic essays on floods, on how history, memory, and feeling flood up into our current narratives and break them open. I grew up by a slow green creek that flooded seasonally, sometimes destructively.
And I feel a kinship with Lorine Niedecker. Her identity and poetic form are so shaped by her life by water, and nobody does that fluid boundary better:
My life is hung up
in the flood
Don’t fall in love
with this face —
it no longer exists
we cannot fish
—The Granite Pail, p. 39
There’s a short but significant ancestry of snowman poems (“The Snow Man,” by Wallace Stevens, probably looms largest). Were you thinking of other snowman poems as you wrote? How do you see this one in relation to that ancestry?
Stevens’s poem enacts the emptying out of self into the being of winter, where the separateness of resistance to winter disappears, and the jagged, wintery words remain. “Spare the Snowman” too is about a potential liberation from self and sentiment that requires accepting, even relishing, both our constantly emerging wishes and the fact that they and we are transient. The sentiment that spares the snowman and the warming sun that melts it are equally part of this ever-changing being/no-being (“Nothing that is not there and the nothing that is”).
How did you learn Spanish, and how did you begin working on translations?
I started translating Baudelaire poems in college to understand them better. The practice helped me see his striking use of verb tense. Then I began translating Mallarmé, which became an active way of experiencing his crystalline yet passionate diction, his clarity and ambiguity. I saw these writers as forging their poems in white heat, and this, plus early translation collaborations with poet friends (Leslie Katz, and later Ernesto Livon Grosman), let me feel that as translator I could forge my versions as well. I learned French in school, and Spanish later by the seat of my pants with native-speaker friends. Many of them were poets; hence even my rudimentary Spanish was literary.
You’ve translated the work of several Argentine poets, including Jorge Perednik and Oliverio Girondo. How did you come to focus on their work?
Jorge Perednik, who died about a year ago of lung cancer, was a good friend. When I first read his poem “The Shock of the Lenders” in the late 1980s I could immediately hear its voice. Perednik was editor of XUL magazine, which became a nexus for a diverse group of poets who responded to the repression of the last military dictatorship in Argentina by using experimental form to highlight the irreducibility of expression. I was drawn by this political experimentalism to translate Perednik and other XUL poets. They in turn were my way in to earlier Argentine poetry, including Girondo’s seminal In the Moremarrow (1957), which uses language’s seemingly unlimited combinatory properties to forge a new poetic language with its own psychic vocabulary and syntax. Yet his poems also have a lush sound and are deeply lyrical, as these lines from my translation of the poem “My Lumy” show:
my savoryamor my lovelipop
my lu so light so you that illuminabysses
and nirvanas me his own the crucis you disturb them
with its mellimelees
its eropsychesilks its recumbent lianas and dermiferious limbos and lumps
—In the Moremarrow, forthcoming from Action Books
How do you treat questions of rhythm (or meter, for metrical poems) in translating a poem?
I try to capture an English version of the rhythm without a slavish adherence to reproducing a precise meter or rhyme. For me rhythm is connected with voice—that is, with how I hear a poem in my head: where it rushes, where it pauses, what it sounds like when it talks. That is what I aim to get across.
Talk about a quandary or a difficult decision you’ve come up against in translating. How did you resolve it?
Here is a small example from Perednik (with Girondo, there was a quandary in almost every line). While translating “Poetarzan,” which is about the wonder and strangeness of language, I ran into a challenge with the end of the poem. “todo lo que mí escribir sonar extraño a poetarzan/ajeno y propio como verdad/como verdor”: “verdad” (truth) and “verdor” (greenness) created a sense of elemental likeness-making, with the similar-sounding words seeming as concrete as objects in the jungle. I could have gone with “verity” and “verdure” to capture that likeness, but the fussy latinate pair in English would not get the primal sense of the Spanish pair. (In Spanish, whose primary origins are Latin, latinate words sound natural, not high-tone as they often do in English, a Latin/Anglo-Saxon hybrid.) I ended up taking a different angle, less literal: “Everything me write sound strange to poetarzan/foreign and own like life/like leaf.” (You can see the complete translation, plus a video of Perednik reading the Spanish, at Jacket2.)
What’s a favorite poem you’ve read in an online journal of late?
I like Rosa Alcalá’s “At Hobby Lobby,” featured recently at the Academy of American Poets’ Poem-A-Day page. It extends the Latino/a autobiographical tradition of poetry about parents or ancestors working with their hands, and also the poetic trope of weaving. A woman working in a fabric store and a seamstress mother both have a mastery with cutting or stitching cloth, and by extension with emotional expression or understatement, that the speaker feels she lacks, yet she too guides her words, cutting or leaving the flow, in language and imagery that have some starch in them: “…fashions continue to fly out of magazines like girls out of windows. Sure, they are my sisters. Their machines, my own.”
Then there’s this electric brand-new offering from Anne Waldman on Jacket2.
What are you working on now?
A poetic essay about my mother’s dementia and final illness that explores the question, How do we tell stories when our storytellers are gone? I’m using the odd ways currents in rivers seem to branch or go sideways. Their flow downstream is not single or straightforward.
Also, I’m publicizing my translation of Girondo’s In the Moremarrow, which is officially out from Action Books in April. For a sneak peek, here are three poems posted on Jerry Rothenberg’s Poems and Poetics blog.
Pen or pencil?
Early or late?
V-neck or ringneck?
Cake or pie?
Postcard or letter?
Tetrameter or pentameter?
Vowel or consonant?
Truth or fiction?
Poetry or fiction?
Coffee or tea?
Veg or nonveg?
Mountains or sea?