Tony Leuzzi: Passwords Primevalby Tony Leuzzi, Anna Lena Phillips • 10.19.2012
Tony Leuzzi’s poems appeared recently in Fringe, and his new collection of interviews with other poets, Passwords Primeval, is out this week from BOA Editions. Poetry editor Anna Lena Phillips recently interviewed Leuzzi; here he shares his thoughts on the process of homophonic translation, math-derived poetical forms, heteronormative tendencies in the poetry publishing world, and the new book—which is available on the BOA website.
How did you first encounter Miguel Hernandez’s work?
My initial encounters with Hernandez were through Ted Genoways’s magnificent collection of the poet’s work as translated by him and many well-known poets into English. (Chicago University Press released it in 2001, though it is now out of print and should be reissued without delay.) I had read Lorca, Macado, and Cernuda, but until that time I’d never even heard of this Spanish poet. When I began to read his poems I felt an instant connection to them. Some of those lyrics from The Songbook and Balladbook of Absences, which he wrote in prison, are so stunning! Consider this gorgeous, untitled lyric, translated at http://www.poetryintranslation.com/PITBR/Spanish/Hernandez.htm#_Toc532737972:
Like a young fig tree
you were, on the cliffs.
And when I passed by
you rang in the mountains.
Like the young fig tree,
brilliant and blind.
Like a fig tree you are.
Like an ancient fig.
And I pass, and you greet me
with dry leaves and silence.
Like a fig tree you are
that the lightning has aged.
A poem of such evocative simplicity leaves me speechless.
The language is vivid and terse. So much is said because it is not said. The title of the collection is more than appropriate.
I knew after reading Genoways’s edition of Hernandez that I wanted to be connected to Hernandez in some way. I mulled over the possibility for years. But this past February, while visiting some friends in Lafayette, Louisiana, during the week of Mardis Gras, when the days were a blur of King Cakes, parades, gaudy-colored beads, and margaritas, and the nights were accompanied by amazing feasts of gumbo, etouffe, or red beans and rice, I found a way. After dinner, I would sit with my friends at their table and talk with them over a bottle of red wine. Eventually, they went to bed and I was left with their nine cats crawling over me as I worked at the kitchen table. Before I took the trip, I had copied down a number of Hernandez’s original poems into my notebook. With the notebook beside me at the table, and an unabridged English-language dictionary beside the notebook, I began to translate his Spanish for sound.
As much as I love Hernandez, the process of homophonic translation is often so effacing to the original poet that, on a literal level at least, not much in my poems bears resemblance to their sources. However, some of the sound textures of the original poem are retained. To have even this small connection with Hernandez gives me great happiness.
You asked in an earlier note for an illustration of the process. After going through that notebook, I find an early draft of what turned out to be “Edge”—one of the poems you are publishing in Fringe. The original poem is an early, eight-line poem from Hernandez’s 1933 book Expert in Moons (reprinted at http://lunasperito.blogspot.com/2008/02/funerario-y-cementerio.html). The italicized material beneath each line is my homophonic translation:
Final modisto de cristal y pino:
Final modest ode, crystal I pine:
a la medida de una una rosa misma
all one mediates, dune of roses miss me
hazme de aquél un traje, que en un prisma,
has me, day equals triage, can you unprison me?,
¿no? se ahogue, no, en un diamante fino.
no? see a huge noon diamond fine.
Patio de vecindad menos vecino,
Patio, the voice of dad, men as faces, facing us,
del que al fin pesa más y más se abisma:
deal keel fine pace mass amass see abysmal:
abre otro túnel más bajo tus flores
I bray out of the tunnel, mass of banjos, two flowers
para hacer subterráneos mis amores.
paring hazy subterranean misadventures in love.
As I look back on my initial homophonic word salad, I see certain words that survived my drafts and appeared in the final version I presented to Fringe. But more important than that is my connection to the penultimate line, I bray out of the tunnel. I love that! It’s as if one is making noise so as to be heard from the other side of the passageway to death: one’s last words, last thoughts. The fact that the line is accompanied by mass of banjos, two flowers makes me think of ceremony and an understanding of life as celebration, song, and beauty. When we reach the point of death, we must recognize this. My version of that poem is here.
Most often I’ve seen homophonic translations by poets who don’t know the language they’re working from. Do you speak Spanish? Even if you don’t, did you have to ignore meanings of words, or cognates, creeping in?
I know very little Spanish. I can’t speak it at all, though I can get the gist of a passage from cognates and words I’ve come to know from years of reading. Let’s just say, if I was walking around Barcelona, I’d probably be able to read menus, most signage, and some newspaper headlines—but not much else. When I come to a word I know, I often ignore its meaning and go with its equivalent sound in English. However, if I’m stuck I might use a word’s literal meaning as well as its homophonic equivalent. I like being able to break my own rules. Sometimes I’ll split one foreign language word into two or three sections and come up with a few homophonic equivalents. Still, no matter how far my translation might stray from the meaning of the original text, the ghost of that text haunts the poem in more ways than sound. It’s fascinating, really. Last year I did a number of homophonic translations of Trakl’s poems. (I like working with German poems because the language shares some affinities with Anglo Saxon, and an English sounding line is more easily forthcoming.) My translations, although nowhere near the literal meanings of the originals, often have eerie affinities with those texts.
Although I am translating specific poems for sound, the process permits me to work in other things I’m reading. While I was translating Trakl, I was reading a lot of Robert Desnos, so some of his voice blends with sounds from Trakl’s poems. When I was translating Hernandez, I was reading a lot of Muriel Rukeyser, so her rhythms (including the strong presence of triplet meter in “Edge” and “Cairn”) are infused throughout many of the poems. The first line of “Gauze”—”There were three of them that night”—is the first line of Rukeyser’s poem “Orgy,” an intended appropriation.
Some of these poems have an edge of unspecified danger in them—the sense of something bigger than their characters. I thought of an army or an oppressive regime. I know you’re working with sound rather than meaning in the translations, but do you feel that that sense of foreboding carries an echo of Hernandez’s life after the Spanish civil war? Or is it something entirely different?
That is an astute observation and something I noticed only once I’d finished writing a bunch of these poems. Hernandez’s story was rather sweet—until it turned tragically sad. He was a farm boy who, through a series of chance encounters and sustained creative relationships, became an important poet connected to the resistance. He never stopped loving Orihuela, his birthplace and childhood home, but he did eventually consider the political crisis of his homeland from a more knowing and therefore ostensibly dangerous perspective; nonetheless, I don’t think he could have predicted that he would suffer imprisonment, torture, and an ultimately inhumane death. In some ways, his story is related to another favorite poet of mine, Yannis Ritsos, who was first imprisoned and then subjected to periodic house arrests during his long life in Greece. He, of course, did not die young like Hernandez; instead he wrote voluminously across several decades in an environment of danger. His beautiful poems are poems are often riddles. My translations of Hernandez are also riddles that hint at dangers. “Gauze” in particular is very Ritsos-inspired.
I like poems that, like “Penelope,” share a triple meter and intense anaphora. Early examples like “For want of a nail,” and some contemporary poems too (like “A Lexicon” from Catherine Tufariello, in Mezzo Cammin, which has a kind of inner anaphora). I’m guessing that the poem on which “Penelope” is based is the source of some of its formal strategies—the anaphora and the meter. The formal intensity seems to heighten the sense of the poem’s having a twin it doesn’t know about out there in the world. Are there those parallels with the originating poem, or did this poem come about some other way? And how did you title it?
I would not be surprised if there is a contemporary poem that shares many aesthetic similarities to “Penelope,” since the poem is a litany strung together through anaphora—a common device not only in contemporary poetry but in Hebrew/Biblical verse, too. I’ve always wanted to write a poem like “Penelope,” a sound poem that can hypnotize a listener/reader through incantatory repetitions. My idea for this poem came from playing around in the dictionary. I was translating a line of Hernandez for sound and became stuck. I needed to move on but was short on ideas. One of the words I discovered homophonically—and I can’t remember which one it was—seemed charged with a density I liked, so I searched its etymologies. The word had connections to two very different words. I loved the way a word could bifurcate and become two times itself! I got an idea: why not find a bunch of words like this and exploit their bifurcations? All of the lines from the poems refer to words in which either their etymologies or definitions suggested a connection to two or more very different meanings or sources. The poem is 14 lines long (a deliberate echo of the sonnet, minus any argument or turn) and each line is a riddle that references a certain word. The “answers” to the riddle in each line are as follows: arête, futtock, curtain, junk, vein, mince, urge, xylo-, zig-zag, yarn, spike, triage, solve, and habit.
Why is the poem called “Penelope”? That character from Homer’s Odyssey is a riddle herself. Will she let one of the suitors marry her or will she wait for her husband’s return? What are her motivations for giving each suitor a glimmer of hope? Her name—which can mean either “duck feather” or “she who wears a web across her face”—tells us she is a mysterious person who embodies a number of compelling ambiguities.
You’ve written a series of Fibs, poems based on the Fibonacci sequence, using the form to make precise and tender poems that talk about gay male relationships and violence against gay men, among other subjects. You noted in a 2010 interview with Out that it’s still difficult to place poems that deal with male homoeroticism. It hasn’t been too long since then, but do you sense any shift in that regard?
Well, one of the qualities I loved about writing Fibonacci poems was that I could address any subject matter in that form. The entire suit of them in the “Gestures and Prefaces” portion of Radiant Losses, shows that the form is quite malleable. There are poems about gay male relationships and violence against gay men; but there are also poems about visual art, visual artists, philosophical queries, medieval manuscripts, Chinese pictograms, etc. The possibilities were pretty much endless. They function in Radiant Losses as little preludes—gestures and prefaces to all sorts of subjects. My comments in the Out article were very much a reflection of my individual practices. I am a reticent poet: I prefer to hint rather than shout. That a number of those Fibonacci poems are so openly homoerotic is unusual for me. I think the restrictions of the form allowed me to say things openly but carefully: I had to pick and choose mindfully; I couldn’t just spill.
And yes, I still think poems that deal with male homoeroticism have less opportunity for space and placement in “mainstream” journals than others. An editor is bound to think, “I can only accept one, maybe two such poems in any given issue—unless I want to do a ‘themed’ or ‘special’ issue.” Would an editor of a mainstream poetry journal think: “I can only accept one or two heteronormative poems for any issue”?
You’ve also got a series you call the Pi Poems—forms that are explicitly derived from mathematical concepts. Could you tell us how the latter are made?
I recently talked about this in a blog entry I wrote for a new little online magazine called The Bakery: http://www.thebakerypoetry.com/on-writing-Fibonacci-and-cadae-poems/
In that blog I discuss how both the cadae and Fibonacci forms are, among other things, a kind of hybrid of the sonnet and haiku traditions. They encourage the presentation of an image that is subjected to a noticeable turn at some point, often two-thirds of the way through.
Here is an example of a Cadae poem, which follows the syllabic distribution 31415926535897 across fourteen lines:
for the hollowed-
walls of its chamber
of gaucho adobe, mud furnace
on the arm of a tree.
An industry bird.
One is what
one does, I suppose.
Builders build, herders herd. But he
who wonders, “Does this diminish us?”—
What is he for wondering?
Here you can really see the movement of a sonnet as it might look if that form mated with a haiku. As is typical of all the Cadae poems I wrote, this one remains untitled. Keeping a title from the head of the poem forced me to write crisp imagistic pieces that could stand on their own without the forced frame of a title. The effect is deliberately modest: an untitled poem doesn’t put on heirs or claim grand importance. In that regard, I was taking my cues from the prose poems of Gary Young and the Objectivist lyrics of Charles Reznikoff. I don’t pretend I write as well as either of them, but I like to walk in their shadows.
The Fibonacci form, on the other hand, follows a different procession of numbers: 1, 1, 2, 3, 5, 8, 13, 21, etc… I decided to write three seven-line stanzas that started with one syllable and ended up with 13, so that a real contrast between short and long lines is apparent. Here’s an example from my book Radiant Losses [New Sins Press, 2010]:
you plan to
run away tonight
with nothing but a bag of clothes,
some dream of change and a bus ticket to Seattle
waiting with roses
to lift you in his tattooed arms
over the bright, blinding threshold of ever after.
to stop you
though I ask you, please—
lest that they should peck the roses
once they’ve withered black—resist the confidence of birds.
Again, a noticeable turn occurs two-thirds of the way through, which is very sonnet-like. In both cases, I had to be especially mindful of words in order to work with the restrictions of the forms. They are short forms that demand precision and compression.
What attracts you to these mathy forms?
It’s really syllabic forms (of which the math-based Fibonacci and cadae poems are examples) that have drawn me in. My initial impetus for working with syllabics was a way to break away from traditional iambic rhythms, which, once learned, kind of take over in your subconscious and shape the way you think and develop language in a poem. I suppose math-based forms intrigue me because the numbers associated with the syllabic schemes they present have a logic and reality that pre-exist my experimentations. So any such poem I might write has at least some point of interest beyond being simply a poem I’ve written.
Your collection of interviews with poets, Passwords Primeval, is out this week. How did you decide to make the book?
I have always loved doing interviews. I love the preparation that is required to do them and the direct connection one must have with the interview subject. I consider interviews an opportunity to intensely study someone’s work or life and then respond to it. The earliest interviews in that book were done because I was intrigued by the work of a select number of writers. But once I got eight or nine of them amassed, I realized I might be building toward a book. With that in mind, I began to work more forcefully, including poets I might not ordinarily read alongside ones I love. Each interview took anywhere from three to six months of preparation, as I read all of each poet’s poems and their nonfiction output, if they had any. Then, based on my very individual response to the work, I would dream up ten to fifteen questions and start from there. I have very Catholic tastes and wanted the book to have an eclectic feel. It was an absolute joy to do. I completed 26 interviews and we used 20. The collection is already 375 pages; if we had included a few more interviews the page count, and thus the price, would have gone up. I didn’t want that. I wanted something affordable for people.
The book is called Passwords Primeval because, as I discuss in its introduction, most of the poets I spoke with made frequent allusions to Whitman, many of which were unprompted by me. Halfway through the project, I realized I could tie the collection together through him. Hence the title, which is a phrase from Song of Myself: “I speak the passwords prime-evil…”
I’m proud of the work I did for that book. And BOA did such a wonderful job packaging it! I hope it gets some recognition.
What questions were you most excited to ask?
Oh, gosh, I can’t name just one question! I can tell you that some of the interviews were particularly transforming experiences for me. For example, I knew little about the history of political poetry in the United States until I spoke with Martín Espada, who told me about the great tradition of political poetry that has been routinely suppressed in this country. He changed my understanding of the history of American poetry and compelled me to search out some of the poets he was referring to. I thoroughly enjoyed interviewing prose poet Gary Young, who, like me, is a huge Yannis Ritsos fan. He is a very modest man of enormous intelligence. I was humbled by my interactions with him, as I was by my encounters with Scott Cairns, Dara Wier, Arthur Sze, Karen Volkman, Patricia Smith, Robert Gluck—to name only a few more. All twenty of the poets in the book opened my eyes quite a bit and I am a better reader of poetry for having interacted with them.
What are you working on now?
Well, I’m still interviewing poets. I don’t think I’ll ever stop that. My goal is another Passwords-type book down the line. I’m also dreaming up an essay on Gerald Stern’s poetry. The editor of that proposed anthology has asked me to write something about Stern’s sense of craft, which I am glad to do. Such a fine poet! And I’m working on a project with poet Elizabeth Robinson, where she and I interview one another about our recent books—sort of like what I did with Joan Larkin in The Huffington Post article linked above. But Larkin and Robinson are such different poets, and they have seen such different things in my writing that the projects will not bear much similarity. In terms of my own poetry, I am working on some homophonic translations of Jean Senac, a French-born Algerian poet. So far I only have a few poems, but already I see they are going to be different. I’m also working on some other poems that are not homophonic translations. But those are too varied to detect a pattern as of yet.