A conversation between poets about writing place, time, technology, and transformation.
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When Andrew Zawacki asks Idra Novey if Exit, Civilian is a book of transformation, he’s referring to the way people and places evolve over time, but also to the poetry’s effect. The book’s first poem, “The Little Prison,” concludes, “Enter an apple / And come out the teeth marks / In its yellowed core.” Zawacki’s latest collection, Videotape, also seems to be concerned at least partly with transformation, not personal change but the way vocabulary can be disturbed. A word existing outside of language is compared to “a chain / saw loose in some angel’s / mouth, teething a wound in the structure.” The violence in both metaphors is part of the appeal; while their styles are wildly different, neither poet seems much interested in making the reader comfortable. In the following conversation, these two accomplished poet-translators compare notes on imprisonment, technology’s influence, and the elasticity of place.
— Erica Wright for Guernica
Guernica: In a recent podcast for The Poetry Foundation, Idra discussed how James Wright’s translations bled into his own poems. I know that you both translate poets you greatly admire, but do you worry about being overly influenced by your translation work?
Idra Novey: I try not to worry about influence while writing poems. This morning I was reading the obituary of John Williamson, the guy who started a sexual free-for-all community in California with his wife. When that experiment fell apart, they opened a refuge for lions and tigers and other big cats. I can’t imagine taking part in either of those endeavors, but I admire their radical intent and openness to risk-taking. I’d like to approach every poem I write with some form of radical intent, and I find reading and translating innovative poems from other languages frees me up to write in English in ways I probably wouldn’t otherwise. Wright’s work got much bolder and stylistically distinctive after he translated Cesar Vallejo and Georg Trakl. The same happened with Adrienne Rich after she began translating.
In translating I encounter, again and again, the frustrating but foundational ways that my language is not “mine.”
Andrew Zawacki: I’ve actively courted influxes, of various kinds, from the work I’ve translated. I’m grateful for the alchemy by which my poetry gets disturbed by another’s; I try to put myself in a position of maximal susceptibility. Translating provides my writing practice with an essential element of disruption, disturbance—bending my work out of shape is how my work finds a shape. Forget French, forget Slovenian: in translating I encounter, again and again, the frustrating but foundational ways that my language is not “mine.” As Michael Palmer writes in his poem “I Do Not”: “I do not know English, and therefore, when hungry, can do no more than repeatedly point to my mouth.” It’s not so much that the poems of Sébastien Smirou, say, or Aleš Debeljak influence my writing, whether in theme or syntax or format, although my most recent book does owe a formal debt to Mon Laurent. Instead, the process of translating is what bleeds into my writing: wandering an alien place, maybe a non-space. It goes without saying that as a translator I don’t want to render anyone’s poetry “familiar.” As a writer, I don’t want to prevent the work I’m translating from rendering mine “foreign.”
Guernica: You both use foreign words and phrases in your work. Today, I looked up both “herido” and “les lois du hazard.” What do these moments allow you to do that you couldn’t do in English?
Idra Novey: The poem “Fist and After, El Cinzano” is about a tango bar in Valparaíso, Chile and the stranger who abruptly turned and punched my husband in the face. Random violence is baffling and terrifying anywhere, but this incident felt deeply Chilean to me in how people around him responded. It was as terrifying and baffling as the attack itself. Leaving the word for “injured” in Spanish (herido) was a way to evoke Valparaíso within the language of the poem.
Andrew Zawacki: I seem unable to keep them out, in part because my family life happens in French, and my poetry is less and less distant from my family. Maybe two possibilities open when a foreign phrase invades my work. One: to the degree that a word calls attention to itself—italics, diacritical marks, sheer unfamiliarity—, causing the poem to lose all vestiges of linguistic transparency, I hope it might signal outward toward the many splayed vocabularies permeating the poems, their cacophony of economies. Two: Blanchot comments somewhere on the frequent use of Spanish phrases in The Sun Also Rises, claiming that while Hemingway’s intention was obviously to create an impression that the novel was set in Spain, in fact the opposite happens. Each time we read a Spanish word intermittently dropped into the narrative, we’re aware that people must not, in general, be speaking Spanish. That language suddenly sticks out, reminding us that we’re reading—and that language doesn’t necessarily geocode accurately.
The very latest technological medium is relentlessly on its way out, its pleasures deeply implicated in anticipated letdown. It’s a fix, in the dual sense of drug high and rigged game.
Idra Novey: I read Videotape while also reading Stefan Zweig’s The World of Yesterday. He writes about how frenetic life in Paris became after the metro system opened. Before that, he says people traveled by horse cart and the pace of life in the city was the slower, natural speed of animals. I’m curious to know what thoughts you had in mind about speed and speech and obsolescence while you were working on the poems in Videotape.
Andrew Zawacki: I remember a similar observation in Proust: how the advent of the motor car trumped not only the barouche, in terms of speed, but also the train, since driving an automobile was spontaneous. Or think about the invention of the camera. Raymond Depardon makes a wry case for the dissatisfactions unique to photography—as opposed, say, to painting. ”Even if you take 500 photos in a day, that represents a mere 500 times 1/125th of a second,” he writes, “and all that won’t total but maybe 2 seconds.” Videotape is pitched in future perfect. If technology is constantly inviting us to consider what’s possible, it’s organized according to the logic of what will have been. Part of this is endemic to global capital, of course, which designs its products to expire just in time to need another, that “need” itself a sinister construction of advertising. The very latest technological medium is relentlessly on its way out, its pleasures deeply implicated in anticipated letdown. It’s a fix, in the dual sense of drug high and rigged game.
René Char characterized poetry as the realized love of a desire that keeps desiring. Every word is inevitably written into the past, and the poem’s means of giving us what we crave is caught up precisely in what it withholds, how it makes us “play it again.” Placing an Olivetti Lettera 22 into my poem, or a TRS ’80, is to indulge nostalgia outright, including its postmodern variety whereby I “miss” a period I never lived in (hence the popularity of Mad Men). But when I namechecked a 64k phase-1 SIM card, in 2008 or 2009, hell, that seemed up-to-the-nanosecond—but I also knew it was always already falling into the past. When I read that poem aloud, I routinely get a few knowing snickers. That’s the point.
Guernica: Wordplay implies a lack of serious intent that doesn’t apply to your work, but there are moments in Videotape of such playfulness that I grinned, rereading the sections again and again, as in “while a Lazar- / us us is us // -hered by the afternoon to rise, receive the storm.” Without the line breaks, this is still a memorable thought progression, though. What is added, for you, in breaking words apart, a technique that occurs often in the A tracks of this collection?
Andrew Zawacki: You mention the “memorable,” whereas I am perhaps enamored of the time-stamped poem, a poem pitched against memorial. Certainly against the memorizable: I think of the poor guy in Julie Carr’s seminar whose assignment, the morning I visited, was to recite a section of Videotape aloud, rote. To his chagrin, it came out all stutter, freeze, rewind, start over—but to me, that hiccupping was far more the song of my poem than a seamless recital would’ve been. I like that my recent work is near impossible for me to perform aloud: if I speak the poems smoothly I belie their syntax, their sense of a moving image slurred by the pause button, while if I try to approximate their staccato and pixilation, I sound silly. Shifting from sound to sight, I conceive the A texts as filmic “clips,” their phrasing jammed into a celluloid strip—form before content—such that if a word has to crack to fit, so be it. As if words themselves were also composed not of syllables but of frames: tick, tick, tick.
Idra Novey: In “Glassscape,” the word “lifelike/nesslessness” stood out to me. It captures something playing out over the course of the whole book, all the “lilies in italics” and underlined lilacs, a mixing of actual life and lifelikenesses that are “less” and “lessnesses” but also have a separate power in being representations that won’t die the way actual flowers do. I was also struck by the image of the “little green moon in the smoke detector.” What role would you say nature and your relationship to it played in the writing of Videotape?
Andrew Zawacki: Videotape is obsessed with the natural world as arranged if not manufactured by technology. Looking out a sixth-floor hotel window in Calgary early this morning, I saw a construction crane on the horizon, a single skeletal iteration of the dozens etching the air space of that city. On one hand, that piece of equipment is helping to build or raze or revise the urban environment. On the other, as a lever on the skyline—delicate and diaphanous, in fact, way off in the far distance haloed by dawn (I thought of the X-ray of a finger of the infamous invisible hand)—it is the skyline. I’ve always been deeply informed by Susan Howe’s work, and more recently by the essays of one of Guernica’s finest contributors, Rebecca Solnit, whose Storming the Gates of Paradise has been pivotal to my thinking about the geophysical contours and myriad local histories—native, colonial, migrant, immigrant—that so many skyscrapers and interstates, so many names, cover over. On the tight open page in Videotape, I want words like those you point out to snag the ear, the eye: if they transmit information, transparently, as a description, they’re more important as material signs, the thing itself. The bouquet you cite belongs to Mallarmé, for whom the world existed to end up as a book. But the word, too, turns out to be flesh. A book doesn’t get written—it’s tilled, it’s terraformed.
Understanding where I am, and where I’m not, is what compels to me to write, and by “where” I mean both my relationship to a place and also my relationship to how others have experienced it, the different meanings that place may have.
Guernica: Idra, in “Riding By on a Sunday” from Exit, Civilian, you write, “I tell myself prisons are inevitable and inevitably awful. // Tell myself this thought is just another way of looking away.” The second line made me wonder, did you feel a responsibility to write about imprisonment while or after you taught as part of the Bard Prison Initiative?
Idra Novey: I never made a deliberate decision to write poems about imprisonment. It just kept happening. I wrote poems on other subjects during the five years I worked on Exit, Civilian but the poems I kept returning to with intensity were the ones about prisons and their role in the American imagination—and in my imagination, being the American person that I am.
Andrew Zawacki: There’s a doubling implied in your poem title, “Parole Hearing.” If “parole” is the temporary release of a prisoner, it’s also an utterance, password, or word of honor—the opposite, you might say, of “hearing.” A similar density is on offer with “Hearsay,” whose binaries challenge one another, just as hearsay itself is problematic as admissible evidence. I’m wondering about what modes of communication—orthodox or alternative—are being made available in Exit, Civilian, and how they work. I’m very moved by the idea (in “The County Courthouse in the Winter”), for example, of trying to hear listening.
Idra Novey: At the women’s prison where I taught for the Bard Prison Initiative, everyone’s lives hinged on the possibility of parole. The week before one of the students had a parole hearing, she would allow herself to start thinking about what would happen if she was finally “heard” and released back to her life. But I only had one student released on parole. The others all came back to class the week after their hearings, still incarcerated, unheard, and mute with grief. While working on the poems for Exit, Civilian, I became increasingly focused on what those of us living outside the American prison system hear about our fellow citizens who live inside its walls and what it is we are unable to hear about and from them. I kept returning to the word “parole” while writing the poems for the reasons you point out. The term comes from the French phrase “parole d’honneur,” to give one’s word of honor, but “parole” on its own refers to speech, to what is uttered between speakers of a common language.
Guernica: Do you think that the students’ grief at not being heard relates to Andrew’s earlier comment about “the frustrating but foundational way that my language is not ‘mine’“?
Idra Novey: Yes, although the stakes for the students were entirely different. The rest of their lives were at stake in whether the parole committee really heard what they were saying. One of my students was so devastated after being denied parole she didn’t speak for the rest of the semester.
Andrew Zawacki: “The Little Prison” suite puts forward many metamorphoses, from the opening description of how we “come out” differently than we entered in, to the tracing of the prison’s history. I’m piqued even by the alterations noted in your paratexts—”On Bafflement,” for instance, was originally published as “Bewilderment.” To what degree is this a book of transformations?
Idra Novey: Maybe it is a book of transformations—I hadn’t thought of it that way. It is certainly a book about bafflement, which I felt continually while teaching in the American prison system and everyone I interacted with in the system seemed bewildered and baffled by what we were all participating in as teachers, prisoners, guards, and administrators. We were all prisoner to its dysfunctions. Even the guards and administrators who willed themselves to believe they were overseeing a functioning, necessary system knew having a mother and daughter incarcerated in the same building meant the system was failing our collective future as it had the past and was now failing our present. It was failing all of us every minute. I wanted to convey that sense of collective bewilderment as I’d experienced it, and Vasko Popa’s “The Little Box” became a guide, its spare, baffling lines and its dark humor. The opening poem in the book, ”The Little Prison” is a response to that Popa poem in Charles Simic’s translation. I read quite a bit of Eastern European poetry while working on Exit, Civilian.
Guernica: Idra, one of the themes of The Next Country seems to be place. And I’ve mentioned to Andrew that I read his long poem “Georgia” differently now that I live in Georgia. Does location—physical location, I mean—affect the way you write?
Andrew Zawacki: There’s no aspect to my writing more central than place, provided “place” doesn’t signal something static. I’m interested in typologies of “place” as elastic construct. Anthropologist Jim Clifford speaks of “mobile rootedness,” for example, pointing to palm trees in the Luxemburg Gardens that are well rooted in soil—but the soil is in boxes lifted a little off the ground by wrought-iron feet. I’m mainly engaged with place as dynamic, always disappearing behind me or imminent, needing to be written about when I’m already somewhere else, further forward. The way weather is a place, say, or river water, or wind: quasi-coherent, never not in flux. What concerns me is place as a litany of stations with singular histories, distinctive topographies, specific gravities that nonetheless blur into one another, get imaginatively grafted onto each other, superimposed or double exposed. As if “place” were one of those folios of transparency sheets in an anatomy textbook. When you lay one film over another you’re adding organs and arteries, red and blue, to the monochrome skeleton on the bottommost page. That a locale would seem to bear the trace of somewhere else can be phenomenologically exciting: you could swear that’s a eucalyptus, but you’re walking around Lake Louise, at zero degrees. What’s interesting is less the similarity between places than the gap that opens between, the slight incongruities. On the road, you can be strangely afflicted with a kind of visual jetlag, your eyes a couple hours behind, not yet having adjusted to the actual environment, constantly mistaking new architecture for buildings in a time zone you left earlier that day. But there’s also the sad, infuriating fact of commercial hegemony and homogeneity, which sets up a different brand of repetition, without remainder. Every element in a flat world is inevitably reduced to the same.
Idra Novey: Place is poetry for me. Understanding where I am, and where I’m not, is what compels to me to write, and by “where” I mean both my relationship to a place and also my relationship to how others have experienced it, the different meanings that place may have depending on whether you are a child or an adult, if you are at a point in your life when you are aware of others or not. A few weeks ago, I went home to the Rust Belt town where I grew up and spent an afternoon on the shore of a lake next to a group of teenagers. One of the girls was pregnant and kept asking if her friends wanted to feel her baby kick. None of them answered, even when she pleaded with them. As I listened to them I remembered a classmate in middle school who had a child and I never asked how her baby was doing. As I sat by that lake, I wished that I had been braver at fourteen and asked more often about her daughter waiting for her at home. I may never write about that moment or that particular remorse but the way a place can radically revise one’s capacity for compassion is of great interest to me as a poet, and also how a poem is a place, and like a certain street corner or the shore of a certain lake, it can alter one’s emotional orientation. In The Next Country, I wanted to write poems that traveled over the page because they were poems about moving between North and South America. But in Exit, Civilian, I was exploring the sensation of imprisonment, of not moving, and I spent years exploring what sort of “places” those poems might create. When I figured out the form for the book was the prose poem, the collection finally came together. In poetry, form is a kind of placing. It’s what sets our emotional orientation, what opens us to new language.
Idra Novey is the author of Exit, Civilian, selected for the 2011 National Poetry Series by Patricia Smith and named a Best Book of 2012 by Coldfront and The Volta. Her first book, The Next Country, was a finalist for the 2008 Foreword Book of the Year Award in poetry. Her translation of Clarice Lispector’s novel The Passion According to G.H. was released with New Directions and Penguin UK in 2012. She teaches in the Creative Writing Program at Princeton University.
Andrew Zawacki is the author of the poetry books Videotape (Counterpath), Petals of Zero Petals of One (Talisman House), Anabranch (Wesleyan), and By Reason of Breakings (Georgia). His poems have appeared in The New Yorker, The New Republic, The Nation, and elsewhere, and he has published three books in France, including Par Raison de brisants, translated by Antoine Cazé and a finalist for Le Prix Nelly Sachs. Zawacki’s translation of Sébastien Smirou, My Lorenzo, is recently out from Burning Deck. A former fellow of the Slovenian Writers’ Association, he edited Afterwards: Slovenian Writing 1945-1995 (White Pine) and edited and co-translated Aleš Debeljak’s Without Anesthesia: New and Selected Poems (Persea).
Erica Wright is the Poetry Editor at Guernica.