Idra Novey

Interviewed by James Davis

Your poem “A History in Six Couplets” from Subtropics 7 and the two Manoel de Barros pieces you translated for Subtropics 9 display certain miniature qualities: short stanzas, end-stopped lines, clipped phrasing. What attracts you to this mini-ness?

I love poems that make magical things happen in the smallest of stanzas. I like the way a spare, striking line reminds you that you’re in the world of a poem and not the world of prose, when there are so few words you feel like maybe you should hold your breath as you read them. Part of what attracted me to Barros’s work is the way he can turn a poem inside out with a single line of four or five words. I like to streamline a poem until it feels like a well-packed suitcase, containing everything you might need during a week away, but light and compact enough to take along with you on a Cessna or a hot air balloon.

And what about the Portuguese? Does it have particular expressive abilities that appeal to you?

Brazilian Portuguese has had a really rich range of influences that make it particularly fascinating to translate. Immigrants from Europe infused it with French, Spanish, Italian and German influences, and there are also hundreds of words from Tupi-Guarani and Yoruba. A number of other African languages provide words for certain plants, foods, illnesses, and ways of describing people and the weather.

All these influences have made for a wonderful openness to language play and experimentation in Brazilian poetry. What was tricky with Barros was to figure out what to do with the many verbs he invents from the names of plants and birds. For example, in the poem “The Tin Man,” Barros writes “O homem de lata / se alga / no Parque.” I translated the line fairly literally as “the tin man / seaweeds himself / in the park.” Seaweed isn’t a verb in Portuguese either and it seemed key to invent a verb in English, and a reflexive one so that the tin man is not just moving like seaweed in the park but seaweeding into himself, which I found such a strange and memorable image. Since then I’ve seen old men who come to the same bench in the park each day and seem like they might be seaweeding themselves as they sit there stiffly on their benches under the trees.

How did you come in contact with Barros’s work?

Six years ago, a Brazilian friend co-editing the poetry journal Rattapallax with me, Flavia Rocha, introduced me to Barros and edited the drafts of my first few translations of his work. Soon after, I committed to a book-length translation of another Brazilian poet, Paulo Henriques Britto, but I knew I wanted to translate more of Barros at some point.

Several years later, I became friends with a Brazilian visual artist, Ana Cristina dos Santos, with a rich knowledge of the Pantanal, the wetlands region of Brazil where Barros lives. Ana was a passionate admirer of Barros as well and we had a great time talking about the wild images in his poetry together. Over coffee, she’d draw pictures to explain certain moments in the poems that made more sense to her, having lived in the Pantanal, and it felt like the perfect time to start translating Barros again. The collection is finally finished and will be out this fall under the title Birds for a Demolition.

One of my favorite proverbs from his “Book About Nothing” is “I want the word that fits in the beak of a small bird.” I love that all those words are conceivably beak-sized. Do you have a favorite?

“I don’t come out from inside myself, not even to fish.”

Another line, which I find really interesting in the context of translation, is, “It’s impossible for the mouth to be absent in language: no words stay abandoned from the being that revealed them.” What about when this language passes through another “mouth”? How do you see your and Barros’s beings coexisting in these poems?

I see myself as performing Barros’s poems in English. My voice coexists with his in English the way an actor’s voice is present in a play. You hear the actor, but should leave the play with a vivid memory not of the actor but of the character she embodied in the play.

I’ve now translated books by three different authors, and each one has required a different kind of performance. With Barros, I had to figure out how to perform the strangeness of his poems in English, but in such a way that the lines didn’t end up sounding awkward or stilted. With Vizconde de Lascano Tegui, an Argentine writer whose novel I translated and which is also coming out this fall, I had to figure out how to convincingly take on the voice of an Argentine man writing as a Frenchman in a rather fanciful version of 18th century France.

What’s a good way for an American reader to get in touch with South American literature in the original Spanish/Portuguese? Any anthologies or journals you’d recommend?

There are all sorts of online literary journals based in Sao Paulo and Buenos Aires and other South American cities that offer a taste of new writing in the original. For contemporary Argentine literature, American readers could take a look at the online journal el interpretador and for Brazilian poets the online archives of Jornal de Poesia are excellent.

Barros doesn’t like the word “accustomed.” What words does Idra Novey not like?

I’m not much of a fan of the word “literal.” Like Barros, I prefer words that open a dresser for you, that ask you to become them.

Manoel de Barros’s poems “Enunciado (Resigned)” and “O livro sobre nada (The Book About Nothing),” translated from the Portuguese by Idra Novey, appear in Subtropics 9. Idra Novey’s poem “A History in Six Couplets” appears in Subtropics 7.