Interviewed by Marie McGrath
I’m really interested in hearing about your work with Inna Kabysh. I read that you’ve been translating her since the nineties, is that right?
The first time I tried to translate her work was a poem that I came across in probably 1993 or 1994; it was a long poem, and I took a stab at it, but it was just for love. I wasn’t serious about doing publishable work, I just wanted to get the poem into English. I came back to translating her specifically around 2009 because I was in an MFA program then, and I wanted to branch out into literary translation.
So, was she the first poet that you tried to translate?
Let me put it this way: the other things I tried to translate had been classroom exercises, and with this I actively wanted to get Kabysh’s work into English. I wanted it heard by people other than language teachers. So, in that sense, yes, she was the first person that I seriously, and in a sense professionally, tried to translate.
It seems that you’re coming to this particular set of poems from a place of loving the poet, loving the work. Is that true?
That is true. The long poem “On the Edge” is representative of some of her most interesting work, and it’s some of her earlier work from her first collection. That poem is just layer upon layer upon layer of Russian literature and Russian poetry, and the story itself is told from the point of view of a child, an orphan. The poems from childhood, in that voice, I find to be some of her most compelling work, although her later work is also compelling in a different way. Lately she’s been a little bit more interested in shorter, more compact forms, not so much in exploring the world from a child’s perspective. “On the Edge” and “Nutcracker,” those are poems of childhood.
I feel like [Kabysh] doesn’t get her due as a very, very good poet. I kind of feel like the world hasn’t caught up to her. I mean, it’s not like she’s saying things that are radical, she’s just talking about women and how we relate to the world. Many of her poems explore what it means to have heavy domestic responsibilities and at the same time try to be a writer. She herself is a teacher. In so many of her poems, the fathers are dead or absent, leaving women alone to head families. Her “truths” are not radical, but to put them there, and to express them in poetry, I just think people haven’t caught up to her.
I think that’s a problem that we have in American poetry, too: what is an authentic woman’s voice? Can we make room for poems about women’s experiences and not belittle poetry that includes domestic themes? Kabysh writes about childhood, being orphaned, having parental responsibilities thrust on you as a young child, abortion (which was the primary means of birth control during the Soviet period), female sexuality in general, the unpleasant realities of Soviet maternity hospitals, ideal love versus actual love, making sandwiches for a man—her work runs the gamut.
So do you translate mostly women?
The way it’s turned out, I’m doing mostly men in prose and women in poetry. However, I just took part in an anthology project, 100 Poems About Moscow, which is very, very cool. I translated 19 of the 100 poems, so I got to translate male poets I’d never worked on before, like Pasternak, Blok, and others. And in terms of actual [large] bodies of work, I am now doing two male prose writers.
[But] when I have a choice, when I’m reading for pleasure, I tend to read women, and I tend to be interested in women’s perspectives on the world. And also because the life of a Russian woman is very different from the life of an American woman, and I find those differences fascinating. Just recently, I translated a few poems by Ukrainian women writing (in Russian) about Russia’s aggression in Ukraine—in those poems, too, I’m fascinated by how women frame a war that for them is literally happening outside their windows. I’m a graduate of a women’s college, part of a generation of women who thought that the gender wars were already won—it’s taken me a while to understand that gender really does affect how all of us see and interact with the world.
I wanted to ask you about Russia and Russian: how did you come to the language, to be speaking and translating Russian?
I became interested in [Russian] at a young age. [The Russian language] got confused with poetry for me very quickly. One of the most memorable experiences of my childhood was when Soviet poet Andrei Voznesensky came through my hometown in Virginia on his traveling road show for Antiworlds & The Fifth Ace. He filled an auditorium with a thousand people—you have to understand, this was a tiny town in the middle of nowhere, with nothing but a college. And here was this great poet coming through and declaiming poetry in Russian from the stage. However, I didn’t get to study Russian seriously until college, where I was lucky enough to have a really good teacher and to spend a semester in Moscow. But I went on to do other things professionally, and I didn’t get back to poetry until much later. I also stopped writing myself.
What are some of the challenges of translating from Russian in particular?
One of the big issues of translating Russian poetry is that so much of it is still formal poetry. There’s nothing odd or old-fashioned sounding if a contemporary Russian writer is writing in regular rhyme and meter, writing in ways that most of us haven’t written in in this country for quite a long time. And so the question becomes: what is the job of the translator? Is the job of the translator to, in some way, replicate the original structure, the original language, the original sound?
Russians are sometimes incensed when I translate poetry that rhymes in Russian and I don’t rhyme it in English. I read some of my own work at the American Embassy in Moscow last fall, and I also read some of the contemporary [Russian] poets that I translate, and I got into a heated exchange with some members of the audience about whether one can possibly translate if you’re not using the full rhyme that the writers use in the original language. And my position is: I’m not translating for Russians. I’m translating for Americans, and when the few Americans who read poetry see pure rhyme and unvarying meter, they tend to think “Hallmark.” I am constantly explaining to Russian speakers that American readers are unlikely to take you seriously as a poet if I translate you in a way that slavishly mimics the formal aspects of Russian poetry. Furthermore, English is not Russian. You can’t do the mimicry. Maybe you could do it between French and Spanish or Italian and Spanish, but you can’t do it between Russian and English because the form of the language is so completely different.
But that’s where I am, and other translators are in different places. The nice thing about translation is that it’s not a science, it is an art. You can bring it your own sort of manifesto to translating. People always ask Russian translators “Which is the best version of Anna Karenina?” or which is the best version of X? There are obviously versions that are not very good because the translator didn’t get it—but it seems to me a fruitless exercise, to say that something is “best.”
It sounds to me like your philosophy about translation is more for the sense of the poem than for the sound of the poem, is that right?
Edith Grossman, the great translator from Spanish, has written about a metaphor that she borrowed from somebody that works really well for me. What Grossman says is, we don’t go to the performance of an orchestral work to hear note for note what Beethoven wrote down. That would be a rigid academic exercise. We go to hear the interpretation produced by these musicians and these musical conditions on this night, conducted by this person: in music, we value the interpretive part of the performance. Grossman’s notion of translation as performance really resonates for me.
When you’re translating, if you’re caught up in the words, you’re likely to miss the essence of whatever it is the poet is trying to say. Furthermore, writing a poem in any language, the original writing of any creative material, is already a translation of what is in the mind: you’ve already warped it in some way, if you want to use that analogy, in getting it into language. James Longenbach published a really interesting essay, “The Medium of the English Language,” in Poetry in November of 2014…. [Longenbach] argues that language is a canvas. It is a medium. It is not the end goal. And having him put that into words, which is what I think many of us think, was extremely important for me in thinking about what I do, because, yeah, if I could somehow manage to bring the beauty of the Russian language into English as I translate, that would be great. But I can’t. It doesn’t happen that way, so I have to do something else. I have to make this performance about what English can do and make English sing in ways that are roughly analogous to the way that Russian sings. But ways that are adapted to the audience in that room that night.
I mean, that seems right to me. I know there’s constant consternation among the ranks of translators, but I’m definitely aligned with your sensibilities. Now I want to talk about your own work. It seems like you’re doing so much translating, I’m wondering if it’s hard to balance being a translator and being a poet. Are those identities ever in conflict, or is it difficult to make time for both?
I had been a poet as a younger person, and then I left to get a degree in Soviet studies. So, I went into international relations and thought I was going to, you know, save the world from nuclear holocaust or whatever we thought we were going to do with a degree in Soviet studies….Then I found myself living in Moscow in the mid-1990s, and so I sought out somebody to do something that I had wanted to do for a while, and sat together with a scholar of Russian poetry. For almost two years, we made up our own curriculum. We read through the canon of Russian poetry, starting even before Pushkin, and we went through [contemporary poets]. And she didn’t speak any English, so I was processing everything in Russian: I was processing the talk about the poetry, I was processing the poetry [in Russian], and it made me hear English with fresh ears. And that was when I started to get serious again about writing in English. I think I’m probably one of the few American poets who can honestly say that my influences as a poet are much more Pushkin and Lermontov than, say, Whitman. The wellspring of contemporary American poetry is not my wellspring, and that’s both good and bad.
The work that I’m doing now is very American-centered. Except, every once in a while in a poem about a farmhouse in rural Virginia, a Russian icon will wander in. And I tend to be more of a formal poet than not, and I think that’s also the Russian influence.
So it seems like, obviously, Russia is informing your writing, but how does the work of translation inform your writing, if at all?
Well I think that the work, it’s the actual technical work with the sounds. When I write I work aloud, and I also find that my work changes if I take the trouble to memorize it, which I don’t do enough, when I’m composing. But when I take the trouble to memorize it and perform it, the poems change because of that, things fall into place rhythmically and otherwise. So I think it’s really at the level of sound and rhythm more than anything that translation impacts what I do. And Russian poetry has a really strong tradition of “civic” poetry – reading and translating those poems has certainly helped me think creatively about what I as an American poet can do as a “public” person.
It’s must be interesting to live in the D.C. area at this time. You said you’re working on American-centric poems now, so it seems like our political climate in conjunction with your current geography must be affecting your work.
Well, I grew up in central Virginia, in one of the five communities that was part of the Brown v. Board of Education decision. So, I grew up watching active discrimination against my schoolmates, against my school, and living through the crisis of race in America at that time and place was really formative for me. It’s been extremely difficult to write poems about it. It’s only now that I’m feeling…it’s too presumptuous to say a call, but I’m feeling like these are issues that I have some knowledge about, I’ve seen them in my life, and I ought to try to be writing about them. I’m not as successful at that as I’d like to be because it’s really hard. It’s hard not to appropriate other people’s stories and hard not to be aware of the fact that, you know, I was white. My parents were academics. I got out, I was not stuck being the child of a sharecropper, I left that situation and had a nice life. The people I grew up with, some of them are dead. Many of them got no further education than high school because the opportunities [I had] weren’t there for them because of the color of their skin. I feel like I’ve lived race in America in a way that is, for a white person, eye-opening.
I think that sentiment of, you know, now is the time to try and write these things that have been hard is something that I’ve been hearing from a lot of poets. That galvanizes me, that everyone sort of feels that we are needed now.
We are needed now! I taught at the University of Maryland for six years, the basic rhetoric and composition course. I taught the story of Henrietta Lacks, and I taught many works that [explored race]. The first semester I taught was the semester that President Obama was first elected, and some of my students—who were largely white—did not get why these things [discussions of race and privilege] were important and why I kept talking about them. And when we don’t understand that other people were marginalized or discriminated against, it’s easy to say, “Well, so what? That was a long time ago.” It’s not a long time ago, and the fact that it’s not a long time ago is still really hard for many, many white Americans to acknowledge. It’s happening now, it’s here.
If poets are doing their job, listening to the world, being part of the world, and recognize that, then we are responsible, because we have public platforms—small, but we have them. We have responsibilities to talk about this in ways that can make people connect. Some poetry is angry poetry and should be angry poetry, but I feel like, at base, poetry is about communicating. And if poets can communicate and speak in ways that are accessible, maybe we can reach people.