Translation, Traduction, Poetic Paths
an exchange with David Hadbawnik
Kent Johnson: David, you have recently completed a translation of books 1 and 2 of the Aeneid, with books 3 and 4 apparently nearly done, as well. Just to say that sounds quite amazing to me... Now, you aren't the first to take the plunge, obviously! So why another Aeneid? Tell us more about this rather impressive commitment you have made. What motivated you to undertake another version? What are you trying to do and why, if you'll excuse such a forward question? And tell us, please, about the translation method[s] that guide the work. "Free" or openly "traduced" versions of different classical poets have been done by a few younger poets of the so-called post-avant in recent years. Such translucine approach (the term from Erín Moure and Andrés Ajens)seems to be gaining in popularity. To what extent does your Virgil draw from that spirit?
David Hadbawnik: Virgil began for me as an assignment in a Latin course; we would dip in here or there and translate 30 or so lines and then go over them in class. I kept working on it to keep my hand in. After a while it just seemed like a natural, if foolhardy thing to do, to try to translate the whole thing, or at least a sizable portion of it. Then I began to work through my word-for-word notes and put them into a kind of poetry that was exciting and interesting to me to read and publish them here and there. Finally I enlisted Carrie Kaser, a visual artist and printmaker I'd worked with on previous projects, to provide some illustrations -- thinking about long poems and the tradition of Dante and Gustave Dore, something to break up the text and so on -- and that was when it really took off.
Why another Aeneid? Precisely because we don't need one. There are so many good translations out there that if you are looking for a literal version, or whatever kind of verse approximation, you can find it. That fact liberates one to do something more creative with the poetry and not worry so much about literal accuracy (though I strive to be accurate in tone rather than diction, I would say). As for approach, I was working at the time on Jack Spicer's and Thomas Meyer's translations of Beowulf, and Tom's, especially, inspired me to think about the poem in a completely different cultural and aesthetic context. The Aeneid is so contemporary in a way -- it's frequently thought of as political/imperial propaganda, and certainly there are elements of that, but I believe it is also pretty subversive. There are moments when Aeneas is just so dumb and inert, you can't help but think that Virgil was making fun of him; and since he is an avatar of the Emperor Augustus, that's playing with fire. I can't claim to be as breathtakingly adventurous with the poem from a visual standpoint as Tom is with Beowulf, but I am trying to have fun with Virgil and think through some of the really complex issues with narrative and power and image that the poem raises. So, yes, very much in the current stream of poets doing traductions, of which I would also add you as an inspiration.
KJ: So who's leading who through the dark gate where all hope is to be abandoned? Are you leading Virgil, or is he leading you? This is a serious question, though not that I'd demand you to have a confident response. I trust you won't. We can bet that seven-headed Translation, with her thousand-foot shocked back-hair standing on end gets really pissed when people pretend they know what they're talking about...
DH: That’s a great question, and you’re right, I can’t answer with any real confidence. Since it began as homework, more or less, I would have to say Virgil was leading pretty strongly at first and that is apparent in the first few sections, where I take care to translate every word in every line, to the extent that that’s possible. As it goes on, I think it works best as a give-and-take, in which neither Virgil nor the translator is leading. And I think about the difference between what I take to be Jack Spicer’s concept and Walter Benjamin’s idea of translation as articulated in “The Task of the Translator.” For Benjamin, the translator’s job is to “produce in that language the echo of the original,” with the implication that there is an idealized original to which the translator owes fealty. For Spicer, the distance between translator and poet is collapsed; he seeks “correspondences” rather than “echoes.” As he explains in After Lorca, that means a real object from Lorca’s poetry (he mentions a lemon tree) cannot be experienced in present-day California, but some other tree, some other object can be experienced in a way that would correspond in some way with that real, and thus show up in the poem. So that becomes more and more my focus as I go on, and I think it begins to appear in Book II – Aeneas’s narrative of the fall of Troy – where I am concerned with finding a way to capture the poem’s horror and pathos that corresponds with the war and terror we see around us today ... and at the same time, to capture the really self-serving and melodramatic way that Aeneas tells the story.
KJ: Aha! That’s interesting, your divide of Benjamin and Spicer, because some years ago, in Lucas Klein’s fabulous translation studies journal Cipher, I published a series of letters, half of a critical “correspondence” betwixt Mark DuCharme and me, on Spicer’s After Lorca, wherein I argue that Spicer’s praxis of “translation” can be seen as enacting key Benjaminian principles, as outlined in “The Task of the Translator”! Which is not to say I’d completely agree with myself presently… So many forking paths in Benjamin…
But back to you and Virgil: And not to put you on the spot, but I think it would be interesting to readers with any curiosity about our general topic if we could do this… Would you quote, say, fourteen or so lines from either one of the so-far translated Books and provide informal commentary as to what you are doing in the verses—i.e., where you leave Virgil more or less alone, if ever you do, and where you take him by the hand, or throat, and show him the Frigidaire? And how and why.
DH: Here’s a difficult bit from Book 1. The background is that Venus has appeared to Aeneas and his men, disguised as a Spartan maid. He suspects she is a goddess of some kind but does not recognize her; she bucks up his flagging courage and gives him instructions on how to proceed in Carthage. As she takes her leave, this happens:
Dixit et avertens rosea cervice refulsit,
[Venus] spoke and turning, gleamed from her rosy neck,
ambrosiaeque comae divinum vertice oderem
and [Aeneas and his men] breathed the divine smell of her ambrosial hair;
spiravere; pedes vestis defluxit ad imos;
her robe flowed all the way to her feet;
et vera incessu patuit dea.
and the true goddess was evident by her gait.
“Defluxit” is the word that gives you trouble here. Literally it means “flows down.” Does that mean the short skirt Venus is wearing in this scene suddenly lengthens to a gown, or drops completely, leaving her naked? Probably it means the former, and that is how it’s normally translated. Which is weird, but OK. However, it could mean the latter – I went over this with my Latin teacher – still weird, but ultimately no weirder than the fact she’s disguised in the first place and suddenly chooses to reveal her divinity, which Aeneas complains about immediately after this. Having made the decision to go with the latter reading, I still needed to work out the wording:
After she spoke, she turned away.
Her cheeks and neck glowed, and the sweetest smell
came from her hair, while her dress fell
to her feet. Stepping out of it, no one could doubt
she was a goddess.
I wanted to accomplish two things here: capture the sensuality and drama of the “reveal,” and end on the word “goddess,” as Virgil does. I really struggled with it. And I wound up with a dangling participle I’m not too happy about, but rhythmically I think it works.
Overall that is an example of me being pretty faithful and literal. Book 2 is a different story. I love Book 2 of the Aeneid so much. Aeneas is telling Dido the story of the fall of Troy and he has to achieve so many things, which in a sense parallel the things Virgil hopes to achieve with the poem as a whole: build up a hero, impress a royal patron, and justify his project. Aeneas has to walk a fine line, making himself look brave in the act of running away. He has been told by his mother that Dido’s husband was slain before the altars in an act of treachery. So when he tells the story of Priam’s death, he makes sure it’s plenty horrific and takes place in front of the altars. I realize, of course, that Virgil does not depict Priam getting sodomized; nor does he have Venus calling the other gods derogatory names; and while Aeneas is told over and over again, fuge, “flee,” Virgil does not have it set off in all caps as I do:
But what he does depict is pretty awful. And it’s clear that Aeneas wants to present an utter apocalypse, something so terrible and divinely ordained that the only sane and honorable option is escape, and that with the help of Venus. So I really wanted to turn the volume up on all that even more; after all, there’s every reason to believe Aeneas’ account is highly subjective, every sense tingling, every impression magnified. He’s bitter, he’s grief-stricken, he’s ashamed, but he’s also calculating... Here’s a brief section after Venus has visited Aeneas again to restrain him from killing Helen in the general confusion, and pointed out the gods and goddesses helping the Greeks sack the city:
Dixerat et spissis noctis se condidit umbris.
She spoke and hid herself in the thick shadows of night.
Apparent dirae facies inimicaque Trojae
The dreadful faces of the gods appeared
numina magna deum
the great divine enemies of Troy.
And what I wound up with:
Then she slipped off folding herself
in thick shadows. I saw them then, the bastards,
laughing at us as they brought down pain on Troy.
Divine mother-fucking cocksuckers fighting for Greece.
As you can see, that’s very different from what’s in the Latin. But I wanted to get at the bitterness and anger and self-justification that go into Aeneas’ version of things. And his mother – who has manipulated him all along, kidnapped his son, poisoned Dido – has manipulated him once again like a politician working over a rube, diverting his anger from Helen to the gods. So that plays into it as well.
KJ: You’d mentioned a “current stream of poets doing traductions,” and I’d like to parse that broader formulation a bit, if in a provisional way. And feel free to disagree and correct here, please. Within the fairly significant and growing group of poets working in exploratory modes of translation, we could maybe see, at least at first view, two major tributaries: 1) poets practicing a species of translucination, where the new version still bears (as Pound’sCathay, or Lowell’sImitations) some kind of genetically recognizable trace to its source, even as the gesture openly aims to “make it new”; in this grouping, poets seem to be going back somewhat to the Renaissance/Augustan tradition of imitation, inhabiting, with a fair degree of homage, the original from inside, chiseling and remodeling away from within. And on the other hand, 2), poets who exhibit a predisposition to bracket, almost as a matter of principle, nearly all traditionalprotocols of fidelity as “essentialist” baggage, even if their “translations” sometimes follow the source when the spirit chooses-- (Spicer’s After Lorca, in the sense of general genre-messing, might be the breakaway, urtext, in this regard; Louis and Celia Zukofsky’s bizarre sonic Catullus another, if very different example; bpNichols’s experiments, too). Given what you’ve said about the Virgil, I would place you in the first group, actually, along with folks like Christopher Logue, Devin Johnston, John Tipton, Erín Moure, and others, where a deeper tracing of core contours of sense and emotion still guides, even as lexical and syntactical “accuracy” so often takes backseat. In the second group, you have younger U.S. writers like Brandon Brown, Christian Hawkey, or David Larsen, or Tim Atkins in the UK, where the original provides a kind of provocation for its appropriation and transfiguration. Anything to this thinking-out- loud? In any case, the recent expansion of translation into new areas strikes me as a noteworthy development that is still quite under-examined. Maybe things need to shake out a bit more before we can get a theoretical purchase on it. But it’s interesting, perhaps, how this quasi-renaissance of poetic translation spectra, the opening of its American field, as it were, concurrently flourishes inside the pretty apparent crisis of our nation’s imperial project and power.
DH: Kent, that’s a very interesting line you’ve drawn between these translator-poets and their approaches, and to some extent I have to gauge my own reaction and resistance to it in attempting to see myself on one side or the other. My immediate impulse is to not want to be in the first group, however accomplished it is and however much I admire the modernist Pound and the contemporary Erín Moure. Given that we are both clearly attracted to the Spicer branch of translation-oriented poetics, I very much want to be on that side of the grouping! But then I have to ask myself, aside from those affinities, why should that be? I think it has something to do with the second part of your question re. “the recent expansion of translation into new areas,” which if I understand it correctly involves a postmodernist attitude towards translation, that it should not merely involve language (or at least not merely in a semantic sense). So (to oversimplify) Zukofsky’s Catullus puts sound above meaning, while Spicer’s poetics translates not only words but also deeper structures and desires from a source text, suggesting avenues for the poet-translator to follow that may lead far afield of the source. To not adopt one of those strategies feels somehow antiquated, or uncreative. And this in turn bleeds into, and maps onto, the literary marketplace vis-a-vis the particular niche in which the translation work is deposited.
For example, it’s been very instructive to me to watch the reception of Tom Meyer’s Beowulf. The critical response has been overwhelmingly positive, with glowing reviews appearing most recently in Speculum (88:4, October 2013), a conservative journal of medieval studies, and Jacket2, aligned with the poetic avant-garde. But one review calls it an "adaptation" and another takes issue with Meyer’s “capricious and arbitrary” poetic license. I have also heard second-hand whispers from the upper echelons of academia that it’s simply not a translation. I’m fascinated by this – what makes something a translation, something else not? Why do we care, and what does that caring mean? In academic circles, we are dealing with values at odds with the poetry world: fidelity over creativity, a concern with “embarrassing” mistakes in handling source-language grammar, and so on. As someone with a foot in both worlds – academia and poetry – I am certainly aware of this push and pull, and the under-examined, as you’re quite right in saying, differences between them and implications of those differences in the face of more and more adventurous translation-based works.
And I think that recoiling from the academic idea of what translation is and what poetry is plays out pretty dramatically in the case of Spicer. There’s a discernible progression, from his crib-note version of Beowulf, to early experiments like Troilus and After Lorca, to later works like The Holy Grail, which operate on source material in a more submerged and subversive way. Even though Spicer railed against the “English Department” again and again, famously writing (in Admonitions) that it “ruined ten years of my poetry,” the work shows that his relationship to academic learning is far more fruitful and complex than just an effort to slough it off the further he progresses as a poet. (I just gave a talk on this topic, titled "Jack Spicer and the English Department," at the Center for Marxist Education in Boston.) Yes, as Robin Blaser notes, Spicer worked “independently and fiercely” with and against tradition, but no matter what he said about his own poetry, the word-knowledge Spicer gleaned in his studies was never far from his practice, an integral part of the “furniture” for use in poetic dictation. Moreover, I suspect that the tension created by the opposition within Spicer of scholarship to folk-based culture was very productive, giving his poems an energy and tang of interest that makes them, for me, more durable somehow than Robert Duncan’s seeming comfort with the play of his own intellect in poetry. So I think – not to split the difference or make a bad compromise – I do want to be aware of those tensions (between academy and creativity, between “translation” and “adaptation”), and find a way to play off them without being tortured or paralyzed by them or pulled too far in one direction or the other. I want to find the energy that propels me as a poet and hopefully excites the reader, wherever that comes from and whatever form it takes.
KJ: I should quickly add there that one could place some of Erín Moure’s work in that second category, too: her brilliant Pessoa working in A Sheep’s Vigil, for example. But I hear you, and your answer is a very thoughtful one. I’m aware the distinctions I’m drawing between “tributaries” are far from satisfactory, that we’re talking of a spectrum where things bleed through the lines and it’s very difficult to determine how and where something is more red-shifted than something else. And just to be sure: I do not see that group in which I located you as “Academic’ or traditional in any way—to the contrary, I mean it as very much part of this experimental turn in traslucine/traduction praxis.
OK, anyway, thanks for your good replies on the translation front, even as I want to ask you more about it, but there are some other topics. I’d like you to touch on your book Field Work (BlazeVOX, 2010). I was honored to blurb it (to get that “full disclosure” out of the way). The magnificent writer and Jack Spicer scholar Kevin Killian, also puts his enthusiasms on the back cover:
In San Francisco, Austin and Buffalo a chiel’s among ye taking notes. David Hadbawnik like James Boswell has a knack for capturing all the things we wish we had said, as well as the street talk which shows up our culture as indescribably banal and fertile. On his way to developing a unique poetic, Hadbawnik kept writing it down; these twelve years of flaneuring perform a voyage of their own, a powerful and mysterious walk towards unknowing.
I wanted to ask, as a prompt for you to talk some more about that book: If your Bay Area copain Killian is on to something, how would poetic “flaneuring” open a path that leads towards “unknowing”? What positive, productive purpose would that have, “unknowing”? The notion or principle seems like a somewhat counterintuitive outcome for the attentive means of the flaneur, don’t you think? And if you’ll allow me to slip in a second question, which may have something to do with the first, though it may not at all, I have no idea: As someone who spent a good deal of time directly breathing the still-felt air of the San Francisco Renaissance and its various post-streams, could you expand a bit on Spicer and the ways you locate your non-translation poetics (if you’ll allow that phrase!) within the Spicer current?
DH: There were a lot of things going on at that time. I had been studying with Diane di Prima in a private workshop starting in 1998-99; Spicer wound up being the poet that most resonated with me, but over the years we also studied Keats, Pound, Olson, Duncan, H.D., John Wieners, Frank O’Hara ... Alongside of that I was involved in curating a series that featured music, poetry, performance art, dance, film ... starting a small press, and eventually hosting a house reading series. The “poetry” I had been writing up until then was mostly terrible – “beat”-derived drivel that didn’t really do anything, didn’t disclose anything. But the scene itself and the study with di Prima (of whom, as I’ve written elsewhere, there is much, much more than meets the eye) were incredibly stimulating. Part of the practice I took up involved carrying a small notebook with me wherever I went. Along with drafts of mostly terrible poems, I would jot down little observations, thoughts, ideas, bits of song lyrics, lines from things I was reading. “Unknowing” is true in a literal sense – while I had specific models in mind, most notably the great Austrian writer Peter Handke, I did not have any sense that this fragmented miscellany would one day be a book. At most I hoped that I could work some of the material into a novel, as Handke had done with the notebooks collected in The Weight of the World, or as F. Scott Fitzgerald’s rich notebooks (excerpts from which appear in The Crack-Up) had filtered into his novels. And as so often happens, that “unknowing” really freed me up to relax and have fun with the notebooks. I didn’t know what I was doing. Many days, I didn’t know where I was going; I would ride around on the bus and train, wander through the park, walk all the way from the Mission District to North Beach. I remember being lonely and exhausted and exhilarated, by turns.
One year, di Prima had us doing poetic forms – sonnets, sestinas, pantoums, odes, and so on, working with various kinds of lyric restrictions. I started writing a sonnet or three every day in my notebook, working very quickly and allowing the form, which became supple and familiar as an old baseball mitt, to carry the burden of “poetry” while I was free to just fill it with whatever. I had been reading Ovid, reading about the ongoing mystery of his exile at the hands of the Emperor Tiberius in 8 A.D., and became very taken with that (nobody knows exactly what happened, but it seems bound up with politics and censorship and personal scandal). I suppose the idea of Ovid’s exile formed a Poundian “complex” of image and feeling in my mind – I had a vision of Ovid on a ship wending his way slowly towards Tomis on the Black Sea, where he would live in exile – one night I woke up and out came a sequence of six sonnets that sort of flowed from this complex, without my stopping to think about it at all. Soon after that came September 11, and the work proceeded pretty consciously as a Spicerian “serial” poem, with a good deal of reading informing the work of voicing the various characters involved, Julia, Augustus, Livia, Tiberius. What constituted the “furniture” was the research on the (remarkably modern) Imperial Roman security state and the spooky post-9-11 American vibe. That became my first book, Ovid in Exile, published in a beautiful volume by Micah Robbins at Interbirth Books in 2007. And needless to say this was the first time I felt, as a poet, that I understood what I was doing.
Eventually, it hit me that I enjoyed reading writers’ notebooks in their own right (I had not yet encountered great poet’s notebooks like Creeley’s Daybook). I began culling the notebooks for a collection, first published as SF Spleen by Skanky Possum in 2006, and here began a different kind of unknowing – I did not want the individual entries to appear as pat little epiphanies from a comfortable and wholly solidified perspective. Instead, I wanted them to capture the fragmented, wandering attention that had gone into the notebooks, the confusing, bewildering, beautiful world of the city with its lost souls, laughter, light, and so on... This paradoxically involved a good deal of editing, paring back, mostly, where I had overwritten things with the idea of reconstituting the material into a larger narrative. I wanted to arrive at something that, cumulatively, offered the reader something as various and disparate, open and amusing, as my own experience had been.
The thread that goes through these different projects – and the translation work as well – is that I’m really committed to the idea of seriality, in the Spicer sense; I don’t see poetry as discrete moments, unconnectedly drifting around, to be collected and shuffled into some advantageous order for publication. I was adamant that the notebook entries that went into Field Work be ordered by date, and as I became conscious (post-2006) that I was now writing an ongoing book, I did not want to simply repeat the formula of brief, quirky observations. Rather, I wanted to accurately reflect what I was writing in the books, which is why the more recent portion includes song lyrics, poems, and so on. Spicer’s twin idea of “dictation,” however much it may have been in play with Ovid in Exile and certain other poems, remains for me a Platonic ideal for poetry that is elusive and even somewhat rigid; as a writer, you have to write, or go crazy and get frustrated and even suicidal. I believe one can lay the groundwork for dictation by maintaining a playful and open mind (Spicer did it by drinking, it would seem), which is sadly not something to which academia is terribly conducive. But the translation work, which is somewhat meat and potatoes on the one hand, and creative on the other, has been productive for me in keeping moving, keeping the poetry going.
KJ: Amiri Baraka’s recent death was a hard reminder, for me, of how so very few from the great NAP renaissance are still with us. One of the major figures from that generation, and someone whose history is interwoven with Baraka’s, of course, is Diane di Prima, to whom you are very close. You just said that there is “much, much more [about her] than meets the eye.” Could you expand some on that “much more”? Perhaps in doing so, you could reflect on your private, intensive study with her, which was perhaps different, in various ways, from the MFA Program path that most “professional” American poets now travel. More broadly, if briefly, could you reflect on what you see as di Prima’s importance and legacy to American poetry--past, present, and down the road? Some would say she has not quite received her due recognition.
DH: To some extent I tried to cover this in the Big Bridge special issue on di Prima that I curated a few years ago, linked to above; but it’s worth revisiting to explore in more detail the personal angle you mention, and broader developments since that issue was published. When I stumbled into di Prima’s workshop, I really had no idea what to expect, or what the various options were in the late-1990s Bay Area poetry scene (not to mention how to decode the secret handshakes that would have made those options viable). You had people like Juliana Spahr, Brent Cunningham, and Taylor Brady coming from the Buffalo Poetics Program; kari edwards, Michael Smoler, and Roger Snell from Naropa; Arielle Guy, Ryan Newton, and Micah Ballard at New College (still operational at that time, with Tom Clark, Duncan McNaughton, and David Meltzer teaching). Then there was Summi Kaipa, who’d studied at Iowa; David Larsen and Julian Brolaski were getting degrees at Berkeley; Stephanie Young, who’d studied with di Prima, wound up at Mills College in Oakland, and Alli Warren was down at UC-Santa Cruz, where Nathaniel Mackey taught. Then as now, there were Kevin Killian and Dodie Bellamy, existing as somewhat of a safe haven between the various younger and older poets like Lyn Hejinian, Leslie Scalapino, Michael Palmer, Bill Berkson, and so on. There was Stacy Doris and Steve Dickison at SF State and the folks at CCA... So lots of separate but overlapping, academically inflected poetry scenes, most of which emphatically were not informed by the standard MFA notion of “professional” poetry. It was exciting, exhilarating, and awfully intimidating.
Diane di Prima lived and taught completely outside that culture, almost a forgotten poet in her own community. Which always baffled me. It must be noted, of course, that there were and are other poetry communities in the Bay Area – spoken word was huge, and MFA-trained, professional poet types arrived by the truckload; and in the Bay Area, there are many people who just love poetry without any sort of affiliation, official or otherwise. It’s in the air. So when di Prima does a reading, she never lacks for an audience, in the Bay Area or elsewhere. But an audience is not the same thing as a community. At any rate, her workshops met one Sunday a month in an old warehouse in the Mission District, which had been converted into live-work lofts. It was a day-long affair. We would proceed by doing a round-robin reading of stuff we’d written since our last workshop. No critique – that was important – just whatever feeling you gleaned from everyone’s silent response. Who we were (over the years) was a lot of women, anywhere from thirty-something to late sixties, a couple of high school kids, and me, a twenty-something guy. A very eclectic bunch, but those of us who continued in the workshops grew into a tight circle in which you could experiment, say or write anything. The key was, you pushed yourself, tried new things, weren’t afraid to fail. Di Prima absolutely set the tone for that, and it was crucial.
The rest of the workshop usually consisted of study and discussion of some of the poets I mentioned above. It was highly intensive and incisive – I’m talking six hours total, with a break for lunch. Di Prima had visited Pound at St. Elizabeth’s. She had known Charles Olson, Lew Welch, John Wieners, and many others. She was good friends with Philip Whalen (still alive at that time) and Robert Duncan (with whom she’d helped found New College). When we studied Jack Spicer, she brought in her pristine first editions of After Lorca, The Heads of the Town, and The Holy Grail, and talked about how each new Spicer publication had been a major event in San Francisco. She had been there, in short, and not in a wild-eyed hippie-beatnik kind of way. She had been there as an active participant and poetic equal, publishing the Floating Bear and founding the Poets Theater, among other things. That’s part of what I mean when I say there’s more than meets the eye.
The other part of that statement pertains to what would happen outside of workshop; we would also visit di Prima to talk about our poetry in private meetings at her home in the Excelsior District. I still remember riding the J-train to the end of the line and walking up hills and through fog to get there. While the group workshop was a site of permission, one-on-one was where di Prima brought the hammer down, in a critical sense. She has the best ear of any poet I’ve ever met. She could instantly hone in on the fat in a poem in terms of sound, movement, content, overall shape and so on. But it wasn’t just a regime of cutting; what di Prima brought to bear was the wealth of her own lifetime of study, apparent from the thousands of books on her shelves on language, hermeneutics, alchemy, history... Her fine ear and sharp mind are on display in all of her poetry right from the start – in the early lyrics and vignettes of Dinners and Nightmares, the long serial poem Loba, and the Revolutionary Letters. She has not been given nearly enough credit for the range of her poetic and editorial achievements as part of that New American Poetry generation, above and beyond her renown as a “beat.” I remember her saying that Don Allen had promised she would be in that anthology – woefully short on female voices as it is – and that she was pulled out at the last minute due to the awkward situation with Baraka and Hettie Jones. And she was bitter about that, as we discussed in an interview on Jacket some years ago.
But this was undoubtedly the over-arching message of our study: she modeled for us how to be a poet. Being a poet doesn’t just mean writing poems. It means devoting yourself to a lifetime of study, a lifetime of learning balanced with serious play. It also means doing things for poetry: hosting reading series, editing and publishing, being an active and generous part of a community. Too many people who call themselves poets just want things – attention, awards, publications – and that to me is the most pernicious side of the MFA mindset: That you are alone in a room writing poems and sending them out for approval by someone in some other, distant room. The lives and legacies of so many of those from the NAP generation stands in direct contradiction to that isolated vision of poetry, and di Prima is a vivid example.
Thankfully there are some glimmers of hope that di Prima is and will be appreciated more: there were the Lost and Found editions of her The Mysteries of Vision: Some Notes on H.D., R.D.’s H.D., and the Olson Memorial Lectures, all of which demonstrate her erudition when it comes to responding critically to other poets. She has also been invited to teach in the ongoing “Bay Area Public School” workshops, which seem to have grown out of the poetry community’s response to the Occupy Movement, so that’s a hopeful sign that community will be able to take advantage of the tremendous resource of her knowledge and pedagogy. I even met a Harvard PhD student last year who is writing his thesis on Diane di Prima, which is fantastic. So there’s hope.
KJ: Finally – to bring things back around to the translation angle and your current poetic project – what do you see as the next step in your translation work, and what do you see happening in today’s poetic discourse with regards to translation as a whole?
DH: I am working on Books III and IV of the Aeneid, which will also be illustrated by Carrie Kaser and published as a chapbook by Little Red Leaves. And I’m committed to doing at least the first six books and publishing them as a trade edition. After that, I’m not sure if I want to continue with books VII-XII or move on to something else. Lucan’s Pharsalia really interests me, but that is a pretty gigantic poem as well. The Latins wrote long poems! I’m also hankering to translate some medieval Latin, such as the Archpoet, or perhaps do something in Old English. One of the things I’ve noticed in writing and attempting to publish this stuff is the way translation gets segregated in the poetry world. Johannes Göransson wrote about this recently on Montevidayo--you have “best of” lists coming out that don’t include a single work in translation (implying that only poetry written in English is the best), you have journals and presses that don’t accept translations, and so on. I know that you’ve pointed out the dearth of works from outside the Anglophone world in recent anthologies. Again, there is an implicit hierarchy here.
Furthermore, it is not just a matter of prioritizing one over the other, but what that prioritizing means. Works in the original are seen to be pure. The translation is a degraded product. By extension, the original author is creative; the translator is not. These perceptions are somewhat akin to a musician who writes her own music vs. one who “covers” others’ songs. And there are massive implications, for poetry, language and poets alike. During the medieval period there was no concept of authorship as we know it; whether you translated a poem or wrote “original” verse, you were engaged in poetic “making.” (Of course, this led to a lot of outright copying, too.) Now you are only an author if you are writing something new. This has likely fed into the decline of language study in the United States. It’s remarkable, and I’m sure you share my astonishment, that the turn to “language” in the U.S. has had almost no impact on the lack of interest in other languages and engagement in translation work over the past forty years. What if every MFA program required students to spend a year doing translation work, and to prepare some translations as part of their creative thesis?
I would argue that the dichotomy outlined above, besides contributing to the illusion that authorship = original = creative, also contributes to the equally erroneous idea that there is such a thing as a pure, original language. A lot of great work is being done at the moment by medievalists I know to dispel this idea. First, of course, there is the fact that English itself is a mongrel tongue, with loads of other languages built right into its DNA. Not only is there no “pure origin,” there is no clean chain of influence – English is shot through with impurities and buffeted by waves of influence and infusions from other tongues at various points throughout its history. Second, partially because of this, we must recognize that languages don’t have hard-and-fast boundaries between them. Chaucer might have known there was something called “English,” but he and other medieval writers didn’t hesitate to dip into French and Latin as need be for their vocabulary. We need to start to move beyond the idea of borders in language as we’re slowly moving beyond the concept of national borders. Language itself, in all its permutations, is a tremendously creative force, one of the great human experiments – we need to study it more, use it and change it and let it change us, and most of all: create more translations.