Poet to Poet: An Interview with Curtis Bauer
The Poet to Poet Interview series has come about out of both professional and personal motivations. As an editor of Two Lines, I’m invested in the work of translators, their methods, and promoting their artistic achievements. As a poet who does not translate, I find that I search for ways to connect personally to the way in which translators work. Interviewing poets I admire about their translation seemed like a good way to bridge the two and to learn some of the behind-the-scenes stories surrounding certain translation projects. Over the next few months, interviews with Curtis Bauer, Sarah Stickney, Mira Rosenthal, Yuki Tanaka, and Mary Jo Bang will appear on the Online Exclusives for Two Lines 28. Each poet has a different link to their project—some through personal connection, some formal interest, and some artistic kinship. These interviews reveal both the everyday undertaking of translation and the individual inspiration these poets find in their projects.
My first interview is with Curtis Bauer, a remarkably generous poet whose openness about his own work, and how much labor goes into it, is both genuine and a breath of fresh air. Here, we speak about Fabio Morábito, the importance of reading widely, and which came first, the translator or the poet.
Emily Wolahan: Thanks for agreeing to speak to me and thank you for your wonderful translations of Fabio Morábito! We had the pleasure of publishing a few in the Two Lines 26 Online Exclusives. I’ve also read other translations of yours in The Literary Review and Lumina.
You had mentioned to me once that these “poems” were part poem, part story. Can you describe the scope of this project and what drew you to it?
Curtis Bauer: I don’t think Fabio would be upset with my description, but also, I don’t think he’d agree that these are poems—he writes poems, short stories, novels and essays, so perhaps he’d say there’s a melding of everything in these texts. I call them poems because of the concise language, because some of his lines are so musically rich and surprising…they just seem like prose poems to me. But I’m a poet so I tend to read for and dwell on lines that snap me to attention, lines that linger in my head or on my tongue for a while. Almost all of the eighty-four pieces in the book have one of those little gems, and I hope my renderings into English do something similar.
I tend to read for and dwell on lines
that snap me to attention,
lines that linger in my head
or on my tongue for a while.
I showed a few to a friend a while back and he said they are perfect little short stories, as they contain the elements of scene, character, dilemma, discovery, and transformation. This is true, but sometimes the character might be Kafka’s writing style, or maybe aging, or humiliation. I like that aspect of these pieces, that they can be stories or poems or something else. And that they’re all more or less the same size—no more than two thousand characters long—written for a monthly column in the Argentine newspaper Clarín. I’d love to see something like this on the Op Ed page of The New York Times or another major paper in this country.
EW: In that way they remind me of crónicas, which I take as a literary form of journalism, part reportage, part off-the-cuff musings. It certainly would be remarkable to open The New York Times and encounter “news that stays news,” as Pound put it. Where did you start with this project? How long has the overall process taken?
CB: I saw a micro-review for the book in a newspaper in Buenos Aires a few years ago. My partner and I were living there for several months and our daily routine included reading the papers and working in some café in our neighborhood. One of our favorites was Libros del Pasaje in Palermo, and that day, after seeing the review for El idioma materno (which I have translated as Mother Tongue), I went to the bookshelf, found it, started reading it and decided to buy it. Books are expensive in Argentina, but I knew immediately that I wanted to spend time with this one; it was different from anything else I’d read before.
Because they are brief I could read a few of the texts in the morning or at night before bed, or sometimes I’d take the book with me on a walk and read a few in a bar, and each time I’d finish I’d make one of those strange noises some of us emit when we read something interesting or funny, and finally my partner said she wanted to see what all the fuss was about. She read the first twenty or so pages and said, “If we weren’t together I’d want to marry this guy,” and then, “You have to translate this. Write him and see if it’s available.”
At the time I’d promised myself I’d stop translating for a while. I’d just finished a manuscript and sent it to my editor at Vaso Roto Editions before leaving the US, and I had three other manuscripts floating around; I didn’t need more translation work. But she pressed. So I contacted some friends who put me in touch with Morábito. We corresponded a bit and he gave me permission to translate the book.
But the funny thing is that the story doesn’t end there: he wrote that he’d been invited to the Buenos Aires Book Fair and “why don’t we meet and talk?” We did, several times, and my partner also met him, told him the story about how she encouraged me to translate his book, and he dedicated my copy of El idioma materno to her!
I finished an early draft of the translation in the summer of 2016, and then a revision this past December. Of course I’d worked and reworked several of the pieces during that time; those were the earliest ones I’d published. Now, whenever I send a few more out to magazines and journals I reread them and often make a little change here or there. I suppose the book won’t be done until an editor accepts it and gives me a firm deadline.
EW: What a cool path to translating this book! I wonder if your partner recognized something similar in you and Morábito? Is there a kinship in your aesthetics that fueled the enterprise?
CB: That’s an interesting question. I’m not sure if she did or not, and I’m not sure I do, either, though I’ve liked everything of his I’ve read. I suppose that’s the important thing, that I translate something I want to read. Also, it’s important to offer something that isn’t already available, which reminds me of another text from this book I’ve translated as “So Many Books”; in it Morábito writes,
Writers of prose or poetry who own more than a thousand books begin to be suspect. Why do they write, I wonder. One should only write to palliate some scarcity of reading material. There where we notice something missing in our library, the absence of a certain book in particular, we can justify picking up the pen to, in the most decent way possible, write it ourselves. Writing, then, as a corrective. To write in order to continue reading.
The same must apply to translators, in a sense: we notice something missing in our library, and we can justify picking up the pen to help fill that void. But back to your question; the more I think about it, I guess there must be some similarities. I’m drawn to the quirky and strange, to the complicated, to difficult structures and to elevating the mundane to the sacred, and I think Morábito does this.
The same must apply to translators, in a sense:
we notice something missing in our library,
and we can justify picking up the pen
to help fill that void.
EW: How has your own writing overlapped with your various translation projects? Does the act of translation feed your poetry or keep you from it?
CB: In general, there’s a functional and practical overlap: as a poet, I spend a lot of time thinking about language, how words sound, how they fit together, how to be as precise as possible. And I do that as a translator as well. I read poetry and prose in Spanish, so that also feeds how I write in English, how I compose lines, even how I approach themes or subjects, how I think. It’s not translation that keeps me from my own writing; instead, it’s the business side of translation, the editing aspect, the submissions, that other work of writing, which is related to publishing. I suppose there’s a lot of pressure being the only one responsible for exposing a writer’s work to readers in another language and country. Right now I’m submitting the work of four writers—two from Spain and two from Mexico—to journals and publishers, so yes, that does eat into the time I could otherwise use for my own work. But, I feel like I have a responsibility to these writers, and to their spectacular work, a responsibility to share this new poetry or prose with my community of writers and readers in the US. I think most translators feel this sense of responsibility, and somehow we make the time, find a way to keep doing our own work as well.
EW: I can relate to that sense of responsibility of exposure. I feel lucky to read as much translation as I do, and want others to know how deep and remarkable the global human imagination is. Do you think there is something American poets and readers, in particular, can learn from the literature you encounter and translate?
CB: Yes, of course. And so could our politicians and those who don’t tend to read as much literature and perhaps watch only Fox television for news and information. I think they’d find that we have more in common with people outside our borders have than we have differences. People love and hate everywhere, are happy to see family and filled with sorrow when someone close dies; they are uncomfortable when they don’t understand and amazed when they do. Poets, writers, can learn that there are writers of their own generation—not just the authors they grew up reading!—who are now writing great poems in Russian, Spanish, Brazilian, Tagalog, Arabic, Tigrinya, Cantonese…in all the languages of the world, and that our own art can only be strengthened, made better, by exposing ourselves to as much of it as we can. That’s one of the things I love about your journal; you’re making it possible for readers and writers from around the world to come together.
EW: What is something unique about Spanish that draws you to work with the language? As Morábito hails from Mexico, is there a particular quality to this Spanish which you enjoy? Can you name something that can be accomplished in Spanish that you wish could be easily replicated in English?
CB: Oh boy…there’s a lot here. I’m not sure if it’s unique to Spanish or not, because Spanish is the only other language I’m intimate with, but I love the sound of Spanish, the playfulness it affords, and I love long, meandering sentences so complex and enigmatic that you have to slow down and reread what is there, and in that rereading I discover so much more. Perhaps learning Spanish made me into a translator, I don’t know: in order to have a deeper understanding of a text I was forced to slow down, reread and reread again…. Now I read like that all the time. I’m very slow, but careful, and I think I’ve learned a lot reading like a translator.
People love and hate everywhere,
are happy to see family and filled with sorrow
when someone close dies; they are uncomfortable
when they don’t understand and amazed when they do.
I met a literary critic when I was living in Buenos Aires who is also a great admirer of Morábito. He told me that one of the things that sets Morábito apart from other Latin American writers, what makes him so interesting, is that he writes as if he were worried about sounding like a foreigner—I should add that Morábito was born in Egypt to Italian parents, and though he moved to Italy when he was 3 and lived there until he was fifteen, he has lived in Mexico since then, where he teaches at the Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México. One of the central themes of Mother Tongue is how one possesses language and what it means to speak a language…or be unable to speak it…as if it were your mother tongue. Morábito, according to this Argentine critic, writes in and speaks Spanish better than many native speakers, but he does so because he is afraid of sounding like a foreigner. But where’s he from? Egypt? Italy? Mexico? He writes in Spanish, and he translates from Italian into Spanish, so we might perceive this as an indication of the hierarchy of his language fluency. However, the more important question for me is his preoccupation with losing access to the language he first had. There’s a piece in Mother Tongue called “What Is the Devil,” in which the narrator despises a man who, because he has lived away from his home country and first language for so long and consequently does not speak his native language with fluency, decides to speak his mother tongue like a foreigner to save himself the disdain of his compatriots when he returns. The narrator concludes:
this guy doesn’t have a soul; because it might just be that the last stronghold of the soul is the accent, and he had decided to suppress his, overlay it with a false one, and even when he was alone he couldn’t remove that mask. Not only had he destroyed his first language, but also his own speech, without concern for the language he used. Perhaps this is what the devil is.
I appreciate this about Morábito: his preoccupation with language, with fluency, with what it says about the speaker. Not that I have this preoccupation to such an extreme, but I struggle with language more now than I used to, and I am aware of the fact that I speak a different English than I did growing up on a farm in Iowa, decades before I learned Spanish. I’ve had editors ask whether English is my first language, and I’ve had family and friends ask why I don’t speak like I used to. But I don’t think that’s necessarily a problem; in fact, it’s most likely a result of thinking about language so intensely, and maybe that’s why I’ve had some success as a poet and translator.
EW: You wear many hats: poet, editor, publisher, and translator. Is there a hierarchy in this list and, if so, where does “translator” figure?
CB: I wish I only wore those hats. I’ll add teacher, advisor, and administrator, too…those last two fit the worst of all. I’d like those to be at the bottom of the pile, and poet and translator to be on the top, but often the hierarchy’s inverted, especially during the academic year. I tend to spend more time doing things I’m not good at, and I wish I didn’t care so much about certain aspects of my teaching job, but I suppose that’s a character flaw, and I don’t really want to talk about that. Between poet and translator…that shifts back and forth. Maybe it’s the same hat, but I shift the front to the back, the back to the front. These days I’m thinking more about my own poetry: I’ve completed a new book of poems and I have started sending it to publishers, as well as submitting individual poems to journals more consistently. Other times, when I’m in the midst of a project, the translator hat…when the bill is facing backwards…is on my head. Maybe because I don’t write in Spanish, the poet hat is the first one I put on every morning, and it stays on throughout the day, even when I’m teaching, or doing my work for Waxwing or Q Avenue Press. That’s hard to turn off, and so is the translator. So I guess I’m always wearing those two possibilities.