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Poet to Poet: An Interview with Mira Rosenthal

by Mira Rosenthal & Emily Wolahan
Issue 28 Online Exclusive

I’ve admired Mira Rosenthal’s translations of Tomasz Różycki for a while. Her engagement with form, as a translator and poet, stands out, too. Writing in form, particularly those that incorporate any rhyme, can feel as though it has a limited presence in contemporary American poetry, while it remains vital to many traditions. Translators that can take it on so successfully are truly appreciated. In this interview, we discuss sonnets, how to keep the music from “draining out” of an original poem, and the cooperative nature of all writing, including translation.

Emily Wolahan: Reading your own work right alongside your translations of Tomasz Różycki, there seems to be an affinity between you two. Can you describe the scope of your work on Różycki and what drew you to him?

Mira Rosenthal: I’ve translated two books by Różycki—The Forgotten Keys, which is a selection from five of his volumes, and Colonies, a sequence of 77 sonnets—and I am now working on his 2010 collection The Book of Rotations while dabbling in his most recent book, Litery. I’m not yet sure how to translate that last title, which means “letters” as in ABCs, but a reader will think first of “letters” as in what you send in the mail. Titles can be so tricky. Colonies in Polish also means summer camps for children, but clearly, given twentieth-century history, I couldn’t use “camps” for the title.

Poland has an amazing poetic tradition, which I first became enamored of in English translation—poet’s like Czesław Miłosz, Anna Swirszczyńska, and Zbigniew Herbert—so much so that I decided to learn the language in order to be able to read their work in the original. When I went looking for more voices, I was both intrigued and disappointed to find that many younger poets had turned away from this post-war generation. In their desire to escape the burdens of recent history, they ended up embracing the New York School of American poets as models instead. How liberating Frank O’Hara’s I-Do-This, I-Do-That poetics must have been after Miłosz’s insistence on pondering the nature of good and evil.

 

Titles can be so tricky. Colonies in Polish
also means summer camps for children,
but clearly, given twentieth-century history,
I couldn’t use “camps” for the title.

 

What appeals to me about Różycki’s poetry is that he somehow has found a way to straddle these two stances. He engages with the thematic weight of previous generations while also cultivating an ironic attitude toward contemporary, urban experience, which also means a certain globalized experience today.

EW: How did you start with some of Różycki’s more formal poems, the series of sonnets, for example? Have you found yourself writing in form?

MR: Well, a dirty secret I keep is that I started horribly. And it’s well preserved in print! I began much more loosely than I ended up because, as a beginning translator, I was too concerned with sense. I cut my teeth on Różycki’s poetry—which is partly why it’s so easy now for me to drop into his work, his voice, his outlook, the weight of certain words that he uses repeatedly, and know what to do as a translator. I’m now translating the work of another poet, Krystyna Dąbrowska, and I don’t feel the same automatic facility. There’s an initial getting-to-know-you period in which I have to learn what a particular writer requires of me as a translator.

At first with Różycki’s poems, I figured that, in order to get the sense right, I would do away with meter and rhyme. Many translators had done so before with similarly formal poetry. But I was never really happy with those versions, even though they were picked up by journals. One of the main distinguishing characteristics of Różycki’s poetry is the sound: it convinces through its lyricism. You know, the kind of poetry where you’re not really sure that you understand what’s being said, but you’re overcome and moved by the language. As a writer, I know well the truth in the idea that sound drives sense, not the other way around.

 

There’s an initial getting-to-know-you period
in which I have to learn what a particular writer
requires of me as a translator.

 

EW: That reminds me of your essay in Waxwing, where you write “How infuriating it is to hear the music of the Polish yet find that it has completely drained away in a first pass at putting the sense into English.” How do you overcome that hurdle?

MR: When I decided to translate the entirety of Colonies, form became the way to overcome that hurdle. It helped me privilege sound and cut the cord of sense. Iambic pentameter and rhyme—not just end rhyme but internal resonances—provided a foundation of sonic texture that worked in English and that was different though perhaps parallel to the music of the Polish. I was privileging rhythm above meaning, form above fidelity to content. I took things out, I added things, I wrenched around the ordering of elements, I changed numbers (when you’re tied to a syllable count, there’s a big difference between “twelve” and “twenty-four”). Luckily, I could assuage my conscience by consulting with the poet and, at times, adding end notes to alert the reader to what I hoped were lovely corruptions.

The whole experience has taught me a lot about the freedom that comes through constraint. I’ve found myself working more in form, which I was already doing a bit in my first book, especially in the longer sequence “Foreign in a Foreign Country” (a feeling I’ve always loved, which is probably what compels me to translate). I’ve been writing more sonnets. Something about the brevity and the turn got into my sensibility.

I also came away from translating that book with a distinct feel for when a poem in translation comes into its own and exists separate from the original. Could that be akin to the moment when I know for sure that one of my own poems is done?—that moment of clicking in, of doing something that I didn’t expect. I find translation to be a similar process of discovery, which may sound strange, given that the original has already laid it all out for me. But the translation still has to discover it’s own form.

 

The whole experience
has taught me a lot about the freedom
that comes through constraint.
I’ve found myself working more in form.

 

EW: To piggyback off my earlier question in more generalized terms, how has your own writing overlapped with your translation project? Does the act of translation feed your poetry or keep you from it?

MR: Translation, as a process of very close reading, feeds my own writing in similar ways as anything else I read. Another poet makes a move in a poem that I then want to try, or establishes a mood so thoroughly that I am jealous and excited to do something similar. Or it simply gets me in the mood to write. I say “simply,” but that hurdle of the blank page is enormous. Reading anything reminds me that poetry is possible.

Recently, I’ve been thinking a lot about the overlap you mention, because I’ve found myself in the midst of writing a whole collection of sonnets. One part of me feels sheepish about it. How derivative! How unoriginal! But, then, what is originality? And why do we privilege it? The whole topic often feels a bit taboo. Sure, there’s such a thing as one’s internal voice. But what if, at the same time, I prioritize all the ways that my writing is connected and participating in the great tradition of poetry. Because, after all, that’s what any artistic endeavor is, a tradition. I keep thinking of Shelley’s idea that each, individual poem is an episode to that great poem, which all poets have built up since the beginning of the world. Translation reminds me of this, reminds me of the cooperative nature of writing—“like the co-operating thought of one great mind,” Shelley says. There’s something in this idea that has to do with the slippery quest after originality. Czesław Miłosz speaks to this in an endearing way in his Nobel speech. Perhaps I like translating because it helps release me from that fiction and that pressure to be original, which then extends into my own writing practice.

 

I’m intrigued and perplexed by our distinctly American
postconfessional moment. (Look up “confessionalism”
in the
Princeton Encyclopedia of Poetry and Poetics,
and it says, “See American poetry.”)
Polish poets don’t have any of our same anxieties.

 

At the same time, translation teaches me about what makes me American, what makes my tradition distinct from another. I’m aware of Tomek’s ghosts from the Polish tradition, which makes me doubly aware of the differences in what haunts me as an American poet. I’ve written about this elsewhere in terms of that feeling of having one’s own self made strange. For example, I’m intrigued and perplexed by our distinctly American postconfessional moment. (Look up “confessionalism” in the Princeton Encyclopedia of Poetry and Poetics, and it says, “See American poetry.”) Polish poets don’t have any of our same anxieties.

EW: As with so many poets who translate, you occupy several roles: poet, translator, teacher. I’m sure I’m leaving something off that list. Is there a hierarchy in this list and, if so, where does “translator” figure?

MR: Another thing to add to the list is being a parent. But I’ve never wanted to be a full-time mother, just as I’ve never wanted to be a full-time poet. Or, rather, I am always a parent, and I am always a poet. I guess I’ve never felt a hierarchy to the list; rather, there’s an important coexistence between the different roles. Each is needed to give meaning and shape to the others. Teaching certainly fuels my own writing, as does translating, which also informs the worldview I pass on to my children. The times that I’ve had wide open space for writing have felt oppressive in a certain way. Some sort of structure makes me more productive and helps me define my creative work—in much the same way that having a form helps define the poem. The most important thing is simply showing up to do the work, whatever it is that might be engaging me intellectually and spiritually at the time. That space needs to be protected, especially in the midst of multitasking and the bombardment of information that is contemporary daily life.

Mira Rosenthal is the author of the collection The Local World and translator of two books by Polish poet Tomasz Różycki. Her work has received numerous awards, including the Wick Poetry Prize, the Northern California Book Award, and fellowships from the NEA, PEN America, and Stanford University, where she was a Stegner Fellow in poetry. She teaches in the creative writing program at Cal Poly.
Emily Wolahan's Staff Photo
Author
Emily Wolahan is the author of the poetry collection, Hinge. Her poems have appeared in Oversound, Gulf Coast, Boston Review, and Volt, among other places.