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Poet to Poet: An Interview with Sarah Stickney

by Sarah Stickney & Emily Wolahan
Issue 28 Online Exclusive

When I came across Sarah Stickney’s translations out of Italian of Vivian Lamarque’s spare poetry, I was struck with how exposed her language is. Lamarque makes this leap as a poet, but Stickney’s choice to make herself vulnerable in order to usher Lamarque into English struck me as very brave. I admire how her identity as a writer and a translator are fluid—one freely informs the other. And Stickney imbues language with a lot of agency—something I think we all do when we both feed and harness the power of language in writing. There’s an aspect of “negative capability” in recognizing that language might take the driver’s seat, while we, poet or translator or both, allow ourselves to be led into uncertainty. Here we talk about why taking your sweet time to finish a project can help, how trusting an image is key, and about the braver self.

Emily Wolahan: Your translations of Vivian Lamarque appeared in Two Lines 25 Online Exclusives. You had mentioned that these poems are from a new collection by Lamarque, the first in ten years. Could you tell me more about this project? Were you drawn to her work because of your own preoccupations as a writer or in spite of them?

Sarah Stickney: I discovered Lamarque’s work through the wonderful poet and translator Taije Silverman, and I was immediately drawn to the way Lamarque combines a romantic, fairy-tale-like sensibility with a kind of urbane cynicism. I’m drawn to poets of high tension; I think poetry is particularly good at housing opposing aesthetics simultaneously, and Lamarque is a master.  Her tone is deceptively casual and conversational, yet there is a lyric precision in all of her work. It reminds me of the way that a trained dancer makes a casual, improvisational gesture come alive.


I think poetry is particularly good
at housing opposing
aesthetics simultaneously,
and Lamarque is a master.


EW: I love that analogy of lyric precision—the dancer who makes simple, subtle gestures come alive. There’s a sense of awe when we come across it.Where did you start with translating Lamarque? How long has the overall process taken?

SS: Honestly I do everything slowly, but my poetry-writing and my translating are the slowest of all. One of my nicknames for myself is “the snail.” In the case of Lamarque, I wanted to translate more of her work, but was moving so slowly that an earlier book I was working on ended up being translated by someone else.

I find that when I encounter a problem—say a word-choice issue, or how to deal with a rhyme—if I leave that poem alone for a while, the problem sort of simmers in the back of my mind. And one day, unexpected, like a flower blooming in your garden in a place you weren’t paying attention to, the solution will appear in my mind. I guess I’m partly praising patience, and partly saying that I trust my sub/unconscious more than I trust my conscious mind. But that means I lose out on the speed of the conscious mind.


I find that when I encounter a problem—
say a word-choice issue, or how to deal with a rhyme—
if I leave that poem alone for a while, the problem
sort of simmers in the back of my mind.


EW: How has your own writing overlapped with your translation projects? Does translation feed the poems or keep you from them?

SS: Translation definitely feeds my poems. It makes me practice all the skills that are essential to writing poetry without the most crushing parts like facing the blank page or rooting around in my heart and life for content. In translation I start with a clear, beautiful structure that someone else has made, and then I have the fun of re-imagining its possibilities. I always loved being a student, and when I am translating I feel that I am studying with great masters. If I am stuck in my own writing, I’ll often translate as a way of waking up other parts of my mind, getting in touch with other possibilities.


EW: What is one way Lamarque, Biagini, or another translation project has helped open these passageways for you?

SS: Translating Elisa Biagini’s work definitely helped me learn to be more daring in my own poetry. There’s a fearless quality in Biagini’s work that I really admire. She trusts her images.

Lamarque showed me that a poem doesn’t have to choose between vulnerability and cynicism.


If I am stuck in my own writing,
I’ll often translate as a way of waking up
other parts of my mind, getting in touch
with other possibilities.


EW: How did you come to translate from Italian and has your relationship with Italian affected, either subtly or overtly, your aesthetic as a writer?

SS: It would take pages to answer this question well. The short version is that without Italian, I wouldn’t be a writer.  I went to high school for a year in Italy, and the experience of learning to speak and read Italian starting from zero blew open the possibilities of language and cemented my obsession with writing.


EW: You wrote in an introduction to your translation of Biagini in Drunken Boat, “the pleasure of dwelling in the other’s language felt inextricable from the pleasure of receiving the foreign word at home.” It strikes me that, as poets, we dwell in our own language, for me that is English, which feels at times like a palace, at times like a shack (I think I might prefer the shack). Does Italian feel like a particularly hospitable language? Is there something unique about Italian that draws you to work with it?

SS: Actually, my co-translator, the articulate and thoughtful Diana Thow wrote that, but I agree with her completely! Yes, Italian has been hospitable to me.  Twice in my life I’ve been lucky to live in Italy for an extended period, and both times the language of my days was Italian. Both times I felt that I was not the same self as I am when I conduct my life in English, and both times I think that helped me as a writer. The first helped me become a writer, the second helped me develop my craft. The insight, both times, however, was the same. Language shapes who we are. Speak a different language, be a different self.  This means that “I” am not in charge, and language is. So when I write, I try to let the language lead me instead of trying to boss it around.


EW: That is a lot of power to give to language. I’m really drawn to this idea that language is sentient and in charge. Do English and Italian conflict for you? If they inform your identities, how would you describe their personalities?

SS: My English personality is more guarded, more interested in seeming intelligent, attentive to nuance but prone to getting lost in the details. I am more of a pessimist when I speak English. In Italian I am more on the surface of myself. This may be because I speak Italian less well than I speak English. I don’t have the skills to prevaricate. This means that my Italian self ends up being braver, and for that I like it better.


Language shapes who we are.
Speak a different language, be a different self.
This means that “I” am not in charge,
and language is.  


EW: Which are you first, poet or translator? Why?

 SS: A poet. But I think that being a poet means being a translator, even if he or she doesn’t speak another language. I translate images, sensations, effluences into words. The activities of translation and of writing my own poetry feel similar to me. And it is my optimism about language, about its power to contain everything under the sun and beyond, that allows me to believe in both activities.


Sarah Stickney received her MFA from the University of New Hampshire. She is a former Fulbright Grantee for the translation of Italian poetry. The Guest in the Wood (Chelsea Editions: New York, 2013), her co-translations of Elisa Biagini’s selected poems, was awarded the Best Translated Book Award for Poetry in 2014 by the University of Rochester. She lives in Annapolis, MD, where she teaches at St. John’s College.
Emily Wolahan's Staff Photo
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.