Chloe Garcia Roberts
In Conversation with Octavio Quintanilla
Chloe Garcia Roberts is the translator of Li Shangyin’s Derangements of My Contemporaries: Miscellaneous Notes (New Directions), which was awarded a 2013 PEN/ Heim Translation Fund Grant. Her work has appeared in BOMB, Boston Review, A Public Space and Interim Magazine among others. She lives in Boston and is the managing editor of the Harvard Review. The Reveal is her first collection of poetry, published by Noemi Press. Below, Chloe discusses the journey to discover the interior and exterior self, the value of peripheral vision, and writing poems that move toward what terrifies us.
Octavio Quintanilla: Chloe, you grew up in Santa Fe, NM, Mexico City, New York, among other places. Your father is Mexican and your mother is American. Tell us a bit about your childhood. In retrospect, do you think that having lived in so many places played a role in you becoming a poet?
Chloe Garcia Roberts: I don't think I can disentangle the specific influence that each of these places had on my formation as a person and a poet, but I can say that the variety of my experience led me early on to an awareness of what transcended place and language and what did not (which I think directly fed into my fascination with translation). And that literature, poetry in particular, was always a thread of constancy in the face of this change. Additionally, this shifting of place made me aware of how the "I" can shift as well. Depending on where I was, I was constantly bouncing between my definition as Hispanic, or white, or mixed and as the demographics of my peers changed so did how I was perceived, and thus my own self-perception. Ultimately, however, I believe that this kind of back and forth between an inner and an outer identity, while maybe heightened by my different and ranging experiences, is just an inevitable part of discovering and defining oneself as a person of mixed heritage.
OQ: It sounds like you were always aware how others perceived you in terms of your ethnicity, and in turn, how you perceived yourself. And it seems that as a child you learned to negotiate different identities—the Hispanic, the white, the mixed. In terms of language, did you grow up speaking Spanish? English? Both? Did you ever have to suppress one because of your surroundings?
CGR: I don't know if I was always aware of it so much as I was interested by this question of identity, of creating a unified interior and exterior self. I found this question of unification to be very convoluted and difficult, and yet it was resolved for me in all these simplistic ways by others depending on my context. Language was a big part of this equation. As a child I inhaled Spanish and exhaled English. Later, Spanish became this dormant part of me one that I didn't revive until my twenties when I consciously began trying to recuperate my ability to speak as opposed to just listen.
OQ: The Reveal is your first collection of poems. Did you have a fixed vision for it when you first started writing? Or did you find it in the process?
CGR: Yes, I had a vision of what I wanted the book to be way back when I first began writing the poems in it. Because poems don't come to me singly, they tend to arrive in packs, the writing process for me is a honing of a whole as opposed to a polishing of one after another. But the "vision" at the beginning stages is more of a question, a starting point, than a clear understanding of where I will arrive. The book has taken me a long time to complete. And in that time, of course, a lot has changed. Part of this change is just that I began to know the work on a deeper level and part of this is that any vision is always just a forecasted direction, the reality of the journey takes you far into the unanticipated.
OQ: You have a love affair with titles, long titles. I found them intriguing and two of my favorite are found in the first section of the collection: “I REMEMBER YOU, YOU ENTER, PRESS YOUR COLD MOUTH TO MY EAR, AND NURSE ALL THE VELVET OFF THE DARK” and “PEOPLE ONCE BELIEVED THAT SWALLOWS DID NOT MIGRATE BUT FLEW BENEATH THE WATERS AND THAT IN CERTAIN MONTHS A SAILOR COULD CAST INTO THE OCEAN AND PULL UP NETS OF FLAPPING BIRDS.” Some of them even read like closures to poems. Why the long titles? I wonder if they are a part of the "unanticipated" journey of writing. Or, are they due to an aesthetic impulse?
CGR: I think both really. Titles have always been difficult for me I must admit. The poems in this book existed as untitled for a long time and then with just short captions. I thought that given the abstraction of the bodies the entry point should be simple, clear, summary. However, in the evolution of the work, I started to feel that deciding an overall approach to an evolving body of work, as opposed to letting the poems themselves dictate, felt forced. I have been translating Classical Chinese poetry for some time now and was intrigued by the longer titles that some poems can have in that tradition, usually these longer titles give a snapshot of the circumstances under which the poem was composed or what inspired it. The longer titles that started to emerge for my own poems are something like that, the seeds that germinated the poems, though they are much more emotional and less logistical.
OQ: You have mentioned your fascination with translation, and recently you translated the Za Zuan, the work by the late-Tang poet, Li Shangyin. What inspired you to translate his work? And how does the act of translation feed your own poetic impulse?
CGR: Well, I feel as much as translator as a poet. Translation is part of my identity as a human being. I was interested in it as a practice long before I encountered the work of Li Shangyin or even began studying Chinese. But what attracted me to his work specifically was his technique of fracture, of breaking the self into senses and using these to tell an image. Around the same time as I discovered his work, I also encountered a Spanish poet, Emilio Prados, who does something similar in his work. I've been working on those translations for about as long, but the Li Shangyin work has received more attention, I think perhaps owing to the severe undertranslation of his poetry.
As far as the influence that translation has had on my own poetry, poets working in other languages have solved problems in their work that I didn't even know existed as an English writer. They open vistas for me and feed my poetry incredibly. I've kind of fallen into a cyclical process of writing poetry for a while then translating poetry for a while, the two acts create a whole.
OQ: Not too long ago you wrote a short essay in which you discuss motherhood, specifically how often the poet is divided, fragmented, pulled by the duties of motherhood and the demands of the creative life. You conclude that “motherhood does not diminish, smother, extinguish the poet. It divides her. It opens I’s.” These themes, motherhood, the fragmentation of the self, recur in your poems. Is your prose a sort of exercise for your poetry? Or vice versa?
CGR: My prose and poetry are certainly connected in terms of themes and concerns though I think that the prose I write articulates the shape of these concerns while my poetry kind of gets under the skin. At this point almost all the prose I write is criticism and I do enjoy the process, it allows me to inhabit another person's work on a much deeper level than just reading the book.
OQ: What sort of poems do you like? What are their characteristics?
CGR: I like to feel disoriented by the poems I read. I want to feel the cost the poems exact on their writers. I am also a sucker for songs of failure. I always appreciate vulnerability on the part of a poet. And I don't mean diffusing anticipated criticisms by belittling yourself, a strategy I find tiring, but rather the heroism of true vulnerability which is always shocking and exciting and inspiring. I am pretty eclectic in my influences and what I respond to and I try to remain as open as I can to receiving. Over that past few months I've been reading Nelly Sachs, Claudia Keelan, Killarney Clary, Sandra Lim, Nate Klug's Virgil translations, some Juarroz essays on poetics that should be translated into English, and catching up on some Yves Bonnefoy.
OQ: I notice that you pay attention to the form of the poem, how they look on the page. There’s quite a bit of movement, fluidity, silence. Does the typography/topography of a poem emerge as you write it or in the revision process?
CGR: The typography/topography of the poem comes later. That is, after the content. Though the content most often arrives in my head with an accompanying musicality, a melody if you will, the typography emerges as I try to best notate that musicality into the written poem. I have my own system of musical notation that I use when reading the work to myself to score the work so to speak. This "scoring" is an ongoing process and is one that I devote a huge amount of my writing time to. Once I have the content more or less set down, creating a body to place it in opens up a conversation between the words and the lines that results in the poem.
OQ: Do you think about “audience” when you write poems?
CGR: Many poems are addresses and I like to play with the imperative in my work, which certainly implies a conversation with a reader. But that reader or audience is as fluid in my mind as the poems. The "I" and the "you" in the work is constantly shifting and the chasm separating the two can sometimes even come to bisect myself so that the addressee can be me. So, yes, and no. I was so myopic in my writing of these poems that the ultimate audience existed in my perception, but kind of as a shapeless blur, featureless. Also, given my approach to writing The Reveal—that I held on to most of the work until the whole was formed—I didn't have as much of a conversation with readers in the making of it as I would have liked. That came later, and has been lovely.
OQ: Many of your poems are mysterious, intricate in the construction of language, in their emotional complexity—poems about birth, separation, wounding, continuity and discontinuity. Few, if any, feel straightforward. There are tonal and imagistic shifts, which, to a great extent, emphasize the themes of fragmentation. I sense a resistance to narrative. In retrospect, in the writing of these poems did you ever feel you were reacting against an existing mode of writing poems?
CGR: Perhaps, this is an interesting question. I write sidelong. That is the work appears in the corner of my mind, the vision appears in the corner of my eye and I try and capture it as quickly as possible, so as not to scare it off or write it into something that it is not. Each poem is not usually just one seed come to flower, but several of these moments sewn together, which might explain the shifting you mention, collage is certainly at play here. I read somewhere the best way for a human being to see something in the dark is to use our peripheral vision, it is stronger then that our vision straight-on. I apply this to my writing process, the real work in the poems, the work I am excited by, is what happens on the sidelines when I am focusing on some other part of the poem. I have had to develop a personal mode of writing to best capture that, so in a way I guess I have been reacting against an existing prescription of writing. Thank you for making me think of it that way.
OQ: Throughout the poems, we see images of the Self caught in the act of its own bisection, or identity referred to as “a cleaving.” But there also seems to be a longing to keep things whole, keep them intact. For example, in the poem, “I AM A SUSPENSION, NOT A SOLUTION,” you write: “Is there an equivalent psychological force / that keeps the mingled from breaking? / Separate halves from escaping?” The poems often leave us with more questions than answers. In addition to questions of identity, what else prompted your interest in exploring these metaphysical issues?
CGR: I am glad to hear you pulling out this theme as something I want to articulate in this book is the navigation of opposing forces, the desire to grow whole and heal and the fascination of tracing the cracks, of examining what breaks us, has broken us, and will break us. I think the only narrative that I can impose on the poems is the formation of a faith, a kind of fusing of the external, what you have suffered or lost, and the internal, what you inherently are, to create an intellectual reconciliation of these opposing forces and thus a way forward, a method for survival.
As far as what prompted this line of inquiry, it sometimes feels that poetry is the only avenue open to me in these days to ask these questions so I want to exploit that as much as I can.
OQ: Some of the poems speak to how easy it is to lose those we love—our children, our parents, maybe even ourselves. For example, in the poem, “LULLABY,” which begins part two of the book, the speaker addresses her child and says, “May the terrible eye of god / swim over you.” And in this particular poem, the speaker knows that often others are “simply more pain / breathing towards yours.” The poem that follows, “THIS, THE GAZE WE FEED OUR KNIVES AGAINST,” is also concerned with loss, with pain: “Every single thing / has its own meager ration of hunger / rising through the throat, / waiting for us to name what we love / so as to rip it from our hold.” Do you consider your poems to be variations on the same theme? Would you say these are your “obsessions” as a poet?
CGR: I think I may be obsessed with looking at those forces that shape our lives that we spend so much energy refusing to acknowledge. And these poems are effort towards reconciliation with those forces. There was a study recently on pain, where subjects were asked to submerge their hands in ice water—one half were told to ignore the inevitable pain and the other were told to move toward it mentally, to succumb to it. The second group were able to both withstand a longer period with their hands in freezing water and felt less pain overall. I think that writing poetry that moves towards what terrifies me is simply what writing poetry is for me. There are certainly times that I find that frustrating and wish it could be a lighter exercise, but I have come around to acceptance.
OQ: There is quite of bit of music in your poems—internal rhyme, repetition, alliteration. From where does this interest come?
CGR: Nursery rhymes, the bible, songs, titles of literary works, but also newspaper articles and scientific studies... I remember discovering some translations of Osip Mandelstam in my formative years as a poet and being thrilled by his repetition of the phrase "the old feasting dream" several times in a poem. Each time he used that phrase the more depth the image took so that it became finally this sinkhole in the line that you kind of swam around in for a while. We are taught to avoid repetition in writing, though not necessarily in speech, and I had to kind of make peace with the part of me that flinches at the sameness. But if I push through that, the result is that one can start to see the multi-dimensionality of the word that is repeated, how it can kind of in an Albers-way take on new shades depending on context. As a translator, I am always coming up against the fact that no word is static which has made me then rediscover that truth in English (It is so easy to become desensitized to a language you use daily). Repetition is a tool I like to use to affirm that reality. As far as rhyme, I like playing with the two poles of truth: the simple singing truth of religion or the specialized authoritarian truth of science. The rhyme and sing-song quality that the poems can veer into is an attempt to bring the first element into poetic conversation with the second.
OQ: Your book is divided into three sections. What were some of your aesthetic concerns in putting the manuscript together? What were some of the challenges?
CGR: My biggest concern in assembling the book was creating a progression. It didn't necessarily have to be linear, but I wanted to lead the reader into and then through the poems. I knew I wanted to end with some opening, some hope, a breath. But I had inhabited this work so entirely in the writing process that, I found I had a hard time moving into the reader's seat and trying to shape a new experience of the content. I am so grateful for the generosity of Carmen Giménez Smith and Oscar Oswald at Noemi who gave me the extraordinary gift of reading this manuscript in the truest sense and through such kind listening helping me walk it towards its final form.
OQ: What do you hope this, your first collection of poetry, accomplishes?
CGR: I hope it opens up an ongoing aesthetic conversation with my fellow practitioners.