In Conversation with Octavio Quintanilla
Don Share is the editor of Poetry magazine. His most recent books are Wishbone (Black Sparrow, 2012), Union (Eyewear, 2013), and Bunting’s Persia (Flood Editions, 2012); he has also edited a critical edition of Bunting’s poems for Faber and Faber (forthcoming 2016). His translations of Miguel Hernández, awarded the Times Literary Supplement Translation Prize and Premio Valle Inclán, were published in a revised and expanded edition by New York Review Books (2013), and also appear in an edition from Bloodaxe Books (1997). His other books include Seneca in English (Penguin Classics, 1998), Squandermania (Salt, 2007), and The Open Door: 100 Poems, 100 Years of POETRY Magazine (University of Chicago Press, 2012), co-edited with Christian Wiman. His work at Poetry has been recognized with three National Magazine Awards for editorial excellence from the American Society of Magazine Editors, and a CLMP “Firecracker” Award for Best Poetry Magazine 2015. He received a VIDA “VIDO” Award in 2015 for his “contributions to American literature and literary community.” Below, he discusses translation, the serious business of laughter, and the writing of poetry in difficult times.
Octavio Quintanilla: Don, you introduced me to the work of Miguel Hernández in 2006, when I first read your translations found in I Have Lots of Heart: Selected Poems. When I read “Lullaby of the Onion,” “To My Son,” and “Everything is Filled with You,” he became one of my favorite poets. His emotional vulnerability won me over. In your case, what initially drew you to the poetry of Miguel Hernández? And as you translated his work, what lessons, if any, did he teach you about writing poetry, about being a poet?
Don Share: I learned Spanish as a teenager, growing up in a very small, very un-literary place, and found so many great things to read in that language. I dreamed constantly of getting away, like very small-town kid, to see what the rest of the world was like. Literature was a good way to do this till I could actually find the means to leave home. At 17, I managed to get as far as New York City—with no money, and only one friend, who’d come up with me; in some ways perhaps I felt a bit like Miguel did, making his way from the south of Spain to Madrid, hoping to find writers, but instead winding up lonely and out of place in a big city. I spent most of my time alone, poking around in record stores, bookstores, and a university library. Eventually, I discovered some books in Spanish with poems by Miguel Hernández in them. I just couldn’t get over those poems—I’d never seen anything like them before. Miguel’s work lit me up, there in the squalid Stygian gloom of 1970s New York. For no reason other than to have copies of them for myself, I translated some of his poems. “Lullaby of the Onion” was first among these. I’ll never forget the first time I read it, standing in the dark aisle of the library stacks. It was a feeling I’d never had before, of being alone with a poet, with a poem. The Lullaby is the most powerful poem I know of, and it opened up the whole world of poetry for me. Well, after many years of kicking around, I mentioned Hernández, rather naively, to Derek Walcott. He adored Lorca, so he became kind of interested; and at some point asked to see my translations. I brought some to him, and watched as he read them—it seemed to take an eternity: he read, and read, and pulled at his face, and squinted very intently at the pages I’d typed up. And after a long excruciating time he finally said: you should do a book of these. I was astounded. It had never crossed my mind, but who was I to ignore Derek Walcott’s advice? So, being underemployed as usual, I spent every day for about the next six years working through Miguel’s poems, selecting and translating the ones I thought could work best in English. After being rejected by just about everybody (a still well-known editor told me it wasn’t his remit to publish the work of “long-dead masters,” and another told me to focus on Machado, instead), Neil Astley at Bloodaxe Books finally accepted the collection, and it went on to win the Times Literary Supplement Translation Prize, the Premio Valle Inclán! Eventually, I was able to revise and expand the book for the current edition, published in the NYRB Poets series.
I don’t think Miguel taught me about writing poetry. He taught me instead about the virtues of humanity when under duress, and of kindness—even sweetness—in terrible times. I could never live up to him as either a poet or a person (the story of his life is one of the most powerful in modern poetry and ought to be better known in this country, but alas he’s yet to find an English-language biographer). I can’t correlate his work and mine. Life teaches us lessons, hard lessons about courage; and sometimes poems might flow from whatever virtues we have, if we can survive. That’s more than enough to learn.
OQ: You have also translated Guía para viajeros, the work of internationally acclaimed Colombian poet, novelist and essayist, Darío Jaramillo Agudelo. I noticed that some sources categorize this particular work as “prose”—however, you have called it Field Guide: Poems. And I must say, this collection reads like prose poetry—I like the fantastic creatures, the strangeness of it all. I am thinking about your process as translator. I often read about translators spending a lot of time communicating with authors—exchanging drafts, revising, etc. Was this your case with Jaramillo Agudelo? Was he a resource in translating Field Guide? If not, as a translator, what are your resources, your tools?
DS: Well, it’s not really prose poetry—whatever prose poetry is! I think of it more as the kind of prose that a poet writes, neither fish nor fowl, to use bad metaphors. I never worry about whether something needs to be called prose or poetry, frankly. What was important to me was that the pieces in the book have the feel of poetry, as you say—and that’s what drew me to them. As it happens, Darío and I never corresponded at all about how to do the translations, and I appreciated it; he was very generous about that, and about my publishing them. So no, I didn’t exchange drafts with him. With Hernández, of course, such a thing would have been impossible, as he died at the age of 31 in 1942. There are good arguments on both sides about whether it’s easier to translate a living or a dead poet, but in my case, I was on my own with the Jaramillo Agudelo just as I was with the Hernández. I was left to my own devices and intuitions. It goes without saying that there’s not one Spanish language, any more than there is one English language. So in the case of Field Guide, I got myself a contemporary Spanish-language dictionary from Colombia, to make sure I wasn’t mistakenly working in the kind of hybrid, non-existent version of Spanish one might learn in an American high-school. And in Hernández’ case, I acquired some 19th-century dictionaries, and I tried to become at home in the linguistic regionalisms that inflected the way each poet tended to put things.
OQ: It was fun reading Jaramillo Agudelo’s poems, and of all the creatures he characterizes, I felt kinship with the “Morgualos,” specifically their view of the afterlife: “When a Morgualo dies, he is transformed into a useful object: a spoon, a fish-hook, tweezers, a bottle, a pair of eyeglasses, a chair, a shirt, a fan.” I also liked their easy way of loving: “If a Morgualo falls in love, he does not need to tell the one he loves. All he has to do is dream of her three nights in a row, and she will know it.” Of course, their life is harder than I make it seem. For fun, is there a creature in Field Guide you felt connected to in some way? What would an American reader take away from this collection?
DS: Well, of course I’m biased, but every creature in the book bowls me over! I love them all—asking me to pick one is like asking a parent which child he loves best! Can’t do it! What’s so cool is that each kind of creature is utterly, bizarrely distinctive, yet all of the beings in the book are subtly and ingeniously connected, through the language used to describe them. I don’t know of any book quite like it in English. I’d want an American reader to get as much of a kick out of the book as I did, that’s all. It’s really a charming, fun, mysterious (and slightly creepy) book—but except for you, I don’t seem to have convinced anybody to get a copy! Anyway, I do feel fond of the Waxos, who are described as “porous” and friendly; who get a lot of kicks in the ass; and whose thoughts all become part of a vast, free-flowing poem that they’re doomed never to write down. Waxos are kind of smitten with looking and thinking: they can never look at a rose without ending up in a ludicrous “rose rapture, an endless, obvious metaphysical hallucination of roses.” That’s me, to a T. Or should I say to a W…
OQ: Moving from your translations to your most recent poetry collection, Wishbone, we find, among many things, aging cats, eye infections, dead fathers, coyotes, and ghosts. There is also quite a bit of humor, something I sometimes forget poetry can have. Can you talk about the humor in your poems? Where does it come from? I read that Darío Jaramillo Agudelo’s poems are often described as “humorous.” I’m wondering if he had any influence in your poems in terms of humor.
DS: Nothing has more gravitas than laughter, eh? “The worst,” Edgar says in King Lear, “returns to laughter.” Humor, as everybody knows, is born of suffering. I don’t want to be melodramatic about it, but there was, and is, plenty of that in my family, and much more still in the pathetic history of my immediate ancestors, who were stateless wandering people. Speaking of dramatic, here’s another Shakespeare quote, from Titus Andronicus, which is the nastiest, bloodiest, most horrifying work of literature in the Western world; when asked “why dost thou laugh? It fits not with this hour,” Titus says, “Why, I have not another tear to shed.” I can’t explain it better than that. It’s a serious bloody business, this laughter. But let’s make an important distinction. Laughter is a particular kind of human response that arises even in the most improbable circumstances. Juxtapositions make us laugh, who can say why? That’s how poetry works, and that’s how humor works, too. I’m not aiming to be funny, or merely funny, in my poems, and I hate poetry readings that are more like stand-up routines than readings of poems. I’m dead serious, serious as a heart attack, as they used to say in Memphis. My affect is actually humorless. I’ve got a sourpuss look on my face in most photos of me. Anyway, there’s not any particular influence at work here; as far as my writing goes, I simply decided, in Wishbone, to sound like myself, instead of like some kind of POET. (Ask them what they are, Patrick Kavanagh scoffs, and they say “poet.”) I wanted to sound like a person, not some kind of inhuman portentous oracle. I’m not a machine for generating phony poetical insights, and I have no wisdom to dispense. You sit by your dying father’s side and have not one decent, sensible thing to say… You start to lose your hearing, and your sight, and your health, as I have. It’s a scream, no? And cats? You look at your old cat, who’s soon to leave her life, and she looks at you, and… you’ve reached a hysterical impasse, no? I always think of the punch line, so to speak, at the end of Claude Lévi-Strauss’s sad, somber, beautiful Tristes Tropiques: “During the brief intervals in which humanity can bear to interrupt its hive-like labors, let us grasp the essence of what our species has been and still is, beyond thought and beneath society: an essence that may be vouchsafed to us in a mineral more beautiful than any work of Man: in the scent, more subtly evolved than our books, that lingers in the heart of a lily; or in the wink of an eye, heavy with patience, serenity, and mutual forgiveness, that sometimes, through an involuntary understanding, one can exchange with a cat.” Now that is some funny stuff; that’s my idea of humor, I’m sorry to say.
OQ: Wishbone is rich in language and word play, but it is also one held together by a string of grief, something so subtle that if we don’t read carefully, we might miss it. There is a “Dad” figure, one that keeps appearing throughout. The poem, “The Man Who Walks Like Me,” has some of my favorite lines, “Now that my father isn’t / around anymore, I’m the guy / at home who has to look old.” I like how you steer away from sentimentality as the poem goes on. Which is sometimes hard to do, especially when a loved one’s death is a poem’s emotional departure. Was this poem, as well as others with the same subject matter, hard for you to write? How much time do you need as a poet before you attempt writing about grief?
DS: Poetry is always hard for me to write. Which is a good thing. I don’t do very much of it, also a good thing, because I don’t think it’s the case that more is better; poetry’s not like running, where the more you do it the better you get at it. I hold my tongue, long as I can. If I have nothing to say, I keep quiet. I think it was Paul Durcan who said: my job as a poet is to be here, which I am; not to lay some kind of curate’s egg. When I do write, what’s happening is all I’ve got to go on. There is nothing unusual about loving, dying, grieving; there’s nothing poetical about it. These things happen to every one of us. What’s hard is finding the right words. What’s hard is that you can never quite find the right words. I felt that I had a good book left in me, but then death found my family, and I became quite ill myself for a time. I had to dispense with the pompous fiction that my job was to eke out some kind of good book. My job was to survive misfortune, do something useful with my life, and see what might be said, when there was need for something to be said.
OQ: Has your approach to writing poems changed since Wishbone? For instance, in what ways are you pushing yourself to grow as a poet in poems you are writing now?
DS: I wish I knew how to grow as a poet. I don’t know that I have a green thumb, so to speak, in the garden of poetry.
OQ: In a recent interview you discuss one of the things that poetry is really good at—“anticipating things that need discussion.” As editor of Poetry, do you anticipate any discussions you’ll be having in terms of the magazine’s role in American poetry in the next four years, with a new president-elect? Do you foresee any challenges you have not faced yet in the current political climate?
DS: Because poetry is such an important and vital medium for our time, and for all times, what I hope will be discussed is not the magazine’s role, as such, but the poems and people we publish in it. A poem by Czeslaw Milosz, “Dedication,” that’s been placidly quoted for years asks: "What is poetry which does not save / Nations or people?" Our work is cut out for us now; really, it always has been. As poets and readers—as citizens—we have lots of soul-searching to do, and poetry can be, must be part of that process as we move into changing and challenging times. But I don’t want to be dispensing bromides and pieties about this; poetry is not a panacea, and it doesn’t have to be reduced to propagandizing; as Claudia Rankine says: “poetry has no investment in anything besides openness. It’s not arguing a point. It’s creating an environment." Pretty big challenge! So far, I’ve been getting a lot of extremely bad poems about the President-Elect under the guise of “topicality” and “urgency of the moment,” and I’m waiting for the better work that will come; it will just take some time, and some thought, nothing that can be rushed.
OQ: Having re-read your translations of poet, Miguel Hernández, I can’t help but think of Franco’s brutal dictatorship. Specifically, I am thinking of Hernández’s involvement in the war, as a soldier and as a writer. His resistance. And what happened to him and also to Federico García Lorca. I am thinking of the role of poetry and the role of the poet in these challenging times in America. Do you think poetry has enough power to counter, denounce, and resist the heightened rhetoric of hate we are hearing post-election? Should poets be worried in these new political times in the United States?
DS: We haven’t—yet—descended to the terrible depths of the Spanish Civil War in this country. I hope we never do; but it can happen. But though it seems unlikely to be the case here, at the moment, Hernández and Lorca died because poets in Spain at that time were considered by Franco to be truly dangerous. There’s nothing romantic about their fates, which they did not choose; they died horrible deaths, at the hands of cynical, hateful people. Miguel did not ask to be a resister or martyr; he first and always wanted to be humane (no matter what) and to be (no matter what) a poet. He was true to those things until the end, and they’re the source of his radiant artistic power and enduring value to us. Poets should be worried not about being in danger, but about what it means for all kinds of people to be in danger. Poets have no exclusive role to play in denunciations, and I would hope for more than denunciation to emerge in our work. We need the best poems of our time, and not just for our time, but for posterity. You won’t make them happen by mounting a podium. As Muriel Ruykeyser said in Poetry in the summer of 1941, on the eve of American participation in World War II, “There is, under all the shouting in the country now, a deep silence. Statement is needed; not the signing of names to lists and statements.” The essay is called “The Usable Truth,” and I urge people to read it; there may be “vast destruction before all our meanings will be whole—but there is a world in view, and the hope for poetry is a hope for that world.” Hatefulness and violence will have to be countered by its opposites, in poets, and in everyone; and that’s what these two poets so powerfully accomplished in the short amount of time they had to do their living, and their work.