William O’Daly
In Conversation with Lois P. Jones


William O’Daly’s published works include eight books of the late-career and posthumous poetry of Chilean Nobel laureate Pablo Neruda (Still Another Day, The Separate Rose, Winter Garden, The Sea and the Bells, The Yellow Heart, The Book of Questions, The Hands of Day, and World’s End with Copper Canyon Press), and two chapbooks of his own poems, The Whale in the Web and The Road to Isla Negra. As a finalist for the 2006 Quill Award in Poetry, he was profiled by NBC news correspondent Mike Leonard on The Today Show. A National Endowment for the Arts Fellow, his poems, translations, essays, and reviews have been published in a wide range of journals and anthologies. We chat about his intimate journey alongside Neruda as well as thoughts on the creative narrative and poetry as a form of social activism.

LPJ: The Road to Isla Negra begins with these invitational lines:

We live twice on the road to Isla Negra—
once in our dreams and once in our shoes.

As a poet who has shared the road with Nobel Laureate, Pablo Neruda for several decades through eight books of translations, what was it like to finally arrive at the homeland of Don Pablo? Was it a homecoming for you as well?

WO: An individual imagination, in concert with the imagination of another, and the magic of books that cross geographical and cultural boundaries—they are very powerful. I felt I would find a “home” in Chile; I would be mostly welcomed there. I also knew I’d feel as though I’d been there before, as Neruda had already given me the terrain and the textures, the sights and sounds and smells of the country. It was inevitable, after translating him all those years. I suppose another way of saying this is, Chile, in its daily reality, wasn’t so much a surprise as a revelation. For instance, I never dreamt that, while I would be waiting for a bus in Isla Negra, the town where Neruda had the home closest to his heart, an elderly man would emerge from a small coffeehouse, having noticed through the window the lost look on my face, and ask if I needed help. The buses are marked in a confusing way for a “visitor,” he told me. He’d make sure I got on the right bus to Valparaíso. He was curious about what brought me to Chile, and I told him some of why I was there. It became clear he had great respect for Neruda but preferred the poetry of Gabriela Mistral, who mentored the young Neruda in Temuco. Mistral was the first Chilean poet to receive the Nobel Prize, and Neruda was the second. My three weeks in Chile, followed by eight nights and days on Easter Island (Isla de Pascua, or Rapanui), went mostly like that. I would tell people about my good fortune, and they would say, “Oh, yes, Pablo is looking out for you.” So many stories, I can’t even begin…. The trip was in large part a Neruda pilgrimage, but also a human rights tour. At Palacio de la Moneda, the Chilean “White House” where the 1973 coup was launched, an enormous guard, at least six and a half feet tall in full-dress uniform, was inspecting my day pack when he found my Neruda books. He pulls one out and examines it. He says, “This is you! You translate Neruda?” I admit that I do, so he turns and shouts to the captain of the guard, and walks over to show him. The guard returns with a big, warm smile and invites me and my friend and guide, Felipe Moreno Besa—a musician, an artist, and the son of a diplomat who served under Salvador Allende and then, in a conflicted way, under the dictator Pinochet—to pass. Softening his posture, he lightly nods his head and says, “Thank you!” In no uncertain terms, he was thanking me for translating his country’s national poet.

LPJ: In your beginnings as a translator you were first captivated by the “crystalline quality” of Neruda’s Aún. Your diaphanous poem, “The Dreamers,” sketches the young Neruda and your first encounter with him in a gorgeous sequence. He proffers the clear glass of water to you, which symbolizes your own voice. In addition to your years with Neruda, how have you been able to move toward this iridescence so evident in your own work and what are some of the ways in which you help your students in workshop find their own clarity?

WO: I guess in the way we all find our clarity—by giving the self over to the process of living, working, playing, loving, growing, and taking as honest a look as possible, then an even closer look, seeing not what we want to see, but what’s there, physically, emotionally, spiritually, and what might be possible. By listening openly to tones given off by the heart, and by extending knowledge to the utmost, to lightly paraphrase “The Great Learning” of Kung Fu-tse. I’ve been blessed with some wonderful mentors and with supportive friends working to create their own, similar paths who have inspired me, but all in all I’m not really sure how clarity happens. I’m passionate about achieving it. It’s the least painful, most energizing way to live; it’s the only way to fully breathe, and it certainly is the most beneficial and productive way of living, for the individual and the community. The process of poetry clarifies when the poet teaches himself or herself to give, to give what matters to those with hearts and minds sufficiently open to hear it, which is the way the poet gives to himself or herself. By pursuing the art form in a dedicated way, a lot comes clear because the practice of poetry is a process of discovery.

The practice of translating Neruda has been an essential part of my growth as a poet. It has made possible the creation of my own poetic voice, a process “The Dreamers” reenacts. The dream, which I had one night in Seattle in 1987, soon before I began translating the fourth book, The Sea and the Bells, may have been my most vivid dream ever. The character and the range of my voice as a poet would not exist had I not lived inside Neruda’s. But I didn’t take on Neruda’s; he gave me my own, and in so doing gave ever more life to his own legacy.

In a workshop, or in a mentoring situation, so much depends on the students’ experience, the format, the duration, and what we’re trying to accomplish together. But the getting “outside” the self is a universal need. The giving of oneself over to master poets in a kind of prosodic and spiritual apprenticeship is key to creating the self. Working hard, being true to oneself, all the things we know somewhere inside ourselves we must do. I gravitate to poets who I would describe as “givers.” Givers tend to offer greater luminosity, perhaps because they’re more aware of their relationship to the communities in which they live. In his poetry, Neruda was a tremendous giver. In your poetry and with your activities around poetry, Lois, I feel you are a giver. Givers tend to be less programmatic, usually less trendy in their poetry. They energize the perpetual cycle that binds the individual to the community, and in that way their work also expresses the community’s reliance on individual imagination.

LPJ: In a moving sequence called “Questions for Pablo,” written in response to Neruda’s The Book of Questions, you ask:

How can we stop the silence
we with our war declare?

There are few places in the global spectrum without conflict. When we look at the poets of the regions most plagued by war, why is the poet’s voice important and who should we ask these hard questions? Will we ever leave The Age of Ashes?

WO: We should be asking one another the reason for our silence, in ever expanding circles. Especially in war-torn regions, or in places where oppression is achieved via implicit threat or violence or economics, the poets willing to speak have long received the investiture of the oppressed. Illiterate Chilean miners, after Neruda, as their senator, had delivered a speech at their impoverished desert barrio, would call out, “Poema, poema!” They invested him with the responsibility to speak in his poetry to them and for them. That happens even in the United States, to a limited degree, but much more so in countries where class divisions are greater; where fewer can afford distractions, diversions, sublimations; and where the government is, in no uncertain terms, dictatorial. While political discourse intended to inform and liberate has its uses, the poem speaks first to our humanity. Poetry humanizes. When forces seek to dehumanize the individual, as they did during the Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution in China or The Junta in Greece or the Pinochet dictatorship in Chile, poetry speaks truth, often in metaphor, to power. It helps preserve humanity, breathing life into a culture under siege. I’m sure you remember Sam Hamill founding Poets Against the War as Bush, Cheney, Rumsfeld, and the neo-con gang were preparing to enter Iraq. I was a board member of PAW. We received more than 30,000 poems in opposition to the war. Anti-war readings were held all over the country. I was honored to join Galway Kinnell, Ruth Stone, Donald Hall, Jamaica Kincaid, Grace Paley, and others at the beautiful, old Presbyterian Church in Manchester Center, Vermont, where we read to more than 700 people—as well as to the guys in the shiny black shoes and windbreakers standing at the back of the church. People came from as far away as New York City, in a snow storm, to be there. Even in the USA, when the threat to humanity becomes palpable, people turn to poetry.

I certainly hope we grow out of the habit of turning one another to ash. But it’s not easy to visualize a full, final liberation from that cycle because so many confuse faith with fact, deal with their irrational fear by lashing out, see themselves as the “solution” or the hand of God’s retribution, or they lack the imagination necessary to understand the cyclic nature of war and find an alternative. But one thing is clear: Even when we “recount and close / the ashen chapter / in the victory of Berlin, / the ashes of the murderer / in his own ashtray…,” as Neruda says in World’s End, another war will rise from those ashes, will land like seed in some altered form and other place. War does not end war.

LPJ: Several stunning black and white images of artist Galen Garwood are integrated into The Road to Isla Negra. You’ve likened his art to explorations that attain harmonic balance and truth in motion. While noting how they emanate from a fleeting, ceaseless center. There seems to be an almost cinematic density to these pieces. How were you able to achieve this collaborative result and what role do you feel visual art might play alongside poetry toward broadening the public’s perception of poetry?

WO: Galen has been a close friend for many years, and we’ve collaborated on several projects, in varying capacities. Most recently, we collaborated on two books: Morris Graves: His Houses, His Gardens and Maenam, Of Water, Of Light, the latter in a limited edition thus far. When I invited Galen to join me in The Road to Isla Negra, to provide photos to accompany the poems, he shot an entire series he calls “Dream Sea.” Then he let me select the photos I wanted, so greedily, I, with the help of my wife, Kris, selected one photo per poem and a cover photo. Jessi Graustein, executive editor at Folded Word Press, was welcoming of this arrangement and loved the photos. She went on to further enhance the pairings and the cover art with her stunning laid-out proof of the chapbook. The point was not to have the photos “illustrate” the poems, but to create a dialogue between photo and poem, one that would open windows and doors that neither could without the other.

In truth, I don’t think visual art, or anything else, will broaden the public’s perception of poetry, not appreciably. Only poetry itself can do that. That certainly had no place in the thinking that gathered the work of eight poets and Galen’s images in Maenam. Wonderful conversations between visual art and poetry are more than possible, yet I don’t adhere to the idea that visual art will make poetry more accessible or appealing to the public, even if visual art is more popular in our culture. Poetry is an articulated art. A listener or reader has to pay close attention, which can make it challenging for many in real time. Because it is made of language, it tends to be more “confrontational” than other art forms. I can wander a gallery or museum, observing the most wonderful, groundbreaking visual art, yet I have more discretion in how I engage the pieces, how they affect me than I do when I’m reading a book of poems or listening to a live reading. Perhaps that’s why one is far more likely to encounter visual art than a poetry reading in a restaurant or wine bar. If I wish, I can even close my eyes standing before a painting, but who would cup their hands over their ears at a live reading, attempting not to hear? I think we need to write poems that matter to the lives of people, if we want people to participate in the life of our poems. We need, as poets, to write poems that matter to our lives, not just to us as poets with careers. Nothing else is going to broaden the appeal. Nothing else is going to awaken awareness of the hunger within for what poetry has to offer.

LPJ: Does one deepen the meaning or perception of another? What prompted you to consider this association?

WO: Yes, I think so. The pairings of photos and poems provide opportunity for readers to see in a way that’s both personal and of the larger world, in a way that’s utterly unique to the pairings. Neither the poems nor the photos accomplish the same thing on their own. The poems don’t “need” the photos, and the photos don’t need the poems. Galen is an artist fascinated by interaction among art forms, as am I, and the man certainly can write a poem, in addition to shoot photos, make monotypes, paint very large and small canvases, build a house, he can play a mean piano. What Galen and I are trying to achieve is what Michelangelo, if you’ll allow me, achieves on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel, between those two famous fingertips—just the right spark plug gap.

LPJ: Isla Negra is a gorgeous love letter, an homage to the poet who is both a brilliant icon in our literary history and a compañero to William O’Daly. What was one of the greatest of his offerings to you, which you did not expect?

WO: The understanding that he was not only a great poet, but a man. We had something in common, after all. We were men!

LPJ: What is coming down the path for Bill O’Daly and where do you see the road taking you next?

WO: I haven’t traveled out of the country since visiting Chile and Easter Island in 2008, and the international travel I’d like to do may still be a little further down the road. In the background, I’ve slowly been getting a few essays ready to send out, but in the front of my mind is the full-length manuscript of poems that is currently under consideration at a publisher. And the Chinese historical novel I spent more than fifteen years co-writing is in search of a publisher. After I finish the translation project I’m engaged in, however that works out, I again want to return to writing poems, which will remain my primary artistic focus. I went hiking in the High Sierra recently, after too long a hiatus, and I want to more regularly get back on the trails. Hiking feeds more than my poetry; it balances my entire work life, the night and the day jobs. I’ve been making a living in the environmental field of late, and for the last two years I’ve been closely involved in California water issues. I’d like to head into the Sierra, just below the source of the North Fork of the American River, and watch the water roll by.