Some of the events and people described herein are real, but many of the details have been changed for creative purposes.
I’m sitting by myself somewhere small and indiscernible. Wherever I am, it is crowded and slightly chaotic, and I’m having trouble with how minuscule and far away everything I’m trying to think or feel all is. I’m trying to write something insightful, or honest, or vital, or at least mildly interesting about literary communities. Literary communities. That’s what I’m supposed to be writing about, thinking about, but thinking is hard, and writing is harder. I can’t think of anything, but I have to start somewhere. I have to start here.
An excerpt from the play The History Boys by Allen Bennett, where Douglas Hector is discussing literature with one of his students, David Posner:
“The best moments in reading are when you come across something – a thought, a feeling, a way of looking at things – that you’d thought special, particular to you,and here it is, set down by someone else.
A person you’ve never met, maybe even someone long dead.
it’s as if a hand… has come out… and taken yours.”
I wonder when’s the last time I’ve felt that, and which author elicits, and what any of that all has to say about me now?
A friend is depressed. She calls me late at night and says she’s reached the point where she can actually feel how impossible what she wants is. To be a successful author? A career of some kind? Enough time to just write what she wants and how many years have passed since then? It’s something physical with her, and why shouldn’t it be? Something that has metastasized, a sort of numbness tinged with sharp points and spread out and out across her. How many arms of how many others that have swam and fallen asleep at the bottom of her? But then grown hard, singular, a blood clot close to her heart, a stone that has to pass through her. The single fact of the matter. She tries to describe it, she says, with what she has tried for so long, the words, that have failed her.
She has recently gone to see the movie Kumiko, The Treasure Hunter. She wonders if her whole life, what she has wanted to do with her writing, is the treasure that Kumiko has sought and the blind stupidity or willful delusion that has gone into that search. She says the map she has made seems just as foolish, just as delicately needle-pointed, undoable now, undone into the white cloth of it. The fact that the treasure will never be found is so plainly written out for everyone to see. I tell her that I will help her find the treasure or discover the treasure within what that unattainable treasure might mean. I don’t think this will help, even bringing the treasure up seems like a bad idea, I don’t know how to help her, but I do want to help her, somehow. I suggest we watch the wood chipper scene from Fargo instead.
Another writer friend… I haven’t heard from him in a year or so. I find a picture of him tucked into a book I could never make it all the way through. His face is so soft and truant it hurts. I wonder how he is. He doesn’t do the Facebook thing. I want to text him or send an email, but I don’t. I don’t know why, I just don’t. Sometimes I’m scared that too much time has passed or that I’m trying to touch or tap into something that no longer remains. For a ghost town to give its ghosts back to flesh would mean I’d have to give up these ghosts. I decide to google him… nothing. I refine my search, adding the word “writer” or “fiction.” Nothing again.
I decide to google someone else who was in the MFA program I went to the same time I went, a girl I was set on disliking for whatever stupid reason. I find that she is just as successful as the last time I googled her. She’s teaching somewhere, has a book out, just won some other award or residency, maybe even a new car, a baby, etc. I feel a little bit sick, but I can’t say I won’t do it again.
I decide not to google myself. I’ve already googled myself today. If consciousness is consciousness of an object… If consciousness of another consciousness is… something, something Jean-Paul Sartre said that seems apropos here as an extension into my own comment on identity, the internet, or something, but it’s been so long since I have been able to extend anything into a decent thought of my own. If Pierre is not at the café at four o’clock, then I will simply go home and sleep.
I wake up and I go to work. I stare very hard at a computer screen. The screen does not disappear no matter how hard I stare at it or how bad I want it to. I have minimal free time, a lunch break. Sometimes I just look at a few sports scores or something to do with current events. I wonder if I should have tried to write more fiction instead of deciding to stick with poetry. I remember writing a few promising stories in my early twenties, but don’t remember what they were about or where they might be now. I could maybe squeeze in a few details about a character I might like to develop, but there are more things to stare at on the screen. I get home from work. I don’t feel like writing today. I don’t feel like anything.
I get a Facebook message from a friend of a friend. He has written an explication of a poem of mine he found on the internet. Wow! What a great idea. Instead of taking my poem as an opportunity for personal comparison or simple congratulations, he’s taken the time to really get to know someone else’s work. To investigate and try to inhabit the same creative space as someone else in your own creative way. To really engage another person’s writing in that way. It’s an investment I feel we rarely venture when it comes to our peers. I shoot him a message back saying thanks and what a great idea it is to do something like this. He says he’s trying to send a thoughtful reading of everyone’s work that he knows. I think that I should do something like that, something with the same social register or capacity to change how we interact with other writers, but I don’t get around to doing it.
It’s the Super Bowl. The game ends and a few of us are still milling around afterwards at a friend’s place, nursing a few beers, picking at the remains of a few spare ribs. We’ve all self-identified as writers at some point or other in our lives. Somebody suggests we each share some of our work. Most everyone else is a little reticent about this idea and it takes a while for some of us to even be able to dig anything up, but we all do it after some small measure of cajoling, and it’s great. We each read a piece, try to give everyone some sense of what we were trying to do with it, what the piece means or meant at the time, and then comment on each other’s work. A few of the others here, people whose words I’ve never heard or read, people who say they’ve given up, haven’t written anything in years, that it’s better this way… I’m struck by how good what they’re sharing really is… how a flash of something comes over them as they read it, a kind of epiphany, a kind of passage or glimpse back into something they maybe once loved, and are just now remembering again, why.
We go to a reading. The man who is reading his poems is a poet I like. I wanted to go to the reading because I wanted to hear someone read some work I admire. Before the reading gets under way, some friends and I are chatting about the weather in Chicago, how truly cold it can get there. Someone else in front of us chimes in since she’s spent a lot of time in that city. We all get to talking. She’s a writer too. We all talk about some of what we’ve been reading lately, what we’ve been up to. The poet gets up and reads some of his poems and it’s one of those readings where, afterwards, you just want to go home and write. We all decide to go across the street for some drinks instead. We invite the Chicago girl. It’s coolish and crisp out, but things are beginning to open, that first dilation point, to feel all the pores, the first pricks of spring. We find some seats on the patio outside. We talk about literature and politics and life as a writer. We drink too much. We smoke too many cigarettes. We enjoy whatever it is we’ve built here between us, to know that the things you have loved are loved by another and to share in that love.
We met another friend for drinks. He’s been having a bad go of things, with work and relationships and whatever else, but he’s been writing every day now and he feels better. He recently found a first edition of his favorite short story collection at a local bookstore. He says that reading this author makes him feel like he can write whatever he wants. He says he has the copy in his glove box right now. Something he can sober up with or fall asleep reading in the car if he has too.
She’s almost finished writing a novel she says she no longer wants to write. Knows no one will pick up. I’d love to read it, I say. I really would, I know she’s a great writer, but maybe this all sounds somehow patronizing, consolatory, ultimately futile…
I send a poet I like a poem I wrote using only lines from his poems. He calls me a sweat heart. I think this is the perfect response. I think for a moment that things are perfect.
I get up early. I’m still tired and almost unthinking and can write a poem without having to think too much about it. It’s an ok poem with a really great line lost somewhere in between a few bad ones. I wake my girlfriend up by reading her the poem. She smiles right after I read the good line and decides to write a poem too.
Jim Redmond currently lives in Austin, TX. He will continue to curate a monthly blog series on literary community for Drunken Boat. Some of his writing can be found or is forthcoming in Blackbird, PANK, ReDIVIDer, and Columbia Poetry Review, among others. His chapbook, Shirts or Skins, won one of Heavy Feather Review’s chapbook prizes a while ago.
Taken at Margaret Randall and Sergio Mondragon’s home in Mexico City, February 1964, Sergio is in the back, holding their children Gregory and Sarah. Margaret is below, with their youngest, Ximena. Miguel Grinberg, who ran the journal Eco Contemporaneo, is to the right. Photographer unknown.
An interview series with translators, translated writers, and translation theorists, “Spaces in Translation” interrogates transitional spaces and how we choose, or choose not, to navigate them. By probing the ways in which translators traverse hierarchies between languages and cultures this blog feature builds a conversation about minority (mis)representation, the bounds of authority, and creativity’s role in addressing such issues. Additionally, it endevours to provide insight into translators’ working lives—the where, how, and why of their craft—as all too often this aspect is only appreciated when invisible. Beyond the primary texts produced by our interviewees, works that inform the crafting of “Spaces in Translation” include Esther Allen and Susan Bernofsky’s 2013 edited volume In Translation: Translators on Their Work and What It Means, Maria Tymoczko and Edwin Gentzler’s 2002 edited volume Translation and Power, and the Paris Review’s masterful interview series “The Art of Fiction” and “The Art of Poetry.”
Inaugural Interview: Margaret Randall
Born in New York City in 1936, Margaret Randall has lived for extended periods in Albuquerque, New York, Seville, Mexico City, Havana, and Managua. A feminist poet, writer, photographer and social activist, she is also an accomplished translator, having published full-length collections of poetry by Otto-René Castillo, Tomas Borge Martínez, and Daisy Zamora, as well as significant selections of work by César Vallejo, Carlos María Gutiérrez, Roberto Fernández Retamar, Domingo León, and Roque Dalton. Additionally, in 1962 she co-founded and co-edited El Corno Emplumado / The Plumed Horn, a bilingual literary journal which for eight years published some of the most dynamic and meaningful writing of an era. Lastly, she is a noted oral historian, having published more than a dozen books in the genre including Sandino’s Daughters: Testimonies of Nicaraguan Women in Struggle (1981) and When I Look Into the Mirror And See You: Women, Terror & Resistance (2002). From 1984 through 1994 she taught at a number of U.S. universities. At the moment, she resides in Albuquerque with her wife, the painter and maker of artist books Barbara Byers, where she continues to write prolifically. Her recent publications include a translation of Lurgio Galvan Sanchez’s memoir, When Rains Became Floods: A Child Soldier’s Story (2015) and the monograph Haydée Santamaría, Cuban Revolutionary: She Led by Transgression (2015). It was our honour to interview her throughout the month of February. What follows is the content of that correspondence.
Christopher Schafenacker: You founded El Corno Emplumado / The Plumed Horn with Sergio Mondragón in 1962. Were the two of your responsible for the bulk of the translation? Had you translated much prior to this venture? What role did translation play in your own writing practice at the time?
Margaret Randall: I think somehow, perhaps almost unconsciously, translation was important to me before I began translating. Having lived in countries where and when important things were happening–Mexico, Cuba, Nicaragua–and having visited others where the same was true—North Vietnam six months before the end of the US American war there, Peru during the Velasco Alvarado government—I came to think of myself as a bridge of sorts: with the ability, maybe even the obligation, of reporting on those places and events for a US readership that, for narrow political reasons, was being denied an in depth look. This was never or rarely a journalist’s interpretation. I was too involved and committed to pretend what in this country claims to be “journalistic impartiality.” My socialism and feminism led me to the stories of those who traditionally have not had a voice: women, the illiterate poor, those protagonists of history who rarely appear in the history books. And as a poet and writer, I gravitated toward genres—poetry, oral history or “testimonio” as it was called when I started doing it in the 1970s—where I could explore those voices in their multiple layers.
Additionally, I should say that translation was always something I was interested in. You might say it ran in my family. My mother devoted the last 50 years of her life to translating the work of Cuban revolutionary and writer José Martí (but it was I who got her interested in Martí, during my years in Cuba). I grew up in, and have returned to, an enormously multicultural place, New Mexico, where English was imposed on 16th Century Spanish, Mexican Spanish, Diné and a dozen other indigenous languages, and has produced its own variety of Spanglish. So translation, both literal and metaphorical, is an important practice here.
When I went to live in Mexico in 1961, I began frequenting the apartment of beat poet Phillip Lamantia, who was living in that country’s capital city at the time. The small apartment in the Zona Rosa that he shared with his wife Lucille became a magnet for young poets from the United States, Mexico, Nicaragua, Peru, and occasionally other parts of the Continent. We would read our latest poems to each other and, although some of us had a rudimentary knowledge of the other language, most of us didn’t really have the linguistic complexity that allowed us to get beneath the surface of the poem. At those all-night sessions we also discovered that, because of our language limitations, we didn’t really know our most important mentors. For the US Americans those were Whitman, Pound, Williams, HD, etc. For the Latin Americans they were Vallejo and Neruda. Translations then existent were generally poor. So the need for good translation was immediately apparent. And it was that need, along with others, that sparked El Corno Emplumado / The Plumed Horn. Three of us who met at Lamantia’s—Sergio Mondragón, Harvey Wolin, and I—initially embarked upon the project, but Harvey dropped out after the second issue and Sergio and I were the editors for the bulk of the journal’s life, until the last three issues when Sergio left and Robert Cohen took his place. I was really the single steady presence.
One of our unrealizable dreams was for El Corno to be completely bilingual; that is, that everything we published would appear in both languages. This was rarely possible. We managed it in the fourth issue of each year between 1962 and 1965, when that final issue was a book dedicated to a single poet. We also managed it in issue #18, dedicated entirely to Mexico. And we managed it on other occasions, but scattered throughout the magazine’s history. We often did the translations ourselves, working together on them, and I think these were particularly successful. We also asked for translations from others, and published some very fine ones. El Corno published many of Ernesto Cardenal’s iconic long poems for the first time in English. We published some of Ginsberg’s for the first time in Spanish. We called on my mother, who did a number of good translations for us, and on others we heard were working on translating one or another of the people we wanted to publish and whose understanding of both languages and poetic capabilities we trusted.
You ask if I had translated much prior to the El Corno venture. Not really. In fact, thinking back, although I was already reading quite a bit of poetry and other literature in Spanish, I can’t think of a text I translated before doing so for the journal.
Your other question is about the role translation as such may have played in my own writing practice at the time. During the El Corno years (1962-1969) it was probably more unconscious than anything else. At the end of the latter year, though, I began reading the first feminist texts that were filtering down from the US and Europe. They made a tremendous impression on me, such that feminism became, from that moment on, an important axis of my life. I went to live in Cuba in 1969, and was immediately curious about how socialism had affected (or not) the lives of Cuban women. This was when I became involved in doing oral history, or what we called “testimonio” then. Listening to a life (not only its progression and events, but the individual voice in which it is rendered) presents the issue of translation front and center. The writer wants to be able to recreate her informant’s story and also his or her way of telling it. I think it was at this point in my writing career that I first began to think consciously about translation outside the obvious parameters of simply moving a text from one language into another. Suddenly trying to be faithful to cultural difference, class difference, racial difference, political point of view and much else became important goals. It was around this time that I began incorporating others’ voices into my own poetry, influenced I’m sure by my oral history practice as well as by a particular current of “conversational poetry” popular throughout Latin America at the time.
El Corno Emplumado was a great school for me. It put me in touch with the work of young (and not so young) poets and writers throughout Latin America and beyond. Moving to Cuba, where a young revolution gave so much support to creativity, was also important. Soon after that move, I was invited to be part of the Casa de las Americas contest 1970, in the poetry category. The five-judge panel in poetry that year was made up of Ernesto Cardenal, Roque Dalton, Cintio Vitier, Washington Delgado and myself. We awarded the prize to Uruguayan Carlos Maria Gutierrez, and I immediately set about to translate his book, Diario del Cuartel (Prison Diary), into English. Carlos Maria was in Cuba at the time, and we worked together on the translations. Unfortunately, although I offered them to several US publishers, no one was interested. And the manuscript has been lost (though I still have translations of some of those poems done much more recently). Forty-one years later, in 2011, I was invited once again to be a judge for Casa’s yearly contest, this time in the category of Testimonio. Thinking about those two experiences—the different genres, the 41 years in my own life and in the life of the world that had passed since 1970, and my ever-changing ideas about literature—the events almost seem like bookends of sorts.
Perhaps this is enough for the moment. Perhaps my response will provoke other questions, which I will be happy to tackle. Meanwhile, I will try to think about those early days.
Christopher Schafenacker: Thank you for providing such a generous answer. I like your observation that listening to a life and recording oral history presents the complications of translation front and centre. This anticipates a pair of questions I’d planned to ask at a later point but will offer now instead:
First: You write a lot about memory, both in your creative and scholarly work. Memory is a central theme in This Is About Incest (1987), Memory Says Yes (1995), and The Rhizome as a Field of Broken Bones (2013), as well as in Our Voices / Our Lives (1995), Sandino’s Daughters (1995), and More Than Things (2013) amongst other works. One might venture that memory is the connective tissue of your extensive oeuvre. In observation of this proposition, I wonder: what role has memory played in your work as a translator?
Second: If memory is the connective tissue of your work, orality might be the bones. You’ve touched on the manner in which oral testimony is a form of translation. Could you say more about this? How has your work with testimonios informed your literary translation practice? How, if at all, do you provide space for your own voice when working on a text that foregrounds the voice of another?
One last question that comes to mind: Which of those translations from your early years still resonates in your writing?
Margaret Randall: Memory has played, and plays, a central role, not only in my work as a translator but throughout all my endeavors and the very fiber of my life. As a woman, as a survivor of incest, and in every other one of my human conditions, I find I am constantly negotiating (sometimes actively fighting) memory erasure. Patriarchal, class and racist society distorts memory, even playing brutally with it at times, in order to control us more easily. Our individual memories are trivialized and, when possible, erased and replaced with “the official story.” Such that we ourselves lose the knowledge of who we are. And our collective memories are subsumed into “the official story” as well, so that it is difficult for us to know who we have been, who we are, who we may become. I’m not only speaking of memory as it resides in the mind; there is also cellular memory, the record our cells retain of what we have lived. I began to explore this in This Is About Incest, a book that describes in poetry, prose and photographs, my midlife retrieval of the memory of what my grandfather did to me when I was still an infant. As you note, memory then became a theme in subsequent books. I think it remains a theme for me today, perhaps more subtly but also more profoundly. It is simply bedrock to my sense of myself and my creative output.
So, in terms of translation, I think one not only draws on one’s own memory but must try to insert oneself into the memory of the writer one translates. To be more specific, last year I translated a memoir for Duke University Press. The English title is When Rains Became Floods (2015). It is the story of a young Andean boy who, at the age of 12, followed his brother into the Shining Path guerrilla. He believed it was a revolutionary organization but soon learned the hard way about its terrorist practices. He spoke only his native Quechua, and could neither read nor write, so the constant “revolutionary” readings were so much gibberish to him. At the age of 15 he was captured by the Army. An officer took pity and, rather than execute him (as they were doing with all captives at the time), sent him to school where he learned Spanish and became literate. He remained in the Army for 7 years, eventually realizing it was no less authoritarian than Shining Path. So he quit and entered a Franciscan Monastery. At the Monastery they sent him to college. But he learned that the Church, too, was authoritarian and rigid. So he eventually quit and decided to become an anthropologist. He (his name is Lurgio Galvan Sanchez) is now finishing up his doctorate at the Universidad Iberoamericana in Mexico City. In order to translate this beautiful memoir, I had to try to situate myself not only in Lurgio’s culture but also in his memory. What landscape accompanied him throughout his life? How did his experiences in Shining Path, the Peruvian Army, and with the Franciscan Brothers relate to his early family life in the mountains near Ayacucho? How did his origin and childhood play out at subsequent moments?
Memory is an additional layer, but an extremely important one. For me, it is simply another place one must explore in order to express oneself in one’s own work as well as in order to translate the work of others.
To answer your second question, I’ll go to the last part of it first. I think, when writing or translating another’s voice one must always be conscious of one’s own filter. Up front it’s a good idea to explicate this, and it has become common practice now in the fields of oral history and even history less concerned with orality. I think Ruth Behar may have been one of the first to write specifically about the importance of the oral historian making his or her position clear at the beginning of a work. So one simply must provide space for this, in whatever way one chooses to do so. A work of creative oral history necessarily includes the writer or oral historian. The end product is another’s voice filtered through the historian’s class, race and gender perceptions, prejudices, experience, etc.
Oral history is a form of translation because the oral historian approaches his or her subject (and how this happens is always important: is it a quick interview, a lengthy engagement, did the interviewer live and work with the interviewee, etc.?), listens to the informant’s story, understands it or fails to do so within the context of his or her own life experience, and then chooses whatever creative devices he or she believes will render an accurate translation. And by accurate, of course, I don’t simply mean in terms of “facts,” dates, documented events, but also–and importantly—in terms of culture, social status, age, gender, race, attitude, and, yes, memory. How believable is memory? Where does it live and what role does it continue to play as the informant tells his or her story? Obviously, I am only scratching the surface here. There are so many details that must be taken into account. One has a deep sense of responsibility, to render another’s voice as accurately as possible. And, again, by accurately I don’t only mean the surface details, but all that lives beneath the surface. For this reason, back in the days when I did a lot of oral history, I always made sure that I presented my informants with transcripts of my edited interviews. I wanted them to read them and let me know if they felt genuinely represented and, if not, how and why. Once, when a woman I interviewed for my first book on Cuban women was illiterate, I traveled back to where she lived and read the interview out loud to her. If one is doing oral history in one language (in my case it was often Spanish) and then also translating the interview for a book or publication in English, there is a whole added layer of representation. Would my interviewee, had he or she been speaking English, have used precisely this or that expression, syntax, slang? It’s complex, and each layer adds to the complexity.
I have been speaking here about oral history interviews, but—at least in my own writing life—that practice also deeply influences my poetry and all other genres in which I present a voice or voices in my work. Translation is perhaps the area where this is most obvious. I have always believed that translating classic works is, in many ways, easier than translating contemporary, often conversational, works. A poet or writer may use the linguistic conventions of his or her time. How to render these in another language while respecting the place and time of the original? A challenge.
Concerning your third question: Although I hope I have gotten a lot more proficient as time has passed, a number of my early translations still resonate for me. Among them, my translation of Cesar Vallejo’s poem “Masses.” I still love the translations I’ve made of Carlos Maria Gutierrez’ Prison Diary, unfortunately never published. Also my translations of some of Roque Dalton’s poems, which have often appeared in print. Because I knew Roque so well, I felt I could get inside his voice more fully.
Christopher Schafenacker: Once again, thank you for such a thoughtful response. You speak of the deep role memory plays in your life and you point out the importance of its preservation in combatting patriarchy, racism, and classism. In the introduction to Our Voices / Our Lives you elaborate on this, explaining that writing driven by memory and feeling constitutes “a whole new practice of telling, a deeply feminist practice” later referred to as a “language of witness” (13). You explain that this mode of communication is not trusted by the academy, an observation which calls to mind the similar distrust suffered by translators (traduttore, traditore). With this in mind, can you connect the idea of “language of witness” to translation? And perhaps, then, translation with feminism? How does your feminist practice inform your work as a translator?
In response to the last of my previous set of questions you mention that you hope your work has gotten more proficient as time has passed. This leads me to wonder about your process and its evolution: How do you translate? Where/how do you work and what tools do you use? And lastly, how have you refined your craft since those early days in Mexico City?
Margaret Randall: When I say that the sort of translation I have done is not often trusted by the academy, it is because I am not often trusted by the academy. I am not OF the academy. I have no degree. I don’t contribute to many scholarly publications (though I do consider myself a scholar). I don’t have, nor do I wish to have, the sort of impartiality the academy seems to value. I don’t even believe in that sort of impartiality. On the contrary, I feel that genuine passion and engagement are needed for good translation just as they are for good writing.
Throughout the 1970s and ’80s, especially in light of the “dirty wars” in Latin America, the idea of witness or accompaniment became popular. Many of us wanted to bear witness to what was being perpetrated (and most often not being reported on). Even more, we wanted to help those affected, those who were living and barely surviving the tragedies, to gain voice. This was behind much of what became known as “testimonio”, a new literary genre popular particularly in countries where social revolution had taken place or where large numbers of people were organized in struggle against authoritarian regimes. Such great events as Cuba’s and Nicaragua’s literacy campaigns, various wars of liberation, the struggle within the Catholic Church (liberation theology), the newly prominent presence of women in struggle… all these produced important bodies of testimonio or oral history. Of course “giving voice” to the protagonists naturally also brought complaints—as those involved saw how their stories were being transcribed and reproduced, they began having their own questions. And they were important ones. The discussions that ensued were helpful, I think, for those of us involved in gathering oral histories or translating the words of others.
Within this context, translation was important. Those of us doing the listening and recording wanted to transcribe and translate these new voices as accurately as possible. For me and for others, accuracy didn’t simply mean rendering one language to another as faithfully as we could. It meant understanding cultures, histories, memory, and class, race, and gender difference.
In response to your question about how feminism connects to translation, I think the most obvious way is that feminism is an essential tool for understanding power, and thus for understanding “the other.” As all these people in struggle are perennially othered by our First World Western consciousness, it is useful to have feminism as a tool in breaking through this barrier.
You ask about my process and its evolution. My writing process has changed a great deal throughout my life. As a young woman in Albuquerque and then New York, I surrounded myself with artists and writers who taught me the importance of putting one’s work front and center. But this is not always (not even often) easy for a woman. Women of my generation, at least, were conditioned to see ourselves as marrying and being helpmeets to our men. Our own time was limited: the proverbial “room of one’s own.” These conflicts were hard for me, especially before the Second Wave of feminism exploded on the scene, making me understand that I simply had to grab the space and time, no matter the consequences. But I also wanted love and children… so the road was hardly smooth. I had my first child on my own in 1960, preferring not to marry his father. I seem to have been the sort of woman who tended to think she could “have it all,” and I tried.
Later, during my years in Cuba and Nicaragua, the demands involved in helping to create a different, more just, world, were intense. I always had a full time job, and in those situations that didn’t just mean 8 hours a day. Often I worked 12 or 14 hours a day. And I always had to earn a living, for myself and my children. Although my several husbands worked to varying degrees, for whatever reason I was almost always the main earner. In Cuba I used to joke and say all my books (and there were many) were written between 11 p.m. and 3 in the morning. Looking back at those books I can see they might have been better if I could have prioritized my writing time more.
It is only now, that I am retired and my partner is fully committed to my work (as I am to hers) do I really have the luxury of putting my work front and center in my life, of claiming that “room of my own,” so to speak. My process now is very different from what it was for most of my writing life. I am a morning person, so I get up around 4 most mornings, spend a few hours studying or writing, until Barbara gets up around 7. We have breakfast together, and I go back to work. Often I don’t even get dressed or go out during the day—if it isn’t absolutely necessary. I work all day, very intensely if I am working on something specific (and I usually am). By late afternoon I am tired of working. That’s when I do something to chill out: make dinner for friends, go out somewhere with Barbara, relax.
Concerning translation: I think I have refined my craft immensely since those early days in New York or Mexico City. For one thing, I study a great deal more. I revise a great deal more. A single poem or essay or translation may go through dozens of changes. Contemporary technology undoubtedly helps. For example, “cutting and pasting” on a computer bears little resemblance to the endless retyping one did in the Sixties or Seventies (and in my case the beginning of the Eighties, since I didn’t return to the US or own my first home computer until the mid Eighties). The physical act of writing, translating, and revising is so much easier today. Speaking only of translating, rather than thumb through a few well-worn dictionaries, now I can begin with an on-line translation site, and go to dictionaries only in the event I do not find what I need on line. All these improvements have been a great help, and have made my work easier and better.
Christopher Schafenacker: Thank you for your response. Allow me to follow a somewhat convoluted question with a very simple one: Who are your mentors?
Margaret Randall: So, about my mentors: The first thing I should say is that I feel incredibly fortunate to have had such powerful and generous ones. It’s been a constant throughout my life. What I may have missed by not getting a formal education, I certainly made up for by finding a series of people who were outstanding artists in their own right, and for whatever reason were willing to mentor me.
In the first place, there were my parents. My father was a department store clothing salesman whose real love was music. He played the cello. In 1947 (I was ten), he and my mother moved us from New York to New Mexico. This allowed my father to escape the conventionalisms and expectations of his family of origin. He got a job selling man’s clothing during the day, went back to college at night, got a teaching certificate and began teaching string instruments in the Albuquerque Public Schools. He was immensely happy in that job until his retirement in the late Sixties.
My mother had quit school in junior high and entered New York’s Art Students League, where she studied for five years. Her field was sculpture. She continued to work in clay, wood, and eventually stone here in Albuquerque. She became an excellent mold maker, but never a good enough sculptor to satisfy herself (my father wasn’t that good a cellist, either, just good enough to enjoy himself and to teach), and she eventually quit art, went to the University of New Mexico and took every Spanish language class available, and became a Spanish/English translator. For the last 50 years of her life she devoted herself to the work of the Cuban Jose Marti.
So… my parents weren’t great artists, but they loved and respected art. They supported my desire to be a writer, and were proud of my accomplishments. They were also adventurous for their time, taking the family on long summer trips, eager to explore the world and know other peoples. They each suffered from a sort of provincialism, but you wouldn’t have known that looking at how different they were from the parents of my friends. I wouldn’t say they were mentors, exactly, but their encouragement certainly enabled me to go out and find the mentors I needed.
Ironically, perhaps it was the negative side of my early family life that pushed me to seek mentorship elsewhere. My parents were ill-matched, and an undercurrent of tension always filled the home. I struck out on my own fairly early.
My first really important mentor was the painter Elaine de Kooning. In 1956 or 1957 she came to the University of New Mexico as a visiting professor in the art department, and although she was eighteen years older than I was we immediately became close friends. She taught me that a woman can reach beyond the expectations of marriage and housework so endemic to the social creed of my generation. She was fearless, brilliant and generous. Despite my long time outside the country, our friendship lasted until she died in 1989. I have written a great deal about our friendship and her influence on my life—most notably in My Town: A Memoir of Albuquerque, New Mexico, in Poems, Prose and Photographs (2010). Next month, my partner Barbara and I will be going to Washington DC for the opening of her portrait show at the National Portrait Gallery, so I have been thinking a lot about her of late.
When Elaine left Albuquerque, I followed her to New York, where I lived for four years. After working as a gallery sitter, waitress, etc., I landed a job with Spanish Refugee Aid, an organization run by Hannah Arendt, Dwight MacDonald and others to help the Republican refugees displaced by the Spanish Civil War. Dwight’s ex-wife Nancy MacDonald ran the small office and I became her assistant. Nancy also became a mentor of mine. She helped me grow politically, although our ideas soon diverged. She helped me construct a commitment to justice.
In New York I was close to a number of the Abstract Expressionists, and among them—besides Elaine—Milton Resnick had a strong influence on me, more than anything in terms of helping me learn a discipline I’ve only honed more deeply over the years.
During my years in Mexico the French anthropologist Laurette Sejourne was a great mentor, and some of the people we met through El Corno, such as Walter Lowenfels, were as well. I might also say that the whole ambiance of Mexico in the Sixties mentored me. It was such an alive place and such an important period, in terms of culture and art, a fact I was made more conscious of in retrospect on our visit there last month. I am currently reading a huge bilingual catalog produced by the Universidad Autonoma de Mexico. It is called Defying Stability. Someone we met in Mexico, who is getting his doctorate in Austin, sent it to me—he wrote some of the important articles it contains. This catalog (more accurately, book) describes the art, writing, music, film, dance, architecture etc. of Mexico from 1952 through 1967. It allowed me to revisit that time, and reacquaint myself with the many women and men who, if they weren’t my mentors in an individual sense, were certainly formative in my development as an artist.
In Cuba I would say that my greatest mentor was Haydee Santamaria. She was a friend, a revolutionary heroine, and the director of Casa de las Americas. She was brilliant, iconoclastic, and (like me) basically self-taught. I know that she affected many people as she did me. She committed suicide in 1980, and I have felt a great debt, ever since… wanting to write about her in some meaningful way. I did write several shorter pieces (one of them is in my recent book of essays, More Than Things) but wanted to do more–and feared my time was running out. Finally, a couple of years back, I decided I had to write a book. I was in Cuba last April to do the field work, and the book will appear this coming September from Duke University Press. Another great mentor during my years in Cuba was Nguyen Phuc, the man who headed The Voice of Vietnam there and to whom I taught English three times a week for several years.
In Cuba, in 1978, I decided I wanted to learn photography. Because I know I learn better from apprenticeship than from formal study, I asked a fine Cuban photographer, Ramon Martinez (or Grandal, as he is known) if he would teach me. I have always been grateful to his mentoring in this respect.
In Cuba I also received strong mentorship from several Latin American revolutionaries who were there preparing to return to their respective countries to assume their place in liberation struggles. Among these, the Nicaraguan Jose Benito Escobar stands out. I never had the inclination to follow these men and women into armed struggle, but their commitment to certain ideals we shared was important and remains important to me. They were willing to sacrifice their lives to help make a better, more just, world. The fact that they (all of us in my generation) failed in that effort doesn’t, in my mind, make our attempts less valuable.
There are others I think of as mentors: Gladys Zalaquette and Sofia Montenegro in Nicaragua, and here in the US the great Midwest poet Meridel LeSueur, Adrienne Rich, an art curator named Robert Schweitzer, and several others. I’m sure I’m forgetting the names of many who were important to me, and that makes me sad. A Canadian writer named Stan Persky is also someone I consider a mentor.
Since this interview is mainly about translation, I should also mention a translator who is an important mentor to me. Her name is Louise Popkin. We have only known one another for the past five or six years. She teaches at Harvard but spends large parts of every year in Uruguay, where my son and his family live (and where Barbara and I visit often). Louise has done many translations (it is her main creative area), but her translations of the poetry and prose of Uruguayan Mario Benedetti are particularly brilliant. I have studied her work, and tried to incorporate elements of her attention to cultural difference and language into my own.
I also need to talk about my partner (now wife!), Barbara Byers. We have been together now 28 years. I am older than she is by 16 years, but we mentor one another… in our artistic processes (she is a painter and maker of artist books) and in life. Our relationship is rooted, among much else, in our respect for and support of each others’ work. I have never felt the tiniest bit of jealousy or disgruntlement. When I have been immersed in long periods of 16- to 18-hour-a-day work on a particular book, she is simply there, taking up the slack in terms of keeping our household going. She retired from public school teaching 5 years ago and, while I carried much of the household burden during her teaching years, she does so now. We are immensely proud of each others’ work. And we are each others’ best critics. At this point in my life it would be unusual for me to send a poem out without her having read and critiqued it first. So I would say she has become an important mentor.
Because I have reaped so much from so many generous mentors, I have tried in turn to be a mentor to others. I think I have achieved this to some extent, especially during my years of teaching. And even today, when someone asks me to look at a manuscript I make time to review it critically, when someone asks for a blurb I consider honestly if I want to write it and if I do spend a good deal of time on it. If a younger artist or writer needs some discussion time: about work discipline, process, ideas, etc., I try to make time for them.
Elaine de Kooning started me in a practice I carried on for many many years. Whenever she sold a painting, she would spend 1/4 of what she’d earned on the work of a younger artist. This, of course, is a sort of mentoring, because it not only helps the younger artist materially; it shows a faith in that person’s work and provides encouragement to continue. For years I followed Elaine’s example, most often buying a piece by a young woman artist.
I should also say that mentoring, for me, hasn’t always come from those older than me. I often felt mentored by some of my students. From time to time I have felt mentored by my children or grandchildren.
I hope this has given you some idea of how important mentoring has been, and continues to be, in my life.
Christopher Schafenacker: Indeed, reading about your mentors and the richness they’ve brought to your life is inspiring. Thank you.
Returning to an earlier thread: Could you kindly expand on your translation process? You speak about your working hours, your method of translation, and the improvement technology has brought to your craft. I would also like to hear about your relationship to your authors. Do you consult often (when possible)? Problem solve together? How have you resolved differences of opinion when they have arisen in the past? Do you defer to the author’s or your own understanding of the work when faced with ambiguity?
Margaret Randall: Since I only translate from Spanish to English, I can usually hear the original voice. Sometimes I can hear it quite literally, as when I myself have done an oral history interview in Spanish and must translate it for publication in English. Sometimes more imagination is required, as in a text I did not actually hear. Poetry often falls into this latter category, as did the book When Rains Became Floods, which I translated for Duke University Press last year.
The first thing I do is read the Spanish text aloud. Often several times over. I want to hear its rhythms. If it is contemporary, or from a culture with which I am familiar, this makes it easier. If not, there are additional issues of course.
Whenever possible, I consult with the author throughout my translation process, when I am stuck, or when I have completed an advanced draft. If the author knows English, this is more useful of course. If he or she doesn’t, my consultations are only around places where I am not sure I have conveyed the precise meaning.
Translation, to me, is not simply about rendering a text’s meaning into another language. One must render the culture surrounding that meaning as well, and the author’s voice, relationship to language, rhythm when possible. In some translations this is easier than in others.
When I have a finished translation, and if the author is alive and accessible, I always send him or her a copy. Even if that person doesn’t read English, they may know someone they trust who does. I am always open to suggestions, critiques. In issues of meaning I always defer to the author, but I also retain my own poet’s prerogative to use a certain license when I believe that makes for a more successful text in English.
Aside from the above, I approach translation much the same as I approach the rest of my writing: going through dozens of drafts, concentrating on parts of the whole that give me trouble, working hard to get it right. Often the first draft goes very quickly; I immerse myself in the writer’s being as much as possible and just fly. It is in the revisions that I spend a great deal of time.
Christopher Schafenacker: Thank you, again, for such a thoughtful response. Next, how would you describe the relationship between your writing practice and translation practice? Where does one end and the other begin? How do they influence each other? How do they interfere with one another?
A corollary to the above: In Translating Montreal: Episodes in the Life of a Divided City (2006), Canadian translation theorist Sherry Simon defines translation as “writing that is inspired by the encounter with other tongues, including the effects of creative interference” (17). In consideration of this definition, would you accept that much of your own writing, especially your creative writing, is a sort of translation?
Margaret Randall: My writing and translation practices are quite separate, I think, except for the fact that both involve expression through words. When I am writing, I am always looking to stretch my own voice. I have absolute freedom, but keep learning new ways to exercise that freedom. With translation, I do not feel that freedom, not at all. I am first of all indebted to the voice I am translating. I try to immerse myself in the writer’s time and culture, race, gender, belief system, sense of humor, language usage, voice, etc. Within that context I can be creative in my rendering, but I do not want to betray the author’s intention. So I am constricted by all that. I don’t believe my writing and translation interfere with one another, because I am primarily a writer and only secondarily a translator. I translate when I feel deeply moved to do so, or when I receive a commission that interests me and for which I will be paid enough to make it worth taking time from my own writing. My writing and translation probably do influence each other, in that any way one uses one’s craft is bound to have an influence on every other way.
I think your corollary has more to do with semantics than with any real literary theory. Of course one might define translations, as Simon does, as “writing that is inspired by the encounter with other tongues…”. Perhaps one’s own writing, then, is a sort of translation. But what is really meaningful about this statement? I don’t find it particularly useful, except in its evocation of interference. That I find interesting.
Christopher Schafenacker: One last question: What is missing in translation? In terms of literary movements, genres, demographics, etc., as well as in terms of specific individuals, what or who needs to be better represented by translation? Would you be so kind as to mention particular authors, if they come to mind? Thank you.
Margaret Randall: What is missing in translation? This, perhaps, is the most important question to be asked about this complex process of rendering a poem, novel or non-fiction literary work into another language. We are not only moving from one language to another. Ideally, we are moving as well from one culture to another, often from one time period to another. And we want to bring meaning with us. But we also want to bring point of view, the writer’s character and personality, and much else. There are many opportunities for much to be lost.
In terms of literary movements, a translation must somehow involve, sometimes just beneath the surface, the reason the movement exists. It may have appeared in opposition to a particular set of values, a conservative point of view, or a political aberration. On the other hand, the movement itself may be an aberration or short-term flash in the pan: creating an even more complex situation. In terms of genres, poetry may be the most difficult to translate, simply because it is generally more compressed, stripped of all extraneous verbiage. And in terms of demographics, although many of the great masters have been very badly translated, perhaps younger writers are more difficult to translate, given the fact that they may be writing out of contexts more difficult for us to fully comprehend.
You ask me to mention particular authors. I hesitate to do so, because at this point in my life I don’t really want to rekindle old arguments or criticize bad work that is already in the public domain and about which nothing can be done short of translating the author again.
But I will mention one Latin American poet, Mario Benedetti. Benedetti, who was Uruguayan, was one of the most important poets of his generation across the Spanish-speaking world. He was also a novelist of note. He was very poorly translated into English—something that was a great sorrow for him, as he read English well enough to be able to discern the problems with the translations of his work into that language. For many years, he worked with a close friend and very fine translator, Louise B. Popkin, hoping her translations would supplant the poor ones already out there. A couple of years ago a large bilingual edition of his poetry appeared in English from White Pine Press. It is called Witness: The Selected Poems of Mario Benedetti (2012). The translations are really excellent in every sense: meaning, voice, cultural references, irony, humor… Previous translations had gotten his work all wrong.
I also remember the anthology Ixok Amar-Go: Central American Women’s Poetry for Peace (1987), edited by Zoe Angsley and published by Granite Press. This was a large anthology, and many of us were quite excited when we heard that Angsley had undertaken such a task because women’s poetry is badly represented among existent Latin American translations, and this anthology proposed to go way back, presenting work from indigenous women as well as from some of the very early known texts. Angsley had great intentions. I myself translated some poems for this book, and there were many other translators. The problem was that while some of them were quite proficient others were completely inept, and Angsley was either incapable of checking the translations or didn’t think to get someone capable of doing so. The result was an ambitious book filled with glaring translation errors. Extremely uneven. One example I remember after all these years is senos rendered as brains rather than breasts! I no longer have a copy of Ixok Amar-Go, so cannot reference other problems.
Sadly, this sort of mistranslation is not infrequent, even with the work of well-known poets and authors. Large publishing houses should be able to hire experts to go over translations before they are published, but often don’t. Smaller houses don’t even have this luxury. And because few editors know the original language, many mistranslations slip by. We need an industry-wide consciousness of the importance of excellent translation and the disservice that is done to a writer if his or her work is badly translated.
Christopher Schafenacker: Thank you for providing such a thoughtful response. It is insightful and not at all what I expected—a pleasant surprise. Rereading my last question, I realize that I did not phrase it very well. I’d meant to ask which works, in your opinion, have not been translated but ought to be? That is, which authors or entire literary movements are missing in translation in the sense of needing better global representation? Would you kindly share your thoughts on this matter?
Margaret Randall: To add to my answer, I would have to say that I don’t know literatures except for those from the Spanish language, so I can’t really say with any authority which ones that are not yet translated should be. With two exceptions: Latin American women’s poetry, and Latin American indigenous poetry. There are so many great Latin American women poets who should and could be in good English translation. As for the second category, of course I realize it may be difficult to find translators who know, say, poetry in Quiche, Maya, Purepecha, Guarani or the many other indigenous languages of Latin America, and are also expert at translating that language into English. And the same can be said for any of the world’s indigenous languages. Increasingly, however, we are aware of active literatures in many of those languages.
Christopher Schafenacker: Thank you.
Taken in Mexico City during a series of activities organized in honour of El Corno Emplumado / The Plumed Horn by Barbara Byers, February 2015. Felipe Ehrenberg (a painter who designed many of the journal’s covers) sits on the left with Sergio Mondragon in the centre and Margaret Randall on the right.
Margaret Randall visits an exhibition in commemoration of El Corno Emplumado / The Plumed Horn hosted by Centro Cultural Tlatelolco of the Autonomous University of Mexico (UNAM). It will run until April 24, 2015. Photo by Barbara Byers.
Several years ago, photographer Tod Seelie made a beautiful contribution to DB 13, Winter 2010-2011, entitled “Square Landscapes.” Now, that same array of stunning photos is back as part of our vintage series to be enjoyed once more. Take a moment today and soak up the creativity of Seelie’s quadrilateral-inspired scenes like the one above.
Tod Seelie is a well-traveled and published photographer with work spanning 25 countries and five continents. His pieces have been exhibited both solo and in groups worldwide, as well as appeared in top publications including The New York Times, TIME Magazine, and Rolling Stone, just to name a few. In 2013 he published his first book of photography, entitled “BRIGHT NIGHTS: Photographs of Another New York.” To see more of his work and investigate the considerable amount of time he has spent aboard homemade watercraft, check out his website, todseelie.com.
Loren Kleinman’s third poetry collection, Breakable Things, is a brave reaction to the harsh realities that often lead us down the dark path of loneliness in our search for authentic love. From abusive relationships to relationships that we do not want to lose or do not want to accept, this collection reveals that our hearts can break just as easily as a wine glass or a cupboard full of dishes. The perspective is often in the first person, a tribute to Kleinman’s bravery as well, for there is no braver writer than one willing to expose themselves to the world, a literary nakedness if you will, and Kleinman does this beautifully, neither with malice nor grievances, but with compassion and understanding.
In the opening poem, “Breakable Things,” from which Kleinman’s new collection takes its title, pushes us head first into the harsh world of loneliness. She writes:
Day after day,
I sit in the kitchen,
eating, smoking, drinking
I’m the only girl in the world,
hiding in cabinets
next to the breakable things.
Loneliness can be a symptom of depression. We often try to escape the pain it delivers by resorting to drugs and alcohol. In the poem, “Stuck on Atlantic between 3rd and Bond,” Kleinman writes, “I am horny now/and want a man to fill me.” Instead, it is only “a sip” (of what I assume to be wine, since it is referenced throughout the collection) and “a dusting of coke” that fills her. She is so distraught not finding true love, that she wants “…to forget about love/all 220 pounds of it.” It is as if, “You’re on the hunt/for something unknown/You want it,” as her poem, “Play of the Duede,” discloses, but you have to “travel to another world” to find it.
But we often find ourselves in dangerous or even deadly situations. We might, out of desperation, accept an abusive partner or, in extreme cases, take our own life. In the poem, “He Throws the Hot Kettle at Me from Across the Table,” Kleinman writes, “It burns/Skin is a hot bed.” And then, “His hands come/and choke my neck/cuts off my breath.” And finally, “Air, I want air/Breathe, breathe. And in the poem, “Past Love,” Kleinman reveals a destructive result of a friend’s unfortunate decision to commit suicide: “And I couldn’t get there in time/to cover your eyes and the head/from the gun.”
But all is not lost. Loneliness can be conquered. For Kleinman, dialogue is the starting point on our journey to escape the cabinets of loneliness. In her poem, “The Past is a Full Room,” Kleinman writes, “talking about love/and you fall into it head first.” Kleinman assures us that our hearts are resilient and strong and, with the right attitude, we can crawl out of the darkness into the light of authentic love. She admits that the journey is a tough one. We will, all of us, experience hardships, whether it is the death of a friend or the cruel and surprising actions of someone we trust. However, if we forgive those that have hurt us, if we persevere and overcome our own weaknesses, the darkness will fade away. We might have to sleep in many beds to know true love, as the poem, “The Beds I Slept In” suggests, but our battered hearts, one day, will be rectified. In fact, the poem, “Keep Smiling,” guarantees it:
You look through the night
towards something you see,
and you recognize it
in front of you…
Breakable Things is an honest assessment of the hardships of a lonely life. Blunt yet sensitive, they penetrate the heart and guarantee that, if we continue bravely on our journey to discover authentic love, we will find it. This is an impressive achievement.
Matthew Hamilton holds a Master of Fine Arts from Fairfield University and is a three time Pushcart Prize nominee His chapbook, The Land of the Four Rivers, published by Cervena Barva Press, won the 2013 Best Poetry Book from Peace Corps Writers. He lives in Richmond, VA. You can contact him here: http://matthewahamilton.com/.
Some useless rain falls overnight. It sounds unfamiliar, the way you remember it, sounds beautiful.
In the feed this morning, cats. Selfies, shining like a fiery beacon, live stream of the Mission police station shutdown, the science of why stepping on legos makes you want to die, FUCK credit reportz, the woman who fell in love with a tree, a baby’s guide to sleep-training your parents, lotta feminista, Los Tigres del Norte are making gay norteno history, here comes the whole foods-ification of marijuana, more snow, fellowships, fire, new poems in new journals, new poems in old journals, new books, penpals and John Keene’s post on Thinking Its Presence: The Racial Imaginary Conference, UMT, Missoula.
I just wanna throw my voice over there, I wanna send you.
In the feed last week, in the wake of the disaster of Kenneth Goldsmith’s reading of Michael Brown’s autopsy report with a photo of Michael Brown projected behind him, at a conference based on the idea of interruption at which Goldsmith insisted on not being interrupted while he read the autopsy report he’d edited so as to end his reading with comments on Brown’s “unremarkable” genitalia,
in the wake of that particular, familiar north american avant-garde disaster, and in the wake of the quiet aftermath at the conference of not interrupting, of not making it stop, in the wake of the interruption that did come afterwards with people calling Goldsmith out on twitter and in essays and blog posts and status updates,
some arguments started showing up fairly quickly, arguments about how talking about this disaster just fed into the Goldsmith machine, the internet fame, the way Goldsmith initially re-posted critique of his personal avant-garde disaster hashtag “lovingthehate” until he stopped doing that,
and some arguments started showing up saying that “white supremacy” was the wrong or even irresponsible term to use for this familiar sort of north american avant-garde disaster,
some arguments that Goldsmith’s reading was important because it provoked conversation, made people think, kept Brown’s murder by police at the front of people’s minds, even though the reading was a mess and a failure, this too is what art is about, making mistakes, so the arguments went, on and on,
that talking about this disaster or continuing to call it out was to somehow obscure the conference in Montana happening the same time as Goldsmith’s reading,
some arguments that lamented the amount of time spent on Goldsmith instead, and wouldn’t it be better if poets focused on what was good and right in the world of poetry, what they loved or even just liked, wouldn’t it be better if poets focused on what felt useful and productive, ok so nobody said productive but that’s how those arguments felt somehow, like, keep producing, move forward, get past it, stop calling out the particular, familiar north American avant-garde disaster.
But what if it feels important to keep calling it out, what if what you love is that people won’t stop keeping it at the top of the feed.
When the rain first started falling last night I was trying to write this another way, it went like this:
It’s never been more clear never been more clarified that at the level of the anthology, of the institution, the ones with money and interest in building or maintaining schools or movements or strains of U.S. literatures, unless the framework has been or is explicitly culturally nationalist or emerging from social movements or anti-racist or feminist or queer or anti-capitalist, it’s always been a white supremacist capitalist patriarchal venture.
It’s a fucked up relief to say so after years of bumbling around in my dumb white female body talking about it with others, with great nuance! and complication! counting things or getting dressed and undressed in the middle of a conference paper, a befuddled jab somehow at this problem I think now, the whole tangled thing.
Just bashing one’s head against it, the thing that reared you.
I was trying to hold race and gender together there, when I started writing this last night. Even though I know that at the level of the anthology, the institution, the reading series, the magazine, that unless the feminist framework has been or is explicitly anti-racist it’s also often been a white supremacist venture.
And other knots in the tangle of domination.
But I also notice I was having a hard time just saying it, writing through the unfamiliar rain.
John Keene describes the “emotional discomfort, sometimes expressed in body language, as caution, or hesitation, or carefulness, in speaking and acting” of some white people at the conference in Missoula.
John Keene names with far greater clarity what I was trying to when he writes that the conference in Missoula “directly grappled, in discussions that took place both inside and outside the various classrooms and auditoriums, with the discourses and ideology of whiteness as normativity, and the systems and structures that have made it so, institutionalized racism, and, in particular, the unnameable thing in our society, the ideology of white supremacy.”
JT names with far greater clarity what I was trying to when she posts in the feed: OHHH & IF YOUR “POETRY” IS NOT ACTIVELY WORKING TO DISMANTLE WHITE SUPREMACY, IT IS PROBABLY SUPPORTING IT.
The unnameable thing.
In the unfamiliar rain that sounds like you remember it, that sounds beautiful, it’s important to pause there and listen. Something’s getting clarified. There is a lot to learn. Or stay with. Come alongside.
It’s because the work of so many.
Because Cathy Park Hong and Delusions of Whiteness in the Avant-Garde.
Because the Mongrel Coalition Against Gringpo.
Because Amy King and Why Are People so Invested in Kenneth Goldsmith or is Colonialist Poetry Easy.
Because Heriberto Yepez and El escándalo del sujeto-concepto: Kenneth Goldsmith.
Because Timothy Yu and Engagement, Race, and Public Poetry in America.
Because Morgan Parker’s White People Love Me: Dispatches from the Token.
Because Aaron Apps’ The (Dis)embodied Voice: A Response to Kenneth Goldsmith.
Stephanie Young lives and works in Oakland. Her most recent book is URSULA or UNIVERSITY. Other poetry includes Picture Palace and Telling the Future Off. With Juliana Spahr, she edited A Megaphone: Some Enactments, Some Numbers, and Some Essays about the Continued Usefulness of Crotchless-pants-and-a- machine-gun Feminism. She edited the anthology Bay Poetics, and is managing editor of Deep Oakland (www.deepoakland.org).