Tell us something about the new anthology, “La Oscuridad Intacta”. How did the idea start? What was it like working with Editorial Pre-Textos and Gustavo Solórzano?
In 2012 Gustavo Solórzano-Alfaro wrote me about some translations he was doing of my poetry. We started corresponding. He then translated three long essays. After the essays appeared, Gustavo said he wanted to do a volume of selected poems in Spanish. Having seen how excellent his work was, I instantly agreed.
The project meant a great deal to me. My mother was Mexican-American, and I grew up in a Mexican neighborhood in Los Angeles. With this new book, it feels as if my poems were returning home.
Gustavo was an ideal translator. He immersed himself in my work. He made his own selections for the book. I only suggested two or three additions to his list. He asked questions about some of the subtle secondary meanings of certain passages, but he needed little help. I urged him to translate the formal poems in form whenever possible. Once he had done his versions, we went over them together. Most of my suggestions concerned the music of the lines or subtle shades of meaning.
I should add that there were two poems in the book which are composed from American idioms and slang—“Money” and “Title Index to My Next Book of Poems.” They are impossible to translate literally. One has to create equivalent idiomatic versions. I gave Gustavo complete freedom to recreate them. It was fun to see what he came up with.
Pre-Textos is a wonderful publisher. They did everything we needed. For that, Gustavo gets all the credit.
You were already a renowned poet in America. Why did we have to wait so long to have your poetry translated into Spanish?
Actually, I did have an earlier book, “La Escala Ardiente”, published in Mexico in 2010. It contained translations by José Emilio Pacheco, Elsa Cross, Hernán Bravo Varela, and others. But the collection had little distribution. No one saw it outside of Mexico. The Pre-Textos volume will be the first time my poems are widely available in Spanish.
What words or verses in Spanish, from your own poems, caught your attention in the new book?
My poems have been translated into many languages. Sometimes they work in the new language, sometimes they don’t. The literal meaning is correct, but literal meaning is only part of a poem’s full meaning. A translation needs to capture the heartbeat of the original. Otherwise, it only speaks to the rational mind and not the reader’s unconscious and physical body.
I told Gustavo that the translations needed to have rhythm and music in Spanish. If he had to twist the meaning a little, that was fine. I was astonished to see how resonant his translations are—without losing the meaning of the original.
I grew up hearing Italian and Spanish every day in my childhood. My English has a more Latin quality than many American poets. Gustavo crafted lines that are perfect equivalents of my English. In “All Souls’, ” for example, the final line reads, “The pallor of the rose is their despair.” It became “La palidez de la rosa es su desesperanza.” That has not only the same meaning as the English but also the same weight. Or a line from “Marriage of Many Years” that reads, “You are a language I have learned by heart.” It became “Eres un idioma que aprendí de memoria.” “Idioma” seems a perfect choice, even though it might not have been the obvious word. “Memoria” gives the line a resonant ending.
Poems like “Sand Pebbles” and “Marriage of Many Years” seem to have strong influences from Neruda. Am I right?
Yes, you are right. I wrote “Sand Pebbles” on Waldron Island in the San Juan Islands between Canada and the U.S. I was staying with the composer Morten Lauridsen who had done some magnificent settings of Neruda’s poetry. He asked me to translate Neruda’s sonnet “Ya eres mia.” Doing that translation brought back my sense of Neruda’s sublime lyric abandon—something one just doesn’t find in American poetry at present. That inspired me to try for bigger music and emotion in these poems. I also have another poem titled “After a Line of Neruda,” in “Pity the Beautiful”. It isn’t in my “99 Poems: New & Selected” or “La Oscuridad Intacta”.
You have been active supporter of public readings. You are also a great poetry reader. What American poets were also great declaimers?
I believe that poetry is the sister art to song, so the physical sound and rhythms are essential features. You need to feel poetic language in your body. That is true for both the writer and the reader.
The great American modernists did not give many public readings. They wrote in private for the page. They heard their verbal music in their inner ear; they had little practice in speaking it aloud. Wallace Stevens is a poet of immense musicality, but the few recordings of him are awful. He mumbles his lines like a lawyer reading a contract. E. E. Cummings, Robinson Jeffers, and Marianne Moore are all equally bad. I flinch at how they mangle their own marvelous poems.
T. S. Eliot read well in a very dry style. He probably learned something about public reading from hearing Anglican liturgy. Robert Frost was the only major poet of that generation who was entirely comfortable with public performance. It was only with the Beats that oral performance was taken seriously again.
What about American poets today?
Today readings are the main way that American audiences encounter poetry. If people read actual books of poetry, it is likely that they bought the copies after hearing the poet do a reading—in person, on the radio, or on the internet.
Among current poets there are still a surprising number of awkward performers. Many poets read in what American writers call the “Iowa Writers’ Workshop style”; they read in a flat voice but raise their intonation slightly at the end of each line. It sounds very affected.
The best poets speak their lines naturally with a subtle emphasis on the rhythm. Kay Ryan, who is probably the best living American poet, reads her short, dense poems splendidly. So did the late Richard Wilbur. Billy Collins, who writes comic poems, has perfect deadpan delivery. The best poet I ever heard read aloud was the late Michael Donaghy, who died in 2004 at the age of fifty. He recited his poems as if he were creating them as he spoke, full of quiet emotion, crafting every phrase. (Donaghy has been translated by the Mexican poet Pedro Serrano.)
In your poetry, sound and rhythm are fundamental. Can you tell us something about that process? What comes first—the sound or the idea?
I get ideas for poems all the time, but poems based on ideas rarely come alive. A real poem starts with a first line that embodies a rhythm and hints at a meaning. Sometimes I know where a poem is going, but often I don’t. I have only an intuition or emotion. The process of writing the poem discovers the meaning. Poetry requires the participation of the unconscious—the part of the mind where dreams come from. Only an inspiration strong enough to push up from the unconscious will have the necessary energy to make a poem.
Do you read your poems aloud as you write them?
I say my poems aloud as I compose them. Ideally, I write most of the poem as sound. I walk around muttering the lines to myself. That lets me feel the words physically. I write down a line or two after I have said them aloud in endless variations. I keep walking and talking to myself until I hear exactly what I’m looking for. Then I write it down. By the time I’m finished, I know the whole poem by heart. A poem needs to be memorable. If I can’t keep it in my memory, how can I expect a reader to remember anything from it?
From here, it seems curious that you were labeled as a formalist for using rhythm and metrics. In Chile, metrics have been used even by innovative poets like Nicanor Parra or Enrique Lihn.
I found the experience of being attacked for using meter and rhyme very odd. I write both formal poetry and free verse. Because some of my poems used formal metrics, I was denounced by many critics and poets. The same thing happened to other poets of my generation.
We defended ourselves by writing essays on poetics. The public debate dominated American poetry criticism for a decade—the so-called “Poetry Wars”. We were labelled the “New Formalists,” which wasn’t intended as a compliment. Ironically, all the controversy made some of us modestly famous.
Can you explain this resistance to metrics in American poetry?
Why did it happen? The narrow-minded attacks came as a result of the institutionalization of creative writing in American universities. By 1970 hundreds of writing programs had emerged across the U.S. Thousands of poets taught creative writing. An academic profession had been created.
The profession became very conformist. Creative writing programs standardized their practice and poetics around the free verse that was fashionable in the 1960s. Younger poets were expected to write in those pre-approved styles. In academic programs, most young poets followed the conventional styles; they wanted to get tenure. But there were a number of younger poets—such as myself—who wanted to create a more musical and democratic style. We sought inspiration both from the popular arts and the literary tradition.
New Formalism was a generational battle. Most of the people attacking us were a generation older. We were the rebellious children. The older generation felt that their style should be our style. We insisted on the freedom to write in our way. That seems a very basic right for any writer.
Forty years later, it is clear that we won the cultural battle. Today in the U.S. poets can write in any style they want, including rhyme and meter.
Almost thirty year have passed since Can Poetry Matter? was published. What has changed and what has remained from your diagnosis? (In Chile it feels as if it were written yesterday.)
Most of the problems have remained, but the larger context of American poetry has changed greatly for the better.
The problems caused by the academization of poetry have grown worse. The programs are still insular. Poetry reviewing remains self-serving and untrustworthy. The teaching of literature in the university has become so narrow and theoretical that fewer students study literature. The profession is shrinking. Consequently, there are fewer jobs for young writers in the university. When they are hired, they are often exploited with poor wages and no job security. The graduate programs continue to grow; universities need lots of poorly-paid graduate students to teach basic classes. Few of them find employment after finishing their degrees.
The good news is that American poetry has grown exponentially outside the university. Poetry is now the fastest growing art in the U.S. The audience has almost doubled in the past five years. The democratic renewal I called for at the end of “Can Poetry Matter?” has actually happened. There are now thousands of venues in the U.S.—bookstores, libraries, cafés, pubs, galleries, and community centers that sponsor poetry events. There are also innumerable independent presses, small magazines, websites, on-line journals, podcasts, and radio shows.
There has even been an explosion of civic offices for poets—state, county, and local laureates. I recently served for three years as the Poet Laureate of California. During that time, I did over 125 public events across the state. Even in rural towns there was always an audience. And no matter how small the town, there were always local poets.
A “New Bohemia” has emerged in the U.S.—active, inclusive, democratic, unacademic, and geographically dispersed. American had a few historical bohemian neighborhoods where artists congregated, mostly in New York and San Francisco. By contrast, the new bohemia is both everywhere and nowhere. Writers and artists are linked by technology and common purpose. One doesn’t need to be in a university or a specific urban neighborhood to participate.
In another interview you mentioned that a literary canon should be made from a local perspective. Could you tell us more about this idea?
Everyone sees the world from a particular perspective. Where we live influences how we see literature. The “literary canon” is just a list of books and authors people feel are worth reading and studying. As T. S. Eliot pointed out, the canon is never fixed. The list changes slightly every time a major new work is created. New works not only establish their own place in the canon; they also change the way we see the past.
For global languages, such as English or Spanish, the canon is difficult to determine accurately. There are so many possible perspectives. The way the world looks in London or Madrid is not the way it looks in Los Angeles or Santiago.
I was born and raised in Los Angeles, one of the world capitals of culture. New Yorkers mocked L.A. It was “Tinseltown,” a place without serious culture. Yet when I grew up L.A. was the home of Igor Stravinsky, Aldous Huxley, David Hockney, and Alfred Hitchcock. Our local writers included Ray Bradbury, Raymond Chandler, Octavia Butler, and Charles Bukowski. L.A. jazz had Chet Baker, Charles Mingus, Chico Hamilton, Dexter Gordon, and Art Pepper. New York ridiculed or ignored all of these trends, but science fiction, fantasy, and noir detective fiction proved to be more influential both nationally and internationally than the high-art trends of Manhattan. West Coast jazz reached a global audience. The “local” art had international impact.
As a California poet, I realized that my cultural and physical landscape was as authentic as anything in Boston or New York. California had a Latin and Catholic history. Los Angeles is one of largest Spanish-speaking cities in the world. California English has Spanish inflections. Half of our population is Latin or Asian. We face Asia and Latin America. Is that less valid than facing Europe?
Our landscape was primeval and pristine only two hundred years ago. We still live surrounded by untamed Nature. During the past few months 4 million acres in California have burned from fires started mostly by lightning. We also have earthquakes and floods. Our sense of Nature is different from someone in New York City. This perspective gives Californian literature a different quality than East Coast or British writing. The differences aren’t weaknesses. They are an ontology.
Finally, there is a need beyond creativity to establish a regional canon. There must also be strong and intelligent criticism that champions the best local work. Not just essays but also anthologies, magazines, websites, conferences. The critical enterprise begins the process of change that eventually transforms the national and international canons. No one in the old literary capitals will do the task for us.
Sorry to be so long-winded, but I think what I am saying applies as much to Chile as to California.