Friday, February 18, 2011


Here is a list of things I like. I feel strange, compiling my list. Who cares? Who am I? But I really like reading lists of what other people like. And I really do like these things.

ORIGINS LIQUID LIP COLOR in Wild Flower. I tried my sister’s. Now I use it. My mom tried my sister’s. Now she uses it. If you wear lipgloss and you try it, you will use it. I am a sucker for makeup--even though I don’t really wear that much makeup and I certainly don’t wear it regularly. But I like having it around. Sometimes I get all dolled up, then I sit around the house or go to bed and take a nap. I like the hope and promise of makeup; it’s depressing and optimistic at the same time. I also like looking at makeup palettes. [I wrote this entire blog post spelling it as palate and had to change it--I always do that.] But it’s like painting with expensive paints. Once you are used to an expensive palette, you can’t go cheap. Well, you can but you’ll feel sorry for yourself.

Speaking of palettes.

OLD HOLLAND SINCE 1664. The palette is so beautiful and the tubes weigh a billion pounds more than other paints. If you pick one up, it’s like you’re picking up a bar of lead. Maybe you are, come to think of it. Are oil paints still made with lead? I’ll check right now . . .

Hmm. I guess so. Just came back from the website which says “Known as hazardous when worked with incorrectly. Occurs in the case of Cadmium pigments.” My husband is partial to Cadmiums, come to think of it. Also various Naples and Ochres and the Titanium white.

He keeps a narrow palette though. He feels distain for people with overly rangy palettes. (He would deny this but it’s true.) My husband allows my daughter to play with his Old Holland paints. He doesn’t let her finger paint with them or anything but she does paint with them on canvas. That’s probably not good. Oh well. There are worse things. We don’t give her whiskey and make her sleep in a drawer.

*Note: My husband read this and said, "I would like you to correct the part saying that I use Titanium White BECAUSE I HAVE NEVER USED TITANIUM WHITE. I USE FLAKE WHITE!"

EAST/WEST. My husband was commissioned to do a painting for our building. It was supposed to be a landscape of Chicago’s West Side.

As you see, it is not. Like many artists, my husband does not take direction well. He understands that you have desires, and he lets you express them, and then he says, “Okay.” And then he paints whatever he wants. Luckily, it's difficult for my husband to pick up on when people are pissed; he is missing that part of his brain. For this reason, he’s impervious to criticism. While he was working on the painting, he was three months late delivering it. One day he said, “I think X [client] may be pissed at me.” I said, “Why do you say that?” And he said, “Because he wrote me a email today that said something like, ‘Just get the goddamned painting done already and I’ll give you your little fucking wine and cheese party.’”

My husband looked at me and said, “I never even asked for a wine and cheese party. ’”

As you can imagine, when my husband was finally finished and he unveiled his painting of the west side, the client was . . .not overjoyed? My husband didn’t understand why anybody would be irritated about such a minor thing, and he refuses to be sorry for it.

His reasoning: “The landscape was not going well. So I did this instead. The perspective is facing east. But it’s reflecting west. The reflected buildings are on the west side.”

I said, “Of Michigan Avenue. To be fair, most people don’t really consider that ‘the west side.’”

He said, “Well, he wanted it done fast. That’s what he said at least. And this painting was coming together. I can’t help it if he doesn’t feel like it’s the west side.”

I was working on this fiction book that was based on real people and real events (though sequence was altered and physical characteristics and locations were changed), and I had all these worries and concerns in my mind about the real life people. About not hurting them, but still being able to tell the story. I was agonizing over it, turning over all the different options in my mind. I said, “It’s just that no matter what I do, somebody is going to be unhappy.” My husband said, “Somebody is already unhappy.”

TRADER JOE'S HOFBRAU BOCK. Kind of orange-y. Kind of grapefruit-y. Kind of high alcohol content. Very cheap.

EL TACO VELOZ. El Taco Veloz is my favorite Mexican restaurant in Chicago. And it is so cheap; it is the opposite of highway robbery. It’s like if you were on the highway and somebody drove up next to you and started throwing tortillas in your window.

Certain aspects of El Taco Veloz may annoy you or may delight you, based on your personality type. Obviously, I am the right personality type for ETV. We are a match, but here are some things to expect so you can judge for yourself if you are or are not an ETV person.

1.) The murals inside ETV are really weird. They’re supposed to be Mexican ladies, like “maidens” or something, holding baskets of fruit and vegetables, in white flouncy blouses, as if to say “I am abundant,” but the muralist must have thought that it would be better to give the Mexican ladies a splash of whiteness, and so all of the painted ladies have these giant creepy blue eyes like Barbie is peering out of them, watching you eat your barbacoa.

2.) The music is extremely loud and sometimes a birthday party happens in the middle of the restaurant without warning. There are booths around the perimeter and the staff starts moving chairs and tables aside and it just happens. David has been there before when they moved the chairs and people started dancing. His friend Mark—not the ETV personality type--was horrified. Mark is anti-jubilance. My advice: if you don’t like spontaneously appearing children in hats or adults dancing while you’re eating, skip ETV. These are, no kidding, pictures of ETV, possibly the night Mark and David were there.

3.) Instead of giving you bowls of salsa, they put the salsa into a squeeze container (like those plastic see through containers used to hold hair dye) and you have the squeeze the salsa onto each chip. If you ask for a bowl, they will bring it and you can squeeze some salsa into the bowl, thereby avoiding having to do the chip-by-chip squeeze. But you need to MAKE this happen, be assertive and innovative and all that.

4.) They have spicy pickled vegetables on the table, which are just out there, never put away, communal, there for the taking, which does not seem ALL that sanitary. But because of the high PH, I’m sure it’s fine—or fine enough; I eat them and I’m alive, let’s just say that.

Things that may bring you to ETV: Barbacoa. Cheese or chicken enchilladas (verde). Chilaquiles. Desserts: no. Don’t get the shrimp cocktail either.

P.S. Did you know that in Mexico a taco is not just a taco. A taco is anything wrapped in a tortilla. Did you know that taco in Spanish means wedge or plug or wadding; also pool cue? I didn’t. Taco, the word to describe the food, supposedly comes from a Náhuatl word derived from tlaxcalla which means tortilla.

BREVILLE ELECTRIC KETTLE. When I bought this, I didn’t know how much I’d like it.

What’s the diff between an electric kettle and a teapot? Well, electric kettles (this one) don’t get all gunky on the inside. And they heat water SO MUCH FASTER. I use a coffee press and I don’t like waiting forever for water to heat up in the morning. Also, I hate when tea kettles scream. I hate when people scream but it’s even worse when a machine screams--because you bought something that screams at you. This kettle has the friendliest “ding” too. Like the tiniest pleasing chime. I use this kettle 5, 6, 7 times a day…and have for five years. Mine seems to have a short. Sometimes the light flickers. When I see the light flickering, I get anxious. Don’t die. I suppose I should be anxious that it may catch on fire, but I’m not.

NESPRESSO. "What else?" I don’t have this. I WISH. My friend had one in Spain. I tried it and . . . it was all over. My vacation was over. I didn’t even leave the house after that. I just stood by the coffee maker all day. I was an unapologetic coffee-swilling PIG. I made myself like 15 cups (lungo! cups) of coffee a day. The coffee maker takes a little capsule. You throw it in this hatch and it punctures it somehow and the coffee pours out a spout into doubled walled glass. My daughter’s little friend’s mother has one and when I went to their place the first time to pick up my daughter, she said, “Coffee?” And I said, “I would, but husband’s making dinner. We should probably go.” When I walked in, the first thing my husband asked was, “Did she offer you coffee? I said, “Yeah, but I said I really shouldn’t, we had to get going.” “Oh,” he said. “You really should’ve. She has a Nespresso.”

The next time I went over, she said, “Coffee?” And I said, “Oh, I don’t know, you’re probably getting ready to make dinner. (Please insist!]” She did.

“I’ll just make you one! It’ll only take a minute. How do you like your cappuccino? Dry? Extra foam? Maybe just an espresso?”

Then she got out a billion capsules. She had an entire silverware drawer of them.

“Which kind do you want? This one’s good. And this one. This is a new kind; I haven’t tried it yet. My husband likes this one.” On and on.

When I looked down, her two-year old daughter was playing with a bunch of the capsules on the floor, stacking them and putting them in cups.

I said, “Capsules!”

She said, “Yeah, we didn’t like that kind at all.”

When the spout started spewing the coffee out, I said, “That thing is so SWEET. Mmm, mmm.” Then we talked about her coffee maker for a half an hour. During this time our children were coming up to us and trying to get our attention and we were like, JUST WAIT A SECOND WE ARE TALKING. Our conversation ended with her saying, “It changed my life. And I’m not just saying that.”

[And the MOST you’ll pay for it is $799 USD!]

Nespresso also has good commercials. John Malkovich is God, a piano falls on George Clooney, etc., etc.

Wednesday, February 16, 2011


This post started out as a list of my favorite things but it was becoming way too long and so a list of favorite things will come later.

But actually, I'll list one of my favorite things: Bumble and Bumble's Brilliantine.

This stuff is oil-based and you can’t slather it all over your hair or you’ll look like a rat and you’ll cry. Here’s how it describes itself: “Gives hair polish and a sort of languid, slept-in, sexy look.”

I am ready to run out of this stuff and I’m freaking out. How will my hair look sort of languid, slept-in, and sexy?!

I wish someone would make a perfume out of Brilliantine. (And the B & B Gentle Shampoo). I wish Elisa would smell this and write a column about it. I can’t begin to tell you how it smells. But I love it anyway.

In general, I do not like anything I can’t describe. It makes me uneasy. A friend of mine wrote a poem with a line in it "[. . .] description/all I ever wanted." Actually, I don't know if those are the exact words or the line break and I'm too lazy to look, but that's the gist and I am thumping my chest in agreement. Description is all I ever wanted too.

I really don’t like when I can’t describe the food I’m eating. I cannot fully enjoy any food I’m incapable of describing. When I’m eating it, I can only focus on classifying it, linking it to some like thing. I remember biting into an avocado when I was really young and trying to assign it to something. I remember thinking something equivalent to There is no making sense of this, this food right here in my mouth. How would you describe the taste of avocado? Nutty with a spritz of citrus? That’s what I’ve settled on, and I feel comfortable with that.

Tamarind is still indescribable for me.

I eat it, not because I like it, but because I cannot figure it out. And each time I eat it I think, This time will be different. This is the time my tongue is totally going to get to the bottom of this tamarind. But that never happens.

I just read a book--I’m not going to mention its title because it really doesn’t matter--and what was strange about it was that it was a memoir, and the subject matter of the book was implicitly emotional and charged, but the book itself was not. It had no voice whatsoever. It had no style that you could recognize. It seems nearly impossible to write a book with NO VOICE and NO STYLE but yet it has been done because I just read it.

This author is successful, too. She has several books of poetry published by a major house and a book of fiction by a major house. My friend who’s a journalist read it and she said the same thing, “It’s just so . . . bland. It’s like reporting.” I said, “Not even.” She said, “Yeah, not even. You’re right. The most remarkable thing about the book is how moving it should be, yet how unmoving and dull it is.”

Maybe because the author is first and foremost an important editor, she edited out her own style and voice? Or maybe she had to keep her voice agonizingly neutral to get through the subject matter? I have no idea. It was odd.

Another thing about the book is you couldn’t classify the people in it. In good books of fiction and non-fiction, the people/characters being described draw to mind real people or real kinds of people for the reader. Or they call up a composite of several real people or kinds of people. But that did not happen in this book. It wasn’t for lack of description. There was a ton of description. You knew the sister's hair was “blonde” and she had “skinny legs” because that was in the book and maybe she was “helpful” or “quiet” or whatever but you couldn’t FEEL any of that and you definitely couldn’t classify her, like Oh, just like my friend Jane. Well, I guess you could throw her into a pile of skinny-legged people, but . . . why?

Also the characters/people were discrepant. Their actions did not go with their emotions and in fact their actions did not go with their actions. That could make for a really interesting character, like “She’s quiet homebody who loves knitting. But she also loved surfing and really tying one on every Friday night! She was quirky like that.”

That’s not what was happening. It was like you kept trying to sniff out the scent of the person, and you couldn’t put your finger (nose) on it, but every once in a while, you’d get a faint whiff of something that MIGHT be a scent and later you’d get another faint whiff of something that MIGHT be a scent, but it was so faint you couldn’t be sure and anyway, the two things you thought were scents were so far from each other. It was like smelling cleaning fluid and hot dogs.

My friend always used to say about people, “She/he dresses with humor.” I knew immediately what she was talking about. Not like an “I’m with stupid” T-shirt or a beer can hat with hoses.

But just . . . with humor. *After just being asked for an example, I said: my sister. I hope she doesn't mind but I'm going to post a pic of her. She has it on Facebook anyway.

Here's another:

Note the kitty earrings? Are those kitties? Maybe robots? Oh, speaking of. Here's her Halloween costume:

This same friend who noted that people dressed with humor could not like people if she could not classify their clothes. She did not TRUST people if she couldn’t classify their clothes. She said (suspiciously), “It’s like you’re looking at his clothes thinking, 'Where did he even BUY that?'”

Again, we’re not talking about somebody wearing some pants made out of cellophane or a dress made out of dollar bills. We’re talking about somebody wearing pants that looked like they might have been from the 50s or something, something a math teacher might wear in the 50s, but they were never stylish then and they’re not stylish now, they don’t exemplify “50s style,” so there’s no way he got them from a vintage store and there’s no way he got them from a contemporary store because everything about them is dated and wrong for this century. So where did he get them?

Maybe this guy's uncle was a math teacher in the fifties and now the uncle is dead and this guy has him stored in his attic and every day he removes his decomposed uncle's pants and wears them? Then puts them back on his uncle at night? I suppose that is the most reasonable explanation.

Friday, February 4, 2011



I read manuscripts for Switchback this year, like more than a hundred manuscripts for their contest, which was the most useful thing I've ever done for my writing. I saw thousands of perfectly proficient poems--good poems, even great ones--but after reading many of them, I wondered, "What is at stake here? Why must it be this writer who is writing this poem?" And most of all, "What’s with the full-on stage makeup and gorilla suit? We like you for who you are. But we can't see who you are. You don't need to be so ambitious and anxious."

Is this what you want?! Is this what I want?!

If you plan to publish poems, it’s hard to write like you don’t know someone’s watching you—because (if you’re lucky) someone will be watching you at some point. And as you’re writing, unless you’re insane or completely obliterated with various substances, you’re most likely watching yourself.

So, yeah, when reading the manuscripts, I kept thinking, "I am not judging you, friend. I just want to see what you've got. I just want you to bring it to me. That's all you need to do."

Thinking this made me cringe because, of course, I feel judged and watched all the time when I'm writing, and thus, cannot bring myself to bring it. It happens to the best of us. It's hard not to perform for your audience. It’s hard not to see yourself sitting in the audience in your underwear.


The winner of the Switchback contest, Jennifer Tamayo? Let's just say her poems were not overly focused on her audience.

I looked back on my comments in the electronic submissions software, and I had written something like, "HAHAHAHA….OMFG is this woman serious? I'm not sure I care. I sort of LOVE these poems. Definitely a finalist for me."

It was the only manuscript that, all the way though, felt unburdened and free. It really felt like I have fifteen minutes left on earth, and so excuse me, I must go write this manuscript.

It was ridiculous, how messy and associative her manuscript was. If you were the one who wrote it, it would be nearly impossible not to think at some point, “Why am I writing this? Nobody will ever publish this fucking thing.”

Which, of course, is why we had to publish it--because it looked and felt like nothing else we had seen. And it's hot to be ignored. It's like when you're sitting on somebody's lap all minxish and they're reaching around you to type and talking to themselves:

I am going to align this header to the RIGHT. I am going to change the font right HERE. I am going to put my driver's license HERE and lady parts HERE because it feels absolutely right to me. Yes, yes. Obviously this manuscript needs these things.


I had huge amounts of respect for Switchback for choosing that manuscript. It was a risk. I think when everybody found out who the winner was, and that she had published poems in Action Yes and Diagram we were thinking Thank god we weren’t just really tired or in a weird mood or something. Obviously, other poets and editors we respect are seeing the same thing as we are.

I also think, though nobody said it aloud, we were thinking, Either this person knows exactly what she's doing or she is typing this from the church of batshit.


Tamayo is a tornado. Her poems are like watching a natural disaster. They whirl around in an  interlanguage (self-created)--a conceptual limbo that exists from incorporating some aspects of a new language while still receiving a significant amount of interference from the first—-in this case, Spanish. But of course, this is further complicated by the fact that this interlanguage is inside of (on top of?) a third language, i.e., poetry.

When you’re teaching ESL and reader/writer/learner is stuck in interlanguage, you must analyze their errors and correct them so they can eventually leave that limbo and make it safely to the other side, to the second language, without becoming "fossilized," without having non-target forms become fixed. In other words, fossilization has happened if, after a billion years of instruction, you keep making the same mistake over and over--it's like a fossil inside of a rock, except the rock is your brain--and no amount of explanation or correction can remove it or stop you from making it.

There are many self-constructed non-target forms in Tamayo’s work, but are they fossilized? We’ll see. The Gatewood contest is a first-book contest.

Tamayo herself has taken on the task of error correction and we have an open window though which to watch it. The thing is, there’s a difference between an error and a mistake—-which Tamayo well knows—-and that’s the most interesting part of this book for me.

*Actually, from now on, for these next points, I don't want to refer to Tamayo the writer as "Tamayo" because I don't want readers to mistakenly assume that I'm talking about Tamayo's abilities and language skill as an ESL learner. So I guess I will call the student/teacher/learner--i.e., the overarching guiding voice in these poems--poetry mouth.

1. Sometimes poetry mouth makes a linguistic error, except it doesn’t know the rule, and so it stands uncorrected. “I dance the movements gentle. I sew a man rolling his eyes in the back.”

2. Sometimes poetry mouth knows the rule. It just says: I take your rule and I crush it, I crush it. Because I am poetry mouth! For instance, “I feel out how SHE feels me writing this;” No, PM, you mean, “feels ABOUT me writing this.” “No, reader, I actually meant just what I said, i.e., “I try to figure out how on earth she senses that I am writing this.”

3. Sometimes poetry mouth knows the rule but simply slips up and accidentally deviates from it and then self-corrects, e.g., “Stretch then into nonsense. Stretch them into nonsense.” Come to think of it, this actually might be #2--the word "then" possibly meaning "at that time" or "immediately after."

4. Sometimes poetry mouth makes patterns of repeated mistakes which other people wrongly detect as errors, but they’re actually just embedded patterns of slips. This might be an example a repeated slip, wrongly interpreted as an error: “They weaken with my breathe.” I say this because about 90 percent of people write that mistake--native English speakers/writers I mean.

5. Poetry mouth tends to make certain types of corrections more than others—for instance, discourse, content, and lexical corrections make a bigger appearance in these poems than grammatical ones. That’s where the desire to step in and fix stuff as an outsider comes in: "My eyelids are feel upside down and I know what has happened.” No, poetry mouth, it’s “My eyelids are FEELING upside down." When people’s eyelids are feeling upside down, that is how you say that.

6. There is danger of too much focus on error and poetry mouth knows this. It can diminish a sense of accomplishment. It can actually hinder language proficiency--in this case, the language of poetry. Thus, there are perfectly unblemished sections. “The rapid language acquisition at these years will separate natives from non-natives. Do you know Mr. Potato head?”

And then, soon after [in this case, in the very next sentence], the mistakes/errors start back up. “Do you now the “Ten Little Indians” song?”

7. Poetry mouth realizes errors should only be corrected by a teacher when a student is linguistically ready to accept that correction. Except that poetry mouth is both the teacher and the student, which complicates the matter slightly.

Reading this manuscript really is so similar to watching and listening to someone learn a language. It’s fascinating and thrilling and unnerving and extremely irritating. You really want to get in there and fix things, correct it, help it. You want to figure out: What EXACTLY does this poetry mouth know? What exactly does it know it knows? But it doesn’t want your help. Does it even know the word “help” or “fix” yet? It has to, right? It just used the word "clitoris" and drew a picture of it.

To figure out what second language learners know (I don’t know if English is indeed Tamayo’s second language, I know nothing about her but the author is clearly fluent in English and not stuck in an actual state of interlanguage), you need to consider competency vs performance and comprehension vs production.


We know poetry mouth is a poor performer (as noted above). It somehow does not seem to see itself in its underwear. Some people act like they don’t see themselves in their underwear, but that’s because they love being in their underwear. They love letting everybody see them in it and sneaking glances at themselves like, “Mmm, mmm, mmm. Pretty good.” That’s not PM. PM is honest-to-god NOT performing. But that’s not to say it’s not competent. Poetry mouth makes a ton of technical mistakes, but it competently nails the more subtle and complex aspects of language—humor, slang, irony. Book is funny, people. I like a funny book of poems. I approve.


We know PM has comprehension down. That comes from being competent (which, as noted above, it is) and listening well (which it definitely does). Production always lags behind comprehension so it’s not really a good indicator of how much anybody learning a language understands—and this is the case with that “gral” PM, too. Don’t you mean that “girl” PM? "Yeah, that 'gral,' that's what I said." See?

I’m pretty sure poetry mouth understands everything in fact. You better be careful. When you are not watching, it is going to turn to its teacher and tell her, “Shut up, motherfucker. Well, at least that’s what my mom always says to me! Ha ha."


Apart from watching and analyzing the language of PM, I like how Tamayo ties the content in this book together so so so tangentially--mother to country to language to childhood, with some sex thrown in--and then just leaves it, just walks away. It’s so life-like. Certain events are connected, certain themes are recurring, but you're not sure how because you're inside of those events, you're too busy generating themes from those events to deconstruct and analyze them real-time.

I was terrified upon rereading the poems below that I would think Jennifer Tamayo’s poems were terrible. But I still love them. Jennifer Tamayo’s poems have "it." She's real. She is really in her underwear. Nobody say anything.

P.S. I JUST remembered last night that Tamayo's manuscript is called (or at least it was when she submitted it for the contest) The Hanging Cloud of Read Mistakes. Told you she knows what she's doing!

Here are some of her poems at Diagram.

Here they are at Action Yes.

Thursday, February 3, 2011


Everybody is at AWP now. But me!

I debated going. Should I go? Should I not go? Given my experience last year, with terrible panels and being the only person at the conference who did not know that Denver makes you much, much drunker than usual, was it worth it?

Granted, nothing says, "I am really making great connections and am sure to crush the literary scene at any moment," like running from a Nigerian with Leigh and having absolutely no recollection of it.

Still, in the end, I decided I would not go, that it wasn't worth it. I was going to go to a conference about young adult writing in January. That conference probably would have been very useful and worth it. But I didn't go. And if I couldn't go to that, I figured there was no way, money or time wise, I could justify AWP, considering my life's earnings are in no way connected to poetry and considering I have children who tend to miss me when I leave them.

I'm sure some people will say that I am cheapening poetry by saying that it holds less value for me because it has no monetary value. But I'm not really saying that, of course, and you know that. Or maybe I am and what if I am.

I'm sure some people will say I'm cheapening the value of poetry by saying it holds less value to me than my children. But that's because some people had parents who did not love them and still don't, and for very good reason.

Speaking of children, why doesn't AWP have childcare options again? Remind me? Is there no grad student who could get a discount to AWP for watching some kids for half a day? I always feel like such a square pointing these things out. Like I'm not bohemian enough to just dump my kids with my spouse for three or four days (or not give birth to them in the first place) so I can go to poetry conferences. I am not bohemian enough. The square cat is out of the square bag.

I will make it to AWP next year. It will cost me $2.25 to get on the El, and I'm saving up, so I will be able to buy at least a five ride by then. If not, I can walk. The Hilton is walkable from my place. Two years ago when I went with my friend Mel, we walked there. We were going to walk home, too, but by night, alas, it was not walkable. Somebody poured grain alcohol on Randolph and it grew, longer and longer, wetter and wetter, into a river. So we got into a cab and floated down the river to the Fulton Fish Market. Hello there fish we thought. The thought sounded like, Hrble thblr fble.

Everybody's freaking because of this blizzard. I love blizzards. I love apocalyptic weather in general. I like blackouts in the summer, too. I liked how during that blackout 10 years ago Mayor Daley got on the news and he was so pissed at Com Ed, he couldn't even speak, he was like me, talking to the fish. Also, I love how everybody feels compelled to tell you exactly how the blackout personally affected them.



Second post on translation.

I’m translating Anna Aguilar-Amat’s fifth book Color Charge, as mentioned. As I'm doing it, I'm asking myself all sorts of questions: How liberal can I be with line breaks, with meaning, with word choice?

A few weeks ago, Anna said, "It's interesting working with another poet. As you're translating, you're rewriting."

At first I felt terrible about this. I felt like I was this fifty-foot-tall ogre, trampling all over somebody's garden with my big-ass feet.

It didn't really help that on the same day, I read this really great interview on translation--Kyle Minor interviewing translator Elizabeth Harris.

Elizabeth Harris said this and I really like this idea (obviously):

“Many people go into fiction translation through their expertise in a foreign language, but they don’t necessarily know how to write fiction in English, and that can be a real problem.”

But then later she says this:

“When I was a student, I think I relied too heavily on my own writing skills, if that makes sense. So I mentioned earlier that people coming to translation through their language training might be at a disadvantage; well, so are writers, if they can’t get past their own style or sensibilities. The more that I’ve translated, the more I’ve worked to capture the rhythms of the original; I don’t want to iron out the original in my English version. I need to recognize a writer’s idiosyncrasies, what makes that writer’s style and voice. Of course I also don’t want to make a text clunky as a result of clinging too tightly to the original; it’s a balancing act. But I’ve increasingly put more trust in the author I’m translating.”

Ouch. I didn't like reading that. It's really hard for me to get past my style and sensibility. It's really hard for me to use words I don't like. I just . . . cannot use them. I don't want to. It's a problem. I always wondered how people could be actors. I could see myself, over and over again, saying, "I'm sorry. I know it's in the script, but . . . I'm not saying that. I'm just not going to say that."

It's hard, too, for me to tell if I don't like a word because of my own style and sensibility or because the culture I live in has destroyed it, and maybe I wouldn't feel that way if I were, say, Spanish. For instance, in this poem, "Orography of Air," I could not bring myself to use the word "angel" and so translated it as "spirit." I could not bear to use the word "wing" as it relates to "angel" and so substituted it with "pinion." So "angels tickle it with their wings" became "spirits tickle it with their pinions." Which is much more musical to my ear. And more importantly does not offend my sensibilities. I don't like overtly Christian symbols in poetry. Anna clearly does. I should respect that but I am a fifty-foot-tall ogre in her garden and so I cannot.

In my defense, this idea of being tickled by an angel reminds me of that TV show "Touched by an Angel." It's the first thing that comes to mind for me. The second thing that comes to mind is Precious Moments, those porcelain knickknacks. In Spain, does that show exist? Do precious moments--not the valued experiences, the decorative objects? I don't know.

If they did, would Anna have used angels and wings? Knowing Anna, I want to say no.

The other day I found an interview online with Anna, in which she says this about translating:

“It’s important for the translator to be a poet or somehow to become a poet in order to hear and work freely and flexibly with the possibilities of the language of reception. The instinct of fidelity has to be a little more diluted here because the important thing is to find what effects are being sought, a rhythm, musicality, and beauty. Yet I think there’s always a way of transmitting these poetic contents. Translating poetry is a difficult job and you should let yourself go, as you do when you write, there’s music playing there and you have to perceive it with your other instrument, which is your language.”

Here are some other great quotes from Anna--not related to translation but just to poetry in general.

“Basically the poet is a failed being, who recovers when he or she translates into art through the word, the impotence of living in and adapting to the society and culture of his or her birth.”

“There are very few writers I’m faithful to and that I keep going back to. I like what’s new, the very latest thing, what the young people are saying, even if they’re not the most virtuoso or most learned of poets. They’re the ones who, at the time, are vibrating with the maximum restlessness [. . . ] I like the poetry that takes risks and faces questions and challenges things, and that is even a bit aggressive at times, in the best sense of the word.”

Here's the whole interview:

And here’s Anna, reading "Orography of Air":

Here’s my translation, pinions and all:

Orography of Air

In the air there are mountains and plateaus
with their foothills, hollows, chasms, slopes.
The clouds rise and circle the mountains. They never
reach the very top. For this reason,
we never see the caps and think
the air has no sharp corners.
Something similar happens when it comes
to the soul. So few people see its geography
for what it is;
they are not familiar with its gaps, its caves.
They take the risk of flying through it
as if it were a flat surface.
There's no use warning someone who wants it
to be simple that it is complex.
Even so, it is simple, really:
the sky has a back and only wants
someone who's willing to scratch it when
spirits tickle it with their pinions.
To do this, you need to learn
to see spirits, and to see them you
need to learn to love. To love
there is no need to learn how to learn
and, in fact, it’s much better
not to know anything about it.