What Sparks Poetry

Translation

What Sparks Poetry is a serialized feature in which we invite poets to explore experiences and ideas that spark new poems. 

In our series focused on Translation, we invite poet-translators to share seminal experiences in their practices, bringing poems from one language into another. How does the work of translating feel essential to the writing of one’s own poetry? Our contributors reflect on inspiring moments as intricate as a grammatical quirk and as wide-ranging as the history or politics of another place. 

“Explore What Sparks Poetry” is made possible with funding from The Virginia Commission for the Arts.

In “A Fear Growing in My Heart,” the speaker fears her oncoming death, finds it ridiculous and sad that while there is silk around her now, there will be none in the grave. But then the speaker says to herself, “your limbs are like limbs carved/from ivory.” This simile speech act not only quells her fear, but also saves her from dying. By transforming herself in words into something fashioned from the materials of another creature, she saves herself.

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Programs like “Poetry Lives Here” are the result of a series of yeses and a village invested in a common goal, group, and ethos. Poetry by living poets reminds us that we live in a world shared by others in real time, and that especially matters during liminal periods marked by uncertainty and isolation. I’m inspired by people—JDC scholars, my community college students, women and children living in shelters— who navigate these waters—however they can—and (to borrow from the great Lucille Clifton) manage to “sail through this to that”.

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The dead dog on the beach at high noon. The hole of flesh. The hole in which all other words have been buried. I lived with these images and tried to let them suffuse the soul and the spirit of this translation, while also allowing the soul and the spirit of The Loose Pearl to suffuse and affect me.

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Reading the poem I was given, ‘The Enduring One’, I sensed a flavour of the Old Testament books of Genesis and Proverbs, of Norse sagas, of the Finnish Origin stories as told in the Kalevala. There was the same sensual lyricism, the fabulous nature of the tales and the sheer urgency of telling. Also the sense of long kinship, the importance of genealogy and the need to remember, especially heroic forebears.

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And the fate of identity, our fate at the end of life, is also landscape in Chinese poetry, as when T’ao Ch’ien says in the fourth century: “Once you’re dead and gone, what then? Trust yourself to the mountainside. It will take you in.” Or indeed, as modern astronomy and cosmology has taught us, with its birth and death of stars and planets like ours, our fate is ultimately out there in the cosmos— a fact Li Po sensed beautifully in his “Drinking Alone Beneath the Moon,” a poem about drinking wine here in the Milky Way, which the Chinese call the Star River.  

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What I recognized in “Verse” when I first read it were the characteristics I enumerated in my brief essay on Julia’s work for Asymptote: humility, a childlike originality of vision, and profound empathy. Here she extends her empathy to her art, personified as a singular muse–not Calliope with a tablet or Erato crowned with myrtle, but a “moon-white bull.”

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Although the source text of “After All the Birds Have Gone” is in the present tense, its frame of reference is of survival, invoking the past, while the implied conditional hints at the future. I chose to translate it into English’s simple present tense, but I first wrote and rewrote it into various tenses, shapes, and sounds, finding them each true in their way. Like my private, convertible self-narrativizing, this poem’s translation is a generative action. Confronted by constant and various potential mortalities, tense is both irrelevant and fragile.

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Bancquart’s poems are spare, grounded, and, for all their attention to demise, surprisingly light.  Just the thing for a pandemic.  This poem with its “lost empires” and “catastrophes” counterbalanced by a shrinking soap bar seemed particularly suited to the moment.  I was struck by Bancquart’s vertiginous shifts in scope/scale, producing the same effect they do in cartoons—making us laugh.  

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This tactility relates to yet another thing I love about this poem: the tangibility, the extremely object-based nature of its objective correlative. Touching real vellum makes you think: what else might lurk here? Prayer book not only as transmitter of the holy word, the rites and rituals we use in hopes of getting closer to God, but also as a transmitter of, well, fingerprints. Germs. The actual physical residue of the lives of our predecessors, of those who have “handled, embraced, kissed” these artifacts before we came along.

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The tone of Proust’s À la recherche du temps perdu is reminiscent of Nerval’s novella Sylvie, and one can feel his influence in Surrealism’s first manifesto, the final sentence of which could serve as a summing-up of Nerval’s own poetics: L’existence est ailleurs. (Existence is elsewhere.) An accomplished translator and wide-eyed traveler, it seems clear that Nerval’s precise but dreamy writing owes much to experiences of pushing beyond limits and borders.

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I’ve been rereading Javier Peñalosa M.’s poem “La grulla” for years now. I was moved to translate it (as “The Crane”) because it made me feel the way the Wright quote does, and because I both did and did not understand it, not entirely. I still don’t claim to, or care to. I translated this poem because I wanted to get closer to it. Sometimes that’s the only reason.

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Kamensky’s “ferroconcrete poems”—for so he called his experiments in innovative typography—resemble Cubist paintings in how they are sectioned, but they also offer a response to Italian Futurist manifestos for a new poetic language. Each poem arranges words on a single page, like a poster. The reading order is left largely up to the spectator. The poems mix nouns referring to things seen with nouns referring to the reactions of the invisible lyrical subject.

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To persist in time is to be an individual, a life. To exist only as a grammatical form is to be taken out of time. Only after years of reading Miłosz did I understand that, for him, to live on in this form of immortality is not a triumph of art, but a marker of absolute loss.  

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I first opened fretwork three weeks after my father's unexpected death. I had to stop reading after the second poem. I returned the book to its shelf and distracted myself with a gossipy novel. A few months later I tried again and found fretwork to be a necessary companion to my evolving grief.

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I keep returning to Sun Yung Shin’s The Wet Hex. I read it on New Year’s Eve and again earlier this month as part of The Sealey Challenge. It is, poem-by-poem, brilliant, personal, candid, emotionally resonant, fantastic and sensational, mythical and mystical and musical, technically-sharp, lyrical, and attentive to the details in languages.

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In recent years, he and I had joked about spending our retirement together on a bench on upper Broadway, haranguing the pigeons and the traffic. It isn’t going to happen. But something even lovelier continues, and I rejoice for him and for his best beloved in their inevitable reunion, when a light changes in eternity.

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