What Sparks Poetry


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. 

Andrew Zawacki on Sébastien Smirou’s “The Lion”


Just over a decade ago, in April 2012, I ducked out of a Parisian artist residence to travel stateside for a week with French poet, psychoanalyst and, by then, my friend Sébastien Smirou. (After having nearly scuttled our trip by neglecting to apply for a visa, and only realizing his mistake the night before takeoff, Sébastien would be especially excited, once finally on the ground, about hitting Burger Kings along our route. Needless to say, it was not all Baudelaire and Poe all the time.) Thanks to Rosmarie Waldrop, my translation of Sébastien’s debut poetry volume Mon Laurent had just appeared from Burning Deck, as My Lorenzo, with a killer introduction by Jennifer Moxley. (Depending on which of us was speaking, Sébastien and I variously referred to these books as mon Mon Laurent, ton Laurent à toi, or even ton Ton Laurent, or else my My Lorenzo, your Lorenzo, ton Lorenzo en américain, and so on.)

Our itinerary: Miami of Ohio, where we were welcomed by Cathy Wagner, who used the phrase “critical chops” in her intro, which I loved; the Poetry Center at Cleveland State, hosted by Michael Dumanis; the then brand-new Poets House in Battery Park, in New York, in cahoots with Pierre Joris, emceed by Stephen Motika; and the Woodberry Poetry Library at Harvard, where Cole Swensen joined us onstage, under Christina Davis’s hospitality. Cole was especially welcome, for she along with Sarah Riggs had paired Sébastien and me, back in summer ’05, for the inaugural Tamaas translation session. It was there in the shade of Columbia University’s Reid Hall outpost in Paris where I made Sébastien’s acquaintance and my first efforts at translating French poetry.

I have extremely fond memories of all these places and faces. Nor were they alone: my former student, poet Jessica Bozek, was in the audience at Harvard, as were Damon Krukowski and my longtime friends Matt and Ravit. Cris Cheek was front and center in Oxford, OH (characteristically dressed in a bedazzlingly patterned shirt), as was Marcella Durand in Gotham, where my close friend Luke and his son Jimmy, my godson, showed up too. I mention these many dramatis personae because most of them served as integral participants, in one way or another, all along the translation process. (Herself translating Michèle Métail at the time, I recall that Marcella was particularly incisive in confronting Sébastien’s alexandrines.) They were certainly central to the so-called ‘readings’ that SS and I delivered, live.

The four evenings each began with me and Smirou taking turns reading from our Lorenzo de Medici books. At the same time, he’d scroll through a series of images by Italian painters—Uccello, Boticelli, Ghirlandaio, et al.—which he dubbed “Lorenzo’s pictorial universe.” The slideshow was historical and educational and gave the audience something in color to see. Here, for example, is slide 8, Benozzo Gozzoli’s Journey of the Magi:

The orthodox part of the evening once completed, we turned to our current project—very much under construction—namely, the English translation of Sébastien’s sophomore book, a bestiary titled Beau voir. (Cole would publish my See About with La Presse a few years later.) And this is where the fun stuff started.

The plan was Sébastien’s, inspired tangentially by the so-called “torture test” that Olivier Cadiot and Pierre Alferi had devised, which involved translating Robert Duncan’s falconer-mother back and forth between English and French, so the original would bloom anew through its successive degradations. We posted a slide of a single poem from chapter 2, “the cow,” showing the French on the left, my provisional American English at right. (Beau voir comprises eight chapters, each focusing on a different animal. Every chapter contains eight poems. Each poem is an octave. The book title bears eight letters.) (You will understand why, then, when we’d sit down together at the table to begin, I was unsurprised to witness Sébastien aligning his pen, notebook, water glass, and microphone in rectilinear rows, perfectly parallel or perpendicular to the table’s angles and edges.) My draft translation featured short notes, alternatives, and marginal minutiae in red, which Sébastien had not seen before.

At Harvard, we were into the third poem of “the cow,” the slide for which was this:

The idea was to get the peanut gallery, so awfully polite until now, to pipe up. Which they did, tentatively at first and then, as the walls of public lecture protocol fell, with increasing gusto. Hell, why translate alone when you can lean on other people to help with the heavy lifting? A great deal of choral intelligence and shared acumen and helpful intervention was unleashed that night. Indeed, by the end of the hour or so, the scene was pretty raucous, in part because it’s just funny to brainstorm bovine physiognomies aloud when you’re in Boston, and you’re not a farmer, and in part because translation by a committee of the whole, while opening doors perhaps otherwise locked, has a tendency to promote a sort of pandemonic one-upmanship, as if everyone had suddenly become a trader on the floor of the Merc Exchange. When push came to shove, though, the whole heteroglossia was less a competition than collaborative, of course, and what I realized I was hearing, when I took a step back for a sec, was the spontaneous curation of community coming into being, catalyzed by a couple words arranged in a peculiar way on paper. It was weirdly cathartic, its collective roaring and guffawing very much in the spirit of the book’s zoological vibe, and it advanced the translation in unforeseeable ways. What a downer, at the end of our little tour, to have to go back to working as a mere pair. (And yet that intimate distance had its singular plural pleasures as well, from the wine cellar at Sébastien’s summer home, where our families hung out while we worked, to my pal’s uncanny ability to mimic the movements a mountain goat makes in heavy snow.)


To see how “the cow” in toto turned out, have a peek at Asymptote, where Aditi Machado kindly accepted Daisy, Cindy, Semantika, and their five fellow Holsteins for publication:

Moreover, if you’re curious and possess the patience to listen to what Teresa Villa-Ignacio, in her wonderfully theoretical introduction, termed a “mise-en-abyme of translation,” the audio file of our full Omniglot session is here:

Writing Prompt

This exercise, which hails from an ingenious teaching assistant I had named Veronica, requires several people. The more the merrier. Participants transmit and transcribe a collective poem via phone calls, as per the old-school icebreaker Chinese whispers, or “telephone.” Someone begins by writing a short poem—a sonnet should be about maximum length. That person then phones up the next in the chain and reads the poem aloud. The person receiving the call writes the poem down, without asking for directions about punctuation, line breaks, whatever. (If the person doesn’t pick up, the text should be read to voicemail.) This continues through to the last participant, who presents the final version to the group for comparison with the original. What went wrong where? How regrettable—or innovative—are the mistakes? Did the poem somehow improve, or tank? When we did this exercise in my workshop, we added the element of translation. First, we made an inventory of who spoke which languages. We used that info to link people who had a foreign language in common, so the sequence would, more or less, work linguistically. (When someone knew no other language, she would transcribe the incoming English to her English.) The resultant translation—a transmuttering—diverged, wildly, from its prototype.

Andrew Zawacki

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Marni Shindelman

Andrew Zawacki

Andrew Zawacki is the author of five poetry books: Unsun : f/11 (Coach House, 2019), Videotape (Counterpath, 2013), Petals of Zero Petals of One (Talisman House, 2009), Anabranch (Wesleyan, 2004), and By Reason of Breakings (Georgia, 2002). His poems have appeared in The New Yorker, The New Republic, The Nation, and other international journals. In addition, he has published four books in France. His translation of Sébastien Smirou, My Lorenzo, received a French Voices Grant, and his translation of Smirou’s See About earned an NEA Translation Fellowship and a fellowship from the Centre National du Livre. A former fellow of the Slovenian Writers’ Association, he edited Afterwards: Slovenian Writing 1945-1995 and edited and co-translated Aleš Debeljak’s Without Anesthesia: New & Selected Poems. A 2016 Howard Foundation Fellow in Poetry, he is Distinguished Research Professor of English at the University of Georgia.