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. 

Jody Gladding on Marie-Claire Bancquart ‘s “[—What did you say? Lost empires,]”

This poem by French poet Marie-Claire Bancquart appears in a forthcoming collection, Every Minute is First (Milkweed Editions, 2024), the first major translation of her work into English. I fell in love with Bancquart’s poetry when I discovered it in an anthology of French women poets twenty-five years ago. I make my living largely as a translator, so the relationship of my own poetics and writing to translation is fairly straightforward: translation literally supports my poetry practice. But most of my translation work involves prose, for which there’s a market.

During the first months of the Covid pandemic, in spring 2020, I was living in France, had just finished a big prose translation project, and suddenly had time on my hands. We were in lockdown, or confinement as it was called there, which meant we could only go out for necessary errands and for walks within a kilometer of home and lasting no more than an hour. I decided to use this opportunity to translate poetry—as a labor of love—and to work on a long poem, a variation of the open “through line” form I’ve adopted in my two latest poetry collections.

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.

Bancquart is not the only poet to write about soap. The mystery of things that grow “by getting smaller” has also captivated Mary Ruefle who writes in “Lines Written on a Blank Space”: “I lifted the sponge / and touched the soap— / would it be gone by September?” The poem ends with a darkly comic shift to the soap’s perspective: “I lifted my long terrible arm/ and turned on the water.”

From March to May, I spent mornings working on my long poem and afternoons translating poems from TOUTE MINUTE EST PREMIÈRE, a collection that draws from Bancquart’s final books and was published the year of her death, 2019. My long poem did not turn out to be funny, or have soap in it, and bears little mark of Bancquart’s influence. But she was wonderful company throughout those months, keeping me grounded and light.

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The Mary Ruefle poem quoted, “Lines Written on a Blank Space,” appears in Indeed I Was Pleased with the World (Carnegie Mellon University Press, 2007) and Mary Ruefle: Selected Poems (Wave Books, 2010).

Writing Prompt

Consider a household item that wears away/gets used up. Include in your poems vast shifts in scale and scope (from morning shower to fall of Babylon, for example). Try accompanying those movements with tonal shifts, so that the poem may begin lightly and turn more serious, or vice versa.
Jody Gladding

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Jody Gladding

Jody Gladding is a poet and translator whose most recent poetry collection, I entered without words, was published in the Princeton Series of Contemporary Poets in fall 2022. She is also the author of the spiders my arms (Ashata Press, 2018) and Translations from Bark Beetle (Milkweed Editions, 2014). Her many translations include the forthcoming Second Star by Phillipe Delerm (Archipelago Books, 2023) and Lichens: Toward a Minimal Resistance by Vincent Zonca (Polity Press, 2023). She has received a French-American Foundation Translation Prize, Whiting Award, and Yale Younger Poets Prize. She lives in East Calais, Vermont where her work explores the places that language and landscape converge.