Questions, Occasions, Questions

By Jen Hofer


Portrait of Pura by Rachel Mason         Portrait of Forrest by Rachel Mason

Forrest Gander is the author of numerous books of poetry, including Eye Against Eye, Torn Awake, and Science & Steepleflower, all from New Directions. Gander also writes novels (As a Friend, New Directions) and essays (A Faithful Existence, Shoemaker & Hoard). His most recent translations are Firefly Under the Tongue: Selected Poems of Coral Bracho (New Directions), No Shelter: Selected Poems of Pura López-Colomé (Graywolf), and, with Kent Johnson, two books by the Bolivian wunderkind Jaime Sáenz: The Night (Princeton University Press) and Immanent Visitor: Selected Poems of Jaime Sáenz (UC Press). He teaches at Brown University.

Pura López Colomé spent her early years in Mexico City and Mérida, Yucatán, and currently lives in Cuernavaca, Mexico. She has published nine volumes of poetry including El sueño del cazador (Cuarto Menguante), Un cristal en otro (Ediciones Toledo), Aurora (Ediciones del Equilibrista), Intemperie (Ediciones Sin Nombre) and Éter es (Conaculta). She is well-known for her Spanish translations of works by Samuel Beckett, Bertold Brecht, Seamus Heaney, and Rainer Maria Rilke, among others. Her latest poetry collection, Santo y seña (Fondo de Cultura Económica) was awarded the prestigious Xavier Villaurrutia prize.

As a youngish poet and translator whose work has been indelibly influenced by both Pura’s and Forrest’s writings and translations—particularly by Forrest’s pioneering and generous anthology, Mouth to Mouth: Poems by Twelve Contemporary Mexican Women (Milkweed Editions, 1993), which includes work by Pura and 11 other poets—I found this opportunity to ask Forrest and Pura questions about their practices and perspectives both daunting and thrilling. The concerns expressed in their work mirror my own very closely, especially when it comes to the relationship of language to power and the potential of poetry to transform or illuminate social and political spheres. Setting my fears aside, or perhaps, rather, placing them front and center, I wrote some inquiries and contemplations based on my own most present and pressing questions as a writer and translator, filtered through years of reading and returning to both Pura’s and Forrest’s work. The results have left me with more questions than when I began, which is perhaps the mark of a good conversation.

This conversation took place over email, between Los Angeles, Providence and Cuernavaca. It seems fitting, somehow, that much of our interchange occurred between languages, or inclusively among them. Pura answered my initial volley of questions, (written in English) in Spanish, and in the time it took me to translate her responses into English, Forrest answered those responses, referencing in English terms from the Spanish that I had yet to render into English—a perhaps perfect example of the leaps of faith and informed coincidences translation entails.


The world is undeniably troubled, as are numerous aspects of our local contexts (energizing recent presidential election results notwithstanding). Why poetry? In asking this question, I recognize the assumptions about poetics and politics that form the foundation of the question itself; feel free to take issue with the framing of the question as or in your answer—this invitation extends to all the questions I’ll ask.

Pura: The world is always a place of tribulation, in one way or another. We merely understand the “dark times” Bertolt Brecht talked about more astutely as our consciousness develops a sharper capacity for penetration, as we become more and more apt at getting outside ourselves and feeling compassion (passionate “withness”) toward others. Undoubtedly, what distinguishes poetry (and art in general) from all other human activities is its transformative power. After seeing one of Turner’s paintings, it is not possible to consider those “natural” occurrences, those landscapes, those clouds, in the same way. After listening to Celan talk about the “game” of emotions that appear and disappear (talking about his mother’s heart, beating in a fountain, in the midst of a moor, at the beginning of a sentence, here or there), the reality of those spaces remains forever shifted, can never be what it was. So many times, as a girl, I heard, in the mouths of so many Catholic believers all around me, that “not a leaf on a tree moves” without the intervention of divine will. For me, in time, such acts of faith came to be somewhat questionable, to say the least. Later, a few years ago, I witnessed up close the murder of an entire family a block away from my house. All the neighbors were inundated with panic for a variety of reasons, but of course there had to be one old woman who said: we can’t forget that “not a leaf on a tree…” I didn’t become an observant Catholic again, but I did write a poem in which that diffuse, incomprehensible, intangible will has a heartbeat of its own, and changes our perception of people who believe in something, call it God, destiny, evolution, genetic recombination… This, I suppose, has something to do with W.H. Auden’s position in “Musée des Beaux Arts,” in which art, and above all poetry, is capable of absorbing permanent suffering, the common denominator of the human race, the ephemeral and vulgar elements that are implicit in even our most elevated emotions or our most profound thoughts.

Forrest: I remember Jack Gilbert telling me once that all poetry does is allow us to suffer more efficiently. It’s hard for me to keep coming at this question because it’s so easy to find myself dressed as a cheerleader. Why poetry? Because in this aggressively non-contemplative epoch of spectacle and technology, the young continue find it, it upends them, it harrows souls. That poetry does not matter to everyone doesn’t mean it does not matter.

In a talk on translation at the AWP conference, later reproduced on the Green Hill blog, you (Forrest) said:

We might go so far as to say that one form of totalitarianism is the stuffing of expression into a single, standardized language that marches the reader toward some presumptively shared goal. If our country’s self-assurance, its reliance on a grammar of linearity and commerce, its obsessive valuation of measurement and scientific objectivity brackets-off realms of perception, of possibility and difference, then translation offers refreshment. It shifts our perspective and realigns our relation to the world, bringing us into proximity with others. It can draw us across that most guarded border, the one we build around ourselves.

In light of these comments, I’m particularly interested in one of the choices you made in a translation of “Origo,” from Intemperie. In the context of a third-grade language test, the speaker of the poem is asked to conjugate a verb of her choosing in any way she likes. “Sin dudar un instante, yacer es la elección, presente imperfecto de mis con jugos. Transparente, revelada exultó mi lengua.” (“Without a second’s hesitation: to lie, the present imperfect of my con jury. Transparent, revealed, my tongue exulted.”) The particular double entendre of the verb “to lie” in English does not exist in the Spanish verb yacer. What was your thinking in making this choice? Were you intentionally commenting on the falsehood or deception inherent to totalitarian or imperialist language impulses, so prevalent among those who use English to rule the world?

Pura: The example Forrest chose (yacer, translated as to lie, taking into account its double meaning) is splendid. Precisely because it uncovers, as I said before, something new that was already there. Because it adds something. Because it moves the poem beyond where it was before. Because it uncovers the gift, the offering that had been hidden up to that point. Because by moving that reality toward the aforementioned world of promise or probability, perhaps it might discover truths that the author did not intend to place out in the open. And, above all, because it makes the poem come to life in that other language, with all the elements that language alone possesses, that language alone entails. Just as in English the word lie contains a double meaning, in Spanish, the verb yacer is extremely difficult to conjugate (and more so for a girl in the third grade), and is generally used to refer to a cadaver (in which case the meaning that follows it would have something to do with death). The integrity of the language being used, if it is apt, will offer marvelous and unexpected solutions most of the time. Etcetera.

The poem “Prisma” (“Prism”) suggests that pilgrimages and prayers (and I might venture that writing is both, among other things—would you agree?) are engaged in part in order to “olvidar la futura historia,” “to forget the future history.” “La muerte del beso” (“Death of the Kiss”)—which in its epigraph from Celan also invokes prayer, and its twin body, blasphemy—approaches the relationship of writing to history, the potential constructive/destructive forces at work in our practice:

el Verbo se desprende hablado The Word comes forth spoken
y es muerte corporal escrita, and it is death written down,
divina materia que besa eternamente a divine substance eternally
las espumas de una luz marina. kissing the sheen of a marine light.

Do you see writing as the past pushed into the future? Can writing build anything? If so, what, and how?

Pura: Poetry constructs parallel worlds. It makes us stretch, as if we were made of rubber, toward the people it is possible for us to be, toward our possible realities, starting from the matter that forms us, dark and light. We can live there, in a world of eternal possibility and perpetual promise that are equally tangible (as dreams are). And in the very instant we seek to define poetry, pin it down as if it were a simple matter of free will, or as if this were the only guiding energy, everything becomes an option—good or bad, better or worse; then the plurality of meanings hidden in the poetic word is threatened; that word becomes univocal and collapses.

Forrest: I choir with the “we” of Pura’s response. In poetry, I become aware of what I feel, think, intuit. Poetry helps me articulate the terms of my engagements with others and with myself. It seems to me that ethics derives, principally, from imagination, and specifically from the imagination of someone or something else suffering. Once we make intimate contact with another imagination, we’re faced with a recognition. And maybe that recognition leads us to a sense of responsibility.

The poem “Te sigo” (“I Follow You”) delineates a beautiful territory within which subjectivity and relation are intertwined and intangible:

Verse sin el mundo, To see oneself without the world,
no reconocerse en el espejo. not to recognize oneself in the mirror.
. . . . . .
Los mejores sentimientos se descubren The finest feelings come clear
al recordar tangible a otro ser in the tangible memory of someone
cuya apariencia es ya intangible. whose appearance is already intangible.

Could you use these lines (or perhaps others of your choice that seem more apt) as a point of departure for thinking about the poetics and processes of translation?

Pura: Is poetry translation an open path? That’s how I conceive of it. And I’d add, also, that it has no end; it’s not possible to know for certain where it will lead, nor whether it will lead to any point in particular or if it will merely exist as transit; it’s not a simple round trip trajectory. As it turns out, it’s a journey, as both Walter Benjamin and George Steiner would say, through which we discover something new that was already there. That’s the most important thing. Something the author herself (or, we might say, the first author, since the translator is, in some way, also an author) did not unveil because it remained veiled to her, because it needed the translator to appear. In this sense, actually, the translator does not “recognize himself in the mirror,” as he might by writing an original poem, since in the first place he must account for what someone else said before. Just as in the moment of writing the poem we accounted for the bird’s utterance or the rusted gate that opens or the insult coming from the mouth of a beloved person or the fervor or poverty of the pilgrim, in their role as sources of inspiration, visionary moments in which the prism of the instant emerges. The poem being translated is the source of inspiration that causes the translator to activate his or her stylistic resources not in a primary instance of writing, but in a secondary one. From this we can deduce that it’s not modesty that characterizes translators: the original poem is that other voice, that other breath that inspires, and nothing more. And it is, therefore, quite clear that this translator must in turn be a creator.

Forrest: Looking at Pura’s responses to your questions, Jen, reading words like penetration, transformation, killed, belief in something, parallel worlds, a journey, already there, visionary, perception, I’m reminded of Thomas Hardy, a poet I’ve heard Pura recite by heart at length. There is that poem (George Oppen loved) called “The Oxen” in which Hardy mentions an old country belief—that at midnight on Christmas Eve, oxen, in homage to Christ’s barn birth, will kneel in the straw of their pens. Hardy lives in the darkness on the far side of faith, but he wants to believe. In the last stanza of the poem, he says that he if someone invited him to “see the oxen kneel,” he would “go with him in the gloom/ Hoping it might be so.” He’s hoping, yes, but he’s headed into gloom.

Pura’s poems are like that, dark, but with a molten trickle of transformative possibility running through their darkness. And translation itself is like that. The translator carries a small hope into the gloom, into the certain impossibility that any poem can be torn out of its language and reborn into another language.

You are both translators, and you have both been translated. How has being a translator and/or being translated affected your own practice? How has the experience of explicitly internationalizing your own reading and writing practice affected your perceptions of literary life “at home”?

Pura: I personally feel that it has enriched my poetry, because it offers very different ways of approaching poetic experience, eliminating the risk of simply skating across the surface of resources that have already been used, perhaps ad nauseam, in Spanish literary traditions. And here I’m referring exclusively to stylistic and perceptual resources, NOT (NEVER) to linguistic ones. We must care for our own language as our most cherished treasure. If not, that language will return us to the quagmire, and will make us pay a very high price: we will get out of tune.

I think the best translators are poets whose style and expressive substance are very different from those of the author they’re translating. For example, you and I have extremely different ways of approaching the tasks of poetry. Forrest, do you agree?

Forrest: Yes, as poets our styles are very different, Pura, but I strongly identify with your work, with its seriousness (and even its serious playfulness), with its dark surge and its undercurrent of visionary intensity, with the way you bring language, consciousness of language, into every exigent equation, with the shifts in subjectivity that your poems suggest, the “me, it, us” of that third section of “Three Lacustrine Scenes” for ready instance. Your poems shock me and in that state of shock, I’m stripped of my own habits of seeing and of writing. I translate your poems in a nakedness I do not come to on my own. And in that nakedness, I’m sensitive to modes of listening and seeing that are otherwise unavailable to me.

Maybe that’s one way of considering the question of how translation has affected my practice, but in this case, practice and being are synonyms.

Poem IX of “Aurora” unfolds a gorgeous space for poetic attention:

Qué escuchas, To what do you listen,
me pregunto, I ask,
si no es canto if it isn’t a song
lo que sale de la boca, leaving your lips,
sino hambre, sed sincere it must be hunger, the sincere thirst
de este muro of this wailing
de lamentos wall which
que es la piel. is the flesh.

How at this moment would you describe what you listen to—which song, which hungers, which thirsts?

Pura: I’m incapable of describing these experiences univocally or rationally. So I’d prefer to respond with a stanza from the poem “Death of the Kiss:”

¿A quién besas, Whom do you kiss,
a quién tocas, Whom do you touch,
a quién te unes, to whom are you joined,
don de fuego, gift of fire,
etéreo nudo corredizo? ethereal slipknot?
Tras los velos de silencio Behind veils of silence
del lecho de la cámara profunda From the deep chamber’s bed
se escucha la palabra del Amado: one can hear the Beloved’s word:
soplo…breath… breath…soplo…

All that’s heard is the breath. It’s up to the reader to define the melody of hunger, of thirst, of love.

Forrest: When you ask what we are listening to, Jen, and where we are at home, I think of Pura listening to opera. And of her son, who is a tenor, singing in German. I think of Pura’s poem from Santo y Seña/Watchword, “Que escándalo/What a Din.” It’s a poem about coming home through listening, and it’s about transformation and translation.


Qué Escándalo/ What a Din

By Pura López-Colomé  translated from the Spanish to English by Forrest Gander

First Tempo
the chords of your before
and your afterwards.
Your now.
The slow, steady
you bring with you into those high
platform dives into sleep
—an arc devised at a distance—,
into a pool
of clear water,
you alone and your soul
emerging later
into a universe
of diamantine

Last Tempo

The incomparable return home,
waking from a hypnotic trance.
Consummate beauty of the central pipe
of the organ in an ancient cathedral,
the concert hall
of your life:

a princely ascent,
end and beginning;
an alliterative thank you too
and the corresponding
I won’t forget you barely audible.
A fugitive hiss,
tortured hummingbirds,
witnesses to a rest in peace,
a tumbling
from one branch to another,
never again to lift off
and implode.
All that molecular coruscancy,
the briefest revelation.

The scratch of the pen’s tip against a leaf of paper,
of the green tree tip against a leaf,
hand and bird plucked
by the sheer speed of movement.


Tell me how
to calm myself before
the descent and the rest,
and to the rescue
of that din
in the silence.

Note: All poems/translations referenced in these questions (other than “Qué escándalo/What A Din”) are from No Shelter: The Selected Poems of Pura López-Colomé, translated by Forrest Gander (Graywolf Press, 2002).


JEN HOFER’s recent publications include The Route, a collaboration with Patrick Durgin (Atelos, 2008), a translation of books two and three of Dolores Dorantes by Dolores Dorantes (Counterpath and Kenning Editions, 2008), and lip wolf, a translation of Laura Solórzano’s lobo de labio (Action Books, 2007). Her forthcoming books are from the valley of death (Ponzipo), Laws (Dusie Books), one (Palm Press), a translation of Guatemalan poet Alan Mills’ Síncope (Demónio Negro) and Aerial 10, a critical volume on the work of Lyn Hejinian, co-edited with Rod Smith (Edge Books).

Portraits by Rachel Mason.

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