1. How did you start translating The Star-Spangled Brand? What drew you to this work?
Marcelo and I published an earlier bilingual edition, The World as Presence, in 2016. He had already started writing these new poems as that book went to press. I was intrigued. After decades of famously ruptured relations, the U.S. embassy raised its flag in Havana in 2015, a highly symbolic event. Marcelo was taking his camera out to photograph happenings in a charged atmosphere. Along the way we did this interview, in which he discusses photography as well as poetry. It took him years to complete the poems, and in those years, the Trump administration dramatically reversed the course of U.S./Cuba policy. The ramifications of the reversal for everyday people are intense, and Marcelo has been exploring them in entries that swivel between those opposed scopes, the grand and the small.
2. What are some of the main challenges you’ve encountered in translating this work?
Well, one is the practical challenge of working with someone whose technological resources are shrinking. It’s a new variation on an old story, in the sense that I have had to do tech workarounds since I started translating Cuban work. Email access has often problematic for Marcelo, especially since 2017. Sometimes we use a tool like Facebook to talk. Now I can see Marcelo also using SMS and Facebook/Messenger within some of the poems in this new book. It makes sense. Relating across divides, and all the difficulty that results from those divides, is one of the central themes in this book.
3. What are you reading right now?
A lot of things crashing in simultaneously. I’m writing and translating while also drastically remaking my teaching during the spring onset of this pandemic.
I’ve been going back into Marguerite Duras, especially the various war-related notebooks. Also, revisiting Anne Carson’s Autobiography of Red. For a dose of now, I’m reading bits of Lana Turner 12, slowly and out of order – this week a dossier by Roberto Tejada, whose thoughts are always illuminating, and poetry by Tongo Eisen-Martin, whom I’ve only gotten to see perform live once, last year, and that was memorable. In similarly disorderly fashion I’ve read sections of Ghostspeaking, by the Australian poet/translator Peter Boyle, who has been translating José Kozer. Peter’s own book features “fictive poets” from Latin America and beyond, announcing their fictive nature openly on the back cover. FYI, there’s a short poem that Peter attributes to one Federico Silva, called “The Translator’s Eyesight.” It departs from a misreading of a Spanish word.
Another zone of my brain extracts things from rereading as I teach amid pandemic. I’m thinking about how the sacred and the profane meet in the poetry of Raúl Zurita, and how the profane meets the sacred in a novel by Roberto Bolaño, trying to preserve those dynamics from the crushing digital-brain demand. For another class, a short stay with Lourdes Casal.
Yet another brainpart reads as translator. This week: Marcelo, Reina María Rodríguez, an essay by Raúl Zurita.
Swerving into visual art eases the pressure on all of those brainparts. I’ve been looking at books by María Magdalena Campos Pons and Tanya Marcuse, and remembering works from visits last year to Houston (Shaun Gladwell’s “BMX Channel” at the MFA) and Montreal (William Kentridge at MAC). Each of them creates mesmerizing scenes.
This week’s Poesía en acción feature also includes:
Poesía en acción is an Action Books blog feature for Latin American and Spanish poetry in translation and the translator micro-interview series. It was created by Katherine M. Hedeen and is currently curated and edited by Olivia Lott with web editing by Paul Cunningham.