1. How did you start translating Nicole Cecilia Delgado’s poetry? What drew you to it?
This is something of a personal project, as I have known Nicole Cecilia Delgado for over 15 years and as it is my first major translation project focused on a fellow Puerto Rican poet. We met in New York, where Delgado was living at the time. She then spent years living in Mexico before returning to Puerto Rico, where we reconnected during my frequent visits there. She introduced me to a lot of younger poets, and shared with me the incredible work she was doing, first with Atarraya Cartonera (the first cartonera publisher in the Caribbean, which she co-founded with poet Xavier Válcarcel) and then with La Impresora, the alternative and activist publishing project she co-directs with poet Amanda Hernández. A big part of Delgado’s work, as both a poet and publisher, is about imagining alternative ways of living: ecologies and economies of poetry rooted in the interpersonal, the collaborative, the open-ended, and the non-hierarchical. Her vision has become really powerful to me as I seek to understand the terms of our survival as Puerto Ricans under neoliberal austerity and neocolonial extractivism. I am especially interested in how Delgado’s work embodies space through a fraught vernacular poetics that complicates male-centered genealogies of Boricua poetry. I write about her work in the new volume Geopoetics in Practice, where I consider it as an alternative to the literary littorals of so much modernist and vanguardist Puerto Rican poetry (everyone from Luis Palés Matos to William Carlos Williams). Delgado’s work has something of the heavy ironies of modernist poetry (“watching the hazy insecticide sunset over a beachfront city”) but there is great poignancy to how she counters the ravages of colonialism with an ecopoetic eye, in sometimes startling disjunctions and juxtapositions: “My friends leave for the United States yet sea turtles are nesting.”
2. What are some of the main challenges you’ve encountered in translating this work?
One of the obvious difficulties is the “Noche de San Juan” in the title. It refers to the celebration of Saint John’s Eve on June 23rd (right around the summer solstice). In Puerto Rico, we popularly celebrate it by falling backward into the ocean three times. This ritual (at once playful and purifying, like Delgado’s poetry) is evoked for me by the short sequences of the poem, many of which are three lines long. I chose to leave the term in Spanish given its untranslatability but also because it can be easily googled. Additionally, I wanted to retain another possible meaning embedded in the term: “Noche de San Juan” as in San Juan (at) night. This other meaning opens up the poem into a dissonant nocturne, finding beauty amid the urban noir of a ravaged yet rebellious city. Although it was written before the historic protests of summer 2019, this poem was one of my soundtracks as I marched and protested and read in Old San Juan alongside poets like Delgado and Raquel Salas Rivera. (The poem appears in Delgado’s latest poetry book Periodo Especial, which was published in the spring of 2019.) Delgado’s work has been an essential point of reference for translocal Puerto Rican poets such as Salas Rivera and myself, and that is one reason I knew I had to translate it. (The poetry of Puerto Rico remains largely unknown in the English-speaking world, despite its richness and breadth and a strong diasporic tradition.) Last summer, I looped back to Delgado’s poem while watching the cargo ships in San Juan Bay during a lull in the protests; while watching an unabashedly feminist and genderqueer insurrection in a colonial city (“Gender is an imposed order and we don’t follow orders,” Delgado writes); while watching the cobblestoned streets become their own necessary poetry of survival (“Poetry died but we’re alive.”) As a poet, Delgado is in conversation with other poets who play with the vernacular (Beat poetry and Alejandra Pizarnik both get irreverent shout outs in Periodo Especial). Translating the tonal complexity and affective intimacy of Delgado’s poetic vernacular was one of the main challenges for me, and I am grateful for her generosity–not to mention her ear! (Delgado is a gifted translator as well as a brilliant editor and publisher.)
3. What are you reading right now?
So many of my favorite poets have new books out or almost out this year, but have had to scrap conventional book tours due to the coronavirus pandemic. At or near the top of my reading list are Year of the Dog by Deborah Paredez, Habitat Threshold by Craig Santos Perez, More than Organs by Kay Ulanday Barrett, Kontemporary Amerikan Poetry by John Murillo, Repetition Nineteen by Mónica de la Torre, and that’s what you get by Sheila Maldonado. Some books that I have loved teaching this semester are Diana Marie Delgado’s debut poetry collection Tracing the Horse, Nana Kwame Adjei-Brenyah’s debut short story collection Friday Black, and the Duke University Press reedition of Aurora Levins Morales’s classic Medicine Stories (her new book of prose poems, Silt, is also terrific). I recently blurbed the Operating System’s beautiful bilingual edition of José Vicente Anaya’s Infrarealist long poem Híkuri (Peyote), translated by Joshua Pollock, and, closer to home, I’m eagerly awaiting Katherine Hedeen’s translation (for Kenning Editions) of Legna Rodríguez Iglesias, a Cuban poet whose work I have enjoyed for a long time.
Finally, I’m rereading Nicole Cecilia Delgado’s artist books Amoná (2013) and subtropical dry (2016), which I’m in the process of translating. Both are ecofeminist concept books based on camping trips Delgado took to outlying islands in Puerto Rico, and both use the materiality of the book object to convey and complicate the memories and landscapes that inspired their composition. Beyond the difficulty of translating conceptual/artist books, there is the added difficulty of doing so while in quarantine, unable to go to Puerto Rico and research the landscapes that inspired the books. Delgado and I had envisaged a day trip to one of the islands, where we could have a conversation (about translation, poetry, place, body, etc.) that could serve as an introduction to this translation project. Unfortunately, our plans were foiled twice, first by the long series of earthquakes that struck Puerto Rico this past winter and now by the coronavirus. I know we will all reach our beach someday soon, but for now, in these dark days, Delgado’s summer music sustains me.
This week’s Poesía en acción feature also includes:
“Summer Solstice / Noche de San Juan” by Nicole Cecilia Delgado and Translator Urayoán Noel
Urayoán Noel is a Puerto Rican poet, translator, performer, and critic living in the Bronx. He is the author of In Visible Movement: Nuyorican Poetry from the Sixties to Slam (University of Iowa Press, 2014) and the forthcoming Transversal (University of Arizona Press), among other books. His translations include No Budu Please by Wingston González (Ugly Duckling Presse, 2018) and Architecture of Dispersed Life: Selected Poetry by Pablo de Rokha (Shearsman Books, 2018), which was a finalist for the National Translation Award. Noel teaches at NYU and at Stetson University’s MFA of the Americas. Photo by Luis Carle. @urayoannoel
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.