1. How did you start translating Alejandro Albarrán Polanco’s work? What drew you to it?
I’m deeply compelled by Alejandro Albarrán’s poetry. It forcefully speaks the contemporary moment. He’s one of the most dynamic and exciting contemporary Mexican poets. I first read his work in 2016 when we were matched up to collaborate in the Lit & Luz Festival, a sister-city artist exchange sponsored by MAKE magazine. The festival pairs Mexico City-based and Chicago-based writers and artists in a yearlong collaboration and series of performances. Alejandro and I met when he made his first visit to the U.S. in 2016 to participate in the festival. For our project, we braided together several of our poems about current events to create a piece called “Headlines.” We gave two performances in Chicago with the musician Jim Becker and made a recording together. In 2017 Albarrán and I performed together in Mexico City for the second part of the festival; we’ve read there together a few times since then, too.
Alejandro’s poetry is visceral. He’s unafraid to speak very directly about the body and about human brutality. He writes about violence on a national and intimate level. I admire his poetic and political vision, his lyrical and sonic intensity, and his fusion of philosophical and personal inquiry. His wordplay is scintillating. It makes my neurons fizz. (And it’s often challenging to translate.) This is what drives me to translate Alejandro’s poetry. I am deeply interested in how poetry engages with news, and how it often serves as a first draft of history, which is something I explore in my own poetry (as in Elevated Threat Level), as well as in my scholarly work (in News of War: Civilian Poetry 1936-1945). This translation is ongoing, by the way. Alejandro and I were both thrilled last year when Ugly Duckling Presse published a chapbook of his work in bilingual format, Cowboy & Other Poems. I’m now preparing a full-length translation of his poetry.
2. What are some of the main challenges you’ve encountered in translating this work?
I try to craft language that corresponds to Alejandro’s double meanings, shifts in register, near tongue-twisters, and puns. His language is very rich musically and rhythmically, and it’s important to me to create a similar effect in English. This is always challenging to do. It’s also tough to find correspondences to contemporary Mexican slang and idioms (I often need to consult with Alejandro and other friends), and cultural references. I feel deeply lucky to be able to confer with Alejandro and ask him questions. Especially since we’ve had time over the past four years to work together, perform together, and get to know one another a bit. It helps enormously to to him talk about his poems as I’m crafting translations. Alejandro has explained that in many poems the sound play is of paramount importance, and he’s given me the go-ahead to play with the English somewhat elastically. I stay within the same semantic field, broadly speaking, but experiment with words and phrases until I can build a similar sonic and referential web. For example, in the poem “You should learn to translate what I say to you,” there’s rhyming play in the final stanza on espina/encima, and techo/te eche that wasn’t easy to translate. It took me a while to find a solution and I’m still tinkering with it in my mind.
3. What are you reading right now?
Mónica de la Torre’s exciting book published this spring, Repetition Nineteen, which I’m writing about; Olivia Lott’s excellent translation of the Colombian poet Lucía Estrada’s Katabasis; Roberto Tejada’s brilliant book of hemispheric essays, Still Nowhere in an Empty Vastness; and Puerto Rico en mi corazón, a bilingual collection of poems about Hurricane María (edited by Carina del Valle Schorske, Ricardo Maldonado, Erica Mena, and Raquel Salas Rivera). These days I also keep re-reading Urayoán Noel’s powerful poem “No Longer Ode” about Hurricane María (https://poets.org/poem/no-longer-ode).
This week’s Poesía en acción feature also includes:
Rachel Galvin’s books include Elevated Threat Level (Green Lantern Press), a finalist for the National Poetry Series, and Pulleys & Locomotion (Black Lawrence Press). She is the translator of Raymond Queneau’s Hitting the Streets, which won the 2014 Scott Moncrieff Prize, and co-translator of Decals by Oliverio Girondo, a finalist for the 2019 National Translation Award. Her translation of Cowboy & Other Poems (2019), a chapbook by Alejandro Albarrán, was published by Ugly Duckling Presse. Her work appears in Best American Experimental Writing 2020, Best American Poetry 2020, Boston Review, Colorado Review, Fence, Gulf Coast, McSweeney’s, The Nation, The New Yorker, and Poetry.
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.