Austyn Wohlers talks with Honora Spicer and Anastatia Spicer about embodied learning, factory work, textile art, politics, translation, family ties, and their translation of Victoria Guerrero Peirano’s poetry book Diario de una costurera proletaria.
Austyn Wohlers: Can you describe Victoria Guerrero Peirano’s original book Diario de una costurera proletaria? Its physicality, its structure?
Honora Spicer: I am actually the only one between us who has seen a copy. We connected with this book in El Paso. I was auditing Rosa Alcalá’s translation workshop in the Bilingual MFA in Creative Writing at UTEP. I met Giancarlo Huapaya, who runs Cardboard House Press and had published Victoria Guerrero Peirano previously. He presented this beautiful edition to me as a potential translation project. It had its own black box, and inside it had this image on the cover that looked like this bundle of red threads. It looked almost hand-drawn, like with colored pencil, but I believe that it’s printed, and it’s in this small edition of 250 from Máquina Purísima of Cecilia Podestá in Lima. This version that we saw contains this first half, which is this more lyrical and personal section about the poet’s relationship with textile work in her family, and it also contains the second half of Levantamiento de las veinte mil, about the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire. Victoria was telling us that the first half was actually first published separately as a small chapbook that she hand-sewed and delivered personally with a glass jar that had a needle, thread, thimble and poem in it. So I spent a little bit of time with the book, and apart from that we have mainly seen it as a PDF, which I think is also significant given these themes of the materiality of textiles and of words.
AW: Are you trying to replicate any of that sense of materiality or those visual elements in the translated manuscript?
Anastatia Spicer: Especially when we were doing the recording for the reading at ALTA, we wanted to create some tactility in the technological-visual sphere—the Zoom world—so we did include some clips of either of us doing some textile work, and we’ve definitely talked about, if we were to have the translation published in some way, a desire to also have a tactile object included. There’s a tradition, especially in weaving, for having small samples of woven textiles in with the patterns, so I’ve definitely thought about that as something that would be really wonderful in a printed edition of the translation. Particularly considering the connection between threads and words and how a piece of cloth could in some way represent or embody these poems.
AW: Yeah, I’ve ordered some linen online before, and people always send these samples of different types and cuts of fabric. That’d be so cool.
HS: Anastatia has a number of books that she’s made as part of her work with natural dyes—I’m always fascinated by them—that are archives, for example, of the different dye colors that she’s produced, where each page is the dye sample and then the textual description of how that dye was produced.
AW: I guess you touched on this a little bit already, but if you could maybe expand on it—what drew you to translating Victoria Guerrero specifically? You encountered the text in El Paso, but what made you want to take it on as a larger project?
AS: Maybe we can do this question a little bit together, Nora.
HS. Yeah. Do you want me to go first, or do you want to go first?
AS: Well, I was just going to say about encountering Cecilia’s books. I had gone down to El Paso to visit my sister last winter, and we were at a book signing with Rosa Alcalá, and there were a couple books of Cecilia Vicuña’s work, who is a poet and conceptual artist who works with textiles…
[Honora holds up New and Selected Poems of Cecilia Vicuña]
AS: Oh yeah, there it is.
HS: It’s propping up my computer.
AS: Oh, nice! [Both laugh] And these books really struck me, and I think my sister as well. Rosa’s been a translator of Cecilia Vicuña for many years, and she’s been a wonderful mentor to my sister, and so, to encounter these books—which, for me, I had never encountered Cecilia’s work before—and it was one of these portals when you find something and it just grabs you by the heart and pulls you in with such force. For me, Cecilia’s work is like that. So we had that experience of finding these books, and then a few months later—maybe you can jump in now, Nora, how these poems came to you—
HS: Yeah. I was looking for a work to translate for the translation workshop, and this was right at the very beginning of the pandemic. Anastatia was in the first few days of an artist’s residency at MASS MoCA, and we had talked about working together on this translation because it seemed really natural, and that it fell within the orbit of both of our work, and it felt like we began as this life raft. In the first weekend of the pandemic, Anastatia was waiting to be able to travel to a more permanent location, having to leave the residency…
AS: So much anxiety and stress, as I’m sure you experienced as well.
HS: Like, the weekend of March…
AS: Twelfth, thirteenth.
AW: Right, just when everything started locking down.
HS: Yeah. And we started the translation on that weekend, and I think we had started by just wanting to stay on the phone with each other, and then just started talking through it for hours. It became this way of just being completely immersed in something and also completely together in something, at a time when it felt like there were so many anxious distractions and so much separateness. And we actually fully translated the whole manuscript separately. We produced two separate translations without showing them to each other, and then we showed them to each other and just talked through it word by word many times.
AW: That’s such a unique way of doing a collaborative translation—and how it functioned as a kind of social or familial bond for y’all. How did the two of you get started translating?
AS: We grew up going to a public Spanish-English bilingual school in Cambridge, Massachusetts called the Amigos School, so we both started learning Spanish in Kindergarten. In this school, everything was just constantly flowing between the two languages. So that’s how we both came to Spanish.
HS: Yeah. I liked what you said when we were talking earlier about—this collection, especially this first part, is really about this theme of learning a craft, and the way in which that craft happens through learning at home, and learning in a family environment. And so that feels poignant in that this is the first full-length literary translation project that we both have done, so I definitely think about that idea of the craft of translation and the types of formalized, institutionalized knowledge that take place in academic programs, and the way that translation is taught in that setting. When we were talking earlier, Anastatia said, “Well, we’re not professional translators,” and this collection really is all about this idea of the “professional” and where that hierarchy of knowledge comes from. So that feels poignant, too, that it’s the first collection that we translate and at the same time that there are many other situations of translation that we’ve been in together. Interpreting things into English for our parents in relation to being in this school community, or for our friends, or on our travels together, and I would consider that connected, in some way, to this home economy of craft that Victoria Guerrero also talks about.
AW: Right, and we can talk about that a little more if you want—many of the poems have this tension between this quick professionalization in the academy versus this more intimate knowledge of a skill like sewing.
AS: It feels especially interesting to think about at this moment, when during the pandemic things are becoming so much more reliant on the digital, and a lot of people are working from home or having these Zoom conversations, so it also felt interesting to be working on this piece during that time, when I think our world was already headed in this certain way, and now this is being expedited through the pandemic. I think that there is always a certain balance that is bound to happen, where, even if it is going in this one direction, there will always be a balance of the craft and handwork and people like Victoria and myself who have been drawn to the idea and the practice of craft, especially in response to our environment.
AW: The book, as you mentioned earlier, divides into the voice of the seamstress in the first half and the voice of the workers of the 1909 shirtwaist strike in the second half. What felt different in translating those sections?
HS: I think we found that the second half uses language in a distinct way, and there were a number of moments where there were a lot more options in how we could bring the meaning into English, and it was not as direct. I’m going to open it so I can give a few examples.
AS: I was just remembering, Nora, the section in NN4.
HS: Yeah, that’s a good example.
Step on the pedal
(The pedal steps)
Slit the cloth
(The cloth slits)
Guard your hands
We talked a lot about the wording in that because of the grammatical multiple meanings in Spanish.
HS: The Spanish is, for example, this repetition:
Pisa el pedal
Hiere la tela
Cuida tus manos
and we ended up adding a number of additional lines in that poem, in order to express the multiplicity of these verbs.
Later in that same poem, the last word, “trama,” which refers to “weft” and also to “plot,” as in a narrative, was another instance where we added a line: “Weft/ Plot.”
The poem previous to that, which is called NN3, also had a lot of moments like this. It makes me think especially of the last few lines, which in Spanish are:
Y si la poesía hablara
¿qué sería? ¿cómo?
¿Podrá decir su rabia?
Our translation does not sound the smoothest in English, but I think conveys something important about what the original is saying, and it’s:
And if poetry spoke
what would it be? how?
Would it be able to tell of her rage?
Obviously, saying “how” in this context is not grammatically consistent, but these kinds of questions also appear in other poems of Victoria’s in terms of what the power of poetry is, acting in this particular context. That was a case where the translation choices make a big difference in the meaning that is brought over.
AW: You two mentioned in your Asymptote note “tensile relationships between individual actions and behaviors” and, on the other hand, “systems of academic institutionalization, industrial production, and capitalism that govern them” mirroring the act of translation, “itself a negotiation between linguistic instances and systems.” Could you expand on that a little?
HS: Yeah. I’ll say something that’s related to one thing I’m looking at now. There were a number of moments where, in the translation, we could choose what kind of agency the speaker was conveying in terms of the translation choices we made, and those were really intentional. On the one side, for example, the last line of the first poem in the collection “Pero las costureras somos para siempre”. We talked a lot about this line and ended up translating it as “But we seamstresses are timeless”, choosing “timeless” instead of something like “forever we are seamstresses” where there’s not the same kind of agency on the part of the seamstress, and also including this pronoun “we” – “we seamstresses” – to convey “las costureras somos” and expressing this collectivity. So that’d be an example of the agency of the craftsperson herself.
And then in the second half, for example in NN2, these repetitions of “A fuerza me siento y aprendo el alfabeto/A fuerza…/A fuerza…”, a number of repetitions of this line start, which is a really important line in terms of how it’s translated because it makes the difference between what kind of agency a worker has in this context, whether it’s “I force myself” or “I am forced”. In our translation, we chose this repetition of “by force” in thinking about the way in which capitalist systems of factory work, in this case, operate through both overt and covert forces. That’s something that the translation itself negotiates.
AW: Was there a moment of translation that was particularly challenging, or a moment that was very memorable to you?
AS: Maybe we’ve returned to this before, but it definitely is memorable to me, because it felt like one of our main goals in translation, like my sister was just talking about, was in bringing dignity and reverence to the work of the seamstress. When we got some edits back, a lot of those things were changed, like my sister was just referring to, that were quite demeaning. That was a very memorable moment to me—to be like, “Oh, how are other people viewing the idea of this work,” even when it’s in this context of total respect, or at least how I read it as total respect, and then talking to Victoria it was clear that that was also how she intended for it to be written. That was quite memorable.
HS: Yeah, an example of that was in the first section, where there’s this line “La costurerita ha tomado la antigua máquina de coser”, and we had first translated “la costurerita” as “the dear seamstress,” as a diminutive, but a very affectionate diminutive, and one of the edits we got back was suggesting that we replace “dear” with “lowly”—and I have this memory of getting the email, pulling off at the side of the road to talk to Anastatia, consulting her, and being like “We can’t let this happen!”
AS: It was also this feeling of not being familiar with this world of publishing, and then seeing very quickly and viscerally how the system is working in this way that these poems are addressing, and then to have it be shut down. I think that we were in a position where we didn’t need to accept those edits, but obviously that is not always the position that most people are in.
HS: Women writers.
AS: Yes. Women writers. So that was definitely also very powerful to feel—this very sleight of hand that is so powerful.
HS: And that’s an aspect in terms of choosing this translation. With Rosa Alcalá we were talking a lot about the way in which most translators are female and most writers who are translated are male, and we were very clear that we were interested in translating a female poet.
AW: How has your work doing this translation, or as translators more broadly, related to your work as, Anastatia, in your case, a seamstress, Honora, an educator, and both of you, writers?
AS: I just actually started a new job/apprenticeship at an upholstery shop, so that’s been interesting, just taking my craft in this new direction and also in a direction that is still very related to the work of being a seamstress but is a craft that is much more dominated by men even though it has similar connections to sewing and weaving. That’s the world that I’m engulfed in right now. And I’m always weaving things. I have my little loom behind me. I’m always weaving and sewing things, and I think a lot about the connection between words and history and textiles, which I think Victoria’s work really plays on with this entry point that is different than my own, but is very connected. So these poems were very beautiful to get to work on, and to get to be very judicious about each word and each choice. I’m actually now making the connection that the way that my sister and I went about the translation was—I wouldn’t say obsessive, but because it was the start of the pandemic we had a lot of time, and we needed a distraction, we talked about every single word very carefully, and in some ways that does actually really remind me of the process of setting up the loom, where you have to put each thread through all of these very intricate small spaces and to set up your whole web that you’re going to weave, so the translation felt very akin to that.
HS: The relationship between academic knowledge and embodied knowledge is something that I’ve been thinking about for a number of years. In 2015, I was in a Ph.D. program in history, and finished the Masters, and had already been working in experiential education, and made the decision not to continue with the Ph.D. because I felt very strongly that the realm of education that is important right now asks students to be engaged with their whole bodies and their whole lives in the learning that is happening. I started working in experiential education for a number of years and teaching wilderness expedition-based programs. So, teaching history and the Spanish language while we were mountaineering or mountain biking or white water paddling or on expeditions with high school and college students. And in those experiential education programs, we often met with a number of people who taught the students different local wilderness skills or crafts local to the place where we were. An example would be harvesting and processing acorns for flour, which is, of course, an indigenous skill of the Northeast, where I’m from, that I’d never been exposed to before. So this theme of learning history by way of embodied experience is something that I’ve been really engaged with, and that’s part of what excited me about this work as well—seeing a lot of tension that the speaker is grappling with between the place of hand knowledge and academic knowledge within herself.
AW: What other projects are you two currently working on?
AS: I’m mostly just focusing on the upholstery work right now and learning that. I was very lucky to get this job without having any knowledge of upholstery, so I’m kind of going all in to learn the specific cuts, and the fabric, and how to maneuver the fabric over these different types of frames. That’s been all I’m really focusing on right now.
HS: In terms of literary projects, I’m working right now on a documentary poetry project called “Post Bond”, that’s framed around a square mile in east El Paso that contains the immigration detention center, the airport runway, the post office exchange, and the NASA operating location. So I’ve been thinking a lot about what it means in this globalized landscape for these disparate experiences of movement to be side by side, and even dependent upon each other. And I think that we’ve both also talked about wanting to seek out other Spanish-language poets who are working with some of the themes of this collection of textiles to continue in this work together of translation.
Anastatia Spicer is a handweaver, seamstress, and writer. She holds a B.A. in critical social inquiry and visual art from Hampshire College (2017) with study at the Penland School of Craft in the textile arts program. Her writing has been published in the Barnard Journal of Art Criticism and her woven textiles have been exhibited at the A.P.E. Gallery and Hampshire College. https://www.anastatia.work
Honora Spicer is a poet and experiential educator. She studied history at Harvard University (M.A., 2015) and history and literature at Oxford University (B.A., 2013). Her writing and translations have appeared in Asymptote, Latin American Literature Today, The Rumpus, and The Adroit Journal. She currently teaches Place-based United States history at El Paso Community College. https://www.honoraspicer.com
An artist from Atlanta, Austyn Wohlers is an assistant editor of Action Books. She is working on a novel about an orchard, and on an album with her band Tomato Flower.