1. How did you start translating Yaxkin Melchy’s poetry? What drew you to it?
Yaxkin’s poems constantly catch me by surprise. The way his images jump and loop back, how the page is activated, the lyric cascades, the scales shifting, his metapoetic meditations. There’s an expansiveness here that I’ve felt grateful to spend time around. I’m also really moved by the ways he combines playfulness and critique, experimentation and heartedness. And at the level of the person, oh my! What a gentle and generous presence! In the times when I feel discouraged and disheartened by poetry (the prestige fixation, the professionalization, the egos throwing their elbows around), Yaxkin’s work and way of being remind me that there are alternatives to that noise.
But to take a step back, I first encountered Yaxkin’s writing in 2015 or 2016 when I was in college. I was studying both infectious disease biology and poetry, and as I moved into my final year, I became more and more interested in actively integrating these parts of my life. I was beginning to realize that poetry had become one of the few “places” where I felt able to linger with the painful aspects of biology (e.g., histories of gendered and racialized violence in research, etc.) that were often untaught, or merely mentioned briefly and left as a footnote in my classes and textbooks. Additionally, I began to feel drawn to visual poetry as a way to explore/enact the microbial mechanisms and microscopic processes I was learning about. Poetry, it seemed, was offering me room that I was having trouble finding elsewhere.
It was during this season of my life that a mentor lent me a handmade collection of work by Yaxkin. I can’t remember which book it was now, but I remember the feeling of holding it. It was a woah moment. I felt a deep encouragement in Yaxkin’s poems. Here was someone who was blurring the line(s) between poetry and science, engaging both simultaneously without using either as a gimmick to adorn the other. In his writing, it felt like poetry and science were just different refractions of the same light. And so, energized by his work, I started downloading stuff of his that was available online and requesting (with limited success) some of his collections via interlibrary loan. Though at times I felt overwhelmed and intimidated by the complexity (conceptually, linguistically, visually) of his poems, I felt nourished by his books, and knew that I’d be returning to them.
A year or so after first reading Yaxkin’s poetry, I was lucky enough to meet him in person. I was in Mexico to finalize work on two translation projects: Claudina Domingo’s kaleidoscopic book Tránsito // Transit, which I had translated for my thesis, and rojo si pudiera ser rojo // red if it could be red, a selection of poems by Ana Belén López. While in Mexico City working with Claudina, I was able to meet Yaxkin and his partner at their apartment thanks to an email introduction from another mentor. After this initial meeting, we remained in periodic contact, and I began translating snippets of his poems for myself as a way to spend time with his work in the strange, slow space that translation encourages.
In the following years, I found myself drawn back to Yaxkin’s poems time and again. These moments translating his work became a sort of tether for me. And so in January of 2020 I reached out to see if he would be interested in me translating his poems in a more systematic way. Since then, we’ve been steadily collaborating on the translations of the first three of five full-length works in his decade-long project THE NEW WORLD, which he began writing in his early twenties and which emerged between 2007 and 2017. Currently we’ve completed bilingual manuscripts of the first two books (The New World I and Poems I Saw Through a Telescope) and we’re working on the third (The Green Sun). To date, Yaxkin and I have published a micro-selection of micro-poems from THE NEW WORLD called El sueño de las preguntas /Question Dream (Rinky Dink Press, 2021), a selection called “Seeds from the New World” in ANMLY #32 (2021), and a bilingual cartonera edition called Poetechnics (Cardboard House Press, 2023). Later this year, we have a chapbook-length selection called Word Heart coming out with Toad Press and a bilingual micro-chap called “Desde el nuevo mundo // From the New World” coming out with Ghost City Press.
THE NEW WORLD’s fourth book (The Planets) was translated by Alice Whitmore in Australia for her undergraduate honors thesis, and a chapbook-length selection from the project was published by Kodama Cartonera as Poetrylife in 2015. Will Fesperman is currently at work on the translation of the fifth book (Kuiper’s Belt) and Marcelo Hernandez Castillo has also worked on portions of it before, as well. Knowing that there are other people translating Yaxkin’s work is an enormous encouragement. The dream, of course, is for all five components of THE NEW WORLD to be available bilingually in English and Spanish. I can feel it coming closer. Slowly. Surely!
2. What are some of the main challenges you’ve encountered in translating this work?
Yaxkin’s poems are kinetic. Thematically, syntactically, formally, linguistically, lyrically. They refuse to sit still. And as they bounce between registers and realities, they somehow remain simultaneously surreal and playful and earnest and inventive and unabashedly heartfelt. When I’m translating Yaxkin’s work, it often feels like I’m learning a new dance move. I find myself needing to try things my languagebody hasn’t done before, and so there isn’t muscle memory to fall back on. This means that if something’s feeling a bit too smooth or rehearsed when I’m drafting my translations, I often need to go back to those most comfortable-seeming moments to confirm … Am I honoring the “newness” here or just coasting with what I (think I) know? It’s a good reminder for me that comfort is a far-from-ideal metric, in translation and beyond.
One particular type of newness in Yaxkin’s work that is both energizing and challenging is his frequent integration of poetry and science. He has come to call this aspect of his writing Poetechnics. In the author’s note for his recently released collection of the same name, Poetechnics (Cardboard House Press, 2023), he describes this sci-poetic approach as “rooted in the poetic appropriation and exploration of scientific language and frameworks in order to reengage equations, diagrams, and schematics using the fibers of the heart.” Importantly, he doesn’t simply use scientific jargon and visual elements as ornaments for his poems. Rather, he’s interested in developing strategies to integrate poetry and science more holistically, thereby transforming both disciplines in the process. Unsurprisingly, these integrations can introduce difficult translation snaggles. His poems are seeded with circuit diagrams, chemical equations, binary sequences, and more. While I, like Yaxkin, have a background (both academically and parentally) in the sciences, I find myself needing to do lots of research and ask lots of questions to make sure I’m there “with” him in my translations. It’s been a true gift to learn through the process!
As a final note here, I’ll mention that one of the most exhilarating parts of collaborating with Yaxkin has been his openness to experimentation. For instance, to extend the transformational impulse of his poems to the actual process of translation, I’ve been beginning to work with him to create “transfluxions,” which are interactive, digital translations that invite (and rely on) reader participation. Given their digital nature, they have been fun ways to preserve and celebrate indeterminacy in my translations, allowing for different options to intermingle. They’ve also allowed Yaxkin and I to think about how to activate parts of the poems in ways that aren’t as possible on a printed page. For instance, three of the poems included in this month’s Poesía en acción have transfluxions available here which accompanied their publication in the collection Poetechnics. In “SIX ELECTRONS,” language is treated as a quantum state. In “WE WILL REALIZE THAT IT’S ALL A MUTANT CONTINUUM,” reading becomes a mutagenic act. And in “BOOKS IN THE FUTURE,” the Spanish and English binary sequences serve as musical scores that can be played individually or in harmony. As a fair warning, these transfluxions work way better on a computer rather than a phone. Also, I know that some of the characters may not display on all browsers … I’m a non-coder coder and I’m still learning. But I’m trying to be less afraid of sharing, glitches and all!
3. What are you reading right now?
The past few months have brought a lot of wonderful reading my way. I work at a library, so I’m always checking stuff out, requesting books via interlibrary loan, and looking for digital versions of things. I’m also lucky to live near Palabras Bilingual Bookstore, where Chawa and Jeff have an incredible selection of stuff.
Some recent highlights have been leia penina wilson’s call the necromancer (Carrion Bloom Books, 2022), Ross Gay’s Inciting Joy (Algonquin, 2022), Carter St. Hogan’s One or Several Deserts (11:11 Books, 2023), River Ellen MacAskill’s Virility at Home (death of workers whilst building skyscrapers, 2021), Luis Felipe Fabre’s (tr. JD Pluecker) Escribir con caca / Writing with Caca (Green Lantern Press, 2022), TC Tolbert’s Gephyromania (Ahsahta Press, 2014 / Nightboat Books, 2022), Shaheen Akhtar and Mashiul Alam’s (tr. Shabnam Nadiya) The Meat Market (Toad Press, 2019), Sawako Nakayasu’s Pink Waves (Omnidawn, 2023), Joanna Bagniewska’s The Modern Bestiary (Smithsonian Books, 2022), Juan Felipe Herrera’s 187 Reasons Mexicanos Can’t Cross the Border: undocuments 1971-2007 (City Lights Books, 2007), Sabrina Imbler’s How Far the Light Reaches (Little, Brown & Co, 2022), Eleni Sikelianos’s Your Kingdom (Coffee House Press, 2023), Shira Erlichman’s Odes to Lithium (Alice James Books, 2019), and an old hand-illustrated guide to desert flowers in the Southwest that I’ve been marveling at before bed.
Thinking more anthologically, I’ve also been starting to dive into some issues of an amazing zine from Colombia called La trenza which braids together work by nine contributors, all of whom are women – three sharing poems, three sharing essayistic reflections on the poems, and three sharing visual work in conversation with the texts. I’ve also been enjoying two new publications by La impresora – an anthology of Puerto Rican trans poets called La piel del arrecife (2023) and a collection of work by ten participants in a publishing workshop called Ese lugar violento que llamamos normalidad (2022). Closer to home, I’ve been revisiting a local anthology published by Clottee Hammons and her organization Emancipation Arts here in Phoenix called Indiscernibles in Arizona: On the hope and reality of being Black in Arizona (2021).
Three individual pieces that have entered my life recently are K-ming Chang’s story “Mina” in The Arkansas International (Issue 10, Spring 2021), JD Pluecker’s poem “A Note on We” in the Brooklyn Rail (March, 2023), and Jhani Randhawa’s piece “Wolf” in Broken Lens (Issue 2, Winter 2023). Jhani’s also raising funds right now to pursue their educational dreams and you can support them here!
Lastly, on the near horizon, I’m excited to spend time with a couple of newly-checked-out library books by Laura Tohe, Luci Tapahonso, and Roque Raquel Salas Rivera, and I’m looking forward to the first releases from Matvei Yankelevich’s new publishing project, Winter Editions – very eager for what’s to come!
Ryan Greene (b. 1994) is a translator, book farmer, and poet from Phoenix, Arizona who is currently working with Yaxkin Melchy to translate the first three books of THE NEW WORLD. He is co-conspirator at F*%K IF I KNOW//BOOKS and a housemate at no.good.home. His translations include work by Elena Salamanca, Claudina Domingo, Ana Belén López, Giancarlo Huapaya, and Yaxkin Melchy, among others. Since 2018, he has co-facilitated the Cardboard House Press Cartonera Collective bookmaking workshops at Palabras Bilingual Bookstore. Like Collier, the ground he stands on is not ground. Photo: Ryan Greene
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.