A Sudden Taking-in-of-Air: An Interview with Poet and Translator Robin Myers
By Daniel Saldaña ParísJune 14, 2017
DANIEL SALDAÑA PARÍS: I’d like to begin by asking you about a certain contrast that I find in several of your poems: the tension between an ever-changing geography (a constant back and forth between cities, countries, continents, and languages) and the desire to find a place for intimacy and quietness. In “Union Square Station,” for example, the poem takes the form of an earthly prayer asking the train for a delay, for a pause. Is poetry a way to find that “something that isn’t moving ever faster,” as you call it in “The Races”?
ROBIN MYERS: I think poetry is all about slowing down — writing it, reading it, making use of language in a way that stills and distills, letting language make use of you in a way that lets you make contact with what you’re looking at. Contact is always the point. Wonderment, in a way, is always the point. What I like about wonderment as a driving force is that you can feel it amid chaos and horror and bewilderment: it isn’t the same as optimism, and it doesn’t necessarily beautify. It does clarify, though; it sharpens the edges of things, shows us where they touch each other. The poems I love most — and not just poems, but maybe especially poems, because poetry is a slow medium, built with a substantive smallness that invites and permits real focus — usually feel like a sudden taking-in-of-air amid the dizziness of Everything Else as it ricochets around. Maybe that breath is a gasp, maybe a crying out, maybe a steadying sigh, maybe a burst of laughter. In any case, the intent is absolutely to inhale and register yourself breathing and feel the blood running around in your body.
Another aspect of your work that interests me personally is the use of characters. Whether you embrace the first-person perspective (in “The Metaphysics of Pedro the Ice Cream Man” or in “Alejandro at the Halfway Point,” to name two cases) or write in the third person (“Magdaleno in Motion”), you seem to want to put yourself in someone else’s shoes — not so much to tell a story as to understand a different way of life. Could you tell me more about these characters?
The attraction to characters, to experimenting with a lyrical/narrative “I” — which is clearly not the very same “I” I used yesterday in talking to my optometrist, say — is something I feel both committed to and nervous about. I wrote my first persona poems about 10 years ago (all in response to specific people I’d personally met), and I wrote them with a very innocent, maybe overly innocent, sense of curiosity about how different people tell their own stories — to each other and in their own heads. How we all learn to narrate what we feel and experience and want and are frustrated by. How we put ourselves together to ourselves. I say “overly innocent” because this sort of undertaking has real political implications (and impositions) in a way I didn’t yet have the tools to track. What does it mean to take on an “I” that isn’t “yours”? What “right” do I have, from within my own story and way of life, to verbally explore someone else’s? Alejandro is a middle-aged father probing at a sense of emotional stuck-ness. Magdaleno is an aging recovered leper describing a religious conversion. I am not. In my persona poems, I always put the name of the “character” in the title, and this is meant to tell the reader that I’m never trying to be the character. It’s an admission of artifice; it’s a nod to the fact that our observations and longings and explorations and empathies are inevitably, and with inevitable limitations, filtered through the specific selfness of ourselves. I guess the last thing I’d say about this for now, because there’s a lot more we could talk about here, is that I’m interested in how much more socio-literarily acceptable it is for a fiction writer to write with and through a character, whereas the general assumption about poetry still seems to be that if you say “I,” it’s you. As in, you know, you.
For many years now you have lived in countries other than the United States, immersed in different languages (first Arabic and now Spanish). I’m currently in a similar situation, living a life in languages other than my own (French and English), and I feel more and more that writing becomes, under these circumstances, a secret activity of sorts. Writing in a language that I don’t use for everyday, practical matters turns my writing experience into one of utter uselessness — which can be a powerful way of reconnecting with that “taking-in-of-air” you’ve mentioned. What is this like for you, writing in a language other than the one you use for buying groceries?
I love the way you describe this experience as both useless and powerful — that’s very much how I feel about it, too. Useless not in the sense of purposeless, but of secret, as you say. Private, invisible, not necessarily fueled by or fueling what makes things happen or gets things done in a practical, tangible sense. Just (just!) breath circling into and out of the body. I lived for a year-and-change in Palestine, and for much of that time I struggled with the separateness between the language I wrote in and the language around me — a separateness compounded by the fact that I did learn to function in Arabic, and I could understand quite a bit of what I heard, but I remained light-years away from fluency and never learned to read or write. Writing in English felt simultaneously like a relief and a heaviness, something that both released me from my sense of everyday incompetence and constantly reminded me of it. I had an extraordinary and very painful time there, and I wrote nothing at all for most of the second half. As I see it now, the issue wasn’t so much my relationship with English as feeling overwhelmed by the prospect of using language, period, to access an experience I found overwhelming in itself.
These days, though, I feel increasingly curious about and even reassured by the disparity between my living-in-Spanish (in Mexico) and writing-in-English. And by the uselessness you talk about. In the end, poetry itself is kind of its own language, and its limitations are somehow part of what makes it special. I recently read an essay by Matthew Zapruder with a line I love: “Poetry, because it is ultimately undistracted by whatever uses to which language is otherwise devoted (telling stories, arguing or convincing or informing, buying and selling, preaching, condemning, and so on) has a unique role in [the] preservation of an imaginative space.” In this sense, the tongue-in-cheek “uselessness” of poetry is part of what makes it such a vehicle for empathy, simultaneity, radical connections between images and ideas, nonlinear dippings in and out of time and space. The experience of writing in the language I don’t buy groceries with is a corollary, maybe an intensification, of the same experience.
You’ve translated several Latin American poets. Do you think that translating has affected your own poetry? How?
There have certainly been times when I’ve translated a poet whose tone or lilt or textures have struck me in such an immediate, visceral way that I’ve felt them seep into whatever I’ve tried to do in writing my own work. It’s unconscious, mostly — I can remember one point when I was translating almost entirely in pentameter and couldn’t stop writing in pentameter for a while after that. What I’ve felt as a much more consistent and powerful influence of translation, though, is simply the realization that any form of writing is filtered through what we read, the voices we’ve internalized as the filters for our own voices. You never write in a vacuum. Translating a poem is a means of inhabiting it, pulling it over yourself like a shirt, trying to make it fit like a skin. It’s yours and it’s not yours. You see it from the inside first. When I write, now, I feel more conscious both of that artifice and that intimacy. In this way, translation serves as a sort of metaphor for both the limitations and the possibilities of any written communication. I’m currently working on a manuscript of poems written in the voice (or voices?) of a persona, an aging unnamed man in an unnamed place. I don’t know if this will sound strange or presumptuous or overly abstract, but I sometimes feel that, in writing these poems, which are very intentionally expressed in an “I” that is both me and not me, as if I’m translating. I say as if because I’m not, obviously. All I mean is that I’m not sure I’d approach the experience of writing poetry “in character,” or even of wanting the blurry selfhood of this particular, if I weren’t a translator, too.
I agree with what you say about poetry being a vehicle for empathy — a quality drawn from the practical purposelessness of it, as you sharply put it. For me, I think that living in other languages has affected not only my relationship with Spanish and my writing experience but ultimately the outcome of that experience, too — or so I want to believe. I feel that I write more for myself now, almost like turning my back on a literary community that was much more present in my thoughts before. Which leads me to the next question I have for you — or to the next set of questions, rather. What’s your relationship with other poets like, both in Latin America and the United States? Does your dialogue with them impact your writing in any way? I ask this because Mexico City has an intense poetry scene, and it’s easy to find alliances and establish ongoing conversations with other writers.
When I came to Mexico City in 2011, I felt quickly adopted by a number of young poets (you were one of them, Daniel!) in a way that both moved and exhilarated me — and that yielded some lasting friendships not through but despite the literary bubble as such. Part of what I’m most conscious of as an influence was the experience of encountering sharp, brave, kinetic, sometimes wonderfully mischievous poems by young writers in Mexico. At a time when I’d been struggling to write at all (this was right after I’d left Palestine), I felt both consoled and emboldened by what they were exploring. I was especially struck by the work of Óscar de Pablo and Alejandro Albarrán — by their sheer linguistic energy and the deft, exultant movement of their poems. I’d gotten sort of locked into a solemn narrative style that wasn’t working for me anymore, and reading Óscar and Alejandro helped me remember how exciting sound can be, how it’s important to be playful, to feel yourself reveling in the slipperiness of language. Reading them was freeing, because their poems sound so free. And perceiving — receiving — this freedom in Spanish helped me re-explore my own voice in English with fewer constraints. I know I wouldn’t have written the book’s long title poem, “Conflations,” for example, if I hadn’t been reading what I was reading then.
In the United States, I have a few close friends I also feel close to as readers and writers; we read each other’s work (and talk about poetry in general) in a way I find grounding and nourishing. But I don’t feel I belong to a literary community as such. Partly, and simply, because I’ve spent most of my adult life elsewhere. And partly, I guess, because I’ve had very little contact with literary institutions that can shape people’s networks and nuclei as writers. For one thing, I don’t have an MFA, nor have I pursued any kind of academic role, nor do I work in publishing, et cetera. Which sometimes feels like an obstacle (or which I sometimes feel like I ought to see as one?). But it also feels liberating: it hardens my resolve to, as you say, write for myself, and to keep cherishing the small community of like-minded poetry confidantes I already have. And it helps me remember, once again, that there’s no rush. That if I want writing to be part of my whole life, the wholeness of my life, then my relationship to poetry will keep changing as everything else does.
And to continue with the talk about translation: Conflations came out in a beautiful bilingual edition. What’s your experience of translation from the author’s side? Has reading your work in translation contributed to that “blurriness of the selfhood,” too?
I’d like to answer this question tangentially, with an anecdote. In 2014, I spent a few weeks as a resident at the Banff International Literary Translation Centre, where I was translating the Argentine poet Alejandro Crotto. Alejandro was there as well, and it was thrilling to work together on the poems. At a certain point of the residency, every translator presents his or her work to the rest of the group. After Alejandro and I had spoken our bit, somebody asked him, very thoughtfully, whether he felt that the translated poems were still “his.” I think she was asking not just about the translation process in itself, but also about how our collaboration had affected it. I remember he hesitated, and then he said no: that he felt they belonged to me now. The same person turned to me and asked — I loved her directness — “Is that what you’d hoped he would say?” I hesitated, too, and I think I said something like, “I’d like him to feel that they also still belong to him.”
What I mean to say here is that translation is a weird, lovely, mysterious, largely invisible relationship, both for the translator and for the translated. It’s always a relationship, of course, even if the writer has been dead for hundreds of years. But if the writer and translator exist at the same time and actually know each other, which is the case for me and all five of the translators who appear in Conflations, then it’s weird and lovely and mysterious (and even invisible) in another very particular way. When I read their translations of my poems, I feel that those translations belong to them. But I also feel part of that belonging. Which is a gift. I’m not sure how else to say it.
Finally, going back to the poems, I’d like to ask you about “Conflations,” the title poem and a favorite of mine. It’s a long, breathtaking poem that in a way feels like an ars poetica to me. It’s one of those poems that reconcile me with the idea of inspiration, with the possibility of somehow receiving the words you need to express something. What was the process of writing it like?
Thank you, Daniel, for reading the poem so generously. Writing “Conflations” was both an exhilarating and an unsettling experience at the time (which was 2011, right after I’d moved to Mexico). It was actually the first poem I wrote after the long dry spell I mentioned earlier, and it came fast, all in a rush, obeying currents of sound more than preconceived progressions of images or ideas. The starting point for me was the “you” pronoun: I wanted to experiment with the “you” as either a place or a person (or more than one person) or both, and with a register that’s sometimes accusatory and sometimes elegiac and sometimes both. But writing it was largely associative, gestural, a clatter of lists and litanies. Writing it was, in many ways, painful; I felt that there was some ugliness in it, which meant that there was some ugliness in me, and it was hard to stop suppressing that. Once I’d opened the faucet, though, I felt freer, more able to experiment with different kinds of withdrawing and unleashing, with speeding up and slowing down, with lines of different lengths; with prose, even — I’d never stuck prose into a poem before. And when I stopped, it felt like I’d let something go. Put another way, once I’d finished writing it, I knew I’d never have to write it again.
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