An Enduring Relationship with Forms: A Conversation with Nancy Naomi Carlson




NANCY NAOMI CARLSON is a poet, translator, essayist, and editor. Recipient of two literature translation fellowships from the National Endowment for the Arts, she was decorated Chevalier of the Order of the Academic Palms by the French government in 2018. She has published six translated collections of work by poets from France, Martinique, Djibouti, and Mauritius. Her most recent full-length collection of her own poetry, An Infusion of Violets, was published by Seagull Books in 2019. Reviewing the volume in The Washington Post, Elizabeth Lund remarked on the “[s]olitude and quiet strength [that] run throughout the elegant, understated writing.”

An Infusion of Violets is a lyric distillation of the last two decades of Carlson’s life. An accomplished musician, Carlson’s aesthetic sensitivity is expressed through formal and free verse poems, where sound and meaning intersect as she traces the arcs of love, loss, illness, art, nature, and renewal. In the remarkable poem “Lagniappe,” the purchase of a dozen beignets from a Cajun stall in New York becomes a sensual digestion of origins:wiping the powdered sugar from your lips / you think lagniappe, from the Creole / by way of Quechua — yapay — ‘to give more.’” And so she does, offering the careful reader an almost kinesthetic experience, infused with memories and imaginings.

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LOIS P. JONES: An Infusion of Violets was 20 years in the making. How did you know when the collection had reached completion? Rilke says that “being an artist means, not reckoning and counting, but ripening like the tree which does not force its sap and stands confident in the storms of spring without the fear that after them may come no summer.” Was the process for you this kind of “ripening,” or is there always an internal pressure to “get the book out”?

NANCY NAOMI CARLSON: What a lovely Rilke quote, Lois. I think I apply different standards of “ripening” for my non-translated poems versus my translations. With my translations, there is usually some kind of external goad (a publisher, a grant), with a deadline included in a contract. So, yes, there is always that deadline in mind as I translate. In addition, it’s hard to be working on too many translation projects at one time, with so many different voices in my head. At one point this year, I was working on translating two books by the Congolese writer Alain Mabanckou, a book by the Haitian writer Louis-Philippe Dalembert, and co-translating a Stig Dagerman poem from Swedish (I don’t really speak Swedish, so that was an interesting project). It’s easier for me to translate one writer at a time until the book project has been completed, rather than language-hopping. I guess I can’t really convince you (or anyone) of any internal drive to “get the book out” when it comes to my non-translated poetry, as those 20 years can’t easily be swept under the carpet. It took these 20 years for me to live through the experiences that ended up being the unifying themes of Violets. In other words, I could not have written the same book 10 or even five years ago.

I can see how carrying many voices at once would be undesirable. Do you find it difficult to write and translate simultaneously? Does the individual voice of inspiration get stifled by the necessity of channeling someone else’s work? And lastly, do you feel the need to conform to thematic trends rather than write from experience? 

Ah, the “inspired” poem. In a compelling essay I just translated by Alain Mabanckou, titled “An Open Letter to Those Who are Killing Poetry,” he distinguishes between the “pedestrian” poem and the “inspired” poem, with the latter originating from poets-as-scribes/couriers/ intermediaries. This kind of poem manages “to keep its virginity and watches the years go by without losing its substance.” All too often the collections we see today are not filled with poems arising out of inspiration, in all the senses of the word. Poetry as necessary as the air we breathe. Poetry that takes our breath away. In a similar vein, although the translator must focus on the author’s voice and not their own, I think one could talk about “pedestrian” translations — the ones that are literal or plodding or don’t take risks — versus “inspired” translations that somehow engage the reader to the same degree as the source language text. So back to your question about my voice — flowering or stifled. I hadn’t quite thought of it in the way you describe, but it certainly explains why I hardly ever can write a non-translated poem when I’m knee-deep in translation. I guess it’s true that I have to be able to hear my own voice in order to write my poems.

The key word in your new collection is infusion, which is not only in the title but permeates the whole book, drawing on the many sensory aspects that lend the collection its voluptuous body of language. How did this word come to be the fulcrum on which the collection turns? 

I first became fascinated with the concept of infusion when writing the title poem, “Infusion of Violets,” inspired by a former student of mine who confided in me, his school counselor, that he was a member of a gang, and that he had recently been struck in the head with a wrench, necessitating many stitches. Somewhere along the way, I imagined him as a skeleton lying in the grass, with violets growing throughout his body — an unexpected juxtaposition of images — an infusion of violets. In another poem, there’s a reference to an infusion of tea — a more common type of infusion. Over the years, it occurred to me that so many things can infuse a body, maybe make a home in it, and then leave, like love. And then there’s that most dreaded intravenous infusion of toxic drugs to deal with cancer.

Those tensions make for such a profound dynamic in the collection. Many of your poems have a painterly aspect, such as “Landscape with Figure in Blue,” or they reflect on a specific artist. Can you speak to the importance of other artists to your own work — both their presence and their influence?

Because I have absolutely no talent in the visual arts, I am intrigued by those who can take a blank canvas and bring it to life. The effect is in many ways much more dramatic than what I can do with a blinking cursor. I can write the word “red,” but I have to somehow reach the reader in a way that they can see that color. And what if they picture the wrong red, maybe seeing a blood red when I had in mind something deeper or darker. So much easier to just brush on some pigment and voilà. My first husband is a visual artist, and I would watch his process from afar, marveling at each step involved in creating a painting, from stretching the canvas to signing his name in a not-so-obvious place on the finished product. We’d visit the museums together, as well as DC’s contemporary art galleries, and often something would resonate with me that later would find its way into one of my poems.

One of my favorite quotes is the epigraph I chose for “Baudelaire’s Pillared Temple”: “Perfumes, hues, and sounds echo one another.” I am drawn to anything French, having majored in French Language and Literature in college and graduate school, so there’s that. But even more important is the concept of synesthesia, where the senses blend. Like painting a symphony. Tasting a shape. Hearing a color. I tried to get at that idea in the poem’s last line: “If I paint this scene in oils, viscous as pitch, / can I measure the cost of a blink?” Now, whatever you do, don’t get me started talking about the importance of music to my work.

Well, I may need to do that since your poetry is rich with musical influences, but equally important, you invoke music through the use of specific forms, such as the sonnet and villanelle. What dictates your choices when writing?

I have an interesting but enduring relationship with forms. In the “olden days,” I would set my mind to writing a sonnet, and then I’d almost will it into being. I’d loosen some constraints of rhythm and pure rhyme, preferring to play with slant rhyme. Similarly, I didn’t incorporate voltas. I called these “pseudo sonnets.” I loved how the self-imposed rhyme patterns would help me come up with something fresh, something I hadn’t expected would come out of me, something that would take the poem in a new direction. These days, I don’t even know what genre my little notes on scraps of paper will take. Since I’m now writing essays, they might fit into a much longer form with more room for me to say what I end up wanting to say. I guess I first make a decision about whether I’ll be writing prose or poetry and take it from there. I let the writing flow, and then let it inform the form.

Now villanelles are a different story. They are my go-to form, especially when I have to respond to an external topic imposed by someone else. That sounds terrible … forced poetry … but it’s not quite like that. For example, my daughter conducts a community choir that commissions works to perform. Usually, the concerts are themed. She asked me to write a poem that had something to do with the planets, and I was “assigned” Jupiter. Not one to completely follow rules, I decided to make Juno the focus of the poem, which resulted in “Juno’s Garden.” I was particularly drawn to the musicality of the villanelle because I knew I was composing a poem that would be set to music. Interestingly, another composer chose “Ask Anyone” from the book — probably because of the villanelle form — which will be performed in an upcoming concert (live or via Zoom). The second example I’d like to mention concerning villanelles involves a forthcoming anthology about the Holocaust, where each poet was expected to respond to a particular photograph from the era. I didn’t get to choose my photograph, so there I was, having to come up with a poem about a Jewish man standing outside a closed shop with a policeman on either side of him, rifling through his pockets. In the foreground, two Nazis stand guard. I immediately thought to write a villanelle, and not just because I thought it would make the writing easier for me. I thought the musicality of the form would be in direct contrast to the violent scene I was describing, underscoring its tragic overtones. (Like my “Jupiter” poem, the focus of the poem ended up not being on the man, the Nazis, or the police, but rather on the unseen bystander.)

I think you may be speaking of the forthcoming anthology, New Voices: Contemporary Writers Confronting the Holocaust, which I also have a piece in. I’m interested in this notion of poetry being inspired by specific images. It makes me think of Tony Hoagland’s essay “Image Out of Sound,” where he says that the mind of a reader almost always latches onto an image more strongly than to any idea. He claims that images arise not just from the mind’s eye but from the ear as well. Do you find this to be true? 

Look at that! How wonderful that we’ll both be part of the same anthology! Matthew Silverman and I have put together a different anthology called 101 Jewish Poems for the Third Millennium, due out by year’s end from Ashland Poetry Press. We’ll have to include you if we ever do another!

Yes, Tony Hoagland’s ideas are so memorable, and you’re right, our minds tend to latch onto an image more than an idea. I remember once he told me that, in order to write something memorable, you can’t just go through a narrow, dark “cave of writing” and come out the way you entered it … all clean, collected, and merely brushing off some dust from your sleeves. He said you had to come out scratched and bruised and bloody from clawing your way through, end to end. And that’s so true about the images that have their origins in sound. I knew I’d manage to steer our conversation to music. Before I ever wrote poems, I was a musician. My small claim to fame is that I once performed in the same piano competition as André Watts, years before he became a world-class pianist. I don’t have perfect pitch, but it’s good enough to grab a particular note from thin air — usually an “A” that’s used for tuning orchestras — and be only a half-step off. You’d think I could compensate, but it never works that way. In any event, when I translate poetry, I first sound-map the original text, highlighting the sound patterns that emerge (assonances, alliteration, as well as the silences), and get a read on the rhythm. I try to infuse my translations with patterns that honor the music of the original text. It’s impossible, of course, to replicate the exact sounds or where they come in the line, but it gives the reader a sense of the importance of sound in the original.

There’s one aspect I’d like to circle back to as we finish this conversation, which is something you may or may not have considered in finding the title for An Infusion of Violets. Given the sometimes-tragic meanings of infusion, as in your poems about cancer or the complex ways one deals with love and loss, I wondered whether the word “violence” ever became an associative meaning through its sound and derivation? And lastly, as both a translator and a poet, how are you able to decide on a word as being the best possible choice? 

I see you have a sharp ear, picking out the “violence” in “violets.” They really do sound similar. Interesting, too, how they both contain “viol,” that musical instrument from the Renaissance and the Baroque periods. And then there’s “violins.” This is fun! Maybe it’s true that music finds its source in all things! Actually, I’m sure there is a villanelle lurking among those words.

As both a translator and a poet, I am fascinated by how words earn the right to appear where they end up appearing. For me, it’s sometimes agonizing to decide the best word to choose. There’s so much second-guessing, getting some distance from the writing … I find I can make these tough decisions first thing when I wake up, as if my brain had been puzzling it all out while I slept. There’s something magical about thinking about something before sleep … perhaps a word that contains the [ay] sound … and then coming up with so many possibilities upon awakening. Then sleeping on it again to choose the best one. Of course, from time to time, you are lucky enough to stumble on the “perfect” word at the start. You know it’s “the one.” Like love. Sometimes you just know it.

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Lois P. Jones’s work has been published or is forthcoming in Narrative, Verse Daily, and American Poetry Journal, as well as in the volume New Voices: Contemporary Writers Confronting the Holocaust. Her awards include the Lascaux Prize and the Bristol Prize (judged by Liz Berry), and she was a finalist for the Terrain Prize (judged by Jane Hirshfield). She hosts KPFK’s Poets Café and is poetry editor for Kyoto Journal. Her book Night Ladder was published in 2017 by Glass Lyre Press.

 

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