Geoffrey Brock is an American poet and translator. He is the author of two books of poetry, Voices Bright Flags (Waywiser 2014), selected by Heather McHugh as the ninth winner of the Anthony Hecht Poetry Prize, and Weighing Light (2005), winner of the New Criterion Poetry Prize. His poems have appeared such places as Poetry, The New England Review, Cincinnati Review, Hudson Review, Best American Poetry 2007, and Pushcart Prize XXXIV, as well as Issue 4 of Memorious. He has received poetry fellowships from the National Endowment for the Arts, Stanford’s Wallace Stegner program, and the New York Public Library’s Cullman Center for Scholars & Writers. His work as a translator has received such awards as a Guggenheim Fellowship in support of his 2012 anthology, The FSG Book of 20th-Century Italian Poetry, and a Raiziss/de Palchi Fellowship from the Academy of American Poets in support of his translation of Cesare Pavese’s Disaffections: Complete Poems 1930-1950. The latter went on to receive translation prizes from the MLA and the PEN Center USA and was named a “Best Book of 2003″ by The Los Angeles Times. His prose translations include Carlo Collodi’s Pinocchio, Roberto Calasso’s K., and Umberto Eco’s The Mysterious Flame of Queen Loana (which received the Lewis Galantière Translation Award from the American Translators Association). He is currently translating the selected poems of Giovanni Pascoli, one of which received the John Frederick Nims Memorial Prize from Poetry magazine, and has just completed a new translation of Calvino’s Six Memos for the Next Millennium.
Brock teaches in the Arkansas Programs in Creative Writing & Translation in Fayetteville, AK. He answered some questions on his translations and poetry for our guest spotlight interviewer, poet Don Bogen.
Along with your poetry, you have considerable achievements as a translator of Cesare Pavese and other Italian writers, and you teach in a graduate program that includes both creative writing and literary translation. How does your work as a translator affect your poetry and vice-versa?
Translation is one of those activities, along with reading and writing itself, that contributes to our ongoing literary formation in ways that are presumably vital but usually mysterious and never measurable. So I don’t know exactly “how.” But I know we always learn things about how to make poems from the poets we translate: things about their particular senses of rhythm, image, narrative, tone, etc. Translating Pavese is like taking a private poetry workshop from Pavese. Another way of answering the question is to say that translation—which is a form of Extreme Reading—affects our writing in the same way that all deep reading does. That is to say: somehow.
As for the last part of your question… For all translators, our particular talents as poets in our own language shape—and limit—our translations at every turn. I was recently asked if I thought that sonnets in Italian should be translated into sonnets in English. Many translators would say never; some would say always. My answer is: it depends on the translator. If the sonnet is not a vital, available form for the translator in his or her own work—that is, if the translator wouldn’t naturally consider writing an original poem in that form—then they probably shouldn’t translate into that form. They—and the poem—would be better off working with a form they felt at home in.
Editing the FSG Book of Twentieth-Century Italian Poetry must have been a major undertaking, involving reading and selecting poets and translations, and a good amount of new translation of your own. What were the challenges and pleasures of that? Do you have new discoveries and new favorites among the poets?
The challenges were many, and I was ill-prepared for some of them. Setting out, for example, I chose to include many different translators because I wanted the anthology to also be, in part, a survey of the ways in which Anglophone poets have engaged with their Italian counterparts over the past century. But the logistical and administrative burden of dealing with so many poets and translators was much heavier than I expected: all those open lines of communication, all those permissions to be secured—and paid for! I never would have guessed that it would have been easier and faster (and much cheaper) for me to translate all the poems myself. Still, now that it’s done, I’m very pleased with the variety and range of voices—more than 200, counting both poets and translators.
The pleasures, fortunately, were many more: discovering poets I hadn’t known well before (Clemente Rebora, Vivian Lamarque, Antonella Anedda, Gabriele Frasca, to name a few) and poems that are now firmly lodged in my personal canon; getting to know my favorite poets (Pascoli, Gozzano, Saba, Ungaretti, Fortini, Penna, Cavalli, et al) better; and getting to know personally certain poets and translators—and sometimes even their descendants. In seeking permission to use a translation by the late poet Michael Egan, for instance, I met his daughter Moira, also a poet-translator, who also became a contributor. Since I used two translations by my own father, who introduced me to Italian poetry in my youth, the anthology thus boasts a father/daughter pair as well as a father/son pair. (It also includes an uncle/niece pair: after publication, one of the translators—Penelope Pelizzon—emailed me to say that one of the poets—Farfa—was her uncle!)
I also had a lot of fun digging up obscure translations in odd corners, including several by Emanuel Carnevali from a 1919 issue of Poetry magazine, a Samuel Beckett version of a Montale poem from a 1930 issue of This Quarter, an Allen Mandelbaum translation of a Cardarelli poem from a 1941 issue of The Atlantic, Fred Chappell’s versions of the above-mentioned Farfa from a 1975 issue of International Poetry Review, and Michael Egan’s Quasimodo translations from a 1975 issue of Antaeus. One of my favorite surprises was an Allen Ginsberg version of one of my favorite Ungaretti poems, “Non gridate più,” which appeared in 1970 in a special issue, guest-edited by Andrew Wylie, of Agenda. It’s a quirky little translation, one that at first annoyed me because of a couple of small errors (or liberties), but which later grew on me until I came to love it for the way it conveys the spirit of the Ungaretti in a uniquely Ginsbergian manner. The poem ends this way:
There’s an imperceptible whisper,
A rumor no louder
Than rising grass—
Happy! where man can’t pass.
I was bothered at first by his use of “There’s” for what literally probably ought to be something like “Theirs is” and by his rendering of “rumore” (noise) as “rumor.” To me, these both looked at first glance like sloppy mistakes, but I finally realized that neither mistake (if that’s what they were) really hurts the poem, and indeed the latter arguably enriches the English version. And then there’s the matter of that odd exclamation point, which appears nowhere in the original, and which Ginsberg sticks in the middle of the last phrase; who does that? Yet it’s brilliant: it makes that happiness flare, ever so briefly, only to be just as quickly extinguished by the phrase that follows. I particularly like translations, like this one, that harmoniously convey something of both poet and translator.
There are nine years between your first book Weighing Light and your new one Voices Bright Flags. How would you compare the two books? What are your feelings now about the poems you wrote at the start of this century?
The two books are, by design, starkly different, but I think of them as counterparts, as two sides of the same coin. Weighing Light is a book of personal poems—not exactly confessional poems, but certainly poems that set out (as a reviewer in Poetry said well), “to grapple with the mess, not to say wreckage, of human relationships.” That book is born out of private experience. Voices Bright Flags on the other hand, though it is also in various ways profoundly (if often obscurely) personal, is an experiment, or rather a series of experiments, in what might be called public or political poetry. The poems in this book are all born out of extended meditations on, or interrogations of, America’s fascinating and fucked-up past (and present). I’ve long been interested in the question of public or political poetry, and generally speaking I feel that it’s a mode that is being neglected in our time and place—especially by white writers, and especially by white male writers. I don’t think every poet can or should write in this mode, but I think that as a nation we should be writing less poetry that is exclusively personal or pastoral and more that is also somehow public or political.
As for my feelings about these books now… I must say I feel fairly proud of Voices Bright Flags, despite its flaws, because it was such a hard book to write, and while it isn’t the masterpiece I hoped it would be, it’s much better than I often feared it would be. For years I worried I couldn’t finish it at all. It was hard partly because during the same years I also had two kids, taught full time, translated a novel, and edited that fat anthology. But mainly it was hard because I was trying to write about what seem to me matters of the greatest importance (from race in America to our government’s use of torture to what it means to bring children into all that), matters that are also, for me, incredibly hard to find good ways to write about. Some readers will say that I in fact failed to find good ways to write about some of these things, and they may be right. But I would rather have tried and failed than not to have tried. (And I wish more poets would try, even if it means failing—try again, fail again, fail better.)
As for Weighing Light, I didn’t think much about it for several years after it came out, in part because I was sick of the book in the way that many writers are sick of their old work, and in part because in those years I had no time or energy to think much about anything that wasn’t right in front of me. But a year or two ago I sat down and reread it, and I was surprised at how well most of it held up for me. It definitely felt like the work of a younger and slightly different poet, and I couldn’t or wouldn’t write a few of the poems now, but on the whole I’m pretty proud of it, too. And I do think the two books make good companions—and correctives—for each other.
With seven sections ranging from two to ten poems each, your new book Voices Bright Flags has a fairly unusual structure. How did you decide what poems to include in the book, and how did you put it together?
Good question. I suppose I think of those seven sections—at least the middle five—less as sections than as sequences. Of these, three—“Staring Back at Us,” “Second Skins” and “American Ornithology”—are obviously closely-knit groups, while the other two are looser thematic aggregations. So overall I thought of the book as five sequences framed by brief opening and closing sections.
The opening and closing sections are not sequences but rather preludes and codas, which introduce or lay to rest certain themes. The first poem in the book, for example, “Bryant Park at Dusk,” sets up an idea of public poetry: the poet in his “public chair” trying to imagine his way through his personal situation (and through Auden) into the mind and life of another—it’s an emblem of course for the project of the whole book. It also, arguably, suggests that the project might be destined from the outset to failure: the poet’s assumptions about the woman he’s watching prove to be wrong. (It’s one of several poems in the book—along with “Mr. Cook’s Day,” “Cowboys and Indians,” and a couple of others—that try in various ways to dramatize failed attempts to understand the experience of others. (Other poems, such as “About Opera,” suggest the ways in which art can sometimes succeed in bridging certain gaps.)
The epigraph, incidentally, was chosen for related reasons. It consists of James Baldwin quoting (actually slightly misquoting!) Henry James about the complexity of American identity. What I love about it, and why I chose it as the epigraph, is that it illustrates beautifully how a speaker’s identity and position alters the meaning of what is spoken: in James’s voice the line suggests one set of things; in Baldwin’s voice it suggests a radically different set of things; and when Baldwin combines his voice with James’s, both sets come into conversation with each other, as if in an echo chamber. (There’s also a wry irony that accrues to Baldwin’s version, because he knows exactly what that doubleness of voice is doing—irony that is utterly absent when the same line comes from Henry James.) The epigraph, then, was another attempt to acknowledge at the outset the complex and slippery nature of any attempt by one person to share the voice of another—but also an attempt to create a kind of echo chamber of my own.
Traditional forms have been important in your work from the beginning. What does working in rhyme and meter do for you as a poet in relation to structure, say, or poetic music, or the generation of new material?
I do love constraints, and I think formal constraints of some kind, whether traditional or not, play a big role for most writers (and not just poets) in the generation and organization of new material. Any poet who is fluent in traditional constraints like meter or rhyme has experienced the ways in which such constraints can, paradoxically, be generative and even liberating rather than stifling, as they often feel to poets who are not fluent in them. And of course constraints don’t have to be traditional at all—they’re fundamental to a lot of experimental writing, such as that associated with Oulipo. (Some of the constraints I place on my poems seem to me closer to Oulipoeisis than to traditional forms, though these are often not visible to readers.)
The explanation for why constraints are so often generative lies, I think, in neuroscience rather than in poetry and has to do with the way different parts of the brain take on different kinds of tasks. Neuroscientists talk about something called “cognitive load,” and they find that placing certain demands on people’s analytic faculties—by giving them simple computational tasks to perform, say, while answering unrelated questions—can give them freer access to other, less analytic and therefore less filtered, faculties. We all know that writing poetry involves two very different and simultaneous creative processes: one that is concerned with communicating some sort of (for lack of a better term) meaning, and another that has more to do with structures of sound than with sense. In other words, formal constraints can distract the a certain part of the brain, giving freer rein to other parts.
I think of “cognitive load” when I think of that famous statement by Eliot: “The conscious problems with which one is concerned in the actual writing are more those of a quasi-musical nature, in the arrangement of metric and pattern, than of a conscious exposition of ideas.” It is, I would argue, precisely that “arrangement of metric and pattern”—that focus on constraints, on structures of sound—that draws the writer’s conscious attention away from the “exposition of ideas,” thereby allowing that exposition to happen in ways that are more unconscious, more mysterious, and often more surprising (for both the writer and the reader).
I think if I weren’t already fluent in the traditional constraints of English prosody, or if I didn’t believe in their potential to give pleasure to readers as well as to be generative for writers, then I’d try to get those same satisfactions and surprises from non-traditional constraints—I’d join Oulipo.
Both Alan Shapiro and the Hecht Prize judge Heather McHugh have noted your engagement with voices from different people and different times in Voices Bright Flags and the overall vision of America the book develops. What do the voice poem and the poem set in the historical past offer you that a more autobiographical approach would not?
I think a lot about voice and voices, both as a poet and as a translator. As a translator I’m always concerned with creating voices that seem in some way “faithful” to the voices of the original texts; they aren’t necessarily voices that come easily or naturally to me, at least at first, and it often takes considerable effort for me to imagine my way into them. I’ve translated many different poets and prose writers, after all, and I don’t want them to all sound like me. It’s one of the most thrilling things about translation: the chance to get outside your own head for a while and to (try to) inhabit another head, with different voices in it. It’s arguably what the imagination is for.
As a poet, I often lament the fact that poetry has ceded so much of its storytelling role—including its role in the creation of literary characters—to fiction. We expect fiction writers to give shape and voice to a variety of characters who are obviously not (or: not obviously) based on themselves, including and sometimes especially unsavory characters, but we don’t encourage poets to do the same. I’m convinced that this bears some relation—whether as cause or effect—to the cultural marginalization of poetry over the last century, and it’s one reason for my desire to engage different voices in my poems.
But there are other reasons too, some of which bear more directly on the themes of Voices Bright Flags. As you know, the poems in that book are, in different ways, directly or indirectly, about America—about the variety of its cultures and the conflicts between them. I wanted to suggest this variety through different kinds of poetic variety: variety of forms, tones, themes, strategies, and—especially—voices. As the title suggests, I think of each voice as a kind of flag, staking a claim to a particular set of experiences, a particular version of America. Many of the voices that are obviously not (or: not obviously) me were inspired by voices I discovered in historical texts that made a strong impression on me and that I wanted to pay tribute to or draw attention to in some way. Of course it’s impossible for writers to actually transcend themselves or their historical positions to truly speak in the voices of others, but then again most worthwhile things are also impossible: translation, for instance, as everyone knows; or knowing ourselves, or our spouses, or our children… The value in all these things lies, I think, in the quality of our failures.
Some of my favorite poets are great experimenters with voice—I’m thinking of Browning and early Pound, but also of poets of my own time like Robert Hayden, Ai, and Frank Bidart, for instance, all of whom do extraordinary things with character and voice. Hayden has been particularly important for me—as I hope the various echoes of his language and themes in my book suggest—for the way he married his interest in multiple voices to his desire to interrogate American history through his poems.
As a professor, a parent, the husband of a novelist, and an amateur herpetologist, you have a lot of things going on in your life besides writing. How do these things affect what we see on the page?
Well, most obviously, all those roles you mention (with the exception of the herpetologist role, which is fun but trivial in comparison!) take up an enormous amount of time and energy—including creative energy—and therefore certainly diminish the quantity of what I’m able to put on the page. I have less time and energy for writing and so, naturally, I write less. On the other hand, I hope they all inform and enrich what I do write. The “Homeland Security” section of Voices Bright Flags—perhaps my favorite section of that book—is founded largely, for example, on my experiences as a father. Life underwrites art, or art writes over life, or something. And quantity, of course, doesn’t matter.
What are you working on now in poetry and translation? Are new projects and directions beginning to emerge?
I just finished a new translation of Calvino’s Six Memos for the Next Millennium, which will be out in August. I love those essays—they’re as useful for poets as for fiction writers—and I hope a new version will bring them some fresh attention. I’ve also been working, on and off for several years now, on a wonderful early-20th-century Italian poet named Giovanni Pascoli, and that collection seems to be slouching slowly toward completion. I’ve also been gradually accumulating translations of Umberto Saba, Sandro Penna, and a couple of other poets whose work I hope eventually to present in book form.
Finally, I’m working on a third collection of original poems, one that seems to mark a new direction for me. If my first book was largely personal in its inspirations and the second largely historical or political, I think the third is shaping up to be largely inspired by literary sources. Many of the newer poems are in some way inspired by or in dialog with other, usually foreign, poems; a few verge on being “free translations,” others might be called imitations or (to use Donald Justice’s term) “departures.” One thing that’s exciting to me about this direction is that it seems to be closing the gap between my activity as a translator and my activity as a poet, and I’m curious to see where it’s going and how narrow that gap can get.
Interviewer Don Bogen is the author of five collections of poems, including Immediate Song forthcoming from Milkweed Editions, as well as Europa: Selected Poems of Julio Martinez Mesanza (Diálogos 2015) and Necessary Order: Theodore Roethke and the Writing Process (Ohio University 1991).
For original poetry, fiction, art song, and more interviews, please visit our magazine at http://www.memorious.org.