Translated from Spanish by Robin Myers
(Phoenix, AZ: Cardboard House Press, 2018)
HLC: Thank you so much, Robin, for taking the time to chat with me today, and thank you even more for translating Ezequiel Zaidenwerg’s Lyric Poetry Is Dead, allowing additional readers to revel in both the light and darkness of this brilliant poetry. Robin, how did you come to take on this translation project?
RM: Thanks so much for the chance to talk with you, Heather! The seed of this project was planted years ago now. In 2008, I spent a semester studying in Buenos Aires, where I took a poetry translation workshop taught by none other than Ezequiel Zaidenwerg himself. Over time, we became friends and started reading — and eventually translating — each other’s work. I translated a few poems from Lyric Poetry Is Dead in 2009, on the occasion of a bilingual reading Ezequiel was going to give, and gradually worked my way through the rest of the book. So the translation emerged pretty organically from an ongoing friendship, and an ongoing conversation about poems and translation and form. The idea was to translate the whole thing and then see when and how and if it might be published in English somewhere — which finally happened thanks to the wonderful Cardboard House Press.
HLC: During my first reading of Lyric Poetry Is Dead, which I’ve now read from front to back several times, the most compelling aspect was duality, such as life and death, and the ways in which dichotomies are not necessarily antonymous. “Lyric poetry is dead, / and yet the last time I went to take her pulse, / I found her still alive.” In the wrong context, these seeming contradictions could be deeply frustrating, but Zaidenwerg’s juxtapositions are evocative.
This book is chock-full with deep mourning as well as celebration of life. For example, grief floods the pages during an encounter with Dr. Pedro Ava, who meticulously cared for the body of Eva Peron after her death. On a very different note, we relive the tale of “The Emperor’s New Clothes.” I still remember the first time I heard the fairytale about the emperor being duped into parading himself in public naked, and while I read Lyric Poetry Is Dead, I laugh out loud when I reach the line “As it was summer, / the suit was very comfortable.” I think this humor is important not only for sheer enjoyment, balancing out the brimming symbols of death, but serves as a reminder that poetry does not need to be some stiff and stuffy density and that poets and readers alike should, perhaps, not take ourselves too seriously.
Robin, in your translator’s note, you write that “Translation is, more than anything else, an intimate form of close reading.” Can you think back to your first reading and tell us which lines evoked the most visceral reactions from you, either moments that broke your heart or, maybe, warmed it?
RM: Before I answer this specific question, I’d like to say a few words about the structure of the book for TLR readers who aren’t familiar with it yet. Lyric Poetry Is Dead takes its title from a statement uttered by Argentine poet Alejandro Rubio; each poem addresses (challenges, teases, opposes, plays with, disproves) this idea by making lyric poetry into a different figure from literature or history and chronicling his or her demise. Because la lírica is a feminine noun in Spanish, “lyric poetry” is always personified in English as female, no matter who the original literary/historical character may be.
Returning to your question: many of the lines that hit me hardest come from the fifth poem, “Ernesto Rafael Guevara de la Serna,” which narrates the death of Che Guevara in the voice of a soldier who participated in his execution. The narration draws heavily from a photograph of Che shortly after his death: he’s surrounded by men in uniform, and they’ve propped him up in an odd way, so that he looks like he’s stirring and trying to sit himself upright. Part of what I find so moving about the poem is that it’s a double portrait: both of Che Guevara (impersonating lyric poetry) and of the nameless soldier. The speaker describes Che/lyric poetry’s final hours, but also the narrator’s own harsh origins: “But here, in these parts, / everything grows chaotically and without purpose, / and I, who came to the world and grew up / ferociously, against and then despite it all, like grass that struggles up between the pavement cracks….” The first time I read the poem, I was stunned by this self-depiction, and by the sense of bafflement that the soldier expresses at why Che would leave a comfortable middle-class existence for “this wilderness / where everything can grow, / but only hunger thrives,” “battling for the triumphant glory / of an Idea.” I was also struck and shaken by several lines that Ezequiel actually drew from other sources and seamlessly wove into the poem (the whole book is constantly intertextual in this way). For example, the speaker imagines how people will gossip about Che/lyric poetry, saying “that she was not herself the light, / that she came only as a witness to the light” — which paraphrases/alludes to a passage in the Gospel of John about John the Baptist. The appropriation of this line perfectly captures even the speaker’s sense of awe in reaction to the being he has helped destroy, and to the aura of mystery surrounding her.
And then, of course, there are the shattering final lines, which I translated as follows: “And as for how the facts were given, / it isn’t true: that we could hardly bear it, / and so we drank to give us courage, / and even then we couldn’t. We simply did / what they had ordered us to do: / we went into the room where they were keeping her / and killed her as you’d kill an animal / that you had raised to eat.” I’ve always been stunned by how the poem shifts in and out of empathy, curiosity, and wistfulness, and then ends with this violence, this cold, clear-eyed sense of inevitability. Heather, you mentioned the lightness and humor at work in Lyric Poetry Is Dead, its playfulness and anti-solemnity; all of those qualities are things I’ve always relished and admired about it as well. “Ernesto Rafael Guevara de la Serna” is among the book’s more solemn poems, and I find it intensely moving in its gravitas, although it never loses its deftness, either.
HLC: I’m often asked how or why poetry is relevant today, and I think this is a fair question. In fact, I didn’t fall in love with poetry until I was an adult, and I remember struggling to understand the relevance of it in today’s world or, more often, not giving it a thought.
Lyric Poetry Is Dead, however, speaks to the relevance of poetry exceptionally. Zaidenwerg’s lines provide astute, complex, yet concrete responses, ones that, I would argue, are mindful of even the skeptical reader. The title itself, Lyric Poetry Is Dead, evokes a sense of ethos through its matter-of-fact statement, although the book proves, through artful rhetoric, not heavy-handed didacticism, quite the opposite, that lyric poetry is alive and well.
Many say that one function of a poet is historian, and to dig deeper than the facts, recording the present or the past to move beyond preservation and to reanimate history. In a straightforward sense, Lyric Poetry Is Dead is a phenomenal example as we encounter a hearty range of historical figures. In many cases, through personification, these figures are played by lyric poetry herself, such as in the section titled after “Dr. Pedro Ara,” the pathologist commissioned to preserve the body of beloved Eva Perón: “lyric poetry, / according to my visitors, / was dying, and she surely would / have passed away before / we made it there.” By not only revising and painting the picture of historical and even mythological moments, preserving and reinvigorating vibrant cultural threads, but also replacing iconic figures with the personified lyric poetry, Zaidenwerg seems to be making a genuine statement about the importance of poetry’s function.
Robin, as the translator, you might be the book’s closest reader. What do you see as the function of poetry in today’s world, and did your perception change in any way throughout your translation process?
RM: I recently read some remarks by Danez Smith in which he says that the role of the poet is to notice, while the role of the poem is to transform. I think the function of poetry is the union of these two ideas and processes: poetry engages in some form of observation, or even accounting (on a micro scale, on a macro one, or zooming in and out between one and the other), and then renders what is observed or accounted for in a way that changes it somehow. Poetry is a way to reveal what startles: it uses language to shed different kinds of light on things, exposing the beauty in something apparently sinister, or the sinister in something apparently beautiful, or the unexpected connections among seemingly disparate elements. I see poetry, both historically and now, as a tool to lament and protest the horror in our world, and also as a way to explore what makes life worth loving not just despite but also simply amid that horror. I also think there’s something powerful and even liberating about the fact that poetry “doesn’t make any money”: it’s a bizarre, modestly scaled, not especially logical, anti-market forcefield of human creativity and experience, and in this sense poetry frees us to think about art, love, desire, loss, injustice, oppression, history, community, and the future in ways that are less easily coopted by the big hegemonic powers-that-be than other disciplines or formats are.
I thought a lot about that sense of “freedom” — however partial or fleeting it may be — as I translated Lyric Poetry Is Dead. In part because Ezequiel is so bold and expansive with his references: he draws from Ovid, from Dante, from Genesis, but also, for example, from an early Argentine soft-core porno. His poems are impeccably metered and sweepingly informed by the Spanish-language poetic tradition, and yet they’re also these crazy mashups of time and place and tone. The book starts as an ironic diatribe against the obviously false and silly statement about lyric poetry being dead — and yet as you say, Heather, it finds many complex ways, both playful and profoundly sincere, to suggest that it’s alive and kicking. What’s more: it couldn’t even die if we tried to kill it! It’s bigger and stronger and more resilient and self-transformative than any school, any fad, any reigning attitude at any given time about what poetry is for and what it’s capable of. Or, you know, maybe lyric poetry is a sort of “undead” entity, as Ezequiel might call it: a body that’s periodically killed off and disintegrates but which paradoxically thrives on its own death and disintegration as its fundamental condition of possibility, like in the myth of Orpheus.
In any case, as I worked on this translation, I found myself feeling in awe about the vastness of poetic evolution over the course of human written history, and about its contemporary manifestations, too. Poetry is a mysterious companion to us as we try to make sense of our world and ourselves — as we notice and transform. For me, Ezequiel’s book is beautiful proof of it.
HLC: What were the most difficult aspects of this translation project? Could you share a few of the most challenging lines and how you processed and approached them?
RM: The most difficult poem overall was “X. Death of Orpheus.” This text basically reconstructs the first 53 hexameters of Book XI of Ovid’s Metamorphoses, which I’ll confess I hadn’t read! It also contains specific allusions to Rubén Darío and St. John of the Cross. So in addition to the formal challenges present throughout the entire book (Ezequiel wrote every poem in meter, and I translated it in meter), here there was the additional question of how to honor these canonical references without getting bogged down in them. Ultimately, I translated Ezequiel’s text directly; that is, I didn’t quote from or incorporate specific segments of preexisting English translations of the Metamorphoses. Yet I did consult those translations to ensure that my own rendition would be in dialogue not only with Ezequiel but also with Ovid, if that makes sense.
Here’s another thorny spot at the end: “…the lyre, without a hand to strum it, / babbling its baleful bits of ballad.” The final phrase in Spanish reads “se queda balbuciendo un no sé qué,” and it’s based on a line from St. John of the Cross’s “Spiritual Canticle.” In turn, St. John’s alliterations may have been inspired by Ovid’s (“nescio quid quaerit”). Lots of echoes here! In the end, though, this passage reminded me of what it means to prioritize as a translator. The priority was not that every reader should know that maybe St. John borrowed a phrase from Ovid. The priority wasn’t even that every reader should be thinking of Ovid at all. The priority in this line — or at least what I decided I wanted to prioritize, after a lot of discussion with Ezequiel, who was essential in thinking all of it through — was the alliteration, plain and simple. The sound. It’s a poem about music! About music that outlives even the musician. So of course music should have the last word — or, in other words, the last words would have to be musical. This is why I strayed from other more direct possible translations of the line in favor of the almost exaggeratedly alliterative “babbling its baleful bits of ballad.” Subtlety was not the goal! Sound — lavish, effusive, even theatrical — was.
HLC: Robin, you are a phenomenally talented translator, and I’m grateful for this opportunity to chat with you. Could you tell us a bit about your journey as a literary translator?
RM: Thanks so much, Heather; I’m grateful, too! I started translating late in college — with Ezequiel’s workshop in Buenos Aires, in fact. And I started with poetry, which is the genre I write in. But I don’t think I’d really conceived of having a career as a translator at that point. I started translating more broadly, and in an accidental sort of way, when I came to Mexico in 2011 with the vague intent to stick around for a while (still here!). I’ve worked as a freelance translator ever since, though the nature of my work on a daily basis has certainly changed over time: at first, I translated absolutely anything, technical manuals, legal documents, you name it. Gradually, more of my paid work started to come from the general cultural sphere (museums, film festivals, etc.), as I continued to translate literature I loved on the side — both poetry and, increasingly, prose. It’s been over the past couple years that literary translation has occupied more and more of my everyday work, which has felt very exciting. It’s an odd, consuming job, and I love its shape-shifting-ness, its translucence, its devotional attention, the sense of perpetual apprenticeship to the minds and words of others. If I might take the liberty of mentioning a couple projects in the works, I’ve been translating Animals at the End of the World, a novel by the Colombian writer Gloria Esquivel, which will be published by the University of Texas Press in 2020; also coming out next year is Cars on Fire, a collection of short stories by the Chilean writer Mónica Ramón Ríos, from Open Lettter Books. And a few other things, both poetry and prose, that are still finding their way out into the world!
HLC: Wonderful! Robin, I can’t wait to read more of your work. Maybe the most unanticipated brilliance of this book, for me, simply because it is a collection of poetry that, in many ways, seems to celebrate musicality, is the poet’s exceptional storytelling abilities, which is a different literary skillset. When lyric poetry is held at gunpoint, and “from that moment forward, as I remember, everything moved faster,” I was on the edge of my seat. Could you talk a bit about the narrative arc of Lyric Poetry Is Dead and how it is important to the success of the collection?
RM: The first five poems center on figures and episodes from twentieth-century Argentine literary and political history, and then branch out, in many different directions, to other figures and episodes over time and space. We find Harun al-Rashid from A Thousand and One Nights, Sybil of Cumae, the famous Emperor and his new clothes, Orpheus, Sodom and Gomorrah, Penelope’s suitors . . . all participating narratively, allegorically, in lyric poetry’s various plights and “deaths.” An important part of the book’s narrative arc is its use of structural repetition: Every poem begins with the statement “Lyric poetry is dead” and proceeds to set the tone and the scene of her demise: “Lyric poetry is dead. Or so they say,” starts one. Or one of my favorites: “Lyric poetry is dead. She’s mortified.” The cumulative effect — poem after poem, context after context, era after era — feels both intensely contemporary and almost mythological. There’s a sense of sweep, of narrative expansiveness, and yet also of unity: like a single ever-mutating story being told and retold again and again. Like a series of reincarnations. Importantly, too, Lyric Poetry Is Dead ends with a “coda” poem that doesn’t adhere to this structure at all. It’s called “What Love Does Unto Poets,” and it’s a free-ranging, tongue-in-cheek, downright euphoric description of how love both movingly and ridiculously shatters any and all attempts to subdivide literature (and humanity in general) into groups or cliques or schools: how it reduces us all to sheer experience, to ephemerality, to mortality, of course. And to repeatability! I read the coda as a reframing, both comical and beautiful, of an idea that runs through the bulk of the collection: that poetry is more important than poets. It will outlive us all; it always has.
HLC: We’ve talked quite a bit about personification, but this literary device, which is present throughout the book and resembles a casting of lyric poetry as if it were an actor in a play or a movie, is not the only clever yet sophisticated nod to the reader that I witness throughout this artfully ironic book, which demonstrates the relevance and vitality of poetry. Zaidenwerg reminds me of poetry’s ability to encourage readers to not only explore our understandings of the world which surrounds us, which he most certainly does, but to reflect on our own existences and actions, as well. The first section, titled most directly as “Lyric Poetry is Dead,” closes with the liquidation of lyric poetry’s estate after her death: “state or commercial offices. To be recycled. / No windows and no bathrooms. / Incredible variety of mirrors.” One of the most magnificent facets of poetry is the way in which it can allow us, as either writers or readers, to explore and better understand ourselves and our autonomy in the world.
Thank you, Robin, for translating this stunning collection, which has, for me, served as a breathtaking beautiful pause, a moment perhaps many of us need in this fast-paced world.
RM: It’s been a pleasure! Thank you for being such an incisive reader and wonderful ally to poetry and translation.
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Robin Myers is a Mexico City-based poet and translator. Recent translations include Manca by Juana Adcock (Editorial Argonáutica, 2019), Empty Pool by Isabel Zapata (Editorial Argonáutica, 2019), Animals at the End of the World by Gloria Susana Esquivel (University of Texas Press, forthcoming in 2020), and Cars on Fire by Mónica Ramón Ríos (Open Letter Books, forthcoming in 2020). Her own poems have recently appeared in Poetry Northwest, 32 Poems, the Massachusetts Review, and PANK Magazine, among other publications.
Heather Lang, recently chosen as Clark County, Nevada’s Poet Laureate, holds an MFA in Poetry with a Certificate in Literary Translation. In 2017 she was named Las Vegas’ Best Local Writer or Poet by the readers of KNPR’s Desert Companion, and her poems have been published by The Normal School, North American Review, Pleiades, South Dakota Review, and many other literary journals. She serves as World Literature Editor for The Literary Review, Faculty Advisor for 300 Days of Sun, and Editor-in-Chief for Tolsun Books. At Nevada State College, Heather teaches Creative Writing, World Literature, and more.