Interview with Mark Smith-Soto

Smith-Soto's 2003 Collection

[The following interview and introductory remarks were originally published in Cold Mountain Review in 2006.]

Mark Smith-Soto is difficult to classify. He is a professor of Spanish and Latin American literature, a playwright, a poet, a translator, the editor of the International Poetry Review—and he fills each of these roles with style to burn. It would certainly be a lapse not to mention his Latino roots, but it would be an even greater one to define him by them. His work appears in Nimrod, Carolina Quarterly, The Sun, Poetry East, Quarterly West, Callaloo, Chattahoochee Review, Literary Review, Kenyon Review, among others. His books include the chapbooks Green Mango Collage and Shafts, and the full-length collections Our Lives Are Rivers (Florida University Press, 2003) and Any Second Now (MSR Press, 2006). His short plays have been published and produced locally in North Carolina and nationally.

The following interview took place in Greensboro, NC, early October, 2005.

Okla Elliott: You’ve taken an unorthodox path to becoming a poet—you earned a PhD in comparative literature at UC-Berkeley and went on to become a Spanish professor.  It was only later in life that you focused more on your creative writing.  What were the reasons for this choice, or was it even a conscious choice at all?

Mark Smith-Soto: I’ve thought of myself as a poet since I was a boy. In the Costa Rica of my childhood, poetry was an important part of any educated person’s life whether you were a lawyer or a doctor or an engineer. In my mother’s family, poetry was always highly regarded, and some of my earliest memories are of my mother or my uncle or my grandfather quoting a poem by Ruben Dario or Sor Juana during after dinner conversations or while on a drive to the beach. But if from my mother’s side of the family I inherited a love for literature, from my father the lawyer I inherited a strong practical streak, and very early on I realized that I was not the sort to starve for the sake of my art. By the time I entered as a freshman at the University of Maryland, I had made up my mind to become a teacher, very consciously having decided that it was a profession both congenial to my temperament and more likely than most to give me ample time to write. As it turned out, I was only partially right.  Scholarly endeavors ended up requiring much more of my creative energy than I anticipated, and while I never stopped writing poetry altogether, it definitely took a back seat to the business of getting my academic career on its way. I should add that from early on I found it a lot easier to publish articles and books on other people’s writing than to discover anyone willing to print my own poetry. Had it been otherwise, I might have gathered the courage to dedicate myself more fully to my vocation as a poet. Of course, it may have been for the best that my early poetry did not get accepted for publication. Looking at it now, I feel that most of it was imitative and immature, and I am glad I was not encouraged to continue in that same vein.

OE: How has having studied Latin American literature changed your creative sensibilities?

MS: The first poetry I learned to love and to recite as a child in Costa Rica was in Spanish, of course, writers such as Jorge Manrique, Sor Juana, Ruben Dario and Gabriela Mistral who were often quoted at family reunions, parties, and at dinner-time conversations. But there was no formal study involved, I just absorbed the rhythms and music of poems I found beautiful often without fully understanding them. I could not begin to say how profoundly this early experience shaped my creative sensibilities. I would not be surprised if everything I write or even think might not be traceable back somehow to that primal apprenticeship.  When it comes to the actual study of poetry and its influence of my work, I should say that although I continued to write for a while in Spanish when I first came to the U.S., I very quickly fell in love with the English language, which I learned in part by memorizing poems by Poe, Frost, Wordsworth, Yeats and many others. In high school and then as an English major at the University of Maryland, it was primarily through the reading and analysis of English-language writers that I fully began to understand what poetry was about. Later, as a graduate student, I came to know and love Neruda, Lorca, Storni, and many other Spanish-language poets who I can only hope have left their mark on my work—as they no doubt have on my soul.

There is one aspect of my work which no doubt bears the mark of poets such as Neruda and Vallejo who were unabashedly political in their writings. With occasional exceptions, modern poets in English have pretty much shied away from the expression of social and political concerns, as if, in the fashion of Oscar Wilde’s butler in The Importance of Being Earnest, they did not think it polite to listen to the sounds of sorrow all around. While it is not typical of my work in general, I have written through the years a number of poems with a specifically socio-political intention, and I might well have written more had I not found it nearly impossible to publish them in literary journals. Luckily, I discovered an outlet for some of those pieces in The Sun, a thoughtful rather than academic magazine which does not consider an ethical sympathy in a writer to be, and this is Wilde once again, an unpardonable mannerism of style.

OE: Some of your poetry seems very informed by your Latin American heritage, but much of it shows none of that influence at all.  Your work doesn’t seem defined by your ethnicity.  In what ways does your personal heritage enter into your work?

MS: It took me a long time to realize I was a Latino writer.  Although in Costa Rica people use both the father’s and mother’s family name, when we came to the U.S. in 1958 my American father simply dropped the Soto from his children’s surname. Because my skin is not particularly dark and because I spoke English without much of an accent, I soon became accustomed to being seen, and seeing myself, as just another Smith.

My family’s economic position was relatively comfortable, and I did not have to grow up suffering the kind of privations, oppression and prejudice that informs the work of many Hispanic poets in this country. Unlike Luis Rodriguez, I don’t bear the scars of inner city gang life, and unlike Gary Soto or Tino Villanueva, I am not a product of the Southwest that often has oppressed and exploited its Chicano and Mexican populations. The Nuyorican experience is as foreign and exotic to me as any other aspect of Manhattan.

Still, as an American kid who lived with a Spanish speaking mother in the house and who felt close ties to the family I left behind in Costa Rica, I was never in danger of losing sight of my Hispanic background even if that awareness never became politicized for me. In fact, with one or two exceptions, all the poetry I have written with a Hispanic theme is not so much “Latino” as it is familial, that is, it is personal rather than intentionally political.  I do believe, of course, as the cliché goes, that the personal is political, and in so far as the poetry I’ve published inspired by my Costa Rican experience might bring to the consciousness of my readers the fact that they are holding in their hands the work of a hyphenated American of the Hispanic sort, in that sense, I am pleased to be perfectly political.

OE: You have also recently begun writing short plays.  What is the connection between verse and short dramatic pieces?

MS: The language of poets, to borrow a phrase from Yeats, is a dialogue between self and soul, and their poetry offers us a chance to eavesdrop on this vital, essential conversation.  But there is an aspect of myself as a human being that only comes into its own when I am in the company of others, when I am in conversation, in dance, in laughter with other people. Writing plays satisfies a need I feel to delve into the dynamics that human interaction.  I love the way we humans give ourselves away every time we open our mouths, the way our choice of words, the way we scratch our heads, the long or short steps we take across a living room all can signal the state and nature of our souls, which we imagine we keep deeply hidden.  Of course, poetry and playwriting can go hand in hand, and when they merge seamlessly as they do in Shakespeare, the most obvious example, they can attain heights of expressivity that can only be called sublime.  It is commonplace to say that plays in verse are now anachronistic and have no chance of being produced, but I have written one short verse play which won a prize in a national contest and will soon be published.  This has been very encouraging, and I expect to try it again before too long.

OE: What specifically about the 10-minute play excites you?

MS: It has been a good way for a beginner like myself to break into writing for the theatre because the initial investment of time and energy and soul are not so great as to be daunting. Similar to trying your teeth on a few short stories before committing to taking on a novel.  It brings home to you how brevity really is the soul of wit.  “Less is more” can be a difficult lesson for writers who are accustomed to lean heavily on language to carry our meaning.  A mere ten minutes of stage time to work with teaches you quickly that what can be well expressed is often less important than what can be left unsaid, and that a well-placed gesture can suggest a story beyond words.

One important advantage to the very short play– your chances of actually getting your work produced are much greater than with a full-length piece.  I have had six put on locally myself.  More and more community theatres have found that an offering of six or seven ten-minute plays can be very appealing, especially to younger audiences with ever shorter attention spans.  Here in Greensboro, the Playwrights’ Forum presents two such evenings each year, always to very respectable houses.

And, finally, well, it’s liberating to write in a form that’s new, whose parameters, requirements and limitations are still in the process of being discovered.  I mean, the ten-minute play as a subgenre has only been around for a few years, so, in a sense, those of us practicing it now are in on the ground floor, shaping it, determining what its nature will be.  It’s a relief for a poet and would-be playwright not to have to labor under Shakespeare’s shadow for a change!

OE: Do you think you’ll ever write fiction?

MS: As for fiction, well, I have been an insatiable reader of fiction since my childhood, and am seldom without a novel in my hand, whether it be a P.D. James or an Elizabeth George, or a Dickens novel I finally have gotten to, or the latest by Kazuo Ishiguro.  But much as I regret to say so, I have no talent for narrative whatsoever.  My few attempts have taught me that to create a fictional world—to evoke the minutiae of every day life in an exciting and engaging way so as to provide the necessary context in which character can be explored and understood—requires a kind of creative patience which has been denied me.  So no, I think the world is pretty safe from any attempts at fiction from my pen.

OE: Your newest collection of poetry, Any Second Now, due out in spring 2006, contains many political poems. Would you discuss the new collection and your choice to include so many political poems?

MS: Publishing my first full-length book of poetry took me some thirty years, and I had almost despaired of getting a second collection accepted when Main Street Rag Publishers fished me out from among the finalists in their annual poetry competition and offered me a contract this year.  In preparing that manuscript, I got together every poem I had ever published in literary magazines and every poem I felt deserved to have been published by someone somewhere and then looked to see if I could find a way of giving the collection a sense of overarching unity.  I couldn’t.  The problem was that I have many voices in my head, almost distinct poetical personalities, if you will, in the fashion of Fernando Pessoa, the great Portuguese modernist who went so far as to publish his work under several different aliases.  There was no way, ultimately, that I could impose some artificial thematic superstructure on those poems.  So what I decided to do was to divide the manuscript into four sections, each one representing one of the principal “voices” in which my poetry tends to come to me, and hope that my readers will intuit how these disparate parts conspire in the creation of a coherent whole.  The title, Any Second Now, suggested itself as possibly the one preoccupation that underlies almost everything I write, and that is a sense of urgency about the element of time in which our mortal selves unwind.

As for the overtly political themes in the section I titled “President In My Heart” I can only say that if, as the saying goes, the personal is political, then what interests me above all in these poems is rather how the political is personal—that is, how am I, how is my own humanity—complicit in the political and social realities which I decry?  Of course, I have often through the years enjoyed writing direct political attacks in limericks on figures like George W. Bush and his ilk, but I do not consider them serious poetry because writing them did not teach me anything about myself.

OE: With Nation Books’ 2003 publication of Poets Against the War, which included such luminaries as Marvin Bell, Rita Dove, and W.S. Merwin, and which met with great success, do you feel that there may be a place again for the political in the literary?

MS: Yes, of course, there always has been and always will be a place for the political in the literary.  That fact has not always been recognized, but it is undeniable.  Even in the U.S., where we so often hear the complaint that poets live at a remove from the sorrows of the everyday life around them, writers through the years from Whitman to Edna St. Vincent Millay to Robert Bly to Carolyn Forché, among many others, have penned powerful work with socio-political concerns.

But I am not bothered that in this country we have few poets of the first rank who have written overtly political poetry.  You have to consider how the pragmatic, mercantile and utilitarian forces here oppose a crushing weight against the pursuit of spiritual values that writing poetry represents.  For a person in the United States to embrace the identity of a poet—which miraculously still happens!—rather than that of a football player or an Exxon executive or a lawyer or a Bible salesman is to take a political stand.  In such a context as ours, to write a few lines of poetry about a rose should be understood as an intrinsically subversive act.

OE: You recently received an NEA grant.  What plans do you have for the near future?

MS: Only one: I want to write!


[This piece previously appeared in Poet’s Market 2010 and Poet’s Market 2011.]


by Okla Elliott

“Translators are the shadow heroes of literature, the often forgotten instruments that make it possible for different cultures to talk to one another.”—Paul Auster


The historical importance of translation for English language poetry is undeniable. Henry Howard, the Earl of Surrey, invented blank verse in order to translate Virgil’s Æneid in 1554, because the Latin original was unrhymed yet metered, and no equivalent existed in English. Blank verse, brought to us by a translator’s ingenuity, allowed for Shakespeare’s plays to be written as we know them. The sonnet (sonetto or “little song” in Italian) was created by Giacomo da Lentini and enjoyed a boom among Italian poets such as Calvalcanti, Dante, and Petrarch in the mid-13th and early 14th centuries. It was not until the 16th century that sonnets began appearing in English, in translations from Italian and from French. And the list of gifts translators have brought English poetry goes on—couplets, villanelles, sestinas, and, some have argued, even free verse via attempts to translate Chinese poetry. The question now is: What is the cultural and artistic place of translation in the age of globalization?

According to a Center for Book Culture study on the number of books translated into English between 2000-2006, it’s a pretty dismal place. Most countries had fewer than one book per year translated into English, and literary heavyweights such as France, Italy, and Germany had fewer than ten books per year translated into English—and this includes novels and nonfiction as well as poetry. The percentage of books in translation tends to be estimated, by such organizations as the NEA and PEN, at about three percent of the total published in America. (Incidentally, there is an excellent blog about translation, out of the University of Rochester, called Three Percent.) Does this mean the effort of translation is hopeless or unimportant? Not necessarily.

Translation is very complex; the process, the need, and the market for it are not so easily summed up. To understand the landscape, we have to look at the differences between publishing translation as books or in journals, translating contemporary or older work, working alone or collaboratively. Likewise, the politics and ethics of translation play a role. And perhaps most importantly, the process and joys of translation need to be understood.

The Process of Translation

The primary goal of translation is to recreate the effect of the original poem in the target language (the language into which you are translating). The problem, of course, is that if the poet did her work properly in the original (or source) language, then she made use of every available trick and tactic, thus making the job of recreating the poem almost impossible. This is why Umberto Eco calls translation “the art of failure.” But while perfection is perhaps not possible, there are thousands of excellent translations in existence. So, how were they done?

You have to determine whether you want to transport the source text into the target language or transport the reader of your translation to the source culture. If you are translating, for example, a contemporary Mexican poet, and the word buñuelo appears, you have to decide whether to replace this very specific Mexican sweet bun made with orange juice with some American equivalent (a honeybun perhaps) or to simply leave the Spanish word in the English translation and hope the reader knows what a buñuelo is. A third option is to retain the Spanish word and footnote it, though footnotes can ruin the effect of a poem if there are too many of them. The general rule is to avoid them when possible. Of course, the problem with replacing a Mexican pastry with a traditional American pastry is that—forgive the pun—you damage the original flavor of the poem, though you do not run the risk of losing or confusing your reader. But both tactics lead to problems, as nearly everything in translation does. I don’t mean to suggest that a translation can’t do both. In fact, most good translations do, but each successful translation, in order to have its singular effect as the original had its singular effect, ought to privilege one effort over the other.

Depending on the source text, your level of mastery of the source language, and whether there are pre-existing translations, the first stages of working on a new translation of a poem will differ wildly. When translating Latin and Greek literature, David Slavitt uses pre-existing literal prose translations of the poems as well as his personal knowledge of Latin and Greek “to turn the prose translations back into poems.” Slavitt says, “When you translate prose, you are the original author’s clerk, but when you translate poetry, you are his partner.”

Frequently, translation is also done collaboratively. Likely the most famous contemporary duo is Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky, who have redone many of the Russian prose masterpieces. A notable team in poetry translation is Peter Burian and Alan Shapiro, who collaborate on translations of ancient literature. The make-up of the team is frequently a scholar of the source language/text and a poet who knows the tricks of English verse and who might have some knowledge of the source language.

But no matter your tactics or whether you work alone or with a collaborator, tough choices will have to be made. My translation of Jürgen Becker’s poem “Oderbruch,” which appeared in the Indiana Review, offers a simple example of the issues a translator runs into in nearly every line. I had translated “[g]elb graue Dämmerung” as “[g]old gray twilight” which caused the faculty member consulted about the accuracy of my translation to suggest that I change it to the more literal “[y]ellow gray twilight.” In one sense, he was right—“gelb” means “yellow.” But I felt that “gold” was close enough to the literal meaning, but it had the added poetic benefit of retaining the consonance and the number of syllables in the original. Ultimately, the poetry editors at the Indiana Review agreed with me, but not because I was unquestionably right. We were both right about how to translate the line. It was simply that I was willing to make a small sacrifice in literalness to retain the music, whereas he was willing to make a small sacrifice of the music to retain a more exact meaning. Every poem will present a dozen or more moments where the translator must sacrifice one thing for another. Only rarely does a poem submit easily to transfer into a new language/culture. That, however, is also part of the joy. Nearly every translator speaks of the joy of finding an elegant solution to a seemingly insoluble problem.

Slavitt says, “I didn’t take a Hippocratic Oath when I signed on to be a writer. I feel no obligation to the literal meaning of the text whatsoever.” It’s the pleasure of the original he is after. Does that mean Twinkies show up in Ovid? Well, fine, let it be so. Or so Slavitt says. But the business of translation is a highly contentious one, and one where opinions are unusually strong and criticisms often bitter.

One of the joys of translation is what you can learn by doing it. Slavitt went to the Eclogues and Georgics of Virgil in order to learn how to make a paragraph work in verse. Matthew Zapruder, author of The Pajamaist and translator of the Romanian poet Eugen Jebeleanu, reports, “I also had a sense right away that it would be a good thing for me, a poet just starting to find his way, to be inside the seriousness of the voice and the directness and implacable structure of the poems.”

Publishing Translations

The report on the market for poetry in translation is mixed. A recent New York Review of Books article points out that Iran publishes more literature in translation than the United States does—as do all European countries and most Latin American ones. That said, however, it has been my experience that original poetry and fiction are comparably hard to place in journals, whereas translation and nonfiction are much easier to place. This has, predictably, to do with the volume and quality of submissions in each genre, as well as current demand. Brett Fletcher Lauer, a poetry editor at A Public Space and an advisory editor at Columbia University’s Circumference, a journal dedicated largely to poetry in translation, offers the following theory on why translations tend to be better and therefore more likely to be accepted: “A Public Space receives a relatively small number of submissions of poetry in translation compared with the thousands of submissions of English-language poetry. That being said, the overall quality of translations submitted is very high. I’m not sure how to account for this fact.” He goes on to speculate, “The process of translating and the dedication it requires makes it so that it cannot be casual work, but, instead, a sort of over-time, and what we receive reflects this.”

“Generally journals were happy to publish the poems,” says Zapruder of his translations of Jebeleanu. “I had more difficulty publishing the book; in fact, I finished the translations in 1998, and it took almost ten years for the book to eventually come out with Coffee House Press.”

Slavitt says, “If you translate a standard classic and are lucky enough to get it adopted as a text in enough courses, it will do much better than original poetry.” But he adds, “If you translate someone who needs translating—Ausonius for instance—it’s about even [with sales of original collections of poetry].” Given the generally poor sales of poetry collections, this might not be very heartening, but it ought to be. Either a book of translation will sell about the same as an original collection or considerably better, especially if you can recast a classic poet in a new translation.

Some of the journals most supportive of poetry in translation are Absinthe, The Bitter Oleander, Circumference, Indiana Review, International Poetry Review, The Literary Review, Natural Bridge, New Letters, Poetry International, and A Public Space. There are others, of course, but these are journals that are dedicated to translation solely or that publish some translation in nearly every issue. And presses that publish translation regularly include Dalkey Archive Press, Northwestern University Press, Red Hen Press, Sheep Meadow Press, and Ugly Duckling Presse. If a new translator wants to discover what is happening in translation today, she would do well to peruse these publications.

Advice for Getting Started

If you’re a first-time translator, it is unlikely that you’ll get the rights to translate and publish the work of a major author whose work is still under copyright—e.g., Günter Grass or Pablo Neruda. Mark Smith-Soto, the editor of International Poetry Review and a poet/translator in his own right, advises that a new translator find an author who enjoys a good reputation in his/her home country but who hasn’t yet been translated into English. “If you ask a poet whether he’d like to be translated, the answer is generally going to be yes,” Smith-Soto says. And here is where the unfortunate state of literature in translation can actually be a plus. Since there is so much excellent literature that has yet to be translated, you’ll have plenty to choose from. But since you’ll be spending many hours living in the poet’s work, it’s important to find work you admire. Otherwise, what should be a joy will become a chore. Once you’ve established yourself, then the larger gigs will come.

It’s also worthwhile to have a working knowledge of translation theory, which sounds daunting but which in fact can be attained by reading two excellent books out from University of Chicago Press, The Craft of Translation and Theories of Translation, both edited by John Biguenet and Rainer Schulte. These two reasonably sized volumes will bring you from Dryden’s thinking on translation through Goethe’s and up to Gregory Rabassa’s with excellent stops at Nietzsche’s, Benjamin’s, and others’.

So, read the journals that publish translations, read these two seminal texts on the theory and craft of translation, find poetry you admire, and get to work. It’s rewarding for both the translator and for the literary culture as a whole.