Landscape’s Influence: An Interview with Kathy Fagan

Landscape’s Influence: An Interview with Kathy Fagan

by Sean Karns

Kathy Fagan is the author of four books of poems: The Raft (Dutton, 1985), a National Poetry Series selection; Moving & St Rage (Univ. of North Texas Press, 1999), winner of the Vassar Miller Prize for Poetry; The Charm (Zoo Press, 2002), and Lip (Eastern Washington Univ. Press, 2009). She is a professor of English at Ohio State University, where she co-edits The Journal.

Sean Karns: How has moving to the Midwest changed your perspective? And how has it influenced your poetry?

Kathy Fagan: I lived many places growing up and going to school, so it wasn’t a shock to move to the Midwest. I grew used to reserving judgment, and just went where I had to go for my family or for my education and, later, for my own jobs. What was shocking were the circumstances under which I was suddenly, being fully employed, able to live when I moved to central Ohio. In a house, for example. A large 130-year-old former farmhouse, a house that was in many ways the house I wished I’d grown up in. And the house was in a small town north of Columbus, which was also, for me, a native New Yorker, enormously weird and appealing. I got to playhouse really, attending the neighborhood movie theater for a couple bucks a show, eating in the neighborhood burger and beer joint for cheap, going to the county fair, etc. I lived in that house for sixteen years, longer than I’ve ever lived anywhere. I wrote about it in the new book, Lip, in a poem called “Nostophobia.” I love that house as if it were a person, and when I left it I knew I could never go back. Maybe that’s one way that the Midwest has changed my perspective: the land is flat, you can see the horizon everywhere. I’ve become someone for whom a tree or a hill or a house can be seen as a singular significant entity. Anything of beauty can flare up and throttle you: a cardinal in snow, sycamore trees in sunlight, a redbud in bloom, a child in her father’s arms. They’re all set off in high relief in the Midwest. Likewise, I look to poems, and to my own poems in particular, for something decidedly unflat: music, energetic syntax, images that radiate outward, creating light and shadow and color; I try to shape lines that will make a composition vivid, to use language that allows for emotional complexity and permits aural/oral pleasures simultaneously. Maybe I’d require all that of poems if I lived in Hawaii or Paris instead of here, but I don’t think I’m overstating landscape’s influence on one’s work and life.

SK: Do you think that the Midwest has a distinct aesthetic?

KF: I don’t have any freakin’ idea. I’ve lived here for nearly twenty years and I’m still surprised every day by it. What I think is that, on the one hand, the Midwest is one of the least provincial places I’ve ever lived. I think it’s a good place to make art—or to be a reader or writer or stilt-dancer or whatever—because nobody cares, and if they do they don’t mention it. I’ve never met people who keep to themselves as much as Midwesterners do. There’s a national perception that the Midwest is a place where it’s still the 1950s, that people go to church on Sundays and vote Republican and drive American-made cars and have abysmal eating habits; there’s some truth to that. But I have also met the most progressive and eccentric and creative people in Ohio and the Midwest, people who lead interesting lives, people who work hard and live fruitfully.

All that said, I’m not sure there is, beyond the Protestant plainness and simplicity one sees in the buildings and homes of Midwestern cities and towns, an aesthetic. I think most Midwesterners would scoff at the notion of aesthetics. It used to pain me that Columbus, for instance, wasn’t more forward-thinking about saving its landmarks and historical sites. It worries me that we don’t have a lightrail, that we build shit-malls and shit-houses where there once were natural habitats for deer and owls. There’s plenty that’s butt-ugly around here, but I’ve seen butt-ugly everywhere. We live in a climate of disposability, in this country and others, and in a disposable society the word “aesthetic,” if it exists at all, is an extremely fluid word at best, corrupt at worst. The Midwest has a little bit of an inferiority complex, I think. I think it feels insecure. When it quits feeling second- or third-best, and I think it is, slowly, doing that, it will flourish as a green, intellectual, and artistic part of the country. For my part, I see incredibly diverse work being written across the Midwest, by natives and non-natives alike. It would feel wrong to try to group that work under the heading of a single controlling aesthetic or sensibility.

SK: How would you characterize your poetry?

KF: I don’t characterize my poetry. I don’t subscribe to schools or categories or movements. I love to read poems that wake me to something in myself. I hope I write that kind of poem for other readers.

SK: Do you find any pattern ideas recurring in your poetry?

KF: I see patterns of thought and image echoed and expanded on in the poems, if not actual ideas. And some poetic obsessions or fetishes recur, of course. In the new book, Lip, I extend my ongoing work with persona, which I’ve been interested in for over twenty-five years. Maybe it’s the frustrated novelist in me, maybe it’s the fact that a single point of view never satisfies me, maybe it’s a love of voice, of many voices, that continues to motivate me to find those poems to write. I think, looking over the past four books and now into the fifth, that persona and structure, the voice speaking the poem and the vessel in which the spoken word is delivered, are absolutely central to my project, so if that’s the kind of pattern you’re talking about, well then, it’s there in spades. Making a song of a poem is more important to me than making a story. I wish for the music and texture of the language to say as much as the sentences do. And I do so love sentences and all they’re capable of, but I love the line even more. Littler fetishes of mine include the alphabet, the dictionary, the Bible, the saints, field guides, graveyards, a handful of artists, and miniatures of all kinds, which explains my affinity for children and birds.

SK: How do you manage being the poetry editor of The Journal, teaching, and writing?

KF: In the past it seemed to me that teaching and editing and life in general always came before writing. In as much as humanly possible, that is no longer true for me. I try to put writing first now, and sometimes I succeed. I started teaching to pay the rent and quickly discovered that I became invested in my students, in their lives and their learning processes. As a student myself, I worked on literary magazines and realized that that, in addition to teaching, was the best way for me to interact with other poets. I’m not much of a social butterfly, so engagement with poets in the classroom and in magazine correspondence are the primary ways I meet poets and get to know their work. I’ve made more friends over the years through teaching and The Journal than I ever did in writing programs, at conferences, or at colonies. But that’s another subject altogether. My point is that the three activities, teaching, editing, and writing, have become very interconnected, especially in the past ten years or so. At worst, I can feel like a poetry machine, churning forward for no good reason; at best, like someone who’s holding a little lantern in the dark. But I can’t imagine not writing, teaching, and editing—I wouldn’t refuse some time off, but I think the balance is just about as right as I can get it at this moment.


Sean Karns’s poetry has appeared or is forthcoming in RATTLE, Pleiades, Los Angeles Review, Cold Mountain Review, Folio, Mayday Magazine, and elsewhere.  His chapbook, Witnessing the World (New American Press), will be released in late 2012.

[The above interview was originally published by Ninth Letter and is reprinted here with permission of the author.]


[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.