Thank you, Mr. Barnstone

When, among a group of translation students, I got to have a long and winding conversation with Willis Barnstone, he said many many smart (as in genius-level) things about translating. One of those has become not only my favorite, but my guiding mantra for poetry:

When it seems impossible, try a little harder and it will be easy

Tonight, working on a chapbook manuscript that was utterly flat and awkward, I tried that little bit harder, opened my mind a little farther, and, sure enough, it got easy.

Nu – if that advice worked for him translating the New Testament and Sappho and the Gnostic gospels and Greek and Chinese and Spanish and who knows how many other languages, how could it not work for me?



Thoughts on translating or why this is so damn difficult

“Poetry is what is lost in translation.” Robert Frost


“Poetry is what is gained in translation.” Joseph Brodsky, the Nobel prize winning Russian poet who also spoke several languages.


“Poetry is what gets transformed.” Octavio Paz


“A poem is a manifestation of an invisible poem that is written beyond languages themselves.” Tomas Transtromer, renowned Swedish poet


“Languages are many but poetry is one,” says the Russian poet Andrei Voznesensky.


“If you say it is a matter of words, I will say a good poet gets rid of words. If you say it is a matter of meaning, I will say a good poet gets rid of meaning. ‘But,’ you ask ‘without words and without meaning, where is the poetry?’ To this I reply: ‘get rid of words and get rid of meaning, and still there is poetry.’” Yang Wan-Li, a Chinese poet


“A literal word-for-word trot is not a translation. The attempt to recreate qualities of sound is not translation. The simple conveyance of meaning is not translation.” Jane Hirshfield


“Translation is an actor’s medium. If I cannot make myself believe I am writing the poem I’m translating, no degree of aesthetic admiration for the work will help me.” Charles Simic


“One can be impeccably accurate verbally and yet miss the point or blur the tone quite badly….I wanted to be ‘literal’ in another sense. I wanted to be more faithful…to the complexities of the poetry, both to its shades of meaning and its tone. At the same time I wanted the English to flow very naturally. Therefore I avoided transferring ‘meanings’ from one language directly into another.” Galway Kinnell on translating Villon


“It is because it is impossible that translation is so interesting.” William Matthews


April 1st – On the difference between a good poem and a great poem

(fess up time – I’ve been working on various drafts of this for a while now, but it finally solidified in re-visions this week, so I’m counting it as my first poem of the month)

(2nd fess up – it may actually be prose. or a lyric essay. or a prose poem. it feels like poetry, and that’s good enough for me.)

On the difference between a good poem and a great poem
Elliott batTzedek

A line, like the tightrope between the twin towers, the one with the Frenchman all mania and magic—the line between a poem that’s good and a poem that’s great.

Words teeter along the balancing point, the tipping point, the moment the puppet becomes a real boy, the moment form’s armor becomes living skin you find you must reach to touch, the clay at the moment it lumbers off golem, immense forehead branded with the single perfect letter that bestows a soul,

the moment a soul is bestowed upon words.

A soul you can almost measure in its depth and heft and opacity and there is a solid pleasure to be able to take the measure of a good poem, but then other times you find yourself inside a soul looking back out at yourself at your world and that is a great shock.

A great shock, too, to be driven over words so sharp that reading across them makes eyes bleed.

Great is not a question of good and then a little more so. Good poems raise and answer questions, as image or metaphor or objective correlative, but to raise a question and leave it hanging, knotted into a noose of words that makes you both hangman and hanged, to refuse questions that beg answers that beg for a question, to give the truth but not what it means, to have a how so urgent that the why is unnecessary,

to have these is to have words that justify the brain having ever evolved language.

Highly quotable lines, lines that make sense of the world, that get cited and copied and sent as email signature lines—hallmarks each and all of solid poetic goodness. Quotable lines, so much prettier than the pale quivering jelly that is a line from a great poem ripped from its shell.

Show, don’t tell, what any poem does to be good. But every rule can be shredded over the greater of poems that tell exactly whatever the hell they need to tell and show only the how of the why of the needing.

The poetic line, the sharpened distinction between a careful architecture rising toward the sky and the sky birthing from itself its self.

Making a Manuscript—Structuring Intuition

Inspired by Michelle Ovalle’s description of her process, a few notes on my own, up to this point. I’ve no idea where the manuscript as it exists will go as I revise over the next few months, but at least I feel now there is something there, some key structural element.

When I started last August, I pulled together way too much of everything and let it overwhelm me. I started making piles, which wasn’t helping. Then, on my friend Kim’s suggestion, I bought and read Ordering the Storm: How to Put Together a Book of Poems, edited by Susan Grimm. That gave me a great swirl of ideas, including these few favorites:

I think all good books of poems must have drama-something at stake, a larger meaning, and the feeling that the book, while perhaps composed of smaller stories, is at the same time telling a larger, overarching story. (Liz Rosenberg)

The most important thing is not “imposing” an order, but discovering the relationship between the poems and letting that suggest an order (Beckian Fritz Goldberg)

Reading a good book of poems is like traveling unknown terrain at night, glimpsing in each lightning bolt a swatch of vastness (Philip Brady)

So I gathered all this stuff and thought hard about categories. Last spring I’d helped poet Dane Kuttler arrange her manuscript, which coalesced around Hillel’s three questions. Remembering that, I found my four categories—earth, water, fire, air. The working title was then “Earth My Body” from a pagan/wiccan/Peace Camp chant. Those categories gave a clear way to organize most of the poems, but then a subset didn’t work so I invented a floating fifth category of poems about loss.

But that was first draft. With a strong push from my mentor, I abandoned, for now, the poems in earth (about coal mining) and water (about rivers, oceans, the disaster in the Gulf) and started again on the remaining work. New themes arose: loss, sex, desire, surviving sexual abuse, a sequence that combined surviving sexual abuse with past lives and desire and drowning. I was writing new poems, too, in part because there were clearly holes in what the bigger story was telling and in part because the poems were pushing themselves out of me.

I knew I wanted sections in the manuscript because the poems were distinct and because, as a creator of ritual, I wanted to build an emotional arc that made sense to me. But I also knew I didn’t want something too direct, too obvious. I’d been reading such astounding poets, especially poets whose books had some kind of conscious narrative far beyond being a “collection,” and I wanted my own work to feel anything remotely like how these books made me feel. At some point in November I had the PERFECT arrangement, based on how Toi Derricotte, in her collection Tender, created sections that were not meant to be read in order but to exist as spokes in a wheel around a central poem. In a fury of work and insight I pushed my poems into shape around the concept of a labyrinth, with sections representing the four quadrants and a section representing the center. I arranged the table of contents so the sections were not in numerical page order, to push the idea that the poems were meant to talk back and forth to each other, the way that, when walking a labyrinth, you move from side to side, close to far, winding around in no straight way to the middle.

“Perfect!” I thought.

Until the next day, when my Beloved pointed out that the whole concept of “labyrinth” was imposed order unconnected to my poems in any way and that a labyrinth has an extremely clear, directed path—one does not wander, but moves along a determined trail. Shit. Back to the drawing board.

But from that idea I did pull vital elements of my final form, mainly a sense of repetition, mirroring, circling back. I realized I could build the sense of ideas, lines, images in conversation with each other by how I structured and titled the work, so suddenly three different poems had the same title and opening line, two other poems also shared a title and opening image, and the title of one poem was the title of a different section. From my friend Carol Burbank I received a structural idea for how to encapsulate a complex idea in a simple structure, and let this also recur throughout the collection to pull the poems together.

And so to enter into my body was created. It’s not nearly settled. Poems are being edited and more will be written and some removed. The final two sections might be switched. A section that is a single long poem called “Headwaters” (a very very unfinished long poem) might be cut completely, for the poem is so rough and also maybe unnecessary; it was part of a vital conversation in my head about the connection between the survivor poems and the sex poems, but the manuscript might not need that philosophical argument at all. The poems themselves, flashes of lightning, will make the connections they make without my trying to force narrative or explanation on them, and I should shut up and let them do so.

And while I read several essays cautioning against having a title poem that stands alone before the first section, for it becomes so fraught with meaning and significance and if not perfect can scare off judges and editors, I have exactly such a poem, one that, for me, speaks to all the themes but also stands on its own. And because the final poem of the last section summed up only that section but not the book, I also added a closing poem. Someone I read this fall had the same poem at beginning and the end, which was perfect because the poem now meant something completely different after the journey through the book, and I loved that idea, but couldn’t pull it off with anything I’d written. So I added something I’d written last year, a piece more prose than poetry, but that felt like it fit. Readers so far feel like it fits, and that is really the clearest description I have of why it’s there.

Maybe the best advice I have so far, with an MFA manuscript but no book published, is that the process is one of structured intuition, with the latter ruling the former.

Which is why I chose to enter an MFA program and not a Ph.D. Intuition for me does create structure, rather than the other way around, and the rigorous intellectual critical analysis I was pushed to do during that ugly year in UCIrvine’s PhD in critical theory felt too much like shooting, gutting, and draining poems of all their blood instead of entering them, grateful for the invitation into their world.

Poetry as protection from earthquakes, chaos, and disorder

from Gregory Orr’s amazing essay collection Poetry as Survival:

The shape of a doorframe also represents a powerful architecture—during earthquakes, people are advised to stand in doorways because they are stronger and safer than anyplace else in a house. It’s possible to imagine the rectangle of a doorway as the rectangular shape of the page where a poem appears. When we are at an existential or psychological edge, the instability of subjectivity is potentially as dangerous as the chaos of a minor earthquake, and the rectangular shape of the page with its poem can be as reassuring as the doorframe in which we seek shelter.

In our daily lives, the image of the threshold can be useful, too. The threshold is that place where we become aware that we are on the borderline between disorder and order. It can be like standing at the brink of a cliff, or the edge of an ocean, or the beginning of a love affair. In other words, it can be threat or thrill (or, perhaps most accurately, it is both at once).

On a day-to-day basis our threshold is constantly shifting and disappearing and being repressed out of anxiety, whereas in poetry we seek out poems that can take us to our threshold (or one of our thresholds). It is just such a place where we feel most alive, where both exchange of energy and change itself can happen. It is on a threshold, at the edge, where we are most able to alter our understanding of the world and of our own lives in it.

consider what must be happening when we set out to produce a poem

There are no more two distinct brain sides than there are two distinct genders. Why would that surprise anyone who’s ever created anything?

from “A Moment’s Thought” by Ellen Bryant Voigt in her excellent collection The Flexible Lyric

The recent bicameral (and thoroughly Nietzschean) model—right brain for intuition, emotion, art, and music; left brain for logic, rational thought, and language—is already outdated; such neat divisions were never verified except in pathology. In its place has come the concept of “modularity,” of a lifetime of data not stored on labeled shelves in the closet but processed multiply by distinct networks of differing functions: this very sentence as you read it is dismantled by your brain into its component parts—one set of ganglions taking care of the nouns, another the verbs; another flashing up your own shelf, in your own closet at home, from the image depot; a separate hardwired board parsing out the syntax you may have been born to; the brain’s musicians tuning up to the lexical and syntactical repetitions I’m using; and a brand new neural pathway extending itself like algae shot with Rapid-Gro to accommodate this new word “modularity” and its baggage, “modules” and “modern” and “insularity” and “modular housing” and even, from the rhyming crew, “nodules,’ even “noodles.” Thought, it seems, is not the linear storage and retrieval system we know from computers. [So] consider what must be happening when we set out to produce a poem, a complex construct made from intuition, observation, experience, erudition, music, memory, and feeling—what Coleridge called “the blossom and the fragrancy of all human knowledge, human thoughts, human passions, motions, language.”

Practical Writing Advice: Write HOW you know about what you DON’T know

Write what you know, write what you know, write what you know.

Egads, the worst writing advice ever. This is exactly why I could never make through a PhD program—by the time I’d finished all the research I’d answered my question and the process of all that writing after I had the answer was unbearable.

Writing is part of thinking, not just a way to record thoughts. We think in language, and the process of connecting new words also makes new connections between ideas. So for gods’ sake please don’t write what you know. Write towards something you want to know. Write what you wish you knew. Write what no one has ever known. And if we do that by writing HOW we know, in our own voices from our own experiences and thoughts, we’ll create something new and interesting. Really. Really truly. With sugar or diabetic-friendly sugar substitute on top.

Or, in the words of the Reginald Gibbons in his essay “Poetry and Self-Making:”

Take the hoary advice “Write about what you know.” It only trivializes a deep truth about all artistic expression, which is this: although any subject totally foreign to the writer isn’t part of his or her daily struggle to be and therefore isn’t likely to be a rich ground on which to play out the struggle to write, nonetheless no voyage into the known is worth making if there is not some unknown toward which we are sailing.

Revising as writing, not revising as editing

Crashing headlong into the deadline for the 1st packet of my 4th semester, when all this writing and reading is supposed to gel into a manuscript, I’m deep into reading and thinking about the purpose of revision. What are we doing when we revise, as opposed to all the endless fine-tuning of word choice or meter or line breaks? What role does revision play in how we live in language and strive to express that?

What is revising when it is part of writing, not part of editing?

I’ll be doing a lot of reading, and talking with other writers, about these questions, and trying to make sense of the various answers by writing about them. Stay tuned.

ecstasy remains as much a birthright

from Larry Levis The Gazer Within:

Gazing within, and trying to assess what all this represents, I find I’ve been speaking, all along, about nature, about the attempt of the imagination to inhabit nature and by that act preserve itself for as long as it possibly can against “the pressure of reality.” And by “nature” I mean any wilderness, inner or outer. The moment of writing is not an escape, however: it is only an insistence, through the imagination, upon human ecstasy, and a reminder that such ecstasy remains as much a birthright in this world as misery remains a condition of it.