Interview with Jennifer Hayashida

Calque 3 featured poems by Fredrik Nyberg, from A Different Practice and Clockwork of Flowers - Explanations and Poems, translated from the Swedish by Jennifer Hayashida. A Different Practice will be published by Ugly Duckling Presse this February.

Calque: You recently attempted to interview Fredrik Nyberg. What did this exchange teach you about the poet and his work?

Jennifer Hayashida: This is a kind of circuitous answer… When I first began to translate, I made a conscious decision to work primarily with living writers. I completed my translation of A Different Practice in 2004, and when I got in touch with Norstedts, the Swedish publisher, they put me in contact with Fredrik. When you asked me to do this interview, I went through some of my initial correspondence with him and was reminded that he to begin with was quite surprised that I wanted to translate Practice; he had at that point completed two more collections, and to him, Practice was “dead.” At first, I was disheartened by his response; to me, Practice was such a lovely and intelligent piece of work, and I hadn’t really developed a relationship to his subsequent books. Our exchanges initially centered on individual poems, and after a while, we took on the collection in its entirety. I feel like I not only had to gain his trust as a translator, but that I also had to convince him that the book was far from dead. As I review the old correspondence, I see us gradually becoming more comfortable with each other: his comments becoming more direct, my questions less oblique. Even though I had initially felt that the translation was completed, our e-mail exchanges quickly showed me that I was nowhere near done: although he liked the translation overall, he had questions and comments about some of my decisions, and he was also eager to explain the context of some of the pieces so that I could better grasp the origins of his word choices.

So, when we finally met last summer, I had very high expectations, but of course meeting in person is very different from e-mail banter, and I think we were both as tentative as we were in the beginning of our e-mailing. I think I was initially surprised by how the poems somehow felt like a very separate part of our conversation: we talked about his collaborations with sound artists, his kids, making a living as a Swedish poet, and he described his experience visiting New York in September of 2001. We didn’t, in the end, really discuss individual poems. We talked a lot about scaffolding, about the conceptual structures that have followed since Practice – scientific nomenclature and taxonomy, figures from history and family – and as a poet, I found it very helpful to learn more about the methods he finds generative for writing.

Calque: What kind of particularly Swedish or Scandinavian poetic tradition is Nyberg writing into and/or out of?

Hayashida: I know less about Swedish and Scandinavian poetic traditions than I’d like for people to know – perhaps not a good thing, then, to reveal in an interview – but I feel (based solely on citations in each collection) that Fredrik’s work is in dialogue with Swedish poets such as Göran Sonnevi, Bengt Emil Johnson, and Marie Silkeberg. Regarding influences and/or traditions, though, one of the things that’s exciting for me as a translator is that Fredrik has a – to me, more explicit – relationship to writers like Roubaud, Ashbery, and Susan Howe. Because he sometimes borrows lines from other writers, I come up against these really interesting intertextual moments where I am forced to reckon with someone else’s translation of, say, Howe, and thus borrow another translator’s translation. When I was working on Clockwork of Flowers, I happened to be in Paris on vacation. For some reason, I unexpectedly had to send off an excerpt from the translation, and had to hustle to get it in shape. The missing piece of the introduction to the collection, “Prologue,” was a quote from Ashbery’s Hotel Lautréamont. As a result, I hunted all over Paris to find the English original and eventually found myself in the library of the Centre Pompidou, stepping over students who were hanging out among the stacks, and was then able to include the correct version of the English rather than my back-translation from the Swedish. The anecdote has less to do with the translation than it does with the fact that the library was packed with people in a way I’d never seen a library be packed before, and I always think that if I could, I’d love to go back there again.

Calque: Tell us something about Nyberg's recent book, It won't be fair just because both close their eyes. Are you translating it?

Hayashida: When Fredrik and I met, one of the things he said to me was that he felt that It won’t be fair… is closer in spirit to A Different Practice, and I'll admit that the process of translating It won’t be fair… has been pleasurable in the same way that working on Practice was. It’s kind of contradictory, but from a translating point of view, the serialized poems (i.e. the bulk of the poems in Clockwork) can feel kind of predictable, where the knowledge that they are part of an overarching concept for some reason takes the novelty out of the approach to each poem. It sounds strange – after all, each poem is still an individual piece, whether part of a bigger project or not – but I say that only because working on It won’t be fair…, which has a greater number of freestanding poems, has felt much more exciting. Maybe it has to do with the fact that the context for each poem feels new – what I was saying earlier about the origins of Fredrik’s word choices – and so the approach to each poem feels less like re-calibrating a machine and more like an opening onto something new. Having said that, I of course want to add that I really love the poems in Clockwork – they aren’t machine-like in the least – and that these thoughts have more to do with translating than with reading, even if translating is the closest form of reading I know.

Calque: In the introduction to the selections from A Different Practice and Clockwork of Flowers - Explanations and Poems published in Calque 3 you speak some about how translation affects your own poetry. Could you show us a couple of poems where this happens?

Hayashida: I think the influences are more apparent to me than they are to others. As I mentioned earlier, I’m really interested in the relationship between systems (and then especially taxonomy or indexes) as generative structures for writing; however, whereas Fredrik’s work reveals those systems, I find that my poems eventually obscure them. I may begin in response to a more ordered concept, but the writing inevitably takes a turn where that concept falls away and no longer shows up in the final piece. The poems I’m including here – “Variations: M.K.” and “A Machine Wrote this Song” – both started off in response to a quote or concept, but “Variations” is the only one that, to me, gives it away, and then in the most oblique sense. I am loath to write poems about writing, but because that poem consists solely of found text, I can live with it. “A Machine Wrote this Song” has more to do with the kind of spatial, public/private concerns that come up in Fredrik’s later work, especially his most recent collection, It won’t be fair...

I don’t know if this is a particularly Swedish thing, what I see as a private gaze looking out on public space, superimposing domestic concerns onto an external, public, reality. Privacy, to me, means something very different in the U.S. than it does in Sweden, where it’s not guarded with the same kind of political and legal vigilance, perhaps because the concept of the common good remains a central part of Swedish national ideology. Private interests are more or less expected to somehow intersect with collective needs, and so private concerns are more easily attached to public welfare. I guess I’m thinking of lines like “…The private can like a map/be unfolded in the wind,” from “From The Year East” in Clockwork, and also the closing sequence of poems from the new collection, a suite entitled “Red Days,” which is a reference to how holidays are marked in the Swedish calendar, as they are in most calendars, I suppose. Rather than “holiday,” though, many people simply say that a day is a “red day,” and that usually, then, means that you have the day off. On a side note, days that are not holidays but fall between, say, a Sunday and a “red day” are called “squeeze days” (klämdag) because they are squeezed between two days when you may not have to work.

Calque: What are you working on now?

Hayashida: I am just now starting to feel done with Clockwork, and am trying to place it with a publisher. I have started work on the most recent collection, but feel a little bit strange about the fact that I’ve largely neglected Fredrik’s second book, The Years. When he and I met, we talked about how that book was the one that had a kind of tough critical reception, and I have to admit that I’ve had a hard time wrapping my mind around it. Interestingly enough, some of the poems are from when Fredrik was in upstate New York, although that has little to do with translation, I suppose. I want to sit down and really re-examine it, though, since I feel that my understanding of the other three books can help me get into it. Now that the semester started up again, though, I’m short on time to translate or do reading that’s not for work. I am, however, really enjoying working on It won’t be fair…, not only because of the title, but because it, to me, bears a more direct relationship to the concerns in Practice, and I can really start to see an arc in terms of Fredrik’s poetic concerns and experimentation. As a translator, it was very easy for me to inhabit the poems in the first collection, and I suppose I feel that same kind of ease in relation to It won’t be fair…

* * *

Variations: M.K.

A system of omissions
produced and positioned, authorial
work of the artist, of the image
How are we erased
in practice, in gaps?
Images, the emphasis of writing
reproduced points of the visible, outlined
as readers are erased
A question pertains to a particular, the book
reproduced as the image of the system, the critic
points and emphasis is erased
Readers are the work
writing the erased text of omissions
Pictorial emphasis reproduced, visible practices
outline the writing
Writing is erased by the book
Work is erased by the visible
now How is the system?
Erased emphasis is certain through gaps
the artist constructs a question
of the author, the reader, and the text

A Machine Wrote this Song

People live in stations like they never had mothers or fathers
National Guardsmen in chubby camouflage pixels

Fit moms with legs like parentheses worry restroom machines
Olive and khaki static makes “leaves” and “branches”

Diapers are expensive, as are strollers and formula
Private in public means dermis on the train

Do people who say “home away from home” have homes to go to?
There is no formula for having children

Sexual dreams about machines pixilate the day
Stand in the aisle to save time

Worry less if the military formula looked more fit and less fake
Pixilated people usually carry deadly machines

Trains are not made for worry or for leaves or for branches
The song plays even though people live here

Reviewing the Reviewers*
Autonauts of the Cosmoroute

"David Kirby Phones It In"
By Brandon Holmquest

David Kirby’s recent New York Times review of Autonauts of the Cosmoroute seems to have been written with no purpose other than to provoke me. I keep going back and re-reading it, hoping to find a coded message or something: Just kidding, Brandon. And yet I know that I will not find one. It could be an attempt on the part of The New York Times to lure me into the open so their “security personnel” can take a clean shot. If so, it's going to work.

From the first sentence, “You expect a French book to be quirky,” Kirby gets off to a running start on the wrong foot. This is not a French book. Let me say it again: this is not a French book. It is a book which happened to be written in France by an Argentine and a Canadian. By Kirby’s logic, The Sun Also Rises is a French book, and so is every other book ever written in France, in whatever language, by any author. Obviously this is muddle-headed nonsense. Autonauts, by virtue of its style, themes, original language, and many other qualities, not least of which is the identity of its authors, is a Latin American book. Plain and simple.

Kirby then goes on to illuminate his French Quirk theory, citing Georges Perec and Michel Houllebecq as examples, pausing along the way to indulge in that pastime so cherished by people who write for The New York Times: quoting The New York Times. Then he shoehorns in a reference to a book that recently received favorable coverage in the Times, before wrapping up his learned discourse on Gallic eccentricity with the assertion that, “when a French book shows up in this country, we expect it to be somewhat unusual.” Really? What about Balzac? Surely Kirby means a recently-written French book, from the last fifty years or so, but if that’s what he means why doesn’t he say it?

To open his second paragraph, Kirby lightly brushes aside the issue of the book’s supposed nationality while simultaneously making his one and only reference to the book’s original language: "though it was first published in Spanish,” Autonauts is, “at least an honorary French book.” Again, no.

After detailing the book’s premise, Kirby proceeds, in his third paragraph, to explain to the curious reader who this man Cortázar is, anyway. A Google translation of the relevant Spanish-language Wikipedia page would likely prove more enlightening. Kirby delivers nothing but glancing references to one major novel and two loose film adaptations, then goes on to bemoan the fact that the book under review isn’t more like a movie, full of action and “the bloodier side of postmodernism,” whatever the hell that is supposed to mean.

Then comes this sentence, my favorite one in the entire review: “Instead, he prefers to look at the fuzzy reverse of society’s tapestry, the seemingly patternless surface from which emerges not the reflection of the image on the front but a new image altogether.” Mr. Kirby apparently believes that this metaphor is not only profound but also extremely helpful. What an exegete.

Kirby then goes on to openly disapprove of the book’s entire premise, which was indeed “to write a book about the journey, whether or not the journey had a book in it.” If this notion is so repugnant to the refined tastes of Florida State University’s third most distinguished professor of literature, why did he choose to review the book in the first place?

What remains of the review is Mr. Kirby’s, shall we say, idiosyncratic take on the book itself. Having begun from such inauspicious premises as the book’s being both French and not worth writing, he finds that, no sir, he does not like it. No surprise there.

His reasons are humorously asinine. The word “scientific” is used too often. There are too many “amateurish” photographs, though there is one photograph in particular that Mr. Kirby enjoys very much. This would be the only photograph in the book in which Carol Dunlop’s naked breasts are visible. Autonauts is broken into short chapters. It is not always easy to tell whether the author of a particular chapter is Julio or Carol. My own guess is that Carol wrote roughly 45 per cent of the book. In the entire review, the only mention of Carol Dunlop longer than the words “Carol Dunlop” is the twenty-five words Kirby devotes to this appreciation of Ms. Dunlop’s breasts, with a saucy French phrase tossed in at the end to demonstrate what a sophisticated rake he is. Watch out, ladies!

Following this blatant misogyny, Kirby goes on to confess that he prefers William Least Heat-Moon, to denounce snobbery on the part of the authors, and to squeeze in a quick, “witty” reference to that new thing on the scene that everybody is always talking about: the blog (whoa, modernity!), before this mercifully brief object-lesson in everything that is wrong with American literary criticism limps to close.

At least as interesting as what’s in Kirby’s review is what’s not there at all. One thing missing is any mention, even in passing, of Anne McLean, the book’s translator. There is, in point of fact, no mention whatsoever of the book as a translation. This is obviously because Kirby doesn’t know Spanish and doesn’t know the first thing about translation. Nor does he care to know, because he doesn’t think it’s important. All of which makes him completely unqualified to review this book at all.

This raises important questions. Who at The New York Times Sunday Book Review thinks that the literary art which allows us to read any book not written in English is unimportant? And who thought that the author of Ultra-Talk: Johnny Cash, the Mafia, Shakespeare, Drum Music, St. Teresa of Avila and 17 Other Colossal Topics of Conversation was a logical choice to review this particular book? Wouldn’t some familiarity with any aspect of this book or its authors be an obvious prerequisite?

But it gets better. Not only is it the obvious editorial policy of one of the country’s most powerful cultural voices that translation is, at best, a minor issue, barely worth mentioning, but David Kirby himself once sat on the Board of Directors of the National Book Critics Circle. This means two things. The first is that I’ll never work in this town again, the other is that Kirby’s ideas on the negligibility of translation as a component of literature represent the mainstream of American critical practice. HA!

And sadly a fine book, well-rendered by very talented translator is the ultimate victim here. Autonauts of the Cosmoroute is a fine read, especially for Cortázar enthusiasts, an extremely human book. David Kirby has simply missed the point. There was no possibility that the journey wouldn’t have a book in it. The entire idea is that every journey has a book in it. This particular book was intended by its authors to be equal parts a record of their journey and a spur to others to make journeys of their own, of any kind, but especially of the kind that seriously confuse and irritate the David Kirbys of the world.

Autonauts of the Cosmoroute: a timeless voyage from paris to marseille, by Julio Cortázar and Carol Dunlop, Translated by Anne McLean, Archipelago Books, New York, 2007.

*We hope to make Reviewing the Reviewers a regular feature on the Calque website, and welcome essay submissions that critique current reviews of literature in translation. Email these and all other work to editors (at) calquejournal (dot) com.

Néstor Perlongher,
"How can we be so lovely"

Translated from the Spanish by Steve Dolph.

Dear Reader: Blogger is incapable of handling indented lines. Click on the images below to blow up the poems in a new window.

Néstor Perlongher was born on Christmas Eve, 1949, in Buenos Aires and died of AIDS in Sao Paolo, Brazil, just shy of forty-three years old. His various electronic biographers dub him: Trotskyite, anarchist, sex worker anthropologist, militant gay-liberationist, Queer theorist, and Santo Deime cultist. His poetry has been called neo-baroque by several of these, including himself. This poem is from Austria-Hungaría (Tierra Baldía, Buenos Aires, 1980).

Steve Dolph edits this journal.