Category Archives: translation

A Virtual Interview with Liliana Valenzuela

Background

Thursday, September 10, 2020  7:15 – 9:00 p.m. Contact bookwoman2ndthursdaypoetry@gmail.com for meeting information.

Feature Liliana Valenzuela is the author of Codex of Journeys: Bendito Camino (Mouthfeel Press, 2013) and several artisan chapbooks. Her poetry has appeared in Edinburgh Review, Indiana Review, Tigertail, Huizache, Borderlands, Drunken Boat, and other publications. She has received writing awards and recognition from Luz Bilingual Publishing, Austin International Poetry Festival, Drunken Boat, Indiana Review, Austin Poetry Society, and the Chicano/Latino Literary Award, and has held residencies at Writers’ Colony at Dairy Hollow and Vermont Studio Center.

An acclaimed translator of U.S. Latinx writers Sandra Cisneros, Julia Alvarez, Denise Chávez, Dagoberto Gilb, Cristina García, and others, Valenzuela was a guest of honor at the Congreso de la Real Academia de la Lengua Española in Córdoba, Argentina, in 2018. An inaugural CantoMundo fellow and a long-time Macondo Writers Workshop member, she writes poetry, essays, journalism, and is currently working on a memoir. She is the former editor of ¡Ahora Sí!, the Spanish publication of the Austin American-Statesman and is now a staff translator for Aparicio Publishing. A native of Mexico City, Valenzuela lives and works in Austin, Texas.

The Interview

CH: What is your first memory of poetry?

LV: My great aunt Josefina in Mexico City was a practitioner of the art of “declamación,” where people learned poems by heart and recited them to a live audience, in this case, us family. I remember how the room fell silent and she commanded that space with her verses, and held us, spellbound.

CH: When did you begin to think of yourself as a writer? As a poet?

LV: In my senior year in college I took a course on Experimental Women Writers at UT Austin and it blew my mind. I did not know women could write like this and could be so daring. I bought copies of Writing the Natural Way and The Artist’s Way and spent the whole summer after my B.A. graduation in Anthropology writing. Poetry is what came most naturally to me.

CH: How did you begin your journey as a literary translator?

LV: When I had my first child, I was looking for something I could do from home. Translation work started arriving, and I found that it was easy for me, as I’ve always had an affinity for languages. I speak Spanish, Danish, English, and some French. And, almost immediately, I realized I wanted to translate literature. I reached out to Sandra Cisneros, whom I had befriended when she lived in Austin in the late 80s, and the rest is herstory!

CH: How has your work as a translator influenced your work as a poet?

LV: Translation makes you a very close reader of literature and finely attuned to the rhythms and cadences of language. And, from the start, I was writing my own poetry and short stories in both languages, translating myself back and forth. So, translation was there from the beginning. And it continues to be a big part of what I do. My latest collection is fully bilingual. I translated myself from English to Spanish, and four different translators translated my work from Spanish into English: the late Angela McEwan and Fred Fornoff; and G.C. Racz and Arturo Salinas.

CH: Both titles of your poetry books identify them as codices. Would you tell us a little about the role of the codex in your work?

LV: I’ve always been fascinated by the ancient Aztec codices, and ancient manuscripts in general. I’m drawn to that primordial instinct of our ancestors to leave a written record of their creation stories, myths, historical records, and even basic accounting. This is my own codex, my testimony of an immigrant’s life in the late xx and early xxi centuries.

CH: Tell us a little about Codex of Love. How did the poems of this book come about? How does it relate to your earlier book, Codex of Journeys?

LV: These were actually a single codex, a single manuscript. The opportunity arose to publish Codex of Journeys first as a chapbook, so I went for it. And this year I published Codex of Love, which includes 5 books or sections. Codex of Journeys is really the 6th section. These codices belong together. Codex of Love is the poet looking within, and Codex of Journeys is the poet looking out to the world.

CH: You were for some years editor of ¡Ahora Si! What has your journalistic experience brought to your writing?

LV: It was a tremendous education in writing fast and on a deadline, and in being connected to community. I am deeply honored that people let me into their lives and homes and trusted me with their stories, those unsung heroes who are building Austin’s prosperity. I also got to interview fantastic human beings, such as Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor, the Spanish guitarist Paco de Lucía, and the Colombian pop star Juanes, among many others, which was incredibly inspiring.

CH: How has participation in CantoMundo and the Macondo Writers Workshop figured in your development as a writer? What would be your advice to a novice writer who’s looking for writing community?

LV: When I was starting out, there was no real community where I could just be myself, that satisfied all my needs. That changed first with Macondo, where I found artists and thinkers of all backgrounds seeking social change, and then in CantoMundo, where I found poets of our many latinidades, different ways of being and singing your latinx song, in your own voice. My advice is to keep trying until you find the right fit. And the more you give, the more you receive. We are only as strong as our bonds with fellow writers and, ultimately, our audiences.

CH: How do you nurture yourself as a writer? How have residencies, such as those you’ve held at the Writers’ Colony at Dairy Hollow and the Vermont Studio Center, contributed to your reaching your goals?

LV: Besides attending workshops at Macondo and CantoMundo, I contribute to the Hablemos Escritoras Podcast (https://www.hablemosescritoras.com/), where I keep educating myself about women writers from the Spanish-speaking world. I’ve contributed book reviews, interviews with literary translators and writers who are also literary translators, like myself. Residencies are also a priceless opportunity to sit back, reflect on your path, and let stories germinate. Or pour out of your heart writing something you’ve longed to write. This summer I was at the Tasajillo Residency out in Kyle, Texas, in a cabin in the Hill Country, where I translated some short stories by Kimberly King Parsons, from her collection Black Light. That time out in nature during this pandemic was heavenly.

CH: What is the most recent book of poetry you’ve read?

LV: Tiawanaku: Poems from the Mother Coqa by Judith Santopietro, translated by Ilana Luna (Orca Books, https://orcalibros.com/en/books/)

A Virtual Interview with Ken Fontenot

Poet and novelist Ken Fontenot will be the featured reader on November 12, 2015 from 7:15 to 9:00 at BookWoman (5501 N. Lamar) for November’s 2nd Thursday Poetry Reading and Open Mic.

Background

Ken Fontenot’s most recent book of poetry, Just a Trace of Moon: Selected Poems from 2006 – 2013, was published in 2015 by Pinyon Publishing. He is the author of the novel For Mr. Raindrinker, which has been reissued by Alamo Bay Press in 2015. His poetry collection In a Kingdom of Birds won the Texas Institute of Letters Award for best book of poetry in Texas in 2012. Fontenot’s translations of contemporary German poems have appeared widely. He recently translated Wilhelm Genazino’s novel, Women Softly Singing. A native New Orleanian, he lives and works in Austin, Texas.

The Interview

CH: What was your first inspiration to write poetry? To engage in longer fiction? When did you first begin to think of yourself as a writer?

KF: I started writing at twenty-one, but I was a late bloomer considering many, especially women (via my experience), start writing seriously at eight or nine.  At that age they are no virtuosos, but they still have an advantage over those who begin later by having more years to develop as writers. By the age of twenty-one, they already have significant gains, in reading as well as writing.

My own writing grew out of psychological needs, in my case the need to overcome clinical depression.  And in the spring of 1970, at the height of the Vietnam War, three famous poets–Allen Ginsberg, Denise Levertov, and Nikki Giovanni–gave a reading at Tulane University, and I was in the huge audience.  I was impressed, knowing this was my calling.  My first publication that spring was in the Tulane newspaper, a bad imitation of Ginsberg’s “America,” but in retrospect, from my limited and naive viewpoint as a beginner, I was still as high as Mount Everest.

CH: You have published both a novel (For Mr. Raindrinker) and two poetry collections (In a Kingdom of Birds and Just a Trace of Moon: Selected Poems from 2006-2013), as well as good deal of work in translation. How would you identify yourself as a writer?

KF: Rilke said, that for a poet writing fiction, some great and undeniable event must happen to make him/her willing to engage in the struggle of spending several years at prose. In my case, it was a stint in a mental institution, which I consider seminal in my growth as a writer and as a human being.

I identify myself as a writer engaged in Southern regionalism with a cosmopolitan outlook. Many writers are hacks.  If they don’t write for money, they write for prestige.  Even Shakespeare was a hack, albeit a good one.  But neither money nor prestige is guaranteed.  Yet, on a deeper level, authors write because they have to, because they can’t stop. Like smoking. And we can be as little certain whether what we write will last as we are in guessing how many years we still have to live. I have lost much of my ego, so I write simply because the outer world I live in–its people–have encouraged me to keep going.  In 1990 one of my former German students at LSU in Baton Rouge told me, after 12 or thirteen years of study beyond high school and qualifying as a surgeon, that he now has a “trade.”  And that’s how I feel with poetry:  I have a trade.

CH: How did you first become interested in translation? How have you gone about finding work to translate?

KF: My academic credentials are in German language and literature.  The fact is, every time I encounter the German language, I translate it in my head, whether it’s spoken or written.  That’s just what people do who practice a second language (in my case third, the other being French). Translation, then, especially of the literature I admire, becomes something else to do when I’m not able to do my own poetry.

I’m not interested in translating German literature written before, say, 1960.  Many other translators have done so in a definitive way.  Most of those poets (including women like Droste-Hülshoff or Else Lasker-Schüler) are now already fully transcultural.  The German poet Ludwig Steinherr (b. 1962) is a friend, still alive, and I like translating him because he is an innovator in his unique poetic language that continues to evolve.

CH: How has translation influenced your poetry and prose? What are its gifts? Its challenges?

KF: Translating seems to me at times to be impossible work.  First, the act of interpretation must happen, both what the original author says and how that author says it.  How much should one adhere to the original, and how much stray from it in search of a brilliant rendering in the target language? Are completely free renderings (versions) allowed? Puns are practically impossible to deal with, and one move might be to replace them with doable puns in the target language.

The process of translation involves such a concentration in language use that I almost always come away with either memorable words or memorable syntax.  And who can say where these things will pop up in my own poems, albeit unconsciously.?

Really the only problem which translations don’t solve concerns the cultural atmosphere in which a poem takes place.  A reader won’t necessarily understand the local things endemic to that culture.  But then so many poems in English need footnotes to their allusions in the Norton Anthology of Poetry.  I see no difference.

CH: It has been said that the work of each poet is infused with that poet’s obsessions and preoccupations. What are the obsessions of your work? What themes or images do you find yourself frequently exploring?

KF: Robert Hass said in a poem, “all the new thinking is about loss.  In this it resembles all the old thinking.”  Loss, transformation, a great astonishment at simply being alive in an often beautiful world: all these inform my work.

With respect to images, the sun, the moon, and the struggle between light and darkness in both the physical and the symbolic senses–these things occur frequently.  Animals show up a lot.  In Just a Trace of Moon, music is a recurring theme, a leitmotif around which the collection is built.

CH: Your novel, For Mr. Raindrinker, was recently re-released by Alamo Bay Press. How did this re-release come about?

KF: For Mr. Raindrinker was originally published in 2010 by Chuck Taylor’s Slough Press, then located in College Station, Texas.  Mick White assembled that text to be sent to Lightning Source, the print-on-demand company.  Mick went on to Alamo Bay Press where he showed the novel to the director, Pam Booten.  She liked it enough to reissue it with new artwork on the cover, artwork done by a painter with a gallery on Magazine Street in New Orleans.  Her name is Mina Zavala Lanzas.

CH: I have long admired the craft of your poetry. How would you describe your journey to deepen your craft as a poet? How has your work in poetry influenced your prose?

KF: Originality results from the complexity of influences.  One woman I mentored said she was afraid that by reading someone else, his or her style might somehow have a detrimental effect on her writing.  I said:  “Don’t worry about that.  It doesn’t work that way.  Just read.  Keep reading and the influences will sort themselves out in their own manner.”

The theory of the writing process is no secret.  Read something, then write something.  Read something else, then write something else, and show, by what you have written, what you have learned. Of course, it’s not quite so simple.  The processes of seeing, remembering, and experience with the world must come into play.  To continue to test the limits of syntax and diction: that’s what I shoot for.

Since my novel claims to be lyrical, there are individual poems in there–two or three.  But a parataxis is included even in the prose itself. In two sections, for example, I make use of the list device Whitman was so fond of.

CH: Who are your literary influences in poetry and fiction? Your favorite writers/books?

KF: I have read so many poets intensively that if I started listing them, I would leave most of them out.  Some are Robert Bly, James Wright,  Carolyn Kizer, Adrienne Rich, Denise Levertov, Philip Levine, Mark Strand, those American poets of my father’s generation.  Too, there’s the New York School of Kenneth Koch, Jimmy Schuyler, Frank O’Hara, and John Ashbery.

Foreign influences include Tranströmer, Ritsos, Apollinaire, Desnos, Jacob, Jozsef, Vallejo, Lorca and all the Spanish surrealists.  Of course there are my exact contemporaries as well as the roughly two generations born since I was born.  It’s so hard to keep up, but I do my best.

The influences in my fiction have been mostly the German writers and filmmakers I encountered doing coursework as an undergraduate and graduate student.  In Raindrinker I tried to create a unique first-person narrator with all the idiosyncrasies of Holden Caulfield in Catcher in the Rye.

My favorite books have to do with classical music and jazz:  The Lives of the Great Composers, Gary Giddins’ Visions of Jazz, and Ken Burns’ Jazz.

CH: What projects are you working on now?

KF: At the moment I’m writing as few new poems as possible.  Rather, I’m going back to poems written since 1996 or so and seeing if I can breathe new life into those which are not beyond repair.  Revision means much to me.  I belong to a poetry critique group that meets once a month.  There I can get great feedback on how my poems strike other poets, who often happen to be the ideal readers, too.

CH: What’s the most recent book of poetry you’ve read?

KF: I’ve most recently been reading the collected poems of Frank Stanford who died so young at 30. Actually, I know writers in New Orleans, former friends of Frank.  His poetry is filled with narrative localisms of rural Arkansas along with surrealism.  It’s quite good.  I met him once, I think, in the spring of 1978 at the home of fiction writer Ellen Gilchrist, living at that time uptown in New Orleans’ Garden District.