Category Archives: translation

A Virtual Interview with Roja Chamankar


Thursday, April 13, 2023 7:15 p.m. to 9:00 p.m.

Event Registration:

Persian poet Roja Chamankar will join us via Zoom for this hybrid in-store/Zoom event. Born in Borazjan in southern Iran in 1981, Chamankar is a poet and filmmaker with an academic background in Dramatic Literature and Film Studies. She has published eleven books of poetry in Iran, co-written four books for children, and translated two collections of poems from French into Persian. Her works have been translated into several other languages and have won a number of national and international awards, including the Greek Nikos Gatsos prize in 2016. Roja has participated in numerous poetry readings and festivals in Iran, France, Sweden, Austria, Malta, and the United States. A collection of her poems titled Dying in A Mother Tongue was published in November 2018 by the University of Texas Press.

The Interview

CH: What is your first memory of poetry? How did poetry figure for you during your childhood?

RC: I cannot remember my childhood without poetry. I grew up among books. Before I learned how to read or write, my ears were accustomed to the sound of poems and stories that my parents told me. I have a tape from when I was 3 years old, when I had made several rhythmic lines and recited them! My mother used to record or write the lines I “creatively” said. Maybe these were the first steps toward what can be called poetry years later.

CH: What first prompted you to write poetry? What encouragements and obstacles did you find as a young female poet, growing up in Iran in the years following the revolution?

RC: As I said, my first encouragement came from my family because both my parents have been very interested in literature. But yes, my generation was born and raised at a complicated historical moment in a Middle Eastern country, where the revolution had changed all rules—at least on the surface. Moreover, a short while after the 1979 revolution, an eight-year war began between Iraq and my country, Iran. All of this must have had a direct effect on my life, as well as my generation. One might find this effect in my poems. At the same time, I was lucky to be raised in a family where my family taught us (me and my siblings) that there is no limit for you, there should be no limit for you, regardless of who you are. They taught me to fight for whatever I want, and this has been the dominant force in my life compared to the sociopolitical powers in the environment I grew up in.

CH: I understand your educational background includes the study of Dramatic Literature and Film Studies. What motivated you to steer your education in the direction you took? How easy or difficult was it for you to follow this path?

RC: In high school, my diploma was in mathematics. But I did not want to follow its path (which would go toward academic majors such as mathematics, engineering, etc.) because I just loved literature and arts. A love for moving images was concurrent for me along with a love for literature. But I did not want to study literature (Persian literature) at the university level, because the path I wanted to take in literature was different from what the universities at the time could offer. Especially because the academic major in Persian literature was mostly concentrated on classic Persian poetry. I had come to the conclusion that studying film would provide new dimensions for me, for my poetry, that I could not find in other majors.

CH: As a Persian poet, you draw on a rich literary of which the ghazal form and the 13th and 14th century poets Rumi and Hafiz are probably best-known in the United States.  What traditions in Persian poetry most influence your work? Which contemporary Persian poets inspire you?

RC: As you said, Persian poetry has a one-thousand-year-old history, with great poets such as Hafiz and Sa’adi and Khayyam and Rumi who form part of the Persianate identity (for Iranians and other people from that region). My first “serious” poems were also in the classical forms (such as ghazal and masnavi and quadruples), influenced by the works of these pillars of Persian literature. My first poems all had classical rhythms and followed the specific rules for classic poetry. But then, I discovered contemporary poets, or the modernist movement in Persian literature that is known as “she’r-e no” or New Poetry. Nima (the father of New Poetry), Forough Farrokhzad (an iconoclast who was the initiator of a new path for Iranian women, in the content and form of her poems), Ahmad Shamlou, and several other poets who rose into power in the 20th century were all very inspiring. I was still a teenager when I switched from classic to the new, ‘freer’ forms of New Poetry. But then I passed this stage too, and for a long time now I have relied mostly on the natural music of words in a structure that I think is a result of my own life, experiences, and circumstances.

CH: In addition to writing eleven collections of poetry in Persian, you’ve translated two from French to Persian, and your own poems have been translated into several different languages. How has the experience of translation influenced how you approach your writing? What are some of the challenges of having your work translated into a language in which you are not fluent?

RC: Translating poems (from French into Persian) has mostly meant challenging myself. I believe in free translation, compared to faithful translations, and I think a translator of poetry must have the ability to “recreate” the poem in the second language. That is why translation for me means re-reading, discovery, and creating a poem from a new in another language. Whether as a poet whose works are being translated or as a translator of other poets into my mother tongue, the pleasure of this new “reading” is what makes translation worth it. I have never translated my own poems, but I have been fortunate enough to be in contact with my translators in their process of translation. The main challenge in translations, in my opinion, is to convey the cultural weight of a word to another kind of readership. This is something beyond the issue of “meaning.” And that is why having a literary taste and creativity that allows the translator to recreate is most important.

CH: Your collection of poems in English, Dying in a Mother Tongue, was published in 2018 by University of Texas Press. Please tell us a little about it and your process of writing and collecting the poems.

RC: The poems of this collection are written between 2008  and 2009; an important for me, both in personal life and in social life. I was passing from the peak of young age to the period that the social and political issues were becoming more important to me. When this collection was published, I was not in Iran. I left Iran for continuing my studies in France, but the third edition of this book was released one year after its publication. I was expecting it because I knew after years of writing what I was doing. Several years later, in 2018, this became my first poetry collection that was completely translated into English. Before that, some poems of me were translated from different books. But this specific collection is my first complete Persian book translated into English by Blake Atwood. He is a master in English, Persian as well as poetry and literature. The blood of the poems of this collection is still fresh in my veins.        

CH: For you as a poet, what are the expressive advantages that the Persian and English languages convey? What are the limitations?

RC: Well, I should emphasize that I only write my poems in Persian, not in English and not in French. I do enjoy English poems and French poems. But even the feeling I get from reading English, French, and Persian poems are different for me. I love Walt Whitman, Sylvia Plath, and all those French surrealists. I always say that, and I don’t know when and where I first read it, but I believe that you can write a poem in another language when you dream in that language too. But the funny thing is that even my American and French friends speak in Persian in my dreams! So, I continue to write in Persian.

CH: How do you see the influence your education in Film Studies and Dramatic Literature on your poetry? Have you considered taking on the role of playwright or screenwriter as part of your writing career?

RC: Both have been very influential on my poetry. Cinematic capacities have added another dimension to my poetry. I have talked about this in another conversation and say the same again here. From the classical Hollywood style, and films like Casablanca, I learned how to employ the cinematic concept of mise-en-scene in poems; just as Godard’s jump cuts were an inspiration for moving between spaces in poetry. Then, Krzysztof Kieslowski’s films taught me how to create a poetic ambience with images. The editing style in Jim Jarmusch’s films inspired the structure of some poems and the use of symbols and metaphors in Alejandro Jodorowsky’s films helped me achieve a kind of visual brevity. Also, the type of use of dialogue, scene distance and many other features of playscripts have influenced my poetry. I have had experience of writing plays and screenplays. Maybe in the future I will go back to them.

CH: In addition to your work in poetry, you’ve co-written four books for children. Please tell us a little about them.

RC: This has been one of the most enjoyable experiences I have had, because it is a collaboration with my father. These stories come from my father’s idea: a 10-book series of children’s books with the same character, a little girl named R’oya (literally meaning “dream,”) who loves painting, and her art allows her to realize her dreams. Her color pencils draw for her a parallel world to which she can enter. These stories are partly my poems and partly a narrative by my father. One book is about a forest, one a mountain, one a sea, and one the Milky Way, our galaxy.

CH: What do you like to read for pleasure? What is the most recent book of poetry you’ve read?

RC: Over the past few months, I have been holding an online poetry workshop. Each week, we discuss the works of an Iranian and a non-Iranian poet in this workshop along with the exercises that I give to the workshop participants. And so I have been very busy both re-reading some of the masterpieces of world poetry and the new, fresh, and exciting poems of my workshop members. The last books I read for my workshop were mostly the poems of  Charles Bukowski and selected poems by W.H. Auden.

A Virtual Interview with Liliana Valenzuela


Thursday, September 10, 2020  7:15 – 9:00 p.m. Contact 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 (, 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,

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.


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.