Hélène Cardona on translating Maram Al-Masri’s poems:
The Abduction refers to an autobiographical event in Al-Masri’s life. When, as a young Arab woman living in France, she decides to separate from her husband with whom she has a child, the father kidnaps the baby and returns to Syria. The Abduction is the story of a woman who is denied the basic right to raise her child. Al-Masri won’t see her son for thirteen years. These are haunting poems of love, despair, and hope in a delicate, profound and powerful book on intimacy, a mother’s rights, war, exile, and freedom.
I discovered Maram Al-Masri when I first read Gabriel Arnou-Laujeac’s Plus loin qu’ailleurs, for which she wrote the superb French introduction. I fell in love with her lyrical poetry at the same time as with Gabriel Arnou-Laujeac’s. In turn, I quoted Maram in my introduction to Beyond Elsewhere. We’ve since shared numerous phone and email conversations and met in person in Paris to work closely fine-tuning this manuscript. She wrote the original in both Arabic and French and it was important to discuss the nuances. Many of my translations of Maram’s poems have been published in literary journals since 2015.
As a translator, I see myself as intermediary, technician, and alchemist working between languages to create inspired texts spanning cultural differences, geographic distances, and time. I strive to capture the essence of the poem while remaining as close as possible to it, knowing that I’m creating a new piece at the same time. My goal is to transcend the original and give it its own voice in English. Translation is also une histoire d’amour. When you understand and know other cultures, you don’t fear the other. There is no other. Every language is a key into the psyche of its people. None of us would understand our roots without translation.
Poetry redeems, heals, changes lives. It has the power to bring us together by unifying experience. It is both personal and universal. It enriches and contributes to the fullness of human life. Maram Al-Masri’s poetry finds echoes in Marguerite Duras’ words: “Writing comes like the wind. It’s naked, it’s made of ink, it’s the thing written, and it passes like nothing else passes in life, nothing more, except life itself.” It leaves us astonished.
I wrote this poem as a poet who is also a novelist who is also a psychiatrist, so a person who is used to thinking about people and their stories, what it is that turns someone into a character and how differently we engage as readers and listeners, how there are degrees of care that we don’t always recognize. The first draft was written during any earlier period in the pandemic, when we were all measuring the distance we needed to maintain for our safety, that time when anyone could feel like a threat but also a comrade. I was interested in exploring the relationship between self and non-self, the relationship between a poem and a novel, that juxtaposition of concentration a poem has for me with the oceanic space and depth I experience when I’m working on a novel. I wanted to invoke the sense of a conversation that you might find in a reading group while also (gently) poking a bit at the idea that there are specific answers to be found in a discussion of a poem—and that the poet is the one who has them. The title, as usual with me, came last, but it is a quotation from Gustave Flaubert which seemed particular apt.
Peter Filkins on “At the Grave of Robert Lowell,”:
The summer of 2020 felt like a breaking point. Trump acquitted; George Floyd murdered; a nation on the march; the pandemic in full swing; markets in free fall. Amid all this, I had the pleasure of spending the month of July in Hill, New Hampshire, which is about 40 miles north of Dunbarton, where Robert Lowell is buried. As he remains one of my great poetic heroes, one sunny afternoon my wife and I drove south along the “Currier & Ives Scenic Byway,” trapped in a postcard the whole way there. Pulling up to the family plot, which sits by itself among whispering pines, we had the place to ourselves and spent a good half hour sorting through the Lowells, Winslows, and Starks, a lineage Lowell wore like a straightjacket. Still, there he was, all on his own among them, albeit beneath a minimalist, modern gravestone whose pinkish hue blushed as if slightly embarrassed. That the entire family plot had been moved by the Army Corps of Engineers in 1962 in order to create a nearby artificial lake seemed like an irony Lowell had himself arranged. The world felt perched on an air bubble – precarious, at peril, primed to burst apart. As I wrote and revised the poem over the next year, one that saw Kyle Rittenhouse shoot up Kenosha, WI, northern California on fire, an election in the balance, the Big Lie, and the disgrace of the January 6 attack, I could only wonder what Lowell would say were he alive.
Peter Cooley on “And This is How it Happens”:
I wanted to write a poem in the William Carlos manner but with my concern for more than the observed, with my incessant search for the “supernal” or transcendent. Although my poems are works of the imagination, my next door neighbor is named Kathy.
Stephen Ackerman on “While Another Dove Nude into the Breakers”:
While there is much I could say about “While Another Dove Nude into the Breakers,” what I will say is that it is a love poem in landscapes. It travels from the dunes of the Cape Cod National Seashore to the highest mountain in New York State (“Cloud Splitter” to some, “Mt. Marcy” on the maps), from the lavender and river of a Memphis twilight, to Moon Lake in Mississippi, and then along Interstate 40 past the rice paddies of Arkansas, across the high plains of Texas, and through the deserts and dry washes of New Mexico and Arizona. There is a Jules and Jim element to the love, though the unnamed men in the poem have never met, have loved the same woman at different times, and the woman denies, emphatically and credibly (though not in the poem itself), that her love for one is in any way related to her love for the other. The final scene in the poem takes place in Hushpuckena, Mississippi, on the banks of the Hushpuckena River.
Hayden Saunier on “Spell”:
“Spell” rose directly from a physical moment: sleeping in the gauzy lightness of freshly washed, new-to-me linen sheets on a summer night, windows flung wide to the breezes. The sense of enchantment was unexpected, unsought, and like any “oceanic” experience that overwhelms the self (or however one defines individual personality and personal history) I felt a deep elemental awe. “We long for transformation and we fear it,” writes Natasha Tretheway, because how can we enter and be held in such connection to the world and not dissolve completely? Or at least not yet? I wanted to capture both how light and finely woven into the whole fabric of the world such experiences feel and how, at the same time, the self struggles against letting go, as if grievances and hurts are the self. In the end, I hoped to conjure that moment again, to find a way back into the elemental pattern, into the field, into being what we were before we were made into what we are. And, for a moment, to rest there.
Veronica Kornberg on “Received Wisdom”:
This poem started as a kind of ode to a dilapidated wooden fence that I could not bring myself to tear down. About once a month my husband would very reasonably mention its complete dereliction, and I would wax romantically about the ancient redwood boards, the gorgeous lichen, the rust and rot. The way it framed the field and how that field held the memory of whatever horses once lived there. Maybe we could get a donkey? So this poem began as a love note to the falling-down fence. As often happens, the poem then asserted itself, insisting that I broaden the scope of its purview, pay attention to its deeper metaphorical implications, show its layers and depths. One question I ask myself when considering how I might want to revise a draft, is to ask the poem “Why are you telling me all this?” And if I am lucky, the poem answers. One thing I appreciate about this poem is how it offers a kind of head-shaking amusement at my own mind.
Teresa Cader on “Sea Otters, Missiles, Sardines”:
This poem began to take shape when my husband and I visited our daughter in Monterey Bay, California in March 2022. She is getting a master’s degree in Japanese translation from the Middlebury Institute for International Studies. The university is close to a paved path by the bay. I was watching sea otters near shore when I decided to check the news on my iPhone. Russian missiles had just devastated several blocks in a Ukrainian city whose name reminded me of my father’s Polish village, where he spent World War One, the war that was supposed to end all wars. Images of war felt superimposed on snapping sails and sunning sea otters. In my work, I’m interested in the intersection of historical timelines and events, cultural juxtapositions, dislocations of place and identity, and the (often invisible) imprint of history on an individual life. That “triggering town” moment with my iPhone launched a personal exploration that resulted in this poem.
Alex Braslavsky on translating Zuzanna Ginczanka (1917-1944)
The poem published here was written on the 26th of December in 1933, on the cusp of the new year, by Zuzanna Ginczanka, who at the time was sixteen years old during the interwar period in Poland, which comprised of the revival of the independent Polish state in 1918 up until the Nazi invasion in 1939 and the Soviet invasion at the onset of World War II. The subject of Ginczanka’s poem, however, is by and large not historical, but a lost love. Her addressee here is Tadeusz Błażejowski, a blue-eyed aspiring architect who attended the prestigious Tadeusz Kościuszko State Gymnasium with her and was four years her senior. Translating the poem just as we’re entering the year 2023, I can’t help but reflect on how passing through the liminal door of Janus into a new circumference of four seasons, it’s hard not to want to feel lighter than I did before and leave things behind. The new year seems the most auspicious moment for letting go of what’s broken my heart in the past few seasons, and so, as with many instances in my process, I have fallen into step with the poet I’m translating. Ginczanka is at her best here—saucy, willing to chew out her ex-lover and cut him loose. We see her penchant here for playing with technical language and twisting it into a wry, pungent poetic. On Centaurs, my translation of her selected works, is forthcoming this month from World Poetry Books.
Daniel Tobin on “Anthem”
I’m not big on stridently political poems, though “Anthem” aims to be slyly or not-too-slyly political. Its “trigger” is a vacated house behind our own, and the urbanized wild turkeys that arrived in the backyard. Ben Franklin believed the turkey to be a more suitable symbol for the new nation, and believed the native character of the eagle to be considerably wanting for that role. The rest is history, as they say, likewise recent economic history where one family’s fall can enable another’s rise for the proverbial song. The quatrains fell into place quickly. “Under the Sun” takes its title from Ecclesiastes. I composed it in homage to the idea of grace hard-pressed but present even in the world’s arbitrariness, a grace often sadly less evident in human concerns. I think I must have followed an intuited sense of this idea with the implicit comparison of the tree on, notably, a service road, and the emperor—the powerless and the powerful—though the latter, too, shall pass.