NER poetry reader David Francis speaks with translator Michael Martin Shea about “from The Somber Station,” a sequence of poems by Liliana Ponce published in NER 42.4.
David Francis: Liliana Ponce, a contemporary Argentine poet, has gained notable acclaim in the Spanish-speaking world, but less has been written about her in English. What do you want us to know about the author, and what draws you to the work you have published here?
Michael Martin Shea: I was initially directed towards Liliana’s work by the poet and editor Reynaldo Jiménez, himself also relatively unknown in English, as is the case for so many wonderful and thrilling poets from the Southern Cone (even while coming from a region and a language that are comparatively overrepresented in US publishing). I met Reynaldo while living in Argentina on a Fulbright fellowship, and he invited me over to his house, which doubles as a repository for tsé-tsé—the small but storied poetry press he runs, and which published two of Liliana’s five collections. I left with a list of names and an enormous stack of books, including Liliana’s Fudekara, which would become the first work I ever attempted to translate.
Initially what drew me to Liliana’s poetry was how different it was from my own. At the time, I was writing poems that were garrulous and irreverent, buzzing around images drawn from postmodern popular culture. Liliana’s are almost the opposite: they’re so careful and methodical in their approach. I’m tempted to say restrained, but that’s not quite true: her poems are quiet only in the way that a simmering pot is quiet. The most important thing to know about Liliana is that she almost never writes stand-alone poems. Beginning with her very first book, Trama Continua, everything she’s published takes the form of these multi-poem sequences. Sometimes they’re only five poems long; sometimes they have as many as twenty parts. I see this as the formal extension of her sense of the poem as a mode of meditation, a vehicle for thought in its purest form. The goal of her writing isn’t to convey an idea—the poem itself is the pursuit, one that she follows with an almost surgical precision.
One thing that’s neither here nor there as far as the poems are concerned, but which I find interesting, is that Liliana’s long-time husband is the novelist César Aira, author of something like a hundred books (and counting). So in one respect they’re very different: César publishes at a maniacal pace, while Liliana is much more selective. César’s novels are whimsical, talky, and digressive; Liliana’s poems can be very stark, her images almost fleeting. But on a formal level, they’re two artists who use literary form as a philosophical apparatus, a way of asking certain questions. César is compared to Borges all the time, and not unfairly, but I see Liliana’s poems as similarly experimental, in the sense that the work itself is an experiment, an investigation.
DF: The poem you have translated—from “The Somber Station” [“La estación sombría” in Spanish]—provides a profound meditation on the act of writing. The poem claims that “to write today is an emptiness.” What do you think that statement means? Would you make the same argument for translating poetry or, at least, for translating this poem?
MMS: The act of writing is something Liliana comes back to throughout her oeuvre. Perhaps her most famous sequence, Fudekara, was composed during a fourteen-day calligraphy course, and its jumping-off point is the physical act of tracing these Chinese characters. There’s a meta or recursive quality to her work: her poems think about thinking, she writes about writing. And I think at the heart of both of those processes is a blankness, not necessarily in the sense of lack, but in the sense of possibility. As the poem goes on to say, this emptiness at the heart of the form or the passage is also a kind of “maximum intensity.”
In my capacity as a scholar, I’m currently studying what I term “visionary poetics,” a kind of umbrella category for various religious, mystical, or New Age-y tropes and compositional strategies. I don’t know that I’d count Liliana as a visionary poet herself, not in the sense of a writer like Kamau Brathwaite and his explicit invocations of Afro-diasporic religious practices. But Liliana has studied Buddhism and other eastern religions for a long time, she’s a translator and scholar of Noh theater (among other things), and it’s certainly true that this influence makes its way into her poems. There’s a preoccupation with the denial of the self, the self’s erasure: some of the other words that crop up frequently in her work are “abyss, ” “nothingness,” “forgetting.” But I don’t think of her as a dark or brooding poet. So when she writes that “escribir hoy es un vacío,” I think there’s a complicated texture to that word “vacío,” “emptiness.” It doesn’t necessarily have that same negative charge that we might be tempted to put on it. Again, it’s that sense of exploration—what would it really mean to be empty?
DF: In the title, the Spanish word “estación” can mean both “season” and “station,” both words in English relating to time. What do you make of the speaker’s sense of time as it relates to the lyrical composition of self? Why did you choose to translate the poem’s title the way you did?
MMS: This was a big debate for me, and I’m still not entirely convinced that this poem shouldn’t be called “The Somber Season.” But I think having “season” and “station” as two possible translations bifurcates a certain flexibility that the Spanish word “estación” maintains, a word which as you point out can equally refer to a time period or a place. When I hear “station,” I really hear the word’s spatial connotation taking precedence over the temporal, and vice versa with “season.” So this was a moment in the translation process where I felt I was being asked to elevate one connotation over another. Ultimately, I chose place over time, in part because the subsequent sequence in Teoría de la voz y el sueño is entitled “Más allá de la estación sombría,” and I hear that “más allá” [beyond] as privileging the spatial rather than the temporal association.
But as theorists like Doreen Massey have pointed out, space is always-already linked with time—there’s no such thing as pure space. And I think Liliana’s sense of space and time is very complex. Often her poems seem as if they want to alter time, to pause it or, as she writes here, to draw it out, to “feed the creation” of it with words. And then at other moments she adopts a diaristic model where there’s a real time outside the poems that’s being tracked, not only in Fudekara but in another long sequence, Diario, which appeared as a chapbook from Ugly Duckling Presse a few years ago. So I think in some respects her lyric self is always creating itself against these limitations—space and time, but also body—which are at the same time absolutely constitutive of its existence.
Here is the thirst of the impulses,
beach without memory where the likenesses speak
and even so, sisters, they dissolve in mirages,
like your eyes, like my gaze.
The poem conveys a sense of solitude and, yet, it is also often conversational. Parts 1 and 2, for instance, speak primarily of the first person “I” as it relates to writing and the landscape surrounding the speaker. Part 3 then shifts its gaze to a “you,” and, in the stanza above, the speaker turns to address her “sisters.” For you, how do voice and language come to define the speaker’s relationship with those who hear her?
MMS: It’s funny that you put your finger on this line—it’s one that really threw me off when I first started reading, and then translating, Liliana’s work. As you note, her poems create these moments of heightened lyrical intimacy—as in the second poem of the sequence, where it feels like you’re really inside the void of the speaker’s mind—and then suddenly there are sisters there with you, or there’s a teacher, or you’re given a clear directive which shifts the poem from monological to dialogical. For a long time I didn’t know what to make of this, or how to render some of these asides into a readable English without breaking that lyric spell. And then at a certain point it dawned on me—oh, that’s the point. I think it relates to what I was saying above about space and time: there’s a similar give-and-take between self and other, between speaker and world or even speaker and reader. There’s a lyric self that wants to retreat from the world to that “dream unfamiliar,” and then there’s the intransigent fact of the world.
DF: Your stanzas contain compelling rhythm and musicality, based often on repetition. They reflect—to follow the poem’s words—a sense of “doubling” of the self through musical incantation. How did you come to convey this music? Balancing form and content in your translation, how does music inform your process as translator?
MMS: It’s almost a cliché to say this, but of course one of the most difficult aspects of translating into English from a romance language is moving from a vocabulary with a lot of shared word endings to one with significantly fewer. In a certain respect, Liliana’s work makes this easier: she rarely (if ever) follows an end-rhyme scheme or a metrical pattern, so the kind of brute force labor required to maintain something like an ABAB pattern isn’t necessary here. But her poems do have a lot of subtle music in them, often created through the repetition of key nouns and phrases (which I read as an outgrowth of her meditative poetics manifested at a formal level, a sort of conceptual deepening by way of redigestion). The extent to which I can maintain that music depends a lot on the individual line. In the third poem, the phrase “like your eyes, like my gaze [como tus ojos, como mi mirada]” is something that repeats verbatim in the original, making it easy to convey in the English (though of course even there you can hear some sonic patterning—“como,” “ojos,” “mi mirada”—that doesn’t make the leap). But then there are lines like this one from the second poem: “With words I feed the creation of time [Con palabras alimento la creación del tiempo].” Ultimately, I couldn’t find a way to maintain that internal alimento/tiempo rhyme. When that happens, I try to take the same principle from that line and see if I can reinsert it elsewhere in the poem: for instance, in the subsequent line, I chose “speak” rather than “talk” for “hablar” to give back some of that music. It’s like I’m extracting a sonic blueprint from the original and trying to recreate it elsewhere with slightly different materials. It’s the balance that’s very difficult to achieve, and while I think that a lot of my own training as a poet and a reader of poetry has helped develop my ear for these patterns, the choices I make in an individual line ultimately comes down to a degree of intuition (though perhaps an intuition schooled through immersion in someone else’s language). In one of her other poems, there’s a final line that reads, “abandonar la idea como se abandona el tiempo.” Abandonar is a cognate, whereas abandonarse means something more like “surrender” or “give in.” But my felt sense was that the sonic pattern here was more important than that conceptual difference—this is the final line of the poem, after all—so I landed on “to abandon the notion as time abandons.” Maybe in a month or so I’ll feel differently—I’m not sure a translation ever achieves a balance that isn’t, in some way, provisional.
DF: If you were to anthologize this poem, what other authors would you include in the anthology?
MMS: I suppose that really depends on what kind of anthology I’m putting together. I think Liliana’s work is particularly interesting in a national or regional context, especially for Anglophone readers. She published her first book in 1976, so she’s writing contemporaneously with figures like Juan Gelman and Raúl Zurita—some of the so-to-speak giants of Latin American poetry in translation. But her work is less overtly indexed to the dictatorships that ruled the Southern Cone during those early years of neoliberalism, and so complicates the often-simplistic picture American readers get where Latin American poetry is all about capital-R Resistance. Similarly, she’s associated with many of the writers of the neobarroco period—her publisher, Jiménez, was included in the canonical Medusario anthology and she traveled in a lot of those circles in the 1990s throughout the ríoplatense region. But she doesn’t really display the kind of linguistic maximalism for which neobaroque writers like Néstor Perlongher or Haroldo de Campos are known. Her work is certainly influenced by that of the great Argentine poet Alejandra Pizarnik: I see Pizarnik’s touch in the way that Liliana’s images will carry you into these unfamiliar spaces and then simply drop away (perhaps a form of what Robert Bly called “leaping poetry”). But where Pizarnik is so focused on the body, in Liliana’s work the body tends to retreat, almost disappearing as thought takes center-stage. Thematically, the way her poems are influenced by religious thought resonates with the work of writers like Héctor Viel Temperlay or Miguel Ángel Bustos (both of whom have been wonderfully, recently translated), though each of those poets moves in a slightly different direction. And then of course if we abandon the regional-linguistic framework, there are all sorts of fun associations to make. Sometimes I hear something like an echo of C. D. Wright in her poems, or Cole Swensen—sometimes even Georg Trakl. This last option is the most interesting to me. I’m trained as a comparativist, and though I take a very historicist approach in my own scholarship, as a reader I’m charmed by the prospect of discarding these traditional frameworks in favor of a different organizing principle.
DF: What was the greatest moment of revelation for you in reading the poem during the translation process?
MMS: I’m not sure there was a distinct moment. I completed a first draft of these poems in December of 2016, so these have been kicking around in my head for over five years. My process for translating Liliana’s work involves doing a very, very quick first draft of the entire sequence, just to establish the basic architecture. And then I go back over the poems more carefully, sitting with the language, trying out various constructions. I make extensive use of dictionaries—both that of the Real Academia Española and various Spanish-to-English ones—to check almost every word or phrase, looking for gradations of meaning and generating a pool of options. And then I assemble a new draft, or various new drafts. In the case of “The Somber Station,” there were few major epiphanies along the way, but many minor ones, born from coming back to the poems with fresh eyes after some time away. I specifically remember the way things clicked into place for me in the first stanza of the fourth poem when I shifted from translating the word “raíz” literally (as “root”) to something more figurative (“cause”).
This was the second sequence of Liliana’s that I translated—Fudekara being the first—so those early drafts bear witness to the process of figuring out how to conjure her voice in English, how to speak this personal, singular language of hers. I just completed a book-length manuscript which was about six years in the making, and while I wouldn’t say it’s become easy to translate her work, it’s certainly become a bit more fluid. The more time I spend immersed in her writing, the more comfortable I am making certain choices which would have stumped me in the early days—not necessarily because I’m a better translator now (though I suspect I am, simply through practice), but because I have a more intimate relationship with her voice. If I were to start on a project by a different author, even one writing in Spanish, I suspect I’d have to internalize a different sense of language and sound. So I guess I think of translation more as a process of sinking deeper and deeper into someone else’s consciousness. A translator is of course actively creating the new text—I don’t want to erase that aspect of the work—but at the same time there’s a certain suspension of the self. For me, that’s part of the appeal.
DF: Section Five refers to “the first dream.” Is this publication part of a series of dreams? Are there other “station” poems we can look forward to reading in your future translations? If so, how will they differ from what we see here?
MMS: That’s a great question, and one that’s hard to answer. Liliana’s poems deal with dreams a lot. As she says here, “what one wants from the air is a dream unfamiliar / with the cloth of shadows;” in a later poem, she writes, “I am the dreaming woman / I want to be the dream.” And even though she plays with diaristic forms which suggest a kind of real outside that the poems are indexed to, there are other moments when it feels like the poem itself exists as a kind of alternate real, like a dream. “A beach without memory where the likenesses speak.” Maybe the best way to think about this is that dreams are a kind of emptiness, like writing is.
As I mention above, the sequence that immediately follows this one is called “Beyond the Somber Station,” which in some ways expands on the ideas here, and in other ways goes beyond: both Shinto and ancient Rome make an appearance in that suite. That’s part of the full-length manuscript that will hopefully soon find a home. And Fudekara, which is also obsessed with writing and what it means to write, is going to be released as a chapbook by Cardboard House Press later this year, which is really exciting—I’ve loved that sequence since I first read it, and I can’t wait for an English version to be in the world.
David Francis, a reader of poetry manuscripts for NER, serves as dean of Grace Hopper College at Yale University, where he teaches in the Program in Ethnicity, Race, and Migration. He has received a Fulbright fellowship to translate poems by the Colombian writer José Asunción Silva into English. His translations or poems have appeared in Inventory, The FSG Book of 20th-Century Latin American Poetry, Guernica, Exchanges, The Brooklyn Rail, The Chronicle of Higher Education, and elsewhere. He is the translator of Footwork (Circumference Books, 2021), the selected poems of the acclaimed Cuban author Severo Sarduy.