Daniel Shapiro is author of the poetry collections The Red Handkerchief and Other Poems (2014), Woman at the Cusp of Twilight (2016), and Child with a Swan’s Wings (2018), all published by Dos Madres Press. He is also the translator of Tomás Harris’s poetry collection Cipango (Bucknell University Press, 2010; starred review in Library Journal); Roberto Ransom’s short-story collection Missing Persons, Animals, and Artists (Swan Isle Press, 2018); and Araceli Tinajero’s memoir Kokoro: A Mexican Woman in Japan (Escribana, 2018). He has received translation fellowships from PEN and the National Endowment for the Arts. Shapiro serves as Editor of Review: Literature and Arts of the Americas and as a Distinguished Lecturer in the Department of Classical and Modern Languages & Literatures at The City College of New York, CUNY. He is currently working on a novel, provisionally titled Strange Paradise, set in 1920s California. Shapiro’s poems and translations have appeared in Interlitq. Manuel Martínez Novillo, an author, graduate student at New York University, and contributor to Interlitq, conducted this interview at Shapiro’s CCNY office on April 17, 2019; in it they discussed his work as a poet, editor, and translator.
I want to start with a fairly personal question. How did literature enter your life?
My entry into literature was through poetry. I really started writing poetry when I was in college. As an undergraduate I was an English major at San Diego State University. I had some excellent instructors there. One of them was Glover Davis, with whom I took poetry workshops. Glover had been a student of the poet Philip Levine and was a very tough task-master. What he taught us, what he taught me, was to really focus on imagery. Concrete imagery: using images in a very specific, concrete way. And that’s something that I still do today. During that time, I had another instructor, Carolyn Forché, who introduced us to a lot of Latin American writers, to international literature. That was when I started to read Latin American poets like Pablo Neruda.
Then I did my M.F.A. at the University of Montana. I studied with the poet Richard Hugo, who’d been a student of Theodore Roethke. One of the many things that I learned from Hugo—something that should have been obvious to me—was that words are sounds. Words have texture; they aren’t just meaning. Later I moved back to New York, and took poetry workshops in various places, including The Writers’ Community; one was with Joan Larkin, who encouraged us to express ourselves with emotional honesty.
My next question is about your second book,
Woman at the Cusp of Twilight, which is a collection of poems that deal with the history of your family. Why did you write the book? Was it an homage? Was it research?
It’s probably both, and hopefully something more, too, because I don’t want it to be just memories of my family. The material in the book has taken several forms in my writing over the last ten years—non-fiction, poetry, and fiction. But to begin at the beginning: When I was growing up, my grandparents had a print hanging in their living room called The Winged Aureole. It was an image of a young girl in a garden with doves flying around her. Very idealized, very naïve. I think it was an early twentieth-century image. I always confused that young girl with my mother, for some reason, I suppose because my mother always described her childhood as very idyllic. My mother’s family was always presented to me in a special way; there was something almost mythical about them. They had all Biblical names, for example: my grandmother was named Esther, my mother, Shulamith; her brother, Solomon, and her sister, Judith, just to name a few of them. There was this larger-than-life quality to them.
So I started reflecting on this view of them, idealized in certain ways, and I realized that there was a really dark side, too. Some, like my aunt Judy, had had very sad lives. And I wanted to explore all that material in its totality. So, I started out writing a series of vignettes about that, non-fiction, which turned out to be a good lead-up to other manuscripts using this material. Then a friend told me that the vignettes had too many characters in them, that they were too hard to follow, so I decided to write a series of poems, each focused on a particular photograph of a member of my maternal family, or on a family anecdote. That’s how that poetry collection began. Lately I’ve been exploring this material more in fiction, but that’s a whole other conversation.
There’s also something very interesting about the book, which is that as you tell these stories about your family, you also provide a portrait of U. S. history.
There is a historical context to many of the stories behind the poems. My family was Jewish. They fled pre-Soviet Russia in the late nineteenth century. My great-grandfather Max, for example, reportedly left to escape conscription, boarded a ship in Hamburg, and came to New York, like so many others. In one very emblematic story, which is recounted in one of the poems, he was meeting my great-grandmother, Elke, when she arrived at Ellis Island. She was carrying a baby, my great-uncle Abe, but more importantly to the story, she was wearing a sheitel, one of those orthodox wigs. Max suddenly pulled her wig off, threw it in the East River, and proclaimed: “We’re in America now!” I thought that that was revealing about who they were: Jewish but also American. There are also poems in the collection that touch on political and cultural figures such as FDR, Stalin, George Gershwin, and Isadora Duncan.
Some critics have made comparisons between Woman at the Cusp of Twilight and Edgar Lee Masters’ Spoon River Anthology. From a perspective of creative writing, I have a question related to that. Like Masters, you wrote a lot of poems that are spoken by other people, or characters. Was that hard to do?
Yes, Spoon River was definitely a model for this book. My motivation was to discover and recreate my characters’ world, using Masters’s classic as a guide. When I was younger, I used to like the concept of persona poems. In fact, they were very popular when I was in graduate school in Montana. I got into speaking through other voices in poems, which wasn’t that hard for me to do. That strategy seemed right for the poems in this collection, so I returned to it, to create a panoply of voices. I guess that I was trying to find a point of identification with each of my poetic speakers—my great-grandparents, my mother, aunts, and uncles—and also to create a collective portrait that spoke to larger themes.
When looking for material in those stories and photographs, at what point did you feel that you had found something valuable to work with?
As I said, I started reflecting on all these family photographs and all the colorful anecdotes I’d heard. As far as the latter, my grandmother and mother told me some of them; my father, too. I mentioned the one about my great-grandmother’s wig; another concerned my grandfather, William, who’d attempted to develop a black rose. There was also the story about my mother being bullied as a young girl. Her family was the only Jewish one on the block—there was only one black family there, too, by the way—in a neighborhood in Sheepshead Bay, Brooklyn, in the ’30s. In the story, she stands up to a group of kids who taunt her on the way to school, mocking her name, Shulamith, and shouting anti-Semitic epithets; it ends with her taking them on one by one and hurling them into a snowbank, then continuing to school. I invented some details but the basic story remained the same in the poem, which I titled “A Lesson.” The individuals in many of these stories must have felt a sense of pride, I think, and I also felt proud to acknowledge and imagine them through the poems, to claim them as my own.
Going back to what we discussed earlier, there are a lot of people in my family who don’t remember all these things and a lot of those family members have now died. My mother just passed away a couple of months ago, in fact. I thought when I was contemplating the various projects: all this is going to disappear; these people are going to disappear; I have to do something about it, but not just as an obligation. I felt inspired about the idea of keeping them alive through my words, and through theirs too, since I include quotes by them in the texts. They weren’t famous people, but as I thought and wrote about them, they became larger-than-life to me. I wanted to give them a way to live on.
You are the editor of Review, a magazine dedicated to literature and arts in Latin America and the Caribbean. The last issue of the magazine, for instance, focuses in Rubén Darío and Modernismo. How you see the work of an editor? Is your work as an editor related to your creative work?
I started working many years ago on Review, which at that time was published by the Americas Society (it’s now published by Routledge in association with The City College of New York). My background was in writing and American literature and some Latin American literature too. When I got the job on Review, I was suddenly engaging with amazing people. Alfred Mac Adam, the renowned translator and critic, was the editor of the magazine at that time. I learned a lot from both him and his wife, Barbara Mac Adam, our copy editor; and from Lori Marie Carlson the managing editor in those years. They were incredible mentors, and there was also a plethora of others I had exposure to—translators Gregory Rabassa, Edith Grossman, and Suzanne Jill Levine, to name a few; and writers including Carlos Fuentes, Octavio Paz, Elena Poniatowska, and Mario Vargas Llosa, as well as countless other iconic and younger authors, as well numerous scholars in the field. I was fairly young when I started working on Review and absorbed as much as I could from all those I was privileged to work with in various capacities. I started as an assistant and gradually worked my way up to managing editor and then editor, a role I continue in to this day. It was and is a seminal publication—a comprehensive source for scholars and students of Latin American and Caribbean literature; the latest issue focuses on Darío and Modernismo, as you mentioned; subsequent issues will focus on contemporary Chilean writing, the Arab presence in Latin American literature, and on highlights from Review through the years.
I see editing and writing as interconnected. Both nourish each other. As an editor you basically do everything: you conceptualize, you write, you translate, and you edit, of course. You have to oversee all the various functions, and you have to organize the material presented, which is one of the biggest challenges. All of these are skills that are necessary as a writer too. I think that my writing skills have improved through editing. Editing teaches you to put things together, to decide where to place individual texts and groupings of texts; you need a sense of organization on various levels. In writing, you have to organize and make those kinds of decisions, too. In poetry, for instance, you have to think about word-order, organize stanzas, and employ effective transitions. In fiction, you have to coordinate diverse elements—point of view, character, plot, etc.—and develop them from beginning to end. These are all skills that feed each other.
You also translate Latin American literature, both for book publication and for the magazine. And you have a long relationship to Latin American literature. As a Latin American myself I would like to know what you’ve found interesting about Latin American writers.
My translation work grew out of my experiences as a writer and editor, particularly on Review magazine. My main translation projects have been the poetry collection Cipango, by Chilean writer Tomás Harris; the short-story collection Missing Persons, Animals, and Artists, by Mexican author Roberto Ransom; and a memoir titled Kokoro, by my colleague Araceli Tinajero, here at CCNY. And, yes, I translate occasional texts for Review, though many are assigned to other translators.
I’m about to teach a course on translation next semester here at CCNY, the first time that I’ll teach translation, in fact. So, I’ve been thinking a lot about the subject. In a book I’ve been reading by the translators Elizabeth Lowe and Earl Fitz, they discuss the first reception of Latin American writers in the United States in the 1960s. It was a period, according to the authors, when there was a kind of flatness in American (that is, U.S.) literature, at least in some respects. And suddenly the Latin American Boom came to the fore and caught the reading public’s attention. All these Boom and other writers started to appear in translation at that time: In fiction, Borges, Cortázar, García Márquez, and so many more; poets like Neruda and Vallejo, not to mention writers from Spain like García Lorca.
All that reflects my own first experiences reading Latin American literature. There were exciting U.S. poets at the time—Robert Lowell, Sylvia Plath, John Berryman, Theodore Roethke. But Latin American poetry (as well as fiction) offered something else. It may sound like a cliché, but it was really exotic to me and to a lot of other readers, too. It gave me something that I didn’t have, something that I didn’t glean from any other writing. Neruda, for instance, is a whole universe in and unto himself. He’s probably the poet who’s influenced me the most. My experience reading Latin American literature, along with my work as a writer and editor, naturally led me to venture into translation myself.
Last question. You mentioned that you are going to teach a course on translation. Can you provide some further thoughts on the matter?
There’s a lot that’s been written on translation and while I don’t consider myself an authority on the subject, I’ve had some practical experience translating books, as mentioned, so I can approach it from that angle. Very broadly speaking, for people who don’t speak more than one language, translation is a window to other peoples and cultures, not to mention to a wealth of literature from numerous other traditions outside the English language. Translation provides a great service: it helps bring people and cultures together and helps us understand each other better. What could be more important, especially at this time? Translation is the bridge that makes that possible. Let alone the role it plays teaching about language on every level—the language being translated from as well as one’s own native tongue. I hope to convey all that and more to my students next fall.