Category: California

Interlitq’s Californian Poets Interview Series: Marjorie R. Becker, Poet, Author, and Scholar interviewed by David Garyan

Marjorie R. Becker

November 14th, 2023

Interlitq’s Californian Poets Interview Series:

Marjorie R. Becker, Poet, Translator, Editor, Journalist

interviewed by David Garyan

Marjorie R. Becker’s poems appear in Interlitq’s California Poets Feature

DG: Let’s start from the very beginning. You learned Spanish in childhood, a language that would come to define your career as much, if not more so, than English. How did the language become a part of your life, or rather how did you discover the language?

MB: There are three components to this question: Because my Yale doctorate is in Latin American history, I know Spanish, French, Portuguese, and because of my work as a nutritionist for the Paraguayan Ministry of Agriculture and the Peace Corps, I learned the Paraguayan mestiza/o and indigenous tongue, Guarani. Because of my faith and my life with my ex., I know Yiddish and some Hebrew.

Spanish, though, has been my “ticket to ride,” as I wrote in my multi-genre book about the Mexican dancers I discovered in dialogue with Octavio Paz. Spanish came into my life in Macon, Georgia, my hometown, when a remarkable Puerto Rican woman moved there and told the board of education she would develop Spanish classes in three of the public schools. I was fortunate enough to attend one of those schools, and thus experienced immersion classes in Spanish from third grade throughout high school. In college, I studied in Spain when it was still under Franco’s dictatorial rule. It was truly in Paraguay, however, where I emerged as bi-lingual in Spanish and English.

DG: Your connection to the Spanish language didn’t stop there. You later traveled to Spain to study at the Universidad de Madrid, and then subsequently returned to the New World—specifically to Paraguay—to serve in the Peace Corps. How did these experiences shape your artistic development?

MB: As an undergraduate, I studied creative writing (poetry and fiction) from the late Reynolds Price and the late Helen Bevington. After graduating, one of my mentors-to-be noticed my impassioned interest in helping others, so I developed what he referred to as a “ten year plan.” Part of this plan was to serve in the Peace Corps. Upon receiving that job, I took 100 books and a typewriter with me. There, in the three rented huts in which I lived (there was limited rental property in Paraugya, and women—like me—were brutally punished for living alone) I continued writing a novel. That novel, focusing on a beloved woman I knew who killed herself, later re-emerged in my daily poetry compositions and is part of my Glass Piano/Piano Glass collection.

More generally, working with the Peace Corps (and much of my subsequently teaching,) meant serving others, in the “Nuestra America” (Mariategui) sense—more specifically the hungry and poor. During those years, I received, as we all did, much time to travel. I took trips to Argentina, Brazil, Peru, and Bolivia as well as many trips through Paraguay. I should add that these journeys, and certainly the amazing people I met, re-created the world I had known, repopulated it as well as revealing much about lush Latin American landscapes.

DG: You culminated your education with a PhD in Latin American history with studies at Duke and Yale, focusing on Mexico’s 1910 revolution. Can you talk more about this experience, along with the impact that this revolution went on to have on a country like Mexico.

MB: After the Peace Corps, I returned to journalism, as I had been a paid intern journalist throughout college summers. I adored working for the Macon (Geogia) News because I found my fellow journalists quite amazing and because my job as a reporter enabled me to devise a series of interviews and stories about race relations in the Deep South, a long concern of mine. By night, though, I wrote poetry and stories.

I was invited to study US history (of the South) by my college mentor. My plan was to write a book about radical southern women. However, once I took the first of my classes in Latin American history with a professor who also had served in the Peace Corps, things changed. That professor noticed my fascination with and concern for Latin America. He thus invited me to become a Latin American historian. Upon agreeing, I learned that I needed to have a specific country of focus.

The reason I chose Mexico and its revolution of 1910 was because my family had participated in an international program, and during this period we received Mexican visitors. I found the individuals remarkable. On their last night with us, they asked my family if we owned a record player. We did. Playing records and dancing, I felt that nothing could be better. (I adore music and dance as much of my research and writings suggest.) Further, as an undergraduate, I had discovered Octavio Paz’s gorgeous and complicated poem “Sun Stone,” which I found intriguing. Finally, though I knew little about it, the fact that Mexico had one of the world’s initial twentieth century revolutions intrigued the progressive I was.

I spent much time living in Mexico, where I conducted original oral historical research and also extensive research into an array of documents at multiple archives, some of which I discovered myself. I was always seeking historical worlds populated by females and males. I also was seeking grass roots democratic movements. While I (especially with my research on my dancers and Paz) discovered the former—the latter was more problematic.

My day-to-day experiences living in Mexico and conducting archival research were challenging, as all this involved seeking out and encountering arrays of documents that told me little about what I sought. But I adore oral history, and that aspect of the research—based on getting to know strangers, seeking their trust—was enthralling. Had I not been repeatedly sexually assaulted in Mexico, my life would have been very different.

DG: A powerful inspiration for you throughout the years has been Frida Kahlo. When did you first discover her work and has, if at all, your opinion changed of it?

The most compelling historical females from my experience as a scholar of Mexico are, in fact, the group of dancers I came across in my research. They entered a Catholic church in 1937 demanding female purity and abnegation, but instead, went on to devise a transformative dance. Such intriguing accounts are the reason why most of my work focuses on the unsung and the poor, particularly females who are unknown.

Nonetheless, Kahlo and Rivera’s defense of Judaism in an often anti-Semitic world struck me as courageous, and, of course, I always felt such sorrow regarding her near lifelong pain.

DG: Let’s continue our discussion about influential Mexican women. In December 2022, you released Dancing on the Sun Stone: Mexican Women and the Gendered Politics of Octavio Paz. It’s a transdisciplinary work of history and literature that looks at Mexican history through the lens of Michoacán females. Can you talk a bit about the writing process, along with the rewards and challenges you came across crafting this particular project?

DB: Thank you for asking about my dancer/Paz project. I was invited to develop a book based on my original approaches to historical writing, many of which have emerged in the journal Rethinking History. One of my remarkable Yale mentors, Florencia Mallon, was a big proponent of writing from one’s subconscious and she suggested that such a method might best fit my own creative approach. In addition, I was enthralled by the dancers I had discovered. Furthermore, I had been teaching and researching Octavio Paz work for many years. All of these factors together coalesced to make me realize that the historical/poetic conversations between Paz, the dancers, and gender might be an intriguing project—conceived through the framework of what I went on to call “gendered time.”

As was also true regarding Setting the Virgin on Fire, I had been trained (through ad-hominem macho attacks) to realize that being creative, female, Jewish and international, were in fact drawbacks in the academy, rather than assets. However, I am also heavily invested in serving others; I felt and still feel the importance of seeking out individuals—more specifically acquainting myself with the ways females (and also males) have experienced the world. It was thus important for me to account for female cultural perspectives because Mexican historiography (notwithstanding recent work focusing on girls and women) has largely been written by men, and/or from a male perspective—the language itself reflects. I thus recognized that the project possessed some challenges.

The work, suffice it to say, was highly intense; I conducted new research into Paz’ poetics, along with the poetics of those he knew. I also returned to my extensive research on the dancers, their pre and post revolutionary worlds. I asked how these worlds and their respective people (who had never met one another in life) experienced gendered time. The research was also intense for other reasons: Mistreatment of others affects me as a person and writer. The hope, however, of revealing worlds that had not previously been revealed, along with the support of my remarkable mentors, including Josh Goldstein, Gil Joseph, Florencia Mallon, David. St. John, Steve Stern, as well as my fellow poets Brenda Yates and Jan Wesley, meant the world to me.

DG: Let’s return to western Mexico and talk about another fascinating work, Setting the Virgin on Fire, which analyzes contemporary Mexican politics from the perspective of Michoacán peasants, who in your view, were an instrumental part in driving the policy of Lázaro Cárdenas, one of the most popular Mexican presidents. Have the conditions of the indigenous population been improving in recent times, or is there some backsliding in this respect?

MB: I was attempting to speak to the relationships between peasants (Mexico’s majority until into the twentieth century) and state, how each affected the other, and I was seeking to write a book sensitive to the multiple groups in Michoacan—females and males, wealthy, landowners, impoverished landowners, those without land, the religious and secular. I am a historical empath and I attempted to reveal the complexity of all the individuals about whom I researched and wrote.

The Michoacan majority was mestiza/o, rather than indigenous. In a number of ways, what Cardenas and his followers did was at once progressive, at least with respect to the impoverished people worthy of attention—at the same time all this was highly problematic in terms of the the land reform that actually emerged. I believe Cardenas did not want to harm Mexico’s poor, despite his own deep anti-clerical instincts in a place as Catholic as Michoacan, yet the land reform did nevertheless go on to do exactly that.

Most crucial, however, was my surprising discovery of the Michoacan dancers, the same courageous people about whom I had written in Virgin, along with many articles, and again in Dancing on the Sun Stone. Though feminism remained “a dream some of us had” at that time in Mexico, the dancing women and their courage illuminated ways toward a more benevolent future.

DG: Your most recent collection The Macon Sex School (2020) harkens back to your birthplace of Macon, Georgia. It’s a collection full of visceral detail—yet, it’s much more than that, because the core of the book is really about feminine liberation. Can you talk a bit about the book, along with the title? When did you start writing it and was the title a nod to the long way you’ve traveled to get to this point in your career?

MB: I have written poetry daily for decades and as is the case with my historical writing, I write poems from my subconscious. However, the “rationale” behind the images, stories, songs, hymns that emerge tend to be poetic and mysterious rather than rational and science-driven (with apologies to poetic scientists out there). The Macon I grew up in was highly racist, sexist, anti-Semitic. The public schools were segregated by race and by gender. It was the Jim Crow south.

As has been true in many parts of the world, females were trained to be silent, submissive, to kowtow to males, to hide their artistry, their intellects, their beings. These are some of the reasons I left Macon and some of the reasons that I became a feminist.

Having said all this, I think I may have learned something about observation regarding female grandeur in Macon. In what sense? Mysteriously, after my beloved father died, my poems—previously narrative, almost journalistic—emerged as songs, as hymns. Thus, The Macon Sex School does emerge, I feel, as a series of praise songs, of work songs, of harmonies extolling worlds in which females, their intimacies, their intricacies, their vast tenderness, alters a world populated by multiple genders, ethnicities, races, and inclinations.

DG: Another interesting area of your studies is the invention of the so-called “Indian,” specifically by the white population. As David Francis, the Canadian historian wrote: “The Indian began as a White man’s mistake, and became a White man’s fantasy. Through the prism of White hopes, fears and prejudices, indigenous Americans would be seen to have lost contact with reality and to have become ‘Indians’: that is, anything non-Natives wanted them to be.” Quite fascinating. Can you talk about your own thoughts on the matter and what your research has uncovered about this?

MB: I think most Latin Americanists—all of whom were compelled to choose between focusing on either the colonial or the modern Latin American worlds, while learning much about their second choice—know that the notion of the “Indian” is a European invention imposed on the Americas. Still, my central focus is modern Latin America, and the remarkable training I received enabled me to devise an array of courses focusing on Colonial Latin American history—precisely at a time when USC had virtually no other Latin Americanists. In my view, the notion that there ever existed some unique, untouched, different-from-all-other-humanity peoples is racist. What I learned from extensive reading and research involves the ways in which historical relationships between Indigenous peoples and Europeans have transformed the world. Due to the combination of European arrogance, ignorance, and indigenous people’s internal disagreements, however, the former emerged “victorious.” As we know, the subsequent consequences on indigenous people ranged from astronomical death tolls (particularly in MesoAmerica though not confined there) widespread illness, and immiseration, but not the complete undoing of indigenous worlds, cultures, and their respective people. The remarkable research developed by the Lockhart school has shown this.

DG: Apart from Spanish, you’re also well-versed in Guarani, a language mostly spoken in Paraguay, but also in places like Bolivia, Argentina, and Brazil, among others. What are some intriguing pieces of literature you’ve come across in the language?

MB: I learned Guarani in order to create female nutrition clubs that I traveled to from my village. In those places, I taught nutrition, first aid, gardening, and, at the request of the women, also embroidery. Though my Spanish was quite strong, all Paraguayans spoke Guarani while only few knew Spanish. I learned Guarani to communicate with the people I was trying to teach.

DG: What are you reading or working on these days?

MB: I am writing a memoir about my vast travels, about those populated and intense geographies, and most particularly, about the music I encountered throughout the Americas. I am one of those people who reads as easily as she breathes; I am in two poetry groups: One that I’ve frequented for many decades—the other more recent. I read my fellow poets’ work, and continue my obsessions with Lorca, with Adrienne Rich, with the work of my mentors David St. John and my teacher Dorothy Barresi, along with the remarkable work of Philip Levine and Carolyn Forche (and many others.)

Author Bio:

Marjorie R. Becker is a native of Macon, Georgia who learned Spanish as a child. She studied in Spain, served in the Peace Corps in rural Paraguay, and holds a Yale doctorate in Latin American cultural history. An associate professor of History and English at USC, she is the author of the poetry collections Body Bach (2005), Glass Piano/Piano Glass (2010) and The Macon Sex School: Poems of Tenderness and Resistance, all from Tebot Bach. She is also the author of the historical monograph, Setting the Virgin on Fire: Lázaro Cárdenas, Michoacán Peasants and the Redemption of the Mexican Revolution (UC Press, 1996,) and the multi-genre Dancing on the Sun Stone: Mexican Women and the Gendered Politics of Octavio Paz, (University of New Mexico, 2022.) She has received an array of honors and awards, including a Faculty Fulbright Research Fellowship for Mexico, a nomination for a Pushcart Award, a Mellon Mentoring Award, and awards from the AAUW, the NEH, and the ACLS.

Interlitq’s Californian Poets Interview Series: Paul Vangelisti, Poet, Translator, Editor, and Journalist interviewed by D...

Paul Vangelisti in Modena (photo by David Garyan)

November 13th, 2023

Interlitq’s Californian Poets Interview Series:

Paul Vangelisti, Poet, Translator, Editor, Journalist

interviewed by David Garyan

This interview was conducted in person at the Best Western Hotel Liberta in Modena, Italy on July 3rd, 2022. Bill Mohr contributed four questions via email, which were asked during the course of the talk. The following is the transcription, edited in collaboration with Paul Vangelisti.

Paul Vangelisti’s poems appear in Interlitq’s California Poets Feature

DG: Ezra Pound believed that poets make the biggest leaps in their own craft by translating other poets. As an Italian-American, how have your translations—varied throughout the years—contributed to the development of your own writing?

PV: I started with Pound on this question in 1968 during my first year in graduate school, which I loathed and quit almost after two weeks. But then I had my first class with a visiting professor—Donald Davie. He was there at USC from 1968 to 1969, on his way the next year to accept a chair at Stanford. He was a very fine British poet-critic and he taught one course each semester on Pound. I had read Pound’s Selected Poems right after I graduated from the University of San Francisco. It so happened that the next semester he no longer wanted to teach it. Instead, he ended up with one course I had never taken in my life—creative writing. He had set it up to function as follows: He picked seven people. Grads and undergrads turned in a manuscript. He didn’t distinguish. And the only requirement was that you had to translate something. He met with you the first week to talk about your interests and to find out if you had studied another language. He would suggest a poet to translate in a bilingual format. The other requirement was that you’d never meet any of the other poets. It was one-on-one with him. It was the shrink’s hour—fifty minutes, once a week. It was whatever he wanted to talk about, but you had to bring in translations. That’s how I started translating poetry seriously, mostly from Italian, except for one figure, Mohammad Dib, who was from France and somebody I’d gotten to know. I did his book in 1976, then another towards the end of his life. Every year, out of the blue, he would send me his latest title from France. He was an Algerian exile living there.

We exchanged holiday greetings and all of that. At the end he said: “I want to write a book about my trip to Los Angeles in 1974.” This was give-or-take 1999 or 2000. He was there for four months as a regent’s professor. He didn’t have a college degree, but the French Department brought him to UCLA, and I got to be very good friends with him. Together we’d wander around town. I introduced him, he claims, to jazz and jazz clubs. I was 29. He was 54. I’m 6’2. He’s 5’6. It was an odd couple.

Fast forward from all that and we get to 1999. I started a creative writing program and one of its essential aspects was translation; students had to study it. There was a first semester called “The History and Practice of Translation,” and it kicked off with a statement going back to Pound: “Every major change in English poetics is the result of translation.” Quite true. The Lord’s Prayer was translated from Old English—one of the first so-called pieces of English literature. Latin makes three prominent appearances: First around the year 1000; then it enters again just before Shakespeare’s time; finally once more in the 18th century.

In the days of Chaucer, you have French—a heavy influence. Then in the Renaissance you have Latin and Italian. The court language under Queen Elizabeth was Italian, and the sonnet which became so popular, was an Italian form. French again enters with the Restoration, and I think Pound’s point was that translation propels poetic innovation.

Sidenote: When I was in grad school, there was a colleague called Rose whose last name I can’t remember. We were finishing our last year before the dissertation and she said: “You’re writing on Pound. I have 50 of his unpublished letters.” I said: “Hey, get them here, and we’ll put them in special collections.” She brought them in, even though her family wanted to hold on to them. They were her younger sister’s who’d died in her 50s of cancer. She was from Maryland and she had befriended Pound when he was at St. Elizabeth’s. She would write to him and visit him. Wanting to study poetry, she looked up a bunch of famous ones and Ezra Pound was right there near Baltimore—an obvious target. In the first response he said: “Okay, send the poems along—subject, verb, object.” And then after that, he assigns her things to translate because she knew some French from high school or college. Right in the beginning he’s teaching this woman, who’s in her thirties, the art of poetry from scratch, and the key part of it is translation. He says it in his Selected Letters anyways but he also repeats it in these aforementioned ones: “The reason why it’s good for a young poet to translate is because in translation you don’t pick up the mannerism of the poet. You can’t, because it’s a different language. You pick up the approach, subject, and composition, but you don’t pick up the mannerism, which is the worst thing about imitating a poet.”

DG: In your essay “Poetry Interrupted,” you articulated something called “resistance of the self,” a sort of criticism of the ego inherent to lyrical poetry: “If we are to derange the egocentric, expansionist course of U.S. poetry, nothing less is indicated than a resistance to the self, an ideological and aesthetic vulnerability to what surrounds us.” In your view, has contemporary writing in recent years moved towards this resistance or away from it?

PV: Away from it. Completely. After 1974, two years fresh out of grad school and now a journalist, I increasingly witnessed throughout the ‘80s the study of the historical avant-gardes, such as Marinetti. His best manifesto was the 1912 Technical Manifesto of Futurist Literature, along with the 1909 Manifesto of Futurism. The others are also important but so off-the-wall. These two are certainly his best. The first rule, Marinetti, says is “destroy the ‘I’ (distruggere il “io” in poesia).” Though my first book was in 1973, long before I’d read that manifesto, I did write a whole collection of poetry called Air and made sure there was no “I” in the poems, which is easy to do in Italian, but not so easy to do in English. In Italian, it’s not necessary to put the “I.”

DG: Indeed, you don’t have to use the pronoun because the subject can be apparent from the conjugation of the verb itself.

PV: When I first came to Italy, I could always tell who was an American because they kept saying “I, I, I—I want this, I want that, I want to go there.” They use the “I” all the time. If you connect this with the proliferation of creative writing programs, a clearer picture begins to emerge: When I started my own in 1999, there were fifty; by the time I retired—if you count the distance learning ones—there were close to 400. I think they’ve done more damage to American poetry than anything. Part of the problem is the formulaic one or two page max workshop poem: “I do this. I do that. I wake up. I feel bad. Whatever.” It doesn’t hold any interest for me, at least in terms of reinventing the language.

DG: We can use this an interesting to Rimbaud, who believed that a derangement of the senses was the key towards poetic illumination. How strong is the correlation between the way Rimbaud used the word “derangement,” and how you use it?

PV: Exactly. I use “derange” because I somewhat break with Rimbaud’s famous letter to his high school teacher. I took it to mean that the senses are the “I.” The ego is a sense. I’m not saying it’s not there—it’s certainly a sense, but for me it’s not an interesting sense around which to create a poem. Ten years later I read Marinetti’s futurist manifesto, but this idea can be found throughout all of his work. We tend to call figures like Marinetti the historical avant-gardes whereas those after WWII were the neo-avant- gardes, but all of them in the end tended to favor Marinetti’s idea of “destroying the ‘I.’”

DG: You edited a posthumous collection of Amiri Baraka’s work, SOS Poems 1961—2013, published in 2014. You wrote in the preface that “along with Ezra Pound,” Baraka is “is one of the most important and least understood American poets of the past century.” Can you talk a bit about the project? What are some of your personal favorite pieces—not just in the anthology, but in general? And do you think writers like Pound and Baraka will ever be “understood,” their genius fully recognized?

PV: Originally I had “misunderstood” but I talked to the Grove editor and we changed it to “least understood.” Still, it’s really “misunderstood,” after all. I remember calling Amiri up five years before having written that. I had done an essay on him and I said: “If I ever do a bigger project, can we start it that way?” And he had just one response: “Cool.” He is very much in the Pound tradition—he himself said so. He hadn’t articulated it much in print, but his work did, especially starting with the first book.

DG: Both are certainly controversial. Baraka is controversial. Pound is controversial—

PV: Oh yeah, and both for the politics—both called anti-Semites, as you know.

DG: Do you think they will ever be understood—their genius fully recognized?

PV: I hope not.

DG: (Laugh.)

PV: Because then they would have to be adopted by—what’s that thing called?—the canon. You heard it here on tape first. Many people I know, not just in the US but also here in Italy, couldn’t be more politically-distanced from Pound, including Pasolini who was on the left. He wasn’t Maoist or anything. Still, for such people, Pound was without a doubt the greatest poet—not just the greatest American poet of the 20th century. And I likewise happen to think so for many reasons, but mostly for what he did in expanding poetic language. In addition, there’s something quite relevant I didn’t say when we were talking about translation but would like to mention now. When they asked Pound: “Why are you so focused on translation?” He responded: “Because I’m looking for a language to think in.” He said that in 1912.

DG: He was ahead of this time. In this respect, I think his genius will become more fully recognized, but in a way where he will remain this “unique” figure, and this is a good thing. Let’s stay with translation and move to Bill Mohr’s question. He wanted to ask the following: “Have you ever translated your own work into Italian? If so, what would be a moment when you found a particular line or image to be difficult to convey into Italian?”

PV: That’s an easy one to answer. I never have. Because I would never translate from English into Italian. Living here, you obviously do it every day, whether verbally, or by means of some some stupid official letter you have to write, which means nothing. They go into some dossier and then you never see them again. But, no. I’ve never translated my work or anybody’s work into Italian. There were plenty of times when somebody was translating my pieces, and because of some confusion they asked for a literal meaning of the stanza. In my terrible Italian, I gave it to them, but the answer is no. However, Bill is on the right track because I think he recalls something I told him forty or fifty years ago: “The other good thing about having a second language—along with Pound’s apropos quote about not imitating someone’s poetic manner—is that when I’m stuck on a poem and I just can’t get anywhere, I’ll translate the piece into my own Italian, and there, often, I see what’s wrong with it. I see the skeleton of the poem. I understand what it’s missing. I understand why, as they say in Italian, it doesn’t stand on its own feet.”

DG: You sort of put a mirror to the poem, but the language is the mirror—

PV: Yeah, I’m able to see why it’s not working. It’s always the question of the poem, not the right word—that just takes time. The real question is why the actual poem is not holding together.

DG: You have this advantage that many poets in the US don’t have—working in another language. Your forte is translating Italian poets, but you’ve not “confined” yourself, as we’ve already said, in this respect. You’ve already touched upon your translation of L.A. Trip by Mohammad Dib was from French to English, and you worked closely with the author to make it happen. How was this project different from the others you undertook, and how did Dib’s reflections about the city ultimately change your own perspectives about LA?

PV: It certainly did. Dib contacted me in 1999 saying: “Hello, how have you been? And so on.” We hadn’t seen each other since 1975, when I went to spend a week with him on the outskirts of Paris—a suburb near Versailles called La-Celle-Saint-Cloud. At the time I had done three French poets, including Dib. His son had email, but Dib never used it. He wrote letters. In one correspondence he said: “I want to write, but I can only do it with you.” I said: “What do you mean?” He responded: “I discovered the city with you and I have these poems. I’ve started writing them but I want you to translate. You send them back to me and I’ll go over them.”

Dib knew English. He had translated English fiction. In 1947, while still living in Tclemsen, Algeria, he published a really interesting essay on American poetics and writing called “The Short Story in Yankee Literature,” which appeared in Forge. He said it’s “a savage literature”—that was his phrase. “It’s a savage country with a savage literature.” He used the word sauvage but he wasn’t putting it down. It’s savage in that it doesn’t have history—and it doesn’t want that. There’s this direct relationship between the object and the writer, which he says is savage. One of my Italian friends, a painter, later said the same thing. I translated my latest piece for him and he remarked: “That’s really interesting. An Italian poet could never write that poem.” I said: “What do you mean?” He responded: “An Italian poet couldn’t just speak directly about a thing. There has to be a mediation. Your language is not mediated.” And so, Dib wanted me to help him mediate all this. That’s how we started. He would send me fifteen or twenty poems at a time—roughly one-page poems, twenty or thirty lines max—and I would translate them, send that back to him via email. His son was working in Paris. He would get the email, print it out, and bring the material to him. Dib would then take it and mark up my translations in red. Afterwards, he sent that back to me. I would then make the corrections we agreed on, which would go back to his son, and they’d collect the manuscript.

When the manuscript was finished, Dib went to his French publisher—and I don’t mind defaming him because I really think he did a disservice to Dib’s work—who actually loved the project. We had set it up so that Douglas Messerli of Sun & Moon Press could publish a joint edition because Dib said the book had to be appear in both languages—French on the left and English on the right. The French publisher in truly stupid contemporary French tradition refused to publish the English—he would just do Dib’s originals, which were in fact created through translation because we would change both versions together. He used my English as a sounding board for his own French. And so, Douglas Messerli said “we’ll just do it ourselves.” In the meantime, Dib dies—suddenly. He got sick in the summer of 2002 while I was on a fishing trip with a friend in Montana. In May of 2003 my wife called me and said: “You know, that friend of yours, Mohammed Dib—he was in the paper today. He died.” And there we were. Messerli said “we’re just going to get it out.” We released it in six months—the whole thing. So now there are two editions of the same book: One as the poet wanted it, and one as … whatever—

DG: The publisher wanted it.

PV: The French publisher wanted it.

DG: (Laugh.)

PV: After he died, his wife wrote me—through the son, of course—a typewritten letter saying: “You don’t know how much consolation he took at the end of his life in those little red pages. She meant the pages he had corrected. She had them all.

DG: That’s an incredible story.

PV: And the book, of course, is called LA Trip—one of the great poems about LA. Yet, for three years I tried getting it reviewed in The LA Times. It did get a review in one place, World Literature Today, a publication that deals with translation, out of the University of Oklahoma.

DG: That shows us the priority of The LA Times, I guess. Let’s continue with another relevant question from Bill Mohr, who says that you you’ve lived as an exile in Los Angeles—

PV: You know why he says that? Because I edited and published a book in 2000 called LA Exile, and it was all poet-writers who came to LA—the youngest arrived when he was fifteen—but all the others came to the city as adults from different states or other parts of the world and wrote in LA; it completely changed their writing.

DG: That’s kind of the opposite of my experience. I left LA and came here, and it’s changed everything.

PV: Right.

DG: But let’s stick with the question, because Bill is right to point out that in some ways, your life has one odd parallel with a very different poet, T.S. Eliot. He writes: “Eliot was about to defend his dissertation when WWI broke out, and so he didn’t get his Phl.D. and become a professor in the United States. You, too, were on the verge of writing your dissertation, but ‘history’ (in quotation marks) intervened. In remaining in Los Angeles, your life’s work as a poet, editor, publisher, and translator has impact an extraordinary number of Southern California poets. If on the other hand, you had finished your Ph.D. and ended up teaching in the Bay Area, where you would have been more at home, how do you imagine your life might have been different? Or are these kinds of fantasies not something you ever think of? Or is that kind of speculation akin to a ‘translation’ of one’s life into a language that has not yet gone beyond the oral stage?” What do you think of Bill’s question?

PV: Not only I, but also people I know keep reminding me of that when I complain about LA. In fact, I would’ve loved to go back to the Bay Area. It’s not the reason I quit. But when you finished your coursework and were writing your dissertation, you’d go on to look for your first academic job. In those days, as now, the same thing happened—no jobs. There was one place in the country where you just didn’t bother with all that in 1972. 250 posted jobs in the MLA for San Francisco. No, 250 posted teaching positions in the Bay Area. Think about those terms today. And you know how many applicants: 58,000. For 250 jobs.

DG: That’s wonderful—in the worst sense.

PV: In the worst sense, yeah, but I did come close to having a job in academe: What happened was that I applied for a Fulbright to teach in Italy for two years. It was very good pay—not from the university or the Fulbright people. There were two trips a year. The host country rented you a two-bedroom apartment for wife and child in Bologna because that was my first choice. I received a letter in December that said: “Be ready to fly on August 31st, but you need to get a physical. You, your wife, and your child. Each has to have one.” I didn’t have the money, so I borrowed it from three people—three physicals for a hundred dollars. After the procedure, I sent it to them.

To this day, however, I’ve never gotten a letter that said you’re not going. They told me: “Get on the plane August 31st. We’ll send you the ticket.” Later, the woman I’d dealt with at USIS (United States Information Service)—who was very kind and supportive throughout the process—kept saying conflicting things: “There’s a hitch in the application. Your papers have gone through. In December there’s a panel in Washington. They meet and select the people. You’re three finalists and two alternates. You’re the number one finalist.” The last part was later confirmed by a guy I met ten years afterwards who was the number two finalist. Like me, he was blocked by the State Department. In those days, your papers went to Europe and they went to State. Now they only go to Europe, or wherever the Fulbright is. Without telling me, the State Department blocked the application because of my anti-war activity as an undergrad. Four years later, in 1976, I used the Freedom of Information Act, and there it was. Oddly enough, it also mentioned somebody from undergrad days: A guy named Al. He was a part of our small group of three or four poets and he turned out to be an FBI agent, which was nice—really reassuring.

DG: That must’ve been a fantastic discovery. 

PV: Yeah, it said: “Paul Vangelisti was with …” and then it listed the other three names, but they were blacked out. And so, by simple process of elimination I knew who was who: One guy had died; one guy had gone to Canada; and the only guy left was the one who was still in San Francisco. So that’s the answer to the question but it’s almost a moot point. Right before I was about to go, I had two other job offers: One at Southern Mississippi State, where I wouldn’t have gone, and the other at Bucknell. I told them what I was planning on doing and they said: “Okay. If you send the documentation, we’ll wait until you come back. And then we’ll make you the same offer. So, whether you’re done in year or two years, it’ll be the same offer.” I said: “Great, I’m really interested in this.” And then three or four months later, it didn’t matter. I got my department at USC to give me one more year of an assistantship—and the rest is history. The academic career, in a sense, was over quickly.

DG: There was a silver lining there. Would you say?

PV: Maybe. In May of 1972 I was driving a taxi. I still remember Founder’s Hall, where the English Department was. That’s where I walked out. I didn’t finish my dissertation. It was maybe half-written. The first sixty pages were published a year before in The Southern Review, and this is important. That was through Davie. I backed up on a Saturday, filled up a couple boxes with books from my office, put them in the trunk of my cab, and that was the end of my academic career. I drove off with the yellow cab. Then I became a journalist.

DG: You’ve done well for yourself.

PV: I’ve thought more than once about where my poetry would’ve gone—more than once, but there was a reason I quit.

DG: Let’s continue with another question from Bill questions and it’s the following: “Have you ever read a translation of your work that you particularly admire? Or has there ever been a moment of disagreement that couldn’t be resolved with the translator?”

PV: I’ve published seven or eight books in Italy so I have a lot of translated work. I absolutely admire two—both by great Italian poets, one gone and the other still with us. Giulia Niccolai, who left us a year ago, did two or three books and we always did them together. In a literary sense, she is the most bilingual person I know—bilingual in the best spirit of the word. I have to say this in the interview: There are poems she wrote, some are both in English and Italian, and she has one line that she repeats over and over in her work. It’s a line of prose: “Even poetry lies on the page.” She says this in English because that’s impossible to say in Italian. Untranslatable. English captures the two meanings of “lie” and I can’t think of a word in any other language that has those two meanings—certainly not European languages. I’ve translated lots of her work.

In addition, there are Adriano Spatola and Corrado Costa—though I remember Giulia’s presence because neither of them could speak English. They did one book of poems which was really good. And then there’s my long-time friend and collaborator, Andrea Borsari, professor of aesthetics at the University of Bologna, who has collaborated on a host of project since the turn of the century. More recently, there’s Nanni Cagnone, who’s another fine poet. He’s still with us at 82 and did a very good translation of sonnets in 2015. In working with him numerous times, I read unpublished poems he’d written—they were going to be bilingual editions—and during the course of our collaboration I changed the original more than once.

DG: So your experience has been good overall.

PV: Good. With one or two exceptions. And I should mention the book I showed you by Millie Graffi—Six White Mules. Excellent translation. And that one I didn’t change anything in the English. That was the only publication of that poem.

DG: Let’s have a look at Bill’s final question, which is the following: “Is there an inherent theatricality in translation, in which the actor’s approach must be closer to a Brechtian distancing/alienation rather than some variant of “method” acting?” A short but tough one.

PV: I get the method acting part, but I don’t exactly get—do you know what he means by Brechtian distance?

DG: I think what he’s talking about is not conjuring up some concrete event in your life, but instead drawing upon an archetype, a theory, or concept—something other than yourself. A sort of distance from your own psyche and emotions influencing your artistic portrayal of different emotions. For example, if you want to portray sadness, you don’t go directly to your own personal experience but channel the personal experience of the world in general.

PV: Yeah, that’s a really tough question but he’s right about that. It’s not a “method,” and it’s not even acting—that isn’t very important for me in translation. I think what’s more important is trying to figure out where you sit in your language and where the poet you’re translating sits in his or hers. And then trying to approximate that place back into your language.

DG: I think that’s a perfect answer. Indeed, not an easy question to answer because the translator must both draw from the experiences of his language in general, but also of the language he’s receiving—

PV: Let me put it this way—if we go back to Pound, we’re faced with the question he was asked: “Why do you translate?” Again, his response: “To find a language I can think in.” And this allows us to address the inquiry of why he experimented, mainly because translation is a natural part of that. He said this way at the beginning, in 1912. He didn’t have it figured out at that point but translation became one of the ways he did that. But the other thing about Poundian translation, which I’ve come to appreciate as I’ve gotten older, is that he translated to bring values that did not exist in American literature from another language. “Values”—that’s the word he used. It’s the best one, I think—not themes, not styles, but values. Poetic values in poetic language.

DG: For a long time, you’ve been Chair of the MFA program at Otis—

PV: I was the chair.

DG: Ah, you were—

PV: I’m gone. The program’s gone.

DG: This I didn’t know.

PV: Oh, yeah. The program was canned in 2020, officially in 2019—

DG: Well, that shows you my awareness of what’s going on in the home country.

PV: I retired in 2018. I had started the program in 1999. I stepped down in the fall of 2015 as chair and went on phased retirement—Bill’s on the same thing. At Otis, you stepped down from being chair in the first year, but you got full professor’s pay. In the second year, you did half-time and you got sixty percent pay—that was really good. In the third year, you retired. So I did that. I started the process in the 2015/2016 academic year and by 2018 I was retired. Now I’m Professor Emeritus and though I still belong to the school, I can’t put a department under my name. The man who took over for me—someone who I’d originally hired, along with several other people, all of whom I’d hired—destroyed the program, to put it bluntly. They were essentially encouraged by the administration to do it, something they then succeeded in doing. The last students were admitted in 2020 and the last student got his MFA in 2022. There’s no more program there and when that happened—which would’ve been a year ago spring—I got so many emails from former students saying: We feel so betrayed by this.

DG: My God.

PV: Yeah, I don’t want to go into great detail. Suffice it to say, the program as we conceived it in the beginning—particularly I and Dennis Phillips, who taught poetry in our program—was supposed to be in Dennis’s phrase the “anti-MFA MFA.” We tried to do everything MFA programs didn’t do, all of which has been adapted now: heavy literature component, translation, which nobody was doing, history and practice of books, book art—that was required in the program. They got rid of all that. The faculty overruled me, and at the end they got rid of the program.

DG: It’s sad to hear this. Let’s talk more about the curriculum. You must’ve assigned a fair amount of international writers and translation.

PV: Yeah, it was a required course. I’ll give you an example. On the whole, we had four classes per semester, and we had five of those. The last semester was four units—the thesis all by itself. In a typical semester you had two lit classes, then for one or two credits there was a visiting writers section (seven per semester); those who came gave a lecture, answered questions, and hung out that day—from all over the country, all over the world, really.

We had a French writer who came through. We didn’t fly him in, but the French cultural services handled it, just to give you an example. The same happened with Italian or Spanish writers. In addition to all that, there was one workshop class, which was on the last day of the week. The first two days of the week were the lit courses; Wednesday night was a visiting writer; and, finally, we had the workshop divided into fiction/poetry—two cohorts per discipline. All that got wiped out when I was still there in 2015. In the last year I taught there, the guy I’d hired who later became chair decided to have two workshops, like always, but with poets and prose writers together in both. The poets went ballistic because the critical response to their work was always: “Oh yeah, you know I don’t read poetry but this is kind of interesting.” The fiction writers, on the other hand, loved the poets in the cohort because somebody would finally talk about the language and the line edits—they never talked about that in the fiction workshop. What they did was discuss character, plot, and all that. So it was a disaster. People complained all the way through that year. Two of us taught the workshop—a fiction writer and poet.

DG: Lots of happy news there.

PV: Bill taught a lit course twice in the program. Once it was half and half with an LA-writer, Norman Klein. He was what we’d call an intellectual historian. One magnificent book I’d recommend to everybody interested in LA is Los Angeles: The History of Forgetting. It’s been translated into other languages. Indeed, that’s what we’ve learned to do in LA is forgetting.

Another time, Bill taught a course alone. I had this so-called studio model, or academy model taken from the old-fashioned versions of art schools, where you have a core faculty of eight people, and every year they teach a one semester course then rotate, which I also thought was great, but they got rid of that too.

DG: It seems like all good things from the past are replaced with modern, inferior versions which don’t work as well.

PV: Yeah, on the whole the narrative is usually as follows: “There are two writing courses and one literature course but you don’t really have to do literature, blah, blah, blah, because who needs literature in a writing program?” And that’s that.

DG: Let’s return to Italy and discuss your 1991 work, Villa, set in Ancient Rome. Scholars such as Bill Mohr have written—with regard to your work—about the connection between the glory of Rome and American power: “it has a laconic and poignant irony that makes it seem as though it might just as well be set in Los Angeles: ‘modern’ Rome, in the early period of its empire, and postmodern Los Angeles provide the same predicaments for their citizens.” Indeed, American militarism and expansion have come to a grinding halt, and it seems we have entered a Roman style age of decline. Were you already thinking along these lines in 1991, and how have your views changed?

PV: It was a version of post-modern history; I said before that I’m not crazy about all that, but it was. I started the poem in 1983 and finished it in ’86. It was published five years later. It’s a complicated work. There are letters from a non-existent courtier at Hadrian’s court; letters to different friends—all real but with Latin names.

When we read the poem at Beyond Baroque in 1986 all the friends who were poets, fiction writers, and artists presented their own section—the section to the person I was writing the letter to. And so, I didn’t read any of it, except the introduction, which was made up through another friend—a philologist in Romance languages at UCLA. Together we created the translation of the preface, which was only a page but nevertheless complicated.

He had looked at Suetonius, who was a character too. We studied Robert Graves’s translations and he as a linguist said: “This is adverbially inclined. If you’d read the Latin …” I couldn’t read Latin that well.

So this was a work which I would truly define as collage, synthetic, but not collage in the conventional sense—it was right at the height of the first post-modernism boom. It was also right after the building of LA’s Getty Villa; and though it wasn’t modeled after Hadrian’s, its roots are undoubtedly Roman— the Villa of the Papyri in Herculaneum. Moreover, The Getty Center had just published a book on Hadrian’s Villa, so it was really in the air. I thus saw LA as the furthest reaches of the Empire in the purest sense of grand decadence. And that’s really the theme of the book. At the end, Hadrian dies and the reading is over. It ends with him saddling his horse for the next day so he can split and go back to the other side of the Apennine—to where we’re sitting today, in Northern Italy, where his mother came from and where my mother also comes from. That’s the whole parallel personalism.

DG: You stitched the fabric together well and the air was ripe for it.

PV: There was an attempt in the writing of it to come up with Latin-sounding meters. And though there’s no strict meter, I did run it by a friend, Peter Whigham, who was a translator of Catellus. He had done the Penguin edition for his poems (first published by UCLA Press). He left us a year after my work was finished. He had told me: “Yes, you got that. I read it out. You got the Latin.”

He was a Brit, so he went to public school. Then, like any gentleman, he dropped out of Cambridge after the first year and became sort of a remittance man wandering around the world. He found himself teaching at UC Santa Barbara, then at Berkeley, but he taught translation at both places and told me that’s the way it should sound if it were written—and it’s not written—in Latin. And if LA was the end of the Empire. And if if if if ….

I did three books of verse fiction. Villa is the first one, and there are two others.

DG: Let’s segway into a problem we have today. In a video conversation with Neeli Cherkovski, and Charles Bernstein, you talk about how the confinement of the pandemic affected you, stating how basically the kitchen, living room, and bathroom became your “horizon for over a year.”

PV: I’ve been thinking about that these last two or three months. I came to Italy on April 28th and wasted two or three weeks trying to finalize all these documents to get my citizenship. Then on May 1st they dropped the mask mandates. When I first arrived to this hotel for two days, I’d wear a mask to the breakfast room. Later we couldn’t even get up and get our own buffet. We had to sit there with our FFP2s on and wait to be served. You would take it off to eat. Then all of that went out the window a couple days later. We could get up and walk, and so on. All this was very much on my mind, so I’ll give you a personal answer—and more importantly the poetic answer (all in the spirit of keeping that self down). The personal answer is how you put it a few minutes back—my horizons suddenly changed. Everyone’s horizons sort of disappeared. To paraphrase Thoreau: He traveled extensively in Pasadena.

DG: (Laugh.)

PV: Remember that one? Emerson was interested in Vietnamese poetry and so on. He asked Thoreau: “You’re not traveling?” Thoreau responded: “No, I travel extensively in Concord.” So that was a factor, but also on a more personal level: What happened is that I just got more and more confused as the world got more and more reduced. And by now you must know that what I’m least interested in—the self—started taking over center stage. Because there was nothing else. The outside wasn’t there. That’s what happened on the personal level. At the same time, I started writing every day. I was keeping a journal, a chronicle of my thoughts on different subjects, my outrages with Trump, whatever.

But, unlike other poets, I couldn’t write poetry. Two of my friends explained it in different ways. One of them had done twelve years of psychoanalysis and he said: “You’re the only person I know whose unconscious is in the external world.” Meanwhile, the other person stated: “You’re the only person I know who doesn’t write from one’s life but lives from one’s writing.” That’s to say, I write about it first in a poem and then I unfortunately live it—a month later, six months later, whatever. So, thinking about all that in relation to the pandemic, things got really scrambled. It felt as if I couldn’t write, though I wrote every day. All I did was read and write. I would read eight to ten hours and write for about two or three. I’d sleep six or seven hours.

In the end, something did happen, however: All metaphors, statements, and lines tended to disappear. Everything got—I don’t want to say literal, but fragmented, condensed. So I wrote something which is coming out in Italy this fall. Fragment Sides. It’s all fragments. The stuff in this series is about 18-20 sections, consisting of roughly the same amount of pages—one per page. Some are as short as three lines and some are as long as six or eight, but that’s it. In this piece what’s most important is the thing that’s not said—in the fragment, in the white space. I’ve never written that way. For me this was a direct result of how I felt. The so-called advanced state—the first six months after the pandemic.

DG: This directly relates to what we were talking about earlier: Is it the individual who makes the surroundings or does the environment make the individual? Your testament seems to be concrete proof that the environment has a huge effect. The environment makes the writer. No matter how much you try to emphasize the “I,” which is what many poets do, it’s really the environment that creates it.

PV: In this piece I use the “I” two or three times because then I really mean something. For once I’m working inside out, which is a total first for me. At the end, apart from Pound, it’s a curious variation on one of my biggest influences, Jack Spicer: In his Collected Books—not collected poems—there’s a big afterword by one of his friends and contemporaries, Robin Blaser, who calls Spicer’s work “the practice of the outside.” He’s saying it comes from the outside in. And what happens during a pandemic? There’s nothing coming in from the outside. We can’t quite say it’s nothing, but it’s fragmentation.

DG: This whole notion of the “I” seems to be a phenomenon of the young poet. Do you think it could be useful for them—at least for their first book or so—to go down that road? To write with the “I” and sort of purge that from the system?

PV: I think it is if they understand they’re doing it. If they do understand, it could be a step towards confronting the “I” to try and see if there’s another way to articulate the same thing. That’s a vague answer, but what I’m attempting to get at is this: If poets are trying to purge it, I think it’s a good idea. If, on the other hand, they think that to develop creatively they have to develop their personality—something many poets believe and do—it’s tragic. I could care less about anyone’s personality, let alone the poet’s, unless it’s a person with whom I have a romantic or familial relationship. But what I’ve said really concerns everything. If you’re aware of what you’re doing, it shouldn’t stop you from doing it, but you should know what you’re embarking on in the process—only then can you decide what the next step will be. Finish it. You know those classic creative writing cliches: Follow your madness all the way out to the end and then look at it. Don’t try to develop some sort of equilibrium while you’re working. Try to reach the end and then see what you’ve done. But you have to be ready to throw out the result. Not just that. You have to be ready to throw out the whole book.

Author Bio:

Paul Vangelisti is the author of more than thirty books of poetry, as well as being a noted translator from Italian. Recently his sonnet sequence Imperfect Music was published in a limited, bilingual edition by Galleria Mazzoli Editore in Modena. In 2015 he edited for Grove Press, Amiri Baraka’s posthumous collected poems, S.O.S.: Poems, 1961-2014. In 2006, Lucia Re’s and his translation of Amelia Rosselli’s War Variations won both the Premio Flaiano in Italy and the PEN-USA Award for Translation. In 2010, his translation of Adriano Spatola’s The Position of Things: Collected Poems, 1961-1992 won an Academy of American Poets Prize. He lives in Pasadena (California) and Bagnone (Italy).

Interlitq’s Californian Poets Interview Series: Paul Lieber, Poet, Actor, Radio Show Host, interviewed by David Garyan

Paul Lieber

November 8th, 2023

Interlitq’s Californian Poets Interview Series:

Paul Lieber, Poet, Actor, Radio Show Host

interviewed by David Garyan


Paul Lieber’s poems appear in Interlitq’s California Poets Feature

DG: You’ve acted on and off Broadway, and also done films. What are the challenges and rewards of each artform, and which do you prefer?

PL: I am hesitant to call them separate art forms because from an acting point of view there is more in common—or shall I say they are the same in their essentials. What are the essentials? The circumstances in which characters find themselves. That does not change, be it the stage or film or TV. If you are grieving the loss of a loved one, it is fundamentally the same on stage or film. The adjustment is technical. “Grieve louder on stage!”

My preference is for the part not the medium. A challenging, intriguing character will be attractive to me on stage or in film. I love both.

DG: As an actor, do you approach your poems, first, from the perspective of how they might be performed, or do the textual elements retain primacy?

PL: The audience is not my focus in either poetry or stage. My focus is where the poem or character comes from. What is their essence? What inspired it, what compelled me to write: an idea, an image, a place, a hurt, an event, etc. My hope is the reader/audience will relate to it. I have to say that the response of the audience when performing on stage can invigorate the performance.

DG: During your days on Broadway, you had the fortune of meeting Tennessee Williams. What was the meeting like?

PL: I wrote a poem about that. It more or less speaks for itself. However, I was excited. As an actor, he was THE AMERICAN PLAYWRIGHT. He was in the stratosphere, combining poetry, plot, and vivid, complex moving characters. His probing into the shadows of human nature, along with human pettiness, separated him from the rest. His writing was sublime. When he asked me to kiss him, I didn’t think anything of it. It was part of the honor of meeting him. The kiss was a token of respect, maybe reverence.


Photo, p.158 Tennessee Williams
at the American Academy, May 23, 1969

Tennessee Williams looks to his left;
our eyes shift to the right.
The gaze of a skeptic.
Is he glancing at Ruth Stephen or beyond?
His tie swerves. Uneven creases on his forehead,
his left cheek in shadow.
It’s the side of the cheek
I kissed…oh, no,
it was the left side of the neck.
When I told him I acted in his plays,
he asked, “Where, in class?”
I said yes and then Tennessee
asked, “Why the hair?” My friend Wally
explained: “Paul is in the play Lenny.”
Tennessee turned his head slightly,
said, ”Kiss me,”
pointing to the spot;
I aimed my lips
for Laura,
for Tom,
for Blanche…her wounds,
for Amanda;
I planted the kiss for Stanley,
for Brick and that click
he welcomed when he drank.
I kissed him for the Bronx I deserted
but like St. Louis for Tom
we were both drawn back.
I kissed him because he asked me.
I kissed him for a play
he hadn’t written yet.

DG: You’re the executive producer and host of “Why Poetry?” a radio program on KPFK 90.7 FM Los Angeles. The tagline is simple: “Where poets read their work and talk about their lives. It’s an attempt to demystify poetry and then mystify it again.” How has hosting the show and listening to poems changed the way you see poetry, and what are some of your favorite moments?

PL: My show “Why Poetry?” didn’t change the way I viewed poetry. Rather it gave me the chance to celebrate the lives and work of the poets. Poets don’t get, as you know, any financial remuneration and in many cases even recognition. As Philip Levine said to me, “It’s not my care that people don’t read poetry, it’s just my job to write it. Maybe it’s a calling.” That is not an exact quote. I loved his writing and would call Philip over a period of a year to get him on the show. On the phone we talked mostly about basketball. I was aware he didn’t want to talk academics—not that I was capable of that. I picked him up at his hotel and drove him to the studio. I remember every moment.

I asked every poet to give their definition of poetry.

Amy Gerstler paraphrased Emerson and I will paraphrase her. It goes something like every word was poetic at its inception: the energy, the sound—it all captured the object or feeling, or approximated it. So, in effect, we live in a museum or archaeological remnants of language, each word having been poetic.

I was excited about having several of the poets on the show. I was a fan. At times I couldn’t believe they were in front of me reading their work. These were poems I was familiar with.

DG: You’ve recently become interested in photography. By looking at photos and writing poems about them, you’ve been able, in your own words, to reclaim your history. This is a fascinating proposition because authors like Dickinson and Whitman were very suspicious of photos alone—in their view, pictures didn’t preserve anything. Rather, they erased the subject by replacing it with the photograph. How did you ultimately select which photos to write about it? Was it a systematic approach or more spontaneous?

PL: I like what you said about Dickinson and Whitman in relationship to photography. I might say the same thing about a poem referring to an experience. In a way it brackets it for me, as if I defined it, milked it, spelled it out, edited it, and there it is—frozen, in part, like a photo. It becomes a stretch to redefine the experience, to create a different narrative or meaning. “I have said it; this is the experience, lock, stock and barrel.”

For me looking at that particular book and using the photos as a prompt was spontaneous. I wrote one and it caught fire. Perhaps that’s an overstatement, but it did ignite both memory and imagination. My book, Slow Return, will be published in a few months by What Books Press. All the poems in the book have been inspired by the photos in “Anarchy, Protest & Rebellion.”

I have always been a fan of photography, from Weston, Arbus, Bresson, Adams, Stieglitz, etc.

DG: Actors can write consistently great poems, but with perhaps the exception of Shakespeare, poets make terrible actors. What role does poetry play for you? Is it about honesty—an act of confession? Or is it about representation—an honest confession about the external world?

PL: Someone once asked me how I define poetry and my answer was, “it is the most objective account of the subjective.” So what do I mean? Words can cover only so much ground in depicting our experience, perception, feeling, and even narrative about the world. Poetry attempts to go beyond the literal to make an attempt at depicting that approximation. Poetry measures with a creative accuracy that ordinary language doesn’t. And I guess this is what I try to do. Those photos stir something in me and the poem is an attempt to approximate that subjective experience.

DG: Los Angeles is a sprawling city, and you’ve been based there for a long time. Where are some of your favorite places to read, or literary places in general?

PL: Beyond Baroque has to be my favorite. I started going there probably 30 years ago when Bob Flanagan was the facilitator. This was after Tom Waits and Jim Morrison went but those iconic vibes were present. It was not an easy workshop. Members responded honestly to your work and some with an edge or explicit dissatisfaction. But most of the writing improved. I eventually became a facilitator of the workshop.

Midnight Special, a bookstore In Santa Monica, also had an open poetry workshop that was wonderful.  Many of the poets I met there 30 years ago still meet in a salon once a month.

I am a grateful member.

Anyone was welcome to both Beyond Baroque and Midnight Special. It asked for a modest donation. This public aspect to both workshops was and is remarkable.

DG: When other poems are dense, opaque, and often indecipherably mechanic, yours are expansive, clear, and, welcomingly human. Can you elaborate a bit on your influences?

PL: Poets who have influenced me are: Garcia Lorca, Philip Levine, C. K. Williams, Jimmy Santiago Baca, Wisława Szymborska, B.H. Fairchild, Gregory Corso, and many others. The greatest influence on my aesthetics was my acting mentor, Mira Rostova. She believed, like so many others, that “less is more.”  She was Montgomery Clift’s teacher, and he perhaps represents her work more than any other student of hers. His work is clear minimal and to the point. No self-indulgence. It all comes from the meaning of the script. I favor that in my writing and reading of poetry. I would often bring poems by other poets to read in class. Working on Strindberg, Williams, Shakespeare, and other playwrights enhanced my appreciation of poetry.

DG: What are you reading or working on at the moment?

PG: Presently I am finalizing my draft of Slow Return which is soon to be published. I am also working on some poems inspired by my recent trip to Italy. Enclosed are a few photos taken in Venice and Naples.

Author Bio: Paul Lieber

Interrupted by the Sea, Paul’s second collection of poetry was published by What Books Press. His first collection, Chemical Tendencies, was published by Tebot Bach. He received an honorable mention in the Allen Ginsberg Contest. Three times nominated for a Pushcart Prize, Paul produced and hosted “Why Poetry” on Pacifica radio in LA. Paul’s poems have appeared in The Moth, N.Y. Quarterly, Patterson Review, Askew, Poemeleon, Alimentum, and many other journals and anthologies. He taught Poetry at Loyola Marymount University and facilitated the poetry workshop at Beyond Baroque, the oldest literary institute in Los Angeles. Paul works as an actor. He currently teaches acting at AMDA.


Interlitq’s Californian Poets Part 6 Published

An Update on Interlitq’s California Poets (March 8th, 2023)

October 25th, 2023

The sixth part of California Poets has been published. Click on the respective names to read their work. Those who’ve been interviewed, have the corresponding links next to their names, which will take you there.

Part 6 – October 25th, 2023

Alejandro Murguía
Candace Pearson
Carol V. DavisInterview
Celeste Goyer
Clare Chu
Daniel YaryanInterview
David Garyan
Deena Metzger
Dig Wayne
Dion Jahmal
Doreen StockInterview
Doug Knott (In Memoriam)
Elizabeth Iannaci
Gail Newman
Guy Biederman
Holaday Mason
Jan Steckel
Jorge ArguetaInterview
Jose Hernandez DiazInterview
Kirsten Casey
Landon Smith
Linda Ravenswood
Maggie Paul
Matt Sedillo
Rafael Jesús González
Raffi Joe Wartanian
Regina O’Melveny
Renée Gregorio
Robt O’Sullivan Schleith
Stephen KesslerInterview
Susan Cohen
Suzanne BruceInterview
Ted Burke
Terry EhretInterview
Timothy Steele
Tongo Eisen-Martin
Toni Mirosevich

Part 5 – December 22nd, 2022

Arthur Sze
Brendan ConstantineInterview
Carol Moldaw
Charles Upton
Cole SwensenInterview
Connie Post
David Garyan
Gary SotoInterview
Glenna Luschei
Jacqueline BergerInterview
James CagneyInterview
James CushingInterview
Jeremy Radin
Jim Natal
John BrandiInterview
Judith Pacht
Judy Juanita
Kim DowerInterview
Kim Addonizio
Kosrof Chantikian
Luis J. Rodriguez
Marjorie R. BeckerInterview
Millicent Borges Accardi
Paul LieberInterview
Rick LupertInterview
Sarah Maclay
Scott Wannberg (In Memoriam)
Troy Jollimore
Valentina Gnup


Part 4 – December 29th, 2021

Alicia Elkort
Boris DralyukInterview
Brenda Hillman
Cathie Sandstrom
Christopher BuckleyInterview
Clive MatsonInterview
Dana GioiaInterview
Daniel Shapiro
devorah major
Donna Hilbert
Ellen Bass
Frank X. Gaspar
Gary YoungInterview
Glenna Luschei
Harry NorthupInterview
Holly Prado (In Memoriam)
K. Silem Mohammad
Kate Gale Interview
Mariano Zaro
Mary Fitzpatrick
Michael C. FordInterview
Mike SonksenInterview
Neeli Cherkovski
Pam Ward
Phoebe MacAdamsInterview
Rusty Morrison
S.A. GriffinInterview
Shelley Scott (In Memoriam)
Sholeh Wolpé
Shotsie GormanInterview
Tony Barnstone
Willis BarnstoneInterview (Tony and Willis Barnstone)


Part 3 – June 25th, 2021

Alexis Rhone FancherInterview
Charles JensenInterview
Clint MargraveInterview
Corrinne Clegg Hales
David L. UlinInterview
Eloise Klein Healy
Glenna Luschei
Henry Morro
Jonathan Yungkans
Laure-Anne Bosselaar
Laurel Anne Bogen
Lorene Zarou-ZouzounisInterview
Lucille Lang DayInterview
Marsha de la O
Michelle Bitting
Phil Taggart


Part 2 – February 23rd, 2021

Carine Topal
Cecilia WolochInterview
Elena Karina ByrneInterview
Glenna Luschei
Grant HierInterview
Kim ShuckInterview
liz gonzalez
Lois P. Jones
Lynne ThompsonInterview
Maw Shein Win
Patty Seyburn
Rooja MohassessyInterview
Ron KoertgeInterview
Susan Rogers


Part 1 – August 27th, 2020

Amy Uyematsu
Bart EdelmanInterview
Bill MohrInterview
Bruce Willard
Charles Harper WebbInterview
D.A. Powell
David Garyan
Gail Wronsky
Glenna Luschei
Paul VangelistiInterview
Rae Armantrout
Suzanne LummisInterview


The Editors

Peter Robertson, Founder of Interlitq
David Garyan, General European Editor at Interlitq

Interlitq’s Californian Poets Interview Series: Stephen Kessler, Poet, Translator, Journalist, interviewed by David Garyan

Stephen Kessler at the 2023 Santa Cruz County Artist of the Year Celebration
photo credit — SCCTV (Santa Cruz Community Television)

November 7th, 2023

Interlitq’s Californian Poets Interview Series:

Stephen Kessler, Poet, Translator, Journalist

interviewed by David Garyan


Stephen Kessler’s poems appear in Interlitq’s California Poets Feature

DG: Let’s begin with your translations, which include Luis Cernuda all the way to Jorge Luis Borges on the other side of the world. Apart from the vast geography, the writers you’ve translated also vary greatly in style. Can you talk about a project that you particularly enjoyed working on, along with one that posed significant challenges?

SK: Almost every translation project I’ve done has been a pleasure and a privilege and I’ve enjoyed them in different ways for different reasons, and each has presented its own significant challenges.  Probably the book that was the most fun to do, thanks to the playful and irreverent attitude of the author toward his own collection of poems, is Julio Cortázar’s Save Twilight: Selected Poems, first published in Lawrence Ferlinghetti’s City Lights Pocket Poets Series in 1997, and reissued in an expanded edition about 20 years later after Lawrence had retired and Elaine Katzenberger was editor in chief.  With many different kinds of poems and styles and voices he deployed over about 50 years, the book is completely unconventional and very funny in places, especially his cats’ editorial commentary in prose as they help him assemble the volume.  The Argentine Cortázar, who spent his most productive years in Paris, is of course best known for his short fictions and his novel Hopscotch, but like Borges thought of himself primarily as a poet.

The Spaniard Vicente Aleixandre (Nobel laureate 1977), two of whose books I’ve translated—one early, one late in his career—is in the early work (La destrucción o el amor, Destruction or Love, 1933) very baroque in style, and in the later (Poemas de la consumación, Poems of Consummation, 1968) rather gnomic, so the Spanish in both cases, but especially in the later book, is unconventional and in places agrammatical.  It’s tricky to be true to the original and not make it sound like a mistake in English.  But since this stylistic trait recurs throughout the book, the reader should pick that up and realize the fidelity of what I’m doing, even if they can’t read the facing Spanish.

Cernuda (Spain), Borges (Argentina), and Neruda (Chile) are more straightforward and traditionally lyrical or conversational in style, but I think in part because all three are influenced by English or American poets, the syntax and language are easier for the reader to get on first reading.  That doesn’t make translation any easier, but it facilitates understanding, so at least you (as a translator) know what you’re dealing with instead of being puzzled by unconventional usage, idioms or syntax.

DG: Let’s talk about the politics of translation: Do you have a different approach to the craft when tackling a writer like Borges (on the right of the political spectrum) as opposed to Neruda, for example, who was staunchly on the left?

SK: Borges was certainly conservative, and in the years of the Dirty War in Argentina (1976-83) was anti-chaos, but he was just as disgusted with the fascist generals as with the Marxist guerrillas.  In his poetry he romanticizes the physical courage of both his military ancestors and the knife-fighting hoodlums of old Buenos Aires, but none of that has anything to do with politics.  It has more to do with the reveries of a blind, bookish, physically limited man and his admiration for the “manliness” of others.

Neruda was converted to communism largely on the basis of his experience in Spain in the mid-1930s and his friendships with the poets of the Generation of 1927 (García Lorca, Aleixandre, Cernuda, Guillén, Salinas, and others) and the invasion by Franco and his fascist forces to overthrow the Spanish Republic in 1936.  Until then, Neruda was a romantic and a surrealist.  His famous poem “Explico algunas cosas” explains his conversion to political engagement.  Unfortunately, in my opinion, Neruda is at his worst and most boringly rhetorical when he puts on his Voice of the People persona and speaks as if he’s preaching to a stadium full of workers.  That said, his epic history of the Americas, Canto general, is one of the greatest works of its genre, for sure; I’ve done one of the many translations of Alturas de Machu Picchu from that work, which is a very powerful—and all but impossible to translate, which is why there are so many versions in English—long poem in homage to the anonymous (enslaved) workers who built that mysterious city.

As for differences in approach to translating such different kinds of voices, I consider myself a proponent of the Method acting school of translation.  I try to find in the deepest part of myself, no matter how different my experience or perspective is from the author’s, an identification with what they’re doing (saying, feeling, thinking) and the tone and feel of their speaking voice, and try to inhabit that persona and speak it as I think it would sound if it had been written originally in English.

In terms of “craft,” I bring the same skills and tools to every translation—like a musician so deeply practiced in the technical aspects of his instrument that he can improvise spontaneously without thinking—which are the same ones I use in my original poems: imagination, familiarity with certain traditions, knowledge of prosody, an ear for the sound of the Spanish and how that could be echoed in English, attunement to local or regional idioms, and a certain flexibility and confidence in my instincts developed over decades of practice.  More important for me than “craft” is that you must understand what you’re translating before you take it too literally.  Even native speakers sometimes don’t understand poetry—and sometimes even the poet is composing more for sound or image than “literal” meaning.  (There is some disagreement among translators as to whether there’s even such a thing as a literal translation.)  But you have an ethical obligation to be as true as possible to the original.  So those are some of the elements in play as I approach any poet regardless of their politics or personality.

DG: You came to Santa Cruz in the early ‘70s and since then have contributed greatly to the literary community. Can you speak about how SC influenced your writing, how the city itself has changed, along with the benefits of working outside the traditional LA/SF paradigm?

SK: I first arrived in Santa Cruz in 1968 on a four-year Regents Fellowship to UCSC at the dawn of their doctoral program in literature, but it didn’t take long for me to realize the academy was not where I wanted to be, and a psychic crisis at the end of 1969 (fictionalized in my novel, The Mental Traveler) was the deciding event that ended my career in graduate school.  After a year in Southern California recovering from my psychotic break in therapy, I returned to Santa Cruz and in 1972 started writing for what was then called the underground press, which evolved into the alternative press, and locally was a series of weekly community newspapers that I became more and more involved in as a writer, editor, and eventually (1986) publisher of my own independent weekly called The Sun, which was put out of business by the 1989 Loma Prieta Earthquake.

In the early ‘70s I was one among several young poets just starting out, and it was such a tight community, largely wrangled together by Morton Marcus, who taught at Cabrillo College and was the most widely published poet in town, that for a few years many friendships were formed as we egged each other on, sending poems back and forth in the mail and reading in each other’s homes and in one series or another that Mort organized at local restaurants and cafes.  This was a formative time for me; I was reading all kinds of different things and beginning to translate, and being part of a community of poets apart from any academic setting was healthy for my development as a writer after grad school.  I also brought my training as a critic to bear on my journalism, and so was an active supporter of a literary culture that, in those years, was not way out on the margins; it felt like poetry had a place of value as part of the cultural life of the city and region.

The journalism, especially in the opinion columns I started writing then, was a way of infiltrating a nonliterary medium with a poet’s sensibility, and in some ways the essays I was writing for the press were my most “experimental” form.  I also wrote features of various kinds, cultural and political, that made me feel relevant to a range of readers who’d never pick up a book of poems or a little magazine, and as the poetry world felt more and more like a small subculture where so little was at stake that the people inside it had a distorted notion of their own importance, I was more and more engaged with the role of the local press in addressing what mattered in the real world.  So I’ve been doing that, in one form or another, not just in Santa Cruz but when I lived on the Mendocino Coast in the ‘90s, ever since.  For the last 10 years or so I’ve been writing a weekly opinion column for the daily Santa Cruz Sentinel, a legacy paper started by a local family in the mid-1800s and now owned by a hedge fund in New York.  I am still a generalist and write about whatever’s on my mind ranging from personal history to cultural criticism to local and national and international affairs.  I feel it’s the best use of my writing skills as a contributor to the community.

I never thought much about “the LA/SF paradigm” except that I was connected with poetry networks in both places and gave readings and published in various magazines north and south.  I think of myself as a California poet with ties to both LA and San Francisco, as well as in the North Bay and on the North and Central coasts.  But in the intimacy of a smaller town like Santa Cruz I felt I could make much more of a difference, especially as a journalist, and I think I have.  This year the county arts commission named me their Artist of the Year for my accomplishments and contributions over the last 50 years.

As for how the town has changed through the past half century: in a word, immensely.  It’s now much more like a little city with a big arts scene with countless artists and musicians and scores or maybe hundreds of published poets and groups and networks, and in terms of population and development, it’s exploded.  UCSC has had a lot to do with this, and the Silicon Valley-fueled real estate boom since the ‘90s.  But this is a subject much too big to discuss in an interview like this.

DG: Let’s turn towards your novel, The Mental Traveler, an homage to the great Blake’s vision of a cyclical history. At the same time, the main character’s name is curiously Stephen K. and seems to be based on your early experiences. A 22-year old literature graduate student falls into a crisis, going from one psychiatric institution to the other, until, paradoxically, literature provides a revelation, and it’s Robert Bly’s poem “Anarchists Fainting.” Now, the young generation seems more lost than ever: COVID, economic instability, wars. What are some poems you turn to for guidance today?

SK: Stephen K. is caught up in the contradictions between his vocation as a poet and the demands of a respectable academic career in the midst of the tumultuous social, cultural, and political upheavals of that historical moment.  He has a flash of insight after six months in madhouses when he reads “Anarchists Fainting” in Harper’s (later published in Bly’s book Sleepers Joining Hands as “Condition of the Working Classes: 1970”) which, in his heightened awareness, sometimes called paranoia, he thinks is about him.  That is in the final chapter after many disorienting and picaresque adventures leading up to a breakthrough realization.  I’ll leave it at that, but the book is a story of artistic initiation in a supercharged historical context—which at the time, subjectively, felt fraught in much the same way that today does—but today is far worse, with many and far more serious crises than could have been imagined then.

But I didn’t then and don’t now look to any particular poems for guidance.  I read poetry for pleasure and inspiration, not instruction.  Poetry at its best can illuminate reality and show us things we never saw that way before, and for me that’s the most we can ask of it.  It’s really hard to write good, original poems, whatever the theme or subject—love, nature, justice, friendship, identity, consciousness, war, politics, etc.—and a freshly imagined poem of any kind can be helpful in getting me through the day.  But I do not have a utilitarian concept of poetry, or a Garrison Keilloresque notion that it’s necessarily good for us as readers, like eating our vegetables.  There’s so much poetry out there now, competent but generic, thanks to the creative writing industry, and not that much of it is of interest to me.  I’m still reading things from centuries past that I should’ve got around to sooner, like the ancient Greek and Roman epigrammists, or the ancient Persians or Chinese.  I think everyone individually has to find the poems that speak to them and give them what they need.  For me poetry has always been about an intimate connection between what’s on the page and the reader, and like any relationship, it’s different for different people at different times and under different conditions.

I enjoy reading poems to an audience, to hear what they sound like out loud, but my primal and most intense connection with poetry originally was reading it on the page, as in the scene with the Bly poem in The Mental Traveler.

DG: One of the last emails you received from the late Jack Hirschman was “Caro, Stephen, Understood”—in reply to your preference not to get involved in his effort to organize politically-related readings and events. Before his death, he was due to fly to Italy, where as you write, “he was far more famous than in the States.” Those who knew him know they need him more than ever now. Yet, there are still those who’ve yet to discover his work. Can you speak about your favorite pieces of his, and how his work affected your own development?

SK: Jack’s magnum opus is the three-volume 3,000+ page The Arcanes—his Cantos, or anti-Cantos, as he hated Pound—published in Italy and probably hard to find in the States.  Except for a couple of books from City Lights, the rest of his 100+ books of poems and translations were issued by very small presses—though I imagine some of his work can be found online.  But as I wrote in my postmortem appreciation of him, published online in the LA Review of Books, the most important way he inspired, moved, and encouraged people was by his generous presence as a completely unique personality and organizer of a poetry community, mainly in San Francisco.  I declined his call to organize events with a political slant because I don’t have time and I don’t think it does much good except to make the already convinced feel good about themselves for opposing capitalism, war, or whatever.  But Jack was an agitator.  His “Stalinist” politics were kind of a self-caricature, as far as I’m concerned—he was a romantic utopian more than a real communist—and his politics made him seem more ridiculous to some people than he actually was.  So if anyone wants to discover his work, I wish them the best.  But it’s less his prodigious writings than his person that I valued, first as a teacher at UCLA in 1966, and later in San Francisco as a friend and as an example of someone totally committed to poetry.  We had a lot of disagreements about what kind of poetry is of greatest value, or is any good.

DG: Let’s talk about your most recent collection, Last Call (2021). The 169-page collection is your biggest to date, covering a wide range of topics. The noted poet Joseph Stroud, said the following: “There is a wonderful term in Italian—Sprezzatura—which is the art of making the difficult appear easy, a kind of grace that cloaks a deep mastery of craft. I find this quality, this Sprezzatura, everywhere in Stephen Kessler’s work.” And yet, sprezzatura does not at all suggest a lack of effort—it merely implies the appearance of a lack of effort when the presentation takes place. Thus, in truth, to produce this aforementioned “appearance,” sprezzatura actually requires a great deal of blood, sweat, and tears behind the scenes. Can you talk about some of the most crucial aspects, with regard to this project, from start to finish?

SK: That was a very generous endorsement of my work by my old friend Joe Stroud, whom I met more than 50 years ago when we both came to Santa Cruz, and who I consider another example of someone devoted, in a completely different way from Hirschman, to the ethos and practice of poetry, and certainly among the most accomplished poets in this region (though he only spends part of the year here).  I think of Joe as a “pure poet,” committed exclusively to poetry in a way that I couldn’t be, which is why I’ve diversified my practice for all this time.  But if my writing has “sprezzatura,” I think it’s because I’ve been practicing so long—again, like a veteran jazz musician—that it comes fairly easily to me at this stage of my journey, and I’m not trying to please or impress anyone else, so I’m free to trust my own voice (as another teacher of mine, Robert Duncan, counseled) and let it rip, intuitively trusting my technical skills to make the right words land in the right places.  It’s not as if I don’t revise and refine, but I like to improvise very spontaneously and then go back and fix whatever needs improvement.  Some poems make it and some don’t, but I’m not after perfection and can accept failure when they don’t work.

I also think of myself in the lyrical vernacular tradition ranging from Wordsworth through Whitman to Williams, O’Hara, and Bukowski, writing the way I speak, or would like to speak if I could speak that precisely and musically all the time.

Except for Where Was I?, my book of prose poems about place, or places, I don’t really think of my books of poems as projects.  I write poems as they come to me, one at a time, in various moods, modes, styles and forms—I consider myself a heteroformalist—and at some point, after a few years, usually corresponding to some turning point in my life, I realize I have the makings of a book and then try to put it together in a way that the poems seem to organize themselves.  Sometimes by theme, sometimes as a journey, sometimes in roughly chronological order, sometimes in what feels like a natural progression from one poem to another.  Last Call was written between 2017, when my marriage broke up, and 2021, just after the Covid lockdowns.  It’s organized by theme or mood in seven sections and it covers a lot of ground in terms of style, tone, form, and feeling.  It’s a bigger book than most of my previous collections just because I was writing more, or more poems worth saving, and my publisher, Joe Phillips of Black Widow Press, is “not afraid of big books,” as he told me about my Cernuda volume Forbidden Pleasures, so I included everything I thought could stand up with time.  And so far, when I look at those poems, I think I made the right call in its composition; I think they hold up pretty well.

DG: Los Angeles was the city that, as you’ve said, made you a poet. How has the city changed since you were growing up, and is there perhaps anything you miss about it that’s still there?

SK: The city seems vaster than ever, with more freeways and more traffic, and the spread of suburbs, and the usual development and redevelopment.  And Covid shut down a few of my favorite things, like the big Landmark multiplex art house cinema at Pico and Westwood.  But no, I don’t miss LA at all, especially the traffic and the freeways, and when I visit there from time to time—mostly to see friends and family, or more recently to attend funerals—I’m always happy to return home to little Mediterranean Santa Cruz, though it has changed a lot, too.  My essay “The Architecture of Memory,” published in LARB, is mostly about places that no longer exist, or not in the form I knew them in the 1950s and ‘60s.  The great LA poet Wanda Coleman, who died about 10 years ago, was a good friend and an inspiration, and I miss her a lot.  There are still parts of LA I enjoy visiting, certain neighborhoods or parks or restaurants or movie theaters, but I’m really glad I got out of there when I did.

DG: Let’s return to translation, but from a different perspective. Is there a language you would love to have your work translated into?

SK: I would be honored to be translated into any language a competent translator felt I deserved to be published in.  Naturally because of my connection with Spanish, Spain and Latin America would be among my top preferences.  But my books in the States sell no more than a few hundred copies, mostly in California, so I don’t anticipate the market for what I do would be any larger elsewhere.  My translations are much more successful, in terms of sales, in part because I’ve chosen or been chosen to work with major poets who’ve proved their staying power, and partly because my translations happen to represent them very well, and have won numerous awards, which has also helped raise their profile.

DG: What are you reading and/or working on at the moment?

SK: Lately I spend more hours reading The New York Times than anything else, in part because I want to know what’s going on in the world—which of course relates to my job as a newspaper columnist—and partly because it’s such a great newspaper and I admire so many of the writers, the editing, the page design (I read it on paper), the headlines, the features, the reporting, the photographs and illustrations, the analysis, the editorials, the letters.  It’s like a daily anthology of great stories and excellent writing.  Back around 1969 the critic Seymour Krim published an essay in Evergreen Review, “The Newspaper as Literature,” a kind of manifesto that argued for literary writers to engage with the historical moment—which New Journalists like Norman Mailer and Joan Didion and others were doing—by infiltrating the nonliterary press.  Jimmy Breslin in New York (with the Daily News) was a model for Krim of a traditional reporter writing things of both immediate and lasting value.  And that has turned out to be central to my own practice, publishing my essays in newspapers as well as more strictly literary venues.  So I am, for better or worse, addicted to the Times.

Usually before bed, as an antidote to all the bad news, I pick up a book from the pile next to my chair and read a few pages.  Lately I’ve been reading Didion (nonfiction), Ben Lerner (fiction), Fernando Pessoa, Mahmoud Darwish, Hafiz (in a new translation by my old friend Gary Gach), Michel Houellebecq, Louise Glück, and somewhat randomly sampled other poets in my library.  I try to keep up with books by friends who send them to me, but I don’t follow much contemporary poetry or fiction.  I very much enjoyed Sarah Bakewell’s life of Montaigne, How to Live, one of the few books of more than 300 pages I’ve read in a while.

Unless something extraordinary comes to my attention and my inspiration, I feel I’ve pretty much retired as a translator, having fulfilled my destiny with the three Cernuda books: Written in Water, Desolation of the Chimera, and Forbidden Pleasures.  He’s one of the greatest poets in Spanish, and I think I’ve done him justice and performed a valuable service, even if the number of readers in English is limited, for now.

As for what I’m working on, the essays for the column, constantly, which range all over whatever I’m thinking about, and I have some 40 new poems since Last Call that may eventually amount to part of a book, but I don’t expect that for at least another two or three years.  At some point I’ll probably try to put together a Selected Poems, but I figure I’ll know when to do that, if I live long enough.

Author Bio:

Stephen Kessler is the author of a dozen books of original poetry, sixteen books of literary translation, three collections of essays, and a novel, The Mental Traveler (Greenhouse Review Press). He is the editor and principal translator of The Sonnets by Jorge Luis Borges (Penguin Classics) and was for sixteen years (1999-2014) the editor of The Redwood Coast Review. The poems here are from his most recent book, Last Call (Black Widow Press, 2021). A longtime resident of Santa Cruz, he writes a weekly op-ed column in the Santa Cruz Sentinel.