Category: Politics

Interlitq’s Californian Poets Interview Series: Lucille Lang Day, Poet, Scientist, and Science/Health Educator inter...


Lucille Lang Day

Interlitq’s Californian Poets Interview Series:

Lucille Lang Day, Poet, Scientist, Science/Health Educator

interviewed by David Garyan

 

Click here to read Lucille Lang Day’s contribution to Interlitq’s California Poets Feature

 

DG: Your academic and personal background is extensive and fascinating. With regard to the former, your education encompasses both scientific and artistic disciplines, while your identity is circumscribed by Native and European ancestry. Indeed, a great deal of your writing deals with the relationship between the natural world and the man-made one. In what way, however, if at all, does science resemble poetry, and vice versa, and do you believe that highly specialized, systematic studies of nature ultimately interfere with indigenous traditions or can the relationship be a harmonious one—not only for Native Americans, but original populations everywhere?

LLD: Science uses many of the same mental skills as poetry: logic, reasoning, observation, knowledge. In addition, both science and poetry use intuition. In both realms, sometimes we have to take a leap into the unknown, following our instincts, in order to bring something to fruition, whether it’s a poem or a scientific experiment. Another similarity is that both poems and experiments go through many drafts or iterations even when they’re going well, and both require careful attention to variables, whether they be things like temperature, light, and duration, or rhythm, line breaks, and vowel and consonant sounds. Perhaps the biggest difference is that poetry embraces a larger range of experience by bringing in subjectivity and emotions.

I strongly believe that poetry can be used as a tool in science teaching because it uses many of the same thinking skills as science and can also convey scientific information. Poems by such poets as Pattiann Rogers, Alison Hawthorne Deming, Emily Grosholz, and Roald Hoffmann (also a Nobel laureate in chemistry!) would fit perfectly in a science class. So would poems from Fire and Rain: Ecopoetry of California (Scarlet Tanager Books, 2018), which I coedited with Ruth Nolan. Poetry can’t replace experiments, lab reports, problem solving, and scientific texts in science teaching, but it can be used in addition to them and possibly get people more excited about science since emotions are allowed.

I do not see a conflict between the Indigenous and scientific ways of looking at nature. Robin Wall Kimmerer, a botanist and member of the Citizen Potawatomi Nation, has written extensively and poetically about this in Braiding Sweetgrass: Indigenous Wisdom, Scientific Knowledge, and the Teachings of Plants. These two ways of looking at the world can enrich each other. Although the origins of modern science don’t appear in the historical record until the fifth century B.C.E. in Greece, Indigenous peoples worldwide have been experimenting, observing, and passing their discoveries about the environment down to the next generation for many thousands of years. I will add that Indigenous cultures have figured out how to live in balance with nature and coexist with plants and animals, which is something that our modern, technological society needs to learn.

DG: Geography and location feature heavily in your work. In this respect, Birds of San Pancho and Other Poems of Place (Blue Light Press, 2020) is a captivating example. The collection is divided into two parts: “Foreigner,” and “Between the Two Shining Seas.” The former mentions places such as Greece, Mexico, Costa Rica, The Netherlands, France, Belgium, and Spain, while the latter is mainly an exploration of the US. At the same time, Jim Morrison’s grave at Pere Lachaise makes an appearance, along with Las Vegas and its replica constructions of famous European monuments. The differences between the two continents are indeed vast; however, the collection’s seamless transition between Old World and New World suggests a closer, more interdependent relationship. Can you talk a little bit about the writing of the book and what, in your conception, lies on the opposite shores of the Pacific? Is there in fact such a thing as a “new” and “old” world?

LLD: In truth, we have one world. The “new” world was the old world to the people of the Native Nations of North and South America. They had been here for more than 10,000 years before the Europeans arrived, and there is evidence that some of them had arrived as much as 33,000 years earlier. The idea of a “new” versus “old” world is a Eurocentric concept.

Landscapes, languages, and lifestyles vary from one continent to another, and I find it fascinating to look closely at the places I visit, learn what I can about their history, cultures, and creatures, and share my impressions in poetry. Despite the differences, though, between one place and another, your term “interdependent relationship” is right on target. Everyone, everywhere, is in an interdependent relationship with everyone else: we are economically, environmentally, and politically interdependent. Keeping the planet habitable for everyone is a collective enterprise: limiting emissions of greenhouse gases and other pollutants, using resources sustainably, and preserving habitats and biodiversity are responsibilities of every country and every individual. Our interdependence is well-illustrated by the Covid-19 pandemic. No country can create a bubble in which the virus can’t reach it, and wealthy countries need to share vaccines and treatments in order to keep everyone safe. This interdependence between individuals, countries, and humans and the environment can be expressed in poetry.

DG: If you had to choose only two cities in which you could divide your time as a writer, what would those be and why?

LLD: One of the cities would have to be in the San Francisco Bay Area with its easy access to the ocean, the redwoods, the Sierra, and the cultural life of San Francisco. Another factor is that I have a daughter and four grandchildren who live here. I would choose either an East Bay city such as Oakland, Berkeley, or Lafayette, or a city north of San Francisco in Marin County, such as Mill Valley or San Rafael. Although I love San Francisco itself, I wouldn’t want to live there. It is often 5 to 10 degrees colder than the East Bay and Marin County, and a summer evening there can chill you to the marrow. Mark Twain famously said, “The coldest winter I ever spent was a summer in San Francisco.” He wasn’t kidding! In summer, the heat of California’s Central Valley draws ocean fog landward. From the East Bay hills, you can see this icy mist rolling over San Francisco like enormous tidal waves.

The second city would be in Hawaii, not on Oahu, which is very built up, but maybe on Maui, Kauai, or the Big Island. The tropical climate, amazing species—from orchids and spider lilies to petrels and parakeets—and awe-inspiring volcanoes are all draws. As I’m sure you gathered from my first choice of location, I am not a cold-weather person. I don’t snowboard or ski. Choosing a tropical location is tricky for me, though, because most of them are overrun by mosquitoes, and I am a magnet for these mini-vampires. Once in Mexico I got over 70 bites before I could grab the insect repellent! I have also been feasted upon in places as far flung as Costa Rica, Massachusetts, and the Camargue of southern France. I have a poem about this, “Mosquitoes,” in Birds of San Pancho. However, I have never had a mosquito bite in Hawaii.

DG: Would your choices differ if you answered from the perspective of a scientist? In other words, to what extent does the environment itself shape the creation of our so-called “objective” knowledge, as opposed to the subjective “creativity” of each individual person, and more importantly, is there really such a dichotomy in your view?

LLD: Environment shapes both our subjective and objective realities. How could we not be impacted both emotionally and intellectually by the people and natural world that surround us? The call of an ‘apapane on Maui might inspire either a poem or a scientific study of the ‘apapane’s habits and range. That being said, if one is trying to make a living as a scientist, one will need funding. This is true for environmental studies as well as for more esoteric endeavors—such as searching for exoplanets or dark matter, developing computer models of protein structure, determining the genetic relationships between Homo sapiens and earlier human species, or studying the chemical thermodynamics of organic reactions—and where you are located can impact your funding.

Although I trained as a scientist, I have made my living as a science writer and educator. If my goal were to make a living as a scientist, I think teaching at Berkeley or Harvard would be the ideal because the science professors at these institutions include so many Nobel laureates and recipients of other important prizes. I would have no expectation to receive such an award myself; just being a part of the scientific community surrounding these rock stars would suffice. These universities also attract some of the most promising undergraduates and graduate students in the sciences, and the resultant communities of professors and students and the research they do lead to major grant funding, donations, etc. These are therefore very good places to be if you want to pursue scientific research of any kind. So as a scientist, my first choice would be to live in Berkeley, and my second would be to live in Cambridge, Massachusetts (second because it’s colder there!). In either case, I would want to do environmental research, e.g., fire ecology in California or marine biology on Cape Cod. It would be possible to do research anywhere in the world during the summer or other times when I wasn’t teaching, but I could get to my research site more frequently and easily if it were in California or Massachusetts.

DG: Your 2015 collection, Becoming An Ancestor (Červená Barva Press) is a fascinating work, sometimes autobiographical, often historical, and at the same time contemporary, moving effortlessly between the dawn of America at Plymouth, to the Civil War, all the way up to Google and the war in Iraq. From a personal perspective, do you find that the challenges you envision for your descendants will be different than the ones your ancestors faced?

LLD: The inner challenges the next generation will face will be the same: sorrow, loss, anger, confusion, gullibility, the search for meaning, the struggle to discover and embrace their own identity, etc. But the external challenges will be different: climate change, the upheavals of a global economy, divisive politics fueled by the internet, global heath crises such as Covid-19. Our cultural evolution and increasing technological capability are far outstripping our biological evolution as a species. As human occupants of the planet Earth today, we are no different biologically from the people who made magnificent paintings in the Lascaux caves 17,000 years ago or the ones who found their way to North America in the late Pleistocene. Today, though, the internet, social media, and propagandist TV and radio channels that eschew fact-checking are surrounding people with a blizzard of misinformation. We have evolved to live in groups of a few hundred people who work together to provide food and shelter and thereby ensure everyone’s survival. Sorting through the barrage of true and false information now bombarding us each day is an extraordinary challenge for everyone. My own descendants, as well as others growing up today and in the future, will wrestle with many complex issues, including all the misinformation. If they write poetry, it will reflect that.

DG: And speaking more generally about the issue—do you perceive the course of America’s future pessimistically or optimistically?

LLD: It could go either way. About half of the people believe in social justice, gun control, science, environmental protections, universal medical insurance, childcare and education for all, etc. The other half are wary of immigrants and people of color, want to carry their guns, think climate change is a hoax and vaccinations are bad for you, value capitalism over the environment, and consider government investment in social programs such as health insurance, childcare, and education to be a form of socialism, and socialism to be un-American and bad. I hope that better education and the teaching of critical thinking skills will help us bridge this divide. We need more poetry about all of this. Poetry cannot solve the problems, but it can help people to think about them and see the world differently. I have a poem in an excellent anthology of political poetry that came out from Sixteen Rivers Press in 2018: America, We Call Your Name: Poems of Resistance and Resilience. Sixteen Rivers has a program that provides high school teachers with copies of the anthology and lesson plans to go with it. This type of project can stimulate critical thinking among the students regardless of whether they agree or disagree with the poems.

DG: Let’s move back in time and talk about your first collection, Self-Portrait with Hand Microscope (Berkeley Poets Workshop and Press), published in 1982, and selected by former US Poet Laureate, Robert Pinsky, along with David Littlejohn and Michael Rubin, for the Joseph Henry Jackson Award. In this collection, the microscope serves not only as a tangible symbol of introspection, but also acts as a metaphor for analyzing the often unseen or hidden beauties and flaws of life. In this respect, one of the most powerful poems is “First Wedding,” where you write “Standing at the altar, I remembered my blue room. / For years the walls had been shrinking. / I saw myself grown huge like Alice / in a box, small and blue, the door shrunken / to shoe box size. I had to burn my way out.” In various interviews you have already spoken at length about the difficulties of your young adult life, but it would be interesting to know: How did the writing of this collection ultimately help you heal, and are painful experiences good or bad creative fuel?

LLD: Through writing poetry and my memoir, Married at Fourteen: A True Story (Heyday, 2012), I came to understand myself and my choices better. Writing helped me come to terms with both my experiences as a teen mother and my relationship with my own mother. I actually wrote my way to an understanding of her. So yes, painful experiences are good creative fuel, but that does not mean that happy experiences are not. Creatively, I don’t value my mistakes, losses, and failures more than my achievements and successes.

In writing poems about my life and channeling my emotions into poetry, I have been greatly inspired by Robert Lowell, Anne Sexton, and Sylvia Plath. The events of my life and my emotional responses to these events are very different from those of Lowell, Sexton, and Plath. My life has been nothing like theirs, but the power and precision of their language in documenting their lives and emotions take me right there with them, and I have hoped to do that in my own poetry. Emotions ranging from sorrow and anger to love and compassion are transformed through poetry. A raw complaint is not a poem, nor is an angry rant or even a declaration of love. A poem must transform the emotion into a work of art, and once that happens, a reader can participate in it and understand something better, and so can the writer.

DG: Inspired by Pablo Neruda’s The Book of Questions, you wrote a chapbook called The Book of Answers (Finishing Line Press, 2006). As a scientist, would you prefer to have more questions or answers?

LLD: Carl Sagan said, “We make our world significant by the courage of our questions and the depth of our answers.” To come up with a deep answer, we need to start with a good question. You can’t have one without the other. Also, answers in science tend to generate more questions, and that is an important aspect of how science proceeds. I don’t think we’ll ever run out of questions or have all of the answers.

DG: And what about poetry—should it have more answers than questions, or vice versa?

LLD: Both questions and answers are important in poetry, just as they are in science, but to avoid being didactic in poetry, sometimes it’s best just to raise the question or describe the problem and let the reader come up with the answer. For example, my poem “What Flows Into the Gulf of Mexico” in Birds of San Pancho documents the many types of pollutants—cleaning products, antibiotics, pesticides, fertilizers, etc.—entering the Mississippi River every day. The poem doesn’t offer a solution to this problem, but I hope that by raising people’s consciousness about it, the poem will inspire some people to take appropriate action.

On the other hand, sometimes an answer can be suggested without being didactic. My poem “The Butterflies Are Dying,” which appears in Interlitq, describes how climate change is endangering four hundred fifty species of West Coast butterflies. The last stanza suggests a partial solution: “Oh, welcome them with milkweed / and sunflowers, rabbitbrush, mustard. / Today, say Come to my garden.” Thus, while we are waiting for governments to creep around to taking action to reduce the use of fossil fuels and thereby mitigate global warming, we can help the butterflies by providing habitat for them in our yards. The monarch population in California is higher in 2021 than it was in 2020, and biologists think this is due primarily to the work of individuals who have planted milkweed in their gardens.

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

LLD: I just finished reading Bewilderment, a novel by Richard Powers. A troubled autistic boy with deep concerns for animals and the environment is being raised his father, an astrobiologist. It’s an engaging story but ultimately a downer, since the boy can’t save the world and the father can’t save the boy. Currently, I’m reading Deep Hanging Out: Wanderings and Wonderment in Native California, a nonfiction book by Malcolm Margolin. “Deep hanging out” is not only something hippies do but also an anthropological term meaning to immerse oneself informally in another culture. For the past 40 years or so, Margolin has been engaged in deep hanging out with the Native American tribes of California, and he has much to share.

My own latest book, which came out in November 2021 from my press, Scarlet Tanager Books, is a small anthology called Poetry and Science: Writing Our Way to Discovery. It contains poems and essays by Elizabeth Bradfield, Alison Hawthorne Deming, Ann Fisher-Wirth, and Allison Adelle Hedge Coke, as well as my own work. So I am currently trying to get the word out about this book. I hope that my next book will be my “new and collected” science and nature poems, which will contain work from the seven full-length poetry collections I’ve authored over the past 40 years, as well as new poems.

 

About Lucille Lang Day

Lucille Lang Day is the author of seven full-length poetry collections, most recently Birds of San Pancho and Other Poems of Place and Becoming An Ancestor, and four poetry chapbooks. She has also coedited two anthologies, Fire and Rain: Ecopoetry of California and Red Indian Road West: Native American Poetry from California, and has published two children’s books and a memoir, Married at Fourteen: A True Story. Her many honors include the Blue Light Poetry Prize, two PEN Oakland/Josephine Miles Literary Awards, the Joseph Henry Jackson Award, and eleven Pushcart Prize nominations. The founder and publisher of Scarlet Tanager Books, she received her MA in English and MFA in creative writing at San Francisco State University, and her BA in biological sciences, MA in zoology, and PhD in science/mathematics education at the University of California, Berkeley.

Interlitq’s Californian Poets Interview Series: Boris Dralyuk, Poet and Scholar, interviewed by David Garyan


Boris Dralyuk (photo credit: Jennifer Croft)

 

Interlitq’s Californian Poets Interview Series:

Boris Dralyuk, Poet and Scholar

interviewed by David Garyan

 

Boris Dralyuk’s poems to appear soon in Interlitq’s California Poets Feature

 

DG: Russian culture is incredibly rich—in the sense that it’s both European, but also very distinct from that tradition. Its Orthodox religiosity affects almost all aspects of life and the specters of communism seem to make their presence felt now and then. Geographically, too, the country straddles the line between East and West. In 2000, Oxford Professor G.S. Smith wrote this eerily relevant statement in an article published by the Modern Language Review: “In the political world, and in the academic world that reflects it more and more directly, a tendency has begun for Russia to be marginalized. Influential people increasingly seem to want to exclude Russia from Europe, and especially from its principal political articulations, which begin with the EU.” Twenty-one years later, the marginalization project seems to have been completed by the West. In this respect, to what extent, if at all, have political changes over years affected not only your work as a Russian scholar, but also personally?

BD: I’ll start by thanking you for inviting me to take part in this series, and for posing such provocative questions. I was born in 1982 on the periphery of the Soviet Union, in Odessa, Ukraine—very much in Europe, very much in the South—and so the Russophone culture I knew as a child was a warm and welcoming one, garrulous and gregarious, if more than a little rough around the edges. The twenty-four hours my family spent in Moscow in April 1991, on our way to the United States, were just as disorienting as my first day in Los Angeles. Perhaps even more so. I’m a great believer in sister cities—in the bond between towns that share certain cultural and physical attributes, like a similar climate, similar degrees of ethnic diversity, similar age, similar sprawl (horizontality, rather than verticality). And by many of those measures, at least in my blurred vision, Odessa and LA are not so very different, though of course LA is much larger. I’ve found myself entirely at home in other sister cities, too—in Buenos Aires, for instance. Moscow isn’t one of these cities, nor is St. Petersburg.

What I’m trying to underscore is that I tend to think less in terms of national cultures and more in terms of local ones, and that I see myself as an Odessan and Angeleno. When I began to study Russian literature academically, of course, I refined my understanding of the overarching features and trends that have come to define Russian culture, which is ever evolving but not without repeated patterns. I entered UCLA in 2000, the very year that Smith made his observation, and I was so excited to be reading Pushkin and Lermontov, Teffi and Yuri Olesha, that I paid little mind to the marginalization of Russia; Russophone poetry seemed the be-all and end-all, as did Anglophone poetry and all the subjects that lit up like targets in a pinball machine as I bounced between classes. Only later did I begin to give thought to the status of the field of Slavic studies in academia, and to the attitude towards Russia on the political stage—but I have to be honest, it never felt to me personally that the image of Russian politics abroad was any more tarnished than it deserved to be, or that the average American or European was any more hostile towards Russians than towards members of other nationalities, and this despite the Putin regime’s despicable, criminal behavior in Ukraine and elsewhere. I may be wrong about this, but in any case, I don’t feel that political attitudes towards Russia have seriously impacted my work as a translator—certainly not negatively. I translate the stories and essays of Maxim Osipov, who lives in Tarusa, 101 kilometers outside Moscow, and these brilliant, highly nuanced, not at all black-and-white depictions of Russian life have found an eager audience in the United States and in the United Kingdom. My translations of the equally brilliant, equally nuanced, though more surreal work of the Russophone Ukrainian author Andrey Kurkov are just as well received. It’s true that interest in new Russian authors waxes and wanes, but many factors are at play: general interest in work in translation; the economic health of the publishing industry; growing demand for perspectives from other cultures; and so on. But there’s always a contemporary Russian author “breaking through”—and more and more often these are women authors, authors from minority Russophone communities, experimental authors …. What’s to complain about?

DG: The great Russian poet, Osip Mandelstam, once famously said the following: “Only in Russia is poetry respected; it gets people killed. Is there anywhere else where poetry is so common a motive for murder.” Indeed, during Soviet times, people filled stadiums to hear poets like Andrei Voznesenski and Yevgeny Yevtushenko read—a feat perhaps utterly impossible for a US poet. Two questions: As a scholar of Slavic languages, how do you view the USSR in relation to all of Russian history and what do you make of Mandelstam’s claim?

BD: Important questions. My own sense is that in practice, from the time of the Civil War into the 1950s and even beyond, Soviet rulers reiterated, formalized, and intensified the worst, most oppressive tactics of past Russian tyrants, from Ivan the Terrible to Peter the Great. Population control and suppression of dissent through state terror and secret surveillance, the use of slave labor for construction, total censorship, imperial expansion and isolationism …. What was new was the scale of the enterprise, and the brazenness of the regime’s hypocrisy. And I think this brazen hypocrisy is one of the core legacies of the USSR; we see it in the smirking duplicity of Putin and his circle, in their hollow whataboutism.

Mandelstam was right, of course, about the high stakes of writing non-conformist poetry under Stalin. But do we really need poetry to matter in this particular way? There was and remains a degree of nostalgic envy in the West for the fatal significance of Soviet dissident art. But I feel dissident authors themselves would have much preferred to pursue their art without persecution and fear. It may have been a political poem—the infamous Stalin epigram—that ultimately cost Mandelstam his life, but I suspect what he wanted most was to write and publish freely on any topic he chose, not to use his poems as a political tool. To claim that art is apolitical is also a political stance, of course—but that’s the stance many dissidents took. In their view, politics were forced on art, like a straitjacket. Even Voznesenski and Yevtushenko, who were semi-official poets rather than dissidents, filled stadiums because they wrote about their subjective experience, about the individual, about love—a breath of fresh air after decades of formulaic Socialist Realism. The Thaw weakened the political demands placed on poetry, and the public responded. And I don’t mean to say that expressly political poetry is necessarily bad, only that those who are forced to politicize their poetry might desire greater freedom; in such circumstances, to be apolitical is to be radical.

Cults rise up around those who were, like Mandelstam, martyred for their art, but I would much rather have had more Mandelstam poems than the tragic story of his end, which lends, in my view, the wrong kind of significance to his work. I translate Isaac Babel, who was murdered by Stalin’s regime, and nothing bothers me more than the sight of his mugshot in articles about his work. I’ve even seen Mandelstam’s mugshot on covers of selections of his poems. Is that how these life-embracing artists, whose work overflows with vitality, would have wanted to be read—as victims? This sort of thing leaves a bad taste in my mouth.

DG: With Robert Chandler and Irina Mashinski, you co-edited The Penguin Book of Russian Poetry, released in 2015. Can you talk about the way this collaboration began, along with how this specific anthology is different from other ones dedicated to Russian poetry, and also about the particular authors you enjoy that appear there?

BD: My collaboration with Robert and Irina was formative—one of the great lucky turns of my life. It began when I met Irina and her late husband Oleg Woolf at a reading in New York City. I was instantly enveloped by their kind, open spirit, their irrepressible creative force. Within a week, I began translating the marvelous, sui generis, lyrically surreal prose of Oleg’s Bessarabian Stamps. At the same time I began to correspond with Robert by email, having answered one of his queries on a Slavic Studies mailing list. Robert and Irina, I learned, had recently begun work on what would become the Penguin book. Before long they invited me to join them. To say that I was honored would be a gross understatement—I walked on air for days on end. I was then a graduate student at UCLA. I had applied to study there as an undergrad a decade earlier with the goal of becoming a translator. This project felt like the goal I had been working toward all that time, and the four years that followed—during which Robert, Irina, and I, as well as all the translators whose work we included, exchanged thousands of letters and drafts—were the real education in translation I had been yearning for, the real on-the-job training. When we put the finishing touches on the book, I felt bereft; how would I go on without the daily inspiration afforded by my exchanges with Robert and Irina? I’m glad to say I never had to find out. We still write to each other every day, still collaborate on our many joint projects, and, through the Penguin book, have even recruited a fourth member to the team: Maria Bloshteyn.

What makes the Penguin book special is that we included no poem that doesn’t work as a poem in English, by our standards. Often enough, anthologists of poetry in translation are guided by the academic impulse to include whatever is deemed important in the original language. But in the absence of successful translations, how can one hope to convince readers with no access to the original that this or that important poem is indeed important? Poetry is lost in translation when we approach translations of poems as translations first and poems second; a translated poem that isn’t a poem does no one any good. True, it may be a tool for learning the original language, but then it isn’t really a translation—it’s a trot. Translations worthy of the name aren’t made for those who can read the original.

Of the lesser-known poets we included in the book, the ones I feel most passionate about are Georgy Ivanov (1894-1958) and Anna Prismanova (1892-1960), both of whom left Russia after the Revolution, never to return. You can read Prismanova’s poem “The Jolt” here, and a late poem by Ivanov here. Incidentally, in the introductory note to our selection of Ivanov’s poems in the Penguin book, we quote G.S. Smith, who describes the mood of the extraordinary lyrics the émigré poet composed in his final years: “An aging, careworn man, almost always alone and speaking to himself (except in a few love poems, among the most delicate ever written in Russian), quietly probes the balmy-rosy atmospheric permutations of an alien Mediterranean coastline into which remembered snowstorms threaten to intrude. Among provocatively offhand gestures about the pointlessness of it all, potentially redemptive values drift in with the snow, evoked and guided by the formal mastery of their verbal articulation.” Prismanova is often more visionary, more metaphysical, but the notes she strikes are not dissimilar. Both poets capture fundamental strains of the émigré sensibility, and I respond to their work at a deep level, for reasons that are perhaps obvious.

DG: Apart from Moscow and St. Petersburg—indeed incredible places—what’s one city in Russia you’ve always wanted to visit but haven’t been able to so far?

BD: I look forward to visiting Tarusa, the home, as I mentioned, of my friend Maxim Osipov. It has a fascinating history. During the Soviet era, it was just far enough from Moscow to serve as a legal residence for former political prisoners and other “undesirables.” As a result, it was a quiet hub of dissidence. And having translated Maxim’s stories and essays set in Tarusa, like “The Children of Dzhankoy,” which you can read here, I feel I’ve already “lived” there, as it were, and now I have a great urge to walk its streets.

DG: Let’s talk about translation. I do apologize for the length, but I’ve posed this question in more or less the same way to a couple different translators already—it’s one I particularly enjoy, and it deals with untranslatability. Essentially we’re dealing with the fact that individuals to whom certain literary legacies belong are more inclined to believe in the untranslatability of their own national poets and writers—a phenomenon, which, in their minds, attaches greater mystique and importance to these cultural figures; those looking in from the outside, however, that is those (we may call them foreigners but they might also be immigrants who can no longer speak the language of the country from which they emigrated) eager to consume the riches of another culture tend to believe exactly the opposite—that translation is not only just as effective but can also improve the original. For example, in a 1998 review article praising Robert Daglish’s translation of Quiet Flows the Don, scholars Barry P. Scherr and Richard Sheldon argue that readers looking to discover Sholokhov’s “original intentions” would actually fare better by reading the novel in translation, rather than in the original Russian, further stating that “in terms of textological issues, Daglish’s translation is arguably superior to any of the available Russian-language editions of the complete novel.” What’s your stance on the issue, not just in terms of Sholokhov, but Russian literature in general, and has there been a work you’ve translated that presented particularly peculiar challenges?

BD: A fascinating set of questions, really. You’re absolutely right to say that many people regard their favorite authors as untranslatable. That kind of proprietary attitude is easy to understand. Part of it owes to the affective connection we feel with one language or another; you hear people say that the word for love, in their mother tongue, means more than the equivalent word in some other language—and so naturally a love poem in that language would mean more …. But this is of course purely subjective, and has little to do with translation per se. It’s about what you know first and best, about the language you’re weaned on. Consider the case of Borges, whose first encounter with Cervantes’s Don Quixote was in English. When he later read the “original” it felt like a translation, and a “bad” translation, at that. So it isn’t a matter of translation – it’s a matter of first love.

As I said earlier, translations aren’t made for those who can read the original. It’s useful to hear what speakers of the original language have to say about one version or another, and certainly useful to have input from as many native speakers as possible when translating, but I feel a translation’s artistry ought to be assessed on the same terms as the artistry of any original work in the target language. The argument Scherr and Sheldon make is different. That’s a case of censorship and self-censorship. The translation of Sholokhov’s novel, like Robert and Elizabeth Chandler’s masterful recent translation of Vasily Grossman’s Stalingrad, is a heroic feat of reconstruction. Works that could not appear in the Soviet era without massive cuts and distortions—and, thanks to those cuts and distortions, are still partly discredited in Russian readers’ eyes—finally appeared in their true form only in English. Yet another gift of translation: it recovers treasures lost even to the original culture.

As to peculiar challenges, every text presents its own. But the more I work, the more I realize that the hardest obstacles I face aren’t technical but temperamental. If I find myself at loggerheads with an author’s worldview, to the point that I rebel against it rather than trying to understand and sympathize with it, even the seemingly simplest text proves intractable. This doesn’t mean I only translate people I find savory—that’s not at all true. I can easily relate to the lowest of the low. In fact, it’s often those who feel they’ve attained absolute moral clarity, and who try to force that vision down the reader’s throat, that rub me the wrong way.

DG: We can safely turn to something less cumbersome—Los Angeles. What are some of your favorite Russian-American establishments in the city?

BD: In my collection My Hollywood and Other Poems, I have a poem set in Plummer Park, which is the center of the Russian émigré community in West Hollywood—a fading community I’ve written about here—and another set at the Russian Library, which was once based in Plummer Park but is now across the street. You can read about that library, and take a small visual tour, here. These are the places that tug at my heart ….  And then there are the little Russian shops all up and down Santa Monica Blvd., which are the setting of the third poem in the title sequence of my collection.

DG: Your 2020 blog entry “True Love for Women or for Mountains:” Peter Vegin Sees Ararat in Los Angeles” offers not only a unique perspective on LA, with its large Armenian community (many of whom are Russophone), but also a refreshing look at Russian literature, away from the usual emphasis on Chekhov, Akhmatova, or Tsvetaeva. The entry includes your translation of a poem by Vegin, who can hardly be considered well-known, much less often read. What are the challenges and rewards that present themselves with translating such writers as opposed to more prominent ones?

BD: I’m so glad you enjoyed that entry. Vegin is one of several Russophone poets of Los Angeles whom I’ve been translating, and whose work will appear in My Hollywood. It’s profoundly rewarding to unearth these lyrical threads and, gradually, to weave together a tapestry of Russian LA. The challenges of translating lesser-known poets are no greater than those of translating well-known ones, and the rewards are enormous. If I can bring a poem by Vegin, Vladislav Ellis, Korvin-Piotrovsky, Richard Ter-Boghossian, Vernon Duke, Natalya Medvedeva, or Zinaida Kovalevsky to just one reader, it’s a major victory against the forces of oblivion.

DG: If you had to recommend one Russian dish, which one would it be and can you find a good version of it in LA?

BD: Well, that would be (don’t even have to think about this) Olivier—Russian potato salad—which was invented by a Belgian chef at a fashionable Moscow restaurant in the 1860s. You see? Russia and Europe are indeed united, or can at least sit at the same table. If you happen to be in LA, go down to Traktir at the corner of Santa Monica and Crescent Heights. And order some herring on dark toast (“Moskovsky”) to go with the Olivier. And a shot or two of horseradish vodka.

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

BD: I am, happily, not working on any big translation just now. My co-translators Alex Fleming and Nicolas Pasternak Slater and I have prepared a new volume of Osipov’s stories and essays, Kilometer 101, for NYRB Classics, to be published in the fall of 2022, and I’ve just finalized the copyedits on a new selection of Isaac Babel’s stories, Of Sunshine and Bedbugs, to be published in July. Right now I’m translating poems, mostly—poems by Russian Angelenos, other émigrés, and by Julia Nemirovskaya, whose work has been an essential part of my life for a decade. You can read one of my recent translations here, and more at Caesura, Exchanges, and elsewhere.

 

About Boris Dralyuk

Boris Dralyuk is the editor-in-chief of the Los Angeles Review of Books. He is co-editor (with Robert Chandler and Irina Mashinski) of The Penguin Book of Russian Poetry, editor of 1917: Stories and Poems from the Russian Revolution and Ten Poems from Russia, and translator of Isaac Babel, Andrey Kurkov, Maxim Osipov, Mikhail Zoshchenko, and other authors. His poems have appeared in The New York Review of BooksThe Hopkins ReviewThe New CriterionThe Yale Review, and elsewhere, and his collection My Hollywood and Other Poems will be published by Paul Dry Books in April 2022. His website can be found here.

 

Interlitq’s Californian Poets Interview Series: Kim Shuck, SF Poet Laureate Emerita, interviewed by David Garyan


Kim Shuck (photo credit: Douglas A. Salin, 2019)

Interlitq’s Californian Poets Interview Series:

Kim Shuck, SF Poet Laureate Emerita

interviewed by David Garyan

 

Click here to read Kim Shuck’s contribution to Interlitq’s California Poets Feature

 

DG: As a poet with Indigenous (Cherokee Nation of Oklahoma) and European roots, your work deals frequently with themes of nature, the growing isolation between humanity and the natural world, but also the intersection between the West and Native experience, specifically in your book Deer Trails, but also elsewhere. Along with a discussion of the book, can you touch a little bit upon the tensions, contradictions, and perhaps even harmonies of living in a city like San Francisco, so modern and innovative, yet, at the same time, inseparable from its past Indigenous history?  

KS: As long as people think of themselves as not embodying the natural world, the divisions between some people and Nature will persist. The settler/colonizer mindset can’t be aligned with Indigenous perspectives, but if people think of each other as a community, it could do some good for everyone. I think the way that people are cut off from one another and one another’s perspectives is a deeper wound than just Indigenous/Non-Indigenous communication. I’m Goral Polish and CNO, that’s a pretty modern identity. My children are also Hawaiian and Mongolian, that combination seems very modern to me. My Cherokee dad was a telecom engineer. Tradition isn’t a foil for innovation. I think that the answers already exist, but that the historical and contemporary tensions need to be understood, taught and discussed.

Deer Trails was my love letter to San Francisco. My San Francisco—the city I was born in, the city my mom was born in—may or may not always resemble the city as other people see her. My most recent collection Exile Heart is a bit more focused on Indigenous issues, but the poems from both volumes are of similar vintage.

DG: You were elected by San Francisco Mayor Ed Lee to serve as the city’s seventh poet laureate. Can you describe some of the projects, initiatives, and campaigns you organized during this time that helped bring not only poetry but also Indigenous issues to the foreground?

KS: I was nominated for the laureateship by my poetic peers and vetted by a group of former laureates, poetry activists, publishers, and librarians. Ed Lee picked me from a short list of three. My suspicion is that he thought I was mostly harmless. In my role as SF Poet Laureate, I organized roughly five readings a month. I was part of a team, along with Thea Matthews and Denise Sullivan, who put together four poetry chapthologies that drew from readings in the Mission District of San Francisco. I gathered poems from SF poets that will eventually become a poetic map of the city, a project that has proven more psychological than I’d anticipated.  With much help, I curated a poem a day for a year. The poems are archived on the San Francisco Public Library site. I got up to a lot of good trouble as SF Poet Laureate. I was contacted recently by a South Asian poetry and art publication who told me that I’d put over 1000 women on microphones over the last five years. That may be true—I haven’t counted that, but there have certainly been over 1000 poets. I supported poetry activities that needed support. I’ve worked with food equity people, housing equity people, health equity people, along with poets and activists who align with the politics I agree with. It may be that my most important activism in terms of the Indigenous part of my heritage has been just working with people of all backgrounds while also being Cherokee, so that the stereotypes could evaporate without too much comment. My personal politics show up in my poetry, but as laureate my responsibility was to support poetry and poets. Now, I certainly know more Indigenous poets than many people do. I’ve tried to center more Indigenous Californian voices than I’ve seen done before. I try to mention and support things of local Indigenous concern like the potential destruction of the West Berkeley Shellmound and the story of Felix Cove in West Marin. Strong and important stories feed good poetry. Truth feeds good poetry.

DG: Along with the written word, you’re also a visual artists, working in the traditional Indigenous crafts of weaving and beadwork. How do these arts influence your poetry, and, conversely, how does your poetry influence your artistic activities?

KS: Some stories are told in words and some stories are told in beads or fibers. I’m not sure that there’s much difference between one and the other. I hold an MFA in fine arts /textiles from San Francisco State University. I also tat, loom weave, fold origami and do string figures. The story finds the medium.

DG: When did you decide that poetry would be more than just a hobby, but a way of life? Do you believe you learned the craft from libraries and books or from life experiences—to some extent it’s always both, but which one do you gravitate more towards?

KS: My poetry mom/hero was Carol Lee Sanchez. She organized poetry readings at the Coffee Gallery in North Beach, co-founded the Bay Area Poetry Coalition, helped to midwife California Poets in the Schools and exposed me to live readings from the time that her son and I became friends in second grade. I’m not sure that I ever knew poetry could be a hobby and not a life.

DG: One of your works I always enjoy reading is 21st-Century Meditation, where you write the following: “Memory spirits give me days full of / Words I’ve forgotten or / Never been taught the / Language in my cells that won’t come out.” Indeed, the spoken word is a major cornerstone of culture and it’s unfortunate that Indigenous languages are dying out at an alarming rate. Efforts to digitize them, such as recording oral traditions and conversations have reversed this phenomenon to some extent, but it isn’t enough. Can you think of other ways to address these issues and is there, perhaps, something that poetry can do to preserve the languages and traditions of Indigenous peoples?

KS: I’m glad that you like that poem. My niece, Dr. Jenny Davis, would probably answer this question with more grace, as she is, among other things, a linguistics professor. I can give it a whack though. All over the world we are losing diversity of all kinds: biodiversity, linguistic diversity, cultural diversity. Think of the result of monoculture planting in fields—one successful infection, insect, rogue beast of any description, can take the whole thing out. If language nourishes thought, like a food crop nourishes body, it’s probably better to have more than one available. I’m old enough to remember when schools discouraged bilingual parents speaking a second language at home. We now understand that being bilingual or even multilingual is good for cognition. Probably not punishing or beating Indigenous children for speaking their languages has been a good thing for language retention. The best way to foster language retention is to use the language. If you go to Talequah, OK, you will see the CNO does precisely that—signs in Cherokee, opportunities to use the language. It’s not about preservation, but about use, and it’s important to have the kinds of unique thought tools that each language provides. It’s important for everyone that we retain those tools. I don’t know what poetry has to add to that, unless it’s more poems in more languages. More poems … always a good idea.

One of your most powerful works is Murdered Missing, a collection of fifty poems dealing with “murdered Indigenous women in the western hemisphere,” as you write in the introduction. Poetry, as you’ve stated, can make us aware of the issue, but what else can be done to perhaps reverse this alarming trend?

Smart murderers kill people they think will not be missed. Smart kidnappers take people who have been marginalized. The people who take and kill Indigenous women understand that we are not considered of particular value. If these crimes were investigated the way that other murders and kidnappings are investigated, we might see a change.

 

About Kim Shuck

Kim Shuck is a poet, educator and visual artist from San Francisco, CA. She holds dual citizenship from the United States and the Cherokee Nation of Oklahoma. Shuck is author of seven books of poetry the latest being Deer Trails from City Lights Publishing and the chapbook Whose Water? from Mammoth Publishing. She is San Francisco’s Poet Laureate Emerita.

Coronavirus: The Governmentalization and Medicalization of Safety, an article by David Garyan

26/08/2021
Trento, Italy

 

Coronavirus: The Governmentalization and Medicalization of Safety

Today, thanks to the miracles of science, along with the generosity of the Italian government, I was able to receive my second Pfizer COVID shot at no charge. While I do feel eternally grateful to all the men and women working in the scientific and governmental sector who’ve made vaccination for all possible, I nevertheless have hesitations about the direction our society is taking. To be clear, this article will not engage in debates about the pros and cons of vaccines because there’s really just one stance a responsible person can take in the midst of a pandemic: Whatever risks these substances may pose—and they certainly do pose some as the recent deaths of these young individuals demonstrate—the threats presented by the actual virus will always be far greater than any given vaccine trying to prevent the spread of said virus. In short, more people have died of COVID than COVID jabs; at the same time, it must be admitted that long-term effects are difficult to measure and it’s often impossible to tell whether something years down the line was caused by a jab, by the virus itself, or whether any manifestation was simply due to the natural progression of a person’s physiology, regardless of vaccination, virus, or other variables.

In short, despite trying to avoid a discussion on the safety of vaccines, we’ve nevertheless managed to go off-topic—let’s get back on track and state that it’s not science and government which are the problem, but an overreliance on medicine and politicians. Before I get into a discussion about what I mean precisely, it’s important for me to go on record and state the following: Firstly, as a student of human rights, my appreciation for honest, paradigm-changing world leaders runs deep, and, secondly, my parents (father a medical profession, mother an engineer) were and continue to be sensible people who both ensured that I had all the proper vaccinations done as a child.

So, what’s the problem here? Let’s start with the fact that governments, along with their respective nation-states are only interested in protecting their own skin; the wealthiest and most powerful don’t really care about your health and well-being—they’re only concerned with it insofar as it either corresponds with promoting their treasured agenda, or, more importantly, they strive for “safety” because any degree of uncertainty in the public and private sectors can seriously damage not just their reputation, but also the depth of their pockets.

It seems that the most powerful figures on the planet have fixated on coronavirus at the cost of everything else—they’ve done this to such an extent that your health and well-being paradoxically no longer matter. What do I mean? Well, simply that at the height of the lockdown one year ago, when millions of people were forced to endure months of isolation, no politician or police officer cared to inform themselves about the various problems that such measures could inflict upon the individual. We were told that by isolating ourselves from each other, we would all become “responsible” citizens who would ensure that this particular virus wouldn’t spread, and somehow, in the midst of all the frenzy, we forgot all our other needs; more importantly, we failed to remember everyone else who perhaps wasn’t capable of such feats, whether due to financial reasons, or psychological ones. Just for clarity, below is a picture not of India, but of a ghetto in Camden, New Jersey, meaning this problem ranges far and wide.

Let’s, however, forget for a moment, these oft-discussed places, where the combination of geography, population, and economics, makes it difficult for poor city workers living with twelve other people in one apartment to self-isolate. Instead, let’s talk about things which have been rarely discussed: When the pandemic peaked, and even now, there were and there continue to be almost no studies which focus on the correlation between isolation and physical well-being. In other words, if before the pandemic it was someone’s habit, and perhaps even with the recommendation of his doctor, to take a one-hour or two-hour walk after dinner, why was this essential need repeatedly denied to many people by those in the highest spheres of government, and why were these policies so strictly enforced? Aside from the fact that mental health is also an aspect of well-being, and the effects of isolation on rising depression rates have been well-documented, it’s already becoming clear that the elite aren’t interested in protecting the fragility of the human body and spirit when those measures may not only expose, but, more importantly, threaten the fragility of their respective nation-states. In times of crisis, the safety of the flag will always supersede the safety of the bodies which carry it and represent it, metaphorically speaking, because it’s after all the masses who ensure its security.

The government, ultimately, isn’t keen on being creative; during the most desperate moments of the pandemic, it wasn’t interested in the well-being of the poet, who simply wanted to walk the street alone at night and look at the stars; it wasn’t interested in the claustrophobic athlete who yearned to jog in the early hours of the morning; it wasn’t interested in the artist who suffers from panic attacks if he spends too much time in the tiny studio he can barely afford; it wasn’t interested in the old widow—that surely must exist somewhere—who’ll incur a nervous breakdown unless she visits the grave of her husband every week to lay flowers, but florists are inessential and all shops are closed until further notice; it wasn’t interested in the single mother with three young kids who would surely drive her crazy if they couldn’t spend at last two hours at the park, which was located far across town, where no supermarkets could be found—ah, the excuse of going shopping; it wasn’t interested in the countless Alberts, Jacks, Sophies, Amandas, or whoever else it may be that had heart conditions and lived in the heart of the city, but couldn’t do their usual walk because it didn’t fall into the category of “essential” activity. No, with the well-being of these people the government wasn’t in the least bit concerned—they did what they needed to do, and, in many cases, placed individuals in far greater danger than COVID could’ve ever presented.

Other than the rising and falling coronavirus numbers, there was and continues to be hardly any data on which illnesses or diseases people may have contracted as a result of following the lockdown strictly as prescribed. For my own safety, mental health, and overall well-being, I’m not ashamed to say that I broke curfew laws many times, and had I not done that, perhaps the effects of the quarantine may have manifested themselves in more serious psychological, and God forbid, physiological ways. Thus, it was only a small inconvenience to be stopped occasionally, to have my paperwork checked, just to know, at the end of the day, that I was still human—a person with feelings, needs, and emotions who considered looking at the night sky an “essential” activity (despite what the government might tell us) not only for my creativity, but for the vitality of my body and spirit. I’m not ashamed to admit this.

This is the freedom I’m talking about—the human right to exercise one’s individuality, to know what’s best for you and your body, mainly because a generic measure to stay at home can’t possibly apply to everyone. Responsibility in this sense, then, isn’t just about making sure other people are safe, but also about making sure that you can likewise protect yourself while looking out for others. If our leaders had been more creative, many governments around the world could’ve instituted measures like designated meeting areas with specific dates and times for everyone, configured with an app or QR code system, for example, but they didn’t do that. For students, they could’ve introduced initiatives to hold classes in parks or even stadiums, which naturally weren’t being used, with respect for social distancing rules, but nothing of the sort was attempted—and not only because these things are difficult, costly, and time-consuming, but, more importantly, because the elite don’t really care about your well-being, unless it threatens their own status and pocket. Words like safety, responsibility, and health are hollow catchphrases, thrown around to give the illusion of compassion, concern, and duty, all things which the ruling classes supposedly embody, but most of this rhetoric is meaningless at best and dishonest at worst.

It seems to me that progressively-minded thinkers, something I consider myself to be, aren’t consistent in the way they apply the doctrine of choice: Why is it that we view abortion, more correctly, a woman’s right to decide what’s best for her body, in very positive terms, while the decision regarding vaccines can’t be left to the will of the individual? In both cases, we’re dealing with matters of life and death, and while irresponsibility in either scenario must not be tolerated, we should ultimately settle the issue of who has ownership over our bodies— individuals themselves or the bureaucracy of the state.

Having spoken about government, it’s now time to discuss science, and my opinions about the topic are really not much more positive, despite the supposed altruism of the field. For one, science, like government, has made us believe that it alone can solve our problems; whereas politicians claim this right in the sphere of social issues, scientists, arrogantly, claim it on the medical front. Vaccines, as I wrote, are safe and effective, and especially during pandemics, they’re an indispensable element in containing the spread of a virus—but that’s just it; they’re only one small part of the matter, not the whole substance. Just like government alone can’t eradicate mass poverty or even a single person’s destitution without individual initiative (hard work, education, proactiveness), so too science, let alone vaccines, can’t eradicate pandemics or even one person’s disease without our freedom to choose what’s best for us (the perfect diet for each individual body, appropriate exercise for every person, proper rest, pleasure, and other activities); in amount and duration, all these requirements will naturally vary, depending on psychology and biology, and this is precisely why people must be given the freedom to choose—responsibly—when it’s best for them to go outside, eat, play, and so on, without the government placing blanket restrictions on its subjects.

Science has become so powerful that it has miraculously been able to solve most of our problems, but that’s precisely its flaw. Those who believe that a vaccine will eliminate the coronavirus are deeply mistaken, and, likewise, forcing people to get jabs shows, in fact, that we’re interested only in the easy way out—we encounter a difficulty and we aspire to kill it immediately, without examining its root causes or underlying motives that are driving us towards such behavior. There’s no vaccine for the complications of global poverty, intolerance, ignorance, and greed. Unfortunately, while there’s also no vaccine for depression, thankfully, at least, there are drugs, and so, if you’re in bad shape, take something immediately without thinking about why you may be feeling that way—for the love of God, just take a pill and don’t worry about whether you could’ve recovered more creatively with the help of music or friends, perhaps. Science, in this respect, has come to dominate our lives to such an extent that the totality of the individual is being sacrificed for the benefit of the nation state—the classic definition of fascism.

It’s precisely this aforementioned medicalization of safety that I have a problem with—unlike the East, we don’t believe that art, prayer, and meditation, just as examples, can really solve the most difficult issues plaguing our society. Yes, we have incredible venues for art in Europe and the US; there are magnificent churches in which people still conduct prayers to this day, but these things, ultimately, are considered “inessential.” In other words, we don’t take artists and religion seriously—most of us engage in these activities mainly because they add decorum and entertainment to our lives, but the belief that art and prayer are in fact necessary to make the functioning of a harmonious, prosperous society possible isn’t really genuine; the proof for this lies right in the fact that art and faith were the first to suffer during the pandemic.

Instead of the government reaching out to creative individuals with the hopes of finding unique solutions, they shut them down in the name of safety because it doesn’t pay to have a “healthy” public when the goals of that healthy public don’t align with the values of the status quo. The attempt to build the complete individual as envisioned by the Ancient Greeks, for example—strong body and mind through the study of art, philosophy, and sports doesn’t seem to be a priority in the modern world. Depression and pandemics are better cured with drugs and vaccines alone, than with the holistic combination of music, healthy lifestyles based on individual choice, art, and a little self-reflection (perhaps even philosophy); these measures are inconvenient, time-consuming, and expensive, and, most of all, they can even threaten the elite, which is why no one cares to implement them, and why also politicians stipulate to their citizens that “responsible” people can only win the fight against the coronavirus with quarantines and vaccines—everything else is a conspiracy designed to discredit government and science. How convenient for them! We must demand more accountability and creativity from our leaders, and those who speak out regarding such matters, demanding precisely those things, shouldn’t be labeled as anti-vaxxers, agitators, right-wing fanatics, or any other disparaging epithet, because you may find that they aren’t any of those things.

 

About David Garyan

David Garyan has published three chapbooks with Main Street Rag, along with (DISS)INFORMATION, a full collection with the same publisher. He holds an MA and MFA from Cal State Long Beach, where he associated himself with the Stand Up Poets. He recently graduated from the University of Bologna with a degree in International Cooperation on Human Rights and Intercultural Heritage. He lives in Trento.

C.K. Scott Moncrieff: A Man Out of Italian Time (Review of Chasing Lost Time, a Biography by Jean Findlay)

Jean Findlay, Founder and Head of Publishing at Scotland Street Press, author of Chasing Lost Time: The Life of C.K. Scott Moncrieff, Soldier, Spy, and Translator

Reviewed by David Garyan

 

Price Beyond Rubies: On Writing “The Hat Jewel,” an article by Jean Findlay, published by Interlitq
Read Jean Findlay’s Interview with David Garyan, published by Interlitq

 

C.K. Scott Moncrieff: A Man Out of Italian Time

C.K. Scott Moncrieff was a man of contradictions; like the land, Italy, he came to inhabit in the last years of life, it may perhaps be more precise to think of him not as the person who translated À la recherche du temps perdu into English, but as the embodiment of all the greatest virtues and likewise the lowest vices which the old country has embodied over its long history—and continues to exemplify. In many ways, it’s neither Marcel Proust—as many literary enthusiasts too often believe—nor his monumental work that came to define the soldier, translator, and spy, but rather the tense contradictions found in Italian life described here by Luigi Pirandello about his native Sicily.

Scott Moncrieff’s outlook on life largely resembled Giovanni Verga‘s; the two men’s lives were about—though Pirandello only writes about Vega in the previous paragraph—ambitiously going “where their certain fantastic sensuality” brought them, and because of this they tended to suffocate and betray “their true, hidden passion, with that ambition of an ephemeral life.” For the sake of brevity, we’ll avoid a discussion of the latter artist’s specificities, but the former, as Findlay writes, led a life full of opposing tensions: “A Catholic convert, he was also a family man, military man, a manly poet. A homosexual who flirted with women and had lasting emotional relationships with a number of close female friends.” Truly, this personality was closer to what Pirandello has described—the Italian soul—than what Proust embodied.

Those who live on the aforementioned island, which the great playwright and poet called home, have perhaps been given no choice but to learn the ways of successfully navigating the demands of life in the midst of totally opposing tensions—after all, it’s the descendants of exactly these people who once enjoyed the privilege of existing at the crossroads of civilization, but, at the same time, precisely because of this, they’ve also had to hold the curious distinction of perhaps being the most subjugated individuals in the world. “Palermo,” as the late American actor George C. Scott once joked, “is the most-conquered city in history. First the Phoenicians, the Romans, Carthaginians, Byzantines, then came the Arabs, the Spaniards and the Neapolitans. Now comes … the American Army!” The Chicago Tribune offers a likewise witty retort to the statement: “The Normans. Don’t forget the Normans. Or the Greeks, Vandals, Goths, Swabians, Aragonese, Savoyans, Austrians (in a trade for Sardinia and future considerations) and, finally, the Italians, through annexation via a referendum that was probably rigged.” It’s certainly been a complicated history and organized crime hasn’t helped free the place, by any stretch of the imagination, from a different type of colonialism altogether, but this is for another discussion.

What’s true is that those who reside on the island at once know the importance of displaying the highest honor and commitment in relationships, but they’re also equally comfortably in showing off those very same traits in revenge and hostility. Additionally, there’s the utter and total tendency to view foreigners and native strangers alike with the utmost suspicion and yet possess the comfort of being both extremely open and curious about others to an extent I have never seen—survival skills, I guess, passed down throughout the years from having to play good host to Romans and Arabs alike, people who, in all honesty, weren’t always such bad guests themselves, bringing innovation and culinary curiosities just the same. Who knew that arancini actually originated under Arab rule? And who knew, according to a UMass website, that the “orange was first introduced to Europe by the Arabs via Sicily?”

For good and bad, hence, the psyche of this nation has been shaped by what many would consider to be a negative phenomenon—domination—and for the most part, people have learned to make this a part of life; nevertheless, the ease and tact with which Italians are capable of navigating diametric opposition is also the reason why they can comfortably treat public resources and spaces in the most reckless, irresponsible way while having the capacity to maintain the greatest sanctity and cleanliness among family and in the home—streets and infrastructure littered with garbage while the floors at home are clean enough to eat from; such contradictions have not only been pointed out by Pirandello—a man Scott Moncrieff greatly admired and enjoyed translating—but also other Italian writers like Borgese as well.

It’s precisely this tendency to embody both the closed and open disposition—the mental effort to somehow synthesize diametrically opposed psychological forces so well described by both Pirandello and Borgese—that the great translator, solider, and spy himself embodied; and many times, as Jean Findlay, Scott Moncrieff’s great-great niece and biographer writes in her book, on more than two fronts: “Charles had a tough, discerning mind which disciplined his own life into several compartments: the literary man to Prentice, Marsh, and most of the world; the family man to his mother, brother, and relatives; the spy to Louis Christie and the Secret Intelligence Service, and the Rabelaisian homosexual to Vyvyan Holland alone. He was a man who one day could write a metaphysical religious poem of great depth, and on the next a filthy, funny limerick. He could, as Findlay describes, send a dirty limerick to Vyvyan Holland and in the very same letter he could thank precisely the same individual “for sending an Anthology of Catholic Poets.” The ability to reconcile such opposing forces and live with them is one of the trademarks of the Mediterranean sensibility, but they’re also the necessary ingredients for gregarious individuals, fond of hosting lavish parties, and, very naturally, spies—chiefly spies.

Even before Scott Moncrieff began translating the work that would really make both him and Proust famous in the Anglophone world, those reckless yet austere characteristics—especially typical of the Italian soul—and so well described by Pirondello and Borgese—were already very much a part of the future translator’s character, and the reader realizes this when he recklessly publishes “under his own name an ambitions story called  Evensong and Morwe Song,” in which he had “painted a recognizable picture of a Winchester master.” Winchester is world-famous for being the most prestigious boarding school in the UK, having existed in its present location for more than six hundred years. The fact that the young artist’s work had so to say painted a recognizable picture shouldn’t have been a problem, except for the fact that, aside from dealing with homosexual themes, it likewise exposed the “snobbery” and “hypocrisy” in such institutions. Findlay writes the following about the incident: “Even one hundred years later, a school magazine would hesitate before publishing such a story,” and although she admits that the family, to this day, has no idea why his scholarship to Oxford was rejected, it seems sensible to believe that the aforementioned episode had a great deal to do with it, given that he excelled in his studies, and more tellingly, that admission did not just depend on a “competitive entrance examination,” but also on “the report from the headmaster at Winchester,” at that time a man by the name of J.M. Burge. Since the latter’s endorsement was at best lukewarm, it is plausible to assume that the failure in securing the prize didn’t stem from a lack of academic competitiveness but rather with the contents of the recommendation.

At the same time, it’s hard to believe that Scott Moncrieff would ever have dared to pull such antics in the presence of his family, given that he had an almost austere (in the best possible sense) dedication and love for them. Anxious as he was to see Proust published in English, he was nevertheless quite embarrassed about the prospect of his relatives reading the Sodom and Gomorrah part of the novel, going so far as to change the English title to Cities of the Plain. Findlay writes that he was “glad in a way that his father would not see it, yet knowing that there were other family members whom it would no doubt offend. He was well aware that the active and promiscuous homosexual world described by Proust was offensive to most people, so in translation he had tried to soften the blow by not being as direct as Proust could be in French, using euphemisms and hidden innuendos where he could.” Once again, we see how the contradictory elements of recklessness and piety could fully manifest themselves in the man. Later in his life, upon discovering that his pet owl had died because he had left him alone to peruse Florence on a visit to the “fleshpots and fiaschi,” by his own account, the remorse was far too great, according to Findlay: “He wrote a gloomy and confused letter to Prentice saying that he had inherited the family trait of ‘accepting diametrically opposite advice and feeling the full importance of things that don’t matter.'” The reader never really finds out what these unimportant things or specific advices are, but one gets the sense that we’re talking precisely about the contradicting temperaments so well described in Italian, particularly, Sicilian personalities.

Being a homosexual in a society which not only imprisoned one of its greatest writers—Oscar Wilde—in 1895, but also handed down two years of hard labor which, according to Findlay, greatly contributed to “breaking his health and confidence,” was certainly risky business. Indeed although “he had written one of his most poignant pieces, De Profundis, in prison and been inspired while there to compose the Ballad of Reading Gaol,” Findlay’s former statement certainly holds far greater weight, as the notable Irish author would go on to die only five years later, at the young age of forty-six, in 1900. In 1907, when the young Scott Moncrieff began visiting Robert Ross (Wilde’s lover and literary executor) at Half Moon Street, which was a “haunt of the literary homosexual coterie,” those tragic details would’ve been no stranger to the impressionable schoolboy. And yet, he, even at such a tender age, already had the capacity to discern the importance of appearances; it’s perhaps, then, his capacity in mastering the ability to maintain them—something which would serve him well as a spy in Italy—why he ultimately chose the country to begin with, or more correctly, why he was chosen for the role by Louis Christie.

For all intents and purposes, and for all the good and bad which comes with that, Italy is the quintessential country of appearances. Anyone who was born here or has lived in it for some time—again for better or worse—will know the importance of maintaining a “tidy surface,” even when what’s underneath is in total ruin; in addition, the ability to maintain a proper exterior is good even when the effort actually contributes to ruining the precious life underneath. Unlike the specific traits discussed before about Sicilians, the concept of bella figura captures the imagination of all Italians; literally translated as “beautiful figure,” the term does not simply encompass the ability to project attractive physical attributes; on the contrary, even Italians are sensible enough to understand that not everyone can have Aphrodite-like beauty—the term, hence, really encompasses the capacity to act with proper dignity, respect, and tact in any given situation. Everything must have the proper presentation and decorum—moderation being the lifeblood of Italians; at least that’s what they say or seem to believe.

Naturally, a person who drinks too much at a party and thereby ruins its decorum has violated the tenets of bella figura; however, a woman dressed to the nines—simply out to buy groceries—seems to be tolerated just fine in these parts and such behavior is even heartily encouraged, and not just by the men either. Is this truly moderation or have we, once again, returned to the wicked duality of Pirandello and Borgese? And what about the all-too-exaggeratedly elegant piazzas and duomos—well, again, moderation in this respect would be a grave sin for Italians. Max Weber’s idea of the Protestant work ethic seems—just as a momentary, humorous aside—to be challenged here, as the Catholics supposedly have less propensity for labor, suffering from some kind of Mediterranean or mañana-madness-inducing shortage of capital, and yet it’s the Protestant churches which are generally much less extravagant and grand.

Returning to our discussion of bella figura, that, apart from its seemingly positive attributes, also has rarely-spoken-about undertones which are, to say the least, actually quite dark—something I discovered not long ago; in a conversation with a friend, who jokingly said that Italy’s communitarian nature, along with people’s desire to protect the virtues and sanctities of their associations, may seem very positive, until you realize there may, perhaps, be no problem with the happiness a husband receives from cheating on his wife, so long as no one finds out about it and the harmony of the community isn’t ruined—again, the importance of appearances. It’s precisely this type of lifestyle, based largely on semblances, that the soldier, translator, and spy—not himself an adulterer, but whose “sin” of homosexuality was very well interpreted as being just as grave in his time—had to adopt, and do so quickly; in a sense, he had to become an Italian before he ever had the chance to translate Proust, and certainly before he was actually forced, in a sense, to relocate to the old country for the sake of his “health.” It’s perhaps, then, not a stretch to say that the man known as C.K. Scott Moncrieff was not so much the translator of À la recherche du temps perdu (a work he not only translated very well, but interpreted in such a way that it ended up, to this day, best representing the novel in its time, despite the criticism he received for being too libertine in his interpretation) but rather the conduit for the highest virtues and likewise lowest depravities that Italians and their culture represented—not only then, but also now.

Even the German scholar of Proust, Ernst Curtius, is recorded as having written the following, included by Findlay in her biography: “I had imagined the translator of Proust to be an aesthete. He was something much better: an individual character … He was a Roman body and soul. It was not an antiquarian or artistic interest that drew him to Rome, but the everyday life of the city.” Despite Ernst’s totally captivating portrait of the soldier, translator, and spy, nowhere, however—at least in my analysis of the matter—is the case for Scott Moncrieff’s Italian soul more apparent than towards the end of the book, where Findlay writes: “Beneath the bravura was an exhausted man with far too much on his plate and no one to look after him. He [Scott Moncrieff] found in Pirandello’s chaotic world the irony he saw in his own life; that the appearance is rarely the reality and the layers of subterfuge people erect to present a face to family, friends, or the public is excellent material for drama.” Indeed, the Italian respect and affirmation for the arts—the need to uphold its reputation as being one of the progenitors, along with Greece, of Western culture—means, at once, that drama is not only highly appreciated but also actively encouraged by its citizenry, but only on stage, where the fourth wall prevents it from leaking out onto the incredibly ritualistic society held together by honor and decency, lest such a spectacle should ruin the meticulously constructed bella figuras of all those consuming the show in their chairs, naturally with all the proper etiquette; its bona fide, altogether genuine human display in public, however, is completely frowned upon, even if the person is on the verge of a breakdown—through all their fault in most cases or perhaps even none of their own.

In this sense, neither the biography nor perhaps even the living biographer can ever fully answer the question of whether Scott Moncrieff would’ve enjoyed living in Italy if his medical condition didn’t “demand” his relocation there; from the book we’re given to understand that health concerns, along with his work as a journalist and translator, were merely a cover, mainly because Britain now once again needed capable spies on the ground in the old country: “There had been one hundred intelligence agents based in Italy during the war, but since 1918 numbers had hugely decreased because officially Italy was politically friendly on the surface. However, it was apparent the country now needed watching again,” and who better to watch it than a capable person like Scott Moncrieff, a man of duty, honor, clever resourcefulness (what many Italians often refer to as arrangiarsi).

Findlay confirms that “the job description could have been written for Charles, his sense of honour was still paramount. Recruiting Charles was an enormous help to Louis, who was needed to travel in countries across the Mediterranean—Greece and Turkey, also Egypt, Yemen, Aden, Muscat, Iraq, and Palestine.” In any case, aside from the question of whether Scott Moncrieff would’ve enjoyed living in Italy out of his own volition or not, what’s undeniable is that he was an expert in the country’s customs and culture, and not just because of his Catholic conversion. Aside from the tenets of bella figura, the soldier, translator, and spy was also adept at what Italians refer to as the aforementioned arrangiarsi; literally it means to make do, but the real meaning is more akin to making something out of nothing—it’s the calculated ability to utilize the correct strategy in any given situation in order to make the right connections, to say the perfect thing, and to, literally, arrange all public and private matters in ways which are beneficial to you. An uneducated man living in Naples, for instance, where job prospects are already far and few even for those with university degrees, must necessarily be skilled in the art of arrangiarsi or effectively perish; good arrangiarsi exemplifies everything from washing car windows at red lights if you have absolutely nothing to ensuring your sons and daughters marry above their respective stations if you have only a little and are looking for more. As with bella figura, in the best sense, the aforementioned tenets imply a capacity for creativity and innovation; in the worst sense, however, they can also lead down the altogether undesirable roads of excessive cunning, deceit, and corruption.

In any case, Scott Moncrieff’s translation of Proust, to this day, embodies the best sense of making something out of nothing, precisely because there was no model to work from and no one to help him. Aside from that, Proust wasn’t exactly the most organized individual (well, it’s difficult, anyways, to hold that against any writer), and Scott Moncrieff had to navigate various hurdles before he could even enjoy the comfort of what most publishers might call a perfectly typeset page, let alone our own privileges granted by Microsoft Word. As Findlay writes: “Proust’s novel was published in France before, during and after the First World War. There was a shortage of typesetters: many were dead and those who remained were overworked with under-trained assistants. The first volumes were printed with a lot of typesetter errors, far more than average because Proust was a complex writer and not all typesetters could follow the ideas or the sense of his sentences. Charles, however, did understand Proust. He also worked in a newspaper office and knew how typesetter errors occurred. In France the box of e’s and the box of a’s were adjacent to each other and to mistake le for la was a common error, but more so in Proustian compound sentences where the le or la is one of the many objects of the sentence, and could well be an idea. Much of the work in translating Proust was for Charles also a work of interpretation and instinct. He did not have access to the original manuscript (which was in longhand and extremely difficult to decipher anyways) and he still had a demanding day job.” If this doesn’t symbolize the best traits of arrangiarsi, I don’t know what does.

When his brother, John, accidentally shot himself cleaning a gun, the good translator took on more work (perhaps a greater amount than he could handle) to support his family; in this sense, too, he embodied the best of what honor and responsibility mean in countries like Italy, where family really is the centerpiece of every social activity. Having received, ironically, the tragic news immediately after securing a well-paying appointment, equaling “the purchasing power of over £100,000 a year,” Scott Moncrieff wrote the following to his brother’s widow: “by the greatest good fortune, I have now arrived at a decent position in the world and I swear to you that as a long as I live I will do all I possibly can to be a father to them [the children] and a helper to you. I think I knew more about him, knew him more intimately than anyone else but you—and I wish I could be with you to dry your tears, or mingle them with my own.” These are certainly not the words of archetypal hedonists concerned only with their own welfare and pleasure. As Findlay writes: “Charles contributed to the family income until his death. He was able to ensure that David, his nephew, was privately educated, and he visited the family in Oxford regularly.” Certainly we’re talking about a complex, contradictory figure, and this is meant in the best, almost exalted Mediterranean sense—having the capability to be flexible when life’s whims demand it, and yet, at the same time, marshalling a stoicism rigid as a rock when that very same life requires unbending dedication.

Indeed, one of the most touching and beautiful instances in the book where we witness those aforementioned traits is after the death of his father, when Scott Moncrieff begins to feel the full “call of family responsibility.” In the midst of deciding the future of Anna’s house in north Oxford, he oscillates so much between whose name it should be transferred under—his or hers—that Anna later remarked in a letter to Prentice the following: “Charlie changes his mind so much.” Indeed, the man is flexible to the whims of life’s demands, and, yet, at the same time, in the midst of this flexibility, he never wavers in the commitment to help the widow of his brother, simply because, in the end, it doesn’t really matter whether the house is in her name or his—he will be in both cases completely committed to the task of helping her financially. Having myself lived in this strange land for two years, no other trait I can think of but this indecisiveness yet stoic commitment to people and also things can perhaps be considered more representative of the Italian soul—it’s why, once again, many parts of the country can comfortably present crumbling infrastructure to the public, and, yet, those very same citizen may sport floors clean enough to eat from in their own private homes; the proverbial traits that Borgese and Pirandello have described so well.

Possessing this Italian soul is precisely why Scott Moncrieff may have allowed himself to take liberties with the translation, much to the chagrin of Proust and his later critics, who often attacked him for destroying the façade of the original. And yet, what “purists” don’t seem to understand is that the effort of translation is less about the bare transmission of words and more about the communication of culture. This is something that Peter France, the noted scholar at Edinburgh, quoted by Findlay in her book, also confirms—that it’s “not merely a technical task to be carried out with proper efficiency (as done ideally—though not so far in reality—by a machine). The sort of translation to be discussed here has to do with the values, the personality, the intention that underlie the original. In relation to these, the translator’s duty is in part ethical (or even political).” It was Scott Moncrieff’s job, hence, to connect the void not just between the Protestant and Catholic attitude, but also between their two respective literary traditions, mainly because “Proust was stylistically and morally foreign to a protestant English audience, and bridging that gap was part of Charles’s role,” as Findlay so correctly emphasizes.

The translator, soldier, and spy we’ve come to know as C.K. Scott Moncrieff was, in this respect, certainly a man of his time, even if reading the biography often gives us the sense of exactly the opposite—an individual trapped by the oppressive circumstances of his surroundings. Indeed, those not in possession of the Italian soul, which allows for the navigation and, ultimately, reconciliation of life’s contradictions, may view his existence according to the parameters of the latter—a sort of Stephen Dedalus-like figure trapped in the grayness of his native Ireland, seeking to exile himself from both his location and generation, except this time we find ourselves in Scotland and the Catholic identity is embraced instead of rejected. Findlay, to some extent, confirms this view, writing: “He was leading a double life and thinking double thoughts. His letters home extolled the ideal family life, while in London he was drawn as by a magnet to the Ross establishment, the antithesis of family life. However, a change was happening in him, as the war changed everyone. The gulf between his professed beliefs and his actions was beginning to show: he felt the battle of good and ill, the confusion, within himself; he did not know where he stood, and was tired and sore.” Reading the passage, one would be tempted to go down the path of the Stephen Dedalus interpretation, but it would be an altogether wrong assessment for a man like Scott Moncrieff, mainly because, in fact, he did embody those previously-discussed Italian sensibilities—the soul—a fiery divergent character in the most passionate instances, and the cold, determined stoicism in the most testing moments; and further still, the ability to not only embody such oppositions but also possess the strength to synthesize the antithetical forces within the confines of one anima, perhaps in the purely dialectical Hegelian sense, but perhaps also very naturally in the “mixture of litanies and sperm,” exactly that sense of style proposed by Montesquieu, who believed, as Findlay writes, “that the sacred and the profane create an invigorating blend and thereby embrace the whole of life.” This idea, upheld by all means and methods, and for all intents and purposes, is drama not for the stage but precisely for the streets—it’s the drama in all its contradictory Italian sensibilities of the soul that Pirandello, like Scott Moncrieff, actually embodied in real life, according to Findlay: “The plays and stories hit a switch in Charles—Pirandello tackled appearance and reality with a twist. Human situations are rarely as they seem from the outside, there is often a secret story, sometimes a sombre, sexual one. Pirandello’s plays touched incest, adultery, prostitution, with a keen and compassionate eye, unveiling dark stories from the inside.” Indeed, having to live “much of his life under great threat,” and at the same time being “bound by honor and secrecy,” it’s completely understandable why the solider, translator, and spy would’ve “sympathized with Pirandello’s themes intimately: his plays dealt with necessary lies and secrecy.”

In many respects, it would be wiser, hence, to look more at the man as Goethe (had they been contemporaries) might have seen him, precisely at the time when he himself visited Italy—that very moment when his own soul came to understand a people’s solemn and stoic resignation to things that simply don’t work, along with their ability to adapt and live merrily with such reality. Noticing the utter pollution of a particularly beautiful street in Palermo that “in its length and beauty,” was one that “vies with any in the Corso in Rome,” he emphatically clamors: “By all the saints …. Is there no helping it?” The shopkeeper replies. “Things with us are as they are,” going on to explain that surely they could brush away the horse dung and dust, but what good would that do to their already-rickety brooms, which are barely functioning, composed of nothing except for “very little besoms of palm-branches, which, slightly altered, might have been really useful; but as it was, they broke off easily, and the stumps were lying by thousands in the streets.” Either way, in this respect, the beautiful street will be polluted by something. The great Goethe, realizing this, along with noticing the cheerful way in which his newly-made acquaintance has communicated his town’s dilemma, the quick-witted German pronounces that this was “consolatory proof to me that man has always humour enough to make merry with what he cannot help.” In this respect, too, Scott Moncrieff was a man who had the power to change many things, and, in fact, moved a great deal of stones he was capable of lifting, but his mountains stayed firm—as nature intended them to be—and for this, no human being can be blamed.

 

About Jean Findlay

Jean Findlay was born in Edinburgh. She studied Law and French at Edinburgh University under Peter France and Theatre under Tadeusz Kantor in Kracow, Poland. She co-founded an award winning theatre company and wrote and produced plays which toured to London, Berlin, Bonn, Rotterdam, Dublin, Glasgow and the Pompidou Centre in Paris. She spent years in London writing drama and book reviews for the Scotsman, and has written for the IndependentTime Out and the Guardian.  In 2014 she published Chasing Lost Time: The Life of CK Scott Moncrieff, Soldier, Spy and Translator with Chatto and Windus, now in Vintage paperback and with FSG in New York. She founded Scotland Street Press in Edinburgh in 2014 and now runs this small, award-winning publishing house. For writing The Hat Jewel she won a Hawthornden Fellowship 2018 and a Lavigny International Writer’s Fellowship 2019.