An interview with Andrew Zawacki by Brian Teare (page 9)
BT: Even a casual glance over your bibliography reveals that, in addition to being a poet, you’ve maintained active careers as both editor and literary critic. For over a decade, of course, you’ve been a coeditor of Verse magazine with Brian Henry, but you’ve also edited the substantial anthology Afterwards: Slovenian Writing 1945-1995 in addition to co-editing Sobin’s massive Collected Poems and the Sobin festschrift. During that time you’ve also published substantial essays on continental philosophy, the prose poem, and recent Slovenian writing, all the while producing reviews of writers as various as Barbara Jordan, Armand Schwerner, Peter Gizzi, Inger Christensen, Lisa Jarnot, Geoffrey Hill, Susan Howe, and Nathalie Stephens. Readers are also starting to reap the benefits of your labors as a translator, with Aleš Debeljak’s new and selected poems recently out (from Persea) and Sébastien Smirou’s My Lorenzo due soon (from Burning Deck). The Russian poet, critic and translator Marina Tsvetaeva writes in her essay “The Poet on the Critic” that a critic is “an investigator and a lover,” the combination of which implies a curious mix of professional curiosity and desire, a mixture I imagine might also characterize the translator and the editor. Tsvetaeva also asserts, however, that a poet’s criticism “is in the main a criticism of passion: of kinship and non-kinship.” I’m wondering if you could speak first to how you conceive the relationship between your creative work and your other literary labors. In doing so, could you also speak to your relationship as a poet to the poets whose work you write about and/or translate?
AZ: I wish Tsvetaeva were right that criticism is a species of love, and sometimes she may well be. Many of the poetry books I’ve written about are books I love, by writers with whom I feel a kinship—you name some of them above—, my essays my inadequate attempts at articulating that solidarity. On the other hand, there’s a fundamental glitch in writing criticism that troubles me and probably ought to bother everyone a little, or at least not remain transparent. The word itself hails from the Greek adjective kritikos, “able to discern or judge,” and from the verb krinein, for “to separate” or “to judge.” The “critic” shares this root with both our words “crisis” and “certain,” as each of these has to do with sifting, discerning, deciding. It’s not that I doubt my judgment, although I do, but it makes me uncomfortable to have to separate poetry from itself.
In his essay on Lautréamont, Blanchot claims the critic is necessarily a destroyer, the first move she makes toward a work under investigation inevitably a violent one, an approach that rends the text and, in a sense, renders it—and what poetry would want to be divided, let alone determined, in the language of someone else, as something other than what it is, what it does, what it says? He plays in that essay on a pair of homophones—nearly homonymic, in fact, except for a single circumflex accent—, to get at the aporetic heart of criticism: the “task” (la tâche) of the critic is also a “stain” (la tache). The critic’s very job, even if it begins in love or respect, apology or a desire to analyze, explain, enthuse, is simultaneously what turns her imperative perilous, threatening the work it seeks to secure. This is why Blanchot says, contra Tsvetaeva, that the critic never writes about what she most loves—and yet, of course, he did it all the time. Criticism, no less than “creative” writing, is an impossible demand: not quite the demand of nothing to say, no means with which to say it, and no exit from the exigency to say it anyhow—Cage echoing Beckett restating Blanchot—, but the role of assessing a literary work while knowing your commentary inevitably does it injury. If the first law of ethics is to do no harm, what kind of ethics is at issue when critiquing a work? How much does it matter that a work is not a person?
You asked me to answer “as a poet” to how I see the relation between my creative work and other areas, and I’ve answered by deferring to theory—which already is partly a response to your question: these endeavors for me are more intimately tied than not. One way they’re related, on the strictly pragmatic level, is via procrastination or anxiety: when I get frustrated or overwhelmed working on poetry, I retreat to translating, until the problems there are outweighing the exhilaration and start to annoy me, at which point, why not write about someone else, in expository prose—and when that’s become blunt or bland (and especially if a deadline is looming!) I find myself re-involved with that poem I’d abandoned some weeks ago… This quotidian cycle is just a vulgar figure for the interrelatedness of the various sorts of writing you’re asking about. As a poet I’m never not cannibalizing or rejecting, revising or readjusting, what I write about or translate—I’m never not filtering signals, altering them to frequencies where they might mean something to the me that creates or, far more importantly, retuning my “own” radio so that, hearing those broadcasts, I might become a more sophisticated or open transmitter myself. There’s a selfish element to translating, even as doing it is an altruistic enterprise.
Let me put it in the maybe farfetched terms of Jacob and the Angel, a narrative already about crossing, both physical transgression and spiritual progress, and about transmissibility. When Jacob defeats the angel at Peniel, he’s awarded a new name and a kingdom—but he doesn’t succeed in learning his adversary’s name in return, despite asking for it, and his blessing comes with a somatic caveat, if you will: injury to the hip, a limp. There’s a lot to be made of this. A few specifics where my own translations are concerned: in co-translating Debeljak from the Slovenian, a glass ceiling is quickly interposed, not only between me and the Slovenian language, since I don’t really speak it, but also between me and English. Because I rely on a dictionary and a literal crib from Aleš, before he and I sit down in his garden for an intensive week to hash out translations together, I do not experience the same rhizomic tailspin of translational possibilities that affect me when working from the French, a language I speak well. I’m not wounded when translating from Slovenian: the choices on offer are, for me and my minimal resources, regrettably limited. I can’t follow a given phrase’s associations, its embeddedness in the culture or its unusualness, can’t obsess over how or why to make up over here for something lost over there, since I may not even be aware that something has been dropped. Ridiculous to talk of seizing an opportunity, when I don’t even see it presenting itself. With Slovenian such a distant language to me, ironically an element of the self-evident starts to creep in: I’m not bothered or entranced, not plunged into a maelstrom of indecision or doubt; nor do I experience the same thrill when I’ve discovered an opening and devised an innovative English equivalent. The barrier that the Slovenian language, itself, is, leaves me with a feeling of being off the hook: no real blessure involved—but no blessing, either. I love the poems, and they unhinge me, otherwise I wouldn’t translate them, but they simply can’t thrust me into new positions, whether uncomfortable or tempting, in my native language. Because of their utterly alien quality, I can’t encounter them in their Unheimlich aspect, so I’m not unseated from my comfy corner of English, either.
But the moment I enter Smirou’s texts, I’m busy trying out alternative words or phrasings, shifting an early moment in the poem because of a connotation that just happened further down; then I backtrack, reload, start over, since maybe a new route that just occurred to me, in this passage, will yield a more exciting blend of ambiguities and associations across the whole. Before I know it, several windows are open on the computer screen, Post-it notes are riddled with chicken-scratch—often in different colors to indicate varying sediments of importance—, and all of this as analog to the many provisional files I’ve kept open in my head/eyes/ears. My point is that the foreign language with which I am familiar, French, as opposed to the Slovenian that has stayed strange, involves me in a whirlwind of decisions that activates my facility in English—or what I innocently assumed was a facility, since in working from French to English I’m wonderfully antagonized and assaulted by the language I might have said was “mine.”
Another significant way translation and writing poetry have blurred for me is through being translated. I’ve had the good fortune to work with a number of excellent translators into French: Sébastien, Nathalie Stephens (whose entre-genre writing—both inter-genre and inter-gender (“her” name is equally Nathanaël)—is also a formidable marriage of French and English: my kinship to her linguistic inventions is supplanted only by my inability to do similarly), and Christophe Lamiot Enos have all put my work into French. Éditions Grèges has just published Antoine Cazé’s version of my first book, as Par Raison de brisants, and Sika Fakambi, who translated Georgia (Éditions de l’Attente, 2009), continues to work on Anabranch and recently published an octet of my “Videotape,” as “Vidéogrammes,” in Vacarme. I’ve worked closely with these folks, Antoine and Sika especially. To give a brief example of translating becoming writing: I had a line in “Georgia” that read, “and cold the noiseless decibel.” In Sika’s version, the phrase became, “et ce froid et ces décibels inaudibles.” When I looked at that, the future of the so-called “original” phrase suddenly clarified itself: “inaudible decibel.” Beyond the not-so-striking oxymoron of a silent unit of noise, which is all the phrase initially had to recommend it (if that much), now a pair of -el sounds were in play—and more sexy to my eye for their ending anagrammatically: -le and -el. Moreover, “decibel” literally contains the other word’s “-dible,” although in a scrambled way, or rather “inaudible” seems to bloom into “decibel,” as silence might burst into sound. So thanks to the relative closeness of French and English and especially to Sika’s ear (or her eye?), I changed the line according to the phrasing she’d found—the translation as haint, come back to haunt its antecedent into surrogate, secondary speech. There were other cases like this throughout “Georgia”—I call them backdrafting and imagine them as filaments of smoke causing fire—, and I felt lucky the poem hadn’t been published in English yet. In fact I vowed, reversing the terms, I should never publish anything before it got translated! So maybe Benjamin is right, that a translation invigilates the “maturing process of the original language,” and that “the original undergoes a change” only in its “afterlife” as a translation. That a poem can’t arrive until it’s been carried into another language—this passage is what allows it to begin.