Robin Myers

––Robin, I’d first like to thank you for your work; many of the lines and images in “The Races,” “Involuntary Elegy,” and “Diorama with Polar Bear” have proved wonderful company over the past few days, and continue to unfold as I return to them.

The compact stillnesses of poems have been a great comfort to me, in this time of turbulence and unrest––do you find that the last fifteen months or so have influenced your own writing and reading?

Thanks so much for your thoughtful reading, Lauren, and for the chance to speak with you!

What you say about seeking solace in poems, in their concision and invitation to slow down, really resonates with me. For long stretches of the past year-and-change, I struggled to read extensively “for pleasure”; to stay both focused and open enough to immerse myself in something that wasn’t directly implicated with my translation work. So casting a wider, more sporadic net for individual poems (mainly by slipping down poetry rabbit-holes on the internet!) became a way both to accommodate how scattered I felt and to pursue the nourishing surprise, the wait WHAT? feeling, that a poem can jolt me into.

I’m not quite sure how the pandemic-months have influenced me as a writer, mostly because my writing has felt halting and sporadic during this time. The one exception might be a brief and elatingly unexpected spell toward the beginning of this year, when I wrote several poems that felt like a textural departure of some kind: brittle, self-contained, heavy on internal rhyme and the past tense. In general, though, I feel like I’ve just been scratching at the surface of something. I’m not sure I know where I want to dig yet, or how. What I can say for sure is that I’m feeling weary of my “I” and have started to fantasize about writing poems that have no people in them. Maybe that’s overstating it a little. But I’m curious about the prospects of less anthropocentric poetry and this curiosity has intensified during the pandemic.

It does feel like the past few months have changed my relationship to translation. I make a living as a translator of prose (both literary and non-literary), and I’m always working on at least a couple of poetry translations at the same time. Those projects, and my day-to-day contact with them, have felt newly urgent and deliberate. Translation is a way to write and think in company; you’re never entirely alone. The engagement is so conscious and material, the conversation so vivid from the get-go, that it sustained me––as a practice, a habit––with a steadiness that felt different than what either writing or “just” reading could give me for a while.

––I understand that you lived in Palestine for a year, before relocating to Mexico City a decade ago. In a brilliant interview for the LA Review of Books, you briefly discuss your time in Palestine, writing that you there became “overwhelmed by the prospect of using language…to access an experience [you] found overwhelming in itself.” As the world turns to re-examine the Israel–Palestine conflict with renewed urgency, I’m hoping you might speak a little more to your impressions from that time, and to whether they continue to inform your work as a poet and translator.

I moved to Palestine because I was in love. I used to be embarrassed that I didn’t have a “bigger” reason, but it’s the truth: I was twenty-two years old and I loved someone from Palestine who’d been away from home for a long time and wanted to go back. So I went too. What followed was a crash course in many things: settler colonialism, my first adult relationship, the NGO industrial complex, the importance of creating tender habits and rituals in a new place, the shallowness of American liberal engagement with systematic atrocities endorsed and perpetuated by the U.S., learning a new language from the absolute beginning, my first adult heartbreak, the vertigo of unlearning, the consequences of language. By which I mean it’s very different to say “conflict” over “apartheid,” and I learned to say “apartheid,” because that’s the concrete system in place there. Growing up as a white kid in the affluent suburbs of a blue state, I’d always been surrounded by rhetoric that condemned injustice as long as it didn’t make its (white liberal) interlocutors, ­­­god forbid, uncomfortable. My main conclusion is that there were no good reasons to be comfortable.

I do feel that there are ideas I keep circling back to in my poems, questions my poems have become a way of asking over time, and it was in Palestine that I first began absorbing certain words and images to ask them with. I’m interested in the idea of political shame; in how shame can be a perfectly reasonable and even useful force in our lives; and in the pervasive aversion to feeling ashamed of horrors committed “indirectly” by one’s ancestors, fellows, and government (though not to feeling proud of their achievements). I’m fascinated by all the projections and longings at work in humans’ relationship “with” place: in a way, it’s the ultimate unrequited relationship, which doesn’t make it any less powerful or transformative. (I still think about Palestine every day, with love and sorrow.) And I’m interested in challenging the desire to “own” experience––the illusion that we somehow gain command of what we’ve lived by putting it into words.

An aside, because I think it has something to do with all of this: for my first few months in Palestine, before I’d learned enough Arabic to carry on basic conversations and understand some of what I heard (I never learned to read or write), I felt paralyzed by my inability to communicate. When I found myself in a group of predominantly Arabic-speakers, I preferred to keep quiet than shoehorn the conversation into English. I remember those months as a time of intense listening: listening with my whole body, listening by watching, participating just by being-there, being-with, and then slowly, slowly, starting to pick out words and phrases, recognize patterns, infer jokes and crushes and tensions and so on––context, texture, the whole communicative web that envelops us no matter what part we play in it. I think this has helped me worry less when I stop writing for a while.  

––Reading your work, I was reminded of a line I read years ago, one attributed to William Carlos Williams (although I’ve been unable to locate the quotation since): “The poet must think with the poem.” I think he’s suggesting that the success of a poem depends on its writer trusting the poem as a vehicle of knowing––trusting that they need not outmaneuver its unfolding. I intuit this trust deeply in your poems, particularly throughout “The Races.” What is your own understanding of this process? For you, does revision always sharpen your understanding of what a poem wishes to become, or does it sometimes confound it?

Your question touches on something I always struggle to put into words: the balance, or the alchemy, between intuition and revision. (Not that revision can’t be mysterious, too!) For me, a poem usually begins with a glimmer, a gesture: the stirring of an image or a line or a conviction that I nurse for a long time before I ever sit down and try to make something with it. Then I do try to trust the poem’s unfolding without outmaneuvering it, as you say so beautifully, and it tends to unfurl in ways I hadn’t expected or don’t fully understand. This was very much the case with “The Races,” which started with a single phrase and a single feeling (respectively, “There must be something” and an experience of almost ecstatic helplessness I once had in a Mexico City subway station at rush hour) before darting forth and sweeping up other images and associations in its path. In this sense, the poem becomes a vehicle of knowing––but also of unknowing, right? It’s an exercise of not knowing quite what you want.

That’s where revision comes in: to sharpen the poem’s intent. But as with any desire, it’s easy to overthink. I’ve noticed that I feel especially insecure about the beginnings and endings of my poems: I often start more tenuously than I’d like to, and I often conclude more emphatically than I have to. In becoming conscious of these habits, I sometimes overcompensate as I try to revert them. I recently had the experience of sending an editor a “revised” version of a poem she had already accepted for publication: I was convinced that the revision worked better than the original, but she found the second more muddled than the first. In the end, I felt she was right. My revisions had confounded or overridden––overwritten––an initial impulse. Which is yet another reason to be grateful for good editors and discerning friends. Sometimes I just really need someone to say: “I think the poem ends here.”

––In their own particular ways, “The Races,” “Involuntary Elegy,” and “Diorama with Polar Bear” are preoccupied with the question of how to make contact with things, people, and experiences that are continually lost to the frenzy of time––to the bygone kingdom of “Once.” In fact, in the same interview with the LA Review of Books, you write:

[c]ontact is always the point. Wonderment, in a way, is always the point. What I like about wonderment as a driving force is that you can feel it amid chaos and horror and bewilderment: it isn’t the same as optimism, and it doesn’t necessarily beautify. It does clarify, though; it sharpens the edges of things, shows us where they touch each other.

Wonderment, I think, is a powerful way of considering the three poems featured here. When confronted with something troubling or upsetting––like the “old misogynist poet” in “Involuntary Elegy” or the stuffed polar bear in “Diorama”––what kind of imaginative space does wonderment clarify in you, as a writer, reader, and translator?

I think of wonderment as the hazy place where grief or anger or fear collides with… curiosity? Something like that. A friend once told me that he often feels as if we’re all actors in a fatally serious play, and we’re so immersed in the collective performance that we forget we’re acting. But then something startles him and he remembers, and he finds the whole scene so amazing and ridiculous and tender that he wants to reach out and touch the arm of whoever’s next to him onstage and whisper “Psst! Isn’t this fun?!”

I don’t mean that the confrontation with something troubling or upsetting (like the old misogynist poet or a stuffed polar bear) is “fun.” But what wonderment enables me to do, as a reader and writer and translator, is zoom out or in (like my friend does in his theater scenario), and feel myself being changed, however briefly, by whatever it is I’m confronted with. Appalling or beautiful, gentle or harsh. Wonderment is a prism: it refracts what we see, transforms the seeing.

When I wrote “Involuntary Elegy,” I felt first jarred and then almost exhilarated to connect with my own anger. Whatever wonderment I felt, it wasn’t directed toward the putative subject of the poem; it wasn’t for him. It was the wonderment of speaking—of choosing how to speak. I remember writing the first four stanzas in a fairly linear, methodical way, and out of nowhere came the elevator image at the end, as abruptly as if I’d spit it out. (Even spitting can be wondrous!) Any surprise in poetry (reading it, writing it) is a chance to ask: how did the poem get me here, and where am I now?

––On a final note, I was struck by something you wrote for Project Plume:

I’d love to keep challenging the idea of the translator as some sort of neutral third party in a diplomatic negotiation between “the original” and “the translation.” Why is it so unsettling to see the translator as a craftsperson with styles and tastes of their own, with an individual history and readerly education and expressive tendencies that will of course shape the original in a way much like the author’s have done?

Have you reached any conclusions about why we’re so commonly unsettled by the idea that translation doesn’t exist in a vacuum? And in your view, what might be gained if we were to think about translation differently?

I think the discomfort with translation involves a larger discomfort with words as vehicles of information and a fear of being misinformed. Both translation and interpretation (another insanely complex and historically undervalued art!) are often treated more as conduits than creations: a kind of tube that receives content in one language and transports it unscathed into the next. I guess it’s harder to view the translator as an artist if you’re expecting them to behave like a funnel. And it’s harder to view a translated text as a work of art if you’re expecting it (language, context, style, tone and all) not to change in transit.

The translator Julia Sanches has mused about whether people might feel less anxious about translation if it had a different name altogether: versioning, for example. Some name that explicitly asserts the translator’s role as an artist of interpretation, not some sort of robot scribe. I like to think of Glenn Gould’s two wildly different recordings of Bach’s “Goldberg Variations,” or Whitney Houston singing “And I Will Always Love You,” or Johnny Cash singing “Hurt,” and I like to remember that they too are translators, this too is translation: artists interpreting art and thus making new art, which both pays homage to and exists independently from the old. The poet and translator Ezequiel Zaidenwerg talks about the translator as cover-artist, which I love; it’s an idea that can be liberating and clarifying for translators and readers alike.

I’ve also been thinking about something the poet and translator Raquel Salas Rivera said in a recent interview: “[As] a translator, I go in with the mindset that all change implies loss and that change can be part of the translation, that change can be an inevitable aspect of time. Thinking about change as a constant and loss as part of it feels like a philosophical concern.” A philosophical concern (no doubt about it) in which even loss can be generative. What isn’t there to gain from thinking this way? As readers, as translators, as writers, as humans changing and losing and making whatever meaning we can for as long as we’ve got.
Robin Myers was interviewed by Lauren Peat, via email, in June 2021.


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